Friday, March 30, 2012

Driving down from Canada

Mark Chillin at Dan's beach house

I recently met someone over the internet who was visiting El Salvador and is from my old city of Toronto. Unlike the many hundreds of Canadians who come down by charter flights to stay at the Royal Decameron Salinitas Resort, Marco drove down!

Never thought I would see Ontario plates in El Salvador

Yes, in a finely tuned Nissan Xterra, Marco has made his way from Toronto to St. Louis then down into Mexico, all over and up to Merida, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador. Even more amazingly, he plans to drive through the rest of Central America and into South America and down to Tierra del Fuego.

Lunch of sopa de patas and fresh lemonade for me and tamales y bebida ensalada for him

If I can, I am hoping to meet up with him in Santiago de Chile for the drive down to the point and then back up to Buenos Aires. Or maybe Santiago, through the Mendoza wine country, and across to BA which would be much slower. But Patagonia sounds nice as well as seeing penguinos.

Diego "El Muerto" taking a time out from chasing girls to have post surf beers with us

At El Tunco. Pretty good food and giant beers too!

Mark almost skipped El Salvador due to the bad reputation that it has. He ended up staying 60 days here! I showed him Tunco and we got a surf lesson from “El Muerto”, went to the Korean restaurant, had lunch in the market, had him over for dinner, and hung out at Dan’s club smoking cigars and drinking a lot of beer (and tequila for him). He crashed at our place off and on when our place emptied of family visiting from Canada. Spent many evenings watching House Hunters International on HGTV.

Indian food with Mariem and Jesse at our place

Marco said that a lot of people are doing this trip and there is a lot of info on the internet about practicalities and nice places to visit. Plus there are people hitchhiking their way down to South America! He mentioned that he drove someone in from Guatemala who only had a small backpack and no money and dropped him off at the junction of the Sonsonate highway and the coastal road. In the dark, at night.

Delicious Korean food at the Pabelion Coreano in Merliot

You can follow his blog at

Overate at the churrascaria Faisca do Brasil in the Hotel Intercontinental

I am quite pleased that he liked this country. Like my friend Michael from Antigua, he felt very comfortable very quickly here. The city is quite compact so it is easy to move around in the nice areas (San Benito, Escalon, Santa Tecla, and Antiguo Cuscutlan). And lots of cafĂ©’s restaurants and bars. I should mention that he got into two scrapes with his truck. He had insurance and cattle guards on his truck which saved him from having to get body work done. One was a bus that cut in front of him and scraped his front in a roundabout ... probably from someone in right lane swerving three lanes to the left to make a turn.

He stayed at the Hostal Australia for $20 per night with parking, breakfast and internet included. The place is on 1ra Calle Poniente which is just beside Escalon and half a block below the roundabout at Beethovern.

I was sad to see him go but he finally moved on and has been to Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

One of the reasons he stayed 60 days in country. Drinking beers at the Rinconcito Karaoke at 3:00 am.

He has motivated me to do the San Salvador to Flores/Tikal to Tulum to Merida drive. That would be a great road trip.

Winter visitors

Coley's yellow shoes in the market in Antigua!

So another winter is passing and we are getting some cloudy days and some rain. I mean “winter” as in the North America season running from December until March. That time period is considered “summer” in El Salvador because there is virtually no rain and no cloud cover so the ground gets a lot hotter. The North American “summer” is our winter in El Salvador since there is more cloud cover and rain and cooler temperatures. Confusing, I know.

Anyways, I had some nice visits this year. My parents came down for a whole month and were joined by an Uncle and Aunt from Dallas and my son came down for a week. The best part of the visit was going down to the fish port in Libertad. They have built a tourist parking lot with guards and restaurants right in front of the pier. Oddly, it is only 50 cents while the other private parking lots which are further, with less security, and are not paved costs more.

Dad and Uncle enjoying the superfresh black clams on the Libertad Pier

Walking to the pier, there is a rather strong fish smell as the fisherman will split and salt fish and dry them on the rocks nearby. Then you enter the covered part of the pier where there are places selling ice, seviche, raw black clams, plastic bags, and of course lots of fish and seafood. Once you reach the outside area, you may be “adopted” by a fish cleaner who will help you find the type of fish you want.

Just pulled out of the water, everyone trying to see what the catch was.

We found out that the best place to buy fresh fish was at the end of the pier where the fishing boats are hauled out of the water on a small crane. Usually there are 20-30 people waiting to see what comes in. There is some haggling going on but if the fish is really fresh, they might not move on the price. Along the pier where the boats are parked, you can usually get better deals. At one place, we wanted to buy a 1 lb bonito and were told it was a dollar but we could have 4 for two dollars.

My Dad supervising the scaling and cleaning.

So once you have purchased your fish, the fish cleaner will take them to a station and will de-scale and lean out the guts. They will filet as well if you ask. You should bring a cooler or heavy bag but you can buy large plastic bags there. Then you can get ice at the front end of the pier. The fish cleaners will usually charge two or three dollars to clean up to half a dozen fish. Interestingly, I am pretty sure that most of the prices quoted are the regular prices with no gringo mark up. And the prices are pretty cheap. For Red Snapper, you will pay about $6/lb in the grocery stores, $4/lb at the fish market in town, and $1 or $2/lb on the pier.

Dad cutting up some fresh sashimi

My Dad kept trying to buy the really cheap fish since he likes a good bargain but I tried to get him to buy the better fish so we usually got some of each. He made some great brined bonito and we had a lot of different types for sashimi and sushi.

Sashimi dinner with Pollo Campero!

We also made Kamaboko which is Japanese fish cakes. Very long process of cleaning, shredding, and filtering the raw fish and then mixing with Mirin, salt, sugar and egg yolks. Turned out pretty well though.

Looking down into the crater at Parque Boqueron

We also did the Parque Boqueron and tried to have pupusas for lunch at one of the fancy places up there but they said we could only have them as appetizers and would have to order a full meal.

Family Photo

Since we weren’t hungry, we went down the road to the Mirador place where they have a big raised platform with a great view of the city.

Breakfast at the Decameron

When Elliot was down, we went to the Decameron for a couple of nights. I was trying to rent a decent beach house for us all but couldn’t find anything reasonable and I didn’t want my Mother to think she had to cook all the time.

Poolside at the resort.

We ended up paying $40/night per person which was great since it included all meals and booze. Ate pretty well at the Thai restaurant and the seafood/Italian place. I snuck away one day for golf at the adjacent Veraneras. Elliot who is turning into a club promoter took it upon himself to get the party going at the disco every night and he did a pretty good job considering there was a lot of Reggaeton being played (which only about 7 non-Latino Canadians can dance to).

Part of Elliot's photo essay.

Also had a trip to Antigua where I very unadventuresomely checked us into the Hotel Aurora and we ate at Hector’s and Welton AGAIN! But at Hector’s the food was great and I ordered two plated of the sweet potato fries with the homemade horseradish ketchup. Fries were incredibly good. The duck was good too. At the Welton, they didn’t have any charcoal to burn in urns to keep us warm but they did have a lot of thick wool wraps that we could use.

Mmmmmmm Yum. Hector's sweet potato fries with homemade ketchup.

Under cover at the Welton.

Quite chilly at night with Antigua being 1,530 m above sea level. San Salvador is only 560 m above which gives us cool but not cold nights.

In the ruins of Antigua

The drive was pretty good as well. The Hachadura bridge at the crossing along the coast was still down from last year’s storm so we went up through Santa Ana and crossed at Chinamas. That went pretty easily although everyone has to get out now. Once we crossed over into Guatemala, we got stopped by some cops who went over all my documents for about 10 minutes trying to find something to fine me for. I had lost my Salvadoran driver’s license so only had a temporary paper one. The cop said that that document didn’t state that I could use it outside of El Salvador (and it didn’t say I couldn’t) but luckily I had my Ontario license which he accepted. Then he pointed out that the car registration was not in my name but in Fatima’s and asked if I had a document showing that I was allowed to drive it. I said no and I asked him how many chinos were crossing the Guatemala border to sell cars stolen in El Salvador. He told me there were chino gangs doing that! Ha, ha. Again, luckily I had my insurance card which had Fatima and my names on it so he finally let me go.

The reason why this road work has been going on for years ... hiring 5 year olds as managers.

Due to this delay, we hit the big roadblock construction site. They let people through every 40 minutes and we just missed it and my car was second in the queue. Ugh, 40 minutes in the car. Finally we got through and had crazy chicken bus drivers passing me as the cars were being flagged down to stop. I though that they were complete *ssholes since I would have to pass them after we cleared the construction zone … but no, these guys were driving superfast and I never caught up with them despite having a 244 hp Honda Pilot with new tires.

The public wash station build hundreds of years ago still be used today.

The Hotel Aurora was its usual homey and comfortable place although the price did go up somewhat from before. Nice breakfasts, free parking and wifi. We went to see the giant church ruins and they did a tour of the city. I took off with Michael and a friend to the Reunion Golf Course.

Larry lining up his drive.

About 20 minutes from Antigua, this was a project that cost $80M that was financed by 8 Guatemalan families. Typical business plan … buy a giant plot of very cheap land, build a golf course/hotel, then sell plots around the course for a lot of money. Turns out that with the recession, there isn’t much property development and this incredible golf course only gets about 10 rounds a day! The owners fly in from Guatemala on their helicopters to play golf but since there are so few golfers, they have dropped the course fee from $200 to about $50/$80 a round. We pulled up to the main gates and said we were there to golf but since we weren’t members, we had to drive another 10 minutes to the back employee entrance! What a joke, especially since the owners fly in on helicopters and don’t use the road entrance.

Michael holding his follow through.

So we get there, eventually, and get two carts and two female caddies. They did a great job helping us out and we really needed it since there must have been about 100m of elevation changes. I couldn’t drive at all on the front nine so shot something like 57. We stopped for lunch and found out that there was no cafeteria or food given to the caddies so we ordered a hamburger and fries for them. Then off to the back nine which was much hillier than the front. I was driving much better and managed to squeeze out a 52 which I was really happy with. One par 4 was 605 yards long off the whites. Yikes!

Larry with one of our excellent caddies.

The course itself was in perfect shape and quite stunning. Some drives you would face a wall of fairway and you had to try to aim for plateaus. One drive I hit went about 225 yards and rolled back 50 until it hit a catchment area. Anyways, we had a lot of fun and I kept marvelling at the incredible amount of landscaping that was done. Most of the paths had walls covered in river rocks and some vast areas were covered in these hand placed stone.


On the way back, I stopped at the Pricesmart to buy some different beer and cheese and we hit the Pollo Campero in the last town before the construction site. Back on the road, we hit that site at 12:00 noon and the workers were having lunch so the road was wide open!

So all in all, a good trip.