Off the Beaten track: El Salvador
I like to think of myself as a “Die Hard traveler”. The kind that doesn’t care for free towels, hot showers or private rooms, the kind that prefers a hammock with a view over a bed in a room and rice with beans over McDonalds. Actually, the fact that I prefer booze over everything else mentioned before moves me more over to the Backpacker category, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
Like every “Die Hard Traveller”, I try to get off the beaten track wherever I can or at least wherever it suits me best.
After one too many parties on the gringo trail, with the complementary morning headache, I felt it was time to go local, to go to El Salvador.
On arrival in El Salvador from everywhere that is north-east-ish, one has a ninety nine percent chance that your first destination will be San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Between you and me, San Salvador is not Cento-America’s finest place to hang around. Like every capital in this area, the place is crowdy, dirty, smelly and most other negative words ending on -y. Maybe it’s just me, but when I arrive in a place where I see less pants than people in the streets, I try not to stay for a very long time.
Another reason for getting the hell out as soon as possible is because San Salvador is a very dangerous place, and unlike other Centro-American capitals - which also tend to be very dangerous - it’s like San Salvador actually makes you aware of the danger, you can almost feel it. Whenever you’re on the streets, you just don’t feel safe.
One reason for this is probably because most of the things I had heard in the past about El Salvador in general and San Salvador in particular had something to do with gangs, robberies, kidnappings or murders.
Another reason is the fact that every public place - museum, park or bus station - is guarded by an armed force of at least five military officers with the finger on the trigger of their AK47s. This maybe should have made me feel safe, but actually made me feel like I was in a place where I really should not be.
Perhaps the largest reason for making me feel unsafe was the fact that the slums - or favelas as they call them here - are right in the centre of the city. This really messed up my mind, every city with a certain degree of poverty that I had visited in the past was more or less divided as follows: The core of the city is the historic city centre, outside of the centre are the larger stores or fast food chains, this is where you typically find KFC and Nike. Outside this part of city the industrial part starts, often combined with slums that are hidden from the main roads and public transport routes.
But not in San Salvador, you’re driving through the city centre and suddenly BOOM! a slum on your left, complete with huts of corrugated steel with small muddy path between them and a couple of stoned gang members guarding the entrance. Just like you’ve probably seen before in documentaries about Rio De Janeiro.
Needless to say that I didn’t feel much for a walk around town, instead I caught the next bus out, to Ahuachapan.
Before we headed off to El Salvador, I had done a some quick research on hostels in the area where we were supposed to arrive the first day. When we arrived in Ahuachapan, somewhere around five PM, the rain was pouring from the sky as if someone was throwing big buckets of water down the roofs. But luck was on our side because my notebook contained the address of what was supposed to be a very nice hostel in Ahuachapan. So we jumped in the first tuk-tuk we saw and asked to bring us there. So far the luck, the place where we wanted to go appeared to be quite far up the hill and because of the rain the tuk-tuk driver did not want to drive all the way up there. As I was not planning to let my bag get even wetter than it already was, I asked the driver to bring us to the cheapest place within his driving range. This appeared to be Hotel Casa Grande.
Unlike the name suggests, the place was not very “grande” and even less a hotel. It was an average house with a big patio surrounded by three rooms.
The rooms were clean, but they had that dirty look: no paint or wallpaper, fake ceilings with yellow spots, no floor in the bathroom and a shower which is nothing more than a pipeline with a red tap.
The funny thing is that the room was presented to us as if we were about to rent the Royal Suite of the Marriott. The lady of the house was really proud of it, presented us both a towel and some toilet paper and made her son take the tv out of his room to put it into ours. It took me a couple of nights more in places like these to see that these people were not that pretentious to rent us a crappy room and act as if it’s a suite, in their eyes, it was a suite.
Around nine PM, hunger overcame our aversion for the rain and our fear for kidnapping, murder or worse, so we decided to go on a search for food. Which we found a couple of blocks further in an empty pizza place, with crappy pizza. So we ate, slept and moved on.
When I come to think of it now, Ahuachapan is probably not a bad place, and I would actually like to get to know the city a little better, but at the time we were there, the combination of heavy rain and the fear that everybody had talked into us made everything look bad and dirty and made me not wanting to be there. But I’m quite sure the city deserves a second chance.
Our next stop was Juayua, pronounced “why you ah”, a town right in the middle of the Ruta de las Flores. This is the road that runs between Ahuachapan and Sonsonate and which is called that way because between October and February there is a real explosion of flowers. Unfortunately it was only September, so not much of an explosion was there to be seen. But even then it’s a nice area to be, coming from a number of large cities it felt good to be in the countryside. Small roads, decorated food stalls and a genuine village feeling made the fear for danger move away for the first time since I had entered in El Salvador.
The other side of the medal is that in Juayua, during the non-flower-period, on a weekday, there’s pretty much nothing to do. We’ve spent about an hour to find the tourist kiosk, which was closed, and another two hours to find a place that sells tours, which we did not find. So after spending the afternoon on a terrace drinking local beer and watching local people we decided that we would move on the next day to the nearby Parque El Imposible.
Before it became a national park, and thus protected, the park was a well used passage for farmers bringing their goods from their lands to the surrounding villages. On this trip they had to cross a dangerous canyon, which was a very dangerous and more or less impossible act. That’s what the park thanks its name to. By now the canyon has been bridged, and the most impossible task is to actually pay a visit to the park.
There are two main entrances, one in the north on the Tacuba side and another one in the south on the Pacific side. We decided to follow the Ruta de las Flores until Sonsonate, from where we would catch a bus that could drop us off at the entrance.
The bus that goes to the Guatemalan border passes the whole south side of the park, the only difficulty is how to know when to get off as the buses drive fast and our stop was nothing more than some muddy street on the right.
When you don’t know where to get off and you’re not sure if the bus driver understood, there’s one trick that always works: To tell everybody around where you’re going. And that’s exactly what we did. This gives you the time for a peaceful nap, knowing that you’ll awake by the screams of the other passengers telling you that it’s time to get off.
The next challenge was getting to the last village before the park, which meant following a steep, mud covered, half cobbled stoned road, thirteen kilometres up in the hills, and in our case, in the rain. The alternative is waiting on the crossroads, hoping that a bus would pass by, and event that would certainly happen according to some local villagers and certainly not according to others.
In the end, both were right, a bus did come but it only brought us ten kilometres up.
Now I know I will sound like a pussy if I don’t tell you that I ran those last three kilometres up the hill, backwards, whistling the title song of les gendarmes de Saint-Tropez. And in fact, I would have certainly done that, if the misses wasn’t too tired to walk. So we putted our thumbs in the air and soon a pickup dropped us off in the smallest village I had ever seen: San Miguelito.
Next to the park entrance, the base camp of Salva Natura - the El Salvadorian nature conservation society - and some local catering there is more or less nothing in San Miguelito. Soon we also heard that the only hostel around was fully booked with students of all over the country as Salva Natura was giving workshops on nature preservation. Which is a good thing, just not on that moment.
Luckily, a guy who called himself Don Carlos had a spare room, which turned out to be the nicest room I had slept in for weeks.
El Impossible is certainly one of the best national parks I have ever visited. We haven’t seen any spectacular wildlife other than some insects, vultures, lizards and a white crab that became very angry when it saw me. There wasn’t any very spectacular flora too, except for a parasitic plant which killed its host tree, then became the host tree and got killed by another parasitic plant which in its turn became a tree and so on.
But the reason why I loved this park so much was because of its authenticity. There are no benches, no armrests, no garbage cans, no litter and best of all, no other humans. It was just Lindsay, the obligatory free guide and I.
When we returned from our jungle trip, we found out that we had been the only visitors of the park that day. It doesn’t happen every day to have a whole national park to yourself.
Our last stop in El Salvador was the village of Perquin, the unofficial guerrilla capital during the civil war.
Perquin is hidden in the mountains of Morazan and it took us quite a couple of bus changes and another speed visit to San Salvador before we arrived around six in the evening.
In most other countries I’ve visited, a town like Perquin would be exploited ‘till the bone. There would be a luxurious resort with a spa that holds the wonderful water that kept the rebels fit in their camps, there would be restaurants in every price class serving excellent western food, there would be souvenir shops everywhere selling FMLN t-shirts and hats, guerrilla coffee cups and fake tattoos. In the evening the streets would be full of prostitutes and the bars full of drunken English.
But none of this existed in Perquin. The town was pretty much empty but because it only consists of a couple of streets, we didn’t have a hard time finding the only hostel in town. Which was an awful place.
Because of the humidity and the little amount of visitors, everything in the hostel smelt like laundry that has been left in the laundry machine for more than a week. I bet nobody has left their laundry that long in the machine, but imagine the smell it has after one night, times seven.
Because nobody had been sleeping in the beds, the sheets didn’t get refreshed in time and smelled as if something very wet and smelly just died in them.
The next morning, we tried to explain the owner that this was certainly not a happy incident and asked what she was going to do about it. Nothing, it seemed, so we moved to a nearby hotel, where the rooms smelled equally, but at least had fresh sheets.
For about one dollar per person we visited Perquin’s museum of Revolution, which consists of five rooms with images and press clippings on the walls. Between you and me, how horrible the war may have been, this museum does not represent it and my imagination did not reach far enough to be able to feel any concern. The guide, who was included in the price, sounded like he was reading from the most boring history book in the world, in Spanish, and with the best will I was not able to concentrate for more than a minute.
In the meanwhile, Lindsay had ditched me with the boring guide so I decided to change tack by asking him if he had been a guerrilla - which he had - and if he had been shot - which he also had. Unfortunately he wasn’t very keen on telling personal stories so as soon as I ran out of questions he started his history preach again.
The outside of the museum is much better, the garden consists of a bunch of old canons, shot down helicopters, grenade holes, a couple of old cars and the headquarters of Radio Venceremos, the underground radio station of the FMLN. Here my imagination did not let me down, soon I saw myself yelling in the speakers, calling for revolution while choppers flew over and dropped mortar grenades in the backyard.
This feeling remained while we visited the surroundings of the museum, including the old guerrilla camps and the hill where the helicopters landed. I felt illegal, I felt like a guerrilla and I was yearning for the revolution to begin.
After more than a week off the beaten track, without seeing any other white face than the one in the mirror, I must say I started longing for the gringo trail again. Even though El Salvador had served me a great time, and I had experienced things of which I knew not many others would ever experience them, I started to miss the crowdy hostels, cheap mojitos, happy hours, tex-mex food, pushy touts and Swedish girls in bikinis. And I knew just the place to find all that: Leon, Nicaragua.
Amazing Travel Stories: http://www.amazingtravelstories.com/travel_stories/off-the-beaten-track-el-salvador/