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Solo travel in Mexico
Traveling solo from Mexico to El Salvador

In this, the the third and final installment of the series, we'll provide some background info on the prior travel experiences that informed our methods as parents who travel extensively with young children...

After our Great American Roadtrip (described in this prior post), I turned my sights southward. The following summer, I set out alone for the jungles of Central America. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I went alone. I had several friends in college. But I don't think any of them were the traveling type. Not this kind of trip, anyway. Plus, I think I just wanted to go alone - just like the trips to Mexico.

I spent three weeks roaming Mexico and Central America, without so much as a guidebook or a map. I spoke some rudimentary Spanish by then - enough to order food, buy bus tickets, and ask for directions. I started in Cancun since that was the cheapest flight I could find.

After a night there, I hopped a bus headed 120 miles away from the coast to see the marvels of Chichen Itza, and after a day spent there, I was fortunate enough to miss the last bus back to Cancun. Standing at the locked gate, watching as the last few visitors left the temple site in what seemed to be small, private vehicles, I met a friendly local couple who gave me great advice:

"Stay away from Cancun if you want to see the "real" Mexico."

I rode in a micro (a van with a lot of seats) with that couple to Valladolid, based on their recommendation. I spent a few days wandering the streets there, and taking photographs. Made a few friends, and met an ancient Aztec grandma who spoke no Spanish.

But I had really come to see Guatemala, so next I headed straight down to Chetumal. There I met an amazing group of young men and women who took me everywhere with them in the back of a pickup truck for a few days. We went to the beach, sang Nirvana songs (my long blonde hair was enough to convince them that I could mimic Kurt Cobain if I tried). We played volleyball, and had cookouts.

I slept in a hotel so cheap that there was no toilet seat on the steel bowl (prison style!). Bath towels were not among the features of the hotel. I hadn't packed any towels either, so after showering I had to hang out naked under the ceiling fan until I got dry. Pretty refreshing, in that climate!

Then entirely by accident, I met a great American "travel buddy," and his sister and his girlfriend. I was looking for some museum or other and couldn't find it, so I stopped by the lobby of the nicest hotel in town, to ask the receptionist for directions. I assumed that some English would be spoken there, but none was.

The three Americans observed me trying to get directions, asking in a mix of English and Spanish, and saw the receptionist responding in Spanish that she didn't know of any museums nearby. They approached me and asked what I was doing, and whether I wouldn't like to come out to have lunch with them. I accepted, and by the end of the lunch, we were all pals.

They were going boating the next day, and invited me along. Together our party of four had fun goofing off in the waters just off the coast, with a couple of Mexican crew, who didn't speak a word of English, who my friend had managed to hire without being able to speak so much as one word of Spanish.

My new friend had this powerful gift of charisma and persuasiveness; and he didn't let blank stares and responses of "Que?" ("What?") stop him from communicating. He did some pointing and gesturing, and used some of his favorite words in such situations, which were numbers. The captain didn't seem to understand a word that was spoken, but somehow it was arranged that they would be ready for us the next day at a certain time, with the boat gassed up and ready to go. And they actually were there and were ready!

Solo travel in Southern Mexico off the tourist path
River Fun in Mexico
This day of boating was a blast right up until our boat's motor broke down, a couple of hours away from home. The captain and his first mate fixed it, then promptly got us lost. We stopped to ask for directions when we saw some people washing clothes in the river under a bridge. We got some very strange looks, like maybe we weren't supposed to be there or something.

Turns out, we weren't supposed to be there. The armed guards at the top of the bridge were none too happy with the fact that we had just accidentally boated our way into another country. Apparently, that's some sort of big no-no. There was some shouting, and angry accusations. My American friend took it all in stride. He insisted on speaking to the boss, in private, in the office. My friend refused to engage in arguments or use a word of Spanish, and did what he always did:  talked numbers. Specifically, the kind of numbers that have dollar signs in front of them.

Soon we were back in the boat and headed home to Mexico. Then, surprise surprise, we got lost again, on the way home in the dark. We had an eerie time of it, cruising along through marshy reeds, looking left and right for signs of civilization, with the captain's concern and fear quite visible on his face.

But we made it out alive. We spent another couple of days riding around town in the American's rented jeep, and dining together every night. We parted ways when my friend's sister realized she had left her purse a couple hundred miles to the north at another hotel. They invited me to make a road trip with them, and it sounded like a blast, but I had my heart set on Guatemala.

From there I went into Guatemala via bus, with no idea where I wanted to go or what I wanted to see. I met another new travel buddy on the bus, who explained that Tikal was The Place to Go, since I would recognize it from the Star Wars films. He said Tikal had cool ruins that I would recognize as the setting of the rebel base on Yavin in Episode IV. All he had to say was "Star Wars" and I would have immediately taken his advice, no questions asked.

Visiting Guatemala solo
Temple ruins in Tikal, Guatemala
Then I took another painted school bus on a road trip all the way down Guatemala, north-to-south. This was the proverbial "chicken bus," full of local farmers and the things they were bringing to, or from, the city to sell, including, yes, quite a few noisy chickens, feathers all aflutter.

There was a tense moment when we were all ordered off the bus by armed soldiers who inspected the bus thoroughly, then sent us on our way with barely a word. It was unclear why they had the road barricaded in the middle of the jungle in the first place, or why they had no insignia or identifying names on their green uniforms, or why it was necessary for each of them to be armed with a heavy machine gun.

I turned around in El Salvador, waking up in a city where I did not feel safe (mostly due to the fact that every other person I met on the street kept warning me that I should not be walking around on the street by myself). I spent just one night there, in a wet bed (not my fault - the ceiling leaked!) and awoke to the sound of a machine gun battle in the street.

I listened in bed as a set of two police sirens arrived nearby, brakes squealing on asphalt. The moment the police officers started yelling commands in Spanish - things like "Freeze!" and "Drop your weapons!" - there commenced a 10-minute gun battle in which hundreds of bullets were exchanged.

At that point, laying in my wet bed, and feeling hungry and tired and not particularly bullet-proof, I decided, "Well, that's enough for me!" and pointed my toes north towards home.

Fortunately, I met a very friendly Peace Corps volunteer on the bus out of town. She invited me to see the clean water project in the area, being operated by the Peace Corps. We got off the bus in town, and walked for an hour. The road turned into a muddy path we could only get through by grabbing onto each other's hands, and pulling hard to free each other from the deep mud.  My shoes (a pair of sandals) kept coming off and I'd emerge from a mud suck-hole barefoot, then have to turn around and excavate my shoe out of the mud.

Later I had to submerge my sandals in the river to clean up.  Then the mud path crossed a rushing river via a rope-swing bridge made of sticks and cables.

Rope-swinging bridge over rushing waters in El Salvador
Totally Safe Rope-Swing Bridge in El Salvador

I spent two nights in a tiny jungle village in El Salvador that I still can't find on any map. I had the privilege of staying in the mud-brick guest house of the mayor of the village, since he had the only working bathroom facilities in town.

Meeting the mayor in El Salvador, Central America
Visiting with the Village Mayor's Family in the Jungles of El Salvador

One morning I followed the Peace Corp volunteer 2 hours along the river's edge, scramble-hopping from boulder to boulder, to get to the next village upstream. The Peace Corps was persuading locals to invest in building outhouses to keep waste out of the streams, since the river was the source for cooking water and drinking water for everyone who lived along its banks.

After 2 nights, I departed with a belly full of the best breakfast I've ever had:  black coffee, black beans, and handmade tortillas cooked on an open fire. I had to be out by the path before dawn to catch a truck with some of the men from the village, and the mayor's family had kindly arisen early with me so they could send me on my way with a hot breakfast. Riding a huge 4-wheel-drive truck for an hour back to the main road in the early hours of the day, I had a beautiful view of a mountain in the distance.

Solo travel in Central America
Monte de Cristo
I asked a guy riding in the back of the truck for the mountain's name, and he said, "El Monte de Cristo" (Mount Christ). What a perfect end point to my Central American journey!

And then...
After that I backpacked in Europe for 3 months, using Wales as my base.  Had several more cross-country trips, including one that took me through 21 states over a 2-month period (I was in between jobs, waiting on my overseas job to start), and that one involved lots of no-water, no-services, desert camping.

Then I moved to South America for a year and stayed for two. Backpacked for that second year, moving slowly by bus throughout Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, with brief stops in Chile and Argentina. Got married, had 4 kids, started traveling all over the country and all over the world with our big family... More trips to South America. More road trips around the U.S. with the family. And still more road trips. 5 weeks in Southeast Asia with the wife and kids. 3 weeks in Europe with the whole family...

More on that, in our future posts!

More Soon!
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