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.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home