The first El Salvadorian who I asked about visiting his country advised me to avoid its capital, San Salvador, entirely. “I love my country, but….” He urged that I get a bus direct from Guatemala (where I was based) to a beach town, chill there, and try not to even go through the capital.
The countries in Central America have various reputations relating to safety. Nicaragua, for example, has just gone through a period of exceptional political -related violence. Tourism pretty much ceased there for a while. Next door, the Honduras have been described as “the most dangerous country on the planet outside a full-fledged war zone“. Even Antigua Guatemala, where I was, is a rather charmed bubble, compared say, with nearby Guatemala City. But El Salvador? I assumed it was a small, relaxed place, until I started asking around.
Much as I like waves and water, hanging out in beach towns is not really for this red-head. Instead, I opted to head inland, to the city of Santa Ana. I stayed there at ‘Casa Frolaz‘ – a hostel quite way up the hill from the city center. The attraction of Santa Ana to me, was as a stepping-off point to see volcanoes.
But to go further south, to Nicaragua, the logistically simplest way was still a bus via San Salvador. And this is where it got complicated, and I got jittery. Like much of Central America, San Salvador has various bus stations. You arrive at one, but you then need to get yourself to another station, often kilometers across the city, to get back out. Wherever a bus from Santa Ana would end up in San Salvador, the bus on to Nicaragua would leave from somewhere very different. That was going mean some sort of transit across the dreaded San Salvador.
To make matters worse, in El Salvador, there were multiple occasions where locals had decided that I was an American. I “looked” American, they said. Something about my height, skin complexion and hair colour. When I said that no, I was from Nueva Zealandia, there was always either surprise, or puzzlement (“Where?”). President Trump’s efforts to expel many Salvadorean immigrants from USA meant it was not a good idea to look like an American. Salvadoreans were not that happy about Trump.
(Memo to self: Is is time to get that T-shirt that says “I am not American” in twenty languages? There’s no point in one that says “I am a New Zealander”, most of the planet has no idea where it is. Reminds me – there was this guy in Kazakhstan who asked me where I was from, and when I said New Zealand, after a moment’s reflection, he said “Ah, so you’re American”).
While I was at Casa Frolaz, and could use its good wifi facility, I wanted to buy my bus ticket from San Salvador to Managua, Nicaragua. I wasn’t getting much joy from the Tica Bus website, but they did have some sort of an office in Santa Ana. One of Casa Frolaz’s owners (It is run by Bruno and Francisco) drew me a sketch map of down-town, with the approximate location of the Tica bus office. It was just off the town square, and on the second floor. Armed with the map, I headed off on the more than 16 blocks down to the city center. Along the way, I passed numerous guys standing guard outside various doorways – typically cradling pump-action shotguns. Memorably, one stood outside a cheese-shop. I value a good cheese too, but … an armed guard?
After wandering around Santa Ana’s town square, I tried to find that Tica Bus office. I was just crossing a street when a bearded, middle-aged man intercepted me, and asked, in good English, if he could help me. Now this happens a lot when you’re a traveler, obviously not a local, and showing obvious signs of searching. The reasons behind these approaches can be anything from being set up for a scam, to genuine hospitality. In this case, I went with gut instinct, and decided to go with the flow. I explained to him that I was looking for the Tica Bus office, somewhere on a second floor, near here.
The man furrowed his brow – he had heard of it, though wasn’t sure exactly where it was. He would try and lead me to it. Within ten minutes we were in the little office – I wouldn’t have found it without extra help. I settled on a scary-sounding 03:00 bus to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, which departed from San Salvadoor’s San Bernito bus station.
Throughout the ticket buying process, my ‘guide’ helped with translation, and some reciprocation was clearly called for. So I asked him if he would like a coffee. He did – but came down to inside or outside. The Tica Bus office was right above a spartan, chain-style, but quiet and cool cafe. I preffered somewhere “outside”, but his idea of outside turned out to be grabbing a take-away at a kiosk and drinking it standing on the edge of a busy footpath. So we went back to the chain cafe, ordered a coffee and cake each, and took a table by the window.
My guide’s name was Andres. He had done his time as a soldier during El Salvador’s war in the 1990s, being stationed somewhere up near the Honduran border. After that he had been in the USA, but now, he taught English in the local park. He charged $3 an hour, and clients would contact him by mobile phone. Proudly, he told me that he knew more than sixty English words for colours, and when I asked for details, he reached into his satchel, and pulled out his hand-written teaching notes.
The conversation somehow changed to gardening, something both of us had done plenty of. To make some horticultural point, a full-length machete suddenly swept across the table. It collected my coffee cup, which I rescued before it hit the floor. I had no idea that he had a machete, and certainly no warning that one was about to materialise. Its appearance over the table was almost magic.
The machete had a dual-function. Andres explained, that if ever someone appeared to be following him on some back-street – the machete would appear – along with a blunt promise – “I’ll kill you”. And an explicit reference to his M16 rifle during the war.
I paid the bill (the cafe was either unaware of a major weapon being brandished at one of their front tables, or took it as an everyday event) and we walked outside. Andres showed me where his machete was housed – along his body and carefully shielded by clothing, but accessible in a flash. We said our farewells and I wandered back up towards the hostel. Somewhere along the street was that guy defending the cheese shop – and I wondered if I good get the courage to ask him for a photograph. In the event, within a second of us seeing each other – he called out to me. We had a great conversation for twenty minutes or so. Roy had spent 20 years in the American military – before they discovered that he had signed up under a false name. Despite those long years of service, that, they decided, was fraud – and he was deported. After our chat, breaking up what must be one hell of a boring job, Roy was only too happy to let me take his photo.
Back at the hostel, the owner put the El Salvador’ armed guards into some perspective. The reality was that after the war, there were a lot of people who “only knew guns”. This situation was skillfully taken advantage of by those in power – to employ those people as security guards. So rather than seeing implied violence, a positive spin on the whole deal was to see that a guy with a gun in every second doorway was just giving people employment. He also talked of a positive side to San Salvador – that the government had made quite an effort to ‘clean up’ part of the central city. His general message was that some parts of San Salvador aren’t too bad, but the usual care was needed – but keep off the streets at night.
San Benito bus station is in an apparently, ‘good’ part of San Salvador city. But the bus station where I would get to first, in a more eastern part of the city, was in a far less salubrious area. To get to San Benito I could try my luck with the taxis, or, given that my greatest fear in foreign cities is actually the taxis, was to walk (after obtaining a machete?). But either way, I needed to get to San Benito, and get there by nightfall. I could then hang out, reading, until my bus left at 03:00.
Incredibly enough, I don’t have a phone (!), so no Google Maps for me, and I was about a week away from being introduced to maps.me (which are independent of being online), but I do have a satellite-based mapping GPS. If I can locate places on GoogleEarth, I can enter their coordinates into the GPS – and an arrow will then point in their direction, and give me a distance. I did this, and when the time came, Casa Froja told me where to catch the bus to San Salvador – it was just two blocks away and almost opposite a nice place that I had eaten at a couple of times – Pupuseria Margarita.
The bus arrived just as I got there, and I headed down to the second-last row of seats. It wasn’t very full, but soon filled to standing-room only. I gave up my seat for a man’s wife and sat on the rear steps. The husband and I got to chatting (not the right word!), in my very limited Spanish. From what I could make out, once we entered San Salvador, rather than staying on this bus all the way to its final stop, that I should get out at an earlier stop. From there, he said, it wasn’t far to get to San Benito.
“It’s just a 5 or 6 block walk” he said. “No, … make it 11 or 12.”
“So maybe just one or two kilometers?” I asked, hopefully.
I thought he was going to point where I should get off once we got there, but was caught off-guard when the couple said goodbye, and got off at an earlier stop. Had I understood him correctly? No-problem, one of the women sitting in the back row had heard our conversation, and indicated I should get off with her. It wasn’t far on, and from the little bus shelter where we stood – she waved an arm obliquely across the road – “San Bernito!”.
My GPS told me that San Benito bus station was just over 750m away – comfortingly close, but that was in a straight line. To get anywhere in that direction I would first have to cross a busy motorway, and go under an overpass. Having negotiated that as far as the center strip, I began to gain on a lone walker in front of me. So it was, than in San Salvador – it was me who spooked a local guy. He spun around as he heard me approaching from behind, but soon worked out I was no threat. He was heading in the direction of San Bernito himself. Then we both got spooked by someone else powering up behind us, who turned out to be only a jogger.
We made the final, perilous crossing of the motorway, and turned up a side road. Then – and I could barely believe my luck – El Salvador’s National Museum of Anthropology appeared on our left. I double-checked with my temporary guide that San Benito was simply straight on, said ‘Adios’, and pulled into the museum. I left my bags with security, and went to see what the place offered. There was the expected displays of pre and post Spanish history (the featured image is one of their ancient petroglyphs). But then a big focus on the contemporary immigration issues, refugees, trafficking, and exploring what an Salvadorian identity is. I was beginning to wonder why there was nothing about the 1980s-1990s war – until I discovered an entire, separate, room about it, as I was leaving.
It was about 4:00pm by the time I finished, but there were hours still to pass until my bus left. With a cup of their own hot chocolate, I sat at an outside table the museum cafe and read until after 5:00. I heaved my packs on again, and hit the street – it would be dark within an hour and I wanted to make (dead) sure that I was safely in that San Benito bus station before then.
I headed on up the road, following the arrow on my GPS. At a park in front of several chain eating-places, including Pizza Hut, I turned up another street and was soon in the Tica Bus office. A chirpy young operator found my reservation on her computer, and said it was fine to leave my backpack there – but one thing I needed to be aware of. The office would be closed, “desde 19:00 hasta 02:15.”
Closed?!!!! 0-: For more than seven hours! That wasn’t in the script.
From the Tica office I tried to slink unobtrusively down the street to that beacon of security – Pizza Hut. Along the way I got bailed up by one pump action shotgun wielding security guard. I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but figured he was suffering PTSD from the war. For his part, he clearly thought I was mad to be wandering un-armed down the road. Excusing myself from him, I made my way into Pizza Hut. There the cheerful chap who met me at the door explained that they closed at 11pm. That left a gap of just over two hours until 02:15, when I would apparently need to roam the dark streets of San Salvador. However, he said, there was a “Dennys”, which were open 24 hours, and he waved his arm in the distance.
I had no idea what a ‘Denny’s’ was, but for now, Pizza Hut would do. I picked a small table and ordered an orange juice then moved up to a grande ‘cuatro queso’. I figured that if it proved too much, I could squirrel some bits away to eat on the coming long bus ride.
The Pizza Hut was huge, and jam-full of families with children. There was a Xmas tree, piped Xmas carols, and Fox TV Pro Wrestling coming from five surrounding large screens. The evening was enlivened even more by a small child colliding with a waitress, who was balancing a tray with two bottles of beer – just as she passed my table. In my mind ever since, I achieved instant hero status as I reached out and effortlessly caught both bottles. In the event, I didn’t, and both bottles did what bottles do when impacting a tiled floor. A small army of young, uniformed women descended on the mess with mops, brooms, large amounts of paper. One of them looked up to cheerfully say to me “you’ll never forget this restaurant!”
I went back to my book about Humboldt, ‘The Invention of Nature‘, and then decided to get a beer myself. But it was hard to concentrate for long between the screaming of kids, and the brawling, scantily clad men and women that penetrated the corners of my eyes, wherever they were focused. Towards closing time, the place emptied slightly, and the staff sang Happy Birthday to some child for the last time. I spotted the waitress who had made the remark about ‘not forgetting’ this place, about to leave. Now in her civies, she turned around as she reached the door, gave me a wave, and headed into the night.
It was probably the single-most expensive meal I had in Central America. Ten times the price of a basic black beans, eggs, rice and coffee at a local ‘tipico’, but well worth the experience. There weren’t many other options, but there were left-overs. I wrapped the remaining two slices of pizza in a serviette, stuffed them into a pocket of my mochila, and set off into the night to find out just what was a “Denny’s” (Hey, I’m a New Zealander).
The Denny’s was across a round about, and turned out to be a restaurant. Like Pizza Hut, it was packed with patrons too, also had numerous TV screens, but mercifully these had news, not wrestling.
Two big smoothies later, at 02:00 I steeled myself and headed outside, skiddered across the round about, and then up the road towards the bus station. The now somehow comforting guys with the pump-action shotguns were nowhere in sight. But in the distance I could see that the door to the bus station was surrounded by a group of shadowy figures – local hoods who knew damned well that back-packers congregated there for that 0300 bus to Nicaragua? Well, no, actually just a bunch of other travelers.
Pretty much at 02:15, the doors opened, and we all piled in. My bags were safe and sound, as I had left them, and I joined the queue for check-in. At the end of it, I was amazed to see the same young woman as the previous afternoon. Perhaps she had slept. Beside the queue was a company poster – with their FaceBook handle the bottom: viajeroticabus. My now sleep-deprived brain read that as “erotic trip bus”. Sadly, that translation was just in my head.
I got on the bus, and headed down to the back seat that I always chose. On the other side of the isle was an American. He laughed, and said foreigners typically go for those rear seats. I was, he said, the first foreigner he had seen in a week. Down-town San Salvador, where he had stayed, was “like a war-zone”. The bus set-off on it’s long way to Nicaragua, via Honduras. I now had plenty of time to reflect on what I had actually experienced in El Salvador- a list of pleasant, chatty, friendly and helpful people. And that’s what happens when you travel – you realise that most of those fears that grow inside your head, are exactly that – all … in your head.