The Northern Triangle is the collective name for Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and it is considered to be one of the most violent regions on the planet. Whilst Guatemala’s tourist industry is flourishing, many travelers avoid El Salvador and Honduras (apart from a few choice spots such as the Bay Islands) due to their bad boy reputations. Although we always get warnings about every single country we visit, I was definitely a bit nervous about these two and we approached the Salvadorian border with trepidation.
Pistols and many other guns were everywhere. Most petrol stations and banks had armed guards and I was surprised to see a pump action shot gun being used to guard even just a small motel. Coming from the UK, where most of the police don’t carry guns, this took a little getting used to. According to the latest UN study, the global average homicide rate is 6.2 homicides per 100,000 people but in El Salvador this is much higher at 41 (when last measured the UK rate was less then 1). This high figure is mainly due to the gang violence which is so common in much of Central America. The two main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street Gangs, brokered a truce with the government in 2012 in exchange for less restrictive prison conditions. The murder rate initially plummeted but is now rising again with 635 homicides last month alone – the highest ever homicide rate for a single month since the Salvadorian civil war.
We were very cautious, only riding in the day time and avoiding flashing too much cash or expensive equipment around. Nick’s appearance gave us some extra protection as he has started wearing a bandanna which combines rather awesomely with his bushy beard to make him look a like some bad-ass Hell’s Angel. Despite precautions we did have one slightly dodgy moment when 3 guys surrounded us at the roadside and started saying some pretty aggressive stuff like:
“Hey you! Gringo. What you doing here? No police here. Dangerous place gringo.”
I think they were just drunk and looking to wind up some tourists but we jumped on our bikes and pedaled off sharpish with our heart rates higher than normal. However, as I said earlier, the vast majority of crime is gang-related and it seems that as long as you stay away from that stuff, take precautions and don’t get really unlucky, traveling in this area can be a fantastic and safe experience.
The road into San Salvador
We had an unintentional rest day in San Salvador, the colorful capital. Nick’s leather saddle got drenched during an overnight rain storm and had to dry before he could ride on it without destroying it. As fans of the Great British Bake Off will know, you can’t do anything with a soggy bottom.
Apart from guns there are two other things which you see a lot of in El Salvador. One of them is this man’s image:
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was a Roman Catholic priest who became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. The El Salvadorian civil war lasted from 1979 to 1992 and was fought between the military-led government and a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Many human rights abuses were committed and death squads deliberately targeted and killed thousands of civilians. Romero championed the poor, becoming known as the “Voice of the Voiceless”. In March 1980 he was assassinated by a right-wing death squad whilst leading mass, a day after he called for soldiers to stop killing civilians.
Romero was beatified by the Catholic church last month and is a huge symbol of hope in this country which seems to desperately need some amidst the chaos. Pedro Gonzalez, a policeman leading the anti-gang force in El Salvador, succinctly described the tragedies of his job when he was interviewed by the Washington Post:
“When you work with your hands, you get callouses, but police work callouses your heart.”
The third thing you find all over El Salvador is, weirdly, Worcestershire sauce. Apparently Salvadorians love the stuff which they call Salsa Inglesa. Happily so do I, especially with the main dish of El Salvador, Pupusas – tasty maize cakes stuffed with cheese and usually beans.
The black sauce
Once I got over the trepidation I loved El Salvador. The scenery, with its shady trees and lush green volcanoes, is stunning and its black sand beaches offer world-class surfing. The lack of tourists meant that many people were curious and wanted to chat. One of my favourite experiences was in a town called Armenia, so small it didn’t even have a hotel, just a tiny guesthouse. We played pool with some very enthusiastic locals and strolled around the town square after dinner, the only gringos in town and very happy with that.
After El Salvador we crossed into Honduras which in 2012 was awarded the highest murder rate in the world with 90 homicides per 100,000 people. The Hondurans joked that at least they had at last won something. We only spent one night in the country but we had a great welcome and enjoyed cycling through the wild-west style landscape. Actually the biggest danger we faced in Honduras turned out not to be a robber or a drug king pin but…
A small rock.
Walking back from dinner one night I hit it hard with my foot and dislocated my little toe. Once I had stopped hopping around like a demented frog and exhausted my stock of swear words, Nick calmly popped it back into place.
Expert nursing skills by Nick
Vast purple storm clouds chased us out of Honduras and we arrived in Nicaragua completely soaked. Over the border we met Thomas, a cyclist heading north. Like us he was a little apprehensive about the Northern Triangle but we were able to reassure him and send him happily on his way, knowing that his biggest danger was probably going to be trying not to hit his foot on a rock.
Storm clouds on the way to Nicaragua
Thomas and his light weight road bike