We tend to make travel plans only a few days ahead of time. We like the freedom and sense of adventure that comes with an open itinerary. Thus, somewhat intimidated by the very high crime statistics, we weren’t sure whether we were going to even set foot in El Salvador until a day or two before we crossed the border. It turns out that our ten days in the smallest country in Central America were full of beautiful scenery, delicious food, and incredibly kind and generous people. El Salvador delighted us with mounds of delicious pupusas, a VW parade through the capitol city, and wonderful new friends.
First we need to step back to our last few days in Guatemala. When we pulled into the free Tourist Police campground in Antigua we were excited to see another Vanagon there, a very rare sight these days. We quickly made friends with Bruno and Laura, an awesome young overlanding couple from Argentina who have been on the road for over a year in their hand-painted Westy. It turns out that they were heading the same direction at the same time, so we decided to join forces. We spent a few days enjoying the beauty of Antigua with its cobblestone streets, colorful walls, grass-covered roofs, and looming volcano, and then set off in a caravanagon for the El Salvador border.
Not only was it fun to have an awesome van to follow, but Bruno and Laura were a big help at the border – winding through the mess of big rigs backed up for miles, then the mess of paperwork. The border crossing wasn’t too bad, it ended up taking a few hours, but only because the one woman who processes vehicle import permits decided to go to lunch right when we arrived, so we had to wait around for her to return. Soon enough we were through the border madness and headed towards Parque Nacional El Imposible.
Unfortunately the steep road up to the park was too rough for Bruno and Laura’s two-wheel drive van, so they had to turn around halfway and we continued on our own, reaching the park gate just before it closed for the day. While the drive wasn’t too rough for Chimera, especially in comparison to other roads we’ve traveled on in the past few months, it did confirm a sinking suspicion that we had since we left San Pedro. Remember that awful clanking sound that we heard, which lead to the whole ordeal of replacing the worn control arm bushings? Well…as we drove away from Lago Atitlán the noise returned. We were reluctant to admit it at first, but the more we drove on bumpy roads the more persistent the noise became. It turns out that the worn bushings weren’t the culprit, they did need to be replaced, as they were very worn, but they weren’t causing the clanking. However, it didn’t take long for Tim to diagnose a worn brake caliper, and we were hopeful that we’d be able to fix it without needing to special order any more parts.
El Imposible encompasses and protects one of the few intact regions of rainforest left in El Salvador, which covers a large area of steep mountainous terrain. The following morning we set off on a jungle trail with our guide, José, who had an impressive knowledge of the local flora and fauna. For the first half of the hike we headed down a steep canyon in the pouring rain, we were immediately soaked, but the air was warm and the rain pleasant. Our destination was a large rock that had ancient carvings on it, which sadly haven’t been preserved and are slowly fading away. The hike was gorgeous, through verdant jungle with occasional vistas of cloud-shrouded hills and the beach off in the distance.
Our next destination was the small mountain town of Juayúa, known for its weekend food festival. We camped just outside the town on a coffee plantation, where we enjoyed a hike up a coffee-covered hillside.
Tim had been in touch with a friend of a friend (a Salvadorian friend of a Boulder friend), Ernesto, who came up from San Salvador to meet us in Juayúa. The three of us strolled through the busy food stalls of the festival and enjoyed a huge lunch while we watched some fútbol. Then we followed Ernesto on his motorcycle back to his family’s home on the outskirts of San Salvador.
We were warmly welcomed to the family home, where we met Ernesto’s mother, father, sister, and brother. Before long we all piled into their small car and drove off into the heart of the capitol city, then to the southern hills to a popular, bustling strip of restaurants with an amazing view of the twinkling lights of the city. We met up with some of their family friends and all eleven or so of us crammed into a table at one of the busiest of the pupuserias. After much jovial confusion we ordered a mound of pupusas – literally, they arrived in a giant, greasy, delicious mound.
For those of you that have never had the good fortune of trying a pupusa, imagine a thick tortilla stuffed with cheese, beans, vegetables, meat, or a variety of other fillings, then fried to deliciousness, topped with cabbage and salsa and eaten by hand. They are truly delightful, and we ended up eating pupusas at least once a day almost every day in El Salvador. Our apologies for not taking any photographs of that evening, or of any pupusas for that matter, we were too busy stuffing our happy mouths.
The following morning we awoke early and Ernesto kindly escorted us into the heart of the city. Bruno and Laura had told us about an annual parade organized by the VW Club of El Salvador, the Caravana por el Día Mundial del Escarabajo (Caravan for the International Day of the Beetle), which just so happened to be taking place that weekend, what luck! We made our way to a park in central San Salvador and waited. We were prompt, maybe even a little early, and for a while we were the only VW in sight, but then other vehicles started arriving, slowly at first, then in hordes. After a couple of hours there were dozens of VWs lining the street – many beetles, a handful of buggies, a couple of sweet old microbuses, and an assortment of other vehicles, many of which we had never seen before. But there were only two Vanagons – us and the Argentinians.
Chimera was a big attraction, not only because it’s an awesome van, but also because of our license plates – we’re not sure if many (or any) Americans have ever joined the annual VW parade. We had a great time driving through the city with all of the other VWs, and it turns out that the caravan ended in the same southern hills where we had been the night before with Ernesto’s family.
We met so many great people at the caravan, including a VW mechanic named Santiago, who assured us that he’d be able to fix or replace the worn brake caliper bushings quickly and cheaply. We also met Juan Karlos and his sweet wife and three boys. That evening we followed Juan in his beautiful old blue VW beetle, along with Bruno and Laura, back to their home in a smaller town near the city, where we stayed the night. The following morning they escorted us all the way back to the city, to Santiago’s mechanic shop. What a very sweet family, they were so hospitable and generous!
Santiago quickly jacked Chimera up, removed the troublesome wheel and brake and confirmed that indeed the caliper guide pin bushings were worn. Replacing these would be tough, but Santiago had an alternate option, which involved peening the brake carrier. At the same time Santiago and his crew worked on an oil leak in Bruno and Laura’s van, while the four of us discussed travel plans, exchanged Vanagon tips, and watched the numerous puppies that tumbled around the yard. It all took a few hours, but Santiago worked hard and when we drove away Bruno and Laura weren’t leaking oil and we no longer heard the dreaded clunking noise. Fixed at last!
All fixed up and ready to hit the road, we parted ways again with Bruno and Laura, but we’re sure that our paths will cross again soon. After over a month inland it was time to return to our friend, the Pacific Ocean. From San Salvador it’s a quick drive south to several small surfer hangouts. We chose Playa El Zonte, where we found a great place to camp in the parking lot of a small surfer resort right next to the beach. It was hot and we couldn’t wait to jump in the water. We quickly discovered that this far south the water is just about as warm as the air, which hardly cools you off, but it was still wonderful to be back in the waves. We spent a few lazy days watching World Cup games, eating pupusas, drinking beer and rum, and swimming, before heading south, further down the coast.
We spent our last few days in El Salvador on beautiful, long, wide-open beach on the southeastern coast doing more lazing around, watching more World Cup games, drinking more rum, and hand-washing our laundry.
Maybe we’ve gotten too picky, or too lazy (we blame the pupusas), or maybe the surf gods just weren’t smiling on us, but we didn’t end up finding many tempting waves in El Salvador. We now have our sights set on Nicaragua and Costa Rica.