24 – 29 November 2011
El Salvador was not a destination on our original itinerary, but as we travelled south, we met a number of people with only positive things to say about the country, so with a little tweaking we re-jigged our route and caught a bus to Santa Ana.
We arrived after dark and the bus dropped us at a gas station on the outskirts of town. Feeling disorientated, we asked passersby for directions on how to get to town and were given at least four different sets of instructions – each person was adamant they were right and the others were wrong. One even arranged for their son in law’s cousin to come and drive us to town. As we were trying to extricate ourselves from the situation (at this point feeling quite apprehensive about the prospect of taking a ride from a stranger, after dark, in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates), along came the immigration cops. Thinking we were about to get harassed for a bribe to get out of the situation, it came as a pleasant surprise when, after a couple of questions, they hailed a cab for us, directed the driver to our hotel and made sure the driver gave us a fair price. Actually I think the whole incident displayed the friendly and helpful nature of the Salvadorenos, of which we were to experience more. If we weren’t worn out from a full day’s travel, we probably would have appreciated it more!
The next day after trying, and failing to see the sights of central Santa Ana (we caught a bus, at least three passengers directed us to where we wanted to go, spoke to the driver on our behalf and told us to sit behind him so he could tell us where to get off, but he forgot and then the bus broke down – so we gave up) we instead took a trip to Lago de Coatepeque. Coatepeque is a volcanic lake around 15km from Santa Ana and home to some very rich Salvadorenos, apparently. We found a lovely restaurant with a jetty out into the lake where we sipped fresh lemonade and swam in the lake, soaking up the beautiful location which we had almost entirely to ourselves. Tourism in El Salvador is undeveloped compared to its neighbours: this meant that we rarely saw other westerners on this leg of the trip, but the downside was that getting around and finding places recommended in the guidebooks was much more of a struggle.
One feature of travelling in El Salvador that never failed to amaze us, despite the regularity of its occurrence, was the procession of traders on the public buses. The buses typically leave from around the town market, but there is no need for you to visit the market itself – it will come to you. When we left Santa Elena, it took us around 20 minutes just to escape the bus terminal. During this time, we had a steady procession through the bus, with traders selling everything you could possibly want and more. The (non-exhaustive) list included fruit, soft drinks (distilled into plastic bags), cakes, bread, vests, biscuits, socks, vegetables, superglue, belts, wallets, padlocks. You name it, we were offered it – and almost everything cost less that a dollar! Then there were the preachers, the beggars and the particularly interesting narco-evangelists (think preachers telling you why its critical that you buy the vitamins/medicines they are hawking and how they will cure all your ills). Its a wonder the buses ever get to their destination!
Our next stop was Juayua, a pretty town set in the mountains and on the much acclaimed Ruta de Flores. The town is famous for its weekly food festival where you can try local delicacies including iguana and guinea pig. We were offered roast snake, but decided to turn it down, instead opting for another culinary delicacy called pupusas. These are similar to tortillas, but filled with beans and cheese, griddled and served with hot sauce – delicious!
While in Juayua, we hired a local guide and went on a tour to los Chorros Waterfalls – a series of three waterfalls interconnected by subterranean tunnels which support a hydro-electric plant a few kilometres out of town. There, we swam in the pools with the local kids and made our way blindly through the tunnels, exiting through the waterfalls – an amazing sensation. That afternoon, it was back on the bus (cue another dozen or two traders peddling their wares) and on to our next destination, the Pacific Coast.