El Salvador

Europe more your parents’ bucket list?Join Rick Steves, and me, for a podcast about travel in Latin America

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When a travel writer gets an invite to be a podcast guest of perhaps the single most beloved and well-known travel guru in North America – she says yes first and wonders why later. Which was exactly the order of my thought process when one of Rick Steves’ staff wrote to me about “The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway.”


It was thrilling enough that producer Sarah McCormic was reading and enjoying my book – she’s hip, travel-savvy and knows way more about podcasts than I do. But after my steering-wheel-evoking happy dance, I found myself wondering if I’d ever seen a Rick Steves program on Latin America. My memoir retraces a road trip along the length of the Pan-American Highway, from Mexico to the tip of Argentina, not the Autobahn, The Ring of Kerry or La Route Des Grandes Alpes. In other words, why was Rick Steves willing to devote a good chunk of his podcast to my story?


Was Tulum the connection? The story of my wedding there comes early in the book, and this photo proves Steves has been there at least once.

It turns out he’s cared about Latin America since the 80s – first visiting El Salvador during its Civil War. So maybe he was relating to my parents’ decision to drive through the entire continent in the not-particularly-stable 70s – with me and my little sister in tow. My mom and dad had no clue what they were getting into – but Steves had done enough homework to know what he didn’t know. Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote about that first visit:

I feel like an expert on Europe, but in Central America, I’m humbled by my lack of knowledge. Fortunately, my nine-day crash course in political and economic issues came with great teachers and the ultimate classroom. In speaking with so many local experts, it occurred to me that Americans who come here in search of understanding (like me) want things in black-and-white clarity. In reality, it is much more complex. I didn’t come home with the clean answers I sought, but I did return with a sense of optimism, as the societies of Nicaragua and El Salvador move fitfully but steadily forward. You can’t help but fly home from Central America rooting for its beautiful people — and wanting to do more to help them.

And he did. By championing the region for tourism even when audiences in America were more interested in Europe.

I have long recommended, “If you want a meaningful trip to Central America, consider Managua over Mazatlán.”

He had me at beautiful people. I realized Rick Steves travels for the same reason I do and writes from the same place of celebrating what connects us all. By this point in my Steves research, I couldn’t wait to meet him – even if just for a few hours in an NPR studio link. Then I read a journal entry from his return trip to Latin America in 2005, coincidentally only a year after The Drive.

My 1988 visit to Central America was filled with hope. I came again after the defeat of people’s movements in both El Salvador and Nicaragua in 1991. The tide had turned and I wondered how the spirit of the people’s movements — so exuberant just two years before — would fare after the American victories in their domestic struggles. Now, in 2005, after 14 years of neo-liberalism it is clear, there’s only one game in town. Sure, Romero lives…and Jesus lives. And half the world is trying to live too…on $2 a day. As a Christian, I like to see religion function as a liberator rather than an opiate. Perhaps that’s why I am so enamored with liberation theology in Central America.

The troubadours continue, “It’s not easy to see God in the child who cleans the windshields at a San Salvador intersection…but we must.”

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photograph by Gary Geboy

If you tune in to one of the radio stations that will play our conversation over the air on Saturday, you will learn what I did about Rick Steves. That he’s about way more than Europe, that he’s endless fascinating but refreshingly humble, and that he’s an incredible interviewer. So please, subscribe to his podcast and enjoy the conversation. Unless Oprah calls, this is the best thing that ever happened to my book.


Barbed wire and bougainvillea (Drive Day 60 minus 14 years)

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If camping in San Salvador isn’t recommended, neither is driving a 2,500 pound camper through its byzantine streets. Men guard toy stores with machine guns and bougainvillea drapes from coils of barbed wire topping every building. By noon we are utterly on edge and lost, nowhere near the address handwritten in my mother’s faded journal. So I show it to a cab driver, hop into the front seat of his taxi and let Gary follow us to the first road angel from my past.


The address belongs to a retired dentist named Ernesto. He was still practicing when my little sister smashed the teeth out of her mouth falling on our camper steps. We were creatures from a Steinbeck novel and he let us stay on his coastal farm while Jenny recovered. Today I get to thank him for her. And for me. Because finding him provides the counterweight to my unfounded fears.


Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now.

Kentucky Fried Civilization (Drive Day 59 minus 14 years)

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Recuperated, we head into El Salvador’s capitol. The sound of horns comes as a shock. You don’t realize how distracting they are until you drive through an entire country the size of Guatemala without hearing a single, rude beep. Everyone seems underdressed too; wearing ball caps and T-shirts with Nike and Coke logos instead of elaborate woven traje. Just to round out the culture shock, we stop for Chinese food.

But it is getting late and under the Central American Handbook section for camping in San Salvador there is only this: camping is not advised. So we pay to park at a hotel and Gary backs the camper up so close to a wall that the door only opens six inches.


Gary sketches bugs from the day’s grill kill until there is no light. It feels like we’ve locked ourselves in prison.

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now.

Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com website or here or here. Like The Drive’s Facebook page and tweet back at me @writerteresa.


Salvation in El Salvador (Drive Day 58 minus 14 years)

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We need a road trip attitude check, a runaway paranoia ramp and this lake, nestled in the caldera of an El Salvadoran volcano, comes just in time. Young men who could be recently deported gang members sit in the shade of trees nailed with signs saying no firearms. But as far as I can prove I am the only one harboring a gun and we pay five dollars to camp in a roped off area labeled “eco-reserve.” At dusk the only sound comes from the poles of old men fishing for striped lake perch in their underwear.

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Lago Coatepeque, El Salvador: photo by Gary Geboy

Follow this bonus-material blog and ride along on a one-year road trip that inspired the memoir The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan American Highway. On sale now. Get yours through the buy-the-book links at the bottom of the landing page on my teresabrucebooks.com