There are two ways to get from La Tortuga Verde, El Salvador’s most chilled waterfront paradise, to León, home of Nicaragua’s only surfable volcano. One of these doesn’t involve driving through Honduras, so that’s what we tried first.
We rocked up to La Unión where there were many boats in the ‘harbour’ and a lot of boatmen twiddling their thumbs in a nearby bar who we hoped would jump at the chance to take a friendly foreigner and her Salvadoran friend across the Gulf in return for a sensible amount of US dollars.
Unfortunately not one of these boats could take us to Nicaragua for a reasonable price or without a stop off on some random island that may or may not have a connection to the place we were trying to get to, and as much as I am always up for potentially being stranded on a tropical island, I really did want to actually arrive in Nicaragua in time to throw myself down some volcanos. Besides, while Ricardo (my friend and host) may have serious reservations about taking his Renault Clio (and us) through deepest darkest Honduras, it all sounds jolly exciting to me. So we’re driving!
And who wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend some more time chugging down these glorious open Salvadoran roads?
We reached the El Salvador-Honduras border at El Amatillo in less than an hour. I had read that this border (and the others we were going to have to cross) can be a bit of a nightmare, but the El Salvador exit point was fast and easy, and apart from getting swarmed by people trying to sell us dodgy insurance and “fast-track” papers, the Honduras entry point was also pretty straightforward. All I needed was my passport, the $3 entry fee, and a smile. Say ‘nuh-uh’ to anybody not in a border control uniform and you’ll be fine.
So we were in Honduras! And it wasn’t looking so bad at all. Mostly the same as El Salvador actually. We’d been driving in this new land for about seven minutes and I was just wondering what all the fuss was about, when some dark figures appeared in the distance in the middle of the road. It kind of looked like they were wearing cloaks and masks. Which wasn’t ideal. THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN IN EL SALVADOR!
I racked my brains trying to remember what I’d been told by fellow travellers about Honduran roadside bandits. “throw them peanuts and they’ll love you forever”? Crap, no I think that’s elephants. “If you can’t see a gun, don’t stop”? Yes, I think was the number one rule for banditos. Definitely the gun one. Fantastic.
I was looking pretty hard as we approached and there appeared to be no firearms in sight. At least none that were pointed at our car. DRIVE!!
So we kept driving, slowing and swerving slightly to avoid killing any of them that didn’t jump out of the way (not trying super hard), but definitely not stopping. They were all wearing masks of varying levels of creepiness, and they banged on the windows as we passed. I have no idea what they were trying to achieve, or what they did to cars who were stupid enough to stop… but they didn’t kill us, and that’s all you can ask for really.
When the adrenaline from all that subsided, it left us a bit hungry, so I had a wee bit of a fiddle around Google Maps and made made an executive decision to go into this town called San Lorenzo we were going to be passing. It’s right on the beautiful Golfo de Fonseca, and there’s supposed to be a nice waterfront area called La Cabaña, complete with tiki huts and everything. Although this is Honduras, so Ricardo’s hopes aren’t high for finding anything particularly pleasant. My hopes are always high. I’m easily pleased anyway.
My optimism won out, because La Cabaña did turn out to be reasonably nice. We sat in a wee restaurant across the road from the beach and had pineapple slushies and awesome seafood and discussed how chuffed we were to have stumbled upon somewhere this nice in Honduras. It was definitely nothing fancy or upmarket, but it was chill, and the beach views were nice and I got general good vibes from the place. Worth a stop if you’re driving the Pan American Highway and get hungry in Honduras.
Having spent way more time that we intended to in San Lorenzo, it was a mad dash to the Nicaraguan border as we were trying to make it to León before dark. Things were going pretty well until we passed this city called Choluteca, about 40 kilometres from the border at Guasaule, and the road suddenly deteriorated. We had been told the roads in Honduras were dreadful, which was one of the reasons Ricardo did not want to drive here in his tiny Clio, but they had been pretty good up until now. Too good to last apparently.
For the whole 40k we (he) dodged the biggest and deepest potholes I have ever seen. Some of these beasts I swear you couldn’t see the bottom of. And they were everywhere, both sides of the road, sometimes nearly the whole width of the road, and we were dodging not only the potholes, but traffic coming the other way that was also dodging potholes. I have paid money for thrill rides that were less wild than this stretch of road. It was insane.
Every so often you would see local kids filling them up with dirt shovelled from the side of the road, then trying to stop cars (sometimes with string) and extort payment for their services, which, if nothing else, adds children (and string) to the list of hazards you are trying to dodge. At one point we were driving with two wheels on the road and two wheels on the verge as there was oncoming traffic on one side and goddamn craters on our side. It was like driving on the moon in a Renault Clio, and I can’t believe she survived.
We knew when we got caught up in what looked like a truckers strike that we had almost made it to the border. Apparently, in such situations you just use the other lane and hope that there’s no cars coming the other way, which worked well until trucks appeared in that lane too and we had to reverse until there was space big enough to slip through, abandon this road, and drive the rest of the way on what was could have been a ‘side road’ but I suspect was actually a dried out riverbed.
This border was not as easy as the one at El Amatillo this morning. We had to fill in a bunch of forms, get the car fumigated and searched, and it all got a bit confusing with regard to which paperwork we actually needed and who was trying to scam us, so Ricardo went and spoke to some policemen to clarify. A snarly dog also lunged at us with its teeth out and I just about shat it cause I’d forgotten (again) to get my pre-exposure rabies vaccine. There are stray dogs absolutely everywhere in Central America (there were about five asleep inside the passport control building), but 99.9% of them are friendly and/or ignore you. I was all set to boot this one in the face, but its lunge was worse that its bite and it went back to minding its own business.
At passport control, the lady behind the counter handed me a receipt that said $2 whilst saying “twelve dollars please”. I gave her some serious side eye and pointed at the number two on the paper she had just given me, but she looked at me and deadpan said “twelve dollars”. I gave her the twelve dollars since I wanted my passport back. Happy Easter, María.
By the time we got over the border it was fully dark, but thankfully the roads in Nicaragua are a dream compared to the ones we’d just come from. Some of them even had cats eyes, praise the lord. As such, getting from the border to León was so very nearly uneventful.
We were about 5 miles from our destination when we were pulled over for “not coming to a complete stop” at a junction, which was a bullshit call as none of the Nicaragua-plated cars were doing this and they didn’t seem to care. They thought for a minute before telling us we didn’t have the “right kind of insurance” to be driving in Nicaragua, and that we’d need to pay a fine. He then said that since it was Easter, we might as well just “show each other some love”, and as we looked at him blankly he subtly rubbed two fingers together in the universal sign for “dollah”. I passed Ricardo 10 bucks, which the guy pocketed and then waved us on our way. Great system, really. We all win and nobody has to fill in any damn paperwork. And I can tick bribery of law enforcement off my bucket list.
A mere 10 hours after we left Tortugs, we arrived in beautiful León. Just in time to be deafened by the air raid siren that goes off in the city centre every time the Virgin Mary enters the city. Not joking… It’s Holy Week.
What happened in Nicaragua (hint: it involves volcanos)
After just two nights in Nicaragua, it was time to do the trans-Honduran road trip all over again. From potholes to bandits, it was pretty much the same in reverse. Except this time around we handled everything like pros. We threw our arms up in the air as we weaved in and out of asphalt craters and laughed as we sped past masked hooligans. And the borders? Barely noticed ’em.
For a change of scene, we took our lunch stop in Choluteca, sampling the local Honduran speciality of baleadas. Which are awesome. Choluteca was also 38°C, so I bought a souvenir t-shirt to remind me of the Honduran heat, which I will treasure forever, or at least until the cheap laminate falls off.
Honduras is probably not the destination of choice for most folks seeking a chilled-out road trip, but if you’re looking for some transit-based excitement I promise this country will not let you down. Sure it’s a calamity a minute, but that’s half the fun, right? Or maybe I’m just weird. I’ll be back one day for sure, hopefully in a 4×4 with a glove box full of pepper spray and an up-to-date rabies vaccine.