El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. Because of its history of authoritarian rulers, uprisings, coups and rebellions it is often considered “too dangerous to visit.” It takes a little more effort to get around here, but those who skip El Salvador are missing a country full of wild landscapes, friendly people, and rich history.
San Salvador is a huge city full of music, lights, yelling, smoke-belching monster buses and the smell of grilling corn. Most tourists don’t stay in the city, but there are some really fascinating things to see here. The bus system is extensive, cheap, and relatively safe during the day, though you do need to know where to go and where to avoid, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. Most Salvadorans do not speak English. I ended up riding the bus quite a bit, but to visit downtown San Salvador I traveled with two Salvadorans who were recommended by my hostel. I THINK they were tour guides, but it was more like hanging with friends than a tour; they were full of knowledge but also casual, fun and having a blast. At one point they saw their favorite taco truck and we spent 15 minutes chasing him around town, only to find he was sold out. They were sorely disappointed that I didn’t get a street taco from that particular guy.
If you head to the San Salvador city center you are guaranteed to get stuck in some insane traffic. This is not all bad; an idling vehicle is a great way to watch the vibrant scene going on outside. I asked my guide friend why the policemen all had their faces covered. “It’s because they work and live in the same area”, he said, “and if the gangs recognize them their families will be in danger.”
By far the coolest thing downtown is the Inglesia El Rosario (Church of the Rosary). A weird and slightly decrepit looking building on the outside, it has the most incredible interior I’ve ever seen. During the civil war there was a protest against the government that happened to take place on the street outside this church. The police barricaded all the exits and started shooting the protesters, who couldn’t escape. You can see bullet holes all over the outside of the church. The priests of the church opened the doors and let the protesters in, saving many of their lives. The police remained outside and after 5 days of being stuck in the church without food or water, the protesters dug a hole in the floor and tunneled out. The 21 people who did not survive those 5 days are buried in that tunnel.
13 kilometers south of the city in the Panchimalco Municiplaity is Puerto del Diablo, or The Devil’s Door. The area is made up of two massive cliffs that have cracked and split into two. There are many legends surrounding the split, but the most popular involves a man making a pact with the devil to gain approval from the family of the girl he wanted to marry. Once the pact was made there was a loud roaring sound that caused the cliff to break in two. Thus the name “The Door of the Devil.”
Geologists believe the split was caused by a particularly intense rainstorm in October 1762 which eroded the base of the cliff, causing it to buckle and split.
Puerto del Diablo has unfortunately lived up to its name in real life. A site of sacrifice since the time of the original settlers, it was regularly used for execution and disposal of bodies during El Salvador’s Civil War (1980-1992).
What is there now? A nice steep climb, friendly local families out for a stroll, teenage couples watching the sunset, a few tourists and an incredible view of the valley.
The Santa Ana Volcano (also known at Llamatepec) is in Cerro Verde National Park, a few hours drive from the city. The hike must be done with a park guide, and a group leaves once a day at 11am. The guides, members of the Policia, are there to protect you from bandits. The Policia carry impressive firearms and are stationed at the front and back of the group, but most often they serve as photographers once the trekkers reach the summit.
Llamatepec is a stratovolcano, the highest in the country, that last erupted in 2005. It is the inspiration for one of the active volcanoes in The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wife was Salvadoran). Although there are many jaw dropping views on the way up, the ultimate reward for the hike is the crater lake at the top: a steaming, simmering turquoise lake of sulfur. You can smell it. You can gaze at it. You’ll want to touch it, but that’s not a good idea.
I hired my tour guide friend from the previous day to take me to the volcano. We agreed that whoever was last to the top had to buy the drinks once we got back down. I beat him but bought him a beer anyway.
On the way back we saw many farmers burning their sugarcane fields. Bacardi Rum gets most of its sugarcane from El Salvador, so there is a lot of production in the areas outside San Salvador. Workers burn the giant sugarcane stalks to make them easier to harvest (which they do by hand). It is not easy or healthy work; standing in front of a massive fire on a hot day, breathing in the cloying black smoke, then using machetes to cut and haul the burnt stalks while the fire and ash still swirls nearby. There have been reports of chronic kidney disease, caused by dehydration and hard labor, causing more deaths among sugarcane workers in El Salvador than leukemia, diabetes and AIDS combined. It was hot and hard to breathe just standing on the roadside.
After a long hike like Santa Ana, there’s nothing better than the most traditional of Salvadoran food – the pupusa. Thick fresh corn tortillas are filled with cheese and your choice of meat and then grilled. Don’t skip the curtido (spicy coleslaw). These things are addicting.
Suchitoto is a small town in the Cuscatlán Municipality of El Salvador. It is a few hours by bus from San Salvador and worth a day trip. Quaint and brightly colored, with cobblestone streets and the peaceful (but buggy) Lago Suchitlán, Suchitoto is a place to wander and people watch away from the crowds.
The city of León is old. Very old. In 1524 it was located about 30 kilometers east of where it is now, but was abandoned in 1610 following a series of earthquakes. It was then rebuilt at its current site.
León has a colonial, old world flair. Among the narrow streets and shabby chic buildings are many cultural shops, artist stalls and markets.
The city also has a reputation as one of the central gathering points for the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), more commonly referred to as the Sandinistas. León is known for its fighting spirit, an epicenter of protest and revolt, and it has paid the price in lives lost and buildings destroyed. It does not hesitate to memorialize those battles across the city walls.
I was standing on a sidewalk reading anti-Bush graffiti scrawled on the side of a dilapidated building when an elderly fellow on a bicycle stopped and gestured to me that I should enter the building. “Sandinista”, he said. That piqued my interested enough to step inside. Turns out it was their headquarters, now somewhat of a museum where Sandinista rebels who fought in the war lead you through the (mostly empty) rooms while telling their stories. It is not your traditional museum experience, but it is not to be missed.
It was apparent immediately upon entering that no one spoke English, and my Spanish is limited to a few phrases and a smattering of single words, although I understand a lot more than I can speak. When the group of Sandinistas hanging out in the hallway found out I was from the US, the emotions on their faces ranged from eagerness to irritation to downright shock. I don’t think they get a lot of Americans there, which is too bad, because they have an entirely different perspective of US involvement in the war than the one we are familiar with.
A friendly looking gentleman in a Nebraska Huskers t-shirt offered to take me around. He spoke slow Spanish, enough that I could get most of what he was telling me. I badly wished that I had more command of the language because while I understood, I couldn’t ask questions…and I had so many of them. I had always learned in school that the Sandinistas were the enemy, intent on doing harm. That is far too simplistic and one-sided an explanation, and I found myself in the position of relating to and agreeing with much of their reasoning for the fight. My guide was in his 20’s during the war. There is even a photo of him there, decked out in guns and raising his hand triumphantly in a bombed out street. It was his idea to pose with the grenade launcher.
León is also on the Ring of Fire, so if you like volcanoes this is the place to be. Volcán Telica is one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes and if the seismic monitors aren’t jumping you can “safely” take a sunset hike and picnic to the top. The trip to the base of the crater is an adventure of its own, Nicaragua’s version of the running of the bulls.
After a relatively easy hike (as far as volcanoes go), we reached a steaming crater (yes, yet another steaming crater) that reeked of sulfur and made it hard to breathe. At the bottom of the pit, lava glowed. We sat on the far edge for our dinner, with the steam flowing away from us and the valley spread out below. It was one of the most peaceful evenings of my whole trip; sitting next to travelers from Poland, Greece, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Germany, watching the sun set with heat from the center of the earth warming our backs and the setting sun in our faces.
Quetzaltrekkers is a great option for this hike (and others). They are a non-profit, volunteer organization and all of their trekking profits are donated to locally run projects that support at-risk children.
But a trip to León is not complete without Volcano Boarding, which I elected to do on the last day of my entire trip just in case I broke every bone in my body. Here’s how you do it:
1. Carry a heavy board 2,388ft up the youngest and one of the most active basaltic cinder cones in Central America.
2. Put on an orange prison jumpsuit and goggles, get on the board and sled down said volcano at 60-80kph.
3. Check your speed on the radar gun, wash the ash off your face and have a drink.
I was hoping to go 90 kph and break the previously held record, but it was not to be. I barely managed 61 kph (about 38 mph) before eating ash at the bottom. The hike up was the hardest part – it is not for the fainthearted, especially carrying a heavy board – but it was worth every minute.
Photos by our guide, as carrying a camera while boarding is not encouraged. With good reason.