El Salvador:- Food festivals, Art Naif, and a town called Happiness

Published: June 1st 2011
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Ladies preparing pupusasLadies preparing pupusasLadies preparing pupusas

Pupuserias were found throughout El Salvador

El Salvador, isn't that like a city or something?

We arrived into El Salvador not really sure what to expect. For those without an encyclopaedic knowledge of Central America, El Salvador is the little country sandwiched between the Pacific on one side and the two much larger countries of Honduras and Guatemala on the other. Despite being a land dominated by volcanic peaks, it squeezes in a population greater than Honduras, which has a land mass over 5 times larger. Typically in this part of the world, El Salvador is bypassed by many travellers on eastern or western trajectories, who pass through Honduras to the north instead. But without wishing to spoil the ending of our blog too much, that really is their loss!

Natural Beauty (the "We climb it because it's there" syndrome)

Being located on the Pacific side of Central America, El Salvador has it's fair share of big, active, steaming volcanoes and as is our usual style, we didn't waste too much time in getting ourselves to the top of a number of them.

The most spectacular of these climbs for us was the walk to the top of the Santa Ana volcano, near the city of the same name, the second largest in El Salvador. Although the city itself wasn't the nicest we have stayed in (lodging ourselves somewhere near the red light district probably didn't help our impression), it was absolutely worth staying to climb the volcano, which last erupted in 2005, after remaining dormant for over 100 years. The eruption killed two coffee pickers on the slopes of the volcano, while rocks were thrown up to 1.5km from the volcano by the force of the eruption. We just hoped it wouldn't go off again while we climbed it!

It was a 1.5 hour haul upwards through initally lush, green valleys, which eventually gave way to a more barren, grey, lunar type of landscape. We were accompanied on our walk from the national park office by a couple of police officers, there to dissuade anyone who might have thoughts of robbing us. This seemed slight overkill to us, but is obviously a visible deterrent which works, as nobody has been attacked on this climb since the measure was put in place.

On reaching the summit of the volcano at 2,381m, the real beauty of the climb unfolded. We
The crater of the Santa Ana volcanoThe crater of the Santa Ana volcanoThe crater of the Santa Ana volcano

People for scale on the top left of the picture
emerged at the rim of a huge crater, in places 300m deep. At the base of the crater lay an emerald green lake, the toxic mix of chemicals to thank for the stunning colour. Vents gently steamed away around the walls of the crater, while the view across to the neighbouring lower volcano of Izalco allowed us to gaze down on its steep, ash covered sides. It was a truly awesome spot to sit and admire the power of nature.

In addition to this spectacular climb, we also made our way to the highest point of the country at El Pital (2,730m), a significantly easier climb as a public bus drove us over 1,000m up the incredibly steep road, to within only a few hundred metres in height from the summit. Although we should have been able to see most of El Salvador from this vantage point, mist prevented us from seeing more than a few km away to the town of San Ignacio that we had come from. A coffee shop and hostal located near the top also made this feel like slightly less of an achievement than the Santa Ana climb!

Keeping our active theme in El Salvador alive (we have to work off all those pupusas somehow - more of which later), we also did a day of walking in the excellently named "El Imposible" National Park. Great name, not such good walking unfortunately - being completely undeveloped for walkers, it basically involved 6 hours of humid slog, and occasional bush-wacking, mostly in dense forest from which we had no views. The highlight of this walk was our guide finding a mango tree and energetically wielding a long stick to get us a big pile of mangoes to eat near the end of the walk. Incredibly sweet and very much needed by that stage in the day!

It's the weekend, lets have a food festival!

Something that has really taken off in El Salvador is the weekend food festival. This was initially started by a small town called Juayua, located in the mountains in the west of the country, along a pretty road which winds it's way through several small towns between flowered coffee plantations, named the Ruta de las Flores. The overwhelming success of these foodie gatherings has been carbon copied by a number of towns throughout El Salvador, all looking
Cooking up ribs at the Juayua food festivalCooking up ribs at the Juayua food festivalCooking up ribs at the Juayua food festival

Blue eye shadow is optional, but adds to the experience
for an additional incentive for both tourists and wealthy San Salvadoreans to come and spend their dollars (US dollars are the official currency of El Salvador, possibly because 60% of the country's income is through money sent home by El Salvadoreans working in the US).

We went to a number of these festivals in various villages throughout the country, but by far the biggest was the original in Juayua. Every weekend, the main square in town is engulfed by marquees, some containing lines of food stalls while others contain tables and chairs for the many expected visitors.

The festivals kick off in the late morning and run through until late afternoon. A number of food stalls vye for business, generally offering huge piles of meat from the asado (barbeque), accompanied with the staples of rice, beans and tortillas. The meat on offer is usually beef or pork, but quite a number also offer rabbit (Fluffy tasted very good, in case you were wondering), while a few were more exotic - we did see iguana offered at one stall!

The food was excellent and it was really difficult each time to decide just what to have. But what we liked the most about these gastronomic festivals was that it was a chance to see El Salvadoreans relaxing at the weekend. The atmosphere was carnival in nature, with families coming into the mountains for some fresh air, good food and to spend time together. Latin music would play all afternoon while people relaxed with a beer or two. It was a great side of Salvadorean life, with the added benefit that we could try some really nice food for pretty cheap prices.

At the other end of the Salvadorean cuisine spectrum is the ubiquitous pupusa, which is found everywhere throughout the country. This is a small round flour tortilla, stuffed with one, two or all three of cheese, refried beans and pork crackling. In many of the small towns we passed through, eating at the local Pupuseria was the only option in the evenings, where walking the streets we would often hear the familiar clapping as a lady at a stall patted the tortilla flat before throwing it onto the hot plate. We ended up getting slightly addicted to the national snack and on many evenings it filled the hole in our stomachs after a busy day.

It has to be said, however, that the 'if it's not fast food, it's fried food' dietary preferences of most of Central America are very much in evidence in the El Salvador's population's waistlines - everyone looks very happy and very round after their latest fried treat. In bigger towns we were able to find a supermarket to cook ourselves something a little healthier occasionally, but in smaller towns, our only option was to eat as the locals. One evening I actually pointed out to Mike that every single thing we had eaten that day was either fried, or deep fried - with the exception of the piece of cake that was breakfast. Tasty, but possibly not the ideal long term diet!

Any building is a blank canvas

We discovered very early on that El Salvador is renowned for a very distinctive artistic style, Art Naif, which is characterised by bright colours, bold lines, and a deceptively childlike simplicity. The style was born in the north of the country in La Palma, a small town that we stayed in. A local artist, Fernando Llort, developed a unique style that he then taught pretty much everyone in town. The style was then painted onto anything available, cups, plates, lamposts and most strikingly, buildings. Whole buildings in town are covered in bright colours, creating quite a spectacle as you pass through. Even the walls of our room in the hotel in La Palma had full size murals on them. It is astonishingly vibrant, and arrestingly unique - like being stopped in your tracks by a colourful cry of emotion out of nowhere. We loved it! The photographs we took should hopefully give you an idea. It is a side of El Saldavor that the locals are very proud of and pieces of art are sold throughout the world.

An artistic sensibility is evident much more here than in any other Central American countries, we found. In another town we passed through, Ataco on the Ruta de las Flores, local artists are encouraged to paint whole buildings with massive murals, depicting various scenes of local life in the mountainous, coffee growing regions of the country. These are hugely impressive and add a fantastic dimension to walking through the town. They are certainly more cheerful to look at than the traditional Northern Irish murals that we are a little bit more used to. Guns and balaclavas have been replaced by coffee beans and volcanoes!

Small town charm

Many of the places we passed through in El Salvador were pretty small towns, often nothing more than a few streets, a central square and the ubiquitous large church overlooking it. We found that we got totally drawn in by the charming nature of these small towns, and really enjoyed getting to know the subtle differences between them. Sitting around any central square in a small town like Suchitoto in the north, or the divinely named Alegria (literally translated as "happiness") in the east, the community feeling around the square was tangible. People would gather to chat about life in the cool of the evenings, boys would hang out, flirting with the local girls as they passed through. All the while the church bell would ring out every 15mins, like the town alarm clock, keeping everything running along.

The narrow streets around town would be dotted with residents, sitting on their doorsteps and watching the world go by, or selling a few fruits on the stoop, often calling us over for a hello or a chat (this would be particularly useful when we were lost in a town on arrival!). Nothing ever felt rushed and there was a serenity to the way of life that it is hard to remember still exists in the 21st Century. Evenings would close in very quickly (restaurants often closing by 20:00, even in the bigger towns), meaning a very peaceful atmosphere would descend, streets and squares becoming deserted, except for the occasional dog looking from scraps from the closing restaurants.

Still waters ran deep, as we found in many ways. One evening, in Tacuba, a tiny town in the far south west, the only dinner option as usual was a pupuseria down an alley which also appeared to be hosting a local charismatic preacher who was holding an open air service. As the pupusa lady busily tapped out our order, we realised we were witnessing an evening of religious revelation for some. Most of the town seemed to be there, hung on his every passionate word. As we watched, people started to get to their feet, waving their arms in the air, dropping to their knees and babbling and weeping (with joy, it seemed). It would have felt indecent for us to be there, quietly eating pupusas, if it hadn't been for the fact that the audience was clearly oblivious to our presence.

Warm climate, warm hearted people

Throughout our travels within El Salvador, the temperature gradually got warmer and warmer as spring turned slowly towards summer, leading to a few uncomfortable chicken bus journeys. But these journeys were just the most fantastic experience in this country - we found people to be exceptionally friendly and open, and rare was the journey in which we weren't drawn into a little chat. Riding the bus here was just endlessly fascinating. People are very tidily dressed, carry themselves well and are always cheerful and polite - a new passenger would usually call out a polite greeting to the whole bus when they got on, and make eye contact and smile easily. People were frequently interested to speak to us and try to understand why we wanted to visit their country. This would often lead to giving us a much greater insight into the psyche of the country. On a day to day level, we simply found people to be friendly and nice towards us, constantly smiling and clearly happy in their
Street art La Palma styleStreet art La Palma styleStreet art La Palma style

Even the lamposts aren't spared!
lives. People often went out of their way to help us with directions or with lugging our bags on and off buses.

Being surrounded as it is by larger neighbours that attract many travellers, it was particularly apparent to us the lack of numbers of foreigners passing through El Salvador. It is easy to get off any kind of 'tourist trail' as there really isn't one in this country. This was a refreshing change for us, having hit a few heavily touristed areas recently.

And it is possibly due to this lack of visitors that the locals are so friendly and inquisitive, not yet jaded by a constant trail of tourists and the negative impact they can have. This was hugely to our benefit and we feel lucky to have visited this country at this stage in it's development, now much safer to travel around than it has been in the recent past, but before mass tourism has reached it.

Our advice is go visit El Salvador now, the small hidden gem in Central America! We absolutely loved our time here, and it is definitely our favourite country in this part of the world to date.

Additional photos below
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Preparing PupusasPreparing Pupusas
Preparing Pupusas

The food that fuels El Salvador
At Laguna Verde, Ruta de las FloresAt Laguna Verde, Ruta de las Flores
At Laguna Verde, Ruta de las Flores

With Agustin from Argentina
Travelling El Salvador styleTravelling El Salvador style
Travelling El Salvador style

It seems most people in this country travel in the back of pickups, so we tried too!
Our decorated hostelOur decorated hostel
Our decorated hostel

La Palma, El Salvador
Highly technical way to cool the bus engineHighly technical way to cool the bus engine
Highly technical way to cool the bus engine

On the steep climb up from San Ignacio to El Pital

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