Month in Review: November 2019

Mark Stewart Opinions 6 Comments

Thursday. 11-28-19.

Since focusing so much more on destination guides recently, we realized that we’ve slowly been alienating those of you who read to follow our journey. So many of you wonderful humans, family and friends included, have supported and encouraged us in this crazy adventure we’ve undertaken. You’ve stuck with us since the beginning, following along with curiosity at the strange places we visit, and the interesting experiences we have.

Yet lately, it’s all tips and facts and a ton of content that isn’t quite so entertaining for those not on the road. So we’ve decided to start something we haven’t done in a while. For those of you who want more than just tips and information, or travel guides and recipes; we’re bringing the story back.

This is the first of our monthly round-ups. These will be shortened versions of what we’ve been up to; highlighting some of the best (and worst) experiences of the prior few weeks. Other, more detailed story posts will continue to pop up now and then, but not on any specific schedule.

So here we go, here is the monthly recap for November 2019, and our return to the road!

A Bumpy Start in Guatemala

This trip doesn’t begin quite as smooth as it should. Our flights from Edmonton to Guatemala City – via Vancouver and Mexico – are relatively uneventful. Celebratory drinks before flying out ensure a nice sleep on the plane.

It’s our arrival in Guatemala, exhausted from nearly 15 hours in transit, that things take their first turn. After clearing customs in a line-up that seems to take forever, we reach baggage claim to find that only one of our bags has arrived. We wait, assuming this isn’t happening. We search, hoping it’s just on another carousel.

Then we panic.

We aren’t in Sydney. This isn’t London, or Budapest, or even Medellin. Guatemala doesn’t have the shopping required to replace anything! Alright, so maybe we’re jumping to conclusions a little too quickly. But the bag is still gone. Once we take the necessary steps to hopefully locate the bag, there is nothing else to do but head to our hostel in Antigua.

Thankfully, Antigua is a beautiful town, and one we are familiar with from our previous visit. However, we only planned on spending one night here. Initially, we wanted to head straight to Lake Atitlan, and take the first ten days relaxing in one of our favourite towns in the country. But without the bag, we aren’t going anywhere.

What makes things even trickier is that Antigua is a popular town, and we only booked one night at the hostel. So still bagless, we move on the next morning, across town, to another place with an available room. The next day, we move once more. Thankfully, after many phone calls, live-chats, and emails, the bag finally arrives at our hostel on the third night.

Moving hostels for the third time in as many days (we didn’t know how long the bag would take, so we found a place to stay for three more nights), we settle in for the weekend. Though, thanks to some questionable fruit juice at the market the day prior, our first-day post-bag reunion is spent taking turns in the bathroom battling food poisoning.

Colourful Antigua, Guatemala

Relaxing in Familiar Territory

Five days later than planned, bags in hand and stomachs back to normal, we make our way to Lago de Atitlan from Antigua on Guatemala’s famous chicken buses. An adventure in itself, aside from a temporary breakdown, the journey is mostly uneventful. A ferry ride later, and we are back in San Pedro la Laguna. Everything is familiar, from the sights and smells to the feeling of the air. We even stay in the same place as our visit two years ago. Even the resident cats are still here!

Although our time here was cut in half, we still make the most of it. We explore nearby towns and taste some fantastic food. But most importantly, we do what we came to do: we relaxed. Lake Atitlan is, as Aldous Huxley once called “…too much of a good thing.” Sitting on the shore of this brilliant lake, surrounded by dense jungle under the shadow of a towering volcano, it’s almost impossible to have a negative thought.

We’re glad to be back.

Street Art in San Pedro la Laguna
Volcano beside a lake
Views of San Pedro Volcano at Lake Atitlan

Enter: El Salvador

As always, the time comes once again to move onward. This time to El Salvador, where things really get busy. El Salvador is a mission for us. We want to dig in deep and help spread the word that it isn’t the dangerous “shithole” it’s made out to be. But this mission will see us moving every two or three days for an entire month. It’s why we needed to relax first.

Now, for the sake of excitement and savings, we opt to take the local bus rather than the far more convenient direct shuttle. However, the first of many buses, on an already hectic travel day, is the wrong one. I mean, the driver tells us it’s the right one, but he’s lying, we’ll soon find out. By the time we realize the bus was going around the lake in the opposite direction, it’s too late. The roads between villages aren’t safe, bandits are common, and we have everything with us. So we stay on, pay the extortionist his $5 and ride it out. We know what transfers to take to get ourselves back on track, but the bastard driver sets us back nearly three hours.

Red and chrome bus beside blue building
Chicken bus in Guatemala

Three more buses later, we arrive at the border. Leaving Guatemala is a cinch, and entering El Salvador should be the same. It’s one of the easiest crossings in the whole of Central America. Unfortunately, due to the chicken-scratch of the customs agent when we first landed in Guatemala, the guards here can’t decipher how many days we have remaining in the region. 

Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador all share the same “visa,” which could be 1 day, anywhere up to 90 days, depending on the mood of the person who stamps your first entry. Because the Salvadorian guards can’t read what is written, they don’t know if we have any days remaining, so they can’t let us in. Everyone is kind during the stressful hour at the border, but after several phone calls to their bosses, the guards happily welcome us into El Salvador — complete with huge smiles and thumbs-up.

One final bus to go, and we can settle into our home for two nights. The ride is smooth and we get off on the edge of a dirt road. Hitching a ride in the back of a truck with some local farmers, we save having to walk two kilometres to the village. This is where things take yet another turn, but I’ll save the story for a future post, as it’s a long one. Just know that the accommodation is not alright, and the evening is upon us — travel in El Salvador after dark is not the safest idea.

So after weighing our limited options, we end up spending $55 (USD) for a local to drive us to the closest town that we’re familiar with: El Tunco.

Sign that says "El Tunco" beside a wooden tower
El Tunco Beach, El Salvador

The Beautiful Salvadorian Coast

Arriving around 8 pm, we luck out and check-in to the first hostel we try. It happens to be the same one we stayed at during our last visit. We even get our old room!

This is where things begin to turn right again.

Over the next week, we explore El Tunco and the surrounding area. From Tunco, we spend a few nights in the surf-town of El Zonte, just up the highway. Here we span the accommodation spectrum. First, it’s at the brilliant Hotel Palo Verde, complete with air conditioning and a swimming pool! We follow this with a couple of nights in a simple beach hut overlooking the water. It’s also in El Zonte where we have the outstanding experience of releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean. Again, this is an upcoming post, so I won’t get into too much here, but it is one of the coolest things we’ve ever done!

Back in El Tunco for a few days, we play in the waves, eat a ton of pupusas and soak in the backpacker vibe. We hang out with a Dutch traveller we met while in Zonte a few times and enjoy some great conversation over several beers while taking in El Tunco’s legendary sunsets.

It feels good to be back here.

Feet on a bed and a window on the wall
View from our beach hut in El Zonte
Sunset over the ocean with a rock formation in the water
Sunset in El Tunco

An Old Haunt, With a New Perspective

Three more chicken buses followed as we make our way from Tunco down to Costa del Sol via San Salvador. Here we cross the small strait to the “island” of Tasajera. I say island, but it’s more of a peninsula, isolated from the mainland by dense jungle and mangroves.

For those of you who need a reminder of our first visit, it was that dreaded Workaway project with the wooden plank for a bed, that hovered over scorpions — and scorpion-killing spiders. This time, however, we stay at a hostel closer to the main town and the docks. With far-more peace of mind this time, we’re able to enjoy ourselves with the simplicity of the place. No internet, no traffic. Just sun, tasty food, hammocks, friendly locals, and literally miles of untouched beach. And while we only spend two nights here, we know we’ll be returning in the future.

Woman standing on a sandy road
Kylee on the “road” to the beach on Tasajera

San Miguel

And finally, November finishes with a literal bang.

More chicken buses, some far better than others, and we arrive in El Salvador’s far-east and the sweltering city of San Miguel. Even locals warned us about the heat in these parts. And with average daytime highs between 37 and 44 this time of year, many avoid it altogether. 

Arriving mid-afternoon, pouring with sweat in the thick, 39°C heat, we drop our bags at the hostel and head out in search of food. With no local shops open at this hottest part of the day, we take refuge in an air-conditioned local fast-food chain called Pollo Campestre. It’s KFC-esque fried chicken joint that is better in every single way. And once more, I think this might even be worthy of its own post. Just understand that this might be the best fast-food fried chicken we’ve ever had.

Stopping in at a local dive bar, we break the heat with a couple of cheap, local beers before calling it an afternoon. The following day is when the Carnaval festivities begin. And it’s the reason we crossed the entire country to get here so quickly.

The following morning, we’re awakened at an ungodly hour by the cracks and booms of firecrackers and fireworks. The first of many that will be the soundtrack for our day. Our hostel owner mentions that we should take it easy during the day, for the evening’s festivities will be out of control. We take a stroll through the local market, which is always an interesting experience, and caught up on some work.

For lunch, we take the owner’s advice once again and stop in at a local soup restaurant — apparently a favourite of locals. And are we ever glad for this advice. Monstrous portions of the best chicken soup we’ve ever tasted are served from giant cauldrons simmering over open fire. It’s almost medieval.

Shrimp in a pail at a market on the street
Shrimp in the San Miguel Local Market
Cauldrons steaming over wood fire
Soup Cauldrons in San Miguel

When the evening finally arrives, we prepare ourselves and head out into the masses. Thousands of people have taken to the streets. Every other corner is selling beer and snacks from makeshift bars with plastic chairs. On the main street, a wild parade goes on for well over an hour; although the floats are mostly beauty pageant contestants.

And while the real wild parties begin far later in the night, we have an early bus to catch the following morning, so we take the responsible move and call it a night earlier than most. But before we do, we stop at the local sports field-turned open-air food court and sit down for an incredible meal – with beer – for only $5.

Bellies full, we head to bed. Content that we enjoyed the festivities enough, without getting too involved in the chaos that inevitably ensued, we slept.

December begins with a return to the beach.

About the Author

Mark Stewart

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Mark is a multi-passionate creative with a fascination for getting the most out of the human experience. While he isn't chasing adventures around the globe as a travel journalist and photographer, he works as a freelance writer, private chef and web developer.

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