El Salvador – Unexpected delights

Greetings from Alegría, El Salvador – our third stop in this entirely surprising country.  Most Americans (looking at you, Dad) only are familiar with El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua via the 1980s civil wars and/or more recent political instability that each has suffered.  I am pleased to note that, while El Salvador is no exception to the characteristic Latin American extreme wealth disparity, civil society appears to be held together rather better than Guatemala.  There are sidewalks!  And official road maintenance!  And signs that are generally helpful!

El Salvador, which guidebooks love to mention is the size of New Jersey, contains approximately 6.3 million people, of which a bit less than a third live in the San Salvador metro area.  While we did spend a bit of time in San Salvador, our favorite places so far have been well away from there – S.S. having less appeal than even Guatemala City – so let’s start with Juayúa.

A city nestled in El Salvador’s western mountains and famed for initiating the welcome local trend of weekend food fairs here, we originally planned to spend three nights acclimating to El Salvador and dodging the lowland heat while figuring out what we wanted to see in this country.  Our guidebook, from Footprint, was perfunctory at best – like an individually bound chapter from an -on-a-Shoestring omnibus – so we weren’t too sure what else was to do, besides have some food at the fair (which you saw in a previous article) and go to the local national park, El Impossible (which Melanie will cover separately).

Two things happened that caused us to extend our stay, eventually out to seven nights.  First, we lucked into a very friendly hostel in Casa Mazeta, where Darren and Susanna (the respectively English and Finnish co-proprietors) have mastered the art of the hostel for adults.  Sure, you can watch PULP FICTION at top volume after cooking dinner, or drink beer from the beer fridge until you fall over – but you can be assured that come 11 or 12, it’s sleeping time.  Thank god.

Another benefit of Casa Mazeta – free, massive avocados!

Our second piece of luck was in finding the EXPLORER’S GUIDE TO EL SALVADOR, from the small Vermont publisher Countryman Press.  A book unlike any other we saw, simply because it actually bothers to treat El Salvador as a serious potential travel destination beyond beach.  Hurray!  Now we had lots of ideas of what to do, including many days worth of activities around Juayúa.

Juayúa – not that large!

Our first activity was to hike to the local waterfall, accompanied by Carlos, the designated Man-With-A-Machete(tm) for the day.  As you see in the featured photo of this post, the waterfalls offered Melanie a (coolish) swimming opportunity – and would have offered me one too, except that the hike to the waterfall was downhill, and the hike out was uphill.  By the time I was hot enough to get into a cold pool, we were at the top of the hill back in town.  Alas.

Second activity was to drive to the Cerro Verde National Park, and do the daily 11am mass hike to the top of the Santa Ana volcano.  You start this hike at about 2030m on the Cerro Verde peak, go down about 100m to the saddle, then start a sweaty, 45-minute trek to the top of Santa Ana at around 2300m.  Melanie covered this in her earlier volcano post, but I thought I would note again in English that the man carrying ice cream bars was the first to the top of the hill by a fairly large margin.  At a buck a bar, he makes a good wage for El Salvador!

Don’t accept imitation homemade popsicles, god forbid.

Third activity was to go to the food fair – where as previously mentioned, we consumed a couple amazing pineapple drinks.  (No rum or chile flakes, please!)


Next, we did our hike through El Impossible – I won’t steal Melanie’s thunder here but it was pretty cool to see the bridge that knit the coffee growing mountains to the coffee exporting ports on the Pacific.  The plaque says “1968 No Longer Impossible”, which is as great a mic drop for infrastructure as you can get, really.

No longer used, but historically important.

After that hike (and the associated drive where we didn’t quite make it to the meet point on the first route that Google recommended, ahem), we were more than ready for a little relaxation.  So we went to the Santa Theresa thermal baths in nearby Ahuachapan.  Sadly no photos from here, but it was amazingly luxurious considering its location.  The water there was genuinely sulfurous; it was as if someone had built a spa on top of Yellowstone.  Plus they were amidst quite an expansion, which seemed like it would triple the number of pools available.  I’m not sure who exactly they are intending to attract, as the admission ($10) is approximately a day’s average wage in El Salvador, but the Asian businessmen (and sketchy expat Texan) we met there seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There were a few lazy days mixed in there as well, by the way – Casa Mazeta has a very pleasant garden where we read, chatted with other travelers, and drank fresh coconut water with Salvadoran rum.  Melanie even made a platter of grilled cheese to share – her extensive culinary training in American haute cuisine coming in handy!

Next stop and post: San Salvador.

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