Our time in El Salvador was a real mix of activities. Though we were only able to get a small taste of this country, it was quite sweet.
Maybe I should be posting a map of Central America in each post.
When the Spanish founded this country, they gave it the snappy name, “Provincia De Nuestro Senor Jesus Cristo, El Salvador Del Mundo.” (Province of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World) Though I think “P.D.N.S.J.C.E.S.D.M.” would have been a fun acronym for this place, they decided to shorten it to “El Salvador” instead.
I had no idea what to expect from this place. El Salvador, and its neighbor Honduras, are the countries with the highest murder rates in the world. The vast majority of these are due to gang conflicts, so it is not necessarily dangerous for visitors. Still, I’m sure these numbers alone keep many potential visitors from coming. However, those who do visit always seem to have good things to say about the places and even better things to say about the people.
El Salvador adopted the US dollar as its official currency in 2001. Many international corporations have production centers here due to the low cost of labor. In fact, T-shirts are actually the number one export of El Salvador (check your tag). Being that many companies benefit from the low wages here, it is not hard to formulate theories about exploitation.
As always, I endeavored to enter this country with an open mind, an open heart and an open can of beans (although I normally buy my beans in a bag down here).
Friday, February 2nd (cont.)
Welcome to El Salvador!
My initial impressions were fairly positive. The roads were nice and smooth and gasoline was sold in dollars per gallon. No need for a conversion. Given that a Central American border crossing was part of my day, I had set a very conservative goal of making it to Santa Ana. This city is only about 90 minutes from the border.
My residence for the night would be the “Pool House Hostel.” My standard formula for finding lodging is to select the cheapest place that has secure parking. This strategy has served me well thus far.
I pulled up and was ready unleash the impressive stream of competent Spanish that I had been preparing in my mind for the previous ten minutes. But the owner, Jess, greeted me in North American English and opened the gate for Annie and I to enter.
Jess is originally from the Vancouver area, while her husband, Julio, is Salvadorian. They have only been running the hostel for about three months, but they seem to know exactly what travelers want and need. This is more of a “home stay” style of hostel, where you really feel like you are staying with family or friends. It was just $10/night.
The place was full of Europeans, all of whom were friendly and had interesting stories to tell. We pitched in a few bucks and had a great supper together. Afterwards we walked to a local ice cream joint for dessert. They were out of tiramisu flavor, but the lady said she would give me one that was similar: Cotton candy. 🙂
Saturday, February 3rd
I was told the previous night that I needed to try the national food of El Salvador: Pupusas. I’m not sure exactly how to describe these. They are kind of like a corn-based hot pocket without all of the preservative taste. There are a wide variety of fillings. Jess and Julio accompanied me.
Pupusas are goooooood.
As we walked back, I had another education coming. I never really knew where almonds came from, but there were many almond trees on the way back. We picked up some of the golf ball sized fruits.
The fruit itself is a little bitter, getting sweeter towards the center.
Around the actual almond, there is a hard casing. Julio got a hammer to break through it.
Then it was my turn.
I now have a greater understanding of why they cost so much!
I made some mistakes before I left, not getting any good pictures of the group or having anyone sign the bike. Sometimes the latter just slips my mind. I will definitely be coming back to this hostel on my way back through. Though Santa Ana isn’t yet known as a tourist destination, there are lots of things to see and do here.
My goal for the day was to get to San Miguel, on the other side of the country. Knowing that I wanted to reach Nicaragua in a single day of riding, this was the perfect city in which to stay. There were not a ton of lodging options. The only hostel in town didn’t seem to be available but I sent them a message anyway. Being well beyond the range of scent detection, they agreed to take me in.
The ride there was peacefully uneventful. The roads were smooth and uncrowded. I did encounter a traffic cop dressed up like a clown. I’m not sure if he was really a traffic cop or not.
One of the things I noticed in El Salvador was the amount of guns. This country is basically a mecca for second amendment supporters. Every gas station and convenience store has an armed guard.
I arrived at the Europa Guesthouse Hostel and met my hosts Mauricio (originally from the Canary islands in Spain) and Barbara (originally from NE Italy). I found out that they were actually closed this evening, but had made an exception to let me stay. How nice! They’ve only been operating the hostel for about four months, but they are doing a great job.
The place is really a “complex.” I learned that it was originally owned by a military colonel. It was also $10/night.
In North America, there is usually a clean line between inside and outside. Down here, that line is much more blurred.
Mauricio and Barbara:
I got quite a bit of work done and prepared for a quiet evening. El Salvador had different plans for me. Mauricio’s cousin, Ricardo, was visiting from Costa Rica. Ricardo is a fellow biker, so we had lots to talk about. He was politely adamant about keeping the conversation in Spanish, which was great practice for me.
They asked if I wanted to join them for a beer and a quick bite to eat. I try to never turn down these sorts of invitations.
Ricardo grew up in San Miguel, but had not been back in some time. It just so happened that he bumped in to a friend he had not seen in 35 years. I believe his name was Halmer (not sure).
This reunion caused the evening to change a bit. Things began to magically appear in front of me: Mostly pupusas and beers. A blind guitarist, led by his young assistant, played and sang. Soon the guitar was being passed around and even I got a turn.
“Brett” is still a difficult name for Spanish speakers, so Ricardo just introduced me as “Brad Pitt.” I eventually just began introducing myself this way too. 🙂
Above, the gentleman sang “Take it Easy” by The Eagles. This song features song place “Winslow, Arizona” which will probably be place 85 of 92. We’ll get there sometime. 🙂
I was getting a bit concerned about the tab that I was racking up, but Ricardo’s friend paid for everything. Afterwards, he decided that the night was not done.
We continued to a restaurant where the food and drink kept flowing. As the beers kept appearing, I kept saying “just one more.” I only have a rough estimation for how many I got up to.
It was a really fun night, unlike any I have had in Latin America so far. I never even had to get out my wallet. I think I made a new best friend, named Jorge, who believed every phrase that I uttered was worthy of a high five. 🙂
Sunday, February 4th
Mauricio invited me to come out with him and Ricardo to see the San Miguel volcano. We wound up the road and parked on the property of a family that Mauricio knows.
A couple of local kids decided to come on the hike with us. They were a fun addition to our crew.
The path was really interesting. It follows where lava last flowed down, over dark black volcanic rock. We just did the “baby hike” which was probably only about 45 minutes round trip. From where we stopped, it was still about a five hour hike to the top.
The San Miguel volcano is not really a tourist attraction yet, but one of Mauricio’s goals is to increase the number of hikers here. It is a really beautiful area.
My goal for the day was to finish planning enough to be able to cross two borders in one day: Into Honduras and into Nicaragua. Honduras is probably the most dangerous country in Central America, so I was planning to pass through without spending the night.
My research uncovered that Nicaragua had just begun to require a written invitation, via email, that a tourist is welcome in their country. Some travelers reported that lacking this form caused a delay of six hours at the border. Others said the border officials never mentioned it. This caused me enough doubt that I decided to take one more planning day before attempting the dual crossing.
Additionally, a large amount of my time was taken up by watching the Super Bowl. 🙂
(Congratulations to former Chiefs, Doug Peterson and Nick Foles, and former Husker Nate Gerry.)
Monday, February 5th
Border planning day, part 2. These sort of thrill-a-minute days are what keep readers glued to this quality publication. 🙂
Highlights of the day:
1.Having a couple of teenage girls tell me how pretty my eyes are.
2.Meeting a Spanish/German couple named Agustino and Ina, who are traveling north through Central America with their daughter. We had lots of good chats.
3. Eating some more pupusas as I planned.
This world is full of injustice. Chief among them is the injustice that I only spent four nights in El Salvador. I really enjoyed the places that I visited and the people that I met. Things seem to be changing for the good down here. There are lots of people who truly love this country and want to share its charms with others. I’m excited to see what the future holds for P.D.N.S.J.C.E.S.D.M.
Stay locked and loaded, everybody.
Realtime update: My one night stay in Esteli, Nicaragua turned into three. I think Granada is next, then I’ll probably visit the volcanic island of Ometepe.