San Salvador My entry into El Salvador started with a bit of an ordeal at border control, a carnival and a pleasant encounter with the police. But overall a great week.

The hassle at the border related to my bike not having a licence plate. The plate broke off when I hit a pothole in Guatemala. With the help of the Suzuki dealership, who’d serviced the bike, I’d previously tried to a get a replacement. However the alternatives didn’t work out as expected. Rather than spend more time in Guatemala I decided to take a gamble and cross the border without a plate.

A calculated risk where I thought I’d have a fair to good chance given that Mexican border control waived me through without even a passport check. The Guatemala checkpoint seemed more interested in the fact that it was closer to lunch hour and barely checked any details. Not the case in El Salvador. The gents at the checkpoint couldn’t let me through. While satisfied the bike was mine their concern was that lack of traceability in case of an accident or speeding fines. A point I couldn’t dispute.

After waiting for over an hour I was allowed to meet El Capitan. A short and skinny guy except for the huge gut that hung over his belt. His desk overlooked the minions who also shared the open plan office. I knew I was in for a hard time when I saw the bound rulebook sitting on his desk. It almost felt like been called to the principal’s office, as clearly I’d broken the rules. In SpanEnglish, I explained the accident, efforts to get a new one and assured him that a garage in San Salvador had agreed to make one. The latter point was of course a white lie.

He gravely opened the book on the relevant page, which said all vehicles needed a plate, which had to be made on metal. This countered my point about making a cardboard plate as a provisional measure. Some further back and forth suggestions took place all in a serious but friendly manner. I thought better of pointing out the poor condition of the vehicles I’d seen and that my plate was only a minor infraction.

At one point I thought he was fishing for a bribe but quickly disregarded that, as he would have done so in private. Finally he double-checked with the police and they were fine to let me go. Once we got that ok, I just had to spend the next 30 minutes completing the forms and paying a small fee. I guess he was doing a bit of grandstanding in front of the team. No matter. I knew I was taking a punt but better to spend two extra hours jumping through the loops of and paying homage to officialdom than spending two extra days in Guatemala City.

On the road to San Salvador, my path was blocked by a colourful carnival. It definitely wasn’t an Easter Pageant as many of the costumes had a ghoulish appearance. But fun to watch for 15 minutes while the procession made its way to the churchyard. Not long after passing the parade I had to stop at a police checkpoint. Although the officers were all good looking I dreaded having to explain the licence plate saga. Fortunately, all four females constables were friendly and even agreed to group photo. About 45 minutes later I arrived into the centre of San Salvador.

Again I purposely didn’t prebook any accommodation. At this time of the year it’s pretty easy to find a decent place within an hour of arrival. However the delay at the border resulted in an arrival into the centre after dark.

Although I’d followed the signs to “centro” I was astounded to find I’d arrived at the city centre. Back home we’d simply refer to the area as an awful kip of a place. Market stalls lined both sides of the street for 2-3 blocks over from the main square and the buildings were in poor shape. I quickly did a u-turn and headed for an out of town hotel I’d seen on the way.

I had nice big room in Hotel Alameda for Euro25 per night. Not a plush hotel but with a pool, cable, wifi, breakfast and most important of all – secure parking I was happy. After settling in I headed Tony Roma’s for a rack of ribs.

A great call as I was wall fallen with hunger from the ride. I’d only eaten an apple and a pack of Dr Orkers oatmeal biscuits on the way. While gnawing away at my ribs I meet up with three buddies who were having Sunday evening pints at the bar. Diego, Carlos and Migel.

We quit early since there was not much going on in the city. In fact, in most of Central American bars and clubs cannot open on Sunday. Hence the lads where in Tony Romas for beers. Good guys in their early twenties and we hung out over the next week.

On Monday, I set out to get a new tyre for the bike and a licence plate. I failed again on the tyre front, as it would take 20 days for delivery. Knowing this, I contacted Suzuki on Costa Rica, where I’d arrive in approximately three weeks and they confirmed there would be one waiting for me. What a relieve as I was getting anxious. As for the plate – I did manage to get one.

As expected the garage couldn’t make one. Like most cities, the municipality only issue plates for vehicles registered in the state. Nonetheless, on the way to San Salvador I had an inspirational idea.

I asked the guys at the garage if they knew a sign writer. Sure enough one of them did. A couple of days later I had a new plate. And, although it doesn’t conform to the EU format it has the right numbers on it to satisfy the officials.

With these items taken care off I was free again to tour the city. I went back to the city centre to see if daylight would make a difference. If it did, it was only marginal. It was still a dump. I’m not a fan of markets at the best of times but surprisingly this one occupied 3-4 blocks of the downtown area. I got to see the palace and main cathedral both of which needed repair. It was pretty evident that all the development funds of the last 20 years were spent outside the city centre.

As there were numerous suburban malls of a fairly impressive standard and many modern commercial parks. One of the malls actually had a church under its roof. I’ve never seen this before but guess it makes perfect sense. Since many more people these days congregate at the shopping centre than at Sunday mass. Surprisingly all the government ministries were in new’ish buildings on the outskirts too. Shame they didn’t redevelop some of the central spaces. When I met the lads mid week they told me they hadn’t been downtown for years.

We hooked up on Wednesday evening for a Ministry of Sound/ATB gig in the main concert venue. John White and Josh Gallahan (UK DJ’s), headlined the show. During March and April, all the famous DJ’s hit Central America on their tour dates as it coincides with the Miami winter conference (spring break). The gig was awesome and I’d even managed to blag our way into the VIP area.

This was all the more welcome as we were next to the DJ and more importantly, unlike the main area the queue for the bar wasn’t 300 people long. A superb night. On two other evenings we had beer and pizza in a bar called Amsterdam and Far West. Both great places. And, pitifully during the day I watched Real Madrid thrash Spurs.

Depressed after the game I decided it was time to get my overgrown mop of hair trimmed. I found a simple side street salon and had my haircut for USD3.00, ex tip. I believe I was 12 the last time I had such a cheap cut. Interestingly, the water for my after wash (no prewash) drew from a barrel next to the sink. I think it was even rainwater. All part of the experience.

All in all a good week and I’m enjoying my stint in Central America. That is except for a nasty and corrupt experience with Honduran border agents. But more of that to follow.

Al Dempsey
12 April 2011