Underrated El Salvador: San Salvador to Santa Ana
I arrive late. Or at least it feels that way. Its dark in San Salvador and my Tica bus drops me off in the historical center, after a long ride, and two border crossings from Nicaragua. Not a place you want to hang around long in the dark. I immediately wave a taxi and ask for Ximena´s Guesthouse, $7 he says. $5 I say and get into a dingy 80´s style yellow cab that smells like cigarettes and cleaning solution. Ximena´s is a dusty, rundown hostel in one of San Salvadors safer neighborhoods. I drop my pack in a dark, narrow dorm, with camp style bunks. I share the hostel with just one other–an Argentine with a hippie rat tail, and very fast slurred Spanish. There is a lone construction worker pounding at the ceiling in the common area. He works late into the night–pounding in a slow yet persistant manner, littering the floor with dusk and debris. If it werent for the very friendly workers and owner, I would have left with only negative feelings toward the hostel.
Having had little but wheat crackers, and gas station food, I wander around the corner in search of food. I find a Pupusaria, and as I have yet to try El Salvadors national food, it seems I´m in luck. A plump woman with a gappy smile serves me two bean and cheese pupusas hot off the griddle and a bottle of Fresca,all for $1.50. I eat them in typical El Salvador style, piled high with fermented cabbage, onions, and hot sauce. No fork and knife. Not bad.
After, I decide to call it a night, not wanting to wander the streets of San Salvador alone. I awaken very early and head out in search of a ATM to replenish my wallet. I pay for the hostel and feel the strong urge to move on. Not wanting to fork over another high cab fee, I take a route suggested by the hostel owner and hop on a city bus to another terminal, then walk 10 minutes not finding the terminal she had described. Looking lost, I attract a friendly young Salvadorian family who, upon learning what I was looking for, walk me to the correct spot, where I could hop on a chicken bus en route to the coastal city of La Libertad. From there, its a crowded bus to Playa Tunca.
I check into Tunco Lodge, a bargain of a spot with airconditioned dorms, real mattresses, nice showers, a pool and plenty of shady chill spots. The crowd at Tunco is made up of Canadian partiers, Israeli surfers and lots of people who talk like they are American high school boys. Almost everyone I meet came to Playa Tunco directly via Tica Bus from Leon or Antigua, or were heading there when they were done surfing–i.e skipping 99 percent of the beautiful little country. I can´t understand this as El Salvador seems to have much to offer, for cheap and with little crowds.
I spend the next two days lying on the beach and by the pool, eating surprisingly amazing food (shrimp tacos, a highlight), watching perfect sunsets.
Not in the mood to join the surfer bros, I go to bed early each night. My time in Tunco alone, I read two books. I spend Thanksgiving eating chicken with a Canadian couple. I feel a bit homesick for my family and the wonderful food I´m missing back in Wisconsin.
Before I catch the only bus to Sonsonate, I have a smoothie with a friendly American guy who had spent his last five days on an expensive surf vacation package–all in Playa Tunco. I scurry to the bus stop, barely catching the bus to La Libertad for my connecting bus.
My bus to Juayua is never boring with a tv in front playing strange latin music videos from the 90s, chatty locals, smiling children and a consistent stream of venders selling candy, bags of coconut milk or Horchata and fried plantains–all while passing over stunning cliffs that drop into sparkling shoreline. I arrive in the pleasant mountain village of Juayua just before sunset.
I am the only person in my hostel–the impressive Hotel Anuyac. I´m happy to have a dorm, that is strangely remniscent of a child’s room, with a comfortable bunk bed, brightly painted walls and a clean private bathroom with hot water (a rarity in Central America), all to myself. Not having anything else to do, I read myself to sleep.
I wake to sun streaming through shutters. I wander into the courtyard and see that there is indeed another guest in my hostel. I have muesli and good, strong coffee with a friendly German who invites me to join him on a walk to a waterfall, swimming hole. Happy to be in the presence of other travelers, I tag along. We follow Douglas, a small, fit Salvadorian from our hostel, through town and down rocky, gravel roads, until we reach a small shack. From here, we are joined by a pack of street dogs who follow us as we venture down a wooded path. We reach a cliff overlooking a lush valley interrupted by a curtain of waterfalls. This is just the warm up. We continue until we reach a fenced in area pointing to a hydroelectric plant, and then continue until we reach two waterfalls with man made swimming holes. It’s a wake up call as we jump into the brisk, clean water; wading in the cool, deep sunny spots.
After heading back to town, and cleaning up, we walk to the central plaza, where a food festival is held every weekend. This turns out to be an impressive event, with dozens of food stalls serving everything from fatty pork, and tender steak to fried frog legs and grilled snake. We oogle at the amazing displays–skewers of shrimp and veggies, fried whole fish, creamy seafood soups, beef in all forms, perfectly roasted chicken–before deciding on the steak fajitas. Our plates come piled high with strips of tender beer, sautéed peppers of all colors, caramelized onions, beans, salad, fresh tortillas, and a yummy green dipping sauce. It is my best meal in El Salvador. For dessert we have coffee and pastries in the park.
I say goodbye to my friend for the day, and with luck run into one of the few likeable people I met from Tunco–a well-mannered, and soft-spoken Brit. He is enjoying his meal with another Brit and a Dutch girl he met in Santa Ana. They are about to head to a reptile house. I join. We see boa constricters, exotic lizards, frogs, and spiders. It´s a strange unnoficial type of place that feels as if we are in the home of someone with a serious hobby. Still it’s interesting.
That night I agree to join a goofy, bald Israeli man with large teeth and eccentric mannerisms, when he heads north to Santa Ana early the following morning. We will catch the 5 am bus, then drop our packs at a hostel and catch the 7:30 bus to a volcano–which we will climb.
Santa Ana and Santa Ana Volcano
All goes as planned, and when the guides leave at 11, we–along with 4 Spaniards, an Italian and 3 Salvadorians–are on our way to hiking up the stunning Santa Ana volcano. The climb is easy, though hot in the intense sun.
At the peak, we are rewarded with views of all of western El Salvador, a spectacularly aquamarine crater lake on one side, Lake Cotepeque on the other, and behind us–the perfect cone shaped volcano—. It´s a perfect hike.
The following day, I have a slow morning in Santa Ana. I wander to a little cafe, write in my journal, and eat a traditional Salvadorian breakfast of eggs, beans, cheese, cream, avocado and tortillas, and sip coffee in a courtyard as the morning sunlight streams through the branches above me. I explore the city by foot, walking past the impressive white, gothic cathedral, shady central park, and colonial city hall and theatre, before wandering around Santa Ana´s massive market, and then heading back to the hostel. The Israeli and I meet up and check out.