Four buses, two taxis and thirteen hours; El Salvador to Honduras

The plan was to be in Santa Rosa de Copan, Hondurans by 7pm.  I would leave Juayua, El Salvador at 9am for Santa Ana, arriving at 10am to catch a 10:30am connection to Metapan, arriving at 11:45am for a noon connection to El Poy at the border, arriving at 3pm. From El Poy, after exiting El Salvador and entering Honduras, a process I hoped wouldn’t take more than an hour, I would take a collectivo taxi to Ocotepeque, twenty minutes away.  In Ocotepeque, I hoped to catch a 5pm bus to Santa Rosa, a two hour trip.

I was worried about that fifteen minute connection in Metapan.  There were only two buses from there to El Poy, at 5am and noon, so if I didn’t make that bus, I was stuck until the next day, and I’d have to trim a day in Honduras.

I could get a 7am bus to Santa Ana, and arrive in Metapan two hours ahead of my connection, sitting in what I imagined to be a dusty lot lined with ramshackle comedors and a market smelling of raw meat and decomposing  vegetables, but it would ease my anxiety over missing my connection.

I woke up the next morning at 6am, intending to follow that plan.  I did twenty-five minutes of yoga to prepare for eight hours of sitting on school buses, my backpack on my lap, knees jammed against the seatback in front of me.  I had a cup of coffee on the terrace of Hotel Anahuac.  The garden smelled of overnight rain. Roosters crowed and a woman walked down the street calling “tortillas, tortillas.  I didn’t want to leave let. I took a deep breath, ordered another cup of coffee, and decided to have faith in the Salvadoran bus system and take the 9am bus.

It pulled up right on time at 8:55am, and then sat there until 9:15, trying to maximize the number of paying customers.   Fifteen minutes would still be long enough to make my connection in Santa Ana.  The bus for Metapan left from a different stop from my arrival stop in Santa Ana, but it was only a couple blocks away, so there would be time. Twenty minutes down the road a woman boarded with her toddler son. They sat down next to me, and the little boy decided to use my daypack, in my lap, as a pillow, sprawling across the two of us and falling asleep.  The woman laughed, and apologized, and I told her it was fine.  She asked me if I had children, so I told her no, but I had nephews.  I really didn’t mind, because the sleeping boy prevented me from obsessively checking my watch, as I didn’t want to move and wake him. I was able to just sit and watch the landscape of misty mountains terraced with coffee plants go by.

The bus left fifteen minutes late and arrived twenty minutes late, leaving me ten minutes to make my connection, the one I thought would be no problem.  I asked the driver on the way out where the bus to Metapan stopped, and he said, Oh, the terminal is far from here, back aways, but it passes on a road up ahead, and if I wanted, he could drive me further up.  I did, so he did.  He told me where to go, but I didn’t understand all of it, just enough to know it was a street over, by the park.

At the park, I asked a police officer, and she gave me the same face as the bus driver, saying the terminal was far away, but she was pretty sure it passed in front of the Comedor La Vista, where all the people were waiting just across the park.  It was 10:25, but if the bus left at 10:30 from the terminal, I figured it wouldn’t pass here for a bit.

I had to run across the street between traffic as I saw bus 235 coming around the corner. I boarded and looked at my watch; it was 10:27.  This was probably the 10am bus, running late.  I took it as good fortune.  This late bus would actually arrive in Metapan earlier than the one I had originally planned on.  I didn’t even care that I was sitting in the wheel well seat, my knees in my chest, and a woman next to me with a live chicken stuffed upside down in a burlap sack,

We arrived at 11:38.  The El Poy bus left from the same terminal.  I squeezed among the buses Tetris-ed into the dusty lot I had pictured, found bus 463, and then went into the raw meat and decomposing fruit smelling market to find a bathroom, which I paid twelve cents to use. Why twelve and not ten or fifteen?  I got rid of my last two pennies, at least.

I boarded the bus with ten minutes to spare, put my backpack in the luggage rack above my head, and sat down next to an older woman who had two bags of greasy fried chicken on the seat in between us.  A man came down the aisle selling hamburgers on paper plates wrapped in cellophane.  My next chance to eat might not be until I arrived in Santa Rosa that night, so I was tempted.  I had just washed my hands, but couldn’t know how well the burgers were cooked, or how long he had been carrying them around, and a three hour bus ride is no place for a bathroom emergency.  Where was the ubiqitous banana salesman when I needed one? The woman offered me a piece of her chicken, but I told her I had just eaten.  She laughed in an appreciative way at my Spanish.  Some people rearranged seats, so she moved back a row to sit with her daughter, releasing me from the burden of having to listen to her eat and smell friend chicken for the next hour.

The bus left on time. We turned onto the dirt road that would take us up, over and and down the mountains to El Poy.  A man sat next to me, his young daughter across the aisle.  He asked me if I was a tourist, and where I was from.  He was coming from the food fair in Juayua, just like me.  He offered me Salvadoran fruit, the names of which I couldn’t possibly spell, one a small, heart-shaped apple looking thing, the other a handful of what looked like yellow grape tomatos.  I knew I shouldn’t eat anything that I didn’t peel myself or wash, but I didn’t want to offend his generosity, so I ate one of each.  He got off shortly after, so I stashed the rest in my bag and hoped that by now my stomach had adjusted to third world standards of hygiene.

I’m not sure the bus ever topped ten mph, but that allowed me to take shaky pictures out the window.

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I struggled not to doze. For the third bus in a row, I was stuck on the wheel well seat, but after the man departed, I was able to sit awkwardly angled to stretch my legs out a bit.

Mountains slowly passed and the bus emptied out.  I tried to imagine living in one of these houses straggled along the road, riding this bus back and forth into Metapan to shop.  Most of them looked quite nice, plastered cinderblock with terracota porches in front.

We stopped briefly as national policeman got off the bus coming from the border and got on ours, sitting and scanning the ten or so remaining passengers as we made our slow, slow way to the frontier.

We finally descended and passed through Citala, the bus stopped and the driver said, “Last stop.”

I stepped out on to the pavement, walked to the T intersection, and decided the border must be to the left.  A man sitting in the shade next to a bike called out and asked if I needed to change money.  I had checked the exchange rate for Lempiras that morning, so I would have an idea of how bad a rate I was getting.  Changing money from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, the changer had taken 15%; I hadn’t needed to change money for El Salvador, since they used dollars. The going rate for Lempira that day was 20.2 to the dollar. The guy quoted 20  when I asked, so I was happy.  I changed $60 and headed for immigration.  There was no line, and I was done leaving El Salvador in five minutes.  Entering Honduras cost me $3 and took fifteen.

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This couldn’t have been going any better, and I was pleased with myself for trusting that it would.  I walked up the road from the Honduran border until I found the taxi stand, where a man was waiting with three people for a fourth, which was me.  Seventy-five cents and fifteen minutes laer, I was standing in front of the Sultana bus office/terminal in Ocotepeque.  It was 3:45pm, and my understanding was that there were three bus companies in Ocotepeque, and between them, buses left in the direction of Santa Rosa about every hour, so maybe I could actually make a 4pm bus.

But the next Sultana bus didn’t leave until the next morning.  I asked the man where the other bus companies were.  Colgolon was across the street.  They had a bus leaving at 6:30pm, so I walked further along the highway into town and found Linea Santa Rosa.  The office was locked and and no one knew when the next bus left, maybe 5pm, a woman told me.

I had an hour, at least, so I went to the supermarket down the block and bought a diet coke and a bag of chips. I didn’t want to go to a comedor and sit down and possibly miss the bus.  I sat down on the curb to wait with the others.

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A bus passed by with San Pedro Sula on the front, which was the bus we needed.  Several people stood up to wave, but the ayudante, standing in the open door, gave us the Dikembe Mutumbo finger wag and the bus kept driving.

5pm came and went.  This bus would be a local, while the other bus was express, three hours vs two. So at 5:15pm, when I wouldn’t be getting there much earlier than waiting for the much nicer 6:30 Colgolon bus, I gave up waiting and went back to sit in the waiting room for another hour.
There were two women sharing photos on their smartphones,  a hyperactive little boy, and a man and his uncomfortably pregnant wife sprawled on a row seats.  It was stuffy, so I went to stand outside.

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That bus showed up at 6:50pm, so now I would be getting to my chosen hotel, at which I had no reservation, no earlier than 9pm.  There were about twenty other people waiting. When the bus showed up, I could see that it was empty, but that didn’t stop the others from rushing the door, pushing and trying to squeeze through two and a time to get seats.  There was none of the aggressiveness of New Yorkers trying to board a rush hour subway with one empty seat left.  It was almost comical, watching them as I stood back, boarding last and finding a bus maybe one-third full. I took a seat toward the middle and hoped that this wasn’t how all Hondurans boarded buses.  This was a near-border town, after all,  connecting the rest of Honduras with Guatemala and El Salvador; maybe the were Guatemalans, or Salvadorans.

The bus drove slowly up into moutains.  I had been told on a travel forum to sit on the left, so I did. The view was supposed to be beautiful.  It was dark now though, so all I could see were the silhouettes of mountains, backlit by flashes of lightning, the scattered lights of scattered houses, and the taillights of cars below us descending the way which we would soon wend ourselves.

We stopped after an  hour, in front of some houses.  People sat outside in plastic chairs, drinking and talking.  A hobbled horse ate from a trough.  Two teenagers ran across the road with gas cans, the returned for more, then more.  We were gassing up.  It took ten minutes.  I looked at my watch.  We probably wouldn’t get to Santa Rosa until 9:15 now.  I kept checking our location on Google Maps, as if that would help, doubling the estimated driving time.

At 9:30, I got off the bus at the side of the highway with four other people.  There were two pupuserias open in front of an auto repair shop, and I considered getting a couple to take to the hotel, because I doubted any restaurant would be open much longer, but my first priority was to find a taxi.  The family that got off with me got the first one that passed, and man carrying two bags of cement the second, while I waited about ten minutes for one to pass again.  I told  the driver where I was going, and handed him the directions I had written down from the TripAdvisor website.  I had narrowly averted trouble by checking online, finding that the address in my guidebook was wrong, or incomplete.

The driver and his girlfriend looked at the directions and discussed where it was, he thought one way, she another.  She won, and we drove off.  It was only five minutes away, his girlfriend was right, and she gently mocked him as I unloaded my bag and a young man from the hotel came out to greet me.  They had a room, and he handed me a bottle of cold water, took my bag up at his insistence, then ran out of the room before I could even fumble into my wallet for a tip.

I dropped my stuff, changed, and went back down to ask if there was a “restaurante economico” still open nearby, and he told me the only place still open was not cheap.  Maybe a pupuseria, he said.  I asked him if it was safe to walk around here at night and he assured me it was.

I walked up and down quiet empty streets, seeing nothing.  Even the not-cheap restaurant seemed to be closing.  I wouldn’t starve, but after the long day it would be nice to have something to eat.  Walking back, I saw down a street a cart.  It sold hot dogs, so I got two, con todos, everything being ketchup,mayo, salsa and jalapenos, along with a coke.  Back at my room, I showered and ate.  I’d worry about what this did to my stomach tomorrow.  Thirteen hours later, I was here.

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