We left Antigua early as we knew that the Guatemala/El Salvador border crossing might turn out to be a long one. We had a beautiful drive south-east down off the highlands towards the border at La Hachadura. We even got a good view of Volcano Pacaya which was still smoking away after it’s eruption 10 days ago, the afternoon after we climbed it.
We had understood that there would be a long line of trucks queuing at the border to enter El Salvador and as tourists we should overtake them as they were lining up for the commercial queue. However what we didn’t expect is that this queue of trucks would start 16km from the border! These poor truckers have to wait 7-10 days in a line on an empty road to enter El Salvador. Ours wasn’t the only border crossing, there were 4 all within a short drive of ours. What this is doing to business, I can just imagine. Of course with all these lorries full of goods just sitting on the road there is need for security, so most of the trucks had armed guards with them too. The problem for us was that the trucks we were trying to overtake were on a narrow winding road through the hills and of course you guessed it, there were trucks coming into Guatemala the other way. I think it must have been some of the most intense driving for Steve in our whole 6 months on the road. The trucks were parked up nose to tail in the right hand lane, we had to overtake on the left and when we met something coming the other way we had to somehow squeeze through the tiny gap. The road had no hard shoulder and often it was elevated or rocky to the side, so there was no hope of pulling off even with 4 wheel drive. The straight bits weren’t too bad, the truckers were a friendly and helpful lot. Many of the them were laid out in hammocks slung under their rigs or playing cards at the side of the road. With such a long wait, they were also happy to have some distraction. They waved Steve into tiny spaces, just centimetres from their stationary wagons, while the huge juggernauts inched past us the other way, just millimetres from our side. I remember one passing Steve’s window at such a close distance that it brought to mind a snake slithering past and I was just waiting to hear the screech of metal on metal. We would try and make up some distance when the road coming the other way was clear but this got increasingly difficult as the road started to wind through the hills. Initially I got out to run ahead to look round blind corners to check for oncoming traffic, before waving the truck onwards out of a possible passing place. However as the corners got more and more frequent this became harder and harder. I’m pretty fit but I couldn’t keep it up for long. It must of made for a unusual sight and the truckers, welcome for a distraction cheered us on. A kind man who was passing on a motorcycle started to help us out by waving to us when the coast was clear. He offered me a lift on the back of his motorbike to look ahead, initially I turned it down. I like to think of myself as a reasonably responsible person, who doesn’t just jump onto the back of a stranger’s bike without a helmet. Anyway the last time I went on a back of a motorbike was 18 years ago in Nigeria and that didn’t end well with the bike breaking down and leaving us stranded in the dark until Steve realised I was no longer behind him, but that is a whole another story. In the end though, when I felt I could run no more, I jumped on the back of his bike to look ahead. However when we passed trucks coming the other way, I had to run back to help Steve see his right side. Alisha had gallantly jumped into my seat to help push in and out the wing mirrors to give us a few extra centimetres but without wing mirrors Steve couldn’t see just how close he was to the stationary trucks. In the end in my terrible Spanish, I asked the kind guy on the motorcycle if he would help us out all the way to the border, we would pay him. Luckily, he agreed. At one of the unbelievably tight pass a guy jumped out of a truck coming the other way and helped us back into an implausibly tight spot, so they could pass. It had got even harder at that point as it wasn’t just us trying to overtake the lorries, we’d been caught up by a few cars and minibuses. So when we had to reverse into a small spot they also had to back up and find a spot for themselves. The guy coming the other way turned out to be a “tramidores” or fixer who helps vehicles negotiate the border crossing. He jumped on the back of our friend’s bike and helped him spot both oncoming trucks around corners but also good passing places. It took us over an hour to travel the 16 kms.
The photo was taken on one of the wider parts of the road, there wasn’t a chance to even think about a photo on the tricker parts.
At the border there was another jam of trucks as they were turning right into the cargo section but we found a spot on the left and with the help of our fixer we stamped ourselves and the truck out of Guatemala. The next obstacle was the bridge over the river demarcating the border between the 2 counties. It was completely bottlenecked with trucks, it looked like it was going to take us 3 or 4 hours to cross the matter of metres to El Salvador. Our fixer even suggested that for an additional fee of $30 he would go forward and get all the paperwork sorted for when we eventually crossed. However, Steve had heard that fixers were not allowed to complete paperwork so he declined. To be fair to our guy through, he negotiated with the lorry drivers on the bridge to let us squeeze through any gaps that opened up and slowly we make our way forward. We weren’t going to the commercial customs queue, so it wasn’t a problem for the truckers. Eventually it only took us an hour on the bridge and we were through to El Salvadorian side to complete their paperwork. That was relatively straightforward and the fixer wasn’t even allowed in the office. He then took Steve down a back alley to an unmarked office and tried to sell him a special permit for the rest of the Central American counties but Steve was very skeptical about its legitimacy, so turned it down. Overall we very happy to pay him the fee for his services, even if the El Salvadorian officials did tell Steve that everything should be free and he shouldn’t pay anyone anything to help us through. Whilst we could have coped with the paperwork ourselves him and the guy on the motorbike really helped getting us past the trucks.
We thought we were free to drive off into our new country, when we were stopped 100m from the border by the police and asked why we didn’t have a permit for the motorcycle on the back, luckily we don’t have one it is just the cover for our spare tyres. They then had a look in a few lockers, they pulled out our extensive medical kit but luckily only opened up the bandage box, not our medicine boxes for almost all eventualities. Our spare parts, especially our right-hand drive headlights that we needed to pass the UK import inspection caused them some concern though, we are still carrying them as spares and for when we return back. The only spare parts you can import must be for personal use and our copious spares caused them some concern but eventually they let us pass on.
I couldn’t believe when the whole ordeal was over firstly that the truck didn’t had a single scratch on it and how well everyone kept their cool. Steve drove amazingly and I’m sure defied the laws of physics at times. The truck drivers both those stationary and coming in the opposite direction, smiled and waved to our “Gracias Señors”. We had one guy shouting at us for overtaking and getting in his way but the other guys stood up for us and said we were tourists and were meant to be passing.
We initially had an uneventful pretty drive up the volcanic hills towards that night’s stop. Google maps had given us a choice of routes and keen to avoid the backstreets of the small town of Juayua that the other route offered, we took Google’s first choice. In retrospect turning off the tar road was a mistake. It started out quite well on a single lane dirt road though the coffee plantations. There were quite a few slippery steep gradients but nothing that the truck couldn’t handle. However, once we passed a small village, the track just started to get narrower and narrower. For a couple of kilometres it even turned into more of a walking track, you could see that vehicles had passed through at some point but not for a very long time. After another quick run on foot through the countryside we realised that the track seemed to be getting slightly wider and anyway turning round would be virtually impossible so we pushed on. Eventually we made it back onto the tar and onto our spot for the next few nights, Finca Portezuelo on a coffee plantation, north of Juayua.
Yet again I couldn’t get a shot at the worst bit but this gives you a good idea of the path.
The following day after an early night, we had a relaxing day of schooling, hiking and horse riding through the coffee plantation we were staying on and ended with a campfire which we cooked a warming stew on. The surroundings were stunning, high up in volcanic hills, planted in patterns on the steep slopes to stop soil erosion. It was cold in the evenings and the higher hills were shrouded in clouds. That night the wind blew so strongly that I made Steve move the truck away from the trees in the middle of night.
Juayua is famous locally for its food market at the weekend. It is just off the the beautiful “Ruta de Flores” a winding road through the volcanic hills with many flowering trees on the verges. People gather to try freshly cooked El Salvadorian cuisine from stalls surrounding the plaza in front of the main church. We worked up an appetite by hiking the 6km down hill from the Finca. The steak and chicken dishes we tried were good but not as different as the other Central American cuisine than we had been lead to believe. It was interesting just wandering around the bustling centre of town filled with locals and El Salvadorian visitors alike. There was entertainment and singers…..
…which received mixed reviews.
No one was keen on the hike back up the hill, so we had roughly worked out the schedule of the local chicken bus, as the road ran out just after our Finca. Amazingly we guessed right and we could hear the rattle of the old US school bus for a couple of minutes before we saw it. We flagged it down and squeezed on amongst everyone returning from their Saturday shop in town. We crawled our way up the hill, gears grinding the whole way. The driver very calm, especially compared with many we’ve seen recently, which was a good thing as we were the last on and squeezed right up against the windscreen. The system worked well though and he pulled to a halt whenever someone banged on the wall of the bus to get off, we were almost the last off at the end of the road.