We should have known it was going to be rough. The battered, rutted roads leading into Guatemala from the border made it seem as if we were driving into a war zone. Dodging potholes and stones, we can only hope it will improve. Then the road stops and a wide river confronted us. Did we make a wrong turn? We got out and asked. "No, you need to wait for the ferry. It will be over in a few minutes." What ferry? That piece of scrap metal being pulled over on a line? Clanging on the bank, announcing its arrival, stuffed corner-to-corner with vehicles, we had little choice, so we piled on.
When taking heed of local information, a grain of salt is always needed. Five kilometers turns into 20, and a "good" road is often terrible. We wanted to take a shortcut. To reach the Cuchumatanes Range in the western part of Guatemala, we had two choices: The long way, which would take us completely south before looping around to the west to head north again; or we could drive directly west. We opted for the latter, having heard it was a beautiful rugged road that would take us high into the cloud forests-and not often traveled by tourists. At the start, the road was badly rutted from torrential rains, but as we climbed, the road smoothed out, though we had the feeling we were clinging to the side of a cliff. It wound its way up and around the mountains, our only company the small villages and the trucks we pass filled with rocks, almost too large to be able to pass side by side. We took it slow. Our rear shocks were shot and in desperate need of repair, and we didn't want to bottom out.
The Scenic stopped suddenly, veering slightly to the left. "What? Flat tire?" We jumped out of the car, almost afraid to look. The front left wheel was completely torn from the suspension arm, while streams of transmission fluid ran down the hill like blood from a broken heart. Our culprit was a loose bolt, not having been tightened down properly or just plainly forgotten. Imagine if we'd been going faster.
We were in the middle of nowhere, on a tight curve on the side of a cliff, it started to rain, and night was coming. No cell phone, no communication, nada. After a quick assessment of our choices, we realized we didn't have many. Laurent would go back into town (40 km away!), and I would stay with the Scenic. But how to get back? A bumbling yellow truck suddenly appears, and it was Pollo Lindo (Beautiful Chicken) to the rescue: "No worries, I will get you where you need to go. These frozen chickens need to get delivered to Coban, and there you'll find a mechanic."
Four hours later, the tow truck arrived with Laurent sitting happily in the front seat. First thought: How is that little thing going to tow both the Scenic and the trailer? Second thought: How are they going to turn this thing around on the narrow rocky road? No worries. Max, our driver, had the experience. "I tow cars from this road several times a week." Hitching the Scenic to the back, he took off to turn around further down the road, leaving us in the pouring rain. Ten minutes later, we started to wonder where he is. Ten minutes after that, he arrived, our nerves almost shattered. Attaching the trailer to the back, we now had the difficult task of returning in the black of night with both the Scenic and the trailer wiggling behind the tow truck on the slippery, steep, winding rocky road.
A Pleasant Surprise
Entering El Salvador was a confrontation of fear and misperception. Images loomed of a country beset with problems: Recovery from a brutal 12-year civil war, dangers of earthquakes and hurricanes, gang violence that pervades every town and city, a proliferation of weapons and drugs. Newspaper headlines scream with the latest macabre murder and daily, and weekly and monthly indices on the number of deaths by assault, knife, or gun are listed on page two of the newspapers. Our first impression was of high population density and decent roads-the former we had read about, the latter coming as a complete surprise, as was much of the country itself.
Tucked away between Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and fronted by the Pacific Ocean, this tiny country of only 21,040 square meters holds 6.3 million people, making it the most densely populated of Central America. With a strong work ethic, Salvadorans have taken their country from the devastation of civil war to almost the top of the economic ladder in Central America, and with over 1 million Salvadorans in the U.S., remittances from abroad certainly make their contribution.
Following the Ruta de las Flores (Route of the Flowers), we wound our way towards the towns of Nahuizalco, Salcoatitan, Juayua, and Apaneca, all known for their coffee-growing plantations that spread between them like a blanket of green. In the distance, Cerro Verde rises some 2,000 meters above sea level, inviting us to its top for views of the surrounding volcanoes and Lago Coatepeque. The Scenic, now repaired, pounded the dirt tracks until we finally landed in Suchitoto, a colonial town where we took a few days to savor the pleasures and tranquility of life in this country that has much to offer the traveler who is willing to scratch below the surface.