Serendipity in El Salvador, and ruminating on ruins number eight in Honduras…

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Now we’d decided to go home for Christmas we had some decisions to make – we were flying back out of Cancun in Mexico, so how were we going to get there, and what would we do on the way?

We’d been a wee bit wary of going into El Salvador and Honduras – they both come with something of a reputation and many people seem to regard travel to these countries as somewhere between intrepid and irresponsible. However we’d done a bit of research and it looked like we could do a whistle-stop tour of the two countries and visit some of the safest, most scenic parts of each. Also wouldn’t it be a waste to come all this way and not at least have a look over the border?

So we booked a shuttle bus to El Zonte in El Salvador. Shuttle buses seem like such a good idea – you get picked up from your hotel or hostel and transported to your chosen accommodation in the next destination. However, in practice they’re not without their drawbacks. The problems start when you are given a large window of time during which you might get picked up – as these buses usually set off rather early in the morning it means that you have to be up ready for, say 6 am, when you will probably not be picked up until 6.30. Chances are you will still be the first people on the bus, and you will then go on a sunrise circuit of the city picking other travellers up. There’s then every possibility that some of these people won’t be quite ready, which may involve an extra trip round town or a frustrating wait, muttering about how you could have had an extra hour in bed. Often it then transpires that someone’s still been forgotten and you have to do a third  tour of the town, listening to guests who got on half an hour ago saying “Oh, there’s my hotel again”. Just at the point when you think progress is imminent, the bus will stop again and pick up more people, and extra seats will be folded down to accommodate them. On two occasions we then still stopped to pick up more people, despite there being no seats left for them to sit on. The first time this happened Kiah had to sit on Rach’s knee to let a lovely lady called Val sit down – she was from California and taught Kiah the subtleties of sudoko. The second time they squeezed a Guatemalan family of six onto two seats – they’d evidently paid for two seats and weren’t complaining but it led to an awkward journey for the Europeans who had a seat each, until Rach asked the driver to rearrange the luggage so that Pete could sit in the front and create some more room in the back. However Bon Voyage Guatemala, of Antigua, should be ashamed of selling tickets for a luxury bus and filling it like a chicken bus.

However we got through the border with very little difficulty and drove into El Salvador. At first glance there wasn’t much difference – almost everyone was carrying a machete but this seems to be a Central American thing – males seem to be born with one in their hand, and it’s a wonder there’s any vegetation left. However all the little shops, or tiendas, now had bars across the windows and served people through a grille – it was a bit like being back in Moss Side, Manchester, and made us wonder if there was more to be concerned about here. There was also one peculiar moment when the driver asked Pete to close his window and drove through an unofficial roadblock where some people were waving papers and clipboards at us – he said they were after money and we’re still not sure if they were merely collecting for charity or if it was something more sinister. However he certainly wasn’t stopping to find out and we soon reached the coast; we then drove the last part of the journey with the turquoise of the ocean and the black volcanic sand of the beach on one side, and the green of the tree-clad hills on the other, and we started to relax. We then reached El Zonte and found out how relaxed El Salvador can be – this is a surfer’s hangout and has a few laid-back hostels, a couple of tiendas, and not much else, all strung out along a beautiful bay, with the crashing surf providing a constant white noise soundtrack to go with the black sand.

We checked in, then checked out the beach, where Tilly took a very evocative photo of her feet.

Dipping our toes into El Salvador...

Dipping our toes into El Salvador…

However, the beach then quickly disappeared as the tide came in and we were forced to visit a bar. The girls went for a dip in the little bubble pool and Rach decided to join them – however she saw a step that wasn’t there and ended up fully immersed – luckily she was in her swimsuit, and even more luckily Pete wasn’t filming it! We then watched a glorious sunset and started to feel quite pleased that we’d ventured out this way.

El Zonte sunset, El Salvador

El Zonte sunset, El Salvador

P1020267On the way back to our hostel we then had the first in a series of fortunate incidents. We met a Canadian woman and her young daughter, Isla, and after chatting for a couple of minutes we were invited to Isla’s fifth birthday party the next day.

We then ate at the hostel whilst the girls played out with some of the local kids. One of the best things we’ve found whilst travelling is the way our children have become able to make friends so easily, whether they’re travellers or locals, adults or children. At one point Pete went to the local tienda to find Tilly serving behind the counter! Next minute she was doing cartwheels and handstands in the street.

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The next day we decided to visit the nearby town of El Tunco. We had an awkward wait for the local bus, as a local character talked drunkenly at us for half an hour. He wasn’t one to let a seemingly insurmountable language barrier get in the way, and asked question after question, whilst constantly giving the appearance of being about to fall over.
Seldom have we been so glad to see a bus, and when we climbed on board we found that they have a different way of decorating chicken buses round here – it had been stickered by some surfers and was definitely the hippest bus we’d been on so far.

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One of the reasons we’d come to El Tunco was because a family who’d contacted us on Facebook were staying there. We’d been unable to get in touch with them but thought there was a fair chance we’d find them on the beach. Sure enough, we went up to the first blond-haired kids we saw and asked their dad “Are you Clark?” – he seemed quite surprised but was indeed Clark, and we met the rest of the family, Monica, Jackson and Emery. We then had a great time playing on the beach, hiring boogie-boards and building black sandcastles, and the girls loved having some new friends to play with. We then just had time for a quick lunch and a swim before we had to say our goodbyes – we had a party to get to. Usually when you’re travelling you have all the time in the world – in the space of two days we’d met two families and now had to wave goodbye to one family to go to a party with the other!

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We got back to El Zonte just in time for the festivities and were made to feel very welcome by the Canadian family; they stayed here every year at this time and loved the place, and laid on a great party, with cake, games and a pinata full of sweets. Needless to say the girls thought this was great fun and had a smashing time with the pinata. I don’t think any of us had expected to be playing pass-the-parcel in El Salvador, with the backdrop of another fabulous sunset silhouetting the surfers riding the waves, but these are the moments that make travelling such an adventure – you never know what’s around the next corner or over the next horizon.
Unfortunately the bus to Honduras only runs twice a week so we had to leave the next day but we’d had lots of fun during our short stay in El Salvador; the country obviously has its problems but in this area at least, tourism is providing some income and employment and we’d found it friendly and welcoming.

The shuttle bus the next day was our earliest start yet – they said it could be anytime from 5am so we got up and got ready and left the girls sleeping until the last minute. Since the bus didn’t arrive until 5.30 we were glad we had, though we did get to see the first rays of sunlight over the Pacific, and could just make out the first obsessive surfers heading out into the constantly churning ocean.

It was then time to wave goodbye to El Zonte as we set off on a convoluted journey to Copan Ruinas in Honduras, going via Guatemala for a three-countries-in-one-day bonus, with lots of border crossings providing ample opportunity for delay. First we drove up past the capital, San Salvador and were quite surprised by how developed it all looked, with shopping malls and retail parks, and multi-national logos everywhere. El Salvador uses the US Dollar as its currency and the American influence was clear in this part of the country, and it was quite a contrast to the little shops we’d been used to, with all the goods secured behind bars.

We then got to the border with Guatemala and, sure enough, hit a snag. We left El Salvador without any problems (in fact, El Salvador was probably the easiest country to get in and out of) but were then stopped from entering Guatemala. It seems that the shuttle company were using a new minibus and they didn’t have the requisite paperwork for it, and we had a slightly anxious wait in no-man’s-land between the borders until they got it sorted. Happily, after about an hour, we were on our way again, driving through a seemingly forgotten bit of Guatemala to the border with Honduras. Out of the bus for more passport checks, back out of Guatemala, and then into Honduras, and the fifth country of our trip, and third of the day. We were feeling quite tired by this time but the small town of Copan Ruinas was only another half an hour’s drive and we were dropped off at a cafe in time for lunch. Despite the mix up at the border and the ridiculously early start this had been one of the better shuttle bus journeys, particularly since there was only us and a Frenchman called Eric, so we’d travelled in relative comfort.

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After a quick lunch we booked into a hostel and found we still had time to visit some hot springs that afternoon – after a long journey that sounded ideal, though it did involve another hour’s drive, bumping along a rutted track up into the hills. When we arrived though it was all worth it, with a series of pools built into the hillside, with temperatures ranging from chillingly cold to barely bearably hot. The springs themselves provide steaming hot water close to boiling, but this is then mixed with cold water in the various pools to provide different temperatures. There’s a chain of pools that start off quite cool and then you climb up something of a thermal ladder until you reach the hottest pool at the top – that’s if you can stand the heat, as after a few seconds in this pool you start to feel as if your skin is slowly being boiled off. There’s also mock Mayan statues, cascades and a barefoot trail, and all around is lush green jungle – all in all it was a pleasant introduction to Honduras.

The town of Copan Ruinas was also something of a pleasant surprise, small enough to wander around but with plenty of cafes and shops. Our next trip was to Macaw Mountain, which was quite expensive but also quite inspirational. It was set up as a rescue and rehabilitation centre for tropical birds, and their main aim is to add to the population of wild scarlet macaws at the nearby ruins. It also grows its own coffee and as you walk around there are lots of coffee bushes in amongst the old growth jungle. You also get to see lots of the birds up close – in Kiah’s case, very close indeed!

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As well as the macaws there are also various parrots and toucans and there’s some more photos of these in the accompanying post.

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The next day we visited the ruins themselves, and got to see the wild macaws. Several birds had been successfully introduced into the existing population, swelling their number to over twenty, and it was amazing to see (and hear) them in the trees surrounding the ruins. There were also lots of other birdsP1020357 and a very cute agouti, which is like a large guinea pig – apparently the ancient Mayans found them delicious! We’d seen some great things even before we got to the actual ruins, but these were also well worth a visit. They aren’t as large, tall or extensive as some of the other ruins we’ve seen but there’s a quiet calm about the place and some very impressive carvings. These are what sets it apart from other ruins and the hieroglyphic staircase must have been truly astounding in its day. This is a set of 62 steps climbing up a pyramid, with hieroglyphs carved on every stone step, and at 10m wide and 21m long it’s the largest Mayan text ever found. Now it has a tarpaulin shelter over it, but unbelievably people were still walking on it until the 1980s! There’s lots of other pyramids too, and in one they’ve found several earlier structures inside – new rulers would build their own temples over existing ones and in the imaginatively named Temple 16 there’s an intact earlier temple, preserved with it’s bright red colouring. You can also climb up and over many of the pyramids as they’ve built meandering paths and steps.

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From the top of one you look down over the hieorglyphic staircase and the ball court – a guide said this was the best view of the whole site and that he was selling pictures of it for 2 Lempira (the Honduran currency, 1L being worth about 3p) – he then brought out a 1 Lempira note, and sure enough, there was the picture!

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The next day we visited the Children’s Museum, which was the only museum aimed at kids we’d seen in Central America and was a fun way to learn more about the Mayans. After lunch at a trendy cafe the girls got to make their own necklaces with a Brazilian guy who ran a street stall outside.

We’d only had a few days in Honduras but had crammed a lot of things in, and in just a week we’d managed to get a brief taste of two countries that we’d been a bit apprehensive about visiting, but as we headed back to Guatemala the next day we were feeling very glad we had…

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