El Salvador 3: Alergría to San Marcos, Honduras

As the first time to arrive at the pit stop at 7.30 pm, Ang and Simon were the first to depart after their breakfast at 8.30 am.  They headed to the northern corner of the plaza where they waited for the chicken bus from the nearby town of Berlín to arrive.  They did not wait long and were soon on the drive down the mountain.

Chicken bus vendors in action – everyone standing is selling something

Changing in Santiago de Maria and then again at the main highway, they made it to San Miguel.  Their pace of travel was perfect with their buses consistently arriving in time to meet connections.  They continued east, boarding a bus to Santa Rosa where they changed again to another bus that took the team to the town of El Amatillo, on the border with Honduras.

Truck expertly stored at the border

Some US dollars were changed and the team queued to complete passport formalities.  After crossing the bridge on foot, they completed the entry requirements on the Honduran side and were soon once again in another chicken bus. Ang remarked that the Honduran buses seem to be not as fun as they were missing chickens and doof doof español techno common in El Salvador.  This bus ride took them 2.5 hours to Choluteca and was the least comfortable of the bus rides to this point for the team on account of a creepy guy staring at Ang and the terrible seats.

The river between El Salvador and Honduras Simon consults the clue for the next step

Arriving in this dusty town on the crossroads, the team asked for the location of the San Marcos bus service.  Unlike the friendly El Salvadorians, the assistance given was limited.  The team eventually gave up trying to locate the bus stop in the chaotic public space and walked north to the town’s second terminal where they were told the next bus would be along in 40 minutes.

Simon returned to the other bus terminal area to buy some water and heard a bunch of people calling out “San Marcos”, which was usual for a chicken bus about to leave.  Simon asked the helper what the departure time was and found it was seconds away.  So after asking if the bus could wait a moment, he sprinted off to get Ang and the bags at the other bus terminal.

Racing past the laughing locals, the team arrived back at the first bus terminal only to find they were too late to catch the chicken bus.  A little sweaty, they then returned to the second bus terminal. An hour later a modern air conditioned bus arrived.  Both Simon and Ang were fearful that this costly delay could mean that they would be eliminated as it was now getting dark.  They could do nothing but enjoy the sunset as their bus climbed through the spectacular southern Honduran country side.  After dark, the bus arrived in San Marcos de Colón.

There the team ate some deep fried maize dumplings before checking into the pit stop for this leg of the race.  Simon and Ang, despite the costly time delay in Choluteca, were lucky they were the first to arrive and so where not eliminated.

Honduran TV supports movember

In the post race interview, Simon said “luck just wasn’t on our side.  If our earlier bus had of been a few minutes later, we probably would have seen the first chicken bus we missed.  Still, after 6 buses, it was good to get a comfortable one for the last ride.  I’m just glad we weren’t eliminated”.

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El Salvador 2: El Zonte to Alergría

While at the pit stop, the team took advantage of the pool as the surf was huge.  They ate at a local comedor which served cheap tasty food while playing surf movies all evening.  They marvelled at the lax planning laws that allowed construction right on the rocky beach, metres away from the surf.  The friendly, laid back Californian surf vibe was great and the team briefly considered using the rest period to learn how to surf.  But as this is a race and surfing was not one of the challenges, the team used the rest period to enjoy the vista and prepare for the next leg.

The next morning the team checked out of the pit stop and was provided with their next clue.  They were to make their way to the mountain town of Alegría where they would receive their next clue.  Out they went to the main road where they boarded another party chicken bus for the ride to El Tunco.  Once there they were deposited on the side of the road and soon were in the second bus of the day, an express mini bus to San Salvador.

The ride passed quickly and arriving at the bus station, they received the first challenge for this leg of the race.  Their task was to find the post office and send the handicrafts that had previously been purchased on the Guatemalan and Mexican legs of the race.

Setting off on foot through the hot streets of San Salvador, the team was edgy as this city does have a dangerous reputation, but aside from an individual who may or may not have been an undercover cop flashing a badge and asking if they would like a lift, the team was able to locate the post office without incident.  Ang and Simon both found that it was best to ask directions of the guys holding the shotguns or AK47, as these security staff seemed to have the best direction sense.

Posting of the package was straight forward (and much cheaper than Guatemala) and the team took a taxi for the short ride to the eastern bus station.  Once there they were ushered onto a long distance bus to San Miguel (bus X for the day) for $2.5 each, after a nice El Salvadorian lady challenged the bus assistant for the team, saving them being ripped off $0.50.  Ang disliked this bus as the passenger section was sealed behind a curtain, so that you were unable to see out of the front windscreen.

1.5 hours later, after the usual stops to allow people off and food vendors on, the team arrived at Valla El Triunfo.  There they boarded a mini bus and raced up into the hills to Santiago de Maria.  Once there a further change to a final chicken bus delivered them to their destination, Alegría.

Guy painting some walls More murals

The team secured nice accommodation at the Entre Piedras Hotel and set about walking around town.  Both Simon and Ang really enjoyed this beautiful town, with Simon in particular likening it to Montville, complete with friendly chatty locals, but unfortunately no fudge.

Hinterland cows and laptops

Originally planning to spend one night, they were given a challenge to complete a 5 hour hike of a nearby volcano.  That night, the team also discovered pupusas, a maize based savoury food that is kind of like a stuffed pancake.  They were also given the task of inventing a new national food for El Salvador.   Ang came up with the perfect dish, pupusas with bananas.  From this point on, the local Alegríans thought the team was crazy.

The next morning, the team along with their machete wielding guide walked up the hill behind town.  The going was fairly easy until they reached the quarter way mark.  At this point their speed slowed as their guide macheted a path through the thick scrub.  This process took some time and allowed the team a chance to admire the view.  After some hours, the team along with their guide, descended to the extinct volcano’s crater lake, La Laguna de Alegría.  The final task was for one team member to swim in this sulphur rich lake.  This was completed by Simon.

Crater lake Racers pause for a quick photo opportunity
Crater lake from above Guide makes the path
The lake from the shore
Completing the swim in the sulphur lake challenge Note the melting Billabong print

In order to receive the final clue for this leg of the race, the team first purchased a banana then went to the local pupusaria, where they were able to successfully convince the staff to cook a pupusas with banana.  Ang assisted in this moment of culinary history by helping pat the pupusas into shape.  After 20 minutes there were 4 plain banana and 3 banana and cheese (a last minute addition for the savoury El Salvadorian palate) pupusas.  The team ate their fill and shared most with everyone in the restaurant.  Ang and Simon both agreed, pupusas con banano were fantastic, equal or better than crepes.  The locals seemed to still think they were loco.

Pupusas are on their way Success!

With this challenge completed, the chef handed them their final clue for this leg and the team rapidly made their way back across the small town square to the Entre Piedras Hotel, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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El Salvador 1: Juayúa to El Zonte

Receiving their next clue before check out, the team was required to make their way as fast as possible to the surfing town of El Zonte.  As this was the second day of celebrations for the day of the dead, the team knew there may be difficulties with transport, and in particular seating on chicken buses.  Because of this, they left the pit stop quickly and were joined on their journey by a Team Belgium.  The first chicken bus for the day was the number 249 to Sonsonate.  The team was entertained by a range of vendors, performers and pharmaceutical sales people as the bus made its way through the last section of the Ruta De Las Flores.

Ang hits the road in Juayúa

Arriving in Sonsonate, the team changed to the chicken bus going to Los Cóbanos.  Whilst waiting for this bus to leave, they met Kym and Edgar, a nice American/El Salvadorian couple who the team had lunch with at Los Cóbanos.  While this beach was nice, this was not the pit stop for this leg of the race, so later that afternoon after beers and fresh fish with Kym and Edgar, the team boarded the next bus, a mini bus that took them back towards Sonsonate.

Leaving Sonsonate, Simon decided that every chicken bus should have a spoiler Los Cóbanos beach and locals drying their washing
El Mariachi provides some lunch time entertainment Lunch time challenge complete, racing resumes

Mistakenly thinking this was a direct bus to their final destination, Simon and Ang started to relax, however, they were soon deposited at the road junction between CA-12 and CA-2.  There they waited 10 minutes before boarding the next chicken bus of this leg to Playa Mizata.  It was at this point that due to either the need to entertain surfers or that the buses were privately owned meant that the quality of chicken buses increased.  The increase was solely through improved sound systems and lighting.  The chicken bus for this stretch had neon lights and a blue flashing light that came on whenever the bus braked, and a subwoofer that possibly was nuclear powered.  Simon christened this chicken bus the ‘disco party chicken bus’.

Arriving at the tiny town of Mizata, the team waited for another 10 minutes before they jumped onto back of the final bus for this day, a disco neon doof doof party chicken bus to Playa El Zonte.  The road at this hugged the coast line, which made for a spectacular and exciting drive.  Ang particularly enjoyed the glimpses of beaches she got as the bus sped into the early evening.

Racing into El Zonte, the team jumped out of the back of the bus and ran down the hill towards the ocean.  There they were able to locate accommodation, a locally run guest house, Esencia Nativa where they out duded an El Salvadorian surfer dude by not knowing the day of the week.  Completing this final task, the team checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

El Zonte beach
Next day breakfast Pool and surf watch tower
Sleeping to the left, surfing to the right
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Guatemala 6: Antigua to Juayúa, El Salvador

Once again, as the first to arrive at the pit stop, Simon and Ang were the first to depart at 8am.  For this leg, they had to make their way to El Salvador by the most rapid means possible.

To do this, they first booked passage on a shuttle from San Marcos to Antigua. Their shuttle would pick them up from San Marcos, so the team was required to wait at the municipal basketball court.  As normal in this part of the world, the micro bus was late arriving, so the team entertained themselves by talking to some of the locals and wondering what prices the other shuttle passengers had paid (the team had negotiated tickets for 40Q each, which turned out to be a bargain).

Rush hour, San Marcos Tuk Tuk rank in San Marcos

Soon the shuttle arrived.  It was the exact same one that the team had the issue with eight days earlier (Casa Verde Tours), but thankfully with a more capable driver.  Unlike previously, the ride back to Antigua was uneventful and soon the team had secured accommodation for one night.

San Marcos church The offending shuttle

After a quick detour to the travel agency where they received a 10Q reimbursement (for extra tuk tuk payment), the team set about enquiring about pricing for transport to near Juayúa, El Salvador from a selection of local ticket agencies.  Various routes were proposed and pricing offered.  The team decided the price of a shuttle and first class bus, whilst more costly, would be better value (and safer) than navigating through Guatemala City.

With transport organised, the team changed their focus to completing the final Antigua challenges.  Ang purchased some more handicrafts, after an entertaining and lengthy negotiation process.  Receiving their next clue, the team went in search of Hector’s, a hidden gem of a tiny restaurant that had no external advertising and serves modern fusion fare to no more than twenty people on five tables at a time.  This challenge was completed and the team enjoyed a fantastic meal.  While they ate, they were entertained by the dozens of kids in Halloween costume, who were either walking past the entry or directly through the restaurant to request and occasionally demand candy.

Antigua once again Another Antigua street photograph
Dogs don’t need to drink the water Jungle Party, this time with a little bit more party

Waking early the next morning, their next challenge was to locate an awesome coffee.  This required the team to find Refuge Coffee, a small coffee shop that was the highest rated on Trip Advisor.  Again, the team was able to locate this shop with ease and had two coffees.  Ang was very impressed and went as far as thanking the barista for providing ‘the best coffee thus far of the trip’.

Red hulk is angry The team was sad they missed this fight

With the Antiguan challenges completed, the team boarded the shuttle to Guatemala City.  An hour later, after dropping most of the passengers off at the airport, the team was deposited at the King Quality international bus station.  There they waited for 1.5 hours for their next bus.  This part of Guatemala City was particularly unsettling with Simon being approached by a drunken Guatemalan guy who demanded cerveza.  Simon later said that this made it very difficult to choose which juice to purchase with the team’s remaining quetzal.  Tactfully disengaging from the creepy drunk, Simon quickly returned to the bus station waiting room and the remainder of the wait passed without further incident

The team boarded the bus and soon they were driving through the streets of the city, with only a dozen stops for other passengers to board and vendors sell their food as they made their way to the border.  For Ang, the highlight was the chicas that brought pollo campo (kind of like KFC) onto the bus to onsell to passengers.

Driving into the border town, Simon was surprised to read that it was Valle Nuevo as he was expecting the more northern crossing of San Cristóbal, due to the travel agency telling them that the two southern border crossings were closed due to recent flooding.  Because of this information, when they booked their tickets, the team had decided to make their way to Santa Ana and then backtrack to the Ruta De Las Flores (Route of the Flowers) as required by their clue.  Seeing this chance to speed up, the team changed their plans, and while they were waiting for El Salvadorian authorities to complete their immigration inspection, and sucessfully negotiated in spanish with the bus driver for a new drop off point.

The team also noticed a number of passengers who had gotten onto the bus in Guatemala City (but not in the terminal, so not on the official manifest) had crossed the border on foot.  Oddly, their positions on the bus had been replaced by vendors while the El Salvadorian authorities were inspecting passports. Once immigration formalities were completed, these passengers re-boarded the bus up the road one km.  Ang thought this was very fishy.  The best explanation Simon could come up with was that perhaps the bus driver and assistant were moonlighting as people smugglers.

The bus continued into El Salvador and the team were deposited at a junction just outside of Ahuachapán.  Boarding a chicken bus, they sped into town.  On the ride in, the team passed the celebrations for the day of the dead.  Once at the packed market, they pushed their way through on foot to their next chicken bus, number 249 to Juayúa.  After the pretty hour long ride, they arrived in the friendly town of Juayúa and soon found their hostel, Casa Mazeta, the pit stop for this leg of the race.

Shared bus station/market in Ahuachapán A Ruta de las Flores town
Juayúa at sun down
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