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Friday, November 23, 2012

Underrated El Salvador

What a shame El Salvador gets such a bad rap….we almost avoided it due to the negative travel advice forums…..  “dangerous”, “don’t travel on local buses”, ”risk of kidnapping", etc, etc.  But while travelling throughout Central America we kept hearing great things from travellers who had actually been there (and survived) so we decided to see for ourselves.  We were totally and pleasantly overwhelmed.
El Salvador has a spectacular landscape with amazing volcanoes, waterfalls, lakes and it’s all so incredibly lush and green. But what made our visit so very special were the warm and friendly people.  And no, we didn’t for one minute feel threatened…not even while travelling on those crowded public buses they warn you about. In fact we felt safer in El Salvador than anywhere else in Central America.
After two days enjoying the seedy and crowded capital of San Salvador we caught the ubiquitous chicken bus to Suchitoto – a sleepy Spanish colonial town in rolling countryside 50kms north. 
Set on a hillside above Lago Suchitlan, Suchitoto is a charming spot, seemingly far removed from the events of the civil war that raged all around here in the 80s and 90s.  The town was abandoned during the war but has since been resettled and buildings renovated.
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Our first stop was at a hostal with a gorgeous view over the lake and resident scorpion.  Yes…as we checked out the room a huge specimen ran out from under the bed.  Needless to say – we found another hotel!
Having read and heard a lot about the nearby town of Cinquera, we wanted to visit. An organised tour cost $90 but we found a friendly local who drove us there for a third of that.  What we gained in dollars we forfeited in comfort - the battered old pick up was one of the roughest we’d been in!  Suspension was long dead.
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The road was shocking – full of potholes and rocks.  We lurched and bucked our way the 20km, never getting out of second gear. 
The tail of a gunned down helicopter takes pride of place in the town square and there’s a moving museum which details events leading up to and during the civil war.  Some of the stories are heart wrenching. 
Most of Cinquera’s occupants were murdered during the gruesome civil war (1980-1992). Suspected as being a hotbed of guerrilla activity, the town was targeted by the military led US backed El Salvador government who did everything possible to wipe out an uprising led by the FMLN (now the ruling party).  Scorched earth tactics were used and many nearby villages were razed and inhabitants murdered.
Throughout the rebuilt town is evidence of its troubled past – most notable is the building with all the names of Cinquera locals who died in the war.  But other moving graffiti includes a saying from Farabundo Marti “The revolution is not carried in the mouth for life.  The revolution is carried in the heart for death.”
Stoic locals have rebuilt the town and developed a fledgling eco tourism industry in the surrounding rain forest.  While there are many tragic stories the people we met were friendly and happy and just trying to move on.  One ex guerrilla we met recounted his story - he’d lived in the nearby jungle for nine tough years during the war. 
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From Suchitoto we headed to the Ruta de los Flores – a winding 40km road through the mountainous coffee growing region near the border with Guatemala.   Juayua is the largest town on the route and we stayed at a great hotel run by an enthusiastic young couple passionate about the area.  They only speak Spanish so we had to work hard but they organised a few trips for us including one to a nearby waterfall. 
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We spent a few hours hiking through coffee plantations to get there and back – rewarded by a wonderfully refreshing soak in the cool spring water.   Our guide there and back cost $3.
We did day trips to some of the other gorgeous towns along the route and kicked back at some lovely local cafes and bars.  We ate our fill of pupusas and blamed them when we both ended up doing the Aztec twostep (a phrase coined by our sailing buddy Mark – quite apt too!).
Dotted along the Ruta de las Flores are several sleepy towns that come to life at weekends as thousands of San Salvadorians and Sansonates drive up for a weekend escape from chaotic city life.  Stalls spring up all over the place and food fairs are held featuring delicacies such as grilled iguana.  We weren’t tempted.
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Having spent a few days exploring the towns during the week we were quite shocked when the crowds arrived….but the atmosphere was great with bands and dancing.  The aptly named Ruta de las Flores is lined with bougainvillea, daytura, hibiscus and other colourful tropical plants.  The surrounding hills are smothered with coffee plantations all with the backdrop of spectacular volcanoes.  It was magnificent.
We spent a lovely morning at Ataco wandering through the coffee plantations and sampling the product at the local coffee shop. 
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Ataco is known for its brightly painted murals like this….
and this….
and this…..
We were enjoying the area so much we decided to stay and have David’s birthday here.  The hostal cooked him a special pancake breakfast and a delicious cheesecake for a birthday cake.
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After four days and nights enjoying the towns and countryside of the Ruta de las Flores we headed for the university town of Santa Ana.
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It would have been very easy to stay in El Salvador longer but we had to get back to get Bandit antifouled, polished and in the water so when we heard there was a direct bus to the Rio Dulce we booked it.
The trip was eight hours….we are getting used to long bus trips.  Our  driver was in a hurry - at the border he didn’t wait for us so we had to sprint down the road after the rapidly disappearing bus. 
He seemed to be trying to set all sorts of records – fastest vehicle on the road, loudest music on board, worst overtaking manoeuvre etc etc. He tried to pass in some bizarre places – blind corners, going uphill – and seemed to put all his faith in the rosary beads swinging from his rear vision mirror.  Still, he got us to the Rio Dulce – we sure were delighted to see the wonderful river come into view – home!
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We left El Salvador with very happy memories of a wonderful Central American country – possibly the best – and would say to any others considering going – DO IT!  It’s a fantastic place.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

San Salvador….a pleasant surprise


The war ravaged country of El Salvador wasn’t initially in our travel plans.  We hadn’t heard anything good about it but once we hit the road and began talking to other travellers….we started to hear fantastic reports……so change of plan, El Salvador here we come!


We opted to head straight for the capital which most guide books and a few fellow travellers describe as seedy, filthy, dangerous and not a place to linger….hmm.  We certainly weren’t going to pass through without checking it out. Our hotel owner assured us that during the day we would be safe…so off we headed on an ageing bus.

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We left our cheap plastic Guatemalan watches behind but did take the small camera…keeping it well hidden in an inside pocket…and only took a few dollars. First impressions were of leafy and prosperous residential areas but as we headed into centro that soon changed.  We  passed derelict buildings smothered with graffiti, guards toting machine guns, the omnipresent razor wire and incredible rubbish everywhere.  But what did strike us was how friendly and helpful everyone was…from a person on the street who told us where the bus would stop to the driver, who told us where we should get off.


Centro was humming. The cathedral was full of worshippers and the two squares were dotted with locals selling food, drinks, watches….in fact anything you can think of.  There were handfuls of musicians dotted around playing guitar and piano accordian.  And of course there were beggars and street people but we didn’t get hassled. 


Being Sunday many shops were closed but those that were open were guarded by men armed with M16 or shotguns….as well as a pistol in their pocket.  Not sure whether this made us feel safe or unsafe.

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While we were sitting in the main square a local approached us, telling us ever so nicely that we stuck out and to be careful.  He reiterated that we were quite safe during the day but wanted to make sure we weren’t planning on staying on into the night.  We definitely weren’t!  Once again we were struck at the friendliness of Salvadorians.

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He also pointed out a few areas best avoided – day or night.  San Salvador does have a serious gang problem and while tourists generally aren’t targeted, there is a chance of getting caught in the cross fire.  Also…there is serious poverty here and anyone looking like a tourist is a target.  Hence the need to not carry any money.


We found a great roadside shack selling pupusas….El Salvador’s national dish….so had our first taste.  A corn tortilla filled with queso and frijoles and served hot with picked cabbage on the side…they are absolutely delicious.  And only $1 for three!


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We spent the rest of the day catching buses which give a bird’s eye view and strolling around the secure and safe neighbourhood where our hotel was.   After two nights in San Salvador we decided to head for the hills….yet another round of chicken buses!  While we wouldn’t exactly recommend San Salvador as a holiday destination…..we were pleased we had the chance to explore it.  It’s definitely not the scary place it’s made out to be.

Lovely Leon

Our final stop in Nicaragua was the northern colonial town of Leon, our hour or so south of the El Salvadorian border.  We’d had nearly two weeks in Nicaragua and while we would have loved more…..the sailing season is starting to beckon. The amiable Gerry, host of Casa del Agua in Granada, gave us a lift to Managua from where we caught a shuttle bus to shabby but lovely Leon, pleasantly free of tourists.
What sets Leon apart from other colonial central American cities is it hasn’t (yet) undergone the intense renovation places such as Granada or Antigua (Guatemala) have.  It’s still raw and rough around the edges which gives it an added appeal.  A real gritty working town. 
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As much as we’ve loved Granada, Cartegena, Antigua etc, they are rather airbrushed.  With Leon, what you see is what you get….beautifully shabby buildings and glorious churches.
We had one night in an average hostal with a pool which was magic in the stifling heat.  Next day we stumbled across  a gorgeous hotel that cost the same so we moved.  It was probably the best hotel we’d stayed in –crisp and clean linen, a newly tiled bathroom with plumbing that really worked (ie no drain smells), sat tv (for those times when it’s too hot to be out) and a gorgeous shady courtyard to relax in-bliss.
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Our mornings were filled with exploring this lovely town, the churches, galleries, museums and markets.  It just got too hot to do much in the afternoons and one day we even decided to go to the movies…..the appeal of an air conditioned theatre was irresistible.  We saw the latest James Bond movie Skyfall and have to say – Best. Bond. Ever!
We found some pretty cool bars and restaurants in Leon and couldn’t believe how cheap eating out was.  For less than $10 we could have a really great traditional meal (buritto filled with beans and vegetables) with a beer and mojito thrown in.   David had fillet steak one night….it was cooked to perfection and tender and cost $4.
We loved the graffiti on some of the buildings….most of it politically motivated.  Nicaraguans are passionate about politics and art.  Leon has a fantastic art gallery featuring plenty of original Latin American art as well as signed prints from European masters including Picasso and Matisse.  Set in an elegant colonial building with courtyards, the gallery also had a contemporary section with some quirky works including a set of chicken bus doors and a tuk tuk! 
Being animal lovers, the worst aspect of Leon (like the rest of Nicaragua) was seeing the sad fate of animals especially the skeletal working horses that pull carts in unbelievably hot temperatures.  It was hard to ignore….but eventually you have to accept they are working animals and as such come pretty low down the food chain.
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From Leon we had two options for our trip up to El Salvador through Honduras.  The first was to take a series of crowded and hot chicken buses, rickshaws and taxis.
The second option was to take a 10-hour luxury Tica Bus (all meals included) from Leon direct to San Salvador letting the steward deal with our two border clearances.  It was a no brainer.
The border crossings were fairly uneventful – the routine man with a machine gun wandering through the bus, luggage taken out to be checked and then all back on board to the next checkpoint.  Ten hours later we were in the seedy city of San Salvador.  It’s not a good place to arrive late at night so luckily we had a hotel booked and taxi organised.  We’d only planned to pass through but kept meeting people who told us it was an amazing country… we changed our plans.  Read about it next blog.