I've flown to El Salvador from Paraguay. There are frequent stops along the road for pictures of volcanoes (already) and to avoid the cattle ambling back to the ranches at the end of the day. The first overnight is in the little port town of La Union, facing onto the Gulf of Fonseca and Honduras. You can also just see the mountains of Nicaragua poking up in the distance. There have been a few wars fought in this bay. There are several mini naval vessels moored here - just in case.
The little town straddles a hilltop and Christmas has definitely arrived. Hardly a sign in Uruguay, some trees and greetings in Argentina, strange cribs in Paraguay and the full works here. Trees, cribs, street stalls and music - albeit with a Latin bent. Christmas Eve is the big fiesta and everyone is out buying new clothes in the market - and firecrackers - for the party.
There are whole markets full of crackers, some of them 25 metres long. The latter are the most colourful and have prices to match - one hundred dollars. (This is very much an American fuelled economy. The currency is dollars and nearly three million Salvadorians out of eight million work in the USA, either legally or illegally. The money they send home-remesas- is the country's main source of income. Some return and build shiny new houses alongside their crumbling ancestral homes creating envy and exciting aspirations for the rest of the population). The firecracker markets are strategically situated adjacent to the fire station (bomberos - great name).
La Union plaza is bestrewn with lights. There is a large tree sheltering the obligatory crib scene, countless little booths selling the ubiquitous dulce and heaps of other Christmas goodies. Most of the townspeople form the audience for the nativity enactment in front of the church. This too has a Latin twist, as most of the participants wear straw cowboy hats and the script is mainly improvised to hoots of laughter. My guide cum driver, Daniel, decides I need to be told what’s going on. ‘Well you see Jose and Maria arrive in Bethlehem. Maria is going to have a baby but they can't find anywhere to stay….’
There's seemingly a pupusaria on every corner. These are little open air restaurants or small cafes that serve the national dish, pupusa. Pupusas are corn tortillas grilled with a huge variety of fillings and favourites are cheese, refried beans and pork. I’m not allowed ham, says Daniel– it’s not popular. Some flowers that look like carnations are. Two pupusas fill me up. These and a drink cost one dollar seventy cents. I’m definitely going from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The next morning a boat ride along the gulf and round a couple of islands. The air is balmy and it's blissful watching the pelicans doing cargo plane impressions, skimming across the water and the odd osprey swooping above them. The water is warm and there's a hammock on the sandy beach. Next, lobster lunch at a sea horse decorated beachside restaurant with views back over the bay. Paradise indeed.
El Salvador is known as the país de la media hora – the half-an-hour country – because everything is close. It is only the size of Wales and is a densely populated semi industrialised country, in huge contrast to Paraguay which has the same population. I am soon zipping about all over the place, for the most part on two lane highways. First, across to Suchitito, the best preserved little colonial town above an artificial lake. This is the Ring of Fire and earthquakes have destroyed the older buildings in most of the towns. Restaurants with stunning views across the misty lake to more volcanoes (nine still active), red tiled roofs and pastel washed houses with chi chi art galleries and museums.
My hotel is of the same genre, a two hundred year old mansion, all wood panelling, wrought iron and antiques. My rooms are almost the same floor area as my flat at home. I’m told that the Queen of Spain used them when she visited. There's a huge walk in blue tiled bath, though sadly I can't use it as hot water for washing in El Salvador is as yet unknown - it's all lukewarm. There's even a wall fountain that gushes when I push the switch. This is less of a novelty when I hit the wrong button in the middle of the night.
I’m so tired I sleep through all the firecrackers on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is a relaxing day for most as they recover from last night’s hangover. The locals are queuing for boat trips out on the lake in little wooden tubs that have to mow their way through rafts of water hyacinths.
On December 26th we join more holiday makers and go out rambling on two of the big volcanoes. Both have views to die for. From the top of Cerro Verde there is a huge crater lake with little islands bobbing. Our road runs perilously round the rim. In the other direction is the most perfect volcanic cone standing isolated and perfectly posed for pictures. It’s now dormant but its name, acquired in the eighteenth century, is Lighthouse of El Salvador. The day begins with clear blue skies, but it is a bank holiday and there are car loads of trippers blocking the narrow volcano tracks. So naturally the clouds come rolling in and there's a deluge.
We manage to make the second visit, to El Boquerón, without getting drenched and still with reasonably clear views. Though a shot of moonshine from one of the local stalls is called for to stave off the chill. Here, to one side, is a view down into a crater within which nestles a secondary cinnamon cone. To the west, a view of the city of San Salvador and suburbs stretching across to yet another shimmering lake and witch’s hat cone.
On to western El Salvador.
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