When people go travelling by themselves, there's usually no shortage of opportunity to meet other travellers. But I've found that travelling in the eastern half of El Salvador, travelling by myself really means travelling by myself, I've gone entire days without seeing another gringo even so much as on the other side of the street. My last blog
mainly covered the western half of El Salvador which seems to be more popularly backpacked, but in the eastern, less-travelled half it has felt like its really just been El Salvador and me. I mentioned last time that there'd be a major reduction in number of travellers here compared with Guatemala, but as I moved east across El Salvador it was less like reduction and more like termination! I checked into hotels in 3 towns in a row that the ever-popular Lonely Planet describes as the best place for backpackers to go, only to find that I was the only guest in the whole place each time. But that's not so bad, as with El Salvadoreans being the ever-friendly bunch that they are, there's been no shortage of people who want to stop and chat - and with 5 weeks of spanish school behind
me, I generally find a few things to say back to them too.
The last couple of weeks went a little like this:
San Salvador, the gritty and occasionally smelly capital of El Salvador - home to about 1 in 3 of all people who live in the country, was my first stop after my last blog. With 2 million people, I hadn't really expected San Salvador to feel like too much of an off-the-beaten-track destination, but I have noticed a tendency among a lot of backpackers (myself included) to steer a little clear of the really "big smokes" in central america, as they do tend to be a little sketchy once the sun goes down (and in the case of Guatemala City, and Managua in Nicaragua, have a reputation for being pretty sketchy even when the sun is up too!). But for all the time I´ve spent in quite mountain towns and out-of-the-way places, I decided I should probably drop in on at least one of Central America's big smokes and take a nosey about for a while. Before I went I´d asked Manolo (the crazy guide from my last blog) if I´d
Football on the Basketball Court
San Salvadoreans know which sport is better!
lose any money I had if I was out in the centre at night, and he said "Yes white boy, and you'll probably lose your undies as well". Not fancying a naked and cashless walk home through the mean streets of San Salvador, I did most of my nosing about during the daytime, and didn´t really see any sign of trouble when I was there.
San Salvador surpised me by being as modern and developed as it is - shopping malls, burger kings, flash car yards, electronics shops and all the trappings of modern life, the area immediately around my hotel even looked and felt like a middle-class suburb of a developed country - apart from the rolls of barbed wire every house has on top of their high front fence, and private security guards dressed in identical uniforms, brandishing pistol-handled shotguns pacing the streets and keeping a watchful eye over passers-by. Not that there were many passers-by of the gringo variety, I spent an entire day walking the streets and going to a couple of small museums/galleries and hardly saw other gringos.
A highlight (or lowlight...) of my day was visiting the small chapel where Archbishop Romero
The End of the Archbishop
An artist's interpretation of death of an Archbishop gunned down for criticising the military
head of the Catholic church in a very catholic nation, was gunned down in the early 1980s by an assasin hired by the El Salvador army, after he kept criticising the army's human rights record. There was a nice old nun who spoke good english, and she remembered those days well and talked to me about the times surrounding the assasination. I also went to an El Salvadorean "premiership" football match between San Salvador FC and Vista Hermosa at an 80,000 seat stadium, and despite my cheering for the home team they lost 0-1. Everyone there was dead friendly though and got to chat to a few local "dad and son" combos that had gone to see the game. A few of the dads remembered that both New Zealand and El Salvador were minnow teams in the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain, where El Salvador established a World Cup record (which still exits to this day) by losing by a 9 goal difference, when they lost 10 - 1 to Hungary
Winning the award for prettiest small town in El Salvador, and maybe even the prettiest town in my central american travels thus far, is the small mountain town of
Alegria. Perched halfway up the slopes of a dormant volcano, the climate and the soils around here have enabled Alegria to become "the garden town" of El Salvador. Just about every house you walk past has all sorts of flowers, trees and bushes growing around them - many people that live there put a lot of effort into their gardens, and some homes are happy for people to wander in and have a quick nosey too. Being halfway up a volcano meant that there were some stunning views off to the north looking across the rest of El Salvador. It was an uber-pleasant place to chill out, everyone who lived there was dead friendly, and being the only guest in the main guesthouse meant I got lots of time chatting with the family that ran it, they were pretty nice, they spoke no english but we managed to get by on my level of spanish. They often shared their cakes and coffee with me, so I bought them some beers one night and we sat around chatting about things in general.
I also climbed to the top of the volcano with a local guide, and we went down inside
The Volanoe's Crater Lake
Complete with a village inside
the crater to find a crater lake (which was nice for a swim), a village, and a football field! Its the first time I'd seen a football field inside the lip of a volcanic crater - the guide told me it was the highest altitude footbal field in El Salvador. It was a little unusual to see a small village inside a volcano crater, but as the volcano has been dormant a long time its not as dangerous as it sounds - still seemed like an odd place to build a home though. Although after a long hot walk up there it was nice to find a couple of "tiendas" (shops) in the village/crater selling ice-cold drinks and packets of Dorritos.
BAHIA DE JIQUILISCO
Probably my most off-the-beaten-track experience of the last 4 months was the time I spent in the small fishing village of Isla de Mendez, which is on a long penninsula that creates Jiquilisco (hee-ka-lees-koh) Bay (or Bahia de Jiquilisco, in spanish). The peninsula is a long spit that runs parallel to the south coast of El Salvador, meaning that the beaches on the north side of the peninsula are in a sheltered bay,
One of the many Jiquilisco locals I spent some time chatting to
and have perfectly calm seas and views back across at the hills and volcanoes of El Salvador, and the beaches on the south side have fairly insane Pacific surf - without doubt the maddest surf I've seen in my time travelling. I tried going for a swim but the currents were so strong that I ended up getting out before it ended badly.... its unusual on a beach to be knocked over by a big a wave coming in, but on these beaches that was the least of my worries - it was when the waves were going back out again they were perfectly capable of sucking me off my feet... and the tide was on its way out too.... Hmmmm. I thought better of it and walked half an hour back to the bay beaches for a more relaxed swim there.
My time was spent there going on a couple of major walks through the village and to outerlying settlements, I was told by the woman at the tourist office that they hardly ever get individual backpackers show up, instead they more get organised groups who want to see what a "small fishing village is like". What it
was like was pretty damn rural, pigs roamed the sandy streets along with chickens, dogs, cows, horses, mules and a few goats too. There wasn't an internet cafe in town or much else for that matter, just a whole bunch of shacks and cinderblock houses that the people lived in, some boats that the locals go fishing in, and some small farms too. And lots of people not always doing much, just chilling out and being uber-friendly to the obvious stranger in town. It was so chilled out that I actually ended up spending 3 nights there instead of the 2 I thought I would.
A lot of places in El Salvador are very chilled, its just in the nature of the country I think, but in Bahia de Jiquilisco they´ve taken being chilled to a whole new level. It helps that there are lots of palm trees, banana plants, and flowery bushes growing everywhere too - it definitely added to the ambience (despite the relatively poor economic status of the area, a lot of people here seemed to take pride in their gardens a lot too - although because of the heat and the sandy soil they can
Smiley locals taking it easy on a Saturday morning in Jiquilisco
never compete with Alegria). There actually was one other whitey in town tho she wasn't travelling through; she was an american who after graduating university became a US Peace Corps volunteer, and she was 14 months through a 24 month assignment to help implement a rural sanitation programme in the area. She was good enough to lend me her bike one day so got to see more around the wider area, but to be honest cycling on sandy roads is pretty fucking hard work, especially when its above 30 degrees.
My final stop in El Salvador was the mighty small town of Perquin. "Mighty" because it was the headquarters and home of the FMLN Guerillas that fought with the Goverment Army for most of the 1980s and the early years of the 1990s too, until the Peace Accords in 1992. I had expected Perquin to have a few more travellers passing through, but again I went to the budget hotel that the Lonely Planet makes sound the best, only to again find that I would be the only guest staying there - for the 3rd town in a row! The old lady that ran it seemed
to dote over me, and helped me organise everything I wanted to do when I was there, and also prepared all my meals at the times I needed, even doing an early breakfast for me on my last morning when the bus I was catching left at 6.30am.
People in Perquin are proud of their heritage, and FMLN initials are spraypainted around the town. They've even built a museum outlining the FMLN version of events leading up to and during the war - it made for fairly sobering reading, throughout the 1970s general popular dissent was growing with the military´s autocratic manner of running the country, and the amry's ability to push democratically-elected officials around, and then with the growth of movement for change, it was increasingly the case the human rights activists, student leaders and trade unionists and other opponents of the US-backed autocratic regime would "disappear" and be found dead in the countryside days later (like the Archbishop I spoke about earlier, although he was gunned down in his own church in front of his parishoners). Faced with the grim prospect for trying to deal with the regime by peaceful means, more and more El Salvadoreans headed
to the hills to take up arms and be part of a guerilla army determined to wage war against the feared "National Guard". Or at least that's how the FMLN tells it. The peace accords in 1992 brought an end the war.
I also did a full day's trekking around the area with a veteran of the FMLN. He took me to a few battle trails and to some trenches, and to a few peaks around the area where all the trees are young, because the Government Army burnt or cut down all the forests to the stop the guerillas from hiding out there. There's also loads of craters around as the El Salvador airforce bombed the shit out of this area all through the 1980s. But the "highlight" (or again, the lowlight?) of the day was stopping at the El Mozote memorial. El Mozote
was a small village that tried to keeps its nose out of the civil war as much as it could, however the Army received intelligence that there were some people in the village passing key info to the Guerillas, but they didn't know who exactly. So early one morning in 1981, a crack battalion of
Click This to Enlarge
Then you will start to see some of the 1000-odd names of the El Mozote Villagers that were massacred
El Salvadorean troops went into the village with a policy of "draining the ocean to catch the fish", and killed every single person that lived there - nearly 1000 people in total, many of whom were children, women or elderly. For years both the El Salvadorean and US Government denied that all this took place, but after time the evidence was uncovered and they were both forced to admit that it had occured.
And Perquin is where my El Salvador adventure ended - 3 weeks after it began. It is without doubt now one of my favourite countries anywhere on the planet, and I was quite sad to leave. I´ve been in Honduras about a week since then which has been its own adventure, but that´s another story and shall be told next time ;-)
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