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Published: August 30th 2018
Getting across into El Salvador was as easy as passing through the borders of Europe (pre-Brexit) - we didn’t even need to inconvenience ourselves by leaving the bus as the immigration agent came on board to inspect our passports. The US dollar is the official currency of El Salvador, and we changed over our remaining Guatemalan Quatzales with a tout at the border - which proved to be very handy later on. As a result of the CA-4 agreement between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, we were automatically issued with a 90-day visa that encompasses all four countries, and as we had already spent five weeks in Guatemala, the clock was ticking.
El Salvador is the only Central American country that doesn’t have a Caribbean coast, but it does boast over 300km of Pacific coastline to compensate. Our first port of call was the surf town of El Tunco, in the La Libertad region; a popular weekend destination for the locals of San Salvador. Our first problem was that our bank card didn’t work at any of the ATMs in town and we had the total sum of $13 from the border exchange in our possession. Luckily, we also
still have our English bank cards and, for the only time ever, we were thankful to have an account with TSB.
With a black sand beach and rocky shoreline, El Tunco had little to offer, and we only spent two days here before moving on to our next destination of El Cuco, another beach village in the east of the country. To get there, we took a local bus to San Salvador; from there a taxi across the city to a second bus terminal and caught another chicken bus to San Miguel. From San Miguel, we boarded yet another bus for the drive south to El Cuco. We arrived in the town to be met by disinterested locals and no taxis or buses anywhere to be seen. The final leg of the journey to our accommodation was looking like a 4km walk but luckily, a local offered to give us a lift in the back of his pick-up, and we arrived via a scenic drive down the beach.
It had been almost a week without climbing a volcano so we were obviously well overdue and we had heard about a local landowner who was more than happy to
take visitors up to his lookout at the summit of Volcano Conchagua. We caught a bus from San Miguel to the port town of La Union where we had been told to head for a Chinese restaurant and to ask for Luis. We were then herded into the back of a pick-up truck with some construction workers and made our way up the mountain. Luis is in the process of building a resort at the top of the volcano, and he has a unique selling point: from the Mirador, it’s possible to see out over the three neighbouring countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
El Salvador is by far the most challenging country in which we have travelled so far due to the lack of tourist infrastructure in the country – particularly east of San Salvador.
The nation is small – roughly the size of Wales – but getting around is a slow, laborious task. The only option is the chicken bus, and there is no way of predicting how long these journeys are likely to take as there are no designated bus stops – passengers can flag the bus down from anywhere they like. Not only
passengers though; a conveyor belt of vendors frequently clamber aboard selling anything from sweets to Samsung phone chargers before exiting from the rear door, only to be immediately succeeded by the next stream of entrepreneurs. Entertainment wise, we’ve been treated to musicians, singers and, on Sundays, religious preachers delivering their mobile sermons.
The country has been slow to welcome tourism back following the civil war and its aftermath and lags behind its neighbours in Central America on that front. There are very few backpackers here compared to Guatemala and Belize for example; most people we have spoken to who were moving north had avoided the country entirely for various reasons. The positive of this is that as the locals haven’t been exposed to tourism on a large scale, the usual scams aren't as prevalent as elsewhere. We have even been handed back money on the bus and in restaurants because we’ve overpaid at times. Even without the benefits that the tourism industry brings, El Salvador has the third largest economy in Central America and has the highest minimum wage in the region – around $300 per month.
Perquin is a small town situated high up in the mountainous
north-east region of the country, close to the border with Honduras. The area is probably the most important site in El Salvador as the events that unfolded in this province has shaped how the country looks today. The former headquarters of the FMLN lies here, and it was in the surrounding countryside that some of the most intense fighting of the civil war took place. The farming community of El Morazan was the scene of the worst atrocity of the conflict when on 11 December 1981, over 1000 men, women and children were slaughtered by the Government’s Atacatl Battalion special forces team – a unit that was trained, equipped and funded by the US government who were contributing $1.5 million a day to the Salvadoran military.
The government forces sealed off the town and enforced what they called a ‘necessary genocide’ of civilians they suspected of supporting the guerrillas. There was a sole survivor who was able to retell the accounts of the horror despite the government’s efforts to cover it up by the subsequent bombing of the area in a bid to destroy the evidence. It wasn't until 2014 that a forensic team from Argentina arrived to excavate
the mass graves and were able to corroborate the eyewitness’s account and provide confirmation that the massacre did occur.
Although they are few and far between, we managed to find a guide from the area who spoke some English, and he accompanied us around the region for the day. Rafael was a former guerrilla combatant who fought in the conflict for 12 years and offered a fascinating insight into what life was like back then.
He said that there were only four choices available to the people at the time: Join the army; join the guerrillas; emigrate or die.
We also visited the Museo de la Revolucion Salvadorena in town which gives visitors the chance to tour the former guerrilla camp where Rafael trained and lived. The displays were more shocking because the events were so recent - the war ran from 1979 and peace accords were only signed in 1992. As part of the agreement, El Salvador’s Amnesty Law has prevented the prosecution of those who committed human rights abuses during the armed conflict - the reason why the El Mazote massacre has taken so long to be comprehensively investigated.
When we checked into our
hotel in Perquin, an American studying at the local hospital approached us as she said it’s so rare to see backpackers here - we were only the 7th and 8th she had seen in 4 years. In a lot of places, people were extremely keen to learn what we had heard about the reputation of El Salvador prior to our arrival and to hear our opinions of their country. We have been thanked many times for choosing to come here, and people were eager for us to leave with a positive impression of the place. The tourist board have adopted the slogan #dontskipelsalvador in an effort to persuade travellers to include the country on their route.
They are alluding to the shocking crime statistics that tarnish the reputation of the country and deter many travellers from visiting. In January of this year, there were 220 murders in the first 20 days of the new year. Although there are no official records, it is estimated that there are between 30,000 and 60,000 gang members in the country. The most notorious gang is MS13, an organisation that was formed on the streets of Los Angeles during the period of the civil
war. The refugees that had fled the country to America found themselves under attack from more established groups in the city and formed their own gangs in self-defence. Their experiences back in El Salvador meant that they naturally took the violence to new levels and established themselves as the most feared gang in LA. At the end of the war, they were deported back to El Salvador and brought the gang mentality and practices to their recovering country with them. Here, they exploited the post-war instability to take over many areas of the nation’s cities where they have flourished and exist in massive numbers today.
Whilst in the east of the country, we based ourselves in the Europa hostel in the city of San Miguel. We became friendly with the Italian owner Barbara who was prepared to go above and beyond her duties as a hostel manager by taking us on a tour of the local nightlife - she even stayed out in a club until 4am in order to drive us back home.
On our way back out west, we stopped off in the capital city of San Salvador for a couple of nights before moving on
to the Ruta de las Flores. The Route of Flowers is a 30km stretch of road interlinking a series of mountain villages surrounded by pine forests and framed by 16 extinct volcanos that now house coffee plantations. We stayed in a town called Juayua in a great hostel ran by an ex-postman from Ipswich; it’s amazing how people can change their life so drastically that they go from working for Royal Mail to running a business in a small corner of rural El Salvador. We enjoyed his hostel, it was a friendly, social atmosphere and he had some unusual guests under his roof. Like Roger the dodger, a 73-year-old Texan who was staying in one of the rooms in the courtyard and was surviving on a diet of two bottles of rum and a yoghurt a day. Roger's probably dead by now.
We trekked to and through the seven waterfalls that were one of the main attractions in the area; a hike that took in coffee fincas, tropical jungle, green hills and volcanos before we completed a free-rappel down the face of one of the 40-metre waterfalls into the valley below. With the needless instruction from our guide of
‘keep a good grip on the rope’ ringing in our ears, we descended the cascade minus helmet, harness, or any hint of valid insurance cover. It was one of those things that you look back on and think 'what were we thinking?'. The tour ended with a swim in the Los Chorros de la Calera waterfall on the edge of town before walking through yet another coffee plantation on our way back to see how far into oblivion Roger had managed to drink himself in our absence.
The following day, we hired a driver with another couple from New Zealand to climb the Santa Ana volcano; El Salvador’s highest and most active volcano. At the summit, we were able to look down into the emerald green sulphur lake within the crater as well as take in the panoramic views of Lake Coatepeque and nearby Volcan Izalco. An outcome that made the hazardous climb up entirely worthwhile.
From Juayua, we caught the bus up to Santa Ana where we stayed at Casa Verde hostel – the best accommodation we have experienced in Central America so far. The city itself doesn’t have much to offer, other than the Mayan ruins
of Tazumal which were small in comparison to some we had already seen but it was still interesting to see the El Salvador settlements. Our option to cross the border into Honduras was either courtesy of five consecutive chicken buses or a direct shuttle bus which was a more expensive choice. At this point, we felt that we’d done more than our fair share of the chicken buses and decided to take the easy option across the border into Copan, Honduras.
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