Leaving Panajachel and El Salvador 08/25 to 09/10 2006

Filed under: El Salvador, Guatemala — Aaron and Amy at 11:33 am on Friday, October 20, 2006

We left Panajachel on schedule at 7:30 on the road we had already driven on our bike ride around the lake.  There were lots of piles of rocks in the road (some from construction, others from rock slides), but the traffic was light so early in the morning and we had no problems.  We bid adieu to the beautiful Lago de Atitlan and made our way onto uncharted territory.  We passed several volcanoes along the way which we believe to be the same ones we could see from the city of Antigua a month before.  One of them appeared to have steam coming out the top, so we stopped for a picture and let the brakes cool.  After getting propane we managed to drive right through the middle of the congested city of Escuintla instead of skirting it, but Aaron managed to get us through the narrow loud streets and out the other side.  Just outside of town we stopped at a restaurant in the shade and had our last Guatemalan meal.  Since we were not impressed with the food in Panajachel, we welcomed the excellent fried chicken and carne asada!  After spending over a month in Guatemala we were on our way to El Salvador!  We would have liked to spend more time in Guatemala either in more language schools or doing volunteer work, but our RV was only given 40 days in the country.  Instead of driving to the border to get this extended, we decided it was time to move further south.  We were both anxious for Nicaragua and looking for our rental house.

A new law was created in June 2006 which created the CA 4, or the Central American 4.  There are four participating countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua) that have made it so that once you enter the first country you have 90 days in which to visit all of them.  Usually every time you cross a new border you get a stamp in your passport and a new time limit issued.  The vehicles fall into another category and you have to get a separate permit for a shorter period of time.  You can start your 90 day limit over if you cross the border into a non-participating country (Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica or Panama).  We have also heard that if you go to the capital of any of the participating countries that you can get your 90 days extended.  This is a very new law which we only found out about at the end of July when our friends Mark and Leisbet crossed into El Salvador ahead of us.  We are not sure if the new law will harm or help us, although it was already made clear at the El Salvador border that we will not be getting stamps in our passports for El Salvador and Honduras.  We may still get one from Nicaragua since that will be the last participating country we leave; so they may need to stamp it so that we have a date showing when we left the CA 4.  Aaron did try and get our passports stamped at El Salvador, but they claimed they didn’t have any stamps at the border anymore.

Aaron did a few things differently at the El Salvador border which may have cost him a few dollars and more time, but nothing bad happened.  Upon leaving Guatemala, among the normal guides offering their assistance at the borders, an official looking gentleman asked to see our car permit, signed it, and told us to pull forward to migracion.  Aaron took our passports in and they said we didn’t need to do anything because of the new CA 4.  We drove across the border, which simply means that we continued driving down the dirt road we were on, passed lots of restaurants and came to different official looking men and buildings.  They told us where we needed to park and take care of aduana (customs) entering El Salvador.  Aaron was immediately told he couldn’t park where he had just been directed, and a kid hopped onto the running board of the RV to show us where to park.  All the while he was offering his services (in English) as a guide to help translate and show us around the different offices.  These “guides” are at every border and we have never used them before.  Aaron told him we already had all our copies made and that this is our fourth Latin American country we have driven into and didn’t need his assistance.  Somewhere along the way Aaron decided to use the young boy’s help.  It turns out that Aaron didn’t do everything he was supposed to do upon checking out of Guatemala, so he hopped on a bicycle taxi that drove him back across the border to take care of it, making a lot of copies that we have never needed before.  After returning to El Salvadoran customs Aaron completed whatever was necessary and we were on our way.  It took several hours, but we didn’t have to deal with any pesticide underneath the RV, which was a relief.  Lest you are confused, this is no European backpacking trip where you cram in 30 countries into 2 dazed weeks!  No way!  We are over eight months into our Latin American driving adventure and we have only just crossed into our FOURTH country!  Honestly, we wouldn’t have it any other way.  From day one we have been charmed by everyone from the sweetest impoverished children to helpful strangers giving directions to the friendly policemen and military!  Mexico is an extremely large and diverse country (both culturally and geographically) which we devoted a lot of our time to.  We expect that each country will go much faster now that we are in Central America.  Amy remembers reading somewhere that all of Central America is ¼ the size of the country of Mexico!

El Salvador greeted us with a nicely paved wide road that would take us on the next part of our adventure.  We had directions to a restaurant where friends had camped before on the beach of Metalio, just west of the port city of Acajutla.  It was about an hour away from the border and we arrived at about 6:00 p.m.  The owner Dario welcomed us and invited us to stay with him.  As we drove down a beach access road there was a beautiful scene of a horse grazing on the grass underneath the palm trees that lined the beach.  The long narrow strip of land allowed for the restaurant to be directly on the beach (with excellent food) then there were lots of palm trees with several hammocks and a pool.  This was where we stayed for the next three nights!  We got settled and enjoyed a tasty dinner of lobster stuffed with crab and shrimp!  We discovered at dinner that it is quite normal for the horses and cattle to wander along the beach, usually turning down the beach access road we were parked near.  Skylos got a little too curious one time with the cows.  He made one of them frantically back up in fear and then she lowered her head and horns at him.  Not having explored enough he went towards her again, this time causing a quick kick of a hind leg to nearly take his life.  We called him away before his curiosity was the end of him!  Sorry, no recreations of this one for pictures!

We enjoyed our days at this beach hanging out in the hammocks and getting lots of reading done.  We had several news magazines stacked up from Amy’s trip to Washington and plenty of books to get through.  One afternoon around 4 it began to rain enough for us to abandon our hammocks and seek refuge in the restaurant with a cold beer.  We met and hung out with a group from Juayua, a small city in the mountains north of us.  Some of them were cousins of the restaurant owner, so they had come down to the beach for the day.  Aaron tried surfing on our kayak several times, but the waves were too much and it was filling with water.  There were some adorable children that were very curious about us and the RV.  Some were shy and pulled into the pictures by their friends, while others couldn’t get enough of the picture taking!  Our last day we packed everything on and in the RV, then took a dip in the pool before we left.  On our way to our next campsite we had a snack of calamari at a beautiful restaurant called El Mirador (The Lookout), which looked at least 1,000 feet down to the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean.  We had directions to another campsite that turned out to be a little incorrect, but we ended up finding it none-the-less.  We finally found the campground on El Tunco beach, which is just west of the city of La Libertad.  We were the only campers here, but they had several palm lined spots for cars/tents as well as several two-story palapas for tents.  At the front of the site is another two-story palapa which is great for stringing up our hammock and chairs in the cool ocean breeze!  The campground is in the process of creating services that will make campers’ stay most enjoyable.  Right now there is a good bathroom underneath the palapa stairs and the shower outside is not private and is mostly salt water.  At the time of writing the new bathrooms and showers are under construction.  Like the current shower, the water provided at the campsite is mostly saltwater, so we chose to not fill our tanks in the RV.  That water comes from the well, and we do not believe there are plans to provide another water source anytime soon.  During our visit Aaron helped the Manager/Caretaker (Salvador) and the owner (Indio) rewire all their electrical plugs so that they are wired properly.  We got ourselves situated in the campsite which we were nearly too big for, then went to the restaurant next door to have a couple drinks.  After about 20 minutes of admiring the hotel/restaurant grounds and watching the surfers, Amy noticed someone familiar waving her hand in our direction.  It was our friends Chris and Mel whom we had spent a month with in Panajachel, Guatemala!  They had left Panajachel that day and crossed into El Salvador, and this was their first campsite.  We knew they were leaving that day, but we didn’t know how far they would get and thought we might have missed them.  We all had drinks and dinner together and Chris and Mel checked out the wave conditions for surfing the next day.

We passed several of the first days at El Tunco in our second story palapa lounging in our hammocks.  There was almost always a nice breeze from the ocean which kept us cool and the bugs at bay.  Our first night having dinner at the Roca Sunzal Hotel we met the very friendly owner, Oscar.  He and Aaron discovered they both spear fished and we all quickly became friends.  Aaron and Oscar tried deep-sea spear fishing twice, but the extremely poor visibility during this time of year only yielded one parrot fish.  El Tunco has two rivers which empty into the sea, and when it rains in the mountains the mud washes down the rivers depositing a thick chocolate-looking pool that spreads into the ocean.  The water is not always brown, but the rivers did wash out mud several times while we were there.  The Roca Sunzal Hotel had a very nice pool and day-use area with hammocks strewn about that was very nice for us to use during our stay.  The hotel is two lots away from our campsite, making it very close to enjoy their excellent restaurant and facilities.  Oscar and his girlfriend Denorah were updating the hotel website so Amy helped them take some pictures to put online.  The website is up now, but it may take them a few weeks to put the new pictures on.  Their website address is www.rocasunzal.com.  This would be the perfect spot for RVers to have friends or family visit them because the RV campsite is so close to a great hotel and restaurant for guests to stay.  The beach is black volcanic sand and has some interesting rock formations right in front of the hotel/campsite.  The next beach over from us (walking distance) is called Sunzal and there are surfing breaks on both El Tunco and Sunzal beaches.  This brings surfers from all over the world who travel to find the perfect waves.  Aaron gave surfing a try a couple times using one of our friends’ boards, but he hasn’t quite perfected it yet.

We decided to take a motorcycle trip to the village of Suchitoto, which is about 2 hours from our campsite.  Since the RV was in a secure fenced campsite and Chris and Mel were kind enough to watch the dogs, we decided to make an overnight trip of it.  We packed a small bag and took off for the direction of bustling San Salvador.  After getting some money (there are no ATM’s in La Libertad) we made it through the city pretty easily.  We located our exit for Suchitoto and headed north on a beautiful countryside road.  Suchitoto is known as El Salvador’s best preserved colonial town.  It is full of narrow cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.  It sits near the lake of Suchitlan which was created in 1972 when a dam was constructed.  This area was one of the bases for the FMLN during the conflicts the country endured in the 80’s.  “FMLN” can be seen spray painted all over the paved road and almost every electrical pole.  The town of Suchitoto is small and quiet.  Most people come here to enjoy birding and other outdoor activities.  We stopped for ice cream and sat on the main square next to the glaringly white church.  We then found a great hotel a couple blocks from the square that had a pool and restaurant.  We checked in and took a dip in the pool to cool off before exploring the small town.  Photography seems to be the favorite medium of artistic expression here, with several galleries and restaurants full of photos of varying quality for sale.  We enjoyed our stay in Suchitoto and headed off the following morning to explore some towns that were supposed to be good for purchasing hammocks.   We drove on earth roads to the town of Ilopasco and San Sebastion, where we eventually found a new hammock.  We lost a very good hammock in Mexico, and we had been searching to replace it ever since.  On our return trip through San Salvador the driving got a bit more hairy as we drove through downtown, where there are apparently absolutely no enforced driving rules, especially for the big buses.  We made it out alive, although Amy’s knuckles remained white for a few days thereafter!

One night Oscar invited us to go on a double date with him and his girlfriend, Denorah.  We went into San Salvador and had a great dinner at a Japanese restaurant.  We opted out of the movie because Oscar didn’t get much sleep the night before, and both he and Aaron were going fishing early in the morning.  It was great going into the city and we had a great time with our new friends.

Aaron was finally able to get the starter on the generator fixed and the mechanic to tune the generator.  It will work in its current condition, but we still need to fix the fuel line.

We went into the city with some of our friends to have a great sushi dinner.  Afterwards we went out to several very loud bars for a couple of hours before returning to our campsite on the beach.  We also went into the small city of La Libertad to visit the fish market.  It runs out on the pier where you can buy all sorts of fish as well as turtle eggs.  They are protected in some areas, but are considered a delicacy and the turtle populations are stressed.  We witnessed a fishing boat being lifted up onto the pier by a crane.  Some of its fish were several baby hammerheads that were probably less than a year old. 

We celebrated our friend Paul’s last night with dinner at a new restaurant on the beach.  It was at a new hotel that only opened a month ago, the Tekuani Kal.  The owner, Walter, was one of the guys that went out diving with Aaron and Oscar.  The hotel is very small and intimate with a great palapa dining area and a beautiful eternity pool looking out onto the ocean.  They had a couple large masks/sculptures that gave it a Polynesian charm.

After spending a month at the same campsite on Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala, our friends Chris and Mel were also camping at the same place in El Salvador with us for two weeks.  They left a day before we did and are heading up north in El Salvador before continuing on the same route we are.  They are headed to Panama as well, and are also looking forward to spending some time in Nicaragua.  We have really enjoyed their company and hope to see them along the way!

We had lots of interesting experiences speaking Spanish in El Salvador.  We had always heard that Mexico and Guatemala are some of the best places to learn Spanish because of the speed and clarity with which they speak.  We have heard that all Central American countries south of Guatemala speak differently and frequently cut off the ends of words.  Several of our first experiences speaking in El Salvador came as quite a shock.  After speaking very well in Mexico and Guatemala, we were suddenly hearing a new form of Spanish that we could hardly decipher!  Sometimes we noticed that a lot of people speak in a monotone voice, were mumbling and cut off the endings of words.  We have gotten better at understanding some of it, but it is extremely difficult and frustrating after speaking a decent amount of Spanish for so long!  We will see what greets us the further south we go!

From our campsite at Playa Tunco we plan on driving along the highway CA2 to check out some beaches in eastern El Salvador before crossing the border into Honduras.  If we are given more than one day to cross (because of the dogs) then we may check out some Honduran beaches on the Pacific side; otherwise we will scoot through Honduras and get into Nicaragua.



Comment by Emily

October 25, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

I love reading up on your adventures. I cannot wait to see pictures of your home in Nicaragua. I want to know where I’ll be spending New Year’s :)


Comment by David Bloom

October 30, 2006 @ 1:24 pm

Excellent advices for those driving down the first time beyond Mexico. I am a resident, and for years I had a vehicle with national plates, so far less hassles.
I am a member of the yahoo user groups 99DaysToPanama and panamaorbust and I presently reside in El Salvador, if and when you require updated Central American information, feel free to contact me.

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