“Check-in 4:30 am,” the clerk tells us with an innocent smile. We decide nonetheless against the ghastly overpriced dorm beds in the hotel attached to the bus station and walk a block further. Here, the double rooms are bare and just overpriced (but still cheaper than the bus station), and the service includes a wake-up call at 3:30 am – for everyone staying in the hostel, no matter whether they are on the 4 am bus to Honduras or the 7 am bus to Nicaragua. Most of the long-distance buses crossing Central America on the Interamericana Highway only travel during daylight hours because of the higher risks of robberies during the night. But even so, you can still cross half a dozen borders in a couple of days. “I have to be in Peru in five days,” Mitch from Switzerland sighs. “Two more days to Panama, and from there I’ll fly…”
We only wanted to go from Guatemala to Panama but made a few stops on the way to break the long journey. In San Salvador we visited Joya de Ceren, the “Pompeii of Central America.” This small Mayan hamlet happened to be in the way of a minor volcanic eruption in the 5th or 6th century AD. The inhabitants were immediately killed by the gases, and the village covered by up to 8 meters of volcanic ash. Thus, rare remnants of everyday life, such as vegetable gardens and corn cobs were found when the site was discovered in 1976. We also made a day trip to the Volcano San Salvador, hoping to hike round the crater. “I would advise you to take an armed guard,” an elderly ranger with very bad teeth warns us. But his young colleague with the heavy rifle appears not too eager to go with us. “Lunch … headquarters …” we hear him explain. Eventually it turns out that there is a haunted house along the way (casa embrujada, if you ever need the Spanish word), which to avoid would involve a lengthy detour. We could deal with the ghosts if he takes care of the robbers, we muse, but finally decide against hiking with an armed man.
The next morning at 4:30, we are at the bus station again.
At the border crossings and the rare stops during the bus journey, we join our fellow travellers in ordering greasy dishes of rice, beans, and tortillas because the tight bus schedule does not allow for fruit and vegetable shopping. The names of the dishes change with every day and every border crossing, but the ingredients have remained largely the same since we left the highlands of Mexico. The “arroz con frijoles” (rice with beans) becomes “gallo pinto” in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and “Rice and Beans” (with added coconut) on the Caribbean side of Central America. Yams and plantains have become a welcome addition since Nicaragua.
“There used to be wild fruit trees between the villages, and you could harvest some mangos on the way home. ”Olga, who has lived in the Pacific beach village of Playas del Coco all her life, orders a Papaya shake. “Today all the land is occupied and people have to buy their fruit in the supermarket.” Since fruit and vegetables are more expensive, many people’s diet has been reduced to cheap staples like rice and beans, bananas and plantains. “But most peoples’ favourite is meat,” Olga adds, picking a piece of ham off her pizza – before that she had had a bruschetta with ham.
After 12 days in the “countries between” we reached the Panaman border on the Caribbean side. We spent an afternoon admiring the ocean for being so clear, green and warm despite the heavy rain that has been pouring down for days, and then decided to cross the mountains again to the highlands around David for some hiking.
Happy New Year to all of you!