After a quick shower, we checked out and were back on the road. We hopped into the first cab we saw and got to the border. We were there by 8 am. The Honduran border was simple to cross. Stamp and go.
The El Salvador border was much more diligent. They had a guard check our passports before we arrived at the office and he just calmly chitchatted about the different places we went to by looking at our stamps. Does he even work here? At the immigration office, there was no line (but a huge line to get into Guatemala). The office checked our passports and gave us a welcome map to San Salvador. I asked for an entry stamp and the guy said they didn’t have entry stamps, but we could get an exit stamp.
We were excited to get into El Salvador because they use the US currency, meaning no more ATMs and getting ripped off! We didn’t really know what to expect from San Salvador, but it couldn’t be much worse that what we already saw… right?
We made it to bus stop and still owed the ticket collector $1.20, as he didn’t have change for our hundos (yeah that’s how we roll) and wouldn’t accept other currencies. We couldn’t find an ATM at the bus stop and when we told him, he just threw his hands up in despair. Score.
Then a jolly taxi driver came up to us to ask us if we needed a ride anywhere. We told him the bus station and he took us there. We wanted to get our tickets to Guatemala City before doing any sightseeing. On the way we spotted a Pollo Campero which Bill has been dying to eat at, so we asked our taxi to make a quick stop. We went through the drive thru, but unfortunately even Pollo couldn’t break our $100.
At the bus station we lined up and were pleasantly surprised by professional service. There was an earlier bus leaving at noon (instead of the 3 pm bus we originally planned). It was 11:30 am. What to do? Leaving early would mean getting to Guatemala early, meaning we would most definitely be able to see the volcano, but miss out on any San Salvador sight seeing. Leaving late would mean seeing San Salvador but possibly missing the volcano. Active volcano > San Salvador. We bought our tickets for 12:00 pm.
Hmm, we still have about 20 minutes and we haven’t seen El Salvador at all. We ran up to our cab driver. “Do we have enough time to visit the center of San Salvador and then get back to catch the bus?” A determined “yes” was the response from the portly cabbie.
We rushed into the cab as the ticket office rep warned us we had to leave soon. We’ll be fine. The cab driver dodged and sped through traffic to get us to the central square in the historic district, which was surrounded by the Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace, and National Library. The driver stopped in front of the cathedral so we could jump out and snap a few pictures, then before one of the many police officers told the cab to move, we were already seated inside. Speed tourism at its best.
We were on schedule to get back by noon. We had 7 minutes left.
And then we passed a Pollo Campero… Bill and I looked at each other. In a way, we knew this was our downfall, but we couldn’t resist. “PULL OVER!”
Bill stayed in the taxi with our stuff while I ran in to get some fast food. We figured, 3 minutes to buy it and get back out, we would still make it. Unfortunately it wasn’t very “fast food”. I think they started frying the chicken after I ordered.
I paid and waited for the food to come out. As soon as it did, I ran out and jumped into the cab. The driver drove like a mad man. It was noon.
We arrived and burst into the bus lobby holding our plastic bags of Pollo. It was 12:10. There was no one left in the lobby. We looked over at the counter and every ticket seller glared at us in disbelief. The guy who sold us the ticket admonished, “Your bus left 10 minutes ago… I told you it was leaving soon.”
Lucky for us, they were nice enough to change our tickets for 2 pm. We sat in the empty lobby in front of the staff behind the counter, feeling very foolish as we ate our already cold Pollo…
Well, with 2 hours to spare we might as well soak in the local city a bit! We walked back to the center, which wasn’t very far, keeping the bell tower of the cathedral in our sights for direction.
The walk through the city in a word was terrifying. We definitely felt out of place with every single person staring at us as we walked by. We didn’t want to stop for any reason, not to check the map and definitely not to take pictures of ourselves in fun tourist poses. We saw a lot of graffiti on almost every wall. At one point we entered a clothing market. Tight narrow corridors where people “hiss” at you to get your attention. When the first lady hissed and grabbed my arm, I spun around and stared at her. “Jeans?” We kept walking.
After two blocks in the market, we felt the streets were probably safer, so we detoured and walked down the street. We stopped in one store to look at military goods and also to catch our breath and check the map. Buy a knife for protection?
At the plaza, we walked around, but there was really nothing more to see there. We passed by Plaza Morazan and took some pictures of the surrounding buildings. The whole time we were in El Salvador, we did not come across another tourist.
Since it was getting near our bus’ departure time, we decided to get back to the station. And a cab back was an easy call. “Stop by Pollo Campero real quick? “
Back at the bus station we sat outside and a man who said he was a priest sat next to us. He spoke English quite well and was very friendly. “I’m so happy that there are Americans coming to visit my country, El Salvador! … BUT, you must be VERY VERY careful…” He then proceeded to give us helpful travel hints like where to hide our passports (in the crotch area) and how we should avoid local women at all costs. “They seem nice at first, they touch, smiling, you happy, then * smacking his hands * finished. They put the drug in your drink, your money, passport gone!” I just nodded feigning interest. I wonder if this was actually one of his life experiences.
Our conversation was cut short because our bus was boarding. We shook hands and said bye. A shotgun wielding guard frisked each passenger as they got on the bus. It felt somewhat safe in the bus. We both nodded off for a few hours of sleep.
At the border, on the El Salvador side we didn’t even need to get off the bus. An immigration officer came on and checked each person’s passport or identification. He glanced through my passport checking for our Central American country stamps and then just handed it back. I asked him for a “stampa” and he just said in good English, “We don’t have immigration stamps in El Salvador”… Was this some kind of cruel joke? Why did we even enter this country then?
We had to get off the bus at the Guatemala border. We also ran into some issues when they were checking our passports. Since we didn’t have an exit stamp (just the piece of paper stating “One day only COPAN”) the officers were perplexed and talking among themselves. Eventually I remembered the paper and showed that to them. They then angrily chattered a minute before handing back our passports and saying “you can go”.
The rest of the bus ride was uneventful. We slept through a lot of it and when I woke the scenery was very different. The main highway was lined with familiar stores like Walmart, Sears, fast-food chains (Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Taco Bell) and large fancy malls. The sidewalks were well kept with mowed grass and no garbage. Did we sleep until New Jersey???
The familiarity was comforting and we were looking forward to getting out of the traffic and off the bus. As we slowly moved away from the suburban mall lined streets and deeper into the city center, the atmosphere became a lot less pleasing. Garbage littered the floors where people rushed around the poorly lit alleyways and the street went from highway to a single narrow lane. “I hope we aren’t getting off in this area.” Screech. The bus stopped and opened its doors. We’ve arrived!
We needed to get to another bus to head to Antigua, but walking around with our packs in this area was probably not the smartest thing to do at night. So we bargained with one of the cabbies to take us to the other bus station. On the way, he was offering to take us directly to Antigua. He gave a decent rate, so we figured we’d save some time and went ahead with it. The annoying thing is that we were backtracking on the highway in traffic.
The taxi driver wasn’t very talkative and spoke limited English, but friendly enough to communicate with us. We spoke in English and Spanish to get some information. We chitchatted about Guatemala City and Antigua, which he said was very nice. Then randomly he told us that there was a bomb in the airport.
“Oh bomb scare?”
“No, they found a bomb. But it didn’t blow up” Uh… This was not very good news considering we had to fly out from that airport tomorrow at 3 pm. We asked him why.
“The changing of the new president, military president. Very dangerous. Many military leaders coming to visit him.” So there’s a new president taking over and some groups are opposing this, which they show by placing bombs in airports?
“When is the new president taking power?”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow will be very quiet. People will not go out.”
“In the afternoon.”
“Next to the airport.” He saw us glance at each other. “Antigua is safe. Antigua no problem!”
“We are going to the airport tomorrow afternoon.” The driver gave us a look, then was silent the rest of the way.
We arrived after 9 pm and checked a few areas for a hotel. The first place and second were full, but the receptionist from the hotel called a few places for us and brought us to another hotel that has space, literally walked us there. The town was very quaint with cobblestone roads and many restaurants and bars. There were plenty of tourists walking around and in general it felt very safe.
Our hotel was very much in the center and the receptionist was outside waiting for us. We walked through the hotel open-air atrium to get to our room on one of the atrium wings. The room was decent enough (can’t say I loved the decoration). We dropped our packs and I could’ve passed out right there, but we still had to figure out the volcano and eat.
We asked the receptionist for some tour info and fortunately this particular hotel was also a booking agent. How convenient! We decided on the Pacaya volcano given our limited time before our flight. Unfortunately the group tours were full. So our only option was to book a private tour that was over 10 times the regular tour price. The only difference was, we get a private car that takes us when we want to the volcano then can drive us directly to the airport after. Since it was passed 10 pm at this point, we didn’t have much choice.
The receptionist recommended a local restaurant with good Guatemalan food. After walking a few blocks away, we were happy to find that the restaurant was packed with mostly Guatemalans, meaning it wasn’t as touristy as I originally thought. We ordered some delicious food and a large beer. It was time to celebrate making it to Antigua on track and having seen and done everything (almost) that we set out to. We talked about how crazy the trip has been and how glad we were to have made it so far.
After dinner we considered stepping in one of the rowdy bars, but considering how we were leaving our hotel at 5:45 am to get an early start, we preferred to sleep. For some reason the receptionist needed our payment up front, so we had to wander out into Antigua looking for a working ATM. The third one was the charm! We ended up walking through the main plaza, which still had quite a bit of life. Dropped off a wad of cash with our host and headed for some much needed rest.