We briefly met a girl from El Salvador in Guatemala and were excited to tell her that we were about to travel to her home country. On hearing this, however, she looked rather concerned and muttered a doubtful, ‘Really?’ quickly followed by ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’ Her reasoning being that it is somewhat of a dangerous place.
A quick google search of El Salvador leaves you reading a screen full of phrases like: One of the highest crime rates in Latin America; Has thousands of known gang members; and Exercise a high degree of caution. But now being seasoned travellers, of course, we were not to be deterred. We were determined to see what El Salvador was all about, and really get under the skin of this lesser visited, seemingly hostile Central American country.
Plus, we’d already booked our bus tickets.
A city full of surprises
It was dark and raining when we arrived in the capital San Salvador. We’d scouted out a potential hotel that we knew was very close to the bus station, but in these conditions we weren’t really up for walking, so we approached a taxi driver. Once he learned of our destination, he looked rather confused, gesturing towards the hotel and saying in Spanish, ‘It’s right there!’ We explained that we really didn’t want to walk and so he offered to take us for $4 U.S. Dollars, which we accepted without even the hint of a barter, and climbed in.
30 seconds later, we arrived and climbed out again, paying the bemused driver gratefully and diving into the refuge of the hotel. We hadn’t booked though, but we’re lucky on two counts as a) they had a room and b) it was actually a really nice place and the staff were very friendly. And there we stayed, eating pot noodles, drinking beer, and watching Spanish TV, not daring to venture into the city after dark.
The next morning, however, the sun was shining and we went exploring. What we found was a city full of churches (not unusual for Central America) but also full of people who seemed very happy to see us. We were greeted on the street by numerous complete strangers who happily welcomed us to their country.
Only a few blocks away from our hostel, we stumbled across a fantastic diner that was selling ‘tortas’. We had no idea what they were but we stood and watched in awe as all kinds of meat and other fillings were grilled and stacked into long buns filled with lettuce and smothered in various sauces. ‘I want one,’ I said to Hels, and we grabbed a table. We didn’t really understand much of the menu but somehow managed to order the most expensive one, which was good because it came with absolutely everything they had stuffed inside and was plenty enough for us to share.
Dragging ourselves away from the tortas place was tough, but we managed it eventually. We continued our exploration of the city down streets thronged with people selling anything and everything they could get their hands on towards the main square. Rumour had it that of all the churches in Central America, the Iglesia El Rosario was one not to be missed, but when we got to the square, it was not immediately apparent where this church was. I was expecting either a structure of gargantuan proportions or fabulous opulence.
What we found, when we actually managed to find it, was something that resembled a bomb shelter. Entirely constructed of grey concrete, the church hunkers down in its semi-circular shape, tucked in amongst various other buildings. It was certainly unusual. I wondered at the architect who decided on the ‘nuclear bunker’ theme, and we almost decided not to go inside, but that would have been a huge mistake.
Once you enter, the rough concrete exterior gives way to a polished interior which despite its coolness fostered a very serene atmosphere. But it was the stained glass that was the real hero of the piece. It was set into sections in the curved roof creating a rainbow effect on the inside that was totally invisible from the square outside. It also has an excellent set of stone and metal sculptures depicting the stations of the cross. Overall, a real surprise gem of a building.
The remainder of our daylight time in San Salvador was spent exploring further before retreating to the safety of the hotel to plan our onward travel.
The Ruta de las Flores is signalled as a highlight in all of the El Salvador literature, so we headed to the large town of Santa Ana from where we hoped to explore the smaller towns along the route. If you’re visiting Santa Ana as a backpacker, it’s more than likely that you’ll stay at Casa Verde – it’s pretty much the only option in town for travellers, and luckily a very good one.
We turned up (once again with no booking) and were welcomed by the owner Carlos who spoke pretty good English. He was very friendly and we were soon settled in a room. It took me all of two minutes to get myself a beer and head to the pool – yes, Casa Verde has a pool! You have to love it!
Chatting with Carlos about options for dinner that evening, we decided to go with his recommendation of Cafe Tejas. Rather than having to try to find it ourselves though, he said he’d give them a call and see if they could sort out some transport for us. We were actually going to be a group of four, as we’d met another couple at the hostel, Adam and Julie, who were also keen to go out for dinner. Soon, the Canadian owner Amira arrived to give us a lift. It was only much later that we realised that they put on the transport at no cost mainly for the safety of their customers. At the time, I just thought they were being friendly!
It turned out to be an excellent dinner, but it was made more fun as Amira introduced us to Basa, her Salvadoran husband. We bonded over beers and chats about reggae and ska. Basa loved the fact that I played in a reggae band at home and we ended up listening to the album of tracks I have on my iPod over the restaurant’s sound system. We ended the evening by making plans to visit a big reggae bar on the outskirts of town the following night.
The next morning, quite a bit later than planned, Helena and I went exploring the flower route but only made it as far as Juayua, one of the small towns along the stretch. It was pretty quiet and could have been good for a relaxing few days stay but we only had the afternoon, and as we’d turned up mid-week we weren’t able to experience the weekend food festivals for which the town is famed. We did manage to get hold of some pupusas though!
Returning to the hostel, Carlos greeted us with a message from Basa and Amira – would we like to go to their house for a few drinks before going out? Always keen to see the real lifestyle wherever we are, we accepted gratefully and were once again collected and taken to their house. From the outside, it looked rather daunting – white walls with solid black metal gates. Once inside, however, the house opened up to a spacious colonial structure with an interior courtyard where we sat on stools made from chopped up tree trunks, shared a few drinks and continued our tour of reggae music through the ages! Later, we headed to the reggae bar (called Trenchtown) and enjoyed a few more drinks, a few pizzas and some decent music. It was an awesome evening and we felt very lucky to have been invited out by some local people. My only regret is that we were having too much fun to take any pictures!!
Our last day in El Salvador was spent recovering from the night before, and then a short afternoon trip to Lago de Coatepeque. This lake has a similar geography to Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala, but it is much less developed around its rim. Consequently, it’s much cleaner and it didn’t take long before Helena and I were down to our swim kit and diving happily into the clear water from a pier, making silly little videos with the GoPro.
And that was it, our time in El Salvador had raced to an end. We’d found it to be a very welcoming place full of wonderful people and places. I suspect it will become an increasingly popular favourite with travellers, especially since it has some fantastic surfing beaches on its Pacific coast too. Time to tackle the other bad boy in the Cental American hood, Honduras…