For the first time on this trip, I found myself overcome with homesickness during our first few days in El Salvador. Although I’ve certainly missed family and loved ones while we’ve been away, this was the first time that I really longed for a little piece of Canada. Maybe it had to do with the hairy border crossing or the combined effects of 5 months on the road but I think it was mostly that we decided to spend our first few nights in San Salvador, purportedly one of the largest and most progressive cities in Central America. For me, this basically lent it the effect of feeling incredibly familiar and incredibly foreign at the same time. We stayed in a nice hotel just one block from a new shopping mall, complete with familiar looking department stores, a cinema and food court. We were walking distance to the local Starbuck’s and Wendy’s and the busy streets were filled with shiny new North American cars.
That’s where the similarities ended, though. Stepping out for a walk with Chester, we were quickly reminded that pedestrians have little in the way of rights here and that you basically take your life in your hands every time you cross a street. I also found myself saddened by the ever present security measures. Not unlike Guatemala (and parts of Mexico), homes and businesses were firmly ensconced behind steel doors, security bars and/or razor wire. Most of the businesses (couriers, hair salons, dry cleaners) were protected by an armed guard. Even our hotel kept the front door locked at all times (a 24-hour armed guard would let us in and out when needed).
Luckily, though, the warm welcome of the Salvadoran people eventually managed to dispel this daunting first impression (and went a long way to alleviating my longing for home):
-The armed guard (sawed-off shotgun at his side) would grin broadly at us and kneel down to pet Chester.
-The owner of a hotel we rejected (no parking) actually sat down with us over beer for 20 minutes, to advise us on the attractions he felt we really must see.
-A local family invited us (even Chester) into their home for the evening. (After a few hours of visiting, this same family insisted on driving us the three blocks back to our hotel so we would be safe)
All the same, after a few days, we were itching to get out of the city so we packed and headed off into the mountains for the colonial town of Suchitoto. In short order, we had moved from streets dominated by aggressive bus drivers, impatient commuters, and missing manhole covers (do people seriously steal these???), to cobblestone roads where dogs sunned themselves and pretty much refused to budge, forcing us to drive around them. We camped at a balanario (swimming resort) near Lago de Suchitlan and spent a couple days relaxing and exploring the townsite.
From there, we headed to Parque El Boqueron where we got to check out Volcan San Salvador. Though only the fifth largest volcano in this tiny country, it is an easy walk to see its 558m-deep crater. Cooler yet, there is a smaller cone at the crater bottom. This mound of black volcanic ash amid the lush green floor was created during the last eruption in 1917.
Only a short drive from this the crater, we stopped in at Joya de Ceren. Considered to be something of a Central American Pompeii, this site is the remains of a humble Mayan village that was buried under 6 meters of volcanic ash. Construction crews only stumbled upon it in 1976. Our personal tour guide was excellent and the ruins and small museum gave some real insight into how everyday Mayans might have lived.
We overnighted at Cerro Verde National Park, a cute place high above the crater lake, Lago de Coatepeque. By evening, though, mists had moved in. We were completely engulfed in clouds so we were forced to drink wine.
The next day we set off along the scenic Ruta de las Flores. It was a lovely drive but getting to our campsite in the afternoon proved to be a bit more eventful than we would have liked. Rather than culverts, the road builders chose to use numerous dips and barrier-like bumps to facilitate drainage. These were not marked and not easily spotted. It was as we were traversing a particularly ambitious installation that we both heard a crack followed by a short grinding sound (Dave thinks this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back). We stopped to inspect the truck but nothing was obviously wrong and when we started driving again, the grinding sound had disappeared. We decided to push to camp (about 10 miles out of the nearest town) and it wasn’t until we were set up that we discovered the issue: a broken leaf spring. Oh well – it was too late in the day to do much about; it would need to wait until the following morning.
After some discussion, we decided we could drive on it but probably not very far so we headed to the nearby town of Juayua, a tiny place better known for its weekend gastronomical fairs than its plethora of mechanics, but it was all we had. After consulting a few locals, we pulled up at the local welding shop and met Mario. He claimed to be up to the job – he quoted us $40 and estimated 4 hours to do it. It seemed more than reasonable and, with no alternatives in sight, we agreed. Dave tried not to wince as he saw the perilous makeshift jack stand and we decided it was best not to watch. The 4 hours also seemed optimistic so we decided to go for a walk and look into some hotel options.
Surprisingly, Mario’s timeline wasn’t too far off. After a trip to the next town for a few extra parts (new spring, new u-bolts) the truck was ready to go later that afternoon. In the meantime, however, we had found a lovely hotel and a great little restaurant. We were charmed by the town and who are we to turn down a food fair?
We took full advantage and even asked the guys at the welding shop to straighten and reinforce our 4 camper jacks the following day. They had taken a few hits on some crazy roads. (Dave’s edit: roads chosen by my navigator) (Kristel’s edit: evasive maneuvers are the driver’s responsibility) (Dave’s edit: The camper is too small for blame, the camper is too small for blame, the camper is too small for blame…)
As for the food fest, decisions had to be made…stick with chicken or try the rabbit, guinea pig, frog, snake, iguana…?