Posted by: Sailing Camelot | March 31, 2012

Mar 28th – 3 Countries in 3 Days!

After a good few days of being totally pampered and spoiled by the staff at the Bahia del Sol Resort, we decide it’s time to venture out and explore Central America a little.

One of the many tours offered  is called “Three Countries in Three Days”.  Sounds right up our alley, short but intense, so we book our spot. http://www.tourinelsalvador.com/

On the morning of Wed 21st we embark on this new adventure that will see us traveling through El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Thankfully, we’re a small group: just Tom and I and another couple, Bill and Karen of the motor vessel Odern from Australia.

DAY ONE – El Salvador, through Guatemala, to Copan Honduras

By 9 o’ clock we’re all comfortably seated in a small air-conditioned van, along with our guide Dionisio and our driver/bodyguard Eric, headed to the archeological sites of San Andreas and Joya de Ceren – a couple of hours’ drive from the city of San Salvador- to see some Mayan ruins.

Along the road Dionisio, in perfect English and with a humorous twist, gives us a brief presentation of his homeland. We learn that El Salvador exports coffee, cocoa, sugar cane, textiles and indigo.

 And people:  2 millions Salvadorians live in the USA.

Traffic on the highway

Don't need a permit to carry a Machete!

 He briefly touches the sore subject of the ferocious civil war that thankfully ended 20 years ago. Many young boys were recruited, armed and trained to fight. As a result, these now-grown-up young men have no skills other than handling firearms. Nowadays most of them are employed as security guards: in fact, wherever we go we see men armed with intimidating rifles, just patrolling anything from shopping centers to banks to restaurants. The crime rate is pretty low and the nation quite safe, no doubt thanks to these menacing-looking gentlemen doing their job…

Cashew Nut developing

Almost ready to pick!

We reach San Andreas, a smaller site where the ancient Maya working class used to live, sort of the suburbs… I’m immediately impressed by the thick tropical vegetation surrounding the ruins. For the first time in my life I see cocoa, cashew nut, avocado and mango trees, all growing in the wild, bearing great big fruits. The flowers are big and vividly colored. The climate really works wonders here!

Cocoa Fruit. This is how Nutella starts...

We walk up and down winding paths, marveling at the traces of this ancient civilization. Smart people the Mayans, judging by the structure of their buildings and their aqueduct…

Sauna and Changing Room

Ruins of San Andreas

And playful, too! There’s a game court resembling a small soccer field, complete with their version of locker rooms for the players and even a sauna! I am told the sauna was heavily used before an important game to purify the soul, since at the end of the game the losers were offered in sacrifice to the Gods…

The Shaman's House

About five kilometers away we find the bigger and more famous site of Joya de Ceren, where the city officials and wealthy people lived. Even from the ruins we can tell this was the upper-class neighborhood, with bigger and more luxurious houses.

Here we are!

The Jungle-like setting of Joya de Ceren

It is strongly suspected that the various round hills surrounding this place are not merely hills, but ruins waiting to be dug out! 

A sacred ceremony going on - right corner

We visit the museum as well, loaded with amazing artifacts found on this site.

All this cultural stuff is making me hungry! Dionisio, always very attentive, loads us up in the van promising a good lunch in a beautiful setting. True to his word, he takes us up the mountains surrounding Lake Coatepeque, a small and beautiful volcanic lake.

Lake Coatepeque

This is a volcano crater!

We sit at a simple restaurant that serves us an excellent and abundant meal, enjoying the view of the lake on one side and Ernesto the security guide armed to his teeth on the other side, patrolling the deserted mountain street… What a strange contrast…

Luscious vegetation

The rest of the day is spent driving to our next destination: Copan, Honduras. To get there we have to exit El Salvador, drive through Guatemala and finally enter Honduras. There is a more direct route -after all El Salvador and Honduras share a border- but apparently it’s a road fit for goats, not vehicles…

So we go thru the Border Dance. Off the van at El Salvador’s border, check out of the country, walk a few yards into Guatemala, check into the country. All this involves standing in line at times, having your passport thoroughly scrutinized and profusely stamped by both Countries’ officials, and at times having to pay a nominal fee (US$ 2  or 3) depending on the mood of the official on duty. Not much is consistent… Anyway, welcome to Guatemala!

A flurry of men shaking fistfuls of currency in our faces and yelling “cambio!” surrounds us right outside the Immigration office offering to exchange money, but our tour guide Dionisio discourages us. Apparently, the US$ is widely accepted anywhere and in case we still want local currency he’ll direct us to a more convenient source at destination.

I should also mention that whenever we are on our feet, taking even a few steps around, our driver Eric is shadowing us. Eric is a 37 year old active-duty Police Officer in San Salvador, taking on extra work as driver during his days off. He’s always behind us, a reassuring presence making sure we’re safe. He’s also an excellent driver.

For the next five hours (!) we remain in the air conditioned van, no stops.  Our tour guide wants to be at destination absolutely before dark, as the roads are really treacherous and there’s no illumination.

We have plenty of time to notice the difference between the roads in El Salvador (smooth, straight and fairly new) and the roads in Guatemala (uneven, potholed, unpaved and twisted). It’s very mountainous terrain.  Relatively short distances -like the 153 Km we have to cover today- take a much longer time to cross, mainly because we have to go up a steep mountain and down another…

Finally we reach the border between Guatemala and Honduras: another short Border Dance, then on another hour and a half to our destination. We arrive in Copan well after dark, but safely.

Our Hotel in Copan, Honduras

Never trust a Pink Hotel!

It is with great relief that I see our hotel, the Graditas Mayas.

It’s cute, colonial style, very clean and I like it a lot. Until I open the door to our room. It’s more like a cell, 8 ft x 10 ft, with a full size bed, no windows. The bathroom is tiny but the star of the show is definitely the shower head.  A curious electrical device is installed on the shower head to be plugged into an outlet high up in the wall to obtain hot water. The many live wires sticking out the duct-taped device make me instantly forego any thought of showering in favor of a sink-bath with cold water, thus avoiding electrocution.

Torture Device? Or a very odd water heating system?

I’m not complaining, here; it’s an adventure, right? Tom is thrilled because there’s an air-conditioning unit in the room (which we turn on as we leave for dinner), I’m just grateful to have a bed with clean sheets!

Copan is a small and pretty town with very steep and narrow cobblestone streets. There’s a lot of Gringos walking around, I guess everyone is here to visit the ruins just like us… The local “taxi cabs” are very interesting, too. 

Streets of Copan

The only vehicles that fit on the roads

Copan Taxi loaded with friendly passengers

Dinner is a quick affair, mainly due to an electrical blackout that throws the whole town into darkness. Funny enough, after a few minutes we hear multiple generators being started: every little store has one, so they can continue to conduct business despite the blackouts. This, I’m told, is pretty much a daily occurrence…

Our hotel doesn’t have a generator, which means no air conditioning. Tom is deeply disturbed by this, while I’m wondering how we’ll both fit into that tiny bed… We needn’t have worried, as we both are bone-tired and fall asleep within minutes.

My last conscious thought before giving in to slumber is: “they should have called this tour Three Countries in One Day!”

DAY TWO – Copan, Honduras to Antigua, Guatemala

Early in the morning, surprisingly well rested, we’re on our way to visit the famous Mayan Ruins of Copan.

Upon entering the site we receive a warm welcome by a half-dozen parrots flying overhead. Flashes of red, green, blue are everywhere!

Never seen one of these fly before!

I named this one The Red Baron

There’s a huge cage where sick birds are taken care of and released when restored to health. I witness one big colorful bird flying about in the wild but retuning to the cage every few minutes, hanging on the metallic net and calling to his mate, inside recuperating from a broken wing. These birds mate for life!

Juanita, come out! I miss you...

Parrots' Feeding Station

Tom has to forcibly remove me from the birds’ sanctuary. I’m so enthralled with them…

Nothing prepared me for the amazing sight that suddenly appears: a vast, flat, grassy field with well preserved ruins everywhere! There are steles, sacrificing altars, pyramids, sculptures, tombs, a soccer field and a huge building with 64 steps, an arena/stadium and more… Breathtaking!

Copan Ruins

Some majestic buildings!

This is a full-blown city! It’s a huge, sprawled site still being excavated. In fact there are archaeologists coming and going, mostly disappearing down mysterious tunnels just recently discovered.

Mayan Tortoise

A Sacrificial Altar

It takes us about three hours at a sustained pace to see most of it, and I’m pretty sure we could have spent three more at the adjoining Botanical Walk.

The Stairway - 64 steps

Two not-so-ancient relics...

But we have a long trip ahead of us. So, reluctantly, back in the van we go. It will be a good six hours before we arrive in Antigua, Guatemala.

Looking out of the window - Guatemala

Almost two hours are spent just crossing chaotic Guatemala City, population 1.1 million. What a zoo!  The city is divided into nine districts and it’s very easy to get lost: we did!

Here we go! Guatemala City (the Zoo)

Overwhelming Chaos

A very acceptable way to ride the bus

Traffic Cops

Despite Eric’s best efforts, we arrive in pitch black darkness and with some difficulty finally manage to locate our home for the night, the Hotel del Carmen. I’m relieved to see a spacious room with TWO queen beds. Still no hot water but who cares at this point… I’m much more interested in the bed!!!

Our valiant driver : "Steady Nerves" Eric

DAY THREE – Antigua, Guatemala and back to Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

Amazing what a good night’s sleep and an abundant breakfast can do for the weary traveler…  We’re all perky and cheerful as we get ready to discover Antigua.

Hotel del Carmen - Antigua, Guatemala

Just a cute guy I picked up along the way...

Decor at Hotel del Carmen

As soon as we step out of the hotel we are surrounded by two of the tiniest women I’ve ever seen. They’re Mayan young ladies, selling their hand-woven goods. Tiny they may be, but their personalities are certainly big and their persistence is legendary!

The Original Mayan Spitfires

Both speaking very good English, they entertain us -especially Tom- with their antics and playful banter, until they manage to relieve us of some useless currency (in their words). Tom is howling and doubling over in laughter, while I wonder how I ended up with all these colorful shawls and tablecloths I don’t need… But as my husband says, he’d have paid twice as much for the entertainment: better than a comedy club!

Tom and his new friends

Our little group slowly progresses towards the central plaza, which is the hub of activities. We just love taking it all in, the colors, the local ladies dressed in their colorful, hand-woven dresses, the old buildings, the cobblestone streets.

Local Ladies of Antigua

I just love their colorful fabrics!

The beautiful central Plaza

We end up boarding a sight-seeing little bus for a thorough tour of this gorgeous town.

By the way, Antigua has 48 churches (!), some dating back to 1550. The whole town is celebrating lent by flying purple cloth from the building’s windows and there are many festivities planned for Semana Santa, the holy week before Easter. I would just love to be here for Easter, it must be spectacular.

Antigua Town Hall

Our fun ride for touring Antigua

Our friendly driver Juan Carlos speaks perfect English as well: as it turns out, he spent many years living about 15 miles from where we used to live in California. Small world, isn’t it? And he has a wonderful sense of humor (what do they put in the water here???), knows his town inside-out and consistently declares his love and pride for Antigua while he illustrates the various sights.

The Public Laundry

Just another laundry day in Antigua

These women work hard!

His little bus hiccups up and down town, stopping very often to allow us to take pictures or hop off to visit a church, see a monument, and admire a garden.

A Newer Church

the Oldest Church - year 1550

Santa Catalina Arch

I even have him stop the bus abruptly when I notice a hefty puff of smoke coming out of one of the volcanoes surrounding the town. Must-take-picture! I’ve never seen a volcano spewing smoke before…

Is the little volcano burping ???

El Fuego (volcano's name)

The final stop is the Jade Museum. There is a particular kind of Jade only found here in Antigua and in Burma, as we learn from the young lady who gives us the tour. We spend a good hour and a small fortune here, but it was so totally worth it!

The Jade Queen at the Jade Museum

Antigua deserves so much more than a passing glance; I wish we could have stayed here a few days, but have to be content with what I got, which is not too bad after all.

View of Antigua from the surrounding hills

With great reluctance we all pile up in our own little van to undertake the long and tedious trip back to El Salvador.

We’ll briefly stop for a quick lunch along the way, but still – it’s a solid seven-hour trip.

It’s almost 8 o’clock and dark by the time we pull into Bahia Del Sol; we’re quite a sorry sight, tired and dusty.  These three days have been truly intense. I would have liked to spend less time driving, but there was no other way to do this tour.

Both Tom and I are thoroughly satisfied with what we’ve seen and learned, and grateful to Dionisio (the guide) and Eric (the driver) for their professional and friendly assistance. We know they worked hard for us to have a good time.

Tres Amigos : from left Eric, Tom and Dionisio

I’m yawning so hard I think I’ll dislocate my jaw…  Tom is gingerly trotting towards our boat, mumbling something about a comfy bed and hot water showers…

With all the wonderful things and places we’ve seen, it sure is good to be home on Camelot – the perfect space in no particular place…


Responses

  1. bellissime foto e bellissimi posti! che bravi!

  2. What wonderful experiences you two are having. Makes me want to sign up for the El Salvador Rally next year….We are in La Paz heading north to San Carlos to leave the boat for the summer.

  3. hey Tom I’m really glad that you liked my country and that you enjoyed your stay here in El Salvador , KIT. take care.

  4. Makes me wish we could turn the boat around! We are leaving Turtle bay and should be in San Diego next week. I think I will have to give your link to a few people at home asking me to describe cruising in central america.. you do a better job at it than I do!

    Andrew from Destiny


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