This is the second of a six-part recount of my recent trip to Central America.
- Washington Dulles to San Salvador on TACA
- My Adventure in San Salvador
- Aborted Landing on TACA: SAL-PTY
- 24 Hours in Panama City
- Short-Haul Flying on LACSA: PTY-SJO-SAL
- Accused of Being a Terrorist: SAL to IAD on TACA
Before I get to the flights, allow me to share a bit about my five hours on the ground in El Salvador. I had read my Wikitravel guide before landing and knew where to go to catch a bus to central San Salvador, about 40km from the airport.
Outside baggage claim at SAL
Sitting area near bus stop
All busses are privately run in El Salvador and after turning down a few taxi driver touts ("Only $30 señor to take you to city") I hopped on a colectivo that pulled up to the small bus stop outside the airport parking lot. I wasn’t sure where it was going, but a young man cajoling customers aboard his van nodded his head when I mentioned San Salvador. It was a tattered van that looked twice my age and already had a dozen passengers in it. The fun had just begun…
The fare to central San Salvador was only $1.50, so I was in no position to the complain about the cramped seating arrangement. But as Randy Bachman would say, "You ain’t seen nothing yet." As we made our way down a dusty highway toward San Salvador, we stopped every couple minutes to pick up more passengers. 20 minutes later the crowd of 12 had tripled. Now I’ve been in extremely crowded public transit situations before, but this took the cake. Do you remember going to the circus and seeing ten clowns hop out of the tiny car? Yeah, that’s what it felt like.
View from the van window en route to San Salvador
Packed in like sardines, with the aroma of sweat choking out the placid breeze sauntering in from open windows, my primary concern was the safety of my mobile phone, passport, camera, and wallet, easily accessible by a wily pickpocket. With my bag wedged between my leg, I stuffed my hands into my bulging pockets, hoping that I would make it the last 20km with everything I started my journey with. Perhaps my fear was irrational, but I did not fancy the thought of losing all forms of identification in a country in which I only spoke a few words of the official language. As we neared the city, the van slowly emptied out and I enjoyed some breathing room for the final 15 minutes of the ride. Presently, we pulled into a central bus terminal where I had to claw my way off the van as scores of people streamed aboard.
I must have stuck out like a sore thumb in Sal Salvador with my pale skin, polo shirt, and rollerboard at my side. I saw no other gringos during my time in the city. The streets were lined with shops, restaurants, and street vendors and reminded me of Bogata. A few cathedrals and statues gave an otherwise unremarkable landscape a bit of character. Unlike many cities where shopkeepers actively engage in wooing passers-by into their shops, I was ignored by most.
City street scenes from San Salvador
Inside the church seen in the picture above
Inside National Cathedral
I explored a couple churches, enjoyed some street food, and sauntered around for about an hour and a half before heading back to the bus terminal. On my way, a large bus pulled up and the driver said something to me in Spanish. I replied back, "Aeropuerto?" and he nodded his head and beckoned me to hop aboard. This was a large bus (of the yellow school bus variety) and featured many open rows. But as we made our way through the outskirts of town we picked up people…a lot of people. Soon, the bus was packed with two people squeezed on each bench and 20 or so standing in the aisle.
Once we left the city limits the bus made much fewer stops than the colectivo van had. That might explain the $5 charge for the bus ride. The "cashier" said "aeropuerto?" when he collected my money (BTW, U.S. currency is used in El Salvador) and I nodded my head. About 30 minutes later he signaled for me to get off as we approached a large fork in the highway. But there was a problem: no airport in sight. I asked him where the airport was and he pointed up the road. I grabbed my bag and hopped off, with no idea where I was.
I started walking down a paved road when a little boy rode his bicycle up to me and started talking to me in Spanish. I didn’t know what he was saying, but he looked surprised to see a gringo rolling a bag down the highway. I mentioned "aeropuerto" and he frantically motioned down the road, as if to say that it was a long way off. The kid could not have been more than eight years old but he tapped the handlebars of his bike and motioned for me to get on. I smiled and told him no and continued walk. He followed close behind on his bike, continuing to talk to me in Spanish.
About a kilometer down the road I finally came upon a road sign. The airport was seven kilometers away. I still had an hour and a half and my boarding pass was in hand so I was not worried about missing my flight, but I was understandably ticked that I had been kicked off the bus so far from the airport.
As I trudged down the center median of the road, I suddenly heard a horn honk off to my right. A guy rolled down his window and asked me, in perfect English, where I was going. I told him I was trying to get to the airport and he offered to give me a lift. I hastily accepted and slipped my little amigo a few dollars for his kindness. He was flabbergasted and quickly rode away on his bike.
I climbed into the car and was greeted by a man who identified himself as Geert, a Dutch expat living in El Salvador. He laughed as I recounted my experience on the bus and scolded me for going into the city. "It’s very dangerous there," he stated, "You’re fortunate you weren’t hurt!" Soon, we arrived at the airport and he dropped me off, wishing me a safe journey to Panama. I thanked him profusely for his kindness to which he shrugged and said he always tries to help people in need.
While I wouldn’t recommend a special trip, ask for Geert if you ever find yourself walking down a dusty road in El Salvador not sure exactly where you’re going. Adventures like my afternoon in San Salvador personify why I love to travel.