Checking the map for how to get to my next destination, Chalatenango, it looked like I would have to skirt around a large lake to get to where I wanted to go. Unless…..there was a way to cross the lake. I asked and it appeared there surely was. What luck! Not only did I not have to detour and later retract my steps, I got a boat ride too.
Armed with bold ambition, I got directions to where I had to catch a bus which would take me to the ferry. I sat on the sidewalk with a señor selling handmade hammocks and had a chat whilst waiting. The minibus arrived and we roared off through town and down to the water’s edge. A local boy was racing our vehicle on his push bike, much to the merriment of two other children on board. He was going pretty fast over the heavily cobbled roads and I can’t imagine it would have been a comfortable ride.
Down at the dock, I was directed to a Señor in a smart white polo-shirt. Boat across the lake to San Francisco Lempa? Si, 5 dólares. Perdón?? 5 dólares. How long will the trip take? Oh, about 10 minutes. 5 dólares?!? Si. I was astounded. USD5 is way out of kilter for what one would expect for a ten minute boat road. But then I saw the reason why. A boatload of foreign tourists puttered along on a cruise of the lake. I understand that some like their third world country experience sanitised, but allowing themselves to be financially exploited like this creates a duel economy which doesn’t do anyone (particularly the locals!) any good. I’m a firm believer in grassroots travel – it’s way more ethical and you truly get to experience all a country has to offer.
The boat ride across the lake was lovely, though. Clusters of mauve coloured water hyacinths formed tiny islets past which the little boat was manoeuvred. All backdropped by hills draped thickly with tropical vegetation. On the other side, I enquired of some locals where to catch the bus to San Francisco Lempa, when a small group of soldiers and a military policeman standing nearby piped up and said they would take me there. I had a pleasant chat with them as we hiked up the hill to where the bus went past. They ended up boarding the bus with me and making sure the bus assistant knew where I wanted to go, then jumped off. I must admit, that was my first armed escort in Central America.
As the bus climbed further up the hill, one got glimpses of the beautiful lake I had just crossed. We drove alongside it higher up the hill for quite some time and I was glad to have paid the money for the lake crossing to have this beautiful vista on the other side. Eventually, we pulled into Chalatenango. I really liked the look of this large town. It had quite a prosperous feel to it, with department stores selling a range of goods rather than the ubiquitous American second hand clothing stores. The pleasant bustle of locals added to the vibe.
I got off the bus to explore a little further. The central plaza was quite unusual in that there was a large military garrison on one side of it. Evidently it was built during the Civil War to sort out those pesky guerrillas. As one would expect, there was also a fairly thorough guarding of the garrison, including a couple of soldiers wearing balaclavas. How they managed that in this heat is beyond me!
I located a bus that would take me west to my next destination and jumped on board. Shortly afterwards we picked up a most entertaining hawker… This señor stood at the front of the bus addressing the punters. Then he pulled out of his satchel a blue pen. Nothing fancy, just a plain blue biro. And started banging on about it. For one whole minute. I’ve never heard anyone exult the virtues of a blue pen quite to this extent before. But then there was more! Not only did you get this amazing blue pen, but you also got a black pen and a red pen all for USD1! And if that wasn’t enough, there was a free gift. Of a black marker pen. Looked like an ordinary black marker pen to me, but somehow this hombre managed to market it for a further 30 seconds. And…. a red marker pen. Now we had a blue pen, a black pen, a red pen, a black marker pen AND a red marker pen all for USD1!! Incredible.
As our humble hombre packed his items back into his satchel, I thought the show was over. How wrong I was… He pulls out a toothbrush. Just an ordinary plastic toothbrush. There followed an enthusiastic monologue about qualities of said toothbrush. For another minute. But what about the free gift?? He reaches into his satchel and pulls out one of the blue wonder pens and the kitschiest little notebook in town. What they had in common with the toothbrush was beyond me, apart from the fact you might be able to use the duo to record your daily dental regime. But of course, there’s more! Our hombre pulls out of his Tardis of a satchel a small flashlight. One can only assume that señoras would use that to check that their wayward niño had actually used the transcendental toothbrush the way the Good Lord intended. I nearly gave this sensational salesman some money just for the entertainment value!
I was dropped off at a crossroad to catch another bus heading north to La Palma. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long as it was hot and there wasn’t a lot of shade. On board my next and last bus for the day, I had enough room to kick back (as much as you can on a cramped Salvadorian bus…) and really enjoy the scenery. We reached what I thought was the fringes of La Palma and some people hopped off. I thought I would wait until we got to the town centre, however, had no concept of how tiny this little town is as we roared right out of it again! Not to matter, I just went on to the next town, San Ignacio, which ended up being a far better choice.
San Ignacio isn’t in slightest bit touristy, which was lovely. Just a small rural Salvadorian town close to the Honduran border. It had a lovely tranquil, community feel about it and I enjoyed a most pleasant evening at a local pupusaria adjacent to the town plaza, watching the locals interact with genuine comradery. There was someone playing a saxophone in the plaza which provided a soulful soundtrack as the sun slipped down over the mountains through a scarlet sky.