Daniel, my guide, is with me most of the time travelling from east El Salvador. He's very helpful and informative, going out of his way to give things a local flavour when he can. He loves his pupusas. San Salvador is Daniel’s home and birthplace and I ask him to take me to a chemist there for a top up of stomach pills. We are teleported to a different world; I could swear we are in the USA. Rows of glitzy malls overflowing with bargain hunters and crammed car parks. Well, it is Boxing Day.
And it’s a very long day. We've been eating at street stalls - chicken soup and tortillas- and later hot churros, (sausage like doughnut strings). We round it all off, at Daniel’s instigation, with a visit to a famous pupusaria district and stroll round the plaza. The trees have had every imaginable Christmas light possible thrown over them. Underneath, a fair is in full swing. The atmosphere is great. Relaxed, warm and welcoming, everyone always greets everyone else and there will nearly always be a smile. There are just a handful of other tourists around - mainly American or Italian.
There are only 1000 international tourists a year, so the locals haven’t yet become indifferent and cynical.
Next day is devoted to archaeological ruins - a Mayan farm at Joya Ceren complete with shaman’s residence and sauna dating from 600 AD ( the Mesoamerican Pompeii) and a smallish Mayan pyramid, though it’s the tallest in El Salvador. (I didn't even know the Mayans got as far as Salvador).
The town of Santa Ana, for the imposing cathedral and more pastel colonial architecture. there's a lot of traffic here again. The highlight is lunch in an upmarket restaurant, with a view over the Santa Ana volcano and iridescent Lake Coatapeque. The meat is beef, but imported. There's surprisingly little agriculture here, considering the fertile soil.
Another little colonial gem of a hotel in another little colonial gem of a town. Ataco (like the Colombian Ataco) is in the centre of the coffee region (the coffee crop is also in decline). It’s relatively chilly here up in the mountains compared to the thirty degrees it's running everywhere else. The town is slightly less chi chi than Suchitito and more vibrant, with huge vivid murals on many of the walls. These mainly originate from the guerrilla wars and are heavily political and educational.
The hotel is a triumph of style over substance. I’ve been given another ornately furnished suite complete with four poster and internal open window to a bathtub. However, there's still no hot water and the plug fit properly anyway; neither will it come out so I can put in my own. There's no light by the bed to read by, although you can switch on lights that illuminate little decorative niches with rose arrangements. There are no windows that open to the outside, just one through which I can see the hotel receptionist - so curtains closed - and the room is on the corner of the plaza. I'm regaled with conversation, trucks unloading, dogs barking, firecrackers and the church bells all night.
A day trip from Ataco takes me to El Imposible National Park, perched above the Pacific Ocean, on the border with Guatemala. The park’s name alludes to a nasty pass at the summit where mules carrying coffee beans had to be led across a precarious bridge, often blindfolded, as it was so terrifying. Today is very windy and all the birds are hiding. A few malachite butterflies emerge to add some interest and justify the outing.
Ataco is the gateway to the turistico Ruta Del Flores which we take en route to another beach at El Sunzal and the end of my tour of El Salvador. Bright Bougainvillea lines the road which winds through more spectacular volcanoes and colonial towns still being restored after their various quake buffetings, each with its own plaza and market. Sadly, we’re no longer allowed to see the tropical glass houses in case we bring in disease. Though my guide has me scrambling over balconies in town squares 'for the best views'.
The beaches here are black volcanic sand, partially covered in smooth pumice pebbles and the consistent rollers on the ‘point break’ (whatever that means), are a surfers’ paradise. However, this also means that the bay is far from pretty, precarious to stroll on and not very safe for swimming. Never mind. I have my own private sundeck, with views over the Pacific, the weather is still good and they make a cracking caipirinha.
New Year’s Eve. Daniel has told me there won’t be many firecrackers as no-one will have any money left. That’s not quite accurate and there are proper fireworks too.
El Salvador is certainly a country of contrasts. Either American and manicured or typical Latin American street life, colourful, and a little grubby. There's litter on the highways verges and spoiling the beautiful sandy beaches. And everywhere you go smiling, hardworking people.
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.
En route to El Salvador, at Lima Airport (from Paraguay), someone is bored and devises a game of musical chairs. We are made to change gates twice as all the planes arrive at different locations to those indicated on the board. There are swarms of people crossing paths as they up sticks and trundle their belongings across the terminal in response to whoever is barking orders over the tannoy.
The next twenty four hours are delightful as if to compensate. El Salvador is serene, beautiful and friendly. (You need to discount the armed guards and security men posted on every corner or sightseeing stop.) Volcano cones tower over fields of spiky sugar cane and the little lagoons are full of egrets, roseate spoonbills and herons scuttling along, their every action reflected back to them.
The currency here is the USD. The greatest source of income comes from money sent back to the country by Salvadorians working in the USA. The increasing urbanisation (60 percent live in towns and cities) means a lack of resources in rural areas where levels of poverty are high.
Last time I travelled to Central America El Salvador, and especially the capital, San Salvador, was deemed to be off limits because of internal conflict and violence. Whilst there is now embryonic tourism, El Salvador still has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America. Violence between gangs is common and while most gang violence occurs away from tourists and visitors, advice says no location is completely safe.
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