Arriving in El Salvador – the longer report

It’s always exciting when you cross the border from one county to the next. You never know quite what to expect but you know it will be different, exciting and there will be a process of adjustment.
I left the hotel and walked the 100 or so metres to the border. Hundreds of lorries were lined up on my right and I wondered if any of those I’d waved to 10km back the evening before had made it to the front and thought of how differently we had spent the last 15 hours.

When you arrive at the immigration building there are no signs directing you where to go or any helpful guides pointing you in the right direction. You have to rely on your own sense of judgement and pick out the right people to approach. While you are darting around various characters pop out of nowhere and they are all trying to get money either through changing money or just begging. The chap who targeted me was on crutches and was missing the lower part of his right leg. While he was persistent he wasn’t intrusive and if I had had money easily available I would have given it to him but one lesson I have learnt is make sure people don’t see you have cash. Today I did this rather effectively by actually turning up to the border with only six dollars.

Once I had located the right window I also met a fellow traveller who was also was Scottish (we get everywhere) – being a team makes life a little easier as you are less vulnerable! Once we had our passports stamped we crossed the 400m or so of no-man’s-land to seek entry to El Salvador. Here you have to go through the same rigmarole and find the right window to present your passport etc. There was a small queue with an assortment of people trying to cross the border and of course our one legged man was also ever present and using his crutch to poke around a puddle to find some money.

While the immigration officer is examining your passport you try to act as calm and relaxed as possible because there is always the chance that someone will try and find a way to extract a little extra money from you if they can. As they flick through the pages nosily checking where you have been in the past I stand with my head as close to the round window as possible trying to take advantage of the cool breeze created by the air conditioning inside, a luxury round here.

Once all the paperwork is done you are released into a new world and you have to adjust quickly. My basic checklist includes finding a bank to get money, a supermarket to get an honest idea about prices and gauging the reaction from the locals. The latter is easy as you just need to smile and say hi to a few people and you realise they are fine and think you are as mad as everyone else has. The bank and supermarket were going to come after 12km of running.

All the maps you look at for the first few km of El Salvador are completely deserted but that is far from the reality. The scenery has changed. In some places if seems more yellow from where the sun has done its best to scorch the landscape and in other areas the fields are green with maize. There are lots of cows and trees and there is something very tranquil. The houses seem a little more basic but generally very similar to the rural areas of Guatemala. It’s an odd thing to notice but the roads seem quieter as well and while the actual surface is not nearly as smooth it’s a welcome extra.

There seem to be more people around the road here and that might not be a good thing as many don’t seem to be doing much but they all seem friendly. As I get closer to the town things build up and shops start appearing. Everyone is buzzing around trying to sell something or find someone. The first lady I meet in the town says hi and when I ask her for the bank she points down the street and shakes my hand with a ten dollar note!

The bank situation nearly had me in a tricky position. I lost my Visa card in Guatemala but luckily had a MasterCard and Amex at the ready. I approach the first bank and am immediately stopped by a guard with a pump action shotgun. I explain that I merely want to get money out and he points me to the machine. I insert my card and pin and request $100 (they use dollars in El Salvador) – declined as does not accept MasterCard. Yikes! I remain calm and make my way to the second bank and repeat the process – declined as does not accept MasterCard. I will admit that I start to worry at about this moment. After convincing the guard to allow me into the bank I speak with the chief and he explains that his machine needs Visa or Plus to work and he can’t give me funds without it. He suggests I try the Bank of America 50km in a different direction from where I am going. The gun totting guard suggests I try one more bank across the street so off I meekly go. I insert the card, type the pin and hit the $100 button and am rewarded with that lovely revolving sound that sings “you money is on the way”. As relief washes over me I repeat the process immediately and get the same amazing sound. I have money! I want to go back to the crowded bank and thank the guard but I think better of advertising myself as a tourist with hundreds of dollars!

After a quick visit to the supermarket I leave the town and head south. My target for the day is a beach called Playa Costa Azul about 30km away. As I leave the town I buy some fruit from a lady on the side of the road mostly out of pity rather than want. She is sheltering under a poorly built palm hut with a lady in a wheelchair and a man hanging around. The fruit is in plastic bags and resting on some ice that is doing a poor job at any sort of refrigerating. We have a nice little chat about what I am doing and I then hit the road.

It was amazingly hot today despite the thin cloud cover. The terrain was either flat or on a very gradual uphill. On either side of the road there were fields growing crops or full of grazing livestock. Every so often there is a hut either made out of palm or corrugated iron with a hammock hanging and something for sale. In most cases it is drinks or fruit (watermelon or mango are in season). There are also a lot of people either waiting for a bus on the side of a road or cycling along. The younger kids all seem to slow down and keep pace with me. They are all friendly but you can’t help but notice them inspecting what you have “on offer”.

There is no hotel at Playa Costa Azul or that is what some melon vendors have informed me but there are apparently some at the next beach. This means the run has just jumped to 40km. This is something that happens a lot and rather than getting frustrated you focus on the positive that it just means a few extra KMs are knocked off the countdown. But that doesn’t change the fact that is gets harder, the body starts to protest and it takes all your mental strength to put one foot in front of the other. You also start to wonder if there is really a hotel at the end of the day. You start to ask everyone you pass and of course the responses are mixed but you keep on going. To take you mind off the mental and physical hurt you start to plan what you will do when you arrive. I think this is why I drink a lot of beer as it is always a good motivator!

I turn off the highway and have to walk the last 2km to get to the hotel. The scenery is amazing. The road has turned to a track and the cobbles and rocks are covered in black sand. Trees line the track with green field behind them. Small houses sit back from the track. Most are pretty basic and are in different stages of disrepair but they all have hammocks hanging with people relaxing and waving as you pass. You can hear the ocean ahead of you and you start praying that the day will be over soon.

I finally arrive at the first hotel to be told it is $55 a night (and includes breakfast!). When I explain what I am doing and what my budget is I am directed to restaurants further down the street (a loose term). I finally find a restaurant with a room available and despite being shocked by the price (and more by how basic it is for that price) I settle in.

While I would love to tell you that I then explore and learn about the local area I have to disappoint. I have run over 150KM in the last three days and after a sandwich I collapse on my bed with a beer. The rest is short lived because there is a routine to be put into action. I need to recharge my appliances, filter water (even then it tastes horrible here), rearrange my kit and importantly plan the next day’s route. This involves getting the tourist map I was given at the border and using the very limited map on my phone. There is no wifi here so no extra help available. You then need to make some judgement calls and determine where you think the most likely place for somewhere to sleep.

Its only then do I settle down and write the blog…. I can now go to sleep…. I have another 35Km to run tomorrow.

I hope this gives a little insight into arriving in a new country. I kept this sort of short and didn’t include the guy who was kind to me at a shop, the chap who altered my wheels for free or the couple who gave me a free drink and their number in case I get in problems. Every day is so different and that is what makes it a real adventure.

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