Que onda El Salvador!

Published: July 3rd 2017
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"If you have made it to El Salvador you must be either totally naive or you actually have a mind of your own"

What we (think we) know: El Salvador ranks number 134 of 136 in safety and security of all countries according to the World Economic Forum report ranking the travel and tourism competitiveness of 136 countries. The number of homicides by violent, well-armed street gangs — 18th Street (“Barrio 18”) and MS-13 ("Mara Salvatrucha") has dropped to below 6 a day (last year).

While the gringo trail (and backpackers highway) through Central America takes a wide d-tour around it and although El Salvador has the worst image ever as a country to travel to we decided not to skip the country and we have loved every bit of it. We have been travelling for about three weeks through a beautiful country with pristine nature varying from beautiful tranquil beaches, spectacular views of volcanoes, waterfalls, world famous surf, remote colonial villages, amazing coffee fincas, and as a bonus the most friendly people you can imagine, helpful, chatty, inviting, happy, fun loving and outgoing. The country has a good infrastructure, good roads, a good public transport network, all made for the Salvadorians because there are not a lot of foreigners. The Salvadorians themselves go out and spend their weekends having fun and eating and drinking at gastronomical food fairs and beach resorts.

The other side of the country is still very visible though. Although we have not experienced a single incident and we have not even seen a single gang member it's very obvious that the country is involved in some kind of war. Reading any newspaper or watching the national news, every single day we learned about the ongoing battle between the gangs amongst themselves and with the police and military. We find this whole gang situation really hard to understand. It seems the gang members are mainly very young, without any perspective, growing up in the wrong neighbourhood and being seduced or forced to become a gang member. From that moment there seems to be a deep hate for the other gang and they don't see any other possibilities and choices in life. Every single day they kill each other or get killed by police squads.

We traveled from Leon in Nicaragua via Honduras to El Salvador arriving in El Cuco at around 7:00 AM and after having breakfast and checking in to a great room with hammocks in some kind of combination of a backpackers place, a beach resort and a large day beach retreat for locals from surrounding cities. Right on the wide sandy beach, lined with palm trees, good waves for the not very experienced wave surfers and a few pet pelicans strolling around and using all facilities as well. We loved the place and every day decided to stay for a bit longer enjoying the beach life, hammocks, small pupusa* place next door and small local fish restaurant around the corner. In the weekends a lot of Salvadoran families come to this place to relax, swim, eat, drink or celebrate something like a birthday and immediately the kindness of the Salvadorians became clear. We got to meet a few of them, great for us practicing our Spanish, they shared their birthday cakes with us and even invited us to their homes.

*Pupusas: we had never heard about them but it is the famous local dish of El Salvador. It's everywhere, lovely, cheap, tasty. It's made of corn flour, fresh, usually at the side of the street or in the family kitchen or garden. It's a flattened out ball of dough with a filling, baked on a hot plate. It's great, we love it!

While the ocean and waves were great for swimming and surfing, the current was quite strong and as a result we got pulled out of our hammocks by the screaming of a few Salvadorians and some guys waving for help in the water, somebody was actually drowning. While this is something you usually only read about in books or newspapers, something very primal happened to me me (Merijn) and I first ran up to the resort to get something floating because I knew I would not be able to help out if I would drown myself. With a surfboard I ran to the water and tried to swim through the waves and current, all the while looking into the eyes of a drowning man. I did make it through the surf and was able to pull the guy on the surfboard and swim back to the beach with the help of some others. This was an unreal experience, I was completely drained of energy by the effort and adrenaline. The guys was brought to a clinic and later that day came to thank me for saving his life, as the whole day around 15 other people, mostly family members, had already done.

After a week of beach life we decide to move on, we do want to see other parts of this country before our visa is running out. We visit Perquin, in the north eastern highlands. This is a remote place where the guerillas were based during the civil war and where we get to see and learn about their way of living and fighting. We move on to the capital, San Salvador, a bit nervous because this is where the violence of the gangs is concentrated but we are very positively surprised by this modern city, where we only see luxurious stores, supermarkets, large malls and foodcourts 'fighting' for clientele. Taking the usual precautions we walk around the historical centre, use the extensive and complicated bus system, visit the malls but also the museums and churches, plazas and markets and we feel pretty comfortable here, we actually like this city and enjoy the food and drinks that come with it.

We take the local bus to Suchitoto, which is another beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, old houses and locals just minding their business, milling corn and making tortillas and pupusas. It's a bit rainy so we spend part of the day in one of the beautiful colonial houses made into a coffee house where we enjoy the local brew.

We visit Joya de Ceren for something totally different. A archeological site like Pompeii where life came to a standstill when one of the vulcanoes erupted covering the Maya village with ashes. The village life is now to be viewed by us. Close by is the Maya temple site San Andres which is not spectacular but still interesting enough for us to visit.

Via San Salvador we head to the west and start a trip over the Ruta de Flores, a beautiful winding road going from village to village, through coffee plantations, over hills and between mountains. First we spend a few days at Santa Ana, a safe, friendly town with a great hostel with roof terrace, swimming pool and local coffee beans with grinder :-) This is also the town where we find the best pupusas until so far, freshly prepared by the big smiling mamas.

Next on the Ruta Flores are Ataco, Apaneca and Juayua where we visit the lovely villages, walk through coffee plantations and visit the famous ferias gastronomicas for a sampling of the best local food around. We visit Finca Carmen where our guide explains how they process quite a big amount of bourbon and pacamara coffee beans of which parts are sold to Starbucks. The whole operation is quite impressive and of course very interesting to see and at the end taste.

In Apaneca a huge network of zip lines is constructed high in the canopy of the trees, across the valley and through the coffee plants. We fly through the air and enjoy both the views and the adrenaline fueling experience of hundreds of meters of zip lines.

We end our Ruta de Flores trip and head to the beach again. In one of the smaller surfers villages El Zonte we find the perfect hostel resort. A taste of paradise with the friendly iguana, the pet parrots, perfect swimming pools and beautiful view over the bay, the big waves and the surfers showing their skills. The swell has arrived and a lot of surfers come to El Zonte so we get to see quite some action. This is clearly for pros and not for us so we stay on the deck, sipping a beer while watching.

Back in San Salvador we spend our day in the great hostel, go out for some great food and wait for our flight to Colombia. We have spent litterally every single day of our 90 day visa and have to leave the region with pain in our hearts but also looking forward to continue our trip in South America.

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