Three towns in one week. Our time in El Salvador was fleeting, yet no less memorable. Luckily, El Salvador is only about the size of New Jersey and everything we planned on doing was concentrated in the northwestern corner of the country.
We crossed the border from Antigua, Guatemala and were on our way to the Pacific beach town of El Tunco. The rocky, black sand beaches and rough waves make for a less than ideal swimming spot, but if you wade out when the tides are right, it’s possible to cool off in the water without getting taken out.
However, nearly everyone that comes to El Tunco comes for one reason…to surf. Aside from that, there’s no much else going on, but we came to surf. Well, Andy came to surf, Felicia struggles walking down an uneven sidewalk, so she quickly ruled out any attempts to test her balance on the waves.
This being Andy’s first time surfing, he scheduled an early morning lesson to learn the basics ($25 for a roughly 1 hour lesson). After wiping out multiple times and being thrashed around by the waves for nearly an hour, he was able to successfully ride a few waves, which in all honesty were likely the size of those created by a small passing boat. It was an incredibly humbling experience, which also led to an instant Google search for the next town we could visit for further lessons in the coming weeks.
It was here, in El Tunco, that we “celebrated” Thanksgiving. No wine and turkey, just a couple of bottles of the national beer, Pilsener, a fried fish for each of us ($16.75 for two meals + drinks), and, of course, phone calls to our loving families back home.
During these first few days in El Salvador, we also began to gorge ourselves with the national dish, pupusas. Imagine, a thick, corn tortilla stuffed with cheese and beans, and sometimes meat or other ingredients. Think that sounds great? We forgot to mention, they usually cost no more than 75¢. Between the two of us, we would order 4-5 for lunch each day, sampling ones stuffed with chicken, fish, shrimp, and loroco. To eat them right, pile on some curtido (cabbage relish) and drizzle some tomato sauce on top.
After just three nights in El Tunco, we were standing on the side of the road at 6:00 AM, waiting to grab a chicken bus ($3.00 for 2 people) to our next destination.
Chicken buses, for those unfortunate, (or fortunate) unfamiliar individuals, are old, recycled school buses from the States or Canada, which are used as public transportation in most of the countries in Central America. The buses have quite the reputation of possessing wild drivers, packing as many people in as possible, and not being very comfortable.
There we stood on the side of the road with our all of our possessions, hoping that the reputation was comprised of exaggerations. When the bus pulled up, we immediately found out that one of the three characteristics was no exaggeration. The bus was already well over capacity. We piled on, hoping that we wouldn’t have to stand for the entire duration of our two and a half hour ride. However, at each subsequent stop, more and more people joined. Everyone was so tightly packed in, it seemed as though it was possible to lift both feet off the ground and remain completely upright. Fortunately, about a half hour into the ride, some seats opened up, and we were able to enjoy a bit more comfort. Relatively speaking. When the two and a half hours passed, we switched buses in the town of Sonsonate to complete the last forty-five minutes to our destination, Juayúa ($1.80 for 2 people). All of the terrible beauty we had heard of the chicken buses was absolutely true.
The town of Juayúa is one of a handful of towns found along the Ruta de las Flores (Route of the Flowers), a 20 mile stretch of road lined with wildflowers that winds through the mountains of El Salvador. Most people visit the Ruta de las Flores as a day trip, spending a bit of time in each town over the course of an entire day. We, however, were only interested in the town of Juayua and their weekly food festival.
We checked into our hostel ($22 for 2 bunks for 1 night) and headed straight to the downtown area. Like each of the towns along the Ruta de las Flores, Juayúa is a small town that gives a glimpse of what life is like outside of the big cities, like San Salvador and Santa Ana, and away from the beaches of the Pacific coast.
The food festival in Juayúa is held every Saturday and Sunday and generates quite the attention. Food vendors, working diligently to convince every passerby to choose their stand, are continuously grilling meats and filling plates with huge portions. Just about every grilled meat you could think of is being cooked here, along with some fresh seafood from the coast. For $5, you get a plate full of meat, seafood, or both, rice and beans, grilled vegetables, and other sides.
Our strategy was to share a plate from as many stands as possible. After just the first two rounds and a large dose of diabetes in the form of a massive snow cone ($1.00), we were already so full and worn out from our 5:00AM wake up and three hour chicken bus experience, that we decided to go back to the hostel to rest before returning for a couple more rounds. Feeling like we had eaten more in the last six hours than we had in the previous six days and with vendors beginning to disassemble tents and throwing scraps to stray dogs, there was really nothing else to do in Juayúa but prepare for our chicken bus journey onward the following morning.
The next day, we were headed to our final stop in El Salvador, the city of Santa Ana. Thankfully, it was not quite as early of a start as our previous day and not as long of a drive either. Around 9:00, we boarded a chicken bus ($1.60 for 2 people), which would drop us off in Santa Ana in about an hour and a half.
For our accommodations in Santa Ana, we were staying at Hostel Casa Verde ($73.76 for 2 beds for 3 nights). We had read reviews about this being the best hostel in Central America. Some even claimed it was their favorite they’d ever stayed at anywhere in the world. It definitely lived up to everything that was said about it. The owner was the most helpful person we’ve met on our entire trip and the hostel itself is perfect, possessing everything you need and amenities you never knew you needed. We never expected to find this in El Salvador of all places.
That evening, we spent some time walking around the downtown area. We quickly realized that other than the iconic cathedral, there’s not much to see or do within the city limits of Santa Ana.
We came to the city of Santa Ana for one reason, to hike the volcano of the same name. We woke up the next morning and walked a few blocks to the bus station to catch a, you guessed it, chicken bus ($1.80 total) to Cerro Verde National Park. After a two hour ride, complete with views of the nearby Lake Coatepeque and an unfortunate half mile stretch of trash, we arrived at the park ($6.00 total entrance fee) and waited for the hike to begin. Before departing, we made sure to have a healthy pre-hike meal of, none other than, pupusas.
At 11:00AM, we paid our mandatory guide fee ($1.00/person) and began our two-hour ascent. The first hour consisted of a trek through the forest without much elevation gain. At the midway point, we arrived at the ranger’s station at the entrance to the volcano and paid our fee ($12.00 for 2 people) to continue. From that point, the elevation gain began, however at a very manageable pace. About 20 minutes from the top, you emerge above the tree line and begin to get views of Lake Coatepeque and the neighboring Izalco and Cerro Verde volcanoes. 10 minutes from the top and an intense sulfur smell begins to fill the air. Just before reaching the crest, the wind begins to increase dramatically. Looking up, it seems as though you can reach out and grab the clouds above.
The views of the surrounding landscape were enough to make the hike worthwhile. However, what sets Santa Ana apart from other volcanoes, aside from being El Salvador’s tallest and most active, is the bubbling, green acidic lake at its center. Though we had recently visited Pacaya and planned to see more volcanoes throughout the remaining countries, none of them possess anything like this.
After taking as many glimpses of the crater lake and surroundings as possible, while shielding ourselves from the unrelenting winds, we completed the knee-stressing descent downward. A bit shorter bus ride back to the city, and we were kicking our feet up in the hammocks back at the hostel.
We had planned to leave Santa Ana the following day, but found out the shuttle to Copan, Honduras only left on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It was Tuesday evening. We had two options: we could wake up early and string together multiple chicken buses and collectivos or stay an extra day at Hostel Casa Verde and catch the shuttle the following day. Given our love of Casa Verde and growing disdain for chicken buses, we decided to stay the extra night. The extra night gave us the opportunity to overindulge in our favorite stuffed Salvadoran delicacies once (or twice) more. 24 pupusas in 7 days…
We weren’t sure what to expect during our time in El Salvador. While in Guatemala, we had met fellow travelers that had come from El Salvador. However, everyone seemed only to visit the beach towns near El Tunco. As Americans, we had heard a lot about the violent, dangerous reputation of the country. However, outside of a few hot spots, which we obviously avoided, it is no more dangerous than anywhere else we had visited. Do you skip a trip to Wildwood or a hike through the Pine Barrens because Camden sucks? Of course not.
We were so glad we didn’t skip this beautiful and strained, yet resilient, country. We had only dipped our toes into El Salvador, but in our short week there, we learned to surf on legendary surf beaches, stuffed our faces, completed one of our most rewarding hikes, and made great friends.
El Salvador is not quite built for travelers like some of the countries next door. Even Guatemala’s tourism infrastructure seems light years ahead of its diminutive neighbor. Maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, there’s so much more of this country waiting to be uncovered. Hopefully, in the near future, more will be willing and able to not only their dip toes in but dive below the surface.