Underrated El Salvador: Tuzumal to Suchitoto
Tazumal, Tacuba, Parque Imposible
We catch a bus to Tazumal, El Salvador’s Mayan Ruins. It´s monday, which means the ruins are closed for maintenance. Lucky for us, they are visible through a chain link fence. We take pictures and peek through the fence. My travel companion, begs the guards to let us in. They won´t budge, but one friendly guard offers to take our cameras and take some pictures for us. Sure this may be cheating, but we slip our cameras through a hole in the fence.
After, we grab a $1.25 lunch of roasted chicken, saland, rice and tortillas, before catching a bus first to Ahauchupan, then to the tiny scenic mountain village of Tacuba.
Here we check into the only hostel in town–a Mom and Pop guesthouse, set around a garden with a cat, dog, and a pair of ducks–one of whom seems possessed, spontaneously attacking unsuspecting guests with his toothless beek. We arrange a hike through the national park the following morning.
Early in the AM, we eat a quick bowl of fruit and granola and jump in the back of a pickup truck, joining a friendly American guy. Over 30 with kind blue eyes and a shaggy beard, our new trekking buddy has ridden his motorcycle down from Alaska and intends to ride until he reaches the end of the world–southern Patagonia.
Our hike takes us up to stunning viewpoints where we see the surrounding lush green mountains and the volcanic peaks of Guatemala. We venture down ancient stone roads, past fruit trees, over bridges and the narrow roads which gave the park it’s name-“Impossible”-hinting to the past when traders from the north, bringing coffee and bananas, and traders from the south lugging sugar cane and beer, were met with the grand challenge of crossing a massive mountainous gorge.
We reach a swimming hole and modest waterfall for a bland lunch of doughy bagged sandwich bread smeared with refried beans. After lunch we must climb up a mountain to our ride back to Tacuba. This ends up involving over 3 hours of climbing steep, mostly unshaded, and crumbling gravel roads, infested with sand flies–one daunting incline after another. Poorly informed of the difficulty of the hike, none of us brought enough water or nourishment for the day. We are all a bit disappointed that we paid $25 each to “hike” on a hot road with not enough food or water. Regardless, we survive to hop in the back of another pickup.
Back at the hostel, I once again run into the two Brits and Dutch girl I had met in Juayua. We eat Pupusas at an amazing, and very popular spot in town. As we wait for our food, we watch the Evangelical church next door. Latinos dressed in white crowd around a stage–many of them sobbing and thrusting their arms to the heavens. We wonder if we are witnessing a funeral or just another service.
As what seems to be my normal routine, I am sleeping early that night.
I decide to scrap my idea of heading to Guatemala in the morning and join my new friends for another day in Tacuba. We are able to join the local owner of the hostel, his perky Swiss girlfriend and her visiting parents, on a trip to a coffee processing plant and then to thermal springs.
The coffee plantation is a bit of an eye opener. We learn first that most El Salvadorian coffee is probably not completely organic–whether or not it claims to be. Next, we are shown a group of women hand-sorting sun dried coffee beans. Our guide explains that these women work 10 hour shifts yet bring home just $5 a day. After, we are taken to a bagging room with women pouring the ground up and roasted skins of the coffee–a bland byproduct–into bags to be sold at the local markets. This explains why it’s so hard to find a decent cup of coffee in Central America–many are made from soaked skins. As we hop on the back of the pickup, I’m left with an uncomfortable sort of feeling. This is much different from the idyllic coffee plantation tour I took in Colombia. From now on, I won’t think of coffee the same.
We hop back on the back of a pick up and are driven to our next destination. The springs are actually steamy sulfuric natural spring water channeled into manmade stone pools–part of a recently constructed luxury lodge. We pass a sign welcoming us to an “exclusive paradise.” After watching women busting their backs for $5/day, it’s hard for me to relax among rich Salvadorians, paying the $10 entrance fee, and sipping the $2 mugs of “local coffee.”
Barro de Santiago
After learning my disappointment from the Parque Impossible hike, the hostel owner offers me a free ride to the unspoiled shoreline of Baro de Santiago along with a group from the hostel on a mountain biking tour. I join my new friends plus a delightful retiree from Minnesota, on a bumpy, dusty ride down the mountainside, through quant villages, passed sunny sugar cane fields–workers blackened from hours chopping the sticky burnt stalks–and down dry, dirt seaside roads, finally to a modest hostel on the sea. We arrive to have the hostel to ourselves. The afternoon and evening is spent fishing, lounging in hammocks, walking down long, completely empty beaches, and wading in the sea. In the evening, we eat our substantial catch of the day–4 or 5 large mackerel, on a long wooden table, to the sound of waves lapping against the shoreline. Later in the evening we see dark figures creeping along the beach, near the water. In the morning, we learn they are locals, stealing sea turtle eggs. Though this disappoints and frustrates me, I can understand. These people, poor and hungry, receive a far too tempting price at market for the precious delicacy. This is a problem with deep roots.
In the morning, we make the day-long journey, with multiple bus changes, to the beautiful, historical Suchitoto.
Arriving at sunset, we check into the simple, yet charming in its own way, Hostel El Gringo. We are instantly acquainted with a jolly bear of a man–the very helpful and friendly half-American owner. He gives us the scoop on the area. We grab a standard street meal of papusas, before heading back to chill in the hostel. Exhausted, I doze off with a book in my hands, lights on, no later than 9.
We spend the following day enjoying the nearly perfect, sunny, mountain climate, exploring the cobblestone streets, whitewashed/red-tile roof buildings and houses and spectacular viewpoints looking down on the picture perfect Lake Suchitoto. We find it hard to believe that just 20 years ago this idyllic village was almost completely evacuated to nearly the point of ghost town. The nearby countryside became a violent battlefield between the military-led, US-backed, right leaning military and The FMLN, a conglomeration of leftist, gorilla groups. We would learn more about this later.
After a few hours of wandering and a cheap market lunch of stuffed peppers and rice, we decide to find a bar we read about with a swimming pool by the (nearly unswimmable) lake. We buy some cervezas and pay the $1.50 entrance fee for access to a rundown pool area. I immediately lose interest in swimming when I see at least 10 drunk Salvadorian men hanging around, watching the pool. Instead, dress on, I dip my feet in the water.
Back at the hostel, we shower quickly and head out for a quick Papusa meal from the lady near the plaza. We notice that people are gathering around a stage. We join. What follows is an elaborate 3+ hour beauty pageant, complete with performers (horrific renditions of such popular songs as “All the Single Ladies,” and even “Gangnam Style..”), with all the usual pageant categories, hosted by sharply dressed, cheap-witted, charismatic hosts. Somehow we are hypnotized into standing and watching through the finale, when halfway decent fireworks explode in the night sky.
That night, we arrange for a hike the following day with a local ex-gorilla, through the nearby countryside.
At 8 the next morning we meet our guide–a tiny 70 year old man with wispy, grey hair and mumbly spanish–at a breakfast cafe. We follow our little guide to the bus stop and take a chicken bus about 15 minutes to a rural community just outside of town.
He explains a bit of the background on the civil war. In a nut shell: Unfair land distribution between the rich and poor, poverty, social & economic injustices–are seeds that would eventually grow into full blown civil war. By the 20th century 95% of El Salvador’s income came from coffee exports, yet the wealth was controlled by just 2% of the population. In the 20s, the government takes away coffee union rights. In the 30s peasants and the indigenous uprise. The military responds by massacring anyone who so much as looking indigenous or who supported the uprising. In the 70s the country’s social problems increased and along with it the tension. Provoked by power battles, the government creates death squads, who kidnap, torture, and murder thousands. The revolution in Nicaragua along with inspiration from revolutionaries like Che Guevara, inspires many Salvadorians to demand reform, and in the late 70s, Oscar A Romero, a priest, joins the cause for the people, becoming an outspoken inspiration. Soon he is brutally assassinated in the middle of his own mass. The murder sparks the beginning of the civil war. The Reagan administration (threatened by Nicaragua’s socialist revolution) pours large amounts of money into the Salvadorian military, prolonging and dirtying the war. US trained military kill and destroy entire villages thought to be controlled by gorillas. At this point, hundreds of thousands flee the country. After another controversial president, more violent death squads, and a botched election–resulting in an attack on the Capitol by the FMLN, provoking the murder of thousands of leftists by the government–the UN finally mediates peace negotiations between the government and the FMLN. Over the 12 year war, around 75,000 are killed and $6 billion of US funds are funneled into the Salvadorian governments war efforts.
It’s no wonder then, that our little Salvadorian ex-gorilla guide is still bitter toward the US. As he talks, he takes us through the lovely hillsides and forests, pointing out trenches, caves and spots where gorillas and their families hid and lived in during the war.
He explains about the Mara–the violent Salvadorian gangs still terrorizing parts of the country. These gangs began in the ghettos of LA, by the children of war refugees who were bullied by Mexican street gangs. With the US government’s efforts to eradicate street crime, tens of thousands were deported back to El Salvador. In no time, they spread throughout Central America and Colombia.
I end the tour wishing I had learned these facts much earlier in my El Salvador trip. With memories and wounds of the civil war still very raw, and continuing threats by the Mara, it’s amazing how warm, kind and welcoming the Salvadorian people are. Despite the US involvement in the war, most Salvadorians are excited when I tell them I’m American. With a staggering 25% of the country’s population living in the States, nearly everyone has a relative working somewhere on US soil.
The day weighing heavy on our minds and bodies, we share a few cervesas with our geriatric guide, then have one more cheap and satisfying meal of Papusas.
Early the following morning our group splits–half stay in El Salvador, while myself and another catch the series of chicken buses across the border into Honduras.
I leave El Salvador–a country many travelers skip on their way to Antigua or Leon–with both a sympathy and fondness for the resilient people; an appreciation for the stunning landscape and positive, though concerning, feelings for the tiny country that warmly welcomed and taught me much during my short, 12 day stay.