El Salvador, Guatemala & Honduras
18 January 2009
We are back on the boat at Bahia del Sol after a weeklong trip to Guatemala and Honduras by bus. Our main project right now is to repair or replace our dingy. A couple of days before we had planned to leave on our trip, we noticed than the starboard tube had deflated. Russ pumped it up and we looked for a leak and could not find one. We went to the dock, bringing the pump with us, and enjoyed the pool and internet at the bar. A few hours later when we returned to the dingy all three chambers had deflated and the engine (transom) was starting to sink. We lifted the engine with another cruiser's davits and our friend, Joel from Paradise Bound, said he could lend us a dingy until we could deal with the situation. Cruisers really do take care of each other. We have been on the internet checking options to replace the dingy but have not come up with an affordable way, so now we are trying to repair it. The problem with such a major failure of the adhesive is whether we can trust it again.
Anyway, we left Zephyra safely at anchor, and Joel's spare dingy with our oversized engine at the dock, and took off on Wednesday for San Salvador. After a busy day, sightseeing in the centro part of the city, looking for a dive store in the malls, doing errands and eating Chinese food, Joel dropped us at the bus station so we could buy our ticket for the 6am bus to Guatemala City. When you enter a shopping mall in San Salvador, you would think you were in Mission Valley or any other upscale mall in the US. The contrast from the downtown market, filled with crowed stalls selling anything from used tools, electronic s and chickens, is vast. The spread between urban and rural and rich and poor seem to be more pronounced in Central America, than even in Mexico. The laborers who work on the boats, get paid about $8 a day, while a hamburger special at the resort restaurant is on the menu for $10. I am putting prices of some things in this log to let fellow travelers know some the things we found cheap and others expensive. We did find traveling in Central America fairly reasonable overall.
The first night, since we had a 6am bus, we stayed at a hotel next door to the bus station. ($32 for a double room with private bath and cable TV). We took the TICA bus to Guatemala City which was direct except for a stop at the border. The El Salvadorian officials came on the bus and checked everyone's passports, then we drove to the border and debarked to visit the Guatemala immigration. Of, course, all the announcements are only in Spanish, so we just followed the crowd. From Guatemala City we took a taxi ($30) to Antigua Guatemala.
Antigua was one of the most interesting places I have ever seen. Just walking down the street, most of the city looks like square, squat buildings without any style, but you go behind the walls of almost every building and there are beautiful courtyards, gardens and accommodations built around ancient ruins. There is art and pottery displaced anywhere. We took a walking tour, given by an ex-pat named Elizabeth Bell, who has studied Antigua for decades and written several books on the area. She took us through several buildings, a home, churches and museums. We also spent a couple of days exploring the churches and ruins on our own. Antigua is a very international city with visitors from all over the world. There is every type of cuisine available and a central plaza where people sit and relax and watch the "goingson" of the town. The artisan market is a kaleidoscope of colors and fabrics. I only bought a few things since we were traveling by bus with a small backpack each, but I know I will someday be sorry that I didn't purchase things for our home. The first night in Antigua, after consulting our Lonely Planet guide, we stayed in a $14 hotel room. It was a little too basic and much too noise for us, so for the next 2 nights we moved up to a more luxurious $34 a night room.
Through the travel agency in front of our hotel, we arranged a shuttle to Copan, Honduras. The shuttles all leave a 4am so that people who desire to can make a one day turnaround. We had been warned, by our friends who had done the trip the week before, that the Plus Bus company was not reliable and their vans were not very good so we signed on with a more expensive company. The shuttle picks up each passenger at their hotel in the morning. He showed up at our hotel 20 minutes early (3:40 am) since we were his first stop. Then he proceeded to cross and re-cross the town several times looking for addresses before filling up every seat in the van. The van was in poor shape and every time the driver turned it off, he needed to screw with the battery to get it to restart. The trip was about 4 hours after we finally got out of town along winding mountain roads. When the driver took his jacket off, Russ noticed that the emblem on his sleeve was Plus Bus, so much for spending more to take a nicer van. This time at the border we had to get out of the van (gladly) and go to one window to check out of Guatemala ($2 per person) and then to another window to check into Honduras($3 per person). About 9:30 am we finally got to the town of Copan Ruinas. We wandered around to find the Via Via hostel, which had been recommended to us by both our friends and Lonely Planet and booked a room ($16) and had a typical Honduran breakfast (eggs, beans, salty cheese, fried platanos and homemade bread). We were now using our 3rd currency in 5 days.
After breakfast, we walked to the Copan Archaeological Site, a Unesco World Heritage site. During the Classic period (AD 250-900), the city at Copan Ruinas culturally dominated the region for centuries. Its culture was so developed, it is often labeled the 'Paris of the Maya world'. The ruins at Copan are not as grand as at some other sites, but more Mayan sculpture has been found there, than anywhere else. Some of the sculptures can be seen in their original position on the site, but many have been moved to the onsite museum where they can be better preserved. We spent the rest of the day, wandering around the ruins and museum and burning up all the batteries we had for our camera.
In Honduras, the women are known for carrying everything on their heads. For dinner, we went to a restaurant which is upstairs and the waitresses carry the drinks and food up the stairs on their heads. Don't know how they do it. The next morning, we took a three-wheeled motor taxi (Russ calls them Jitneys), to Macaw Mountain a private bird sanctuary which looks after rescued abandoned and endangered birds. It is a lush jungle park with spacious aviaries for many species of birds including parrots, macaws, toucans, pigmy owls and red tailed hawks. Our guide told us about the birds and Honduran life and we had lunch in their lovely restaurant set in the park. There is one section, where the birds are not in their cages and can be handled by visitors. Unfortunately, our camera batteries were dead by then, but we each had 3 macaws climbing on our arms.
The next day was a bus day. It took 3 buses to make our way back to the boat. First we caught a 6am bus to La Entrada, Honduras. We had breakfast the only nice hotel in La Entrada, which also happened to be the terminal for the King Quality bus. This was far the nicest (and most expensive, $41 per person) bus of our trip. There were roomy reclining seats, on-board movies and a hostess who brought us pillows and blankets and served cookies and coffee. At the border between Honduras and El Salvador, officials of both countries boarded the bus and checked our passports. There was no charge and they did not stamp anything or give us anything. Since we already had a 90 visa that we purchased when we landed in El Salvador, we weren't concerned, but the American lady sitting behind us was worried that she had nothing showing her entering the country. Don't know how that worked out for her. The King Quality bus dropped us in downtown San Salvador and after finding an ATM to get US dollars, we took a cab to the terminal for the chicken bus back to the boat. The chicken buses (which are retired American school buses) wasn't as bad as we expected, since we had taken it the week before during the holiday period and were dreading the ride. The first time we had taken it, we sat on the bus for 25 minutes while they loaded up as many bodies as we thought they could fit on the bus. The seats are sized for school children, not for adults with backpacks and packages and there is no air conditioning. The seating capacity is 77 passengers and Russ counted 108 at one point. The music is left to the discretion of the driver both in type and volume, so loud Techno music tends to prevail. As you sit there, the bus vendors keep coming through trying to sell you everything from food, cold drinks to toys and bibles. They enter at the front door, manage to work their way through the crowd carrying their ware (some on their heads), and go out the back door. This continued for entire wait and when the bus finally pulls out, the vendors all jump out the back. The bus was packed as we finally left the terminal, and like the Mexicans, the El Salvadorians do not move back and let other in so they just squeeze past one and other or keep piling closer together in the front of the bus. The bus kept stopping and picking up more passengers. Russ, who was sitting on the outside, got a boob in the eye as one young lady turned around. You do not pay when you board the bus, but each bus has a young man who wanders up and down the aisle to collect and keeps track of who has paid and who hasn't. The trip to San Salvador from Bahia del Sol is a little bit over an hour by car, but takes 2 ½ hours on the bus since the bus goes off the highway and into every village along the way. There doesn't seem to be any official bus stops and people wait all along the road for the bus to pick them up. We reached one village and the driver got out of the bus for his break and the vendor s once again invaded, selling pupusas, candy and drinks. On Tuesday the bus was not nearly as crowded and we each had our own seat for the first hour and ½ of the ride, so it wasn't nearly as bad as anticipated after our first experience.