After seven months in Mexico, we spent one month in Guatemala, one week (!) in El Salvador, and two weeks in Honduras. I wanted to write about these countries politics and past, but I won’t. It’s hard to write an opinion on these things, because they are so complicated. And it would be dumb to think I got some kind of insight in a few weeks of leisure there. Let’s just say that since the 50s and into the 90s, the rich elites of these places and the US government made sure to stop another Cuba in the area. They did this with methods involving kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings.
While we were there, Guatemala finished the genocide trial of one president from this time. The guy was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to more years in prison than any of us has left to live. A couple of weeks later their supreme court reversed the whole trial, and now they are planning to restart it in 2014. As an interesting anecdote, we met and shared some time with the son of one of the guys who organized the coup that put Rios Montt in power. I won’t say more about it, other than having been born myself in the wrong side of the dirty war in Argentina, I don’t hold that kind of thing against anybody.
Guatemala was extremely pleasant to travel in. Maybe we were biased from all the hospitality we received, but it felt almost as safe as Mexico, and I only say this because of people telling us not to do any urban camping next to a town square as we’ve done in Mexico so many times. Other than that, you see more guns around, but that’s it. Oh, and a couple of travelers we met told us how their van got a couple of bullets hit it while driving in Guatemala city. But I cannot say I ever felt unsafe, most probably because we were always in touristy areas.
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, which is already a lot to say, and has an overpopulation problem. On top of that, the country has been on the American dollar since 2001. There is little public land, and you can drive for miles along the beach and only see huge walls and closed gates. Quite a difference with Mexico’s “acceso público a la playa”. El Salvador was the first place where I often felt like people were trying to cheat me of a few more dollars. From the guy at a place where we tried to camp, who asked for $5 that later magically became $8 (after I paid–we just left, they gave us our $5 back) to the hotel owner who decided to put us in a room that had an extra bed, but wanted to charge us for it, even though his hotel was empty and his cheaper rooms were available.
The main thing in El Salvador to inform our perception of safety were the fences and guards. Nothing says “this place is unsafe” like a sleepy beach town where all properties have tall fences, barbed wire and guards with shotguns. Anyway–after a week, which included a very pleasant stay in Suchitoto, we left.
Honduras is to some overlanders what Mexico is to the Fox News crowd: a place to avoid. People driving south usually rush from El Salvador to Nicaragua, crossing Honduras on its narrow southern tip, parallel to the Pacific:
There are good reasons for this. There’s really no convenient way to drive through Honduras. If you want to visit, you have to either backtrack through 70% of the country, or put up with horrible roads in an area that locals say is not safe enough to visit. Also, having a couple of cities known as “the murder capital of the world” doesn’t really help much, especially among those suffering from innumeracy. I still think that spending seven years near Oakland is more dangerous than spending two weeks in Honduras.
Even though what most people do is drive those 80 or so miles through Honduras (some even cross two borders in one day!), it is said that there are over a dozen police checkpoints along the way. And that cops in those checkpoints will stop you and look for the silliest excuses to extract a bribe from you. I’ve heard about gullible people who paid hundreds of dollars to the police, for what were probably imaginary infractions.
We decided to visit Honduras. Stephanie really wanted to see their Caribbean beaches, so we did the backtracking thing:
When it comes to corruption, I have strong opinions. It mostly makes me very sad, as it was one of the reasons that made me leave my country originally. So I try to not play the game. In situations where a couple of dollars or five would save an hour of arguing with a cop, I will choose the arguing. So I was all prepared to deal with the Hondurans: three triangles, fire extinguisher, reflecting stickers in the rear bumper. The Honduran traffic code in my ipad, already read and with the important parts memorized. I was going to play a stalling game: pretend I only had two triangles, only to produce the third one after a lot of time was wasted. Ask the cop why he wasn’t stopping all the trucks without reflectors that pass by. That kind of thing.
It turns out that in our experience, the police in Honduras won’t stop you if you drive by when it’s raining (they are inside.) Or when it’s too hot out (they are inside.) Or when it’s lunch time (they are having lunch–probably inside.) Those situations seemed to cover for 98% of the times we drove past a police checkpoint. The one time a cop stopped us, he looked sideways into the van, said “so you’re tourists?”, and immediately waved us off. Disappointing.
The safety thing wasn’t a big deal, other than seeing guns and fences with barbed wire everywhere. We were near a shooting in La Ceiba it seems, but we didn’t realize it until later. The other impression about Honduras is one of roughness–my interactions with people in the street, in shops, etc always seemed to be curt, primitive, almost rude most of the time. Honduras was the first place where (twice!) I felt like I was going to have to hit someone in the face after something they said or did (and I’ve never hit anybody in the face!) It was strange, and the contrast as soon as we crossed into Nicaragua was jarring to me. Less barbed wire, people seemed more cordial, and nobody spoke of certain death if we left a hotel after dark or took the wrong taxi.
And these are my very superficial impressions on these three countries. I leave you with a photo of Milo airborne, in Suchitoto: