Guatemala, ElSalvador, Honduras and Nicaragua - four countries in four days. Well almost. Neither is particularly big and it probably takes me longer to clear the border than to drive across each country. Honduras can be done in two hours. However I decide to spend at least one night in each.
Guatemala - makes me nervous. The info on the FCO (thats the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office) website suggests that it requires care and gives various recommendations - none of which apply or particularly relate to bike travel. There is a really nice route across the top of Lake Atitlan. This would take in all the major tourist spots, but would also take in the FCO hotspots. My plan - get on the CA2 and head straight for ElSalvador, therefore removing any doubt. Having said all of that, when Im actually there it feels great and certainly not threatening. Cant understand what all of the fuss is about - I think the FCO are overly cautious. The CA2 is not the best road in the world - parts require concentration to avoid the potholes. But it is relatively quiet and parts are really scenic - including a whole bunch of volcanoes. I break the journey with an overnight in Mazatenango - the hotel is first rate.
ElSalvador - superb. Its a real joy to ride through ElSalvador. The roads are great - no potholes here. They're also quiet - lots of people walking, bicycles, horses and more motorcycles than I've seen up until now. They also put a lot of effort into keeping the verges, trees etc cut and tidy. This includes grazing your horse, cow, goat whatever to maximise land use - great idea. Everyone in ElSalvador seems to give me a big smile and seem really pleased to see me - strange!!
Honduras is short lived - its only 100miles across. But I book into a hotel to say I've stayed there - even though its only 2o´clock in the afternoon (yes I do stay the night).
Nicaragua - OK, but a degree of poverty is noticable here. The roads are very quiet, there are loads of people walking / cycling and a far greater number of horse and carts than before. People on horses add a new dimension to in-town traffic jams. As well as bikes there are horses filtering through the stationary traffic - I thought it was pretty neat. And of course kids begging (at least I think they're begging - they keep using the word dollare) at every stop - its hard to get privacy here. The staring was also more intense in Nicaragua (I'd thought I'd got used to it). People just cant hide their surprise / bewilderment. The KLR generates a lot of interest here, either on its own or with me on it. I'm also very aware that I stick out like a sore thumb.
Border crossings deserve a special mention. My exit from Mexico was none too slick. I had to backtrack about 20miles to find the correct brach of Banjercito to terminate my bike permit. Turned out to be little more than a shed at the side of the road. Failing to terminate the bike permit means they can withdraw the import tax from your credit card - so worth the hassle of doing properly. Entry into Guatemala was none to slick either. I was determined to ignore all of the fixers who swarm around and do things myself. But in reality it was a fixer (a young mexican kid and his mate) who steered me through the process. But I learnt from this - next time I will use a fixer, sit back and let him do the work, therby relieving myself of the grief - hopefully. And so it was at ElSalvador - my fixer sweated for the best part of three hours while I sat and waited. Not true - I sweated also, ending up with a t-shirt two shades darker. Same story for Honduras and Nicaragua. I dont find the border crossings particularly pleasing - but all part of the experience. Certainly one per day is plenty.
I must also confess to struggling slightly with money - or rather the relative value of money. I gave my ElSalvador fixer $10US - it was my smallest bill I had but seemed reasonable. However, later that afternoon I got my hair cut for 75cents (yes - about 40pence). Either the haircut was really cheap or my fixer must have thought that all of his Christmas´s had come at once. Actually I didnt grudge the $10 - the guy was honest and didnt rip me off. Three Brazilian guys had been charged $20 each for express clearance - they were still there when I left. I settled on $5 for my fixers after that - most grumbled disapproval but accepted it none the less. Also on the subject of money - each border crossing involves changing cash with a shady money changer. There is nothing official or alternative available. Its OK, but handing over cash and trying to haggle in the middle of the street with loads of 'hanger ons' gawking is not ideal.
Security - noticable in Guatemala, but more so in ElSalvador. A noticable police presence (they only stopped me once) and security guards everywhere - even Domino´s Pizza employ a doorman with a gun. Banks have several. Pump action shotguns seem to be the weapon of choice. My first ElSalvador hotel in Sonsonate was slightly disappointing - the security guy only has a machette - or maybe he doubled as the gardener. The next night I got it right - full security with a shotgun. I cant decide if all of this "in your face" security means things are safe or unsafe - I think its maybe carried over from a previous more unsettled time. Certainly the feeling for me is safe. Honduras and Nicaragua seem less security concious - maybe they just cant afford it.
And so it happened - Central America in a blur. Not on purpose, its just the way it works out. My next destination is Costa Rica - I have high expectations.Posted by Graham Shee at September 27, 2008 01:07 AM GMT
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