PLAYAS Y MARAS- EL SALVADOR

El Salvador, here I come!

Crossing the border, despite the many warnings online about long, long, long truck lines and wait time, was a breeze! I was 20 minutes away from the border when a man on a motorcycle harangued me “Welcome to the border! – Do you need help crossing?”  Shortly after meeting Jorge, another 3 guys on mopeds were also offering their services, so to be fair I hired Jorge. He was a gem! He basically did all the paperwork for me while I was having ceviche for lunch at one of the stands! He had lived in California for 15 years and worked in the orange groves until the industry went bust. He spoke perfect English.

Why hire a Tramitador do you ask? Sure I can do all this by myself but for the small fee involved I find that they help you navigate through the labyrinth of offices, and paperwork. Also, being locals and working at both borders, they can advise you on who gives the best rates for money exchange and I find that inspections seem to be easier when accompanied by a local helper. It saves me time and hassle.

View my border crossing YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVFlvn-vS-I

When I found out that Jorge was Salvadoran I asked him where I could safely camp near the border and he indicated that Cara Sucia, the first little town after crossing the border would be where I could get some money and supplies and from there go south to the little fishing village called Garita Palmera. I would be safe to boondock on the beach, or hook-up for $5.

When I arrived in Garita Palmera I met a woman who asked me if I was looking for a place to stay: “come to my house, I have electricity, water and swimming pool too, follow me! “ We followed the road along the beach and entered her gorgeous property.

Her name was Cora and she introduced me to her property manager, an older woman with a teenage son and daughter. I am sorry  to say that even after asking for their names at least 5 times I still can’t remember them – if I don’t write them down on a piece of paper right away, it’s no use. I do not know if my memory is getting worse or if the Spanish names make it harder to memorize, but it’s becoming a problem…

I learned from the keeper that Cora actually lives in the capital city, San Salvador. She has been a widow for 5 years now and inherited this property from her father. Later on she showed me that the property extended as far as the eye could see and was rented for coconut harvesting and pasture for milking cows.

I really enjoyed my stay there. I was parked under palm trees right by the beach so I had shade and breeze, which also meant no bugs.  The pets were free and safe to roam and after our week stay in the welder’s shop, this was a welcomed change.  I couldn’t help seeing the huge potential this property and its prime location near the border had. For the first time since leaving Calgary I could see myself live here. I had to reign in my entrepreneur mind and remind myself that I was here to be free from responsibilities for a while and to just enjoy the gift of freedom. I was the only one there, and I could see no one else on the long stretch of beach so when the keeper told me that the house had been rented by a family of 10 for the week-end I felt a bit annoyed that I had to share my piece of paradise with someone else.

The family in question was a sister and 2 brothers, their partners and children and turned out to be really nice people, no loud partiers as I had feared. At one point Sylvia came to me, introduced herself and started a conversation. Before long one by one every family member came to my site. They were very curious about me, my travels and of course my RV. However Sylvia warned me to trust no one in El Salvador and be on the lookout at all times.

This was the May long week-end and I decided not to drive since the roads would be traffic heavy. Before they left I asked the men in the group to help me move my truck out of the sand and unto the dirt path so that I could leave for Juayua early the next morning.

We had a terrible thunderstorm the night before and I don’t know if it is related, but there were a lot of people in the woods on the property picking crabs.

Even when dark fell, they stayed working with head lamps. I went to the house one last time to do my dishes and I could hear the keeper scream and yell and what I thought was an argument. Soon after I returned to the truck she came with her daughter of about 15 and begged me to close my door. I could tell she was quite upset. What is going on? I asked. Maras, she kept saying, my son, my son she repeated. I could tell something had happened but didn’t understand what. When I asked her: what is maras? She said men. That’s all I needed to hear. I locked my door even though my cat Patouffi was outside. He’ll sleep under the truck I thought.  “Maras” I thought, is that the term for “gangs”? I opened my guide book to where I knew I had read about gangs in El Salvador and sure enough it is. It confirmed that something bad was happening, so I left my lights on, closed all my windows and curtains, took my baseball bat out of its hiding place and started praying in earnest for the keeper’s family safety and mine. There was nothing else I could do. At one point I heard men’s voices just outside my door. It took a huge amount of willpower not to peak through the curtains and later not to open the door for Patouffi  when everything was quiet again (which I did much later anyway – not much willpower there after all but I didn’t want to leave them anything they could use to hurt me you know like, will kill the cat if you don’t open the door!).

I slept lightly with the lights on, my bat and phone near me.

The next morning at 6:00 am I heard a knock on the door and after checking through the window and saw it was the keeper, I opened the door. What happened last night? I asked her. Maras, 8 men and 1 woman – with tattoos. They wanted to rob you but my son intervened (a young boy of may be 18-19), they took a rock and hit him on the head! She mimicked how he was bleeding and how, when he was down they kicked him.

I was horrified but I couldn’t understand why they still didn’t rob me, after all we were just 2 older women, a young boy and a girl, hardly any threat to a gang of 9. Why didn’t they come and robbed me? I wanted to know. I had to take the shotgun out she said. The police was called but never showed up. Please, she pleaded, leave now before they come back, I don’t want any trouble.

I unhooked my electricity cable, got dressed in a hurry and left very shaken up, never knowing the full extent of her son’s injuries.

My guide in Juayua explained to me that despite Jorge’s claim that the border region was safe, it is the place of gang wars between Guatemala and El Salvador groups fighting for territory.

When I arrived in Sonsonate, I got lost in the town where I was to take the touristic route to Juayua, as per Central America’s custom, there were no signs anywhere. My GPS was useless. As soon as I knew I had made the wrong turn I stopped and asked for directions. This man came over and was obviously upset with me. Don’t you care about your family? He screamed at me looking at the van, I suppose assuming that I had children in there. He was looking at me as if I had lost my mind for traveling in El Salvador in such a fashion. His directions were very convoluted, out of the way with many warnings about my safety. I decided to ignore him. I knew the turn off was just around the corner and that this is probably the safest route in the country, but still this shook my confidence. I remembered that I had data on my phone and input the information on good old Google Map and I was out of there and on my way in 2 shakes of a lamb’s tail.

The moral of this story is that unfortunately, I am learning to trust my instinct and not depend on what people say. Either they genuinely think they are right, or they are in on the plot to come back later to rob you, I do not trust what people tell me anymore.

Another fine example is that yesterday, driving to Ataco I see signs for La Laguna Verde, which I had read was highly recommended. So I took the detour. Oh shit, I thought as the road turns into a wide and well paved dirt road, but very isolated and going on and on. I am advertising my coming here with my loud big truck and there is no place to turn around…. I could get ambushed on my way back… However when I get to the Laguna, it is a green peaceful heaven, just what I wanted.

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After asking two persons working there, I am told that this is very safe and I could camp for the night, I will not be bothered. The manager even told me if I could ask for police protection if I was still unsure. I asked him if he could do that for me. Oh sure he said,  but didn’t pick up the phone. I was relaxing in the sun but the thought about my safety kept niggling at me. I went with my phone to the manager and asked for the police telephone number. The first one he gave me didn’t work; the second one came through on the 3rd call. When I spoke with the officer, he explained that they only work during the day and couldn’t provide protection during the night, and that La Laguna was not a safe place to stay at night anyway! I thanked him, thanked my intuition for having me follow through, packed up and left. Was the manager genuine in his reassurance or was he going to come back at night with his buddies and rob the silly, gullible gringa? I do not know but I have to say that unfortunately, I am feeling more unsafe here than I’ve been so far on my trip.

There were parts of Mexico that were a bit dodgy, I felt a bit unsafe in Belize but it was unfounded, but here I’ve had so many warnings, people misguiding me and warning me and then the maras’ visit, all of it is deeply affecting me. What a shame, because the country is beautiful and the people friendly. I do not want this to affect my perception and enjoyment of this beautiful country nor force me to revisit my desire to continue on this trip.

I will do a blog on my visit to Juayua and Ataco, but to recap my visit in El Salvador here, I would say that the atmosphere of untrust is unbearable. When I arrived in San Salvador to request a tourist visa’s extension is was met with many difficulties that led me to choose to drive out of Nicaragua before May 15th, the deadline on my C4 Visa. You get 90 days to visit 4 countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. You can only renew once and only in San Salvador. The paperwork is so ridiculous, with the necessity of a sponsor as well as copy of your bank statements that’s  it’s better to just drive out of Nicaragrua, and re-enter a few days later from Costa Rica to be granted another 90 days. I drove 2 days to get out of El Salvador feeling very ambiguous about the country.

On the one hand it is beautiful and the people are charming, quick to smile and help. But for a single woman on the road, there was not a single place I camped that I was warned it was not safe, even though some where locked and guarded at night and all of them listed as safe on the IOverlander App. When you hear the same message over and over, you have to take head. So unfortunately I cut my stay short and was actually relieved to get out of the country.

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki