Into El Salvador

Good morning Antigua! Kick McBurger awake. Yaaaaar! A couple of sweet 3′ tall Guatemalans cooked us up some great omelets in the hostel. Time for a quick route planning scrum. Looks like we’re 2 and change to the El Salvador border. A little road nearby skirts around Guatemala City. Nice, we’ll take that. And we still have all of the Guatabucks we got from exchanging Pesos from the border dudes so we probably don’t need to hit a bank. Vamanos!

(;/’|?”:Plo,.|9876fghjkm.,mn][po’;lk}{“?;p xvbfgnhmj -> that’s me wiping off the tonic Jame’s just sprayed onto me and the keyboard while typing this. The Summer of Gin continues…)

We were off. Oh look we’re right in the middle of G-City, exactly as we’d planned not to be just 30 minutes ago. Lots of traffic. Didn’t feel too crazy though. You hear a lot about how dangerous this place is. Well, most buildings and parking lots have guys with shotguns guarding them. And of course, we got lost and sucked into a residential zone of the city for a smidgen, and all the buildings were wrapped head to toe in barbed wire. So the danger vibe is definitely there. But other than the rough aesthetic, it seemed like a normal, bustling city. Pretty chaotic to drive in, but we also have no idea where the hell we’re going.

We manage to get unlost and back on the Pan-Am out of town. The way out was even more of a clustercuss than the road in. All up hill, bumper to bumper traffic. Perfect for a standard car who’s clutch we ravaged driving up a volcano the day before. It was pretty much the scene from Office Space but uphill and clouds of black diesel smoke enveloping you every split second. It was nasty. I don’t think a single car in Guatemala is going to pass smog check this year. We were in the muck for about an hour. Then, kind of like typical I-10 traffic, you get through it and have no idea what had caused it to begin with.

While we were doing the stop and go thing, we were playing hopscotch with a police truck (most of which are these bad ass Toyota Hilux’s which aren’t available in Canada or the States. These are the same vehicles the drug cartels and the Taliban use, and as Top Gear has brilliantly demonstrated, they are pretty much indestructible). Sitting in the bed of the truck was a prisoner in handcuffs and a thick chain wrapped around his shoulders. I believe this was the same guy that had won the 2014 award for Sketchiest Looking Hardass. On either side were two guards with shotguns (most of which are pistol grip shotguns round these parts). We’d pull up alongside. They’d stare at us. We’d pass. They’d pass. It was a stare off. They had guns. And a chained dude with very few teeth. We lost.

After G-Smog Valley we hit a plateau and were back on pace and dropping miles. The road was fairly decent and we made up some time. But, the border wasn’t 2 hours away as our masterful GIS skills had implied. It was over 4. We did have some nice farmland to enjoy and knocked a few more notches up on the Central American Volcano Tally. Around hour 4 we came to a cool lake just before the El Salvador border. People were wading out into the lily pads to fish and the rest of their family had wooden stands set up by the road where people who weren’t deathly allergic could by the fish by the bushel.

We reached the fairly typical border town, typical in that there were lots of people walking in both directions carrying things they’d purchased on one side to the other. Also typical because of a long line-up of large trucks leading up to the controlled zone. As Murphy rolled El-BP toward a gate with a stop sign attached, I jumped out and walked towards the border guards, shouting and pointing – not in a rude way, just to emphasize that we’re here to get shit done. Two guards give me the quick rundown of what I need to do in Spanish, and I understand the 25 or 30 percent required to actually start making the wheels turn. First things first, I need to make copies of our temporary vehicle import permit. As was the case in Mexico, the customs people don’t have their own photocopiers so I had to run around the corner to a store that did. I run back and one of the guards checks the VIN and waves us through the open gate. Next is Guatemalan immigration where we quickly get an exit stamp, no real hassle. By this time we already had several guys pushing US dollars in our face (US dollars being the official currency of El Salvador), trying to get us to exchange Guatebucks at terrible rates. We both had US dollars stashed away so it wasn’t necessary, but I did dump about $10 worth of Guatechange just to get rid of it.

With our stamped passports we jump back in the car and roll up the slight hill towards the Salvadoran border complex. There are two lanes with signs over them, neither of which I understand, so we take the right lane. Oops, wrong lane. This is for immigration only, customs is on the other side. We drive past the Salvadoran border complex to turn around, Murphy jokes that we should fuck it and just keep going – in retrospect we probably should’ve, because we were soon to learn that customs at this crossing is a fucking gong show.

Walking in the door to the office isn’t immediately possible. First you have to explain yourself to a shotgun-wielding (but friendly) guard, who checks your passport, driver’s license, vehicle rego and receipt from Guatemalan customs proving you’ve checked your car out. He then goes inside and comes back several minutes later with a photocopy of the Guatemalan doc, which he signs and dates. Now he opens the door.

I wait in a “line” of two people which then grows to five as truck drivers waving papers over their heads push their way in and the officials encourage it. I get to the front of the line in about twenty minutes though, where the official speaks way too fast for me to comprehend, so I just give him the crucial documents – passport, license, rego and Guatedoc. Despite having a photocopier behind him, I’m required to give him two copies of each of the first three, which I was fortunately prepared for and hand over. He throws the documents down onto the desk and then ignores me, switching focus to someone else and throwing several file folders on top of my docs and then some other dude’s docs on top of those. This is going to be fun. He then turns back to me and gives me a form in Spanish requiring a bit of info about myself and a lot of info about the car. Some of it is standard, but some of it is baffling – why do they care about the exact date the car was manufactured? The engine number? The displacement in CCs? Whatever, I fill it out as best I can understand then push my way back up to hand it over.

He gives it a quick scan, makes several copies then waves down a teenager and gives him the form. The kid heads out to El-BP with me and Murphy in tow and tries filling out the parts I missed. I didn’t know the word for hatchback in Spanish nor do I now, but under “Condicion” he writes “Bueno”, which flatters me a bit. There were several pieces of info he couldn’t figure out so after fifteen minutes of hanging out and stepping in dog shit three times – the border is crawling with stray dogs – we go back inside and he gets the previous guy to sign off on “NO DATA”.

Next he tells me I have to go to window to his left, but still holds onto my documents. When I get to the next window, the man asks me for my docs. I point to the first guy. They have a discussion about who should have the docs, and eventually my new guy decides he doesn’t need them after all. He does need the original Guatemalan receipt, though. The first guy insists I have it until he realizes it’s on his desk. The second guy asks when I’m returning to Guatemala. I’m not. He needs the Guatemala sticker from the inside of the windshield. I run out and grab it, stepping in dog shit again. He sticks it to the back of the receipt and makes a few more photocopies. He gives me a signed piece of paper and sends me one window over to the first guy.

The first guy looks things over again, double-checking everything for the fourth or fifth time, then walks me over to a hottie two windows over, tossing her all my paperwork. She types for about half an hour while I stand there like a goon. Averaging one keystroke every six or seven seconds. She’s typing in all the info from all the paperwork that they’ve copied eight or nine times over at this point. She hands me a printout at the end and blurts out a ton of really rapid Spanish, like she’s the impatient one at this point. I understand nothing. A trucker comes over and says in English, “She wants you to read it, make sure there are no mistakes.” There are several, which I correct using a pen, and which she then re-types and prints again and has me double-check again. Finally we’re done. I shake Murphy back to life, he’s fallen asleep in his chair waiting for well over an hour, and we stroll over to the immigration window for Round Two. “Did you see the tickle fight?”, I didn’t. “Ya, two guys beside you. One was humping the other’s leg. Got punched. Turned into a tickle fight.”

Immigration is on the ball, plus one of the employees speaks awesome English, he’s a big help. He asks where Nova Scotia is – he’s never heard of it and although he’s seen plenty of Canadians, he says they all have plates like “Ontario”, “Quebec”, etc. First time he’s seen a plate saying “Nova Scotia”. We’re done in less than three minutes but no stamps unfortunately. They don’t stamp passports in El Salvador. Back to El-BP and we hit the road.

Three things immediately become apparent:

  • The potholes here are terrible (Boo)
  • There are no topes/tumulos (Hurrah)
  • Salvadoran women are way hotter than Guatemalan women (Hurrah, and sorry Guatemala)

It’s after 4 p.m. at this point so we’ve got less than two hours of daylight. We do not want to be on these roads after nightfall because of their shittiness plus the highly increased chance of armed robbery so I ball the jack and start hammering it past everyone on a two-lane road with a solid line, mostly blind hills and blind curves. As per standard operating procedure I keep my eyes out for broken-down cars, stray dogs and children, but I forget I’m in Central America…

… And fly around a corner while passing several slow-moving cars straight into a line of barricades and a dozen teenagers carrying automatic rifles. Oh yeah, military checkpoints. They stare us down hard for the little performance of flying in at 80+ and having to lay on the brakes to avoid hitting the barricades. No big hassle though. Roll through at 30 and once they’re gone in the rearview take it right back up to double the speed limit.

Five minutes later my inability to drive the speed limit bites us in the ass again as we fly in hot to a police checkpoint and have to slam on the brakes again. Narcotics police, also with assault rifles and barricades. We’re definitely noticed and this time we’re waved over and told to cut the engine. Try to be polite, but they need to inspect the back of the car. I get out to unlock the hatch while they pull out our camping gear, check the spare tire compartment, and have a very brief (and likely regretful) glance at our bags full of hot, stinking, dirty clothes. They help us pack back up and we shake hands, it’s all good.

Our destination is Santa Ana, the first significant city past the border, and we get there with about an hour of daylight left. It immediately has the feel of a rough town as we’re driving around. Although the main squares are filled with families and teenagers, a lot of the shops already have their doors gated up at 5 p.m. and there are people with shotguns everywhere. We see a Coca-Cola delivery truck drive by and the trailer has one guard on each side, sitting on crates of bottles, pistol-grip shotgun ready to rock. Every parking lot and most nice-looking stores have at least one shotgun-armed guard out front at the ready. The only hotels we see have rates by the hour advertised. At one point about two dozen soldiers pass us at an intersection, assault rifles ready, looking like they’re going off to solve a few problems – this doesn’t look like a march for training or parade-style purposes, they’re hanging tight to the corners of walls and have their trigger fingers primed. What the fuck is going on here. We punch it and get out of there.

We see a Scotiabank and interpret it as a good omen. I don’t know if we’ve mentioned this, but Scotiabank (hailing from Nova Scotia) is huge in Mexico and Central America and every time we encounter a branch our luck takes a turn for the better (see parking beside Scotiabank during Hurricane Odile). Across from the Scotiabank is a plaza of decent-looking shops so we pull in and ask about hotels, we’re instantly guided a couple blocks up and over to a place called the Sahara. Shotgun-wielding dude in the parking lot, front gates are sealed up but the door through the parking lot is open, and it looks sweeeet. Four-star shit for sure, with a hottie at the front desk who – after five minutes of her tolerating our bullshit Spanish – we discover speaks perfect English.

We grab our “welcoming cocktails” (a couple of beers) plus a few more at the hotel restaurant then hit the town in search of food and drinks. By this time it’s dark and the place is like a ghost town. Barely any streetlights, everything is sealed up with the exception of the odd hair salon. We decide to head back to the hotel and get food there when we catch the sound of music and women’s voices down a side street so we pursue it. There are two establishments open, both look really greasy with a single promiscuous-looking woman sitting out front of each. Murphy echoes my thoughts when he says “Dude, I think these are brothels.” I say, grinning my ass off, “Yup, I think they are. Let’s check them out, I bet they have beer.” I know this is really, really dumb, but bad decisions make good blogs.

We’re pulled into the second one by an exuberant lady of the night with her clever marketing ploy of “Cervezas??? Chicas??? Si! Si! Si!” She’s sort of attractive but as we’re pulled inside we find that she’s the exception, the others are… well, not attractive. There’s one dude at the bar in there – obviously a client – plus an older dude who seems to be the proprietor. Do we want beers? Fuck yeah, let’s go! We’re taken into a back dining room where the girl from the door slides up to me and one of her very unattractive coworkers slides up to Murphy and instantly starts running her hands through his hair. This is so bad but so hilarious.

After a bit of Spanglish small-talk we get into hot topics like karaoke, dancing and what our names are. I help them remember mine by saying “007” in Spanish and they break out laughing and start throwing high-fives and fist bumps around. They completely lose it when we start busting our exploding fist bumps. Murphy’s girl is getting extremely touchy-feely so I stoke the flames by telling her what a great dancer he is and she tries to pull him out for a demo. He declines so instead she starts forcing herself onto him, kissing him. Murphy flips me the bird behind his back and I start laughing until my lady of the night does the same to me. Fuck, we don’t have enough antibiotics for this shit.

By this point they’ve pointed out the rooms in the back – 10 US dollars for a quick trip – but this has gone far enough, it’s time to bounce, so I’m slamming back my second beer. My lady mentions that I’m drinking rapido and I say yup, and she asks whether I do everything rapido. With a serious stare and intense look in my eyes I tell her, “Si. TODOS rapido.” The girls go wild with more 007 jokes and high five, fist bump explosions.

At some point around this time one of the nastiest women I’ve ever seen comes around the corner and starts making facial gestures representing cunnilingus while trying to dance provocatively. Going to barf. Murphy’s lady heads to the bathroom to take a shit and we start trying to make our escape. Before we get out she returns with her pants still half-undone and grabs him for a dance, my lady follows suit. More kisses, nooooo! We say we have to go eat and they say they’ve got something for us… NOOOOO!!!! We lie and promise we’ll be back later and we hightail it the fuck out of there.

We race back to the hotel laughing our asses off and spitting profusely, trying to decontaminate. Saunter into the dining room and order a couple of sandwiches and lots of rum to wash our mouths out with.

We ask our server, Roberto, about some bottle service and he presents us with a 1 litre bottle of Beefeater. It is the Summer of Gin after all, so we take him up on it. He comes back with an Igloo cooler of ice, several cans of mix, a couple glasses, and tells us the dinner is on the house. It all comes to 40 bucks, less than what the constituents would cost to buy individually. Roberto brings the whole shebang up to the room and tells us “This is your house and relax”. So we do. A few minutes later he’s knocking at the door. “My boss says I should take you to the roof.” We grab the goods and follow him upstairs. There’s a beautiful upstairs area with tons of space, potted palms and a great city view. Roberto tells us they have bands and parties up there with 300 people all the time. “It’s all yours”. Salvadoran hospitality, let me tell ya.

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We get halfway through the gin bottle while skyping with Tha Queebs and Birdrito. We end the night recounting the hooker experience and laughing into our limes. Tomorrow we’ll be crossing El Salvador towards the Honduras border, probably staying at San Miguel and getting some work done on EL-BP.

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