Chapter 10. El Salvador
(Shari) Never in a million years would I want to do this border without a guide. Jorge, wearing a caravan company shirt, waves to us at the side of the road. Our caravan pulls off while he explains the procedure to us. The border is a mess of trucks, cars, people and commotion. We gather the driver passports and take them to a little hut where a man sits at a table. All the rigs then follow Bert, stopping in front of the hut, where VIN number and license plate is verified with paperwork from the previous border. While each rig is inspected, I make friends with the officials. Because of the heat, I am carrying my water bottle with fan attached and everyone enjoys the misty breeze. I hand out candy too. When the last vehicle has gone past, we enter the little hut. Here the man stamps each passport and fills in the make, model, color, VIN number, and license plate number of the corresponding vehicle. He then stamps it again and hands the passport back to me. We walk across the bridge and another man wants to see my passport. Apparently I am entering El Salvador now. We get in one of those 3-wheel taxis and are taken at least 4 mi. up the road. We turn left and I see the caravan rigs all parked in a row. I am asked for the stamped passports, which are viewed and handed back to their owner. I mistakenly think we are about finished in record time. But I am wrong and we sit around waiting under Bob’s RV awning. Jorge tells us we are right on schedule. 11 AM passes then 12 and then 1. Finally Jorge calls all drivers together to sign a paper. Bob makes two copies of the paper and we leave the grounds in rig order.
It is 1:30 PM and Jorge says we can make the beach hotel easily by dark. We decide to skip spending the afternoon in a hot gas station and drive straight to the beach calculating our arrival 30 min. before darkness sets in. However, we did not plan on a 90 min. traffic jam due to road construction to eat up our daylight. Go to Plan B. Find a place big, flat and safe for the caravan to spend the night. The road log mentions a huge Esso station on the left with bumpy parking. It looks good and when I ask permission for the night, the owner tells me he also owns the station we skipped this afternoon. Most are happy or at least understand our decision not to go on. It is close to 6 and darkness will hit any time. There is some confusion because our CB antenna snapped off and we had to change to personal radios. The word did not get back to park in three lines as per the owner’s instructions so a few have to move. I move R-Pup-Tent out of the way and wait until everyone has parked to their satisfaction before parking myself. It is no big deal - just a parking lot - just one night. I sit awhile in the darkness of our rig drinking rum to unwind before eating dinner in the air-conditioned gas station diner.
(Bert) What has previously been one of the most difficult and time consuming borders to cross still is as complicated, yet thanks to excellent help it only takes us about four hours. Jorge #2 – different from a Jorge that helped us at another border – has asked them to preprocess much of the paperwork and has also arranged for us to drive into El Salvador before finishing Nicaragua processing, thus solving the parking problem we face at most borders. He and I also lead an official to each rig to confirm VIN and plate numbers using a preliminary document before the final version is computer printed. Jorge learned from yesterday’s caravan that if any item is wrong on the printed form, it cannot be easily corrected and requires finding the border manager to override the computer software, a process that can add two hours.
The border is a rather desolate place, a dusty dry frontier collection of ramshackle buildings surrounded by acres of parked semitrailers and trucks. With time to kill, some of us bird anyway and I finally get good photos of White-lored Gnatcatchers.
Finishing at 1 PM, we are within 5 min. of the gas station where we had intended to spend the night. Calculating the time to get to the beach where we are to spend the next few days, we decide we will drive there today instead. Traveling through El Salvador, Shari and I are not impressed with the scenery: devoid of green vegetation, made duller by the dry season, and only an occasional volcano to perk interest. El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, smaller still than Belize by 10%, yet has 23 times the population of Belize. Whereas Belize has huge reserves of lush forests, El Salvador looks ravaged and seems to be an almost continuous string of populated roadsides, small villages and large cities. We are never out of sight of people.
Nonetheless the highway is easy driving and even with the truck traffic we maintain 40 mph. I slow for a traffic jam that seems to extend just around the curve ahead when I come to a full stop. At first we think it is an accident, but then suspect road construction. Whatever it is, we are surprised that oncoming traffic continues unrestrained, yet we do not move a single car length for an hour and a half. Meanwhile smaller cars and pickup trucks pass us on the right, pass us on the left on the shoulder and a few daring souls pass in the left lane in the face of oncoming traffic. Even a few large trucks and a bus pass by us in the no passing lane, except for one tanker truck that ends up parked on the shoulder at the turn. How do these all get through and we don’t move an inch? Finally the roadblock opens and we drive a single lane through construction for about two miles, coming out to a string of vehicles facing us and waiting for us to pass. Without radio communication the workers apparently let all traffic flow in one direction until no vehicle is left and then when the convoy reaches the opposite end the traffic flows the other way, a process that means hours of waiting.
Because of the long delay, we can no longer make it to the beach in daylight and knowing how very difficult it is to travel in RV’s on unknown roads at night and then to park in the dark, Shari and I pull off at a very large truck lot adjacent to a gas station, convenience store and restaurant. The first two groups are quite happy with the decision, but the last group wants to push on and don’t like the roughly stoned parking lot. We stick to our plan and cluster the vehicles together since the rest of the lot is likely to be used by semis during the night.
(Bert) Apparently trucks were in and out of the parking lot all night, even changing a tire, and the highway traffic was noisy; nonetheless I slept through the night undisturbed. By 7 AM we are on the road again and shortly after 8 we reach the beachside hotel and are settled in to parking spots beside the pool or fronting the Pacific Ocean by 9 AM. I am glad we didn’t try doing this at night as I am sure someone would have damaged a vehicle trying to do it in darkness. With our early arrival, we have no plans for the day and instead relax under the palm trees, swim in the large inviting pool and catch up on sleep. Shari arranges an evening cruise in a wide flat bottom boat set up with tables for a prolonged candlelight meal. The experience is delightful, the temperature pleasant and the food and drink delicious, all without anyone carrying their binoculars.
(Shari) We depart the gas station by 7 AM. The trucks that came during the night and filled the lot have departed already. I knew it would happen sometime during the trip and today is the day: I tell Bert to turn right when he should have gone straight. Nelda and Gilford and Tom and Charlu follow but luckily Joyce and Clay realize the mistake and keep going straight. Fortunately we see a circular drive and pull into it and are back out in a jiffy. We are back on the highway but now behind the caravan. Joyce and Clay pull to the side and we pass the group to reclaim our No. 1 position. So far I find El Salvador crowded, poor and dirty. The money is in the hands of a few and those few have weekend homes along the beach all walled in to hide from roadside lookers. Our resort is an oasis in the sea of humanity and a welcome sight. Many park with an ocean view, others with a view of the swimming pool. It is 9:30 AM and stifling hot already. We swim, do wash, swim, bird, swim, read, swim, nap and swim some more. I arrange a dinner cruise for 6:30. Our transportation does not show up so someone car pools us the 3-5 blocks to the marina where we walk onto our floating restaurant set with cloth covered tables and decorated with candles. For the next 3 hr. we have a wonderful time eating the three courses and drinking wine. We use John’s birthday (it is tomorrow) as an excuse to get more wine. We start with a fried shrimp appetizer and move on to a steak and shrimp main course followed by a fruit and pudding dessert. Bert and I, along with Tom and Charlu, walk home arriving just about the time the others do too.
(Bert) Quite a contrast from the congested outskirts of San Salvador and countryside mostly stripped of vegetation, some diverted to sugarcane in the process of being harvested, the Walter Deininger preserve is an inviting oasis of a remnant tropical lowland dry forest. We meet Tom J. at the gate at 6:30 AM. I had been in contact with Tom for nearly a year as I was arranging our itinerary and found his excellent website and personal correspondence very helpful. I’m glad to meet him now and bird with him. Tom tells us after 9 years of teaching science here in San Salvador he (a Brit) and his wife (a Salvadorian) will soon be leaving for Mongolia to teach there. It is like jumping from the frying pan into a jug of ice cubes.
Walter Deininger is a preserve set aside for tourism, if not ecotourism. However, the normal opening hour is 8 AM, unsuitably late for birding in a hot climate. In addition, up until the last few months, permission to enter the preserve was only granted after faxing a request at least one week before arrival, hardly a procedure to invite tourism. I ask Tom how many birders he thinks live in El Salvador, a country with a population in the millions. He says 10.
Through Tom’s intervention, we are inside the gates before 7 AM, birding around the administration buildings. We pay entrance fees of about 90 cents per person. The flat trail, heavily wooded on all sides, is nicely cool and we see or hear birds almost constantly. The biggest surprise, according to Tom, is a wild Muscovy that flies high overhead and ten minutes later three more and still later a fifth duck. Although Tom has visited here often, this is the first duck species and it is one that is rare in El Salvador.
We hear a grating call that Tom says is a White-bellied Chachalaca. Unlike the Plain Chachalacas which are quite tame and easily approached, especially on the ground, the White-bellied is wary, remaining high in the canopy and quickly evading anyone approaching. We spend a half-hour trying to see the calling chachalaca, even using a recording as a lure, yet except for a momentary flash of tail and belly feathers that Joanie saw, none of us see the bird. We do better at finding Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and hearing a half dozen Elegant Trogons, including viewing three of them.
My far the best bird of the day is Spectacled Owl. The park manager accompanies us and says he knows where a pair of owls roosts during the day. It is at least a kilometer hike to the spot and we watch many other birds along the way. When we finally reach the spot, John and I are unaware that the others are watching it, we being preoccupied in investigating an ant swarm bivouac. When we finally turn in their direction they are urgently waving us forward, but just as we get close all we see is the back side of a departing owl. Seeing the black back is hardly satisfying and I apparently show my disappointment, especially when several show me their photographs. The park guide continues searching and soon finds the mate and quickly takes John and me to a viewing spot. I am able to photograph the startling cream-white owl face crossed with a dark X. The owl takes flight, but minutes later the guide relocates the first owl at a different, more distant, perch and more of us see it again and I get additional photos. In the end we all get to see the spectacular Spectacled Owl.
On the return trip to the beach, the bus driver stops at Marcelico and weaves the bus through hundreds of beach-going Salvadorians enjoying the Palm Sunday holiday at the mouth of Rio Jiboa. The crowds of bathers have pushed the gull and tern flock back to an inaccessible mud flat where I can just barely pick out a couple of Reddish Egrets among the larids. Closer, we can watch the Black Terns feeding above the shallow tidal ponds. Although an easy bird to identify in breeding plumage, the ratty looking dull black and white terns are much harder to recognize in winter plumage. We pick out a few even smaller terns and see the yellow bills and legs of these Least Terns. By now the sun’s intensity is uncomfortable and the reward of a waiting swimming pool entices us to return to the hotel resort.
(Bert) Wildlife has hard times in El Salvador. Unlike Costa Rica and Belize, except for a handful of scientists it seems almost no one cares about preserving the environment and wildlife. Thus the land in the San Salvador area appears used up and birding today is along the fence rows and scrubby dirt farm roads between cane fields and corn fields. Judging by how often we hear Crested Bobwhites the species seems to be doing better than Northern Bobwhites in the U.S. Yet seeing one – we do not - is much different than hearing one and their evasive habits partly explain how they survive. We see a few birds that we haven’t seen since the beginning of the trip: Harris’s Hawk and Yellow-breasted Chat. Surprisingly, a second time now, we see a flock of Muscovy ducks flying near the protected area surrounding the airport.
By 10 AM we reach the mouth of Rio Jiboa where it broadens at the Pacific Ocean. A thousand plus gulls and terns rest on the mudflats, or at least they do so temporarily. A young boy runs through the swallow water, chasing the birds into flight. The huge flock comes to rest at another shore, only to be chased 10 min. later by a man and his dog. They return to their former spot and fortunately the boy has lost interest in chasing. This time they have a longer rest and we study them until a Peregrine Falcon scares them up once more.
Identifying birds in the flock is like finding the cherry chocolate in a mixed box of chocolates. The half dozen Reddish Egrets stand out the easiest. One that is especially appealing is a tall white egret with an all-black bill, dark lores and blackish legs, without yellow feet. It moves into position with a smaller Snowy Egret and an adult Reddish Egret at the same height. While I have often seen white morph Reddish Egrets in Texas, I don’t recall ever seeing a juvenile first-year white morph as this one is. The four Black Skimmers stand out also, with their oversized black and orange bills. Finding the very few Franklin’s Gulls in flock of hundreds of Laughing Gulls is a challenge, especially when they are at rest. Tom J. is the first to isolate one, nicely confirmed when the flock is forced into flight again. I see two second-winter Herring Gulls standing tall behind the flock of Laughing Gulls, but they are scarred into flight by a dog before most of our group sees them. By 11 AM the sun is intense and the 1 km hike back to our vehicles is tedious along the sandy beach. A swim in the pool is welcome relief. I nap under the palm trees and even there I get sunburn. Not until 6 PM do I venture into the Pacific for a swim, now that the sun is at the horizon. The Pacific is as warm as bath water and the sandy beach extends into the water gradually so that I am a couple hundred feet from shoreline and still only chest deep in churning waves. Several of us gather at the beach at sunset, watching for the green flash just as the sun disappears. Lee says he sees it but the others are less sure. I play back the sequence of photos I have taken and one is clear evidence of orange changing to green just a second before it is extinguished.
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