Impossible Passes, No Gringos and Popusas!
Trip Start Dec 08, 2004
38Trip End Dec 07, 2005
"Have you been there?"
"Whats it like?"
"Oh...well we didnt actually travel there. We just got a bus to San Salvador and then a bus out the next morning, its meant to be really dangerous"
This is the same conversation we had with the very few people we spoke to who had actually been to El Salvador. No one had actually travelled around or knew anything about it. El Salvador is a country, like many in Central America, getting back on its feet after a terrible civil war that lasted 12 years and cost thousands of lives
Situated on the Pacific coast of Central America, El Salvador has Guatemala to the west and Honduras to the north and east. It is the smallest of the Central American countries, and the only one without an Atlantic coastline. Most of the country is on a fertile volcanic plateau about 2,000 ft (607 m) high.
Here is a brief history of El Salvador:
The Pipil Indians, descendants of the Aztecs, likely migrated to the region in the 11th century. In 1525, Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Cortés of Spain, conquered El Salvador.
El Salvador, with the other countries of Central America, declared its independence from Spain on 15th September 1821, and was part of a federation of Central American states until that union dissolved in 1838. For decades after its independence, El Salvador experienced numerous revolutions and wars against other Central American republics. From 1931 to 1979 El Salvador was ruled by a series of military dictatorships.
In 1969, El Salvador invaded Honduras after Honduran landowners deported several thousand Salvadorans
In the 1970s discontent with societal inequalities, a poor economy, and the repressive measures of dictatorship led to civil war between the government, ruled since 1961 by the right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN), and leftist antigovernment guerrilla units, whose leading group was the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The U.S. intervened on the side of the military dictatorship, despite its scores of human rights violations. Between 1979 and 1981, about 30,000 people were killed by right-wing death squads backed by the military. The presidency of José Napoleón Duarte, a moderate civilian, from 1984-1989, offered an alternative to the political extremes of right and left, but Duarte was unable to end the war and in 1989, Alfredo Cristiani of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) was elected. On Jan. 16, 1992, the government signed a peace treaty with the guerrilla forces, formally ending the 12-year civil war that had killed 75,000.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated the country, leaving 200 dead and over 30,000 homeless. In Jan. and Feb. 2001, major earthquakes struck El Salvador, damaging about 20% of the nation's housing. An even worse disaster beset the country in the summer when a severe drought destroyed 80% of the country's crops, causing famine in the countryside.
In 2004, Antonio Saca of ARENA was elected president and is in power today. Not a cheery history is it?
Undeterred by peoples opinions we headed to the south west of Guatemala to the border to find out for ourselves
Our journey into El Salvador was going to be easy, just a few hours by bus and a couple of changes, no problem......yeah right!
We arrived at the border without a hitch. I was extremely pleased to see it was marked! None of the borders so far have been marked as such, so its been unclear as to when exactly we have left one country and entered another. So I was very excited by the fact that in the road halfway on the bridge joining Guatamala and El Salvador there was a metal strip marking the border!
The bicycle taxis found at every boarder usually peddle you from one side to the other for a small fee, as its always a fair distance and in the heat after a usually long chicken bus ordeal walking with backpack isnt high on the priority list. Here they could only legally take us to the line which I was very pleased about. "Guatemala!" hop "El Salvador!" hop "Guatemala!" hop "El Salvador!" as you can imagine this went on for quite some time until Keith eventually dragged me away.
We were heading for Tacuba, a tiny little mountain town on the edge of the Parque National El Imposible where we planned to do a mountain biking tour through the Parque to the coast. El Imposible is a protected area of original tropical cloud forest carpeting the mountains of North El Salvador and is home to over 400 types of trees and many rare or endangered plants and wildlife.
According to the Lonely Planets transport info and maps, the journey from the border to Tacuba was easy
So what was planned to be a 2 hour max jouney soon became 5 hours. It was getting dark and not wanting to bus hop by night we stopped over in Auachapan a town at the foot of the mountains and unknowingly its the home of the Popusa!
Popusa is a typical food of El Salvador. It's a maize flour dough which is made into a cup and filled typically with cheese and beans and then flattened into a pancake and lighltly fried. It´s served with pickled shredded cabbage and carrot and a tomtato salsa. WOWEEE! We were in taste bud heaven! (Anyone visiting El Salvador and wanting to taste the best pupusas in the country go to Lo Chozas just outside Auachapan) yummy!
The shower in our hotel room wasn't working so we were upgraded into one of the best rooms in the hotel. It was huge with air con, TV, dressing room and a bathroom big enough to merengue in. Not only that, it had agua cliente (hot water)!
They don´t do hot water in Guatemala. If your lucky (and if the risk of electrocution is outweighed by your need to wash) a hot water shower in Guatemala typically has an electrical filament in the shower head that heats the water as you use it
So the chance to have a shower without risking death was wonderful. Every cloud has its silver lining......
Mama y Papa hostel in Tacuba was lovely and so aptly named because for the 3 days we were there we had a surrogate family and enough pets to fill a small farmyard. They have a duck which is in love with the cat and follows the cat around all day, extremely amusing, although sadly the ducks sentiments aren´t recipricated. Mama and Papa run the hostel (we dont know their names thats what you call them) and Manalo, their son, organises tours.
On our first day in Tacuba, Manalo took us to the famous La Ceiba de los pericos. It´s a 600 year old Ceiba tree (the national tree of Guatemala) where at dusk hundreds of parrots collect to roost. The tree was impressive enough by itself, it was immense. We waited patiently for the sun to fall and then gradually one by one small flocks of green parrots flew over head gathering in the surrounding palms. In just 15 minutes there were hundreds of them. All of a sudden they simultaneously launched into the air creating a huge swooping cloud of flashing green above us, slowly dispersing as they found a place in the Ceiba to roost
The next day when the ear ringing had subsided it was mountain bike time! Manalo drove us in his pick up to one of the highest peaks in El Impossible. The drive up there was breath taking, it was our first experience of really untouched rain forest and exactly how imagined it.
The parque isn´t called El Imposible without reason. Its an area of extremely steep towering mountains breaking into the clouds and deep gorges all blanketed in thick varied forest. It was because of these gorges it got its name. Many coffee growers died by falling to their death trying to pass one gorge by using tree trunks to came a bridge. We were relieved that they had now built a proper bridge.
Manolo unloaded some very dodgey looking bikes and told us to just follow the path down the mountain and hed see us at the bottom. Oh my life! The path down was so steep and all loose gravel, mud and big rocks which seemed to creep up on you un noticed until the last second as i found out. I started of really slow but my confidence grew and we were soon flying down the track whooping and shrieking like a pair of over excited holwer monkeys
Three hours later with blistered hands, bruised bums, covered head to toe in mud and a small step closer to death it was time to hit the beach!
We spent the night at a house on the beach. Literally on the beach. Its was in a tiny fishing community so no tourists and nobody apart from fishing families to be seen.
We had freshly caught fish for dinner and sat around a campfire drinking and chatting. Manalo told us of his time in the Army during the civil war. It is horrific what these people have been through, it doesnt seem real when you read about it but to hear it from someone who actually fought and saw many freinds die in combat makes it all harrowingly real. After watching the sun come up we went to bed.
On the drive home the next day, we were about to experience natures best hangover cure. The weather was beautiful the skies blue with the mellow warmth of the morning sun. As we got closer to the mountains and started to climb the clouds started to gather soon becoming a menacing dark backdrop to the mountains
We were in the back of the pickup and open to the elements. I have never felt anything like it. The only thing i can compare it to would be showering under a jet wash. The raindrops were huge and falling with incredible force they felt like hail stones. The intensity of the rain was incredible. The once dry dust roads became gushing rivers. There was no where to shelter until we reached a town 20 minutes away. Soaked to the bone we waited for it to pass and changed into some dry clothes. Unfortunatly proving pointless as we only caught up with it again. Umm maybe we should buy some waterproofs.
After much needed hot showers and dinner a powercut set in. Out came the candles, Manalo played the guitar and I got my first full game of scrabble (Keith always gets bored halfway through). Thank you Ruth.
Tacuba is at the beginning of the Route de Flores, a string of little towns on a main route through the highlands. We visited a few but Juayua was the best. Every weekend they have a food festival. Thats my kind of town! We saw and tasted everything from sausage called "white sumpremecy" ummmm and fried frog, not just the legs this is a whole frog
Santa Ana was next. We stayed with a freind of Manalos who had just recently opened his home to travellers (Casa Frolaz in the north of the town). Javier was lovely he took us for days out and gave us a personal tour of his coffee finca. The finca house was built by his father, somewhat of an eccentric, desinging it to look like a mayan temple. Javier took us to a few towns nearby and to the lakes. Lago Coatepeque a volcanic crater lake where we climbed Cerro Verde volcanoe and Lago Guija with some very cool rock carvings where we had a picnic.
Lago Guija is on the border and is shared with Guatemala. It said to be the most beautiful lake in El Salvador and it probably is if wasnt for the litter. Litter is a terrible problem everywhere we have been in Central America. There is no recycling and more importantly no education about the environment. People leave and drop rubbish without a care and strangely the amount of litter everywhere doesnt seem bother them. Plastic is a huge problem, everything from water to an apple comes in a plastic bag and if not they will puty it in one. They look at me as if im mad when i ask for something without a bag, its crazy. I didnt really appreciate how much waste us humans produce and what a mess of thew world we are making. Its all buried and out of sight in England but here even if it is collected up its then dumped on the side of a mountain. Scarey!
The climate was starting to get hotter and we were in desperate need of some cooler clothes so we made an overnight stop in San Salvador. It was like being in the states with shopping malls, cinemas and fast food restarunts everywhere
After a brief and shocking reminder of the western world we headed north towards the Honduran border stopping at Suchitoto and La Palma.
Suchitoto is is described as being like Antigua in Guatemala before the tourists arrived. It was beautiful. A small colonial town on the shores of a lake lined with cobble streets and very hot! This was sign of things to come we had had it easy until now it was like being in a sauna. Just standing was an effort and a walk around town was equivalent to a marathon. So a walk to the nearby waterfall at midday wasnt such a great plan. Typically it was a cockup thanks to LP. Only 30 minute walk it said up a gentle hill it said and then an hour gentle stroll back to town. Try a 1 1/2 hours hiking up a steep enbankment and then 2 hour walk back to town! Actually we managed to hitch back but still there is no way it would have been a 1 hour stroll it took us nearly 20 minutes in a car. The waterfall wasnt falling with water as it is dry season but it was still beautiful. Due to volcanic nature of the rocks it was made up of lots of hexagonal pillars giving the look of a giant black church organ
La Palma was our last stop in El Salvador. It is the artesan capital of El Salvador and as I am collecting typical art from each country we visit it was a must. El Salvador has a style of painting unique to the country. Usually scenes of cockerals, houses, pots, flowers and people painted in very bright colours with a simple black out line painted on wooden trays or boxes. The hotel we stayed in was fantastic, almost every wall or flat surface was painted like this. See the pics of our room.
Near to La Palma is El Pital the highest point (2730 mteres) in El Salvador, which of cause we had to climb. Actually there is a bus taking you up the ridiculously steep road to a plato at the bottom of the summit where we then made the 2 hour steep climb to the top. Apparently the views from the top are breathtaking on a clear day (which it definately was not) and you can make out the volcanoes of Guatemala in the distance. We chose a bad day and there was nothing but cloud at the top, it was hard to see your hand infront of you at some points. A local stray dog accompanied us all the way up and back down. It was lovely to have a dog to walk although I think it was him walking us most of the time. From La Palma it was then north to El Poy on the border and into Honduras.
El Salvador was a breath of fresh air! Only 4 other gringos in 2 weeks, incredible! (in-cred-ee-blay in spanish) a huge change from Guatemala. Locals stopped and watched with suprised and curious faces where ever we went. The people were wonderful, always eager to chat or help and test out any English they knew to welcome us to their country
Everything isnt handed to you on plate like it is in Guatemala. Tourism hasn't polished and fluffed up all the sights and places of interest, its just how it is and thats that. So you have to work a little harder to find its beauty but its an honest untouched beauty and we are glad to have experienced it.
For anyone thinking of going to El Salvador, DO! Its a beautiful country and a shame to miss. If you go to Santa Ana make sure you stay with Javier at Casa Frolez. He ís a incredibley kind, freindly and helpful man with a beautiful house and for 6 dollars a night this is one hostal you wont want to leave.