Archive for the ‘El Salvador’ Category

Gracias Lempira, Honduras – Welcome to banana republic

Mittwoch, August 24th, 2011

In the morning the weather is reliably good, and so we really can see El Salvador’s valleys, the volcanoes, and to Guatemala. The descend from El Pital mountain is gigantic: In 9.4 km (less than 6 mi) we descend 1214 m (3649 ft) of elevation. The border crossing El Poy to Honduras is situated only few kilometres north on CA 4. In El Salvador everything goes so fast and free that we nearly regret to leave the country.

Did the Salvadorians amaze us with their efficiency and professionalism, Honduras fulfils nearly all of our expectations regarding a Central American border crossing. Nearly, we have to be fair. No tramitadores appear, border helpers, for whose obtrusiveness Honduras is otherwise famous. The border crossing El Poy is a busy truck crossing, but there are probably not enough lucrative tourists at a distance from Pan Americana. Passport processing is fast. We fill a form that remains in the passport and pay 3 US$ per person, then we head to aduana where the vehicle papers are issued. Here the officers fill in all forms themselves. Contrary to all my expectations this doesn’t accelerate the process. Quite the reverse! Perhaps we aren’t lucky and didn’t catch the brightest officer in the squad. Several dozen times (I missed to count) she shifts the papers from one side to the other and back. In doing so she throws about 50 % of them on the floor, picks them up and drops them again. The immigration paper nearly gets lost, that’s why she takes the plucky decision to staple the receipt to a passport sheet.

My travel guide asserts that Honduran graduates of the minimum six years school master reading, writing, and the tables from one to ten. After ten years of education they can speak some words of English and talk to a normally educated adult. I grant her that she might have overcome the first obstacle – although reading is such a thing. Despite the Salvadorian form in Spanish is with her she has problems to find the correct lines. Unfortunately she doesn’t like to be helped. On the side she must stuff some sweets down for strengthening and maintaining her figure. As everything has to be transferred into the computer it becomes even odder: The country Germany isn’t to be found and our vehicle type doesn’t exist as well.

No sooner the extensive problems are commonly solved than the bank is closed for lunch where we have to pay the fees. Who cares for one and a half hours more waiting time? Actually, the bank is situated on the left and not on the right side as the lady claimed, but we don’t want to be petty. At least I find out that the office wants to have each three (!) copies of all documents and stamps and I ask to receive all papers back to complete that in the meanwhile. After paying 635 Lempira (only cash, only in domestic currency, 100 Lempiras / HNL are around 5 US$) another officer takes over and then the rest is done quickly. After three and a half hours the customs officer wants to peak into the cabin but goes without entering it.

Then we are on the way on the up-and-down-roads typical for Central American highlands. The beggars are back, we didn’t see too many since Mexico. Especially kids like to stretch a rope over the road to stop cars. Honking and continue driving helps. One of several traffic controls stops us, but thanks to “tourist bonus” we just can continue driving. In the city of Gracias Lempira we look for a swimming bath with adjacent small hotel. After short consideration the boss approves us to camp. She leaves it up to us if and how much we pay. We think 100 Lempira to be proportionate (Balneario Villas de Ada, at the bypass of Gracias Lempira, signposted).

El Pitál, El Salvador – Mountain without view and more helpfulness

Montag, August 22nd, 2011

Suchitoto is located at Lago de Suchitlán known also as Embalse de Cerrón Grande, the country’s largest lake. Although nearly abandoned until the early 90s due to the civil war the city blossomed out in the meantime to the cultural capital and tourists’ favourite spot. The lake is embedded into a lovely green landscape with islands, mountains, and volcanoes. Boat excursions can be booked in a new touristic port with restaurants, pool, and crafts shops. We consider the prices (from 20 $ on for 30 min) to be excessive. Camping would be possible, but the parking lot is very crooked and levelling difficult (Puerto Turistico San Juan, N 13°56’45.6’’ W 89°00’58.9’’).

And again: Policemen asked for the way greet me with a handshake as well as a government official. We get to know that the shortcut to Aguilares is in good condition. And so we escape the heat at 250 m / 750 ft elevation into the mountains. In San Ignacio right before the Honduran border to the north we ask about El Pital, with 2730 m / 8200 ft the country’s highest mountain, just to be on the safe side. Signposting in El Salvador is much better than in Guatemala, even though not always complete. The asked pick-up driver approves everything: The road leads to the mountain, we can go there with Arminius, and camping is possible in Miramundo. Two minutes later the same red pick-up is in front of us – he must have taken a shortcut – and shows us the way to go. In the course of the stretch we turn into a forest road, and of course we discuss: Are we safe? Where does the man lure us to? I consider him as trustworthy but lay out my handy companion-chopper ready just as a precaution.

After 13 km hotel Miramundo comes into sight. The entrance clearance wouldn’t be sufficient, but not much further there is the mentioned campground. The driver says good-bye well-behaved, he just loved to help. What is going on with the Salvadorians? Can this be beaten? The camping is only a tent site on a slope. The parking area on the opposite side also belongs to the hotel Ventana del Cielo and is levelled. We can camp here for 5 $ a night, electricity and water could be organized. Another campground a bit to the back has a limited entrance clearance as well. (N 14°20’30.2’’ W 89°06’54.0’’)

We shall have the best view in the country from here in 2250 m / 6750 ft elevation: Not only nearly the entire El Salvador but Guatemala and its volcanoes Pacaya and Agua can be seen. This is out of the question for the moment, every afternoon clouds and thunderstorms come up, but in the morning it’s mostly clear.

San Salvador + Suchitoto, El Salvador – Too much help

Sonntag, August 21st, 2011

Friendly, funny, and helpful people everywhere: Three people stand around me at the gas station and give three different advices how to find the small road that leads up to Volcan San Salvador. How to find a common ground or the most likely variation? A young German speaking man visits the German School as he explains. He offers to drive on ahead with his father to show us the way, what we really appreciate.

The entrance fee to the park is 1 $ per person and vehicle. The parking lot is terribly small but somehow we are shifted in. A path along the edge of the crater in 1839 m / 5520 ft elevation offers gigantic views into the huge crater from several view points: It has a diameter of 1.5 km / 1 mi and is 543 m / 1630 ft deep with a smaller crater in the middle. It is possible to climb down into El Boquerón how it is called as well but the abseil down seems to be a case for specialists. It is not allowed to overnight here, and due to clouds there is no view to the capital San Salvador.

With 3 million inhabitants it has many slums. We quickly head further to the east where El Salvador’s biggest and deepest crater lake is situated. Access to Lago de Ilopango is difficult due to many buildings, but one spot is Turicentro Apulo – for 1 $ per person and car, of course. There is also a pool and camping would be possible. But the violent thunderstorm that sets in spoils the view again and so we head on. No problem in a tiny country like El Salvador.

Right before reaching Suchitoto we discover a sign that points to Turicentro Las Americas which we gladly follow. We find another swimming pool, although cloudy. The facility is in private hand and a bit run-down. We may camp of course, for altogether 15 $ a night including use of the pool. I knock down the outrageous price to 6 $, although several of the seven owners have to be consulted first. (Turicentro Las Americas, Suchitoto, N 13°52’20.7’’ W 89°02’14.6’’)

Colón, El Salvador – Pool instead of Pacific

Samstag, August 20th, 2011

Along the attractive crater lake Lago de Coatépeque we go, then shortly touch the Pan Americana, and further along the mainly paved and well-built roads to La Libertad at the Pacific coast. We thought about some beaching today. Since La Libertad is neither in security questions nor with other matters very exemplary we head west to El Zonte, a famous surfer beach where swimming probably wouldn’t have been possible due to big waves. Anyway, the trees hang too deep at the access road, so we continue to Los Cobanos from where we know that outcropped rocks protect the beach. There is no option to camp in town. A restaurant offers to use their parking lot, but finally we are neither convinced by the dark sand, the rain-brown water, nor the hot parking between walls.

Back to La Libertad we try it to the east at the Costa del Sol. Perhaps we hit the wrong beach, but here everything looks like not only to have seen better days but way better days. There is nothing to overnight here. The later hours doesn’t encourage to further experiments. In Colón close to San Salvador there is a governmental water park. A Salvadorian couple we’ve met on the road has pointed this out. We hope to find accommodation there.

At 6 p.m. on the dot we stand in front of long locked doors. Due to lack of alternative we shout and honk until we have the desired attention. The employee can’t decide on our request, this is a case for El Jefe. Here he comes, in towel and swimwear. As if there is nothing more normal he has the guard open the gate again, apologizes that he has to take 10 $ entrance fee for us and the truck (I relinquish discussions, I am just happy that we may enter) and that he doesn’t wear uniform. He offers to use the pools immediately. We don’t have to be asked twice and we jump into the big refreshing clean pools and get a massage under the artificial waterfall. They even switch on the light for us since it starts to darken. (Turicentro Los Chorros, Colón, N 13° 41’45.7’’ W 89°19’18.0’’)

Cerro Verde, El Salvador – Two volcanoes and 1300 stairs

Freitag, August 19th, 2011

In El Salvador Spanish is spoken (although many people understand English), the national currency is the US$. The Colón is still valid, but not in circulation any more. The park administration of Cerro Verde of wants 10 $ entrance fee incl. parking for each 24 hours from us. General rule for Central America, especially in El Salvador: haggle! Even in a national park. We stay two nights and one day for 15 instead of 20 $. There is not much we can do on our own. We can walk a few minutes to the old hotel that partially collapsed during an earthquake in 2001. In the still intact former cocktail lounge artesanías and sweets are sold today. The beautiful lookout terrace to Volcán Izalco is also still there. A 45-minutes nature trail to the peak of Cerro Verde and through the orchidarium has to be guided by a ranger – park rules.

The hikes to the other two volcanoes, the Izalco and the Santa Ana are guarded by rangers and armed police. They start at 11 a.m. each day and take four to four and a half hours including rest on the peak. There is 1 $ per person to pay for the guide, for Santa Ana additional 7 $ entrance fee to another park. This volcano blasted its top in 2005, spat after 100 years silence ashes and stones into the air and killed two people, but is accessible again. Nevertheless the hikes don’t always take part. A noisy group of 39 teenagers, teachers, two Japanese and two Canadians want to get to Izalco, so we have no other choice.

Izalco isn’t very easy to climb and has to be put into the category “exhausting” with 8 km / 5 mi ascend and descend. First 1300 stairs have to be gone down through Cerro Verde’s (2030 m / 6000 ft) dense forest to a saddle that connects to the 1910 m / 5730 ft high Izalco. The way up consists of sharp-edged stones and loose volcano sand. During the climb it gets hotter. Not only because the sun burns on the mountain without any vegetation. The rocks become hot, steam escapes from holes. On top it is possible to go down into the shallow crater hole. The view today isn’t very well, but we get a short glimpse of Cerro Verde and Santa Ana with its crater lake that is not accessible. For descending we use rivulets of soft lava sand that bring us half running half sliding quickly down. Then there are “only” 1300 stairs left to be climbed.

Cerro Verde, El Salvador – Crossing the border to El Salvador

Donnerstag, August 18th, 2011

El Salvador is calling us. Central America’s smallest country is highly populated (7.3 mill) and has one of the world’s highest crime rates. The rebels of the 12 years long cruel civil war from 1980 on are mostly unemployed, but still possess one million illegal weapons that they are willing to use. Why are we here in this country? Is it really so dreadful? We will report.

We spent the last days in Guatemala with Bill and Beatriz to update our website. Today, we are heading to the border crossing Valle Nuevo – Las Chinamas at CA 8. For the first time self-proclaimed border helpers bellow who offer to carry out the formalities for a fee. What seems a bit ridiculous in the face of the simple departure procedure: Take out the vehicle, get a stamp in the passport, and it doesn’t cost anything. There are no helpers on Salvadorian side after the river bridge. Even so we need only an hour to get everything over and done with. It might have been way faster, but I take long to fill the form with all the unfamiliar technical Spanish expressions. The details from the form are superficially verified, but again nobody is interested in our cabin’s content. There is even no drug control. We are sent to the Aduana where the vehicle import paper is stamped and to the Migracion where we our passports are registered. There is no new stamp in the passport; the Guatemalan departure stamp is valid. The residence permit is valid for 90 days, but the vehicle permit only 60 days and may not be exceeded under any circumstances. There is not one Centavo to pay – the first complimentary border crossing.

The Guatemalans were very friendly, but the Salvadorians fall over themselves to be helpful. We are greeted with a handshake not only at the border crossing but by completely strange people on the street whom we ask a question. It seems that they have to welcome personally every single precious tourist.

We arrive a quarter of an hour too late in Cerro Verde National Park. The administration left at 5 p.m., but the gates are left open since there are still visitors. It doesn’t take long and we are crowded around by policemen who watch the park. First they don’t want to let us camp here. There is so more administration and no superior to be asked. Further down on the road there was a campground. But we ask them to consider (puppy dog eyes provided) that the path could be too narrow for our vehicle. One of the visitors asked for help phones another police officer and suddenly we receive the permit to stay. Up here on the volcano Cerro Verde in 2000 m / 6000 ft elevation it is chilly, foggy, and rainy – unlike wide areas of El Salvador. On clear days it shall be possible to see the Pacific Ocean. (National Park Cerro Verde: N 13°49’36.5’’ W 89°37’27.5’’)