With the van working I headed back to Rio Dulce. It’s a good spot for some lazy time and I forgot my chair at the campsite, so two good reasons to head back. The American family is still there and they greet my return with the return of my chair. The pizza/place bar on the other side of the river has an open mic night and I join my neighbors for a great pizza and some better and some worse open mic performances. I end up staying late at the bar talking to loads of yacht people about the yacht live and of course drinking some beers. Walking back in the middle of the night across a huge unlit bridge in a harbor area in Guatemala makes me realize how much safer I feel in Central America than I expected.
I guess I’m staying another day. I was planning to drop off my laundry yesterday so it would be done today but I forgot. So I’ll drop it off today, go to Livingston tomorrow and leave the day after. I like the laundry service here. Doesn’t matter how much you bring it always only counts for one load. Also the neighbor kids made a boatload of chocolate pancakes and I’m invited! I spend the day at the pool where half the kids try to drown me while the other half wants to toss a ball with me. I guess I can do both. Slightly tiring but loads of fun. That evening one of the yacht people makes ribs for cheap in the restaurant, so another day of going out for dinner.
The next day I wake up to loads of rain, so no boat ride to Livingston. Time to order spare parts for my van so that my parents and brother can bring them when they come visit me in Nicaragua. It stops raining so I can hang around the pool some more (being drowned by kids again). That evening there is the ritual burning of the devil in town. They made a life-size paper devil figure filled with fireworks. It is lit on fire to get rid of evil spirits and problems. While the whole pile is burning and exploding people throw on more fireworks to get rid of their problems. It’s very similar to the Sechselauten in Zurich (f0r non Zurich people: it’s a holiday in Zurich where they have a paper snowman filled with fireworks, the sooner the head explodes the better the summer will be) except for the fact that this is in the middle of a busy road and people have to duck for flying fireworks the whole time. But hey, it’s fun. After the exploding devil it’s time for another movie night at the yacht club (they really do have activities every day here).
I guess I’m not really in a hurry. It’s not raining today so I’ll go to Livingston after all. Livingston is a village at the Caribbean sea that is only accessible by boat. The village is inhabited by Garifunas, a black community that speaks Creole. They are direct descendants of a slave ship that got stranded. The boat ride goes through the Rio Dulce and there is loads of wildlife. It’s an odd combination between tourist boat and local transport. We do stop at some sights (a castle to defend Guatemala against pirates, waterfalls, a lake filled with flowers), but most of the people on the boat are locals heading home for Christmas. We stop at some seven small villages along the river that are only accessible by boat (even to go between the houses you need a boat). People get out with presents and fake Christmas trees, children are clearly excited for the return of their parents. After two hours we arrive in Livingston. It’s a nice town but there is not that much to do and it is really hot. So I spend most of my time sitting in the shade reading a book and watching people. In the early afternoon the boat takes us back to Rio Dulce town.
OK I’ll leave. First stop are the UNESCO listed ruins of Quirigua. Mayan ruins famous for it’s gigantic stelae: 6m tall stone carvings that look like tombstones. The ruins are located in the middle of a very big banana plantation and the crop dusters keep flying over. Today is a very Guatemalan day of driving. Twice I see two of those enormous trucks that collided head on trying to merge into one truck. The police had to close one lane and let’s traffic through in groups. Guatemalans are not very patient drivers. If you have to wait for an accident like this and the left lane is empty, they start passing the queue there obviously causing even more delays when the next group of traffic comes from the other direction. Anyway, that evening I spend camping at a swimming pool on a huge ranch. The camping is free (including toilets, showers and WiFi) I only have to pay a bit if I want power. That evening a car with two Swiss guys camps next to me and we share some beers and plans.
*Double Drama Day*
My plan is to hike up the Ipala volcano today. The parking lot and trail-head are half way up the volcano. I start driving but the van is really low on power again. The road is much steeper than I thought so I cannot continue. The road is too steep and narrow to turn here so I’ll have to back down the volcano. At some point another car comes driving down and while trying to make sure I don’t hit him my front wheel goes over the curb into the bush. I’m really really stuck now. My right front wheel is in the soft bush. For extra fun there are some thick bushes between my wheel and chassis. I cut down as much bush as I can with the saw on my Swiss army knife (best work goodbye gift ever). But still the van does not move at all. No way I’m getting out of this without help. Three cowboys with a horse come up and try to push me out, no movement at all. In the end we stop a car going down and use the lassos of the cowboys to tie my van to the car to pull me out. That was one scary hour… Anyway I back down some more, very carefully, until the road is wide enough to turn. No volcano today. I use Katharina’s advice that if I have a shitty day I should go shopping (actually the plan is to leave Guatemala tomorrow and I have a lot of Quetzales left over). Loads of food, new flip flops and an extra long extension cable later I return to my swimming pool campsite. I decide to have another look at my van’s power loss. One thing I noticed is that the throttle cable isn’t moving properly and doesn’t open the gas fully. So I try to clean/oil that cable to make it move better. But then… SNAP… my throttle cable snaps into two parts. I guess I managed to make a shitty day even worse. I can’t drive without a throttle cable and I’m in the middle of nowhere (but luckily on a campsite). And guess what… It’s a Saturday so all mechanics will probably be closed tomorrow. And that makes weekend number three of the van breakdowns… It’s too dark to do anything now so I’ll just go to sleep.
*End double drama day*
Ha! Victory! I went full McGyver/Apollo 13 on this one. I used the two screw terminals on a power plug that I had lying around in my van to connect the two parts of the snapped cable together. I drove a test round around the ranch and this seems to be holding well enough to drive to town for a mechanic. Even better: with my fix the cable got shorter opening the gas further. Looks like I solved my low power problem here. The interwebs say that one mechanic in town should be open on Sundays, but it isn’t so I just hang around the campsite.
Mechanic hunt: I visit at least six mechanics/car parts stores in town. Most of them don’t do/have throttle cables and if they do it’s for trucks and not for VW vans. The fix is holding alright and I read that El Salvador has more VWs on the roads so with a half broken van I head for the border. …I’ll take back what I said about the cable holding OK… On my second big hill when I’m between a lot of traffic the throttle pedal falls to the floor. However, I manage to limp the van to a flatter area where I can kind of park next to the road by just using the clutch in first gear. I refix the power plug and turn the screws extra tight. The border in El Salvador is chaos. Two kilometers before the border the queue of trucks starts. I see all passenger cars drive past the big trucks on the left lane that is meant for traffic in the other direction, so I follow. Of course the road turns into a market where I have to be very careful to not run someone over (what’s up with Central American countries having markets on border crossings?) plus for extra fun I see all cars in front of me jump into gaps between the big trucks on the right lane because another big truck is coming our way on the left lane. Of course there is no more gap for me. I can’t drive backwards either because I’m driving through a narrow market with people everywhere. I kind of put the nose of the van in a gap between a car and a truck. I’m obviously still blocking the road so the truck driver coming the other way yells at me to back up. I just say that if everyone ahead of me moves a bit closer I should fit. After loads of yelling I actually do fit. When I finally get to the Guatemalan border there are people everywhere. Helpers hang from my window saying I need their help to cross the border. I ignore them while they keep walking with me from office to office (customs to cancel my car permit, immigration to get my passport checked and the bank to pay for all that). After a while the helpers give up on me. Over to the El Salvador side. I get to the customs building where the police guy send me, but the security guy refuses to let me in. Turns out it’s some kind of weird one in one out system for the building. El Salvador customs is weird and I have to complete a huge form asking all kinds of details about my van: number of doors, number of seats, number of bags, number of cylinders, etc. The guy refuses to sign and stamp my papers until I take my passport to immigration. Immigration just looks at my passport and says everything is OK, no stamp, no papers. Even when I ask again they say I really don’t need anything. Back at customs the guy asks me if I went to immigration. I say yes and apparently that is enough, I didn’t need a stamp or a paper. So now I’m officially in El Salvador! I drive to another camping spot in a volcanic crater lake at Lago the Coatepeque. Turns out it is a parking lot which is on the other side of the street of the hotel with the nice view. The pool I can use has green water, the WiFi barely works, they charge 10 USD for the night and the parking lot is filled trash. And it starts raining, a lot. Extra fun: when I want to go to the toilet at the hotel at 8, they have already locked me in. The gate is closed. And I wonder: broken vans, stressful border crossings, camping in dirty parking lots… Why am I doing this trip again?