“I’m not picking you up at fucking Ilopango. Are you crazy!? Even locals don’t go there, especially not at night! That’s the worst place in the country!”
We passed the line of truckers until a customs officer stopped us. He pointed toward a tiny cabin with a few shady people sitting in front. Street hustlers surrounded La Chichona like crows around a rotting carcass. I walked to the cabin and saw a hustler that did not move toward me. He had dignity and misery marked on each side of his face, and a stag tattooed on each forearm. He looked at me and nodded slowly.
- Hello my friend,
- Hello, I have urgent business and I’m looking for someone competent who knows the area.
- I live behind that hill. How can I help you?
- I need to close El Salvador car permit, open one for Honduras, find a secure garage for two months for the van, and catch the last bus to La Libertad.
- That’s a lot to do.
- That’s why I need someone competent who knows the area. Do you know anybody who can take on that job?
- I can do it.
- What’s your name?
- Nice to meet you Venado, I’m Raz. Are you positive that you can do this job?
- Good. If we manage to do everything, I’ll pay you double.
- Deal. Let’s go.
We shook hands and the race started. I gave my paperwork to Venado while Sandra and I looked for lunch. The whole area was poor and dangerous. There was a tiny comedor that looked as bad as the hustlers’ face. The food, though, was delicious. Venado came back an hour later with the clearance to pass despite the strike. First win.
We waited in line at the border to stamp our passport and enter Honduras. Sandra told the agent not to stamp hers because we were just dropping the van and coming back to El Salvador. He checked out her pretty eyes, smiled, and agreed. Seriously!?
A bridge marked the border between El Salvador and Honduras. Venado spoke to the cop who let us through. He then showed us the hotel with a secure garage. Indeed, the hotel looked like a prison, with barbwire on top of tall concrete walls. Venado needed to bribe the customs guy to get the car permit faster. I gave him extra cash and we turned towards la Chichona.
Preparing to leave her for two months was another challenge. In the stifling heat, I had to empty the water tanks, disconnect the battery, hide anything of value, and so on. I was dripping in sweat when Sandra walked in with two ice cold Coronas. We were celebrating our wins in the shade when Venado came back waving my car permit. Satisfied, he handed me the papers.
- What the fuck is this?
- Your car permit.
- It’s only for 30 days.
- That’s what he gave me.
- I told you I’d leave the van for 2 months. That’s 60 days!
- You can’t. 30 days is the max.
- NO IT’S NOT! I’m a lawyer and the Honduras customs code says up to 60 DAYS! I have the article printed out with me ESPECIALLY for stupid situations like this.
I gulped my beer down, stood up, and added calmly.
- The law says up to 60 days. Now…can you get me 60 days? Or do I have to go in myself and do YOUR job?
Venado looked like a kid busted lying. He took the paper and said,
- Okay my friend, I’ll go back.
- Good. Be quick, we’re already late. We’ll wait for you in front.
We said goodbye to La Chichona, Venado got a new permit for 60 days, and we started the long journey back to La Guitarra. The last bus had left five minutes before us. I was pissed. Venado suggested to take a tuk-tuk then a local shuttle to the town of San Miguel, and from there a bus to the capital, San Salvador. We were still 6 hours away from La Guitarra and it was past 5 pm. Venado did not get his bonus.
You know a city is sketchy when the smallest shacks have metal bars. San Miguel was dirty, crowded, and creepy; a true hustlers’ land. The locals, always friendly to Sandra, showed her a different route to the capital. The bus' final destination was still an hour and a half away from La Guitarra but we were getting closer. We jumped in.
A friend of ours from Playa El Tunco was in the capital that night. She offered to pick us up and drive back together to La Guitarra. Around ten, when Sandra texted her the address of the terminal, she received an angry voice message. Our friend scolded us and said she was not going to risk her life for two careless idiots.
The bus stopped and people disappeared in the night. Sandra and I waited in the empty bus terminal of Ilopango, the heart of the cursed triangle and one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Uber did not go there. There was no shuttle service nor taxis passing by. At the word taxi we thought of him, Winnie Pooh. It was past eleven but he answered the phone.
- Hello Winnie Pooh. I’m with Sandra. We have an emergency.
- What’s up amigo?
- We’re in the bus terminal in Ilopango.
- WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING THERE!?
- Long story. Can you pick us up? It’s pretty sketchy in here.
- Don’t stay there. There is a gas station around the corner. Wait for me inside. I’m far away but I’ll come. Be safe.
The gas station was where everyone hung out. A security guard with an automatic rifle stood by the entrance. We sat down, exhausted by our marathon journey, and waited. A familiar “Hola amigos” echoed through the door. Our lord savior! We hugged him tight and drowned our worries in his back seat. Bob Marley’s three little birds sang, a stuffed pipe smoked, and we enjoyed the smoothest ride to La Guitarra. Thank you Winnie Pooh.
Here are my two cents after travelling to lots of dangerous areas. There is always a guy, a guy with principles. Often an old-timer, always a hustler. Every place has a guy like that. You can usually spot him by his word or punctuality. He will make the difference between a cool story and a tragic experience.
Find that guy, know that guy, and treat him well.