Surviving El Salvador

El Salvador is not a big place. It might be dangerous, as in one of the most dangerous non-conflict countries in the world, but it is fairly localised at that, stretching only a couple of hundred kilometers down the Pacific coast. So I decided to play the numbers game over a couple of days and hopefully not be part of the 116 in 100 000 murder victims – but it must be said these world beating murder numbers are nucleated around the drug gang underworld. So as long as I don’t try sell tik in down San Salvador at night my chances of coming up short are similar to the normal traffic related risks.

But first, border crossing time. I love these. I cannot get enough of them. There is the legitimate sense of achievement, the passport waving, the personal attention received, the forced break from cycling, the new beginning. And then there’s the food. OK, it’s actually 95% about the food.

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Getting my bearings. Keep the sea to my right and next stop is Nicaragua. Simple.

Regardless of the size and importance of a border crossing, there will always be an increased number of food offerings on both sides. On the departure side one is further prompted by getting rid of your last currency and by sampling, just one last time, your local favourite. On the other side curiosity lies and wait, always playing to my weak spots and getting the better of me. What is the food like here, what’s new, what does it cost? And the sooner the learning curve starts the better. Because borders are surprisingly obstructive to ideas, especially food ideas. An obscure, random line on a map delineates where you’ll find a taco stand or not, what the tortilla looks like, whether coconut juice with milk and cinnamon or pineapple juice is readily available, how the chicken is cooked, over charcoal or fried, what the staples are… the list is endless, and despite having just gorged myself full, I’ll dive right back into the fold on the other side.

What made the El Salvador border entry even more auspicious was the curiosity  that you don’t get an entry stamp, and by extension of logic no visa or limits to your length of stay. I went back to double check. Seems the influx of immigrants into El Salvador is not high on the list of national priorities. Clearly I was swimming against the current.

First impressions were that it’s busy and crowded (found out later they have the highest population density in Central America by some margin), and something that even my otherwise unperceptive eye cought was how different the people looked. In Guatemala the people looked distinctly indigenous, especially in the rural areas. They were short and stocky with round faces and full and broad facial features. Dark complexions and jet black straight hair were obviously part of the package. But as soon as I crossed the border the gene pool had obviously been muddled quite a bit by the notorious conquistadors and the following centuries of western cohabitation. Apparently the native population in El Salvador was especially decimated in colonial times, further enhancing the effect of foreign genetic ingress. OK, the people weren’t exactly blond and blue eyed, but their features were much sharper, long straight and elegant noses, thinner lips, more defined cheekbone structures. Most notable was that people, especially the woman, were often taller and more slender. And every now and then you’d meet someone with blue or green eyes, although the complexion of the people weren’t lighter in general. But enough of that, back to what these people ate. Fried chicken appeared plentiful but dollar prices made things seem fairly expensive. But that could be more Zuma’s fault than local economics.

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Cattle farming dominated the flat coastal lowlands
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And things had a distinct rural feel

Initial impressions dealt with I had one goal in mind: gun it south on the Pan American and get through as quickly as possible. Focus Joubert, focus.

The riding was pretty flat and the kilometers came easily along a wide and safe shoulder. The number of locals on bikes was also very noticeable and reassuring. I easily covered the 80km to my Warm Shower host, an older French couple living in Canada but escaping the brutal winter on the picturesque El Salvadoran coast. They had a pretty awesome beachfront property in a sleepy village that was on the opposite end of the expectation spectrum, right next to paradise. Thanks to a huge catch recently I was treated to delicious fish taco’s that night. Surviving day one was an absolute triumph.

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The beachfront my French hosts shared with a handful of other locals
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Kilometers of beachfront line the road
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Camping with a view and sea breeze to match
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The local surf spot less than 50m from the deck where I camped

After breakfast crapes I dashed of to make further ground south. Apart from brief stops to support streetfood vendors it was more easy riding. At about 4pm I was lured off the road by the sign of a cheese and dairy factory shop. The English speaking owner took a bit of a liking in me and offered me the space behind their main roadside store as camping ground for the night. As this came with a nightguard it was an easy decision to make. The space ended up being perfect and as I turned off my headlight I realized I was far from alone in the field as hundreds of fireflies made their presence known. It was quite magical.

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These ladies looked after me at the cheese shop
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Camping behind the shop. Where the fireflies congregate at night

The next day was more of the same, basically meaning pretty easy and straightforward touring. No mess no fuss. At the zenith of organisational ability I’d lined up yet another Warm Shower host for that night, eliminating the typical afternoon stress when it comes to looking for a camp spot. Manuel was a legend in the WS community having hosted hundreds of tourers. He himself rode from Canada to his home in El Salvador when he finished up working on the Canadian east coast years ago. Now he’s building up a vibrant business empire of local tiendas (village shops).

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Roadside snack. Tortillas filled with refried beans.
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Being Central America volcanoes still shower up frequently on the skyline

He invited me to take a day off and accompany him as he goes about supplying his stores from the main market in San Miguel. At this stages, basically being a day’s ride from leaving El Salvador, I was beginning to feel slightly guilty for my general indifference about seeing bits of the country not lining the highway. So I happily accepted to explore a little bit more, from the safe and more importantly, inside of a diesel propelled delivery truck.

What followed was an interesting day driving about collecting and delivering all sorts of products. The main market in San Miguel proved to me that El Salvador is just another Central American country made up of individuals trying to get on with getting on, harboring no ill intentions to their fellow man. But of course this revelation doesn’t sell news content so the stereotypes will remain. Not that the gang and drug wars help.

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Downtown San Miguel. No chalk outlined bodies here

Julian from Antigua had mentioned that you can boat accross from El Salvador straight to Nicaragua, basically avoiding 2 nondescript days of riding in Honduras. That sounded like a fun interlude and a nice way to get straight into the back roads in Nicaragua. And that is the backstory of how I got dropped of on an empty beach in norther Nicaragua as part of what I suspect to have been the only legal cargo on board. Nothing wrong with that!

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I watched at least 5 such boats filled with shrip being offloaded to great commotion and excitement
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From a boatload to a bakkieload of shrimp
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My bike hidden under cargo as we crossed to Nicaragua
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Welcome to Nicaragua. My most stealthy border crossing ever.
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