Friday, February 29, 2008

Sorry I've been missing for the last few days. Everyone in Mexico seems to use WEP wireless encryption and a misconfiguration in my computer was preventing me from using it. I Finally got it sorted out. We're in Oaxaca now.


Typical tuc-tuc
OK, so I left off the part about the tuc-tuc on the last entry. Once we got to Antigua I left Alaine near the bus terminal with our luggage while I made a quick look around that area where we thought there were a lot of inexpensive hotels. I tried a couple of places; one was full and the other was kind of dark and deary. A lot of them just seemed to be locked up and no bell to ring. I went back to Alaine and we decided to take a tuc-tuc to to where our guide book showed 2 backpacker places right across from each other. A tuc-tuc is a little three-wheeled taxi that has a bench seat for two people behind the driver. We looked at both and chose Yellow House.

By the time we settled in it was already dark. We hadn't eaten much all day so we went out looking for dinner. Finally we settled on a little burrito shop that had graffiti all over the walls and a sign that said ask permission before writing on the wall. Alaine had a giant burrito and I had some enchiladas that were made with flour tortillas. It was all good though. We got to talking to a Canadian actor, Stephen Dimopoulos, there who was interesting. He was in the first Rambo movie. We hung out with him for a while and drank Gallo until the place closed at 9, then headed back to the hotel and crashed.


The next day (Sunday the 24th) we slept until about 8:30 and then had a nice breakfast included with the room. Scrambled eggs, bread, and some fresh fruit.

After that we hung out on the terrace on the second floor where I was able to access somebody's wireless and work on the blog. Around 10 or 11 we went out and looked around the town. Alaine's back was hurting her and muscle relaxants had worked before so we stopped in a pharmacy and got some and also some sleeping pills for the overnight buses. You can get just about every drug over the counter in Guatemala. We went to the ruins of a church that came down in the big earthquake of 1773. When we walked in we heard beautiful singing. It sounded like a choir, but when we got close we saw it was a middle-aged gringo couple. When they finished I told them how beautiful it was and they said they were just trying out the acoustics.

Purple Parade

There was some kind of event happening in town having to do with lent. There were guys in purple robes wandering all over town. We finally asked someone and they said that every Sunday during lent the men from each of the surrounding towns would come and do this. We didn't actually see anything other than hundreds of men walking down the street.

We went back to the hotel and drank beer and played Skip-Bo, then bed.

The Market

Next day (Monday 25th) we went to the market of artesanía and did some haggling. We bought a painting from a young guy who said he was the artist and that we wouldn't see anything like it anywhere else. We went around the corner and saw the same kind of stuff. It's still beautiful.


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Beer (and other spirits)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Seven buses, two rickshaws, and a tuc-tuc

After our night of drinking it was hard to get up and catch a 7am bus. When we did get up around 5, we found out from the American woman in the room next to ours that two girls had come in drunk at 3 am and eaten everybody's food out of the refrigerator. They were still passed out on the couch. We didn't have too much in there, just some yogurt and water. The hotel owners had offered to give us a ride to the bus stop to save us having to lug the big suitcase up the hill. We got there in time for the 7 o'clock bus to San Salvador.

A real chicken bus

Our British friends had told us how we could get to Antigua without going through Guatemala city. There is a very direct route going west, but we asked several people and there are no buses that go that way. We had to go all the way to the most southwestern border of El Salvador. The bus wasn't crowded. We put our big suitcase in the back and sat next to it. A lot of folks were getting on with big things in baskets that I guess they were bringing to sell in the city. One old lady had three big jugs of goat's milk that she could barely get a round with. There's an ayudante (helper) who gets people and their stuff on and off the bus as fast as possible and alerts the driver when to stop and when to go. He also collects the money once you are on the bus. It's a very efficient system. He also shouts out the places the bus is going trying to get people on. The guy we had on the way up to Suchitoto was a real character, calling everyone on the bus niños (children).

An old man got on the bus at one point and had a quarter in his ear. I pointed this out to Alaine and we watched him for a while. When the ayudante came around the man pulled the quarter out of his ear and gave it to him.

Pastries going to market. Who's that in the corner?

We arrived at the Terminal de Oriente (Eastern Terminal) of San Salvador about 8:15. We had to take a city bus to the other terminal to get to our next destination, Sonsonate. The ayudante said we wanted the number 7 bus. When we got on I had to heave my suitcase over the turnstile. The aisle was wide enough that I could roll it to the back of the bus and a guy helped me find a place to put it. After we sat down I thought to ask Alaine if she had confirmed with the driver that this bus went tot the other terminal. Nope. I didn't either. We asked some people sitting around us and, after some discussion, they said it did not go to the terminal. We wanted bus 7C. They said if we got off at the next stop a 7C bus would come along. We did and one passed us right by. The second one did stop though and we eventually got to the terminal, where a more comfortable bus was waiting to take us to Sonsonate.

Cycle Rickshaw

In Sonsonate we stopped for a small meal and got on our 5th bus of the day, to the Guatemala border. At the border we changed some of our dollars to Quetzals and got a ride in a cycle rickshaw, which is like a big tricycle with two wheels in front, one in back and a bench seat in the front. He could only take it as far as the actual border line where we got into a Guatemalan rickshaw. No problems with immigration and no customs at all. We had to wait about 45 minutes for our 6th bus, to Escuintla. Then some more waiting and the 7th, and final bus, to Antigua.

And here we sit, in a lovely little hostel called Yellow House for which we are paying about $16 a night including breakfast.

More later


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Beer (and other spirits)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

El Gringo

After I signed off that last post, we were talking to the owners of the Artex Cafe where I was using internet. He found out we lived in Puerto Viejo and started asking about people there. Turns out he lived in Costa Rica during El Salvador's civil war and he knew my dad. Mel, do you remember Chambo?

They recommended a Mexican restaurant run by a guy known locally as "El Gringo". He's a nice guy, very talkative. He was born in the States but has Salvadoran parents so he gets automatic citizenship. The food and beer were great. It was the first really big meal we've had since we've been on the road.

We hung out at our hotel with a the British couple and ended up staying up with them until midnight, drinking Flor de Caña and sharing travel stories. They tried to convince us to go to Cuba before everything changes now that Fidel is out of power.

We're in Antigua now, but getting here was another story in itself, which I will try to get to later today if I can. Tomorrow we'll be moving on, probably to a place near Quetzaltenango that has hot springs and little cabinas.


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Friday, February 22, 2008


The bus ride to Suchitoto, about 47km from San Salvador, took an hour and a half. Lots of stops and driving through narrow, congested streets of small towns. We learned a new word: cora (quarter), for a 25 cents US. They use US dollars as the currency here. We bought two little bags of sweet peanuts por una corita.

Armed guard at a shop
We arrived with the idea of staying in Villa Balanza. We asked a few people and dragged our broken-wheeled suitcase there. Rooms are $20 instead of the $11 it says in the book, but they are quite nice, although with a shared bath. The other people in the hotel have been really nice too-- An older American couple and young British couple. We had to carry our poor suitcase down a very steep hill with cobblestones to get to the actual rooms. I don't know if we'll make it back up. We have a beautiful view of Lake Suchitlan.

View from our hotel
After settling in we took a walk back up the hill, which was hard even without the suitcase, and wandered into town. We had pupusas for dinner. Several people had told us about a Canadian Classical guitarist, Ed Honeywell, who was playing as part of the February Arts and Culture Festival of Suchitoto. We stopped in and heard him play a few songs. It was excellent. I was feeling a little ill from the pollution in San Salvador so we left early from that event, went home and played a game of Skip-Bo (I beat Alaine), took a shower and went to bed.

Today we slept in a bit; well, I woke up at 6:30 and got Alaine up at 7:45 because we were wasting the day. We went to a little cafe and had coffee and bagels with scrambled eggs, plus wireless internet, which is where I posted the last entry and where I am again now, drinking beer.

Havin' a beer
The American couple from our hotel had recommended we walk down to the lake by a back road. It was quite interesting. There were a lot of pigs and ducks in the road. We didn't see a single car. There was quite a lot of trash. It was a steep walk down, but we took a bus back. At the lake there is a Turicentro. A bit disappointing, but we bought some chicha and some sweets. We shopped a little in the square by the church. Alaine bought a cool tank-top and scarf dyed with indigo, and I bought an FMLN headband and bracelet.

Tomorrow we are headed to Antigua.


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San Salvador

Nicaragua customs

After we got checked out of Costa Rica we got back on the bus and the attendant collected everyone's passports. We got off again on the Nicaragua side to go through customs. We had to take our luggage from the bus and wait in a line. The wheel of our big Samsonite suitcase started disintegrating. At the head of the line was a button to push. If you got a green light you could go and put your luggage back on the bus, a red light meant they would search it. We got the green light. While we were waiting in line I went to the duty free and bought two liters of Flor de Caña 7 year old rum($16).

We got our passports back and got on the bus and were on our way. the whole border process took about 2 hours. They showed a movie, "I am Legend". English with Spanish subtitles.


We got to Managua about 11:10 and had a 15 minute rest break. We bought some snacks in the terminal($5). They served us a small lunch on the bus and showed the movie "Paulie" about a talking parrot. Dubbed in Spanish. It was pretty bad. I watched the whole thing. After that they put on videos of sappy South American love songs from the '80s.

The bus driver stopped here to buy himself some oranges

We got to the Nicaragua-Honduras Border around 3:15. We had handed over our passports again so we just waited outside the bus while they did the paperwork. The whole thing took about half an hour. We didn't have to stop on the Honduras side. Another movie: "Daddy Day Camp" with Cuba Gooding, Jr. Dubbed in Spanish with English subtitles. What can I say about this movie? It was worse than "Paulie". I watched the whole thing. Alaine fell asleep. I envy her.

We arrived at the Honduras-El Salvador border around 6 and two guys came on and just looked at our passports for the immigration check, but then the El Salvador customs guy came on and spent a long time staring at our passports and looking through people's bags. The whole thing took an hour and ten minutes.

Down the road we had a 10 minute rest stop at a gas station. We bought some food and some beer which we drank outside($8.80). Then they fed us on the bus anyway, which I didn't remember from last time. One noticeable thing about Honduras is the amount of trash on the side of the road. This is true of El Salvador too.

We got to the first stop in El Salvador, the San Benito terminal, around 10:15. We got off there and checked in to the hotel. They had beer there so we bought a round for us an a nice English guy we met on the bus. He told us some good places to go in Mexico.

Market in San Salvador

The next morning we went out to walk around the neighborhood a little. They assured us it was safe. One thing we noticed was that there are a lot of armed guards everywhere. We went to a pharmacy trying to buy Ambien to help us sleep on the bus. They said we needed a prescription but offered us some other pills over the counter which contain 3mg of diazepam (Valium). We bought $10 worth of those. We went to the a market that sold souvenirs and bought a few things($32). trying to find the market we got on a bus and after 1 block we realized we were already there. After that we went back to the Tica Bus station and got an 85% refund for the Salvador-Guatemala leg of our trip since we decided to just go straight from Suchitoto. Then we got a taxi($8) to the Suchitoto bus terminal and caught a bus($1.60).

More later.


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Beer (and other spirits)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Really on the way

I'm sitting at a table in the restaurant of Hotel Mesón de Maria in Salvador. It's a little more than we'd like to spend at $24, but it's right here at the bus station and that makes it easier when you get in at 10:15 pm. They also have wireless internet here. It's a much better value than the place we stayed at the other bus terminal in the center last year which was a dump for $20 and no hot water.

Before leaving San Jose we had dinner at a good Italian restaurant with Jeanie and her friend Jim, in whose apartment we were crashing. Jeanie bought dinner. Thanks Jeanie! We slept on Jim's fold-out couch for about 3 hours, got up at 1, and called a taxi ($2) to the bus station.

Tica Bus has a new terminal in San Jose which is much nicer than the old one. I talked to a guy there who had hitchhiked from Canada with his friend and they were out of money so they were looking for work in San Jose. They had gotten a ride and were supposed to have a place to stay but it fell through, so they came to the bus station to hang out and wait for morning.

They gave our breakfast in these little boxes

The bus left on time and Alaine and I were able to get a little sleep. I woke up around 6 and shortly after that they announced that we were approaching the Nicaragua border. They served coffee and a light breakfast. They came and collected $17 from each of us to cover all the border crossings as far as El Salvador. This is one of the big advantages of the international buses; they take care of all the paperwork and getting passports stamped whenever possible. To leave Costa Rica, though, we did have to go in person with our passports.

After going through the line I went to one of the money changer guys to get rid of my colones. I've found these guys to be honest before. They will try to give you a bad exchange rate, but you can talk them down if you are aware of the right rate. This guy was tricky though. I had 64,800 colones, which in the bank would get be around $129. He was showing me how he was getting his figure on his calculator except instead of the "=", he was pressing the memory read key. First he came up with $96. When I complained he got it up to $118. Still no good. He complained that, "A guy can't make much money like this." Finally he gave me $128.

I'm running out of time here. We only have a few hours to go visit the market in San Salvador. I will post more later.


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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

San Jose

Last night our friend Baba came over and cooked dinner for us. This morning she gave us a ride into Puerto Viejo to catch the bus to San Jose. The bus was an hour late. Not the most auspicious start to the trip, but we are OK. We are staying at the apartment of a friend tonight. We are supposed to be at the bus station at 2 am!


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Sunday, February 17, 2008


I realized I haven't mentioned what our plans are for the trip other than to put up a map. The basic idea is to go up the pacific coast of Mexico as far as Los Mochis, where we'll catch the train though Copper Canyon to Chihuahua City. On the way we'll be visiting a few other spots. We had to scrap going to Granada, Nicaragua because the bus doesn't stop there as I thought it did.

We have to overnight in San Salvador anyway but we decided to spend an extra night and take a day trip to Suchitoto, El Salvador which we've heard and read is a nice little colonial town. Lonely Planet says it is like Antigua, Guatemala was before it filled up with tourists. After that we'll go on to Antigua so we can compare. We'll probably stay at least two nights in Antigua so we can rest from our travels. After that we may travel to other spots in Guatemala and finally stop in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, a beautiful little town that we didn't have enough time in last year. Then we'll go to Oaxaca, which we skipped last year because there was some unrest there. From there south to the beach at Zipolite, which several people have recommended to us, then up the coast and play it by ear.

When is all this going to occur? We have reserved our tickets for this Wednesday, the 20th. We'll go to San José on Tuesday and get on the bus for San Salvador at 3 am Wednesday morning. We should arrive in San Salvador around 10-11 pm.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tickets to Guatemala

I was looking on the somewhat useless web site of Tica Bus and I thought they no longer offered the bus service that goes from San José to San Salvador in the same day. I talked to my sister, Selva, who lives in San José, and she said the her boyfriend was coming on the bus from El Salvador in one day. So I called and they said that they did indeed offer it. Selva bought our bus tickets as far as Guatemala city. You have to buy the tickets at the bus station. She was coming down here for a visit anyway so that worked out.

The right schedule

The trip takes a day and a half, with an overnight in San Salvador. We're thinking we might hop off the bus in Granada, Nicaragua and spend a night there (edit: I found out the bus doesn't actually go through Granada). The tickets we have don't have a date yet. We just have to call at least three days before we want to go to reserve our seats.

Tica Bus route map

I was talking with Alaine tonight and we thought it would be cool to keep track of our costs so at the end each post I'm going to put the expenses since the last post and the grand total. The bus tickets were 31,200 colones each, including tax. That's about $63 USD.


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Monday, February 4, 2008

Not all Costa Ricans Speak English

I've noticed lately that U.S. and Canadian visitors to Costa Rica, even long term residents of the Puerto Viejo area, are actually getting angry at Ticos for not speaking their language—English. It's true that many people speak a little English and it is easy to live here for years and not learn much Spanish, especially in this area with its many speakers of patois; but the very least a person can do is recognize that they are the ones speaking a foreign language, not the Ticos. I can only presume that these are the same people who want English to be the official language of the U.S.

A few examples:

Recently I was in ATEC, in my office in the back, and I overheard someone talking to one of the cashiers about coming back tomorrow to pick up a job she needed done. This person was speaking in English to the Spanish-speaking cashier and I could hear that she was very upset that she wasn't being understood. This is a person who has lived here for years. She hasn't learned the word mañana? She then came to me to explain what she needed done and something to the effect of, "I don't know why she doesn't understand me!"

Another person recently moved here and owns a business. This well-intentioned person wants ATEC to provide a translator for community meetings, such as the upcoming meeting about the marina. This is already a sore subject with the local government because they think it is a bunch of foreign activists who want to stop the marina project.

A tourist recently told me about watching another Canadian tourist get angry at a guy selling snacks on the bus because he couldn't understand that the guy didn't have change for the large bill he was giving him. The first tourist, who spoke some Spanish, had to ask him to "simmer down" and realize where he was.

I'm not saying don't come to Costa Rica if you don't speak Spanish. My own Spanish still needs a lot of work. All I'm saying is be aware that Spanish is the language of Costa Rica. It seems obvious, but apparently it is not for some people.

Pura vida.