After knees and quads and spirits have recovered from endless volcano-climbing (featuring maddening 22% grades and two broken spokes, followed by a positively terrifying descent amidst the most majestic lake views I’ve ever seen and could not at all appreciate due to the terror)...
... After 5 days spent swinging in a hammock with a view of Lake Atitlán, intermittently cursing the spotty wifi and walking to the local market for a pound of shrimp or a pound of strawberries or a pair of furtively purchased Snickers bars...
Bruce and I cram our bikes onto a Panajachel-bound lancha and set off for Antigua Guatemala — and beyond that, our second Central American country: El Salvador.
Just over the border, as the dark and rain descend on the streets outside Ahuachapán, we duck into the first hotel we see, pay twice what we'd been hoping to, and sit under a secluded covered patio surrounded by plants; the only patrons of the adjacent restaurant, waiting for a plato fuerte Salvadoreño full of steak and avocado and fried plantain and crema, to share.
As the rain intensifies and the lightning show begins and the single lightbulb goes out overhead, we assume we are shit-out-of-luck for dinner...
But then our host brings out a single candle and two cervezas, and we clink to the adventure ahead:
The 45-km Ruta de Las Flores, a series of small, cobblestoned, “untouched by tourism” colonial towns in the “highlands” of western El Salvador.
Through which we intend to meander purposefully (while diligently sampling ALL the food and ALL the coffee), before booking it to San Salvador the following day.
The next morning, after 25-cent pupusas and a mercifully gradual climb dotted with wild red hibiscus and swarming with butterflies, we stumble onto a 2-day coffee festival in the main square of the first town...
... And are swiftly adopted by a white-bearded, hiking-stick-wielding character named Attilio, who is days away from his 75th birthday and wearing a shirt from Colorado.
Attilio was born in El Salvador and returned for retirement after decades of living in the U.S. — where one of his jobs had been to transport elderly people to and from their appointments.
One morning he introduced himself as "Attilio" to his client, an older man, who then proceeded to go extremely quiet for the rest of the ride to the hospital.
When Attilio returned for pickup, the nurse informed him that the old man, who was hard of hearing, had misheard his name — and thought he had introduced himself with: "I'm going to kill you."
After we've had coffee and chatted politics and discussed Attilio's life advice of "love yourself," Bruce and I head to the next town on the Ruta, stop in a beautiful jardín for lunch and coffee and cake and surprise hot-sauce-sampling...
And confront the surreal experience of being handed a fistful of U.S. nickels and dimes -- and thinking of these, for perhaps the first time in our lives, as valuable.
24 hours later, as we are sweating uphill bound for the capital, a fellow cyclist breezes by and offers to buy us a coconut.
"You may have noticed," he says in Spanish, while deftly scooping the young meat out of his freshly drained coconut, "that each country in Central America is distinct from the next."
"Yes," I can only say in return. "I'm beginning to see that."