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John and Mandi

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The Best Kind of Prize is a Surprise, El Salvador

Jan 30, 2017
by John

Managing our expectations, or lack of expectations, is still challenging at times. When we were charting our course for El Salvador we assumed we'd only spend 7-10 days tromping around the entire country. Losing sight is easy when we focus entirely on only the things we'd like to do. Once across the border we soon realized just how wonderful the little country is, not just due to its variety in landscape but also how warm and welcoming the El Salvadorian people are.

It's a lesson we find ourselves repeating, for the better we hope. Our preconceived or pretentious notions are proving to be more deeply ingrained and difficult to shred than we had ever wished. We believe it is an exercise in viewing the world from a child's perspective, unadulterated or propagandized, fresh with hope and wonder...open.

After 32 incredible days we sniffled our goodbye, if we weren't restricted by the CA-4 we would have stayed another 20 days or more. While some choose to skip the smallest country in Central America, we are glad we didn't and are much richer from our experiences there.

What We Did

La Hachadura: Guatemala to El Salvador Border Crossing

When we arrived at the Guatemalan and El Salvadorian border we were expecting a long line of semi trucks, as others have encountered, instead there were only a couple of trucks but several bus loads of people already in queue for customs. We parked, got in line, and braced ourselves for what would be a few hours of waiting around. A minute later a helper arrived, Jorge 503 7295 0413, who promised he could get us stamped out in a couple of minutes. Hesitant, but not wanting to wait behind the hundreds of people in front of us, we said OK and let him work his magic. Several people in line started complaining but Jorge told them we were tourists, as if that gave us some type of priority, as he slipped the customs official Q30 ($4). Two minutes later we were stamped out of Guatemala and heading to the Aduana office to turn in the van's TIP.

On the El Salvadorian side our CA-4 extension stamp was reviewed by an official standing near the road, everything was fine and we didn't receive any sort of document or stamp, then we were told to park next to the Aduana office and that there were no fees for entering. We took that as a hint that we would not need the services of a helper but we really liked Jorge, who spoke perfect English since he lived in the US and Canada for almost 22 years prior to returning home. Hiring him really paid off when he translated the lengthy vehicle import form for El Salvador, helping us fill it out correctly. It was our first time using a border helper and it definitely saved us a couple of hours. He charged us $10 per side, $20 in total, an amount we were glad to pay to save ourselves from standing around in the heat and struggling with Google Translate to decipher a form... silly Americanos.

El Zonte, La Libertad

Instead of stopping in the mountains we high tailed it to D'Takitos Horizonte at Playa El Zonte since we knew Natasha & Pete and Mark & Sas were already there along with a cool Swiss couple, Dom & Kaja. The following day Matty & Ingrid arrived, thereby solidifying the makings of what became an epic New Year's overlander party. We failed to capture any images of the event but plenty of incriminating evidence is available on Facebook, let's just say that Mark & Sas' dress up box is an ingenious idea. Expecting to leave after 5 nights, we eventually headed off into the mountains after 9. The low tide cave hike with Matty & Ingrid was a lot of fun and sunset cocktails became a theme throughout all of El Salvador. At $10 per night, D'Takitos is a steal complete with three bathrooms, two showers, a kitchen, two pools (one on the upstairs deck overlooking the ocean), assorted wildlife, and an onsite restaurant with bar. We couldn't have dreamed of a better place or group of people to ring in the New Year. An added bonus was finally getting to meet Sunny & Karin (Vagabroads) who arrived a couple days before we left.

Playa El Zonte, La Libertad, El Salvador

Meh

Playa El Zonte, La Libertad, El Salvador

Gringos and their thingos

Playa El Zonte, La Libertad, El Salvador

Say Polly wants a cracker one more time and it'll be your finger I'm chomping on

Playa El Zonte, La Libertad, El Salvador

They will break upon this fortress like water on rock

Playa El Zonte, La Libertad, El Salvador

Batman's vacation home

Parque Nacional El Imposible, Ahuachapan

A place that wasn't on our list initially but one we visited after talking with Pete & Natasha. We are a sucker for mountains and had been in need of a proper hike. The cooler temps were a welcomed reprieve after being on the coast but the Cerro de Leon hike was almost too much since we hadn't been on a real trail in over 6 months. We huffed and puffed up the switchbacks along with some other travelers for the beautiful vistas. In total our one night spent on the mountain and hike cost $19, $12 to enter ($6 each), $2 to park overnight, and $5 for our guide including tip. We were told that a guide was $10 so everyone wanting to hike chipped in for one to get our individual costs down.

Parque Nacional El Imposible, Ahuachapan, El Salvador

The earth's brain, magnified 0%

Parque Nacional El Imposible, Ahuachapan, El Salvador

But can you eat it?

Parque Nacional El Imposible, Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Proving our Wii fitness age is acurate at 85

Termales de Alicante, Ahuachapan

At $5 each to enter and another $5 each to camp, $20 total, we thought visiting the hot pools might not be worth it. Coming from our hike it was a great decision and we thoroughly enjoyed relaxing our aching legs in the pools. There were varying temperatures but we were happy to find a couple that were decently hot, one being the size of a swimming pool. We had read that the place was visited by loud teens on Saturday nights so we chanced a Friday and soon found it too to be frequented by the fence jumpers until dawn. While we didn't get much sleep, we still loved the place and told friends of ours to just visit it during the week...which was much more serene for them.

Termales de Alicante, Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Screw Calgon

Termales de Alicante, Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Eat your heart out Romans

Entre Nubes, Ahuachapan

Being suckers for the word nubes, we're not sure why, while driving the Ruta de las Flores we stopped for some coffee and instantly fell in love. We've jokingly referred to Entre Nubes as the Rainforest Cafe but real and not made of plastic. The open air setting was phenomenal and the Cacao Latte was absolutely and unequivocally divine. After breakfast we were invited to wander the grounds, which were spectacular, spending an hour amongst the flowers and wildlife.

Entre Nubes, Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Pay attention Disney, Illumineers our asses

Entre Nubes, Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Ha, I think we'll quintuple that distance

Juayua, Sonsonate

One of the towns we wanted to check out and where Mark & Sas just happened to be. We reached out to them to make sure there was room for us in the Hotel Vision Inn caretaker's yard, squeezing in when we arrived next to a really cool Nissan after making an 80 point turn. We caught up with Mark & Sas regarding our time apart, then they took us into town for a tour and some food. Unknown to us, the week long Cristo Negro Festival had just started, meaning tons and tons of street food vendors were set up...yum. Later that night we all went out for a wonderful dinner just before the wind storm that swept over all of El Salvador started. We hunkered down over the next couple of days, making it into town for the random meal.

The storm was so strong it blew part of the caretaker's porch roof off, landing less than an inch from our van. Everyone vacated their rigs and started getting to work moving the debris and dismantling another section of roof that was soon to collapse. Mark seemed especially giddy in this endeavor, we think he might need a hobby ; ) Due to the storm, and being suck asses, we failed to take any decent photos; instead, we stuffed our faces with lots of food. At $10 per night the Vision Inn lot is a good deal considering there is a bathroom with shower and it is in an ideal location.

Juayua, Sonsonate, El Salvador

Reach out and touch faith

Juayua, Sonsonate, El Salvador

Yup, we did manage a photo of an epic Land Cruiser

Joya de Ceren, La Libertad

Known as the Pompeii of Central America, Joya de Ceren is a small set of ruins that was completely preserved after being covered by ash. There are no human remains, so it is thought that there was plenty of warning for all of the inhabitants to escape safely before the site was buried. It was a great little stop on our route to Lake Coatepeque with a really cool little museum. We love ruins so our visit here was to be expected and it only cost $7.

Joya de Ceren, La Libertad, El Salvador

It's bigger in person

Joya de Ceren, La Libertad, El Salvador

I wonder if they open like the Starship Enterprise

Joya de Ceren, La Libertad, El Salvador

Are you sure this isn't Tatooine?

Joya de Ceren, La Libertad, El Salvador

Well, it sure does look like winter

Joya de Ceren, La Libertad, El Salvador

Curious George's great great great grandpa, Curious Jorge

Joya de Ceren, La Libertad, El Salvador

Sticks and stones...

Lake Coatepeque, Santa Ana

Our plan was to camp at Hotel Torremolinos listed in iOverlander on lake Coatepeque after visiting Joya de Ceren. We were underwhelmed by the parking lot and failed to get any service from the onsite restaurant even after speaking with them about ordering lunch. The lake itself is very developed so we enjoyed driving the rim more anyway, so we decided to finish driving around it and head to Cerro Verde. Being spoiled by our time at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, we are probably unnecessarily hard on Coatepeque. At the least it is worth a drive around the rim, just don't stop at any desolate miradors as they have a history of armed robbers hiding in the bushes for unsuspecting visitors.

Lake Coatepeque, Santa Ana, El Salvador

Robber-a-dor

Lake Coatepeque, Santa Ana, El Salvador

Of course there's room for another dock

Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, Santa Ana

We were wanting to get in another hike so Cerro Verde seemed like the obvious choice, except for that 'must go with an armed guard to avoid being robbed' thing. Arriving in the afternoon had us wandering around Casa de Cristal, $6 per night, checking out the views since the organized hikes are scheduled for 11am each day. An El Salvadorian family was interested in our van so we gave them a tour and spent a couple hours talking about our and their travels. They gave us such a warm welcome, and some "gringo food", we can never thank them enough. We wish them nothing but happiness and success.

The following morning we asked some local campers about the hike and they told us to leave our van at Casa de Cristal and hike up the road to meet the tourist police at the entrance to Santa Ana. We couldn't figure out which trail to take so we decided to drive up the road a bit to scout out where the hike started from and ended up leaving without ever sorting it out. I was feeling a bit congested anyway, oh well.

Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador

The cold weather makes her skin a bit ashy

Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador

We wish it was a zip line

Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador

Definitely a field of dreams

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad

Our plan had always been to catch up to Matty & Ingrid on the coast before we left El Salvador for Honduras. Being hardcore surfers, their plan is to stick to the Pacific coast for most of their trip, meaning we probably won't see them again until Nicaragua or Costa Rica. A couple of texts later had us zeroed in on El Tunco, rolling into a packed little parking lot abutting the seawall just steps away from the ocean next to a vacant open air restaurant. It was a fun crowd that partially dispersed the next day, enabling us to reposition opposite to Matty & Ingrid, overlapping our awnings, creating what has been aptly named Fordlandia. The days that ensued are encapsulated in our minds, more akin to a time lapse, as we became the constant while those around us kept changing.

Many overlanders, both south and northbound, rotated through during our two week stay. The revolving door included Mark & Sas, Sunny & Karin, and Pete & Natasha who stopped by one evening as a reprieve from dealing with transmission related trouble. New friendships were forged with Doro & Felix (DoroFelix), Martin & Flor (AmericanJoya), Kai & Steffi (Canada2Chile) and Yuri & Casey (who need a new engine and can use a little help), all of whom are forever welcome wherever we are. Our time at El Tunco is hard to describe, deeply ingrained with friends.

In all honesty, Mandi and I have never been huge fans of the Pacific, hailing from Florida not far from the Gulf of Mexico should explain why. We prefer smooth clear warm water over the turbulent cold thrashings found on the west coast. Our minds are starting to change a little, the warmer waters of El Salvador and the antics of friends had us swimming and then boogie boarding. Before we left El Tunco we had a boogie board of our own, initially two thanks to our friends Sunny & Karin who picked them up for us but we gave one to the property caretaker's oldest son so he can go out into the waves with his younger brother who is trying to learn how to surf. We don't mention this to receive applause, rather to express how wonderful a location, a family, our friends, big family style dinners, the love and support, and the place known as El Tunco are and how they touched us so. It couldn't have been more perfect. We never could have imagined the love we would have for a $6 per night dusty little lot on the Pacific Ocean and the shy family of 10 that resides there taking care of it as best they can. Sadly it may be closing to overlanders soon if a new lease becomes final, until then...love it so.

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

That'll do pig, that'll do

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

Tight as ticks

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

Hmmm, wet yoga might be the next big thing

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

Nailed it!

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

Rock hopping gringos, now touring in a city near you

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

By appointment only

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

Nailed it again!

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

Fordlandia, too cool to discriminate

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

For a vegan he sure is a ham (Kai poops at parties?)

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

Proof she gets in the ocean (photo: Ingrid Liot)

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

The visible effects of beer

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

World Surf Champ - 2030

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...spiderman?

Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador

It's tree neuterin' time

Laguna de Alegria, Usulutan

Having lingered at El Tunco longer then expected, we cancelled our plans for El Cuco and set our sights on Laguna de Alegria as our last stop before leaving El Salvador. Matty & Ingrid had to return to San Salvador to finish their CA-4 visa extensions so we went our separate ways with plans to meet at the sulfuric lake. Two nights, $3 per night, were spent doing almost exactly what we had been doing at the beach - almost nothing. It was great to be back in the mountains and next to a lake, reminiscent of where we all first met. Sadly, we parted with a farewell as they headed back to the coast and us towards the border...until we meet up again somewhere down the line ; )

Laguna de la Alegria, Usulutan, El Salvador

Nope, we didn't get a drone. We had to hike up here to get the shot.

Laguna de la Alegria, Usulutan, El Salvador

I'm not sure we can use it as toilet chem

Laguna de la Alegria, Usulutan, El Salvador

Two hot bitches...and you wives look great too

Honorable Mentions

While we don't list every place and thing we do there are some that stick in our minds. Weeks later we catch ourselves mentioning them to others or just savoring the memory of the exquisite cuisine we consumed. Here are a few standouts.

Highway RN15S, Ahuachapan

A fantastic scenic drive from CA2 to Ruta de las Flores. The road was in great shape, fairly new, and the mountain views were the best we experienced in all of El Salvador. While the Ruta de las Flores has a beauty of its own, Highway RN15S was our favorite.

R&R, Juayua

Listed as the best restaurant in town, also highly recommended by an expat we met while eating lunch at a street vendor. The steak was good but the pollo loroca was delicious. We visited R&R twice, roughly $24.

Mr Falafel, El Tunco

The only things on the menu are hummus and falafel, both are excellent. We ended up eating there 3 times and loved it every time. Service is slow as each table's order is filled before the next table's order is taken but it is worth it and there are only three tables. The hummus is $5 and the falafel is $4, one of each plus tip is $10 and makes a great lunch for two.

Tunco Veloz, El Tunco

Thin crust pizza that is really good. We only ate there once but ordered two pizzas, having lunch a couple times from the leftovers. The Tunca was our favorite, $13, and the PPP was also delicious.

Coyote, El Tunco

What became our go to spot for breakfast and cappuccinos, yes we know we have a problem. Mandi's favorite was the omelette supreme and mine the pastrami skillet. We can't recall the exact prices but 1 cappuccino each and our favorite dishes were just under $20 including tip.

Entre Pinos, Chalatenango

Our chosen spot to overnight close to the border that surprised us with the best steak of the trip, Lomito for $12. Mandi's Pollo con Crema, $10, was also excellent. We finished our meal by sharing a decadent slice of cheesecake, $4, thinking Joe would have loved a piece. A splurge at just under $30 but more than worth it.


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Say what? (8)
Jan 30, 2017 at 01:52 PM
Excellent recap. Glad you guys got to spend more time with the Pasajcap gang and meet the Vagabroads and others. Sounds like El Salv is definitely worth a stop on the way.
Feb 2, 2017 at 01:03 PM
Thanks Rhonda! It was a lot of fun and El Salvador should not be skipped!!!
Jan 30, 2017 at 06:15 PM
Great post - beautiful photos.
The perfect distillation of time in such a beautiful country with such diverse and amazing locations.
If and when I get round to writing our blog post of this time in that country I may just hyperlink to this post - it says it all and says it all incredibly well.
Feb 2, 2017 at 01:05 PM
Link away Mark! I don't think we're in any danger of having too much web traffic ;)
george
Jan 30, 2017 at 08:32 PM
Outstanding!
Feb 2, 2017 at 01:06 PM
Thanks George, we're glad you are enjoying our blog!
Lee baldwin
Jan 31, 2017 at 08:23 AM
George loves following you.. I think he's living vicariously through you.. Not that I'm not.
Feb 2, 2017 at 01:07 PM
Ha! We love and miss you mom!!!
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