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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Au plaisir de la route!

IMG_20170509_101515_296  Kiki

 

 

 

 

PLAYAS Y MARAS- EL SALVADOR

El Salvador, here I come!

Crossing the border, despite the many warnings online about long, long, long truck lines and wait time, was a breeze! I was 20 minutes away from the border when a man on a motorcycle harangued me “Welcome to the border! – Do you need help crossing?”  Shortly after meeting Jorge, another 3 guys on mopeds were also offering their services, so to be fair I hired Jorge. He was a gem! He basically did all the paperwork for me while I was having ceviche for lunch at one of the stands! He had lived in California for 15 years and worked in the orange groves until the industry went bust. He spoke perfect English.

Why hire a Tramitador do you ask? Sure I can do all this by myself but for the small fee involved I find that they help you navigate through the labyrinth of offices, and paperwork. Also, being locals and working at both borders, they can advise you on who gives the best rates for money exchange and I find that inspections seem to be easier when accompanied by a local helper. It saves me time and hassle.

View my border crossing YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVFlvn-vS-I

When I found out that Jorge was Salvadoran I asked him where I could safely camp near the border and he indicated that Cara Sucia, the first little town after crossing the border would be where I could get some money and supplies and from there go south to the little fishing village called Garita Palmera. I would be safe to boondock on the beach, or hook-up for $5.

When I arrived in Garita Palmera I met a woman who asked me if I was looking for a place to stay: “come to my house, I have electricity, water and swimming pool too, follow me! “ We followed the road along the beach and entered her gorgeous property.

Her name was Cora and she introduced me to her property manager, an older woman with a teenage son and daughter. I am sorry  to say that even after asking for their names at least 5 times I still can’t remember them – if I don’t write them down on a piece of paper right away, it’s no use. I do not know if my memory is getting worse or if the Spanish names make it harder to memorize, but it’s becoming a problem…

I learned from the keeper that Cora actually lives in the capital city, San Salvador. She has been a widow for 5 years now and inherited this property from her father. Later on she showed me that the property extended as far as the eye could see and was rented for coconut harvesting and pasture for milking cows.

I really enjoyed my stay there. I was parked under palm trees right by the beach so I had shade and breeze, which also meant no bugs.  The pets were free and safe to roam and after our week stay in the welder’s shop, this was a welcomed change.  I couldn’t help seeing the huge potential this property and its prime location near the border had. For the first time since leaving Calgary I could see myself live here. I had to reign in my entrepreneur mind and remind myself that I was here to be free from responsibilities for a while and to just enjoy the gift of freedom. I was the only one there, and I could see no one else on the long stretch of beach so when the keeper told me that the house had been rented by a family of 10 for the week-end I felt a bit annoyed that I had to share my piece of paradise with someone else.

The family in question was a sister and 2 brothers, their partners and children and turned out to be really nice people, no loud partiers as I had feared. At one point Sylvia came to me, introduced herself and started a conversation. Before long one by one every family member came to my site. They were very curious about me, my travels and of course my RV. However Sylvia warned me to trust no one in El Salvador and be on the lookout at all times.

This was the May long week-end and I decided not to drive since the roads would be traffic heavy. Before they left I asked the men in the group to help me move my truck out of the sand and unto the dirt path so that I could leave for Juayua early the next morning.

We had a terrible thunderstorm the night before and I don’t know if it is related, but there were a lot of people in the woods on the property picking crabs.

Even when dark fell, they stayed working with head lamps. I went to the house one last time to do my dishes and I could hear the keeper scream and yell and what I thought was an argument. Soon after I returned to the truck she came with her daughter of about 15 and begged me to close my door. I could tell she was quite upset. What is going on? I asked. Maras, she kept saying, my son, my son she repeated. I could tell something had happened but didn’t understand what. When I asked her: what is maras? She said men. That’s all I needed to hear. I locked my door even though my cat Patouffi was outside. He’ll sleep under the truck I thought.  “Maras” I thought, is that the term for “gangs”? I opened my guide book to where I knew I had read about gangs in El Salvador and sure enough it is. It confirmed that something bad was happening, so I left my lights on, closed all my windows and curtains, took my baseball bat out of its hiding place and started praying in earnest for the keeper’s family safety and mine. There was nothing else I could do. At one point I heard men’s voices just outside my door. It took a huge amount of willpower not to peak through the curtains and later not to open the door for Patouffi  when everything was quiet again (which I did much later anyway – not much willpower there after all but I didn’t want to leave them anything they could use to hurt me you know like, will kill the cat if you don’t open the door!).

I slept lightly with the lights on, my bat and phone near me.

The next morning at 6:00 am I heard a knock on the door and after checking through the window and saw it was the keeper, I opened the door. What happened last night? I asked her. Maras, 8 men and 1 woman – with tattoos. They wanted to rob you but my son intervened (a young boy of may be 18-19), they took a rock and hit him on the head! She mimicked how he was bleeding and how, when he was down they kicked him.

I was horrified but I couldn’t understand why they still didn’t rob me, after all we were just 2 older women, a young boy and a girl, hardly any threat to a gang of 9. Why didn’t they come and robbed me? I wanted to know. I had to take the shotgun out she said. The police was called but never showed up. Please, she pleaded, leave now before they come back, I don’t want any trouble.

I unhooked my electricity cable, got dressed in a hurry and left very shaken up, never knowing the full extent of her son’s injuries.

My guide in Juayua explained to me that despite Jorge’s claim that the border region was safe, it is the place of gang wars between Guatemala and El Salvador groups fighting for territory.

When I arrived in Sonsonate, I got lost in the town where I was to take the touristic route to Juayua, as per Central America’s custom, there were no signs anywhere. My GPS was useless. As soon as I knew I had made the wrong turn I stopped and asked for directions. This man came over and was obviously upset with me. Don’t you care about your family? He screamed at me looking at the van, I suppose assuming that I had children in there. He was looking at me as if I had lost my mind for traveling in El Salvador in such a fashion. His directions were very convoluted, out of the way with many warnings about my safety. I decided to ignore him. I knew the turn off was just around the corner and that this is probably the safest route in the country, but still this shook my confidence. I remembered that I had data on my phone and input the information on good old Google Map and I was out of there and on my way in 2 shakes of a lamb’s tail.

The moral of this story is that unfortunately, I am learning to trust my instinct and not depend on what people say. Either they genuinely think they are right, or they are in on the plot to come back later to rob you, I do not trust what people tell me anymore.

Another fine example is that yesterday, driving to Ataco I see signs for La Laguna Verde, which I had read was highly recommended. So I took the detour. Oh shit, I thought as the road turns into a wide and well paved dirt road, but very isolated and going on and on. I am advertising my coming here with my loud big truck and there is no place to turn around…. I could get ambushed on my way back… However when I get to the Laguna, it is a green peaceful heaven, just what I wanted.

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After asking two persons working there, I am told that this is very safe and I could camp for the night, I will not be bothered. The manager even told me if I could ask for police protection if I was still unsure. I asked him if he could do that for me. Oh sure he said,  but didn’t pick up the phone. I was relaxing in the sun but the thought about my safety kept niggling at me. I went with my phone to the manager and asked for the police telephone number. The first one he gave me didn’t work; the second one came through on the 3rd call. When I spoke with the officer, he explained that they only work during the day and couldn’t provide protection during the night, and that La Laguna was not a safe place to stay at night anyway! I thanked him, thanked my intuition for having me follow through, packed up and left. Was the manager genuine in his reassurance or was he going to come back at night with his buddies and rob the silly, gullible gringa? I do not know but I have to say that unfortunately, I am feeling more unsafe here than I’ve been so far on my trip.

There were parts of Mexico that were a bit dodgy, I felt a bit unsafe in Belize but it was unfounded, but here I’ve had so many warnings, people misguiding me and warning me and then the maras’ visit, all of it is deeply affecting me. What a shame, because the country is beautiful and the people friendly. I do not want this to affect my perception and enjoyment of this beautiful country nor force me to revisit my desire to continue on this trip.

I will do a blog on my visit to Juayua and Ataco, but to recap my visit in El Salvador here, I would say that the atmosphere of untrust is unbearable. When I arrived in San Salvador to request a tourist visa’s extension is was met with many difficulties that led me to choose to drive out of Nicaragua before May 15th, the deadline on my C4 Visa. You get 90 days to visit 4 countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. You can only renew once and only in San Salvador. The paperwork is so ridiculous, with the necessity of a sponsor as well as copy of your bank statements that’s  it’s better to just drive out of Nicaragrua, and re-enter a few days later from Costa Rica to be granted another 90 days. I drove 2 days to get out of El Salvador feeling very ambiguous about the country.

On the one hand it is beautiful and the people are charming, quick to smile and help. But for a single woman on the road, there was not a single place I camped that I was warned it was not safe, even though some where locked and guarded at night and all of them listed as safe on the IOverlander App. When you hear the same message over and over, you have to take head. So unfortunately I cut my stay short and was actually relieved to get out of the country.

Until next time my new road amigos!

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Au plaisir de la route!

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Kiki