Ruta Del Salvador

Monday, December 14, 2009

Crossing a border is like starting your travels all over again: new place, new rules, new people. You never know what to expect on the other side. It was time for me to leave a country I’d grown pretty familiar with, Guatemala, for that small unknown mark on Central America’s Pacific coast: El Salvador. I had just enough Quetzals left, in my estimates, to make it to the border. The journey started by finally grabbing the chicken bus to “Guate!”, slang for Guatemala City, and something you can’t spend much time in Antigua without hearing shouted in the streets as chicken bus assistants shout their destination in the hopes that homes will empty and seats, aisles, and perhaps roof racks will fill with passengers as eager as they are to get to the capital. I had about 50Q left, and the bus to Guate cost 9. I met a couple Italians on the bus and missed the stop I should’ve gotten off at (Tikal Futuro) to transfer to the terminal. They couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Italian, so everything was in Spanish between us. We found a local bus in Guate to take us to the terminal for 1Q and managed to get a bus to the border of El Salvador for 25Q, leaving me with 24Q (or $3) left for snacks or food en route. By about 2:00, we were at the border of El Salvador, I managed to get my passport stamped yet again (though they generally don’t as a result of a free-passage agreement called CA-4 between Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras). We crossed the bridge and I was beginning a new journey.

I had decided to make my first stop in Guatemala a small town called Tacuba, and specifically Mama & Papa’s Hostel, where the legendary Manolo offers tours and advice on El Salvador and specifically on nearby “Impossible National Park”. So I parted ways with my Italian travellers (who were destined for Nicaragua that night – good luck!) in Ahuachapan and hopped on a very local bus, the only gringo in sight. Even from the changing of the busses, I realized that I would like El Salvador. Not to say that Guatemalans were unfriendly – quite the opposite aside from Flores – but there was a lot more, let’s say “warmth” here. This way to the bus, various strangers would tell me. When I sat down, a beautiful girl (no not the one in the photo) came and sat next to me. Now this is a country that knows how to make a person feel welcome! After a little bit of silence I asked her some basic question in Spanish (I think how far to Tacuba, as it was getting on 4:00 and I don’t like arriving anywhere at night). A bit more silence and then she offered me a candy and we started chatting. She was studying English at university though we stuck to Spanish and when I asked her name and for her to write it (it was not a name I’d heard before), she also wrote me a nice little note with two email addresses and a request to write each other if I wanted to. I may start carrying a notebook out with me back home...

I managed to arrive at Mama & Papa’s Hostel just as the sun was waning, so my timing was pretty good all said. They serve up some pretty nice homemade meals for $5 (by the way, El Salvador doesn’t have its own currency, they simply use the US$) which was more than I usually spend on food but it was worth it and also a bit more healthy than I usually get on the street. I chatted with Manolo who was not going to be doing a tour over the weekend but had a friend opening a new trail, or rather re-opening an old trail. I was here because I wanted to see more of the country than its legendary surf beaches but after Xela, I was a bit burned out of hiking, especially with visions of an 8-hour trek cutting a trail in my mind. Not to mention it was $25, which was more than I was used to spending in Guatemala. The first days in a new place are always hard to adapt, price-wise. You don’t know what’s a fair price in the country and in this case, I had no basis of comparison. It turns out that this is quite a reasonable price here and so was the home-cooked meal. Anyway, I didn’t bother with the hike, in the end more because I was tired of hiking than for cost, and after visiting with a couple American girls over some beer at the dinner table, went to sleep.

The next morning, I left Tacuba. I spent almost no time here, but quite liked my small glimpse into it. I intentionally missed the first bus out to have some Salvadorean Papusas, a pretty famous stuffed tortilla, and as I sat on the street eating breakfast I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the locals going about their morning business and visiting with each other, noting that there are few corners of this country where there is not some music playing. I also passed by a medicine shop that would’ve been a paradise for alternate-medicine nuts or witches/warlocks. Root of mandrake, essence of rhubarb, it was all there in liquid form to combat any number of maladies. Finally, I hopped on the very-slow moving bus (trolling for more passengers, of course) back to Ahuachapan, this time, destined for Ruta de Las Flores, a string of mountain towns that are normally beset by flowers this time of year. There weren’t so many flowers, but it was a beautiful drive and I jumped off the bus in Juayua where a great gastronomic festival was taking place (and takes place every weekend). A dorm bed at the Anahuac hotel was $7. A meal featuring BBQ rabbit was $5. A skewer of fruits drenched in milk chocolate was $1. Ice cold Coca Cola in a glass bottle was 50 cents. Samples of many delicious entrees were free. I partook in all of the above. On top of this, there was a Christmas parade which was pretty neat. The local band noticed me taking their photo and lined everybody up just for me, the only foreigner watching the procession. Girls were dressed in traditional clothes, boys given hats and painted mustaches. It was a sight to behold.

There’s a lot more to Ruta de las Flores than small towns and feasting, however. From many of the towns there are hikes to natural wonders: waterfalls, volcanic peaks, crater lakes, and more. I had seen a photo of a crater lake in Cerro Verde, stark milky green against red cliffs, and that evening met an Irish/Scottish couple (one of each, living in the neutral territory of England) that it seemed were visiting there the next morning. So I tagged along with them and we grabbed the morning bus and hiked for a good hour before coming upon Laguna Verde, which was not at all what I’d hoped. It was a hot day and the lake was pretty natural and surrounded by grasses and lilly pads (so it looked a little dirty). On top of this, our guide, who we’d seen videos of doing ridiculously dangerous jumps from crazy heights into very small and shallow pools (with flips!) told us it was too dangerous to swim. Apparently, the crater underneath the lake has a fair bit of suction and at times will drain the whole thing away. That said, it was far more entertaining to watch a few kids playing at the water’s edge and fooling around. Plus, we saw a bunch of cattle come to drink – and defecate where they were drinking, right into the lake – which definitely quelled any desire to risk the odds.

From the lakeside, we climbed up a hill to a pretty nice lookout on this part of El Salvador. The guide tried to tell us it was the highest point in El Salvador, but when I mentioned Volcan Santa Ana, they conceded it was ‘egual’. There were coffee plantations as far as the eye could see and in all directions. Here, they grow the coffee within a grid of hedges to protect them from the wind and it has a funny appearance on the mountainsides. We made our way back to town, arriving around 1:00, and I went for some BBQ pork ribs that were a definite feast alongside some ice cream to combat the relative heat (no sweater required here at night, contrary to Xela and Antigua). It was time to get out of the mountains, however much I was enjoying this town, and head for the beach. After the hike today, I couldn’t be bothered hiking to another lake or up another volcano, so Cerro Verde would have to wait. I figured I’d get up early in the morning, hike to a nearby waterfall (it’s 2 km from Juayua and looks stunning from photos I’ve seen), and then set off for the coast.

Well, I woke up early alright. The problem in this part of the world is, especially travelling solo, banditos. Walking alone early in the morning (for the best photos) to a waterfall through 2km of jungle is asking to be relieved of your camera. I went to the police for an escort because I heard that they take tourists for this very reason, free of charge, at 8 AM, but the police told me I couldn’t get an escort until 10. So by the time I returned, most of the day would be gone and I still needed to get to the beach. I seriously contemplated running the trail myself but in the end decided I’d rather miss the waterfall than get there and find out that either: a) I could’ve brought my camera after all; b) I shouldn’t have brought my camera; c) It wasn’t worth hiking with or without a camera; or d) I wasn’t being literal when I said I was “dying” to see this waterfall. I grabbed my bags, left the very cool Anahuac Hotel, and jumped on a chicken bus for Sonsonate, the first stop on the way to El Salvador’s black sand beaches and legendary surf.

Ruta De Las Flores Photos

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