RUGGED, WILD AND FREE EL SALVADOR

Here I am in Costa Rica, sorting out my pictures and filling my Salvador images in a folder and realize that the only blog entry I’ve posted about my visit to El Salvador was somewhat negative and doesn’t do credit to the wonderful reception I’ve had in this beautiful and friendly tiny country.

So here is a rendition of the wonderful places I visited in my 2 weeks in El Salvador. The people are very friendly and so happy to see tourists coming into their country. They are proud of their culture and want to share it with visitors. They welcome the influx of business tourism attracts and are grateful to visitors.

My first stop in El Salvador was wonderful but ended on a sour note as per my blog “playas y maras”. Unfortunately that atmosphere of insecurity followed me, no matter where I stayed. Other than the incident with the local mafia on the beach, there was no other. Everywhere I went I was very welcomed but always warned about my safety.

My first encounter with Salvadorians was actually in Guatemala where I had a lovely young couple, Jessica and Eric for neighbors at Easter. Jessica is an interior designer and Eric a gym teacher in a private English school. Both young, dynamic, educated and speaking English fluently. We exchanged contact information.20170415_095418

After Garita Palmera, I drove the beautiful winding mountain road aptly called la rota de las flores to the small town of Juayua. I arrived on a Monday and the town was dead – all the stores and restaurants were closed, not a tourist in sight. I walked around discovering a charming little town with towering peaks shrouded in mist in the distance. I noticed a woman with a hair salon inside her house and decided to treat myself to a $2 haircut. My shampoo was done with icy cold water and when I yelped in surprise, the husband, who was just sitting there, watching his wife work… (no comment:) went into the kitchen to warm some water for me – sensitive gringa! I noticed a lot of little businesses set up inside of homes. The next day the town came alive with a market selling the most exotic looking fruits and vegetables.

 

I went into the hotel lobby and enquired about hiring a guide to do some hiking. There were two waterfall hikes to be done in the area, one was a full day of steep hiking up the mountain and rappelling down a cliff to a gorgeous waterfall, the other was a simple walk from the hotel to a 7 waterfalls park just outside of town. I was feeling tired and my back was hurting, so I chose the smaller hike. Unfortunately there were no guides available that day, but I was told that tomorrow I’ll have a guide. The next day happened to be my birthday and I was told by my guide, an eager pleasant young man called Eduardo that today, May 3rd, was the Day of the Cross, a major festival and that it would be a great opportunity for me to witness this unique celebration. A little village nearby, Eduardo’s home place, was hosting a celebration. First, Eduardo took me to the market to buy our offerings of flowers and fruits for the altar, he explained to me that most of the exotic fruits and decorations sold at the market were all for the purpose of decorating a cross for the festival.

 

We then walked to his village, where he explained to me how they are reviving this tradition in the hopes of attracting tourists in the area. It was their 3rd year of the festival and so far I was their first and only foreign visitor. They were ecstatic and awaited my arrival with eagerness. Eduardo would give them updates of our whereabouts by phone. I felt like a queen and was certainly treated like royalty. Eduardo was a wonderful guide, helping me discover local food, introducing me to his parents, little sisters, his teacher, his school. He told me about his culture, the way they live, his plans for the future, with university studies and career and about his girlfriend who is going to university in a different town than him. He introduced me to the festival’s organizer. When we arrived in town, we met up with the open-cab truck transporting the procession’s traditional characters of the grand-mother, grand-father, the jaguar, the monkey, the jackal and the devil. We also had an extra devil and a “scream” character for good measure. I got to ride in the truck amongst the celebrants.20170503_145113

We drove to the starting point of the procession and waited for the priest’s arrival for the ceremony. The atmosphere was very festive, with fire crackers being lit up, the masqued characters stopping and climbing onboard buses causing squeals of delight from kids. Everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves despite the rain. We took group pictures and I asked to borrow Grandpa’s wooden riffle to take a picture that would scare away any maras – don’t mess with me!

 

Finally a young priest arrived apologizing for his lateness and the procession started with chants from the crowd and fooling around from the masked characters. We arrived at the cross, heavily decorated with garlands, fruits and flowers. Under a canopy, a mass and blessing was delivered. The rain started to come down hard and kids started frolicking in the torrential downpour.

 

I was ready to go, but not before I sampled the wonderful warm local drink called Atole de Piña. We took a tuk-tuk back home and decided to meet again the next day to visit the waterfalls.

Watch my YouTube video of the Day of the Cross here:

At the appointed time Eduardo picked me up and we took the bus to the path leading to the park’s entrance. The vegetation was lush and intense and the path led to a series a gorgeous waterfalls known as Los Churros de la Caleria.

 

On the way back Eduardo showed me how to eat a guamita, a fruit in a pod that didn’t have much flesh but was delightfully sweet.

Watch Eduardo demonstration on how to eat a guamita here:

The next day I left Juayua for the little town of Ataco but on the way I saw a sign for La Laguna Verde that I had read about in my guidebook. On impulse I veered into the lane and started to regret my decision as I left the town behind me and was driving down this isolated rural road, where the loud rumble of my engine advertised my presence to the locals. Where I am going? I started to worry. Would I even be able to turn around at the end? Am I attracting unwanted attention? Remember, my first experience in El Salvador was an encounter with the local mafia and everyday locals would tell me that I was not safe staying wherever I would be. I am usually a very positive person and not to dwell on danger. But I found myself becoming paranoid in El Salvador. When I got to the end of the road, it opened up to this gorgeous mountain lake nestled in the jungle. It reminded me of some of the remote lake camping I had done in British Columbia. Yes! I totally love it here, I decreed.

 

I asked a local person if I was safe staying here the night. Yes, he assured me, travellers do it all the time, it is safe. You can also ask for police protection. Oh, would you call them for me please? Yes I will, came the reply. So I started unpacking, taking out my lounge chair in the sun and preparing to settle for the night. But I had a nagging suspicion that I should follow up on this guy’s promise to call the police. He hadn’t of course but he helped me make the call myself. After a few attempts, my call finally got through and my conversation basically revealed that yes, the police in an effort to make tourists safe and comfortable would escort them anywhere they want. (Eduardo had told me so when I enquired about a group at the waterfalls escorted by Police). However, they cannot provide this service at night. Furthermore, it would be unwise for me to stay at the Laguna for the night. Too dangerous! And so, confused and a bit upset, I packed and left for Ataco which was a few miles away. Did the local man sincerely thought it was safe or was he going to come back with armed buddies to rob me that night? With hindsight I believe that the danger is real in El Salvador and that the local really feared for the safety of a single woman on the road, hence the perpetual warnings. My friends that are traveling in a convoy never had such a concern. I believe that everyone I met in El Salvador were well intentioned when warning me about my safety.

And so I arrived and settled in Ataco in the large parking lot of a hotel with a gate and armed guards. I took the bus into town right away.  I really liked this town, with its beautiful murals, colorful shops and cobbled streets. The next day I returned to the center to do some shopping. I surprisingly could not find much Salvadorian arts and crafts, most of them were from Mexico or Guatemala. I did find beautiful Indigo (anil) dyed clothing of the northern region. I enjoyed meandering the streets of Ataco.

 

My next stop was to be the town of Santa Ana and on the way I stopped at the archeological site of Tezumal. Compared to Mexican or Guatemalan sites, this was not much, but the stalls and local street food lining the street was worth the visit.

 

I treated myself to the typical Salvadorian fare of Yucca puree and I tried a glass of fermented tamarind juice.

Watch the serving of my Salvadoran meal here:

I camped right in front of the police station in Santa Ana. Policewomen were openly curious about my truck and so I gave them a tour. They were very happy about my hospitality and so impressed with my rolling home as they call it there.

It was evening and I was parked right in the center of town, so I decided to take in the sights. Behind the police station was the main plaza with a beautiful church and theatre house on 2 of the corners. There was a big carnival going on in the square and I relished people watching before retreating to the safety of my home. I was told that Santa Ana was not safe to visit. That was the extent of my exploration.

 

Onward I drove to the village of Alegria and after getting lost and stuck in its narrow streets, I decided to skip my visit and  go directly to the famous Laguna of the same name. Up and up I went to the crater of a volcano. There was a small lake with the brightest green water. It was absolutely mystical up there. High up in altitude, completely enclosed in green lush misty mountains. It was cool, devoid of city and people noises but full of jungle noises.

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Watch the video here:

But yet again, as I paid my park fee and enquired about the gates closing at night and being reassured it was safe to spend the night here, a local family parked next to me and pointing at a group of teenagers heading to the football court at the end of the park, told me that I was not safe sleeping here. At which point I had it! I was so upset and tired of hearing it, of moving my truck, of being wary that I decided to forget about everything. I didn’t like how I was becoming fearful and untrusting. I had so for traveled through Mexico and Guatemala with a positive and trusting attitude, all the while being diligent about my safety and it had served me well. I decided to stay the night and enjoy it. I went out and played my didgeridoo surprised that contrary to my expectations, the sound didn’t carry and resonate in the valley. I guess there was too much humidity creating a heavy cupola over me, swallowing the sound. The energy was absolutely stunning. On the shore of the tiny volcanic lake I collected the best natural facial clay that nature could provide and filled up jars to give out as gifts.

The next day I noticed that I was not alone in this misty heaven. There was a school there. I could see the kids at recess, playing in the field. I decided that I was time for me to hand out one of the world maps that I had been given by David Pickering at World Map in Calgary. I made my way to the school and introduced myself to the school headmistress. I stated my purpose and she had all the children gather into the central courtyard. It brought so much joy in my heart to see all these children in such a playful, joyous gathering, not really knowing what was going on. It brought back memories of my own schooling, back when we had to address adults politely by their last name and all clamor “Bonjour” in unison. I told them I was from Canada and they had to find it on the map, they also had to point to El Salvador on the map. All in all it was an enchanting experience. Watch it here!

My intention leaving La Laguna de Alegria, was to go to the capital city Salvador to extend my 90 day-visa which was expiring soon and I had yet to visit Nicaragua. But to make a long story short, my dealing with Salvadorian officials was horrible, and mind you I was already in a foul mood. And so I decided to cut short my Salvadorian visit and cross into Nicaragua.

I am going to finish here by thanking all my wonderful Salvadorian friends who made my visit of their beautiful country so wonderful. I will always remember your generous and infectiously joyous nature.

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Thank you in advance and until next time, Amigos y Amigas!

Au plaisir de la route!

IMG_20170509_101515_296  Kiki

 

 

 

 

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