Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hola and Adios, El Salvador - March 16-21

Our route through El Salvador

We woke up early in Guatemala and found ourselves an hour later standing in El Salvador!  Same as crossing into Guatemala, only easier: no stamp needed, no payment necessary.  El Salvador is a member of the CA-4 zone, in whose borders foreign visitors from certain countries, including the U.S, can visit for 90 days without a visa.  The other countries are Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, meaning the Nicaragua border crossing should be easy too!  Fingers crossed.  We have read stories of long waits and expensive fees at all these borders, but perhaps that's because they were crossing with more than a bicycle.

The road in El Salvador was great, too: huge shoulder, smooth surface for the most part, rivers and mango trees here and there providing shade, it was a nice morning.  
It did get hot eventually though, and we ate the majority of a watermelon to combat the heat.  The rest we gave to the extremely nice family we bought it from.

Down the road we ran into Elmar and Ellen, two cyclists from Holland who have been on the road now for 18 months and have cycled many of the roads we aim to do in the next year.  Talking to them, people who are our type of crazy, was refreshing.  Then the heat returned with zigzagging hills.  
Now we were on the Costa Balsamo, named for the fragrant bark of a tree that grows (used to, anyway) in this area.  The coast reminded me a lot of California with its rocky cliffs, beautiful coves and remote beaches.  Like here, California also has giant mansions above the crashing surf, but less pronounced is the poverty.  Many families here live in wood and tin houses right next to the road, and even with the tourism that the perfect surfing breaks have brought, they haven't seen much change.  We stopped at one such village, Playa El Zonte, where upscale hotels share walls with tiny cottages, and we were able to pitch our tent in a guy's yard next to the beach for $5.  We paid in US dollars, El Salvador's currency since 2001.  
Part of El Zonte Beach

I wanted to have some fish, being that we were on the beach, and when it showed up, it was a whole fish, head and everything!  I'm definitely of the school of thought that if you're going to eat meat, you should be able to handle seeing the animal being killed or dead in its full form.  And here I had an opportunity to apply my ideology.  It went well, but separating the meat from the bones was quite an ordeal.  I'll stick to fish tacos.

The next morning we slept in a little bit (until 7:30!) at our little spot next to the waves, despite the roosters crowing incessantly.  Maybe I've gotten used to the strident cock-a-doodle-doos, but I can't say I'll miss them when they're gone.  Along with the roosters, there were two ornery geese, greater white-fronted geese, that got very territorial whenever anyone walked by.  They would lower their long necks, grunting and hissing loudly to display their aggression.  They meant it to be serious, but it looked really funny because they're not intimidating in any way.  When they hissed at me, I faced them down, spreading my arms wide and hissing louder.  They're big geese, but I was bigger by far.  Surely they would back down.  But no, after a minute of impasse, the male emitted a great honk and charged me!  I ran the other direction as it nipped at my legs, narrowly escaping its wrath.  I avoided that area for the rest of the day, accepting my part as the omega male in the goose hierarchy, but other people walking by, mostly locals, kept them busy.  I watched one of the geese charge a local woman at one point, and she grabbed it by the neck and threw it away from her into the air!  The goose glided to the ground, apparently unhurt and unfazed, as it continued its honking.  Clearly this is not a new game.

When not getting attacked by geese, we spent our day attempting to surf and eating pupusas, which are like quesadillas with closed edges about the size of a pancake.  They're 50 cents each, making it probably more economical to eat out, and we took advantage.  After our meal, more attempted surfing, and some bike maintenance (everything likes to break at once), we biked about 10 km to a new beach, El Tunco.  This is the popular party beach, but nothing was going on and we just walked around and ate more pupusas and ice cream.
El Tunco's location 

The ride from El Tunco the next day took us away from the beach on relatively uninteresting flats all the way to the relatively uninteresting city of Usulutan, where we stayed in a sketchy little hotel.  It was worth it, though: air conditioning!  Because we were in a rough area of town, we spent way too much money on delicious, delivery cheese pizza, which we proceeded to cover with a mishmash of our own toppings.
Yes, those are tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and a slab of cheese on the left.  Much improved.

Our next day took us over a legitimate mountain pass, albeit a small one, to the house of the friendliest cyclist in El Salvador, Jose.  He lived about half his life in Quebec, returning 11 years ago to his native country to see what it was all about, and he hasn't left since.  
Jose took us out for some delicious pupusas then lent us his car so we could go to a nearby beach, El Cuco, while he worked on his future house.  When we returned, we made a bunch of pasta, four packets, which would be our breakfast, too.  But Jose's wife apparently thought we made it for everyone because there was so much, so everyone took some.  Oh well, she's not a cyclist so I can't expect her to know the immense quantity of food that cyclists devour daily.  I think it's also a cultural thing; everything is shared, so it's expected that you share too.

The next morning we got up super early and made our way to La Union, where we would take a boat to Potosi, Nicaragua.  The port doesn't have a pier or wharf, just a bunch of small boats out in the water, so to get to your boat, you have to wade through muddy, waist-deep water or pay a few bucks for a rickshaw type thing, basically an elevated wheelbarrow with a board to sit on.  It was so hot already, so we waded and saved the wheelbarrow for the bikes.  The boat was less than what I would call comfortable, with only a cramped board to sit on.  This was not the luxury cruise.  
It was interesting, however, once we got into  the Gulf of Fonseca, to look simultaneously at the coastlines of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, all the same from here but very different onshore.  The bikes survived without injury, as did we, so it was overall a good experience.  It beats, we've heard, the overland route through the skinny part of Honduras, which we were able to skip due to this boat.

Potosí, Nicaragua, is a tiny little village with not much going on.  There are hammocks on the front porch of the immigration building!  
Immigration on the right, ocean straight ahead

Immigration and customs were more thorough than in the other countries but still went by quickly with no problems.  Then into Nicaragua!  The first 16 kilometers were dirt and gravel, but I think it was my favorite road in Central America because there was no one around.  Usually there are people everywhere, so being by ourselves was a nice respite.  
There were some cows, too.

When the pavement started, so did the people as well, everyone responding to our greetings with a friendly smile and wave.

We planned on going to the beach town of Jiquilillo, but upon arriving at the intersection and realizing that the road was 12 kilometers of thick gravel, our plans changed quickly.  We ended up finding a little store, buying a few things for dinner, and pitching our tent next to it as night fell.

We neglected to ask the store owners whether any of the local female dogs are in heat.  It's not a usual question. Unfortunately, the male dogs were going crazy all night, making sleep difficult.  Groggily, the next morning, we biked for a bit until my rear dérailleur cable snapped.  I had been expecting it to for the past few days and figured it would give us a nice, unexpected break somewhere while we stopped to fix it.  It turns out that the spare cables we had were too short!  Who knew there were multiple sizes?!  Live and learn.  We tried a brake cable but couldn't even cut one of the ends off; it was too thick.  A guy whose house we stopped just outside of came out to see what was going on, and when we asked him if he had any tools to cut cables cleanly, he deftly used his machete and two hammers to cut the cable much more ably than our little multitool.  But the brake cable was still too thick to pass through the gear cable housing, and the guy ran inside to get one of his longer gear cables.  Alas, that one was too short too, but hold on, the guy had an idea.  We didn't know what he was thinking, but he clearly knew a lot about bikes and managed, with only a nut, his machete, and two hammers, to splice together two cables.  He put the cables inside the nut and hammered it flat so that it trapped the two cables inside, effectively making one elongated cable. Voila!  
Tough to see, but there it is.
We'll make sure from here on out that we always break down in front of a resourceful bike mechanic's house.

The rest of the day was less interesting, riding into the wind, uphill, and on a heavily trafficked road (with a shoulder, thank goodness).  The most exciting parts were 1) seeing a dust devil, a mini tornado about 50 feet high, and 2) taking a cold shower to wash off all the sunscreen, sweat, and grime that had accumulated.  We're staying tonight at a small hostel in Leon, and we're going to stay tomorrow, too, to rest, explore the city, and run some much-needed errands.
These were exciting, too: a superb bike path and a fresh beet smoothie

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