We caught a cab to the frontera at 6:30 am which dropped us off 50 meters from the actual crossing point. The street was lined with shady trees and rows of small shops, all still closed this early in the morning. The ‘border’ was a guard with a gun who checked our ID cards. He must have thought we looked suspicious because he sent us to chat with an immigration officer who was interested in where we were going and for how long. Due to an agreement called the CA-4 between Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, residents of these countries don’t have to pay to enter the others, so we were all set. It was a strange border crossing, no lines of cars, big walls or fences, not many officers or police and hardly any people. It might have been any sleepy Honduran town except for the guys with big black bags hawking dollars. El Salvador replaced their colones with U.S. dollars in 2001 in a process known as dolarizacion. The only downside to this plan that we could tell is that because things are so cheap here, everyone has to carry around a mound, bag or purse-full of coins since no one makes change for bills more than $5 usually. The bus ayudantes have cool bags that hang around their wrists for such purposes.
Just past the border, we hopped on the first of many Salvadoran buses to La Palma, about 30 minutes from the border. It’s a quaint town, made famous by a style of art created by painter Fernando Llort in the 1970’s. The style is one of simple, brightly colored geometric pieces that form traditional images (casas, birds, people) and it is now painted on everything, from canvas and wood to seeds, tiles, walls and boxes. The town itself is decorated with colorful murals on nearly every wall, door, telephone pole and bench in town. We were there too early to do much, so we had a quick coffee and pastry, snapped some photos, bought ourselves a souvenir and hopped back on the bus to head down to El Salvador.
Mosaic chairs in the park in La Palma
Murals in La Palma
Painting we bought in the Llort style
Despite being in a remote area of the country, we were amazed to feel the bus speed down smoothly paved roads past rural outposts, all with electricity. El Salvador, mostly because of its small size and relatively dense population, (same population of Honduras in 1/5 the area) has excellent road and electricity infrastructure unlike Honduras. The buses are the same, old US yellow school buses, souped up and decked out, but in El Salvador they all seem to have extra wide aisles created by putting in smaller seats (not sure why they do this).
The scenery coming down from La Palma was as gorgeous as any in Honduras, skyscraping mountains and rolling hills covered in coffee and corn plantations but with the addition of one thing, towering volcanoes off in the distance where we were headed. In less than 3 hours and for $1.60 each, we were in San Salvador, the capital, trying hurriedly to navigate the public transportation system. San Salvador has a pretty reliable, safe and cost effective public bus system and in no time we were directed to a bus taking us to the other bus terminal. The intercity buses have turnstiles in the front where you get on and another in the back where you get off (not so easy to navigate with backpacks).
We may have mentioned before that it’s common in Honduras for vendors to get on the bus at intersections to sell snacks and drinks, usually tajadas and rosquillas (cookies for your coffee). The same thing occurs on Salvadoran buses, but with some variation. Maybe the people in El Salvador are more healthy (unlikely) or maybe there are fewer produce markets (also unlikely) but there was a ton of produce being sold on the buses. There were things like sliced cucumbers, cabbage salad, chunks of papaya and oranges, all ready to eat with your choice of lime or chile. But you could also buy just a bag of onions, green peppers, platanos, avocadoes, apples, or tomatoes to take home! Like a mobile market! They were also selling a lot more nut varieties and candy than we see in Honduras, usually for a cuoda, which it took us almost a whole day to figure out meant quarter. We were also offered toothbrushes, colon medicine, bags of Christmas cookies, ice cream cones, and marshmallows. These people will sell anything on a bus.
So we finally arrived in Santa Ana. Well, more or less we arrived. The bus we were on, which was supposed to stop at the “central bus terminal” bypassed this stop for whatever reason, and no one informed us. So we ended up the only people on the bus, somewhere outside the city at a random bus terminal along a highway. Santa Ana is a big city, about 200,000 people, so it wasn’t like we could just walk into town. We asked around, luckily we speak Spanish now, and figured out which bus we could get on to head back to the center. There were about 10 buses that passed us so it was good that we asked. All the buses have scheduled routes and numbers which are clearly painted on the front and back of the bus so as long as you know which bus you need, it’s relatively easy to find it. And buses pass pretty frequently, sometimes two of the same numbered busses are in a row, so we didn’t wait long.
Back at the central market where we were supposed to be, we scurried through hundreds of food and random product stalls at the market, like rats in a maze, trying to find the street we needed. We eventually popped out a park with a huge, dilapidated and abandoned building that looked like an art museum. It was unfortunate that it was no longer in use, but it gave an interesting character to the surrounding neighborhood. We found our hotel nearby with no problems, the pleasant Hotel El Faro which had a nice interior courtyard and beautiful murals painted in all the rooms. We were the only people there, but the ‘hourly rate’ signs on the wall in our rooms suggested that this hotel was utilized by a different kind of clientele.
Abandoned building in the park
Hotel El Faro
Sign in the hotel
We hit the highlights of Santa Ana in the afternoon, the museum of western Salvadoran history with an exhibit on El Salvador money, the colonial style city hall, the freshly restored Teatro Santa Ana, the gothic-inspired Catholic church, and a famous all-natural ice cream/sorbet place called Sin Rival (without rival). The trouble began around dinner time. We attempted to find a place called Lover’s Steakhouse to have an anniversary dinner. That didn’t exist. We looked instead for a tipico Salvadoran place called Dona Amelia’s. That didn’t exist. We tried Pip’s Carymar which was a strange cafeteria that didn’t seem to have any food. To be fair, we were using a guide book from 2005, but still the city didn’t seem to have a vibrant restaurant scene. After traversing the city center for nearly 2 hours, we settled on Pollo Campero, the Central American equivalent of KFC. Air conditioned, with waitresses and free wi-fi, Pollo Campero was full of people, the happening spot on a Tuesday night in Santa Ana. Our fried chicken dinner was satisfying if not exactly what we were looking for.
Teatro Santa Ana
The next day, we caught the first and only bus to Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, home to three volcanoes, Izalco, Santa Ana and Cerro Verde, two still active (Santa Ana and Izalco). On the drive up to the park, we passed by the azure Lago de Coatepeque, nestled at the base of Volcan Santa Ana. The views were stunning. The visitor center for the park is actually in the now inactive crater of Volcan Cerro Verde and was mostly deserted except for the 5 other people we would be hiking with, a couple from Montana, a French-Canadian woman and two friends, one from El Salvador, the other from Colombia. We chatted with a police officer who recommended we hike Volcan Izalco. When we told him how impressed we were with the Salvadoran road infrastructure, especially compared to Honduras, he told us that it was actually the worst it had been in years because the current administration didn’t maintain it. We couldn’t see a problem; to us everything was wonderfully paved and smooth.
Lago de Coatepeque with Volcanes Santa Ana and Cerro Verde
Then the grueling hike began. We first hiked down Cerro Verde (~2000 m, although I don’t think we hiked down that far) which was a surprisingly exhausting 1,300 steps. Nicki’s legs were shaking by the time we reached the bottom. From the lush Cerro Verde we popped out onto the barren slope of Izalco. Izalco stopped erupting in 1966 after almost 300 years of constant eruption, and because it spewed lava, the cone remained pure pumice. Santa Ana erupted with only ash and smoke, so it is still lush and Cerro Verde hasn’t erupted in so long, it’s had time to regrow. And so we began the even more grueling hike up Izalco (1950 m). It was difficult mostly because the ground was gravelly rock which slid out with every step. But the reward of making it to the top was worth the climb. Although cloudy, we still had an amazing view on all sides to a wide open valley floor, Santa Ana and Cerro Verde on one side, a small piece of the lake and almost a view to San Salvador had it been clearer. We could walk all the way around the steaming crater, and saw some gigantic flying grasshoppers with bright orange wings.
Before the ascent
Cool grasshoppers, about 4 inches long
Of course then we had the steep climb, or rather more like slide, down the volcano and then the hike back up Cerro Verde. Nolan, who hikes for a living here, did just fine. Nicki was a little more exhausted. What amazed us was the little Salvadoran girl who was our guide who couldn’t have been more than 4 feet tall. She practically ran up and down both slopes and was barely out of breath, but she does the hike about 3 times a week. We also needed an armed police officer in our entourage, not because it’s dangerous, they told us, just to have. I chatted with our officer since I was bringing up the lead and he was behind me. The police officers actually live at the visitor center for 5 days then have 3 days off. He said it was hard for him to leave his family, but as he put it “Hay que trabajar” (you have to work).
The fun really started after the three and a half hour hike though. We waited around until 3 for the bus, but it didn’t show. The guard thought it would come at 4, so we waited some more. The bus didn’t come. At this point, all the staff of the visitor center who normally take the bus started to leave by foot. Only when we asked them did they finally suggest we start walking down the mountain to some other random spot where there might be another chance of a ride. So we translated the info to our fellow hikers (who would probably still be stranded there because they didn’t speak Spanish) and began our descent, hiking down about 5 km to another “bus stop.” Then we met Carmen, a little old woman, perhaps our favorite Salvadoran. She explained that she had been sitting waiting for the bus for about 6 hours (since the bus that dropped us of in the morning) because she had lost the key to her house that was next to the bus stop. If she’d had the key, she told us, she would have let us in and made some coffee to warm us up. She didn’t want to walk because she had a very heavy bag and was “nearly paralyzed with cold.” The staff assured us a bus would come at 5 pm, which we explained to Carmen as we waited along the side of a highway in the shadow of the volcanoes.
Will our adventurers ever find a bus back to Santa Ana? Or will they have to walk back through the Salvadoran countryside in the middle of the night? Tune in next week for Part 2 of Nicki and Nolan’s Salvadoran Adventure.