Saturday, September 17, 2011

3 days in Honduras

El Poy also seemed to be a trucker´s crossing as there were a lot of trucks, but no line at the aduana to check out of El Salvador.  Also absent was anyone in the office to check us out. Once someone made it back from their meeting/coffee/smoke/nap  break, it was quick and painless to check the bike out of El Salvador. Immigration was also very quick on the Salvadorean side. Next up was immigration into Honduras, taking only a couple of minutes and $3 each.

The aduana for Honduras is a bit down the road, an obvious newer building on the left hand side (if you hit the gate you went a couple of meters too far). We were told we had to wait 20 minutes until the person got there to handle the motorcycle paperwork. And sure enough, she got there right on time and took our paperwork right away. Things were stamped and paperwork was filled out within 10 minutes...... and then she took about 2 hours staring at the computer to get the paperwork finalized. After that, Mike had to get copies (doesn't really help to get ahead of time because they need a copy of recently stamped documents, $1 total for 12 copies) then return to the aduana with copies where they collated and stapled, then back to the bank. There are 3 banks at the border, none with an ATM or that accept or exchange dollars and you must pay the fee in lempiras. The fee for paperwork was 500 lempiras and the bank charged 135 lempiras, totaling around $35 US. At least for all of this walking and time spent Mike got to see a snake being killed with a rock. Jill got to watch border traffic all morning and thinks a local taxi with no passengers would be a great way to smuggle drugs.

(almost out of El Salvador, kind of)

(Mike isn´t really that tall)

The first major town in Honduras was Ocototepeque, where we found an ATM and a wonderful restaurant called Hot Food. We had not eaten yet and it was already noon, so the buffet ("comida a la vista") was just what we needed.

We drove for the rest of the day, ending up in Gracias. The views were beautiful through the mountains but the major roads were in worse shape than we have seen yet, with lots of potholes and surprising, unannounced transitions to loose gravel found midturn. In the worst spots there are also children yelling at you to give them money.

Gracias had a nice feel to it and we found a nice hotel downtown for 200 lempiras (about $10). It had a tourist feel, but almost entirely Honduran tourism, lots of activity, seemed safe at night and we found good food for cheap. That´s a good combination in our book!  And for some reason, Mike got priceless looks of confusion when he spoke to people here in Gracias.

We headed out pretty early to go towards Esperanza, which on our map is a secondary road. But until about 20k from Esperanza it was better than the primary road. We hit a police checkpoint right away. At first the officer was pretty stern, but then he saw our sticker of Romero (archbishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, one day after a sermon where he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights.) we had picked up in Perquín. Then he just wanted to talk about reading boods and organizations in the Catholic church similar to the FBI. He did look at our moto papers and Mike's license, but Romero had already won him over and we were free to go. The last 20 km to Esperanza was a mix of packed gravel into mud-with-construction.

We stopped in Esperanza to ask directions to Marcala when we were approached by 2 cops who were happy to give us directions and wanted to ask a lot of questions about our trip. Eventually we were able to get out of there (they really wanted to talk.  And they were nice about it.  Never any consideration given to bribing, issues, troubles, nothin) and once we were almost out of town we got stopped by another police checkpoint. Again needed to show moto paperwork. He was impressed with the 600cc and said, I bet once you hit the open road this bike goes really fast, with a huge smile on his face, and then let us go. After asking several more people where the road to Marcala was, we finally found it. The 36 km started with a well packed dirt road, which quickly led into huge slabs of bumpy rock road, where a semi was stuck (after seeing what some of the turns further down this road looked like, I´m not sure why he choose this route) and the road kept transitioning into gravel and washed out sections. Coming into Marcala we were surprised to see a major paved highway coming from Esperanza that we joined for the last few km.  Although the old mountain road was definitely slower, it was well worth it.

In Marcala we found a Chinese restaurant that we thought was pretty expensive at $10 per plate so we only ordered one. Come to find out it was a huge amount of food and we were both able to eat it for lunch and dinner.

Leaving Marcala we hit another checkpoint where we again had to show papers and license. At all three checkpoints they were not stopping many people besides us, but they were very friendly and seemed like they just wanted to check out the bike. We stopped at La Paz for the night and found a sweet place called BSF Hotel for 250 lempiras. They owner was extremely nice and gave Jill a bracelet from her shop made by the local indigenous people. We would highly recommend the place.

The next day we drove to Danli, passing several more checkpoints, but only having to stop once. Again, just a look at the moto papers and license and we were on our way. Danli was a bigger town than we expected and we spent probably an hour looking for a cheap hotel. We didn't find anything as cheap as we wanted, but ended up at a nice place called La Esperanza. About a half block north from the hotel we ran into a small restaurant that had a sign out front for American food. Turns out the owner, Billy Peters, is from S. Carolina, moved to Danli in 1998 and is now married with a son. Super nice southern guy. We got salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and corn for a good price and then he told us he would have breakfast waiting for us at 8, so we went back for bacon, scrambled eggs and pancakes. All tasted a lot like home.

We stayed in Danli because it is about 40 km from the Las Manos border crossing. We got to the border around 9. This border had a lot more helpers and other random people standing around. With Mike´s Spanish and Jill watching the bike, we really don´t see a need to hire any help. Getting the bike checked out of Honduras took about 5 minutes, free, immigration out was also about 5 minutes and also free. As soon as we crossed into Nicaragua, the insurance guy led us to fumigation (free), and then to buy mandatory insurance (300 córdobas or $13), but while the insurance was getting done we somehow picked up a helper who had said he was aduana and the insurance guy handed him our papers directly. Immigration was fast, but expensive as we had to pay $10 US per person for a tourist card and an extra 88 córdobas for some kind of paperwork, for a total of 560 córdobas. Probably rip offs involved there but he was the only immigration officer present and he gave us receipts for everything. Since we had the helper, he worked on the moto immigration while we were at immigration and the moto was free. Make sure to check paperwork before taking off from any borders - its easy to transpose VIN digits or mess up the license number and those simple mistakes can be a real big hassle later on (luckily we´ve caught most at the borders, and an aduana official just laughed another one off when leaving Guatemala). We tipped the helper 50 córdobas (around US$2) as he was actually helpful and saved some time.

While all the official stuff was happening, a crazy Indian guy (Indian, as in, from India) kept insisting on drawing a portrait of Mike. Then he followed us from office to office insisting that he needed to finish and that we pay him. However he was somewhat unintelligible in both English and Spanish and we really didn´t feel like dealing with him since there was a lot more going on at this border. We refused to give him money and he refused cigarettes and candy. He even complained to immigration officials about us.  When we finally were able to leave the border, after getting our paperwork checked twice and having to pay $1 each to the alcaldía before we could leave, we passed the same crazy drawing guy on the highway with his eyes bugged out, staring us down, likely wishing us badness.  He was a weirdo.  Even with that, things worked out pretty well for us our first day (and all others) in Nicaragua...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pupusas, playas, and Perquín, El Salvador

We entered El Salvador at the La Ceiba crossing. We had been told that that was where all the truckers pass and that was pretty much right on. Make sure to pass all of them and go to the front of the line. Otherwise, you may be there for a very long time like the rest of the truckers seem to be. We pulled right up to the gate where the first official looked at our motorcycle paperwork and sent Mike to get copies (14 quetzales total) for both Guatemala exit and El Salvador entrance. He was also told by the official that he should permanently instead of temporarily close the paperwork (in Spanish, cancelar en vez de salir), since we did not plan on reentering Guatemala within our 90 day interval, which was not what they had said when we entered the country.

Once he had copies he was sent to the aduana to close out the paperwork. The aduana only temporarily closed him out so when he took the paperwork back to the first official he told us to make sure to go back to the aduana and officially close. Back at the aduana he was about to officially get re-closed out when the system went down. So, we waited about 45 minutes for the system to come up, which it never did, at which point the guy just hand wrote on the exit paper that it was ´cancelado´, so we have no idea what our current status in Guatemala is. It didn´t cost anything to get out of Guate. On the Salvador side, there was no line but it still took about 45 minutes due to pure slowness on the part of the official. No cost for us or the bike to enter.

We soon learned that the roads are pretty great and there are signs for most relatively major turns, although the signs are right at the turn with no advance notice. We also found that the entire contry is full of people, towns and animals with little break inbetween, and very little space between the highway and all of the people, towns, and animals. This makes sense as the country is about the size of Massachussetts with a population of over 6 million.

A few hours after entering the country we made it to La Libertad. We asked on hotel prices around town but the cheapest we could find was $20 so headed back out of town to try to find a smaller beach. We saw a sign for San Blas so decided to try there since we had enjoyed San Blas, Mexico so much. We found El Coral Hotel (followed signs for Hotel, Museo, Restaurant off the highway between La Libertad and Tunco) with a beachfront room for $20. It was a really nice place, run by a Dutch lady and her Salvadorian surfer husband with their two small children. We just hung out watching the water, drinking beer and occasionally motivating for a dip in the ocean. The food there was also pretty good and we basically had the beach to ourselves.


We also tried the infamous papusas for the first time and resolved to eat them at least once a day, which if you count the days we ate them for two meals, we may have accomplished that goal. Pupusas are fried tortillas with various cheese, meat and bean combos on the inside. They are delicious and cheap at around 50 cents each, making them a definite one of our favorites.

(check out the papusa wagon on the right side)

We had to get on the road again though because we wanted to catch our friend Daniel before he went on vacation to the states. Jill met both Daniel and another friend, KC, in grad school in Denver. They all had the same course of study (Int´l Administration) and had several classes together. It just so happens that both Daniel and KC joined the Peace Corps and were both assigned to El Salvador, both arrived at the same time, were assigned to the same region, and now live together in the same house in Perquín. They have a pretty sweet setup and seem to be doing very well after having lived there for the past 1.5 years. Daniel is working with a school in a nearby community and KC is working with the business association and womens group in town.

During our week stay, we took some cool hikes in the area, enjoyed some of the locally available refreshments, saw one of their friend´s fincas (=small farm), and got to see the communities in which they work.

Unfortunately KC got giardia early in the week so she was hurting and layed pretty low for a couple of days. Which was perfect for us as we caught up on laundry, including washing our riding gear for the first time (nearing the point of Mike´s old hockey gear), lots of hammock time, and Jill was even able to read two books.

(coffee plant at Prudencio´s finca)

(31m deep, hand-dug well under construction)

The state of Morazán and the town of Perquín in particular were the most affected by the civil war in the early 1980s. They were bombed consistently and many people became refugees to Honduras. The people who stayed led the guerillas in the fight against the US-backed military. The war is still very fresh in the minds of the people living there, as they were all profoundly affected by it. However, many of them are more than willing to talk about it with strangers like us, much different than the code of silence that seems to exist in Guatemala. The guerillas are actually in power in El Salvador now, so perhaps their openness is because their struggle was a winning one.

We visited the museum about the war, where everyone who enters is led by an ex-guerilla fighter and invited to ask any questions you want. Next door is a campamento, showing examples of living conditions and a collection of artifacts. Both are cheap, interesting and worth a visit.

(our guide in front of the guerilla radio station, the radio station equipment was used during the war, but only broadcast for a couple of hours a day, then was packed up and relocated)

(us in front of a US-made bomb, similar to one that caused...)

(this huge crater that Mike is standing in)

(entrance to the campemento)

(example shelter used during the war)

(notice the shrapnel still embedded in the tree)

(this carton was on the side of the road during one of our walks. When the peace accords were signed, both sides filled several of these trailers with arms.)

In Pequín we were also able to sample arguably the best papusas in Salvador at KC´s host mom´s pupusería.

On our last night in town we went with KC to a party thrown by her association of business owners celebrating their becoming a legal entity. Many of the group own restaurants and the quality and quantity of meat was impressive. It was also amazing how much booze everyone put down and that the women seemed to be able to drink just as much as the men. There was a good singer/guitarist there as entertainment and we were quite entertained by the all night sing along and clapping. A fun night for sure.

On our map it looks like a relatively major road goes north into Honduras from Perquín so we were hoping to cross there. People in town thought there was an aduana, but we drove to the border a few days before we wanted to cross to make sure. This was also to confirm what some other travelers had experienced and shared on the HUBB.  We learned that there is immigration, but no customs for bike import. They hope to open the aduana in a month, for what that is worth. The only crossing on the eastern side of El Salvador is El Amatillo, which we have read is a big hassle with lots of police stops on the way to Nicaragua.

So, we decided to go back to the western border and cross into Honduras at El Poy partly to avoid the hassle of El Amatillo and partly to drive through more of el Salvador and Honduras. We lucked out in that a Peace Corps volunteer who is good friends with Daniel and KC lives about 30 minutes from the border near La Palma. So, we took off from Perquín around noon after recovering a bit and scarfing down some awesome oat patties KC made.

We got to Jessica´s at 6:30, just in time to go with her to her counterpart´s house for arguably the best papusas in el Salvador. (I know, I know...KC´s host mom was supposed to have the best, but I´d have to say, this lady´s were better.)  Jessica is working with a womens coop that makes handicrafts and also sells chickens. It was very kind of Jessica to let us crash at her house for the night. We enjoyed our visit plus we were in perfect position to hit the border early.

Copán, the Paris of old, well-constructed piles of rock

We had picked out Jocotán, Guatemala as our destination based on its proximity to the border with Honduras. It had some initial charm, as it was a market filled city, with a lot of people around, all with lots of curious looks. For some reason, many people in Jocotán had a real hard time understanding Mike´s spanish, so Jill got more entertainment than usual by watching their facial expressions. But we had a chance to wander around and catch a harcut...

(yes, that´s a straight edge razor and some short hair, but whose head is that?)

(a new, improved Jill ´do! Even though it was fairly short before, this #6 blade shave is super easy and noticeably cooler)

We opted to stay in Jocotán for 2 nights, allowing us to leave the TA in a garage while we bussed across the border to Copán ruins for a day trip. We looked into riding the TA, but that would´ve cost us $35 to import it temporarily, which we would have had to pay again after our upcoming visit to El Salvador. The day trip on busses across the border made us really appreciate having our own mode of transportation. It was easy to catch a bus to the border, at a (mostly) agreed upon price of Q16. A short ride later, we deboarded to cross on foot. Even though our CA-4 visa should not require any payments within the 4 Central American countries (Guate, Hond, El Sal, Nica), we seem to keep having small payments pop up. To leave Guatemala, migración required a payment of around US$3. To enter Honduras, another payment of US$2 was required. All of these payments were at the official window, received a receipt in return, and no amount of questioning changed the official´s mind. We luckily asked some tourism officials what the expected rate for the bus to Copán ruins should be - around 20-25 lempiras each (just over US$1). The microbus driver across the border was used to hustling tourists, telling us that Q150 would get us to the ruins. We said no, that the price should be more like 40-50 lempiras (or Q15-20), and he immediately came down to Q100 (not much help as that´s still around US$12). We started to walk, but finally agreed on Q20 for the both of us. The driver didn´t seem happy, but some boss type guy told him to do it. But it turned out to be doorfront service, through town, right to the ruins themselves. The driver´s son even shared his ciruelas with us. We covered the US$15 entry fee, pocketed the money we knew we needed to return by bus, and had about US$6 left over for lunch. Perfect! (it turns out there is an ATM at the ruins, and Copán the town has banks/ATMs, but what fun would that have been?)

Copán ruins are incredible! There has been so much work done to improve and maintain the grounds, which is appropriate given the level of detail found in the carvings all throughout the ruins. There are many stellae all around the grounds, especially at the main plaza, which at this time of year is a lush, green, grass covered meadow.

(noticeable differences in door/hallway architecture from other ruins)

(features such as these were literally covering the temples of Copán)

One of the most well known features of Copán was the Escalinata de los Jeroglíficos (Heiroglyphic Stairway), 62 steps with over 2000 glyphs forming the longest known Mayan text. It was in poor condition when rediscovered around 1900, somewhat reconstructed, then visitors were allowed to walk on it until the mid 80´s. The intricate detail is overwhelming and cannot be captured on film. (So here´s a digital attempt...)

Climbing the temple next to the staircase provided a good view of the main plaza. The stairs we climbed were used as a vantage point for the ball court. Without the tree in the way (it ain´t that old...), you´d have box seats up there.

(another example of types of features carved into walls)

(Heisman trophy model jaguar)

Walking out from the main plaza, there are many more examples of ruins. Immediately behind the grandstands is an area assumed to be the residence area of royalty.

(water drainage for most of plaza, or maybe a doggy door)

We had a good chance to see some nature while there too. There is a big program to release macaws into the wild, located right at the entrance to the ruins.

And on the walk back to the town of Copán (no bus for us, gotta eat with that U$S 6), the ruins tour continued. There is evidence of the Mayans all up and down the valley around Copán. Horse tours and hikes are available to check out more sites, but we headed on back to town.

There we happened to run into Manny, a guy from California who was at our language school in Xela. We had a great lunch with him, then toured Copán for a minute. The town was quite nice, with plenty of hotel options, a nice market, lots of food options ranging from street stands to a nice looking steak house and other foreign fare. We jumped back on the bus to the border though, catching the last one leaving for the day at about 3:30 (after missing the one that was supposed to leave at 3).

Jocotán provided us some food, an uncomfortably filthy bed and room, but at least a place to rest before heading to El Salvador the next day.