February 2008

El Salvador

A Pleasant Surprise… 

Factoid:  tormentas aislandas are afternoon thunderstorms

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Well, hello again!  Yes, we’re still having a great time, and yes, we’re still bouncing around from one country to another.  Last time around we told you all about Guatemala, and said we’d get back to you with tales of our adventures in El Salvador.  So here we go!

We had a nice experience crossing into El Salvador; their borders are very organized, with professional people who know how all is supposed to be done.  In about half an hour we were on our way; success!  Border crossings have a reputation, you know; everyone has wild tales to tell, from “it took us 3 hours and was a total hassle,” or “absolutely terrible; never again” to “just stay cool and it’s easy.”  So far we’ve made it through just fine.  Rick handles everything himself; we’ve found that if we try and share the burden we get into trouble.  (Does this mean that Kathy is a buttinsky and keeps trying to “help”?  Yup!)  So Kathy stays in the truck and gets out the new map.  More fun anyway…..humph.

All in all we spent 8 days in El Salvador.  The country gets a bad rap from folks; kind of a step-child to other Central American countries; and with good reason.  The scenery isn’t as spectacular; the forests have been destroyed to provide firewood for the greatest population density in Central America; the beaches aren’t much (we’ve been told; they aren’t our bag so we don’t often visit); the churches have all been destroyed by earthquakes so there’s no splendid architecture; civil war took a very heavy toll on the population; etc.  To that we would add that despite the fact that the country has the highest per capita income in CA there appear to be even more people sitting idly around than in other areas we have visited.  And there seem to be more really fat people than usual.  And the country has lousy maps!  But… we still had a darn good time.   The counterbalance to all of the above is that the people are charming and friendly, and there are several cool things to see there.  And some of their volcanoes erupt quite regularly.  

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We did our best not to miss anything important.  We visited Cerro Verde National Park, camping up on the volcano, just over 6,000’ elevation.  It was an interesting experience.  We started up the road through sugar cane and then coffee plantations, then into fog, and it just got worse and worse.  Pea soup for real.  We were slowly moving along at about 5 mph, with flashers on, when we could sense the road starting to widen out.  We figured we’d better stop, not knowing where we were; it was getting late.  After about 20 minutes the fog started to lift and we realized we were in the parking lot at the end of the road!  It was the jumping off place for hikers up the mountain, there was a refreshment stand, and people were coming down the hill after their trek.  We were back in civilization!  We spent some time chatting with folks, and then had a quiet night; the fog disappeared totally, it was a full moon, and we had a wonderful view down on the small towns that nestled at the foot of this lovely volcano.  A real treat.

The area below Cerro Verde is known by the tourist folks as the Ruta de las Floras and is the prettiest area we saw in the whole country.  One special town was Juayua, where we had a simple lunch, enjoyed the lovely church and plaza, bought some local coffee and had a friendly encounter with some fellows eager to pose for a picture in front of some of the truly wonderful murals that decorated some of the downtown walls.  An oft recurring theme of our CA travels is the desire to increase tourism with all the possibilities for income that entails.  It seems clear to us that over the next ten years or so, many more tourists are likely to come to these areas, and lots of these small towns are gearing up for it.

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During our time in El Salvador we moved back and forth between mountainous and lowland areas.  Dropping into the lowlands sometimes got a bit bizarre.  At one point alongside the road were folks holding up iguanas for sale; we were unable to tell if they were alive or dead.  Yuck.  

Another special spot we visited was Joya de Ceren, a genuinely interesting Mayan site that is quite unique.  This site was discovered on the edge of a small town as new construction was begun in 1971.  It has been extremely well preserved and is unique in that it is the only Mayan site that shows details of daily living.  This happened because in about 640 AD the town had been suddenly buried in a deluge of ash from a nearby volcanic eruption, preserving the buildings to the point that pottery and utensils and even evidence of the food on the table have been recovered in near new condition.  Much like Pompeii, except that in this town the populace had enough warning to clear out.  Very interesting, and a charming woman guide who did her best to explain it all to us with her limited English.  This site also includes a really nice botanic garden.

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We spent one night in the pretty little town of Suchitoto, about an hour up into the mountains from San Salvador.  This town has made a name for itself as a music center; they have a famous concert series that occurs in – guess what – February!  We came into town, started chatting up the tourist office, and found out there was going to be a guitar concert that evening.  It was really great.  We made arrangements to spend the night at a balneario (swimming place) outside town.  Unfortunately, it was too far to walk into town, and the busses weren’t running in the evening.  But we talked to the manager, and he said he was going to the concert and would be delighted to give us a ride.  Well cool.  Well … it turned out we, in our Sunday best (which admittedly isn’t all that different from our Wednesday best) would be riding in the back of his pickup truck.  We managed just fine, but it was a first for us.

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Suchitoto is a university town, and evidently a very cultural area.  The concert was well attended, including two local beauty queens (one complete with tiara and sash), and a large Canadian contingent (the performer was from Canada) including a representative from the Canadian embassy in San Salvador.   The town is a weekend get-away spot for folks from the city.  We had a good time.  Reminded us of the Mozart festival – sort of.  The venue was the old National Theater, with peeling walls and hanging draperies to frame the stage area, and a dirt floor.  At the start of the concert a bat started flying around.  There were speeches (long ones), three patriotic songs, and every other person taking pictures with their cell phones.  Surreal, but nice. (Anyone recognize that quote from one of our favorite films?  Answer below.)  

Oh yeah, the active volcanoes?  We never saw one get very busy, but the El Salvadorans are very cleverly harnessing what’s inside – geothermal energy – and using it, wanting to rid themselves of dependence on foreign oil.  Smart.  We did go through one area with large pipe lines, a plant of some sort, and steam rising from the mountain side.

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We traveled to the far northeastern corner of the country to see what had been promised as a special experience.  To get there we took some mountainous back roads that are partly paved, and really enjoyed it.  We were at a high enough elevation to be going through pine forests (wherever all the trees had not been cut down).  Cool and breezy.  We were headed for an area of El Salvador that had been the scene of some of the worst and heaviest fighting of the civil war that ended in 1992.  

In Perquin, the guerrilla headquarters, the town has created and maintains the Museum of the Revolution.  This was a very rewarding, sobering experience.  In a nearby town, El Mozote, down several miles of dirt road, has been erected a simple wall memorial listing all the people in that village who were murdered in a single massacre by government troops (who had been trained by US advisers); over 900 of them, mostly children, many only a few days old.  Beside the church, which is beautifully painted in whimsical, brightly colored murals, a garden has been planted; it’s the site of a mass burial of many of the victims.  In both of these locations we tried to show our respect by refraining from taking photographs.  This was a terrible civil war; as you probably know, our country supported and trained the brutal government forces.  Yet another example of our badly flawed foreign policy during the Cold War: “Any dictator is fine so long as he’s not a communist”.  But enough.

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We both entered and left El Salvador at its western border with Guatemala.  Traveling west from Perquin was very pleasant; we traveled along a series of paved/dirt rounds high in the mountains. The people were friendly and delightful.  Chickens, turkeys and pigs alongside the roads were healthy and happy.  Oh yeah: one way to know you are in El Salvador is because every town has a police kiosk somewhere along the road, and it’s marked by a couple of traffic cones, holding a spot for the police car.  Yes, you just go around them.  

We stopped for a last night in the country at a lovely hotel in La Palma, high in the northwestern mountains.  We were surprised to find the entire hotel jammed, although they found a spot for us to park.  It seems about 75 medical missionaries from Virginia were there, preparing to spend a week doing outreach work in the mountains.  They were great folks, medical students, and we had good chats with them.  They were all hyper when they arrived, but exhausted when returning the next day.  Such energy!  

We had many great experiences in this small country and are really glad that we came to visit.

Bye for now and do stay tuned.

Oh, the film quote?  Hugh Grant to Julia Roberts in “Notting Hill”.

Click here to see more of our pictures of El Salvador.

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018