A real underrated gem

Published: December 28th 2016
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El Salvador has a very bad reputation, so much so that most people I meet on the road skip it, and everyone I tell I'm going, their first response is either 'be careful' or 'it's dangerous'. I'd just like to say now - they're all missing out!
Our first impression of El Salvador was fairly Chaotic - in order to get to Santa Ana we were dropped at the side of the road by our shuttle and put on a chicken bus. Once we got to Santa Ana the bus 'terminal' seemed to be the side of the road, with no taxis. Luckily I have offline maps on my phone and knew we were only 800m from the hostel. On embarking from the bus a couple of locals from the bus insisted on walking us to the hostel. At first I wondered if this was testament to the city being dangerous, but I later realised it's just testament to how friendly and helpful the locals are. They don't see many tourists here so it's probably quite a novelty to chat to us and help us.
There is only one hostel in Santa Ana, Casa Verde. As soon as we stepped through the gate I could see that we would love it here. It is an oasis behind a big metal gate, with well thought out rooms, communal spaces and facilities, and even a pool.
Our first venture back out in to the city was to buy food. On our way back to the markets we passed loads of firework stalls, with a massive variety of fireworks ranging from $60 strips of bangers to cakes, down to little fireworks aimed at children. They had fireworks in the shapes of tortoises, tanks, monkeys, fish, and a few others. A couple of days later we couldn't resist the temptation and, after tempting a couple of other people in the hostel too, bought some to race! When enquiring where to set them off we were told it's perfectly acceptable to just set them off in the road outside!
We soon realised that we may be quite an attraction walking around town - there aren't many tourists in Santa Ana so the locals enjoy talking to us, and laughing at us too. It is also very noticeable that the city is dirty - but I'm not sure they have a rubbish collection system here as I have seen no bins or refuse trucks.
Wandering around Santa Ana the next day there is a very attractive Cathedral and theatre in the main square, but apart from that there isn't much geared up for tourists. This definitely adds to the charm of the city for me, seeing the authentic ways of life and not being constantly hassled by tour guides/tourist tat sellers. In Santa Ana there are also big clothes shops full of second hand American clothes. This is presumably where the charity shop clothes end up. It was quite amusing to look through the delights on sale!
Since arriving in El Salvador we have also got hooked on the local dish Papusas - corn dough stuffed with various fillings, then cooked. They're so cheap - 50cents or less each, and filling.
Day two we headed out to lake coatepeque which is only a 1hr chicken bus ride away, including stopping to change two wheels! It did take us an extra half an hour to get out of the bus station - situated in a market, but we were treated to a constant stream of sellers, slow at first then building up to a full bus aisle selling everything from food and drink to clothes, batteries, washing powder, food containers and cellotape! This was all highly entertaining and definitely part of the charm of the chicken buses!
We gained a friend from the hostel, Andy for this day trip (we later adopted him and Marco for our travels up until leaving Juayua). Driving up to the lake we got a great view over the whole lake, before taking the winding road down to a restaurant our hostel owner had recommended. From this restaurant you could swim in their ingenious swimming pools built in to the deck, rent yet skis, go on a scenic boat tour and swim in the lake. We resisted the urge to get jet skis or a boat trip, and just opted for lunch and swimming. I was surprised that the water wasn't cold, after getting used to lake Atitlan, so it was much more pleasant to swim here. It is also a very beautiful spot to relax in.
Day 3, time to climb a volcano! Santa Ana volcano sits overlooking the lake, and has a beautiful crater lake. The day started with an early bus up the volcano, which took just over an hour. We then had a short walk up hill to the main meeting point. Considering there is only one bus a day, getting to the base around 9:30, I find it a little curious the trek up the volcano doesn't start until 11am - just in time for the heat of the day. As with everything here you are required to go with an armed guard, so the only options are to wait for the main group, and pay $3 (plus park entry fees, totalling $10) or hire a private guide for $50. Whilst we waited we did take advantage of the cafe for a Belizean breakfast of eggs, cheese, beans and tortilla. This was very good and a bargain for only $1.50.
Most of the walk up the volcano is fairly easy going, the gradient isn't steep and there are opportunities to stop if you're with the front part of the group. The last few hundred metres were harder going, but with the end in sight they become bearable! Unfortunately we chose a bad day to climb - by the time we reached the top it was engulfed in a cloud and we could hardly see 20m let alone down in to the crater lake! It was also very windy, rainy and cold. This was very disappointing, but I still had a sense of achievement for having climbed a volcano. The way down was much easier, and we raced down in around 45 mins.
The problem with racing down the volcano is that the bus doesn't come to head back to town until 4, and we were finished by two. Luckily a group of people on the trek with us were heading down to the lake after, so we managed to hitch a ride in the back of their truck down to the lake where the buses are much more frequent.

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