We had no expectations for El Salvador. In fact, our plan was to drive through it only because we had to so we could get to points further south, otherwise we would have skipped it altogether. R has too many clients who have told her things about the gang situation in El Salvador that if we had any expectations at all, it was that we would be held up at gunpoint. R also has a Salvadoran client in Virginia who insisted that we stay at his “rancho” when we got to El Salvador. After we learned that staying at a rancho did not mean we would be playing city slickers, but instead meant we would be lounging in hammocks by the beach for free, the safety issues that loomed so large seemed trivial after all, so we made plans to contact him as we got closer.
When we got to the Guatemala-El Salvador border on Monday afternoon after making better than expected time driving from Antigua along the coastal highway to the border town of Ciudad Pedro de Alvarado, there didn’t seem to be any line formed of cars and people waiting to get into El Salvador, so we figured we would just keep going. We left Guatemala where we had been since last year (we entered on December 19) without any fanfare, and frankly, with only a short look back over our collective shoulder.
Even though the bureacracy was very efficient, and the border people very helpful, by the time we were stamped out of Guatemala and stamped into El Salvador the sun was sinking in the west so we pulled into an auto hotel recommended on our iOverlander app. An auto hotel offers its guests complete anonymity - the building is hidden inside a walled compound and each room is like a small apartment with an attached garage to park your car. When I asked the owner of the auto hotel where we stayed on Friday night, our last night in El Salvador before we crossed the border to Honduras, whether it would get busy that night because it was a weekend, he said, “No. It’s not that kind of business. Most couples come in during the afternoon for just an hour or two.”
We stay in auto hotels because they are generally clean, low cost, come with a plentiful supply of tissues, and we like to watch ourselves sleep in the big mirror that is on the wall opposite the bed. The kids also like the slide drawer to the outside where the wait staff puts our food and takes our dirty dishes and where we can pay our bill without making eye contact with anyone.
R wasn’t able to get in touch with her client in enough time for his caretaker to immediately get the rancho ready for us, so we spent Tuesday night in El Tunco. El Tunco is a popular surfer hangout along El Salvador’s Pacific Coast which boasts some of the best waves in Central America, so there are a lot of young people walking around barefoot. It is also as hot as Christie Brinkley in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” so J and I alligatored ourselves over the softball size boulders that washed around our ankles with each breaking wave for a high tide swim but decided to get out after we found ourselves about 40 meters from our entry point after only a few minutes in the water.
During low tide on Wednesday, R and I were able to easily walk over the rocks that were submerged during high tide and then cross about fifteen meters of hot black sand to the water, where we frolicked happily for an hour in the warm, rolling surf while Coconut and J absorbed as much hotel Wifi as they could with hopes they could emit a signal as their own personal hotspots at the rancho.
Wifi access aside, we had high hopes for the rancho. On the one hand, the owner works in the U.S. as an apartment manager, decidedly lower middle class on the pay scale, but on the other hand, things are cheaper in El Salvador so it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that he could have built the Taj Mahal.
Well, he didn’t. Coconut and J took one look at the house and went, “Eh.” J sat on one of the beds and said it felt like it was made out of hay. They both slept in Wesley while R and I braved the rustic accommodations which did not include running water - we flushed the toilet by dumping a bucket of water into it.
But the whole point was that this was a house built by a beach, and with a pool that had a table built into it so we could sit in the pool, instead of around the pool, and play cards, which we couldn’t do in the ocean because the waves were pretty relentless. We loved it.
The one weird thing was that the caretaker and his family lived on the property as well and they must have been under orders to not let us out of their sight because they followed us to the beach and watched us swim, took us to the store when we needed milk, and even served our meals at the restaurant one day when we went for lunch. We felt like celebrities in town with a Secret Service escort.
After spending a couple days at the rancho, we made a beeline for the border with Honduras, so we could buzz across that country and into Nicaragua to meet friends on Monday who are flying down from Los Angeles. We would have liked to spend more time in El Salvador because it surprised us with its order and civility - the intersections were all well signed and even the cows ate from troughs, not from trash piles as we’ve seen in other places. The two beaches we visited - El Tunco and Majahual - were great, and are not even the best beaches in the country, and the other small piece of the country we saw while driving through was beautiful and mostly clean. And the people were all very friendly. Not one of them pulled a gun on us.