El Salvador

During my morning cleaning routine I still see black sand on my Q-tip, even though I returned from El Salvador over 2 weeks ago.  This is a daily reminder of the high waves at Playa Zonte that tumbled and whirled me around quite heavily on my last day in the country. Those were surfing waves, and that is what these beaches along the coast, south of La Libertad, are famous for.  And the black, glittering sand.

San Salvador is only a 3.5 hour flight from Dallas and welcomes its visitors with a small but roomy airport, quiet and focused immigration officials and a general relaxedness about things. I still recall the tropical evening heat that enveloped me upon arrival. I was wrapped in several layers of clothes due to temperatures in the 40s in Dallas, which I slowly removed as I stood in line waiting to have my passport stamped.

Since the airport is near the coast, we began our 6-day trip through this beautiful country at Costa del Sol, a getaway destination for many Salvadorians. It’s easily identifiable on the map as a long, straight strip of sand with the ocean to one side and the estuary on the other. The road is lined with villas and hotels. I did not get the sense of luxury that the first edition of this travel guide alluded to. But then again, little can be seen from the road as all entrances are closed by huge wooden gates and stone walls. At the tip of the strip, La Puntilla, I had the best mariscada, a fish soup with a variety of shellfish in an insanely tasty broth with rich cream.

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and I was amazed at the number of places we were able to visit in one week.  With a map in my lap, fresh coconut water in a bag and the windows rolled down, we drove on many roads, some without pavement, and several not even on the map. A burning smell seems to linger in the air everywhere in El Salvador. I saw people burning trash, probably due to the lack of proper waste management.

In San Vicente, a small town at the base of a volcano, I tried fried yucca, chatted with men that carried machetes on their belt and climbed an interesting-looking tower. It was here that I ventured into the famous Pollo Campero, which turned out to be a Latin American version of KFC. But honestly, I was not in the mood for fried chicken, but was told that this place has the cleanest restrooms, which turned out to be true. Needless to say, I visited Pollo Campero more than once.

On the road into the capital we stumbled upon Olocuilta, famous for rice flour pupusas. You get to choose your fillings, which took me some time since several vegetables pointed out to me did not sound familiar. They are topped with escabeche, which is a mix of pickled jalapeno peppers, cabbage, onions and carrots. Loved it.

Entering San Salvador I was stunned. A modern and clean city greeted me with everything any other western city has to offer. I expected to see more signs of poverty, crime and gang life. I learned that there are two parts to the city and that the old capital, with the cathedral and cemetery was the trouble area. I asked my friends to take me there because I had come to get to know the country in its true colors.  The old side is not nearly as clean and the streets bustle with all sorts of vendors trying to make a few dollars with fruit, veggies or cheap import goods. Several houses bore gang-related markings. We entered several side roads, one of which suddenly became so small that we were afraid the car would not fit through. A man lying on the street mentioned that there is probably no way out, which was enough for my friends to turn around and head out of the city.

A beautiful country opened itself up for me. Fresh and exotic fruits are sold at the side of the roads. And if you stop and buy, you meet the whole family, and even get to use their outhouse, which works in cases of emergency. The air became cooler in La Palma, where we tried interesting baked goods and fresh, local coffee to warm us up. Artesanias are sold here everywhere, gifts made out of wood and fabric, beautifully painted in bright colors and then lacquered. Check out Fernando Llort, a local artist whose gallery we visited. From here we went higher up into the mountains, almost at the border of Honduras. We stopped in Metapan for an afternoon drink with family and drove on a gravel road for two hours to get to what must have been one of the remotest places in the country, a huge property that ends with a small river which I crossed swimming just to be able to say I stepped into Guatemala.

We then took La ruta de las flores, which starts after Santa Ana, a city that has lost a bit of the glamour described in my guidebook.  Outside the city, we stopped at the Mayan ruins of Tazumal, which, disappointingly, were covered in cement. I spoke to an employee at the museum and was told that upon discovery, heavy rains started and the archeological team could not think of another way to prevent destruction.  I really enjoyed Juayua, were we wandered quiet cobblestone streets in the evening, helped a Mayan girl set up her stand for the next morning’s market, and stayed in a cabin.

The people of El Salvador are reserved, but very friendly people. Every encounter first begins with a handshake, even if though a gate. Pleasantries are exchanged, apologies for the late disturbance. People are humble even if they own half the city that you are visiting. They seem honest and genuinely interested. They are happy you are visiting their country. They allow you to pass on the road. They are accommodating to your need, always willing to help.

I know that I will rid my ears of the sand in a few days but my fond memories of El Salvador with stay with me forever.