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Published: October 13th 2013
Crater lake at Volcan Santa Ana
The pleasant surprise that awaited us as we credited the summit!
Probably like most people in the world, El Salvador hadn't really entered into my general consciousness, apart perhaps as the title of a song by Athlete back in 2003! (http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3530822107858505487/
In my time travelling through South and Central America I had met a grand total of one person that had been there, and so this, combined with the fact it would continue my trip's “achievement” of having visited every South and Central American country (admittedly I have to exclude the isolated Guayane, French Guyana and Suriname from that though!) it seemed just the ticket for a few days of my time!
The journey from Honduras took a day and a half, but I arrived in Suchitoto, a small colonial town located on a lake, with seemingly every house painted a different colour, in good spirits. After a couple of false starts on the accommodation front, I managed to find a bed in the wonderful “Luna Blanca” (http://www.gaesuchitoto.com/Blanca%!L(MISSING)una%!h(MISSING)ostel/Blanca%!L(MISSING)una.htm
) for only $7 a night!!
Suchitoto is apparently very popular with tourists from the capital San Salvador at weekends – but maybe it was the low season as I was there on a Friday night and it didn't seem all
that busy! Perhaps for me it was a blessing that it was so quiet, as it meant Suchitoto was the perfect place to slowly wander, and I spent a pleasant evening and the following morning ambling the streets and hiking down to the lake. I enjoyed a superb churrasco dinner in the “hip” restaurant on the main square, and the next morning got my first introduction to the local breakfast staple “pupusa”, a sort of fried dough thing filled with melted cheese. You heard it here first, obesity epidemic pending in El Salvador!!
From Suchitoto I headed into the western highlands towards the second city of Santa Ana, meaning that all I got to see of the capital San Salvador was both bus stations and the view from the window of my uber-friendly taxi driver's cab – although in keeping with most Central American capitals this was probably more than enough! The music the cabbie was playing also reminded me of one of the great surprises of my travels, the seemingly incredible popularity of the finest reggae band to come out of Birmingham, you know who I'm talking about – UB40!! Now when I first hit the Caribbean coast
in Colombia, I expected my Bob Marley consumption to be cranked up to 11/10, but I never imagined that a band I really only knew from cheesy covers such as Red Red Wine would be following so closely behind the Jamaican icon in the popularity stakes!! I'm sure if the Latin American countries obeyed any sort of royalty paying agreement, UB40's collective bank balances would be looking far, far healthier!!
Now I wouldn't go calling myself a fan, but certainly in the last few months I have grown a lot more partial to the boys from Brum, and a quick look at their greatest hits album shows a 20 year plus career containing some little gems! (http://www.allmusic.com/album/greatest-hits-mw0000797355
Before leaving for Santa Ana, I had toyed with an option further into the mountains, the brilliantly named “Parque Nacional El Imposible”, famed for its great hiking. However, unfortunately for me - just like the name suggested – it was just a little bit too tricky for me to get to given my lack of time!
Getting to Santa Ana initially seemed so simple as the well recommended guesthouse in my guidebook was just 50 metres on foot from the
bus terminal – what could be easier I naively thought as I closed my eyes and waited to be kicked out at the bus' final destination... Unfortunately, the good people of Santa Ana had decided to build another terminal outside of town and that was where my bus ended up heading. No worries, I thought I'll just whistle up a taxi Fresh Prince style and scoot back into town... However, this was the strangest bus terminal in the world as it didn't actually have any taxis, so all I could do was hike out to the main road, flag down a bus and chat to the conductor to find a landmark that was on his route, and marked on my map. This done, I hiked the remaining few blocks to my hopeful destination, but after wandering up and down the street where the guest house was supposed to be and asking several bemused locals, one eventually pointed above my head to show a rusty fading sign indicating that “Posada del Rey” may once have been there, but it certainly wasn't doing any business these days!!!
This left me with a bit of a dilemma as the guidebook didn't have any other recommendations within a 10 block radius, and I didn't want to put myself at the mercy of a taxi driver and just ask him to take me somewhere and enjoy the inevitable overcharging that would result. Therefore I set off on foot and caught a break. After declining one otherwise surprisingly nice hotel because it didn't have wi-fi to allow me to call Erika, they directed me round the corner to “la casa verde”, an unassuming family run hostel that turned out (literally) to be a green oasis of delight in the middle of an otherwise pretty unsuccessful afternoon! (http://hostalverde.wordpress.com/
Owner Carlos was as nice as can be, and somehow found a way to fit a swimming pool, roof terrace, and by far the best kitchen you will ever find in a hostel, bar none, into their accommodation!! (the photo in their website is out of date and of a different kitchen within the house!!) It was a kitchen you'd be reluctant to let your own family members use, let alone a bunch of smelly backpackers! It was just a shame that I didn't get to stay longer and use it to its full potential, although one of the reasons I didn't need to use it was the fantastic BBQ ribs that I had at cafe expresion!! (https://www.facebook.com/cafeexpresion
). Who would have though this corner of El Salvador would turn into such a fountain of culinary potential!!
The main reason for a trip to Santa Ana, was to climb (shock horror for Central America!!) the volcano of the same name famed for its crater lake. It was also famed for the bandits that occasionally plagued the route, so each day at 11a.m. if there were three or more people ready to do the walk, two armed police officers set off as guides/security to show you the way to the top. I was hoping that because I was going on a Sunday there would be no problem with two other people turning up to make the trip happen. It actually turned out that that particular Sunday it was a special festival of some sort of special berry, and so there were thousands of people in the national park and probably over 100 that wanted to do the walk!! To say that many weren't very well prepared would be an understatement – I don't think I've ever taken on a steep hike with so many people wearing jeans!!
It had also meant that transport to the park was more of an adventure than usual, as our dilapidated chicken bus struggled with the extra weight of a full passenger load combined with another 100 or so people crammed into every crevice of what used to be the bus' aisle!! Inevitably the ascent up the steep access road to the entrance of the national park led to a variety of burning smells, grinding noises of metal against metal and at least 5 different types of smoke before eventually the bus could do no more and we were told to walk the remaining kilometre or two!!
Back on the walk, myself, a Swedish couple and a sprightly local kid stuck with the lead policeman as the group strung out on the steeper top section, and we were the first five to crest the summit and enjoy the views down. Here another advantage of El Salvador's anonymity helped me out as I had not seen a single photo of the volcano, and so was not expected to be greeted by an enormous aquamarine lake 500 metres wide that gleamed brilliantly in the afternoon Sun. We were able to spend a good hour at the summit circling part of the crater to enjoy different vantage points. On descending I found a mini concert had started in the entrance of the national park. However, the music wasn't of the highest standard (obvioisly it was missing a few UB40 covers!!) so it was then time to cram myself onto an equally crowded bus back to the city!!
My brief stay in El Salvador had been a pleasant one, with the colourful wanderings around Suchitoto, the friendly locals everywhere I went and the natural highs of Santa Ana – plus the hidden gem of one of my favourite guesthouses encountered so far!! El Salvador will never become a household name for tourism – but if you happen to be in the area its definitely worth a visit!!
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