A Midnight Drive In El Salvador
“I don’t have my driver’s license.”
“What do you mean?” I said back, alarmed while we were in the Uber on our way to the airport.
“I don’t have it! It’s not here.”
The Uber driver turned around in the stuffy LA traffic and cruised back to the apartment. I sat in the car, securing our ride while Joao shuffled through various drawers, praying for a miracle. Unfortunately, our prayers were not enough for this situation and, though the passports were enough to get us through airport security, I wasn’t sure I had enough fate for the car rental to be as accepting. Going through every plausible excuse of renting a car without a driver’s license, we finally settled on one.
“Driver’s license, please.”
“So, someone stole my license this weekend, so I don’t have it. I do have this expired international license, however. Oh! And a pic on my iPhone of the license that was stolen.”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid that won’t be enough. You need a valid driver’s license with you.”
“What if I use mine?” I joined in.
Being 23 years old, I wasn’t the perfect candidate for a car rental service, however they gladly accepted my license…for double the amount of their original rental cost. However, even though we’d made it through the process, we had rented a manual car. In other words, we rented a car that I had no clue how to drive and so Joao would still be driving the car without a license.
Doing research before we arrived on what to see and where to stay, El Salvador, as you may know, has a lot of controversial opinions, the major question being: Is it safe to travel to El Salvador? I was in contact with a few locals before arriving and they said we should be fine, just not to appear like we have any money or expensive things (like an iPhone) in public and to avoid driving at night. Arriving in El Salvador at 9:30PM…we’d already broken a rule. Our stay was a two hour drive away and we’d yet to even get on the road.
Driving At Night In El Salvador
“Is it safe to drive here right now?” we asked the front desk at the car rental area, showing her our GoogleMaps route.
“Ummm, I think you should be fi-“
“OHHHH NOOOOO. NO. Do not do that,” another lady said sternly over the counter, making eye contact with my soul, “It is not safe. You get on one of those backroads where no one is around and they can pull out right in front of you, stop your car and rob you. Do not go there tonight.”
At this time, we were rethinking our plan: Do we ditch the accommodation we booked and just find something around the airport? However, we’d then have a very early wakeup call to drive all the way to Santa Ana Volcano before eight in the morning. We decided to find a tie-breaker in the vote: The salesman.
“You will be okay, let me show you a good route to take,” he said, handing over the keys to our back-roading white steed (a pick-up truck).
Hopping into the truck, we took a deep breath. If we can survive tonight, we should be good for the rest of the week. We just need to make it to Lake Coatepeque safely and pray the host hasn’t fallen asleep yet. With a big roar, we started the engine and our journey into the dark streets of El Salvador began. Scooters and motorcycles and chicken busses (trucks crammed with passengers as if they were crates of chickens) took the adventure with us.
Slamming on the breaks, a stray dog hurdled across the highway, probably hunting for roadside dinner. I guess traffic stops weren’t the only thing we had to worry about. After a while, the well-lit roads and other cars cruising by us seemed to diminish and it was just us and jungle. We were coming upon what we believed to be the most difficult part of the drive: the rural area surrounding the lake. Here, if anything was to happen, we would have no witnesses to step in and save us. The streets were dark, unpaved and empty.
A Highway Zoo
The highway turned into a one-way dirt path and, even though we had four-wheel-drive, we chewed our nails as the vehicle shook this way and that on the various holes in the ground. We passed what seemed to be the only bar, but across the street from it were two truck-fulls of armed guards, protecting the few party-goers from who knows what. Animals darted this way and that in front of our car, but were too fast to make out.
“Was that a guinea pig?”
As we got on the last stretch of the road to Captain Morgan Hostel, we noticed another white pickup truck following us down the one way street. Pulling to the left for him to pass, he instead stayed right behind us.
“What’s that guy doing?”
“He’s probably just staying at the same place as us tonight.”
A steel gate topped with barbed wire to stop any intruders slid open ahead of us as another man began walking up to our car.
Squinting at the car’s headlights, he hesitantly said, “Raven?”
It was our host; he had come outside to find us. It looked like he had a friend down the road follow our car and make sure we got here okay, too, as he fist-bumped the driver behind us. Hoisting my backpack over my shoulders, we followed our host down the concrete steps toward the lake.
“So, this will be your room,” he opened the door facing the lake to reveal a wooden underground paradise equipped with white sheets. We dropped our luggage, as he guided us down the next set of steps to the lake.
“And this is Kira. She was a stray, but we adopted her. She’s only six months old, so she’s still learning, but we love her,” he motioned to our new four-legged friend that trailed behind us, “Do you guys need anything to drink?” he asked, opening up the full tiki bar on the dock.
Opting for a few bottles of water and a taste of local El Salvador brews, we had the lakefront view to ourselves…although it was too dark to see anything around us. Kira fell asleep on my lap as we celebrated surviving a long day of stressful travel and before we knew it, it was one in the morning. Seeing as we were set to wake up at sunrise, I think you know what came next. I fell asleep to the sound of nothing, which was quite a change from the constant overstimulation of Los Angeles, and I wasn’t mad about it.
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