Wednesday, August 28, 2019

El Salvador and Honduras (in a hurry)

As I mentioned in my last post, we were trying to get to El Salvador by boat from Nicaragua because my passport situation required it. Mom's passport situation required us to start moving very quickly because we now had less than 3 weeks to get all the way to Cancun for our flight home and even less time than that to get to Antigua, Guatemala for mom's flight home first.
With a new temporary passport in (mom's) hand we finally returned to Potosi, 10 days after having had it stolen on our way there. There is no really good information about this marine crossing and we were pretty sure there was no regularly scheduled transport between the two countries. A few tour/transport agencies claim to be able to arrange something, usually a much more expensive private transfer that doesn't appeal to anyone as it is significantly more than the van options to get to the same place.
We had arranged transportation through an online travel agency and despite repeated assurances that everything would be taken care of, I can't say I was very surprised when on the morning of our boat departure, we got a message saying that the company failed to find any more passengers and it would suddenly be much more expensive if we still wanted to go. This is not the way to win me over.
Once again we were rescued by the amazingly friendly and helpful guy at the guesthouse we were staying at. He made a few calls and within an hour had come up with a solution to get us across. Fishermen. We had to walk over to the little port area and get ourselves through immigration first though. We were the only people there and the whole thing was surprisingly very easy. There might be only 2 buildings and a broken pier that isn't even used anymore but the officials were nice and were also making sure our ride was legit. We had to wait a while for the 2 fisherman to show up (he'd been loading his little boat with buckets of fish in another area nearby) but eventually he pulled up on the empty black sand beach and we jumped in. It was a tiny open boat with 6 buckets of small fish covered with cloth. We threw our bags on top of the buckets, sat 3 across on the only bench available and started the crossing. The Gulf of Fonseca is not very large and has one small opening to the pacific ocean. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are all easily seen from any point in the water, with a few islands and volcanoes dotted around the bay. It was a bit hazy but still very picturesque. The only other boats were of other fishermen and the whole crossing was a relatively easy 2 hours with a brief stop at a village on one of the islands along the way to drop off a few things.
Our entry into El Salvador was less than glorious. I was already wet from water splashing all over me and when our boat pulled up to the busier port in La Union we had to wade through dirty, knee-deep water full of garbage and fish guts to get ourselves ashore. It didn't look like a wonderful town to hang around in though everyone we met was helpful and friendly enough. We stayed just long enough to get stamped in, hit the atm and catch a bus out. We spent the night in San Miguel, the largest city in the east/south of the country.

Black sand at Potosi

Our boat

Arrival port in La Union, El Salvador

The buckets of fish successfully offloaded.

El Salvador looked similar to the rest of the countries in Central America at first glance though it is smaller and therefore more densely populated. Most tourism revolves around surfing and volcanoes but the country has a terrible reputation for serious gang-related crime and boasts one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world. We only stayed 3 nights in El Salvador so could hardly claim to know the country, but where we were and what we did didn't feel any more dangerous and threatening than anywhere else we went. I think the people were the friendliest and the national food (pupusas) were the best that we experienced in Central America. There was a noticeable increase in security everywhere and barbed-wire is definitely the national decor so I have no doubt that crime is a serious problem. But the overall impression is that things could be so much better but I have also seen poorer. Though they overlap a lot, there is a difference between no money and totally undeveloped poor vs deteriorated, corrupt and crime-riddled poor.  Parts of Africa or Bolivia where people live in huts and there are no paved roads feels like the former while El Salvador (and its neighbours) with its western chains, skyscrapers, paved roads and shopping malls is closer to the latter.
With a reduced schedule we were forced to prioritize our experiences down to the essentials which in our case meant mostly Mayan ruins for the rest of the trip. In El Salvador there is only 1 unesco site, Joya de Ceren, known as the Pompeii of the Americas. We relocated from San Miguel to Santa Ana and from there visited Joya de Ceren on a day trip. Unlike the more famous Mayan tourist sites, this one is not based on huge temples and religious structures but is a simple village that was abandoned during a volcanic eruption about 1400 years ago. It was only discovered in 1976 and archaeologists have had to dig through 14 layers of volcanic ash to expose the original buildings. It isn't a large site and the village only existed for about 30 years before being abandoned, but there are several simple residential buildings to look down on. This site is more for the serious archaeologist than the casual tourist but it is interesting to see something of how the simple Mayans lived long ago. The lower temperature of the ash that covered the village helped it preserve everything so well including organic material such as food, giving researchers valuable info not found elsewhere. From there we caught a local bus to the town of Chalchuapa to visit a small temple site but it had been over-restored and wasn't of particularly high quality. It was a warm up for what was to come but it is probably not unfair to say that El Salvador is not going to become an international archaeology powerhouse anytime soon.

Joya de Ceren

El Tazumal pyramid at Chalchuapa

The theatre at Santa Ana

Santa Ana cathedral

Our next destination was Copan Ruinas in Honduras. The normal and most direct route between Santa Ana and Copan is actually through Guatemala, but due to my passport being too full we needed to take the long way. We also had to do it on our own. There are no tourist shuttles or direct buses that don't go through Guatemala. Getting up really early we left Santa Ana at 6am for a bus back to San Salvador where we had to change bus terminals to get another bus directly to the border at El Poy. It was pretty scenery as we climbed up into the highlands that would make up the western corner of Honduras. Once we crossed the border it was interesting to see how the vegetation would change from corn and banana crops and a more tropical look at lower elevations and in the valleys to coffee and pine trees at the highest points of the ride. The border crossing was quick and simple and after a 10 minute van ride to the nearest town, we caught another bus to the highway junction at La Entrada. We knew another bus would eventually come by for the final stretch to the village of Copan Ruinas but unfortunately we ended up waiting for an hour and a half before the final bus of the day came by. In all it took us 13.5 hours but we made it. We didn't want to get stranded half way. If there is a country with a worse reputation for danger than El Salvador it is Honduras, though that is mostly in the big cities and the people we met along the way were all helpful and friendly. They just don't see many independent travelers moving around by public bus anymore.

Honduras highlands

Arrival in Copan Ruinas

The Mayan ruins at Copan are well known as one of the best in the world, often compared with those at Tikal in Guatemala. While I personally think there is no comparison (I liked Tikal much better), Copan is a superior site for those interested in carved detail. The stele found there are arguably the best ever produced by the Mayans. The site is a large one with a large central plaza, several temples and residential areas and of course a ball court. The most impressive and unique part is the huge hieroglyphic staircase that climbs 21 meters up the outside of one of the temples. Considered by many to be the largest ancient text in the world, it describes the royal lineage of Copan and the accomplishments of its 16 kings. It is partially restored and has been covered by a canvas tarp for decades now to prevent further deterioration by the elements. We spent a couple hours wandering around and checking out all the ruins. It was hot as usual but fortunately shade wasn't too hard to find since the ruins are still in the jungle. Even better than the shade, the jungle provided us with animals. We didn't see or hear any monkeys but even better, the entry area is full of released scarlet macaws. There were dozens of these beautiful birds and we spent quite a while watching them. Animals have definitely been a highlight on this trip overall and the macaws were no exception.

The hieroglyphic staircase

The grand plaza with ball court

I love the huge trees growing out of the ruins

There are other touristy attractions nearby including more ruins, waterfalls and bird parks but we only had the one full day and spent it all at the main ruins. Also due to our limited time frame we had to save time by leaving Copan Ruinas by tourist shuttle to get to Guatemala rather than making our own way. Fortunately we were able to use the deposit we'd paid toward our failed boat crossing out of Nicaragua on a shuttle arranged through the same company.

Friday, August 23, 2019


I'd have never guessed we'd end up spending more time in Nicaragua than any other country in Central America. It wasn't by plan and ended up becoming a necessity as we ran into a few problems.
Nicaragua is a bit of a mixed story depending on who you talk to. On one side, it is more politically aligned outside of the US-axis than any other country in Central America having been good friends with Cuba, Iran and the rest of the "other side" in recent history. This all stems from a leftist revolution and take over back in 1979 which led to further messiness and a civil war with US-backed rebels throughout the 80's. Not that they invented corruption and incompetence (there is a reason the Somoza regime was overthrown in the first place) but like most revolutions worldwide, leadership changes but crappy conditions mostly just stay the same for the little guy.
Despite all this, in the last decade or so Nicaragua had been gaining a pretty solid reputation as the next "Costa Rica" with much better prices and a lot of growth potential on a stable and safe tourism front. Many Americans and Canadians were buying up land for retirement and things were generally looking good. Last year all hell broke loose with a whack of political instability, violent protests, mass repressions and human rights violations by the authorities and suddenly most of the foreigners ran away and tourist-oriented businesses shut down. It was yet another thing to keep my eye on as it looked more and more likely that we would get there this year and it seemed that things had stabilized enough on the safety front and visitors were starting to trickle back in.
We got a direct bus from Liberia to the border. Generally I make a point of taking more obscure and interesting routes and border crossings through countries and have avoided a lot of scam and hassle this way. With Nicaragua we didn't really have much choice but to take the most popular crossing and although it wasn't particularly difficult or obnoxious, it was probably the least pleasant border post of our trip. The exit fee for Costa Rica is just stupid and scammy in the way they have a broken official payment machine so you have to pay extra to pay the fee at other booths and of all the people we were to meet and deal with in Nicaragua, the touts and bus drivers at the border were the worst. Not the best start to the day.
Our first destination was Granada, arguably the most touristic place in the country and with a large expat community. If they aren't living on the beach, they are probably living in Granada. Granada is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Central America and bills itself as one of the best preserved colonial towns in the region. True. It is cute with its colonial plaza and many of the streets have been repainted in multiple colours so it is all very photogenic and makes for a nice stroll. The churches are looking a little run down but that just gives it a bit more character. It was pretty, quiet and noticeably suffering for a lack of visitors though we saw more here than anywhere else in the country.

Granada cathedral

Granada's central plaza

Colourful homes

Guadalupe church

Xalteva church

We planned on giving ourselves a couple nights in Granada to see it and then move on. What we didn't realize until the morning of our departure was that our chosen departure date was a major holiday in Nicaragua and that this one was very politically motivated, having to do with the Sandinista revolution by the (somewhat) current government. With all the troubles lately I guess it was a good excuse for them to really get some serious self-promotion on and so all public bus licences were revoked for the day and suddenly Granada felt like a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic on the roads and the little bus station was completely deserted. What was supposed to have been a simple "get up and relocate a few hours northwest" kind of day became much more interesting. First there was the initial panic of "we aren't going to be able to get out of this suddenly ghost town and I have a place booked to get to" which was solved when our Granada host suggested a tourist shuttle.
Tourist shuttles are just that, a much more expensive door-to-door service used by most travelers now because of their "ease, safety and comfort". I would never consider a tourist shuttle under normal circumstances, finding the vans more uncomfortable than buses and lacking in any kind of local flavour. Nevertheless they are faster and were running when nothing else was that day. Our plan was to get to Leon, normally only 2-3 hours away. It took us over 5 hours because shortly after leaving Granada we found all the missing buses and people. It seemed like almost everyone (certainly everyone that wanted to) was in these re-purposed buses heading toward the capital for.....something. We don't know and never did find out. From the looks of things most were never going to make it in time anyway. The "highway" was gridlocked and our shuttle driver at one point resorted to driving at oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the divided road. This was done at the suggestion of the traffic police until we got busted by a different set of traffic police a while later. The other tourists didn't complain when were forced to turn around, backtrack to the nearest roundabout and rejoin the crowds. A few were fairly convinced they were going to die. Highly amusing...
Nicaraguan buses are "chicken buses", converted North American school buses, in rough shape, usually with a personalized paint job and surely a new engine because I don't ever remember a school bus at home that could drive like that. Now fill the buses with thousands of excited locals to the point they are riding on the roof waving red and black FSLN flags (from the political party). They'll spend hours travelling to the capital and maybe get there but it didn't really look like they cared where they were. Not the way I hope to spend my holidays but maybe Nicaraguans are short of entertainment options.
We made it to Leon in the end. Maybe it was the long weekend or maybe it is always that way, but we found it to be much quieter and more relaxed than Granada. The majority of visitors that come to Leon come for the volcanoes and the cathedral. The cathedral is a unesco-listed one and unique in its fusion of local and colonial styles. It sits on the dusty main plaza amidst other colonial buildings, the likes of which we have grown very accustomed to this past year. It didn't take long to wander from church to church to check out the various facades, some of which were rather unique (one had dice? carved into it).

Church of the Recollection, Leon

Leon cathedral

Volcanoes, on the other hand, are very much a part of Central American geography with a long string of them on the west side of the isthmus at fairly regular intervals from Costa Rica all the way into Mexico. We were always within site of one it seemed and climbing or other activities are offered at many in each country. Leon advertises volcano boarding which seems to be more or less sand boarding down a volcano (on the outside). We had ruled out any volcanic activities not only on account of the oppressive heat but also because during the rainy season the tops of the volcanoes are usually covered in cloud. Laziness had nothing to do with it I swear. Instead we made a little day trip to the ruins of Leon Viejo, the original settlement of Leon, one of the oldest in the region having been founded in 1524. It was abandoned in 1610 after multiple earthquakes and issues with the nearby active volcano which subsequently buried the site. It wasn't rediscovered until 1967 and parts of it have been uncovered and partially restored though it is mostly just the general layout and the bases of walls that remain. It lies beside the second largest lake in Nicaragua and has nice views of the nearby volcanoes as well. The ruins are obviously not as popular as volcanoes to most tourists these days because we were the only people visiting and the village beside the ruins was incredibly quiet with almost nothing catering to possible visitors.

Leon Viejo

Leon Viejo. 

Momotombo volcano from the lake shore near Leon Viejo

From Leon we made our way to Potosi, a tiny village at the end of a peninsula in the northwest of the country. Our plan was to take a boat from Potosi across the small Gulf of Fonseca to reach El Salvador. We needed to do this route because I was rapidly running out of space in my passport for anything but the bare minimum of stamps to finish our trip and this was the only way to avoid entering Honduras without flying. Unfortunately, after checking into our little guesthouse in Potosi, mom discovered that her bag had been rifled through on the bus and her valuables had been stolen, including her passport. They warn you about this kind of thing and it sucks, but the worst part of it is that the process of replacing a passport ends up more costly (in money but especially time) than what was actually taken in the first place. Let's just say that I was not happy and the whole ordeal put us about 10 days behind schedule before we got back to Potosi and on track again. So close to the end, and having just bought our flight home based on a different schedule and itinerary, there was plenty of frantic planning on my part to come up with something new. In the meantime we had to backtrack to the Canadian embassy in Managua and after applying for a new passport, returned to Granada again to sit and wait a week for it to arrive.
We had to spend a little time in Managua so got a chance to see it as well. There is not much in Managua that is very exciting to be honest. There was a ton of heavy security lining the streets while we were there though I got the impression it was for a political event and not the usual amount. The only really potentially touristic area is along the lakefront but it was closed for security reasons. The most interesting attraction ended up being a partial viewing of the old cathedral which was abandoned after an earthquake damaged it in 1972.

The abandoned Managua cathedral

Central Managua. These giant "trees" light up at night.