El Salvador is one of those places I recall from my childhood, but for all the “wrong” reasons. Newscasts in the 1980s equated the country with menacing jungles, death squads and guerrillas. Our recent conversations suggest that for many, El Salvador's image as dangerous and gun-prone persists today.
So we wanted to see El Salvador for ourselves and perhaps dislodge some of those lingering perceptions. Our itinerary was simple: Perquin to better understand the civil war that plagued the country from 1980 to 1992; Santa Ana as a transit point; Juayua for its weekend food festival and coffee plantations; and Alegria for a look at life in the hills.
Our focus: the people we would meet along the way.
Only 45 km and a mere five hour chicken bus ride from Marcala, Honduras, Perquin appears a simple town in the middle of the lush hills along the Rio Sapo. It's difficult to imagine all-out civil war in a place that now exudes such innocence. School girls played football (soccer) on the main square and bright, cheerful murals adorned the town. But this area saw heavy armed conflict since it played host to the headquarters of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Forces) resistance during the civil war.
A young, barefoot girl of no more than eight years guided us through the “guerrilla camp” adjacent the war museum. Her memorized explanations of the mines, tunnels and guns (which were American, which were Soviet) added a surreal element to the visit.
A short walk through the woods was all we needed to imagine how hellish the fighting must have been. The environment — heat, humidity, rain, mud and insects — were just the beginning. Mines could easily be hidden anywhere in the thickness of jungle. Hideouts were limitless. When someone says “War is hell,” places like this spring to mind.
Our visit underscored that El Salvador's civil conflict was surrounded by a fog of Cold War geopolitics so complex that we struggle to fully understand it even today.
Unfortunately, this is a common theme throughout Central America.
El Salvador's second largest city, Santa Ana, boasts a beautiful theater and an impressive cathedral with rose-colored pillars on its main square. Blah, blah, blah.
Drop the guidebook, grab your camera and go to the Santa Ana market. And take with a grain of salt the warnings given by well-meaning locals telling you how dangerous it is. Sure, keep your stuff close. But the Santa Ana market (and central bus station) is where you'll find action and people.
While waiting for the bus, I grabbed the camera and dove into the market for thirty minutes until the bus departed. Instead of finding danger there — as locals had warned — I found healthy curiosity, friendliness, and smiles. True, the bus station and market looked down-at-the-heels, but the people working inside were anything but.
I befriended a group of vendors selling everything from Corn Flakes to green beans. They begin their sell cycle in the bus parking lot. And once the buses start moving, they board at the front door and sell their way down the aisle with a rapid fire sales pitch, then hop off the back in a flash. This was an all ages show: this man who had seen much in his lifetime; 9-year old Avi who was just beginning hers; and a beautiful teenage girl who, in a parallel universe, would be a model.
At one point, I approached a group of people beckoning me to take their photograph. When I obliged and approached them, they played coy. I took a few more photos and showed them around. Everyone, myself included, had a great time.
Only when I exited and looked around did I realize I was shooting at the entrance to the public bathrooms.
Juayua and La Ruta de las Flores
Not quite a traditional festival but a brilliant marketing idea, the Juayua weekend food festival (feria gastronomica) attracts both foreign tourists and Salvadorans. That's part of its charm.
Much of the offer is a carnivore's delight: chorizo, longaniza sausage, steak, chicken, and even frog. For those of pescetarian persuasion, huge garlic prawns and grilled fish are also on offer. To wash it all down there's local coffee, beer and freshly squeezed juices.
The food isn't especially unique to El Salvador, but it's all fresh and not fried — a delight and a rarity in this part of the world. But it's the spirit of the day that makes it special: families gather at plastic tables, eat, and listen to cliché mariachi music and latino pop.
Our visit to nearby Ataco, another town along the Ruta de las Flores, coincided with a lunchtime swarm of school students. Children in scrubbed uniforms skipping home with friends and siblings lent the town a happy and hopeful feel.
The town's murals — painted on the sides of houses and businesses and even lightposts — underscored the upbeat.
“Alegria is one of El Salvador's most picturesque towns.”
An uninformative, stale guidebook description of an El Salvadoran hill town if there ever was one. Writer's block or lazy plagiarism? Or maybe all the towns really do appear the same.
The town of Alegria was pleasant enough in a “picturesque” way, but the hike to Laguna Alegria (Lake Alegria) a few kilometers outside of town was even more enjoyable. Unbeknownst to us, it was Teacher's Day in the region and busloads decided to take a field trip to the lake on their day off. For good health measure, many took the opportunity to bag some chunks of sulfuric residue washed up onshore. It's good for the skin, we're told.
Teachers lined up to have their photo taken with us. Each time we finished one group, another was waiting. We were like movie stars. And in an ironic twist of events, we spent so much time in front of the camera that we forgot to take a photo ourselves. Sometimes it's better that way.
New Impressions of El Salvador
Although El Salvador's big cities do have their share of problems — including drug-related crime – we felt very safe traveling throughout the country. The Salvadorans we met — from the women running the public toilet at the Santa Ana market to the man on the city bus in San Salvador — lived up to their reputation (among travelers) as some of the friendliest folks in the region. Given the peaceful nature of everyone we met, it's hard to imagine Salvadorans at war.
We now have a new impression of El Salvador. We hope you do, too.
Practical Details for Traveling in El Salvador: Transportation, Accommodation and Wifi
Perquin: The few budget accommodation options here come in two categories: bleak and bleaker. Unwilling to double our budget and splurge at Hotel Perkin Lenca, we opted for La Posada de Don Manuel. It's family run and about 500 meters outside of town. The price ($16 for a double room) was high for what you got: a small, cement room with a very basic “must wear flip-flops” shared cold water bathroom. The unexpected silver lining: the best wireless internet (wifi) in all of El Salvador. It was bizarre to have such a speedy connection when we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Book a hotel in Perquin.
A note on the border crossing from Honduras: We are here to attest that it's possible to cross from Honduras to El Salvador (the other direction, which most travelers take, is well known to be a straightforward cross). We had no problems crossing from Marcala, Honduras to Perquin, El Salvador.
To do it, take the bus from Marcala, Honduras to San Miguel, El Salvador and request a stop in Perquin. The bus is rickety at best (the wood-and-rope suspension on ours broke half-way and required replacement with chains). If you cross from Honduras into El Salvador at this border crossing, a Honduran immigration officer will check your passport. However, you will not be stamped into El Salvador (El Salvador still does not have an immigration post at this border crossing).
Later, upon exiting El Salvador at El Amatillo, we were waved across the border by Salvadoran immigration officials without a passport check and without any notice of the fact that we were never stamped into their country. It was as if we were never in El Salvador. No problem since we are not obsessed with counting our passport stamps.
Santa Ana: Coming from Perquin, Casa Frolaz in Santa Ana was a breath of clean air. A well cared-for double room with a private bathroom runs $18-$20. There is also free wireless internet (wifi) and a massive DVD collection if you want to catch up on the latest movies. Book a hotel in Santa Ana.
Juayua: Hotel Anahuac is a bit pricier than most guest houses ($25 for a double room), but the rooms are very nice and tastefully decorated with cool artwork. Free wifi internet, too. Book a hotel in Juayua.
Ruta de las Flores: If you have a bit more of a budget and wish to stay outside of Juayua, we recommend El Jardin de Celeste or Las Flores de Eloisa. We visited both on our return to Juayua from Ataco. Both feature beautiful garden settings and active nurseries. Very peaceful.