Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What Border Security

After six months of living and working in Leon I am ready for a road trip. The last week in Leon I had nothing to do except wait for my final paycheck on the Friday. That led to lots of beach and beer time. I tell you, I am glad that is over. I am a serious lightweight when it comes to drinking now. Having been a member of the heavyweight division for years and being "punch drunk" to many times to count I am happy that does not excite me one bit any longer. I talk a big game now, that's about it but none of that is important.

My friend Antonia stopped by for a few days on her way to Esteli to revisit the projects we use to work for with GVI, Alexis Arguello and La ThompsonThe Phoenix Projects had broken their affiliation with GVI a few years back and are doing great work on their own. We had a great visit and there was lots to catch up including our favorite topics, travel and my selective memory. I have met lots of great people in Leon but it sure was nice to see a friendly face.

Packed up and ready to head out of Leon. Next stop El Salvador
We ate 8:30 on Tuesday the 15th my transportation arrived that was taking me to Potosi, near the Cosequina Volcano. From there it was a 3 hour boat ride to La Union, El Salvador and transit to San Salvador. It was going to be a nice mixture and I thought a good way to start. I booked with Cruce Del Golfo as I really wanted to take this route. Land transportation would have been a snap but there are no public water crossings across the gulf so they were the logical choice. A bit expensive? A little bit, yes but again it was the only option for this route.

My chariot arrived with one other passenger, fellow Canadian Ben from Edmonton who was heading to the beaches of El Salvador. The 3 hour bus ride was uneventful but passed quickly as we chatted the entire way on a variety of subjects. Our driver was from VaPues tours in Leon who I had met a few times while with QT.

The Panga beach launch. *gulp*

Arriving at Potosi we drove through a security gate on our way to the beach which was the border. Pulling into the shack there sat the 3rd member of our intrepid team, Hanna, yet another Canadian who was heading north to Guatemala and then parts unknown. I had met her previously at QT as she had booked a tour with us. After what can only be described as the laziest border exit interview EVER, off we went to the Panga version of the SS Poseidon. You just knew we were doomed, or at the very least we were going to get soaked.

Settling in, pre life jacket
Initially all was well. The Gulf was calm (ish) and we were 90 minutes from our first stop, La Isla Meanguera Del Golfo. Here are some google images. We had fantastic views of Cosigüina and the massive boulders that it tossed into the Gulf from its last eruption in 1835. This was and is the largest known historic eruption in Nicaragua and these boulder could be mistaken for small islands. We bounce along looking for dolphins that do not make an appearance and our captain giving us a nice tour of the surrounding area. We are in the middle of the gulf when he stops to point out that we can view Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador which I admit was pretty cool.

.. and suddenly the winds picked up and that pretty cool feeling became a very wet reality.

"Any port in a storm" goes the saying. Not so much a storm but choppy seas in a Panga meant that Meangura was a welcomed site. "let me me check with security" says our captain. "As this is Nicaragua and we will be illegally in the country I do not want us to get arrested, but they will have a coffee for you". I am now thinking the choppy gulf is not the worst thing that can happen on this day, coffee or no coffee. Well, true to form, this was indeed an island that belonged to El Salvador and as we hit the beach we were now illegally in El Salvador...and I am following along like a freaking sheep to slaughter.

Trust me, I am your Panga Captain. They will give you coffee

Illegally in El Salvador
It turns out that our captain had to verify his identity and credentials as a part of a passing boat security check.Customs officials did give us free coffee for our troubles. Right at that moment I was living in an alternate universe. As it turns out, Salvadorians serve fresh coffee to illegals while the person bringing them into the country gets checked. The assistant of the boat, who was driving, did not come ashore. "He can not" was all we were told. So that happened.

La Union and the El Salvador mainland was now a mere 30 minutes. It was 30 minutes back into the windy and rolling Gulf of Fonseca. We picked up 4 locals who were heading back to the mainland. They were chatty and friendly and were excited to tell us all about El Salvador. Then we rounded the lighthouse point and hit the open water. Chatter became diving for rain suits and anything plastic to cover yourselves. After 10 futile minutes there was a general "fuck it" and off we were back to talking and laughing at how soaked we were getting. Next stop, El Salvador Immigration. I figured I was going to get as wet a possible and see how that went with them. I was illegal once, what could they do to me, make me clean up my dripping mess? The big tough rebel that I am.

Welcome to El Salvador
As it turned out, El Salvador entrance immigration was more lax (laxer ?) than their Nicaraguan counterparts. There was a big smile and welcome from the only guard who wore a clean and neatly pressed uniform. "Passports and $10 each" was all he said. The $30 went into his pocket and new entrance stamps went into our passports. Who was I to say anything but "gracias"

I had planned on stopping my journey with the tour company from here and I was going to catch a bus to San Salvador and find a cab to my hostel. It was getting long in the day and I was wearing down so I made the best decision of the day. I jumped in the shuttle that was pre-booked by my partners, paid the fee and sat back for the 3 hour ride that would drop me off at my door. As I said, best $$ spent that day.

El Salvador means Pupusas
El Salvador means one thing, Pupusas. Glorious glorious pupusas and there are pupusarias everywhere. Do you see the 3 large corn rolled beauties in the picture above filled with pork, cheese and mushroom? All mine, mine, mine. You top them off with hot pickled cabbage and its "hands only" like pizza. Utensils need not apply no matter how much pain you feel in your fingers.

This shop was in La Union. Everything I read about La Union in most guide books was negative and to use it as a transit point only. Boy, are they wrong. I understand guide books are developed and created by information sent to them from various contributors. The thing is, what is cool and interesting to one person is obviously not the same for another. La Union is a case in point. It is not a dirty and grubby port town. It was an active, clean and friendly town. It is a port town but I saw one fishing ship and a beat up old Chinese boat loading something that I wanted not to know. Looking the other way was the best thing to do. I let a guide book manipulate me into not staying the night in La Union and have a fresh start to San Salvador in the morning. Anyone who may read this and La Union El Salvador comes up in the conversation. STAY THERE at least one night if for the pupusas alone.

San Vincent Volcano on the way to San Salvador
The drive to the capital was a smooth 3 hours. Our driver was chatty and full of fun facts and information. He steered clear of the tragic history of El Salvador and pointed out great natural landmarks like the volcanoes in San Miguel and San Vincent. He was from San Salvador so he knew where each of us were staying, helped us with our bags and registration. He hung around answering any questions each of us had about San Salvador and was really excited we had come to "his city". It was coming back to me how warm and welcoming the people of El Salvador are.

Lets finish with a review of the tour/transportation I booked with Cruce Del Golfo and VaPues tours. I would not have done this trip if they did not have a boat to cross the Gulf of Fonseca. Now that being said they are the only game in town and the price shows. It was $99 for the transportation to the Panga and then the Panga to El Salvador. They did help with customs/immigration but really, no help was needed. Bear in mind if you found your own way to Potosi Nicaragua the crossing was $65. A bus from Leon to Potosi is about $4 and a room about $6 so you save $20. The same goes for transit from La Union. Mine was $30 (he gave me a $5 discount) and a bus is about $6 and a cab from Ocidente station to my hostel is $7. So you save $17. However having private transport into a capital city where they drop you off at your door is always worth the extra money for me, especially at night.

Did I enjoy the day, absolutely. Good travel partners, great guides and drivers and smiling customs officials. Would I recommend this trip? No. If La Union is on your agenda then maybe but you can always get there another way. There are other things to spend your money on aside from expensive transportation but keep in mind. Private transportation into a Latin American capital city is always a top priority for me.

I am glad that I did it, but we always say that don't we.

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