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Bienvenidos a El Salvador! – Crossing the El Poy border, Suchitoto and Santa Ana

Painting of the Vista de Lago hostel and lake Suchitlan

Painting of the Vista al Lago hostel and lake Suchitlan

Whilst Ollie was spending her time bobbing around with the turtles and the trumpet fish on Roatán, I found myself with quite a lot of spare time.  I decided to plan our trip through El Salvador, including the public transport options.  The buses are all numbered chicken buses and seemed to run on a pretty reliable and cheap network.  So we set off to get a bus from Copán in Honduras to Suchitoto in El Salvador.  As the crow flies, this is not a long way.

For just the full photo gallery, click here.

We started our journey on a 7am and after two cold bus rides through the moody Honduran landscape we found ourselves at the El Poy border.  An uninterested Honduran official stamped us out with not so much as a grunt, we changed some money to US$ (as that is the currency of El Salvador since 2000), wandered through an army of stationary trucks (that we later found out were blocking the borders to vehicle traffic in protest at a new tax) and were then met by a small El Salvadoran official who greeted us warmly and welcomed us to his country.  He showed us the way to the immigration office where we were met with another friendly official who took time to find out where we were going and told us to take off our fleeces as it was warm in his country.  Already, we felt welcome in El Salvador.

Bienvenidos a El Salvador

Bienvenidos a El Salvador

Walking through the peaceful border we hopped on a #119 bus which chugged along for around 2.5 hours through the handsome town of La Palma and some other red tiled roofed communities stashed in the north of this hilly little country.  We were soon off this bus and standing by a strange road in Aguilares, with no sign of the bus I knew we needed.  We asked many people, including the child vendor Ollie nearly gutted with her pack dismounting the last bus, where the next one would stop.  They all told us to wait where we were.  The bus didn’t come so after 40 long minutes and after many hopeful cigarettes smoked (the theory being when you light a cigarette, your bus always comes) we followed another local’s advice who directed us through the heaving market.  Packs getting heavier in the heat of the sun and the desire for a cold beer and a solid recline growing by the minute, the goal seemed out of reach. We finally found the #163 sitting there tucked away one block away, after we had of course done a lap of the market.

Iglesia Santa Lucia over Park Centenario

Iglesia Santa Lucia over Park Centenario

Suchitoto, our first overnight stop, was accessed by a pleasant 50 minute bus ride away from the chaos of Aguilares, west-bound through the peaceful countryside framed by the sun-kissed peaks of long extinct volcanos and hills.  Arriving at about 5:30pm we were greeted by a colourful cobbled street colonial hideaway that overlooks a large manmade reservoir, Lake Suchitlán.  We headed for our desired lodgings, Hostel Vista al Lago, which does indeed have a view of the lake.  They were out of rooms, but the mother of the family-run hostel offered us her emergency room (a cupboard with a bed) for the night until a better option became available.  Arrested by the stunning view of the sun setting over the mountains and the lake we happily agreed and tucked into a few bottles of the local brew called ‘Pilsner’ which tastes fine when ice cold and having done a 11 hour bus epic.

Our first view of Lake Suchitlan, El Salvador

Our first view of Lake Suchitlan, El Salvador

This town, combined with the view from our room that we finally got, was the perfect combination for rest and relaxation.  It’s an easy going place, and feels like it is El Salvador’s push for colonial town tourism.  Except, there were not many foreign sightseers around.  A few pasty Americans, who I assumed were on some kind of church/mission trip, were really the only tourists we saw.

Cobbled streets of Suchitoto

Cobbled streets of Suchitoto

Bright colours of Suchitoto

Bright colours of Suchitoto

We took a walk down to the quaint little tourism port of San Juan one morning, where they have a selection of restaurants, full of El Salvadoran families, and spent the rest of our time in the town just admiring the colours and taking in the tranquility the place seemed to ooze.  A solid local market kept us in bananas and avocados and the town had a few excellent options for coffee so, we were set for three days…which turned into four.  We spent one night out with an Aussie couple, Josh and Anna, who we swapped stories with over pupusas and tinnies in the town square, but the remainder of time was spent outside our room overlooking the captivating lake below us.  We were going to visit a nearby waterfall, but it was the dry season, so it was not…erm, falling.

Puerto San Juan

Puerto San Juan

Lake Suchitlan pose

Lake Suchitlan pose

Lanchas for hire on Lake Suchitlan

Lanchas for hire on Lake Suchitlan

Zip line from main land to island

Zip line from main land to island

Pupusas are our favorite new thing.  They are El Salvador’s way to serve beans and cheese, but instead of using the corn to make tortillas, the pack the ingredients inside the corn dough and then grill it, resulting in a cheesy, beany dough pocket, which you cover with chili sauce and pickled veg.  We were dressing them like a pizza and eating them with cutlery until we observed locals eating with fingers and dipping/scooping their way through meals.  At less than $1 a go, they are a fine backpacker snack.

Not the traditional way to dress a Pupusa, but, it looks pretty

Not the traditional way to dress a Pupusa, but, it looks pretty

The Pupusa lady, she was awesome

The Pupusa lady, she was awesome

This town is beautiful and you can really slow down here.   I would go as far as to say my favorite stop so far on our whole trip. For our first experience in El Salvador, we certainly felt spoiled and had high expectations of the rest of the country.

Quiet colonial charm

Our view at Hostel Vista de Lago.  We got a better one the next day!

Our view at Hostel Vista de Lago. We got a better one the next day!

Anti Domestic violence stencils are outside most houses in Suchitoto

Anti Domestic violence stencils are outside most houses in Suchitoto

Santa Lucia at dusk

Santa Lucia at dusk

The day came to leave and we reluctantly jumped on a bus back to Aguilares, to continue the journey cross country to Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second city.  It’s probably about 40km to the west of Suchitoto and I planned a route across country on three local buses to save time.  Let me just say, I was not completely wrong, but one of the buses only goes once a day, so this journey turned into four buses over six hours.  (If you’re planning this trip, just go to San Salvador and back up, faster and cheaper.)

Santa Ana, El Salvador

Santa Ana, El Salvador

Eventually arriving in Santa Ana we were dropped off in the extreme south of the city, with no cabs in sight so started walking in the rough direction we thought we needed to go, until we were stopped by a local in his car advising us about walking a in a certain direction.  He conceded we had to keep walking that way, but make sure we don’t stop.  A busy local market scene confronted us with everything you can think of on sale, with all of the foul smells and soft underfoot feel to boot.

Casa Verde doesn’t have a sign, it’s just a green house, in a road full of different coloured houses.  We walk into this gringo compound and are confronted by a group of middle aged Europeans in their pants eating watermelon and drinking red wine.  It was a confusing moment to say the least and a bit of a contrast from the grubby streets of Santa Ana.  However, the local owner, Carlos apologised for his lack of rooms (no apology needed!) and showed us to our dorm beds, whilst giving us a tour of his bachelor pad that any lad could only dream of.  Along with the (clean) pool he had two incredible kitchens, free coffee for guests that you had to grind yourself, as well as a wine cellar and cheap frosty beer (it was Pilsner, but hey).  I could go on, but just look at the Trip Advisor.

Street of Santa Ana

Street of Santa Ana

We had some drinks with other guests while the older German lady moaned about the Finnish (we think they were Czech) who were using the kitchens at all times in their pants without the decency to have a nice body.  Up on the roof terrace at night, the city is dead.  No sound at all from the second largest city of El Salvador gives a slightly eerie feeling, yet the endless vista of red tiled roofs under the moonlight with the cathedral poking out above all is a pretty special sight.

The next day, we ventured out to explore the town centre, and after quite possibly the cheapest breakfast ever of five pupusas for $1.30 at the side of one of the city squares (the trade-off being however that you must eat with about 30 El Salvadorans gawping at you throughout the entire meal) we checked out the neo-gothic cathedral as well as the sprawling central market that sells quite literally anything you could need.  The city is hot, possibly too hot for us, so we retreated to the hostel to cool down.

Parque Mendez, Santa Ana.  Great spot for Pupusa breakfast

Parque Mendez, Santa Ana. Great spot for Pupusa breakfast

What, no gun? In the government offices? Outrage!!

What, no gun? In the government offices? Outrage!!

Parque Libertad Santa Ana

Parque Libertad Santa Ana

Inside the Alcaldia, Santa Ana

Inside the Alcaldia, Santa Ana

Catedral Santa Ana

Catedral Santa Ana

Since crossing the border we have been amazed by the friendly nature of the El Salvadoran people.  Of course the children stare at you like you have come from Mars some times, but everyone is incredibly friendly and most will greet you when you catch their eyes, in the places we have been anyway.  Stark contrast from Honduras, our experience crossing the border is a perfect example of the two countries attitudes towards tourism.  Despite being classed officially as one of the world’s top five most murderous countries, we have felt nothing but safe so far.  There is an excellent tourist police visible and willing to help, as well as (so we’re told) one of the most effective and corruption free police force in the Americas.  I just hope this great experience keeps up and so far hasn’t been a fluke.  The El Salvadorans we have met want to help us, even when they have told us the wrong information about buses I get the feeling they are not being devious, they just wanted to assist in any way they can.

Thanks for reading.

For the full photo gallery, click here.


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Lake Yojoa and Copán Ruins – A handsome lake with some top beer, the last of the Mayan ruins and some pretty hard travelling.

Yojoa Canal

An early morning ferry ride took us away from Roatán and back to La Ceiba, where we stayed no longer than required and headed for a local bus to a town called La Guama.  We then changed onto a chicken bus bound for Peña Blanca.  It’s a small market town near Lago de Yojoa, our third stop in Honduras.  It was about a 9 hour journey and certainly not the worst so far.

The bus wasn't this bad...

The bus wasn’t this bad…

To skip straight to the full photo gallery, click here

The journey through the country has given us some incredible views of the unspoilt green vistas that Honduras has to offer.  The bus bounced into this bustling market town along to a reggaeton soundtrack and before we knew it we were at the gates of our humble lodgings for three nights, D&D Brewery. It’s going be tough to talk about the views and not the beer on offer here, but I’ll try.

Green hills of Honduras

Green hills of Honduras

Lago de Yojoa is the largest in Honduras with a surface area of 110 miles and an average depth of 50ft.  It is surrounded by steep green mountains and two National Parks. It is also believed to have around 400 species of bird.

Let me talk about D&D first of all.  The brewery has been there since 2003 (I think?) and has a selection of accommodation from dorm to cabin on offer at pretty good prices.  The food is real tasty and the beer is, well, delightful.  No sooner had we checked in, I found myself with a chilled glass of porter sitting round a fire pit amongst the forest the brewery sits in, with various types of hummingbirds fluttering round my head.  It is certainly a nice spot and a great relief from piss-poor lager since setting foot in Tijuana.

You try and take a photo of a humming bird then!

You try and take a photo of a humming bird then!

Beer and Cat...perfect

Beer and Cat…perfect

There is plenty to do in the area and the brewery is set up to help with guides for both trails and nature.  We didn’t use either and made our own way round the area.  The first day took us to the 43m high Pulhapanzak waterfall where we marveled at the sheer size of it and got pretty wet just looking at it.  The park it sits in is evidently popular with Hondurans, with many swimming in the river above the falls (not too close obviously) and picnics taking place in the green areas surrounding it.  Having a walk around the area and the surrounding hills we are impressed at just how picturesque it all is.  The green hills (that seem to surround everything you look at in the country) at times can seem like a view from the Peak District back in the UK.

Pulhapanzak  Jeep

Looking over the top of Pulhapanzak waterfall

Looking over the top of Pulhapanzak waterfall

Pulhapanzak Watefrall 43m high

Pulhapanzak Watefrall 43m high

Further up stream from Pulhapanzak

Further up stream from Pulhapanzak

Even further upstream

Even further upstream

The second day, we felt we should try and work off some of that beer we indulged in the night before and rented a kayak from the brewery and went out onto the lake.  After spending the first half an hour trying to go a direction other than left, we were out of the canal and onto the lake.  As I have said, the lake is surrounded by a mountainous area, mostly extinct volcanos which, given the size of the lake, can seem to go on endlessly into the distance.  The lake is a great spot for bird watching; of the possibly 400 on offer we saw a big black one, a grey/blue one with big legs, one that looked like a heron and quite a few ducks.  As you can see, we would have benefitted from the bird-watching tour.  There was just no one there apart from a bog snorkeler and a couple of row boat taxis.  It is a great place to spend some time with your thoughts and soak up the scenery.

Kayak on Lake Yojoa

Kayak on Lake Yojoa

Lake Yojoa

Lake Yojoa

After perfecting the art of going forward

After perfecting the art of going forward

sStunning views on the lake

Stunning views on the lake

solid kayaking skills

A pretty amazing three hours spent out on the lake was only beaten when our ride back to the brewery turned up and it was a normal sized mini cab, who proceeded to drive us back with the lion’s share of the  kayak precariously balanced out of the boot.  That night we took full advantage of the beers on offer (well, mainly the porter if I’m honest, the super attentive Walter knew what my usual was and kept ‘em coming) and sat round the fire pit educating a Welsh couple we met on the variety of birds that can be seen on the lake.

Excellent kayak transportation...faultless

Excellent kayak transportation…faultless

It was a hard place to leave.

Our next stop, Copán Ruinas, was 78 miles as the crow flies, but due to our pledge to travel by public bus only from now on (mainly because it’s really cheap) and the lack of connecting roads, this journey took 10 hours, two of which were spent eating poor-quality fried chicken in the delightfully strange place that it San Pedro Sula bus station.  However, the journey cost a total of $18 for the both of us and the dancehall soundtrack on the first chicken bus was certainly entertaining, and offset the worry about the hole in the floor of the aisle.  The weather was poor all the way, as Honduras is having a cold and rainy snap at present.  However, we got to see more impressive scenery, from mountain ranges, lush verdant hills, foggy moor-like areas, and generally more shades of green than I knew existed.  At the same time we rolled through some pretty poor areas.  Attached to every post and board you pass is a flyer for the recent presidential election.  All the candidates offer enormous grins and a generic slogan for some kind of change, but how much change will they bring for the people of these areas?  However, everyone we encountered was friendly enough and we only attracted the occasional stares of curious locals, well Ollie did more than me!

Copan Ruinas town panorama

Copan Ruinas town panorama

Copán Ruinas, is a small cobbled street town with a hint of colonial charm, and is pleasant place to spend a day or two.  The reason for stopping by is to visit the Mayan ruins of Copán, whose construction dates back to around 100AD.  It was the southernmost part of the Maya world, one we have dipped in an out of since southern Mexico.

After a delicious baleada (Honduras’ version of tortilla and beans with other stuff, kind of like a kebab burrito I suppose) we walked the 1km out of the town to the archeological site.  The visitor centre is not even a month old after a renovation project with the Spanish, and as such seems completely alien to the rest of the country.  A short walk into the park and we come across the first collection of ruins.  Some people have said that this site doesn’t compare with other such as Palenque or Tikal, but I disagree.  Although Tikal is impressive in its sheer size, Copán has its well preserved hieroglyphs and various intricate rock carvings that have stood the test of time against the elements.  It’s set in a forested area, framed by the impressive hills I have previously spoken of that quite literally cover the west of Honduras.

Copan Ruins

The macaws that welcomes you to Copan

The macaws that welcomes you to Copan

Base of Temple 16

Base of Temple 16

Copan Skulls

Copan Skulls

West court of Copan Ruins

West court of Copan Ruins

We spent three hours hopping around the site, scaling the large steps and admiring the pre-classic Mayan carvings and stele (carved blocks). There is a particularly handsome hieroglyphic stairway of 72 stone step levels made up of 2200 glyph blocks forming the longest known Mayan hieroglyphic text. We pretty much had the site to ourselves which was surprising seeing as it is the real main draw to the Honduran mainland for tourists.  The second most visited site in the country after the Bay Islands!

Temple 11, overlooking the Plaza central, Copan Ruins

Temple 11, overlooking the Plaza central, Copan Ruins

Pretty impressive scenery all around

Pretty impressive scenery all around

Cemetary Group of Copan Ruins

Cemetary Group of Copan Ruins

Temple 22 Copan Ruins

Temple 22 Copan Ruins

Ollies favorite, the cheeky dancing Jaguar carving

Ollies favorite, the cheeky dancing Jaguar carving

At peace...on top of structure 9

Close up of carvings on the stairway

Close up of carvings on the stairway

Don't Mock the Mayans Rich!

Don’t Mock the Mayans Rich!

A great treat were the red macaws that inhabit the site, some of whom are exhibitionists happy to pose for pics, and others positioning themselves above you in the trees for reasons I’m sure you can guess.

Cheeky Macaws

After the a day at the sight we headed back to Copán town for some refreshment at Twisted Tanya’s in the form of 2-4-1 margaritas followed by a return visit to the Balaeada Inn (one block SW of Parque Central, next to ViaVia) for some more amazing cheap eats, and an early night.

Next stop El Salvador. Honduras seems to have flown by.  I will not miss the random men holding shotguns (“oh, he has some kind of logo on his hat, that’s fine then”). Even the bacon delivery van in this country is accompanied by a chap with a pump-action shotgun in his hand. Apparently it’s because they only do transactions in cash so by the end of his round the delivery man has a few thousand dollars on him and would be too much of a target. Hondurans seem to have little faith in law enforcement so take their own precautions. I also won’t miss the wet and sometimes gloomy weather we have had and the need to continuously back track on ourselves to travel through.  Still, a pretty handsome place!

Thanks for reading!

For the full photo album, click here!


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Antigua – Colonial charm, idyllic scenery and some more mezcal…

Arch of Santa Catalina

Arch of Santa Catalina

It’s dark when we arrive in Antigua from Monterrico, and we emerge from the 3 hour bus ride scratching our selves like flea ridden dogs from the sheer volume of mosquito bites we were sporting (I reckon I had over 50!).  After sorting accommodation for a night we venture out to into the busy streets in search of supplies, food and a cold beer; all of which were readily available at each turn here.

For just the snaps, click here!

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Antigua is a brightly-coloured colonial city complete with cobbled streets, which is nestled in a dark green valley.  Volcán Agua stands visible to you at most points in the town as it sits poking through the clouds to the southern point.  The city itself is a UNESCO world heritage site and strict building regulations mean it stays bloody delightful.  The lack of buildings over two stories high affords you a decent view from pretty much any second floor window or terrace.  1773 saw the city crumble to an earthquake and many of the colonial ruins still lie untouched alongside the rest of the surviving buildings.  The architecture and layout is extremely similar to San Cristobel de las Casas in Mexico, to the point where walking up 4 Ave Norte approaching the handsome Parque Central, I had a mild bout of confusion and thought I was back in the high altitude Chiapas town.

La Merced

La Merced

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust - They love this guy

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust – They love this guy

One of the various church ruins of Antigua

Straight posing

So on our first night here we found our way into the brightly lit-central square of Parque Central and admired the impressive architecture and started to soak up the general laid-back vibe the place has.  Seeking refreshment we headed to ‘The Ocelot Bar’ but when we entered we found that the building opened into a twee courtyard and we were surrounded by a few others establishments as well.  After meeting up with an American we had met in Lake Atitlán at the Spanish school we headed for ‘Café No Se’ with its promise of cold beer and mezcal.  The dark and purposely dingy bar has a smaller bar to the side which sells its own brand of mezcal which they have proudly smuggled out of Oaxaca for a few years and officially produce it now under the name ‘Ilegal Mezcal’.  The Brit behind the bar was happy to tell us the story and pointed out the one lonely bottle of tequila that sits on the back bar in case the cops come looking, having to claim that the mezcal is just decoration.  This was also the first place we came face-to-face with Maximón who is the ‘evil saint’ also known as San Simón as he has a shrine in the back where you give him booze and smokes.  Needless to say that we had a good night and the one thing I can remember clearly is speaking with a Dutch guy and learning about/discussing the finer points of Swaffleing’.

Ilegal Mezcal

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

Handsome back bar

We had two full days in the city and we moved to the much coveted (and deservedly so) Yellow House hostel.   One day was to be used to venture up Volcán Pacaya following my defeat by San Pedro and the other was to just for exploring.  The weather was not great so we decided to abandon the volcano trek for a lighter day of further sightseeing.  We spent the whole first day just walking through the cobbled streets, admiring the colourful buildings and complimentary weathered effect that they have succumbed to.

Antiguan Street

Aspirational

More building posing in Antigua

Colonial ruins and churches are everywhere and we decided to pay to visit the peaceful ‘San Jerónimo’ ruins which were once a church and school before the quake.  This was a top little spot and we had it almost to ourselves apart from some locals who get in for next to nothing and were taking advantage of the peace by having a picnic in the scenic gardens.

Central yard of San Jeronimo

Ollie pulling a Mona Lisa face

San Jeronimo Stairs

Some nooks in San Jeronimo

Success!

The pit of San Jeronimo

A visit to the local market was good fun with all kinds of weird and wonderful things on offer including the fruit called ‘Sapote’ that Ollie has been going on about since she left Cuba and she finally found it here.  One happy traveller!

Finally found the Sapote

Finally found the Sapote

The second day was a late starter and feeling refreshed we hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz, which is a lookout point over Antigua and Volcán Agua.  It was a stunning view.

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cru selfie...getting better at them!

Hike up to Cerro De La Cruz

Antigua is a main tourist draw and many people come here and use it as a base to take trips to the rest of the Gringo trail in the country.  I was slightly apprehensive about this place as we had heard lots of reports of crime against tourists on the way down south, but we saw none of that.  The local life going on around the tourist army is a friendly one with the majority of locals giving the obligatory ‘Hola’ as you walk past them in the street.  We are on a short time frame in Guatemala and it was a shame to leave this spot so soon as I could have easily stayed for at least a week.   It is not kind to a backpacker’s wallet however.  But, if you’re ever in the area it would be foolish not to stop by.

Camoflage dog

Chicken Bus to Guate from Antigua

Volcan Agua to the south of the city