12.20.08 Crossing El Amatillo Border into El Salvador

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Lovely El Salvador

12.20.08 Crossing El Amatillo Border into El Salvador


Terrific day in El Salvador!  Given my nervousness about the reputedly worst border in Central America, El Amatillo, I woke everyone at 6am and we were at the border somewhere around 7am. 


Border Details (skip to ***** to bypass border info)

We were early enough that although there were many trucks around, it was not complete chaos.

Street Market of Usulautan, El Salvador
  We immediately got a guide (they come up to the rig and I talk to them through the window).  We also talked with the money changers.  They are all very nice, but I told them “Uno momento” while I took care of Honduras.  They helped direct us through the Passport checkout, where the nice guard came up to the passenger side of the window and stamped all the passports.  We had trouble wiggling into the area and couldn’t make it, so while I was backing out with the help of about 20 nice helpers, the man in the truck that was parked in the way came out and kindly moved it.


Then we parked where told and I told the Guide that I wanted to write down his name off his identification card.  I then told him that I would only pay him, I would not pay any moribida or fee without a receipt, and that I would accompany him everywhere (just as Harriet instructs).  He was fine with all that and excellent help.

Buying pastries at dinner
  It is worth a million bucks to use a Guide at the borders and for $5 or so, they are a bargain! 


We followed our guide to the Vehicle Office.  For some reason, the guy there would not do my passport vehicle stamp yet, so our Guide took us to another building.  We walked through women set up making breakfast on grills in the street for people to buy.  It looked delicious, but we were taking care of business. 


While there was a long line at that office, the Guide knew people and caught a woman walking in.  She was going to open a window for him, but then a Vehicle Inspector walked up to our Guide, greeted him warmly, and immediately escorted us out to the RV.  He did a quick check of the numbers and stamped my passport.

Our hosts for the night in Playa San Diego
  That completed Honduras.  We didn’t pay any money, but to our Guide ($5) who had a Partner help us with the El Salvador side.  Sometimes the Guides cannot work both sides of the border.


At this point, we went to change money only to discover that they use U.S. dollars in El Salvador!  I tipped the very helpful money changer $3 for helping me with the driving and just because he was so nice.  Then I ended up trading the meager 100 Limperas we had into $4, which was not the best rate, but the $1 we missed in the transaction, we all agreed was a tip.


Our Guide for El Salv also got his name written down.

Testing the hammock
  He rode with us in the coach up to the El Salvador side.  I wasn’t sure that was the best idea and he sort of seemed to be making himself quiet when the passports were checked from the rig.  He instructed us past the “Alto” (stop) sign where the fumigation official was waving us over.  Not nessicito!  Who would know without a Guide?  That probably paid for his $5 tip.  Then we drove and drove.  I thought our Guide was coming home to Texas with us!  But no, you have to stop 3 km down the road at the copy booth, which is located in a long line of stores.  It was $.05 per copy and I had them make another copy of the Passport Vehicle stamp for me and tipped them the change.  They were happy and I have that copy should my passport get stolen.  Who would know that you need a copy of that vehicle stamp in the passport without a Guide?  There are no signs, no directions, no one to ask, and it would be horribly confusing.
Cute kid selling shell birds (we bought one!)
  I use a Guide at every border and consider them priceless.  I think it is false economy to do otherwise, especially if you don’t speak Spanish very well.  Still, they save us time because they know the ropes and usually get it done in a fraction of the time that we could.


The El Salv. Guide then showed me a road turning off to the Left.  Everyone else was going straight to the gate.  He pointed that we were to go left there to do our Vehicle for El Salvador, get a paper, and then return to that intersection and go through the gate.  Then he bid us goodbye.  We drove down to the little building on the left with a corrugated tin roof.  Nobody was in there and it looked closed.  But Ned noted activity just to the left of that booth, so we pulled into a huge parking area filled with some trucks and buses.

Delicious pollo dinner on the beach
 Again, not a sign in sight for any of this.  


A guard helped us park by a loading dock and we asked if that was the Vehicle area.  We walked up the only concrete steps and noted a line of people on a bench waiting.  There was a locked metal door and we waited by it behind another man.  We sort of asked the bench people if we were to wait and they were very helpful in telling us what to do. 


A man eventually opened the door (you can tap on it too with some keys) and he kindly gave us a paper to complete (all in Spanish) for our vehicle info.  We took it back to the RV and used the former documents from other countries to complete the needed info.  I can see where that is much less stressful than having someone ask the questions in Spanish while I sit there.

Dinner on the beach at sunset


Then I took the paper back to the man in the secure room, provided all the copies that our Guide had us prepared and my passport, license, and title, and waited on the bench.  The kids can wait in the rig during the vehicle paperwork, so they did schoolwork and Ned and I took turns getting CA books to read, looking at maps, getting breakfast, etc.  An RV sure makes it easy to be comfy no matter where you are.  We also talked a little with the people there and they gave road driving advice, assuring us that the police so omni-present in Honduras would not harass us in El Salvador.  Hallelujah!


Then after about 30-45 minutes, as the bench warmers slowly began to clear (and busloads of people came in and had to have luggage checked by dog-sniffing and bags opened and trucks unloaded one heavy bag at a time), I was motioned into the secured room.

Ciao's parking spot at the restaurant/home of nice El Salvadorans
  There were 2 officials and a guard in there and it was peaceful and quiet.  They were very nice.


As one man typed in the info that I’d completed on the sheet, the other officer provided terrific driving directions (which I’ll detail below).  Then I showed him my GPS and he had a great time learning how to work it.  It was really a fun time!  I think all my copies that had been made at the copy shop were returned (or at least most of them), and I got some extras that must have come off the copier, so I returned those.  I was given an original and one copy of my vehicle document, which I carefully checked for accuracy (the VIN, license plate numbers are the 2 biggies), and then signed. 


I returned to the rig and a man with a bicycle cart was making some icies with ice, syrups, and sweetened condensed milk.  They were only $.50 each (I thought he’d said $2 each, not 2 for $1, but he made sure I understood that it was less than, after I handed him the money- very honest!), so as I kept adding to our order, I asked the Guard, who’d been standing there near our rig, watching and occasionally smiling if he’d like one and he nodded, so I bought one for him too.  We consider ourselves ambassadors and a little kindness goes a long way, both directions.  I am grateful for every person that we meet who is kind to us.  I hope this trip has made me a kinder person.  Every single person we met today was very nice!


Then we headed back up to the intersection with the gate and although I was told to keep the original and give the Guard the copy, the Guard asked for the original as well, checked the vehicle numbers, gave both the original and copy back to us, and bid us a nice trip.  Of course, we saw not one single gringo during our entire border crossing.  In fact, I don’t think we’ve seen a gringo since we took the Canadians in our RV to Grenada.  They are not very prevalent down here.


*****   End of Border Crossing info


We stopped at the gas station, which is right at the large intersection where you turn Left to head south on CA-2.  They had some terrific prepared chicken there for $3 per meal.  We bought a terrific lunch and tipped the gas guys Diet Cokes, which they appreciated (along with $1 for our guy).  Gas here is only $2.29 or so, which is much less than in Honduras for $3.55 or so (we cannot remember with all the conversions).  Plus, it is sold in Gallons here, liters in Honduras, gallons in Nicaragua- or maybe I have the last 2 mixed up.  Regardless, it gets a little confusing.  So we really enjoyed all the nice people at the gas station.


By the way, the border people love to hear that we love their country, that their “pais es bonito”, the personas are sympatico, that we traveled throughout it and didn’t just rush through or transit it, etc.  Just make sure you compliment the right country.  I did not realize that Nicaragua and Honduras Aduna (passport) officials were side by side as Los Masilla and complimented Nicaragua to Miss Honduras!  Haha!  Ned helped me make a quick recovery and she was a lot of fun anyway, so no harm done. 


In fact, everyone at that border crossing was very nice.  I’ll tell you, hiring a Guide makes the border crossings a cultural experience, not miserable.  I so wish we’d had/used/found one when we first entered Mexico- I’m sure I would have felt better about the whole thing.


Driving route:  CA2 south is a little roundabout, but it avoids the traffic of San Miguel, which is very busy and you cannot bypass it.  The southern route was TERRIFIC.  The roads were like U.S. and while sometimes hilly, were very easy and uncrowded.  People wave along the way, which really gives Ned a chuckle.  He loves how they just throw up their hand and sometimes cheer. 


There are no other RV’s on the road, no gringos.  We took a picture the other day of the one truck camper that was waving ecstatically at us.  They were the first real RV’ers that we’ve seen on the road south of the border.  They had location stickers all over that thing, so I think they get around.


Anyway, we had a terrific drive.  Not a single time were we stopped by police past the border!  HOORAY!  That is the most scary, miserable part of driving- the fear that something could go terribly wrong when I won’t turn over my license, etc.  But we were left at peace today.


There is one place that Nuvi told us to turn Left, but we didn’t and ended up on a mountainous, circuitous route to San Salvador!  YIKES!  We turned around quickly on the mountain road at the first chance and headed back down.  We found the road, which was poorly marked, but had to be the most southern road, which is CA-2.  Again, the road was terrific.


Last night I researched road advice from other travelers and have a great plan.  Road info is boring until you really need it and then it is priceless, so I plan to include it for future travelers.


We will stay on CA-2 all the way through El Salv, Guatemala, and into Mexico to the isthmus, which is the skinny part of Mexico, where we’ll head north on as many fast tollroads as we can hit.


We hit the small town of Usulutan, which Harriet described as having a market where the road closes down small enough to reach out the RV windows to buy whatever you want.  I mean- chaos!  And fun!  We got through without incident and Ned particularly enjoyed the spectacle as I drove.  It looks like a fun place to enjoy and on this Saturday (as on Harriet’s Tuesday), the place was hopping with enthusiasm.


I’m still doing all the driving, since I’ve become accustomed to the roads and have learned the rules (or lack thereof) of the roads.  I do not find the drivers particularly unruly once you’re used to the system. 


So we made it to the beach near La Libertad.  We saw a sign for a beach and restaurant 7 km down a dirt road.  The entrance to the road looked paved, but quickly became gravel, but it was wide enough and not overly bumpy.  Well that is apparently the tourist road that Gene and Lee described and there were many restaurants with people eager for us to go in.  We stopped along the road to talk to a few of them (there was very little car traffic- we seemed to be the only foreign tourists, although the area is popular for San Salvadorans escaping the city nearby).  They were very friendly and attempted to be helpful when we explained that we wanted a place to overnight on the beach.  They came up with places along the street, across the street, etc, but we persisted and told them it was “possiblo” we’d “returno” for the restaurante.  It was all very friendly and helpful.


The biggest surprise help, though, were the boys on bicycles who were very cute and helpful, some hanging on the rig mirrors so that I had to ask them to please let go and be careful.  Well they rode ahead and came up with several options for us, including 2 that had overhead concrete arches.  I had to laugh and exclaim “muy grande!” pointing to the RV so they understood we had a height restriction.


Then the third place we found in probably 3 driveways was a wonderful place!  It had concrete driveway that is level, within a gated house yard.  We are here now.  It is $15 and we filled with water (very quickly when the auxillary pump was turned on).  We were already parked when the 16-year-old girl in charge while her parents were out then added $3 per person on the $15, which I flatly refused with “no mas’.  But, I said, we will eat dinner here at your restaurant (which they had indicated).  She was very happy with that.  I also tipped each of her brothers, who’d found us their place, $1 each.  The GPS location is: 


We had a terrific afternoon!  We showed the kids around the RV, tried out the hammock, ordered our pollo (chicken) dinners for $5 each.  Then we blew up our raft, put on our suits, and ran for the gorgeous beach right at the back of the property (50 yards from the RV).  The Pacific Ocean is warm here and wonderful, with some of the best surfing waves in the world. 


We bought some things from the locals to support their hard work and broaden our experience.  We got roasted cashews, some kind of green mango seed (that our hostess ran and got salt for us to dip it into- we ended up donating the extra pieces to her- they were very sour), and some kind of flat pink bread thing.  We didn’t mean to buy it, but we don’t understand the prices very well and gave her too much money.  Rather than taking the $2 and running, she made sure that we got all we paid for.  Given we’d never know the difference, that was really honest of her.  Some ladies and a 9-year-old girl with necklaces and bracelets bedecking their arms (that must get heavy) were asked to come back in an hour since we had no money on the beach.  So they waited and we enjoyed buying some gifts from them, as well as a parrot statue made of painted shells from a cute little boy.


Our hostess set a lovely rustic table by the ocean, under the palapa, where we watched the sun set over the Pacific while eating a delicious chicken, rice, tortilla, and salad dinner.  The palms swayed over the white sand and it was magical being together.  A man came by with a towel-covered basket with some sort of fried puffs in them.  We thought it was $1 for 2 puffs, but it turned out to be $1 for 2 bags of 4 puffs each.  We still don’t know what they were- some were filled with a bean dip and some with plantano (large bananas) cream.  They were not our favorites, but they were interesting and our every interaction with the El Salvadorans has been a true joy.  They are not at all pushy or aggressive and every one of them made sure we got what we paid for.  Their refreshing spirit helps my own.


We took a walk on the beach while the stars came out, saw the lights twinkling down the bay from a nearby town, and returned to the RV to head early to bed.  We’ll try to cross into Guatemala tomorrow and maybe make it to Escuintla or so.  It is important, in our run back to Texas, that we take time to enjoy the opportunities that we have along the way.  It is such beautiful landscapes in Central America and I wish we could stay longer in some places, like here.


But as Ned said, “Personal safety is pretty high on the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”  Yes indeed!  And driving CA1 through Nicaragua and Honduras was incredibly intimidating and upsetting with the corrupt police stops.  I sure hope our police officers in the US don’t harass tourists. 


I am SO very grateful that Ned is with us!  I feel like the opportunity to drive with him through those awful areas of CA-1 with the corrupt police was worth shortening the trip.  While I did all the talking to the police, his presence gives me peace and knowing that if something happened to me or my Driver’s License, that he could drive or help the kids, made me feel safer too. 


Do I feel like Ned is rescuing us?  Admittedly and I’m grateful that he can because I was dreading driving Panama and 7 border crossings alone to get back home, not to mention experiencing the fear that grips when you round the corner and there’s a police stop that could take hours or worse.  It is not the people that are the real security scare, but the corrupt police on the street.  They have way too much power and pick on gringos.


Do I feel like I got us a bit too deep into Nicaragua?  Um, perhaps, if I were honest.  Am I proud of us for doing what we did?  Yes.  Do I want to go back there alone with the kids?  No thank you- I won’t return until the police situation is more under control.  Corrupt police really undermine my personal security.


It is ironic that my first Nicaraguan police incident in Masaya (followed by about 10 more incidences yesterday between Nic and Honduras), occurred just beyond a sign that translated said “Tourism helps us all.”  Hmmm.  Might need to work on the little police detail before tourists want to return.  Ned suspects that the Masaya corrupt policeman times his roadside duty with the two daily U.S. (Houston) flights arriving at 12:32 pm and 9:00 pm.  I’d like to stake out and see how he works.  I wish I had his badge number, name, and picture so I could send it to Nicaraguan officials.  He makes me so mad.


Anyway, I hope that I’m about done having to outsmart the police.  We’ll likely have more opportunities in Mexico, though.  But I’ve got a repertoire of ideas now, including using an obvious black and white driver’s license copy and then not letting go of my wallet that has my actual driver’s license in the clear pocket.  The asking for map advice, not pulling off the road while leaving the vehicle in gear, not speaking much Spanish, and complimenting the country seem to work well too.  Chocolate is a good gift for police kids. 


I know one woman who would blow through police stops, particularly if they don’t have a police car there.  I need to be alert for the car and possibly act accordingly.  If they radio ahead, I guess I could explain that I thought they were crooks.  Wonder how that would go over?  She never said what happened after she did that.  I did have someone in Mexico say that if they don’t have a car there, just keep driving to the next small town before you stop, even if they follow you.  Wish I’d remembered that then, but not sure I’d have the guts to do that.  Most of the Transisto Police are on foot, so do you ignore them?  And if you have 3-5 officers in the street, are you really going to keep driving?  Maybe you should keep going only if there are 1-2 officers without a car- maybe that was the advice.  Hmmm.  I’d like to see a discussion topic on this! Maybe I’m overreacting to police stops, but they really upset me. 


Anyway, one time this lady blew through the police check and it turned out they were stopping traffic because an aircraft needed to emergency land on the highway and she barely outran the landing plane! 


We all summarize based on feelings during snapshots of touring:


My advice is to avoid at least southern Nicaragua (Masaya and south, although it is very pretty) and most of Honduras.  People seemed nice in northern Nicaragua.  However, in most of Honduras (all places outside of Copan) we did not feel very welcomed.  Certainly most individuals we met along the way were kind enough.  People on the street, however, provided a different feeling.  We did cover most of Honduras (except the northern coast), so we saw much of the country on this trip, which will likely be sufficient for me for a long, long time.  Hopefully U.S. relations with other countries will improve over time so that we’re more welcome when we travel.  Whatever you do, stay off CA-1 in Nicaragua and Honduras as much as possible- it’s notorious for checkpoints, authorized or otherwise!


We’ve been extremely impressed with El Salvador so far.  Granted, we’ve avoided the big cities and the portion that we’ve seen in the south has been very small, but the people we’ve met have been consistently kind and non-threatening.  From the open windows of the RV in the middle of the street market, to the walkers along the roadside, to other drivers- we have been greeted warmly.  They also have not looked at us as if we’re little green Martians, with their jaws dropping open (perhaps too because Ned is sitting up front). 


El Salvador is very poor, as is the rest of Central America, in a monetary way.  I’d like to see them all have strong and protective housing, potable tap water, and enough food to feed their families including their dogs.  


But they seem very rich in spirit and friendship.  They were all are out socializing, riding the Chicken Bus, and enjoying the markets this Saturday.  We saw a large gathering in a small town and each of the townsfolk had on red Santa hats!  It likely was a town Christmas party.  In fact, the country seems like an energetic, rather happy place right now. 


El Salvadorans are known for being industrious workers and savvy business people.  I would predict good things to come for this country, based on the admittedly little that I know.  El Salvador has been a surprising, refreshing experience so far.  Hope tomorrow’s journey is equally rewarding.



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Lovely El Salvador
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Buying pastries at dinner
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Our hosts for the night in Playa S…
Our hosts for the night in Playa …
Testing the hammock
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Cute kid selling shell birds (we b…
Cute kid selling shell birds (we …
Delicious pollo dinner on the beach
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Dinner on the beach at sunset
Dinner on the beach at sunset
Ciaos parking spot at the restaur…
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