Three Countries in 8 Days: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua
We had a date for Christmas with Costa Rica, but had been finding it difficult to end our relationship with Guatemala. This left us a mere 8 days to make our way through three countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua. It is impossible to characterize a country visited for a matter of days if not just hours…so here we simply recount some of our experiences and preliminary impressions.
We hadn’t originally planned to visit these three countries, being very aware of their reputations as potentially dangerous and what with my stomach taking issue with countries with less-than-ideal sanitation practices. In the event, the cost of flying made overland travel the better option, so we decided that we may as well take a look at the so-called wilder parts of Central America. We’re glad we did.
We arrived at the San Salvador bus station after dark, a precarious time of day to find yourself at any big-city bus station in Central America. After the 12-hour journey, we were tired and hungry to boot. Hence, when a man offered us his taxi services to our destination on the coast, we availed ourselves of his offer despite the fact that it cost more than the bus journey from the North-east of Guatemala to San Salvador. Doh!
Note to others and our future selves: Similar to that adage that one should not grocery shop on an empty stomach, don’t take buses scheduled to arrive in the dark. Oh, and a corollary: even if it isn’t scheduled to arrive after dark, if it is a long bus journey, add 2-3 hours to the time they claim it will take.
After our 87th harrowing road journey since our travels began, he dropped us off at our hostel in Playa El Tunco, and our stress soon fell away. We chose to spend a few days in El Salvador to break up the journey between Guatemala and Nicaragua and, at the end of our stay, we were very glad of this decision. El Tunco is essentially a surf town and we were staying at a surf hostel. But we don’t surf — whoops. Still, if you are looking for a sleepy-but-friendly town on a beautiful beach with amazing sunsets and an array of eateries across the gamut of prices, then you don’t need to surf to be content here. You just need a bathing suit/trunks and flip-flops, really.
A habit we developed from the beginning of our stay was a 5:30pm visit to the bar on the beach less than 30-seconds away from our hostel. There we would purchase a large bottle of beer to share and then plonk ourselves down on the wooden chairs to watch the sun do its thing and the surfers and last of the beach-goers do theirs. All of this was usually set to some groovy tunes being spun by the DJ behind us. Most excellent. 🙂
Another habit that I (but not banana-hating Toby) developed in a short period of time was to knock on the door of a little bungalow across the street to ask the lady inside for a chocobanana. This was done on the advice of our hostel neighbours who had been living in El Tunco for 3 weeks. For those not familiar with the chocobanana, it is a frozen banana dipped in chocolate and nuts. Apparently, this very item was “invented” in my own home town! I don’t know if that is true or not, but the lady who sells them out of her home charges something like 30 cents. I doubt you can get them for that cheap on Balboa Island any more. In any case, I highly recommend getting your daily fruit allowance in this form (i.e., chocolate covered).
Another delightful discovery in this little town was the pupusa. It is a thick corn tortilla filled with (usually) cheese, meat and/or beans, and topped with a hot cabbage slaw and tomato sauce. Upon the recommendation of another fellow hostel-dweller, we were directed to a tiny, metal-surrounded tienda up the dirt road to try these for the first time. We watched the woman cook them up right in front of us, and man were they hot and delicious upon delivery. We each ate two and shared a drink and couldn’t believe it when told that the entire meal was $1.80. Are you sure? we asked the man. Si! What a bargain!
And so after a few days of sunsets, beers, pupusas, chocobananas, and lower blood pressure, we checked out of our hostel to meet our shuttle to Leon, Nicaragua. But this 10am shuttle didn’t actually leave until 11:30am. Cue blood pressure increase.
Once the shuttle finally got going and the air-co powered up, it was easy to get lost in the scenery whizzing by. And it really struck me how much cleaner El Salvador is than Guatemala. In Guatemala, nearly every little stream of water we passed on the roads was filled with rubbish, whereas the streams in El Salvador looked sparkly and clean. In Guatemala we had seen young and old, male and female alike chuck their trash out the car windows or onto the streets. Not so in El Salvador. El Salvador – at least the part we drove through – seemed altogether more modern and familiar. It really smashed the expectations we had of it, seeing as it is supposed to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
En route from El Salvador to Nicaragua, we were due to cross into and back out of Honduras. I think we were in Honduras a total of 3 hours. The scenery changed rather quickly as we exited El Salvador: It became much browner and more desert-like. The roads were in poorer condition and so too the houses. And at the Honduras immigration check-point the atmosphere felt more menacing. Our driver for the first time gave us an instruction: Don’t get out or talk to anyone, and if anyone opens the shuttle door to hit them!We did see an amazing sunset through the bus window as evening fell, but we exited Honduras and entered Nicargua feeling that we weren’t missing much by not stopping over. [Though if you are a diver, apparently Honduras is an excellent destination.]
Arriving 2 hours later than we were supposed to (yet again), the shuttle finally pulled up to our temporary abode in Leon, Nicaragua, and I ran to the hotel to check in, in case they had given our room away. Luckily they hadn’t, and ViaVia Hostel turned out to be our favourite so far (and one that is positively-reviewed by others too). It felt more like a lovely, airy hotel than a “hostel”. Our room was spacious with a large, comfortable bed, nice furniture, and a rather stylish bathroom. And I can’t help but love getting to live amongst geckos (which has been a recurring theme ever since Leon). As much as we enjoyed El Tunco, this felt like a definite upgrade, and for only a relatively small increase in the price. Thanks Gayle and Chris for the tip!
We didn’t have a fixed agenda for Leon – in fact we don’t for most places we end up – so we just wandered around the city. But first Toby needed a haircut. The waiter at the breakfast cafe told us the nearest barber was about 1.5 blocks up the road. We walked one block, two blocks, three blocks, but didn’t notice any barbershop signs. So we retraced our steps only to discover that we had walked by it: It was just the front room of someone’s house. The guy did a fine job and ended the session by dusting Toby’s head with powder. So with some white stuff now on Toby’s shoulders and in his ears, we set off to explore the town.
We soon ended up at Leon Cathedral, the largest in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cathedrals in Central America aren’t nearly as ornate – either in the interior or exterior – as those in Europe, but their simplicity and eclectic architectural heritages give them their own beauty. As we walked around admiring the high ceilings, wooden pews, and artwork, we soon noticed the strong smell of chemicals. We looked around and saw a guy walking around fumigating the interior of the cathedral whilst visitors such as ourselves were inside. Hm, time to leave! We knew ahead of arriving in Nicaragua that there had been a recent outbreak of Dengue Fever and that the government was taking steps – strong steps – to curb it. In fact, we had almost skipped Nicaragua entirely for this reason (given I appear to have bad luck with these sorts of things). But we inhaled so much chemical inside the cathedral, I felt rather invincible against mosquitoes upon our exit. We had wanted to go to the top of the cathedral, as we read that one could get a fantastic view over the city and the surrounding volcanoes (yes, more volcanoes); the fumigation prevented an immediate ascent.
So we wandered across the square and entered the Museum of the Revolution, which aims to ensure people remember the events leading up to and during the fight to end the Somoza family’s dictatorship and the subsequent Contra War. Our tour guide – Marcelo – a veteran Sandinista guerrilla took us through the museum, detailing the events in Spanish and pointing to pictures and newspaper articles from the time; some of these pictures were of our very tour guide at age 14. Although we recently completed 2 weeks of intensive Spanish tuition, this pushed our comprehension skills to their max. I must admit to only understanding about half of what he was telling us (we didn’t cover war terminology in my class!), but I understood enough to get a sense of the desperation of the Nicaraguan people and the devastation the wars inflicted on them and their families. We also learned of the pivotal role that Leon and its inhabitants played, and continue to play, in Nicaraguan political (liberal) thought. It is quite a powerful museum and definitely worth a visit, especially for citizens of the US to get a different take on Reagan’s decision to support the Contras. I remember a lot of these words from the 80s when I was a kid, but didn’t then have the faintest grasp of – let alone, I have to confess, interest in – world affairs. Marcelo took pains to impress upon us that they were not, nor were they fighting for, communists. They were fighting to meet basic human needs.
The museum tour was topped off by one of the most dangerous things we have done to date since we started travelling: Marcelo led us on a walk across the corrugated tin roof of the museum, which had limited structural support and several large cracks. Yikes!
I tried my best to follow the line of nails and avoid the bits of the roof that looked sunken in. We were awarded for our bravery (stupidity) with the view of the city that we had hoped to get on top of the cathedral. Things seem to have a way of working out eventually.
Having greatly enjoyed our visit to Leon, that intellectual and revolutionary cultural centre, we hopped on yet another shuttle to make our way to Granada, the most famous colonial city in Nicaragua. We had only scheduled half a day there, as other travellers liken it to Antigua, Guatemala, where we had already spent much time. Indeed, the layout and architecture were strongly reminiscent of Antigua, but at the same time it made less sense to us as a tourist destination. The central square – which contains the Cathedral of Granada – is open and colourful, but something about it felt staid and manufactured. Perhaps it was the minimal evidence of human enterprise and activity that made it feel this way. The square was oddly quiet during the day (well, the day we were there). It took us several hours to finally discover the one street – one street! – where restaurants and bars jostled for position and the contents of people’s wallets. This area seemed quite contrived to me however; i.e., something about it was slightly Disneyland-esque (e.g., instead of Tomorrowland, this was Touristland, with its allocation of Irish pubs, restaurants with neon signs, mariachi bands, and touts trying to draw you into their restaurant). We didn’t really take to this area, but maybe it was just us, as other people appeared to be having fun.
Outside of Touristland, the sights to see mainly involved churches; unlike Antigua, these were largely intact, rather than ruins. Not being churchy people (in nearly all ways that term can be understood), there is only so much of this we could take, so we left Granada feeling that half a day was enough. Evidently, Leon and Granada have been fighting for centuries as to which is the better city and should have been the capital (which eventually went to Managua). If we were allowed a vote, I think it would have to go to Leon.
The following day, a mere 1/2-hour shuttle journey (thank dog!) took us a world away to Lago de Apoyo, a pristine lake formed in the crater of the Apoyo Volcano. Thanks to ongoing thermal venting, the lake’s water is a lovely temperature throughout the year, a fact we enjoyed as soon as we arrived. Now, I’m an entering-the-water-wimp at the best of times (it can take up to 10 minutes for me to get in up to my waist), so I was expecting my usual slow descent. I think it took me less than 30 seconds to get all the way up to my neck — that is how comfortable the water temperature was. Yay, this was my kind of lake! We basically spent the next 2 days lazing by or in the lake and the evenings drinking and chatting with fellow travellers at our hostel (which we recommend, for its location, food, and service). It was a lovely little “holiday within a holiday”.
At this point I imagine some of you exclaiming to yourselves, “What, they need a holiday?? They’ve been on holiday for 2 months!”. Indeed, this is true. But 12-hour bus/shuttle journeys every other day, constantly unpacking and re-packing one’s bags, sleeping in strange beds and with anorexic pillows, being awakened by all hours by firecrackers (which seems to be a thing in many Central American countries), not knowing where or what is safe to eat, taking precautions on a daily basis to secure one’s cash, cards, and electronics (both on your person and your room), not seeing a familiar face other than your partner’s, planning your next destination, how you are going to get there and where you’re going to stay; well, sometimes it is nice to do and think about nothing. Lago de Apoyo is an excellent place to achieve just that.
As our next shuttle wound its way to San Jose, Costa Rica alongside Lake Nicaragua and on through Liberia, we had time to reflect upon the prior week+ of our travels. Honduras was a blur, as we saw it only through the window of a bus. As for El Salvador and Nicaragua, we were left wishing we had more time to see where these relationships could have gone.