A mixture of flashy and modest bars and restaurants line the streets of Santa Tecla. Parks, where you could spend an entire afternoon people watching, are just around the corner. The cobblestones of Suchitoto are a time machine to another century, only to be pulled back to the present by the vibrancy exemplified by the rainbow of colors adorning the homes. Cerro Verde makes me feel insignificant with God knows how many years worth of geological history staring me down like the ants that we are. Then there’s El Tunco, where the waters of the Pacific Ocean never disappoint, especially the surfers whose silhouettes dot the setting sun every night so long as there was a good wave to catch.
This is El Salvador.
Places to Visit and Things to Do in El Salvador Off The Beaten Path
I traveled to El Salvador while living in Costa Rica. One afternoon, while looking at flight alerts, I noticed a deal for El Salvador. “Why not?” I thought.
There are a lot of misconceptions and assumptions out there about El Salvador — and I heard them all before my trip. Below are four places to visit in El Salvador — Santa Tecla, Suchitoto, Cerro Verde, and El Tunco — over a week’s time. The text for this El Salvador Off The Beaten Path Travel Guide is a modified adaption from the El Salvador chapters featured in my book, Talking Tico: (Mis)adventures of a Gringo in and Around Costa Rica.
Our week in El Salvador began in Santa Tecla, a slice of urbanity just southwest of San Salvador formerly known as “Nuevo San Salvador” due to its role as the capital in the mid-19th Century. The name Santa Tecla comes from Saint Thecla, a saint from early iterations of the Christian church and follower of Paul the Apostle. She’s doesn’t make an appearance in The New Testament (perhaps an editorial decision?), but is featured in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, believed to have been composed early on in the second century.
A devastating earthquake in April 1854 caused significant damage to the capital of San Salvador, forcing leaders to temporarily move power to Santa Tecla.
After grabbing a quick pupusa — a handmade Salvadoran staple consisting of a thick corn tortilla filled with any combination of cheese, chicken, pork and refried beans — we met with Juan, owner of the Mango Inn where we would be spending the night. His brilliant smile mixed with the kind of pulled back ponytail you typically see in young artists exuberated a kind of energy and passion that was palpable during his city tour of Santa Tecla.
Both my wife Melanie and I were taken aback by what we were seeing in Santa Tecla. From the moment our taxi pulled in, we were thoroughly impressed by the city’s Spanish architecture. Santa Tecla felt like a city with its narrow streets covered in road bumps to slow aggressive traffic, giving pedestrians a sense of ease when traversing the city — something that unfortunately lacks around the world. Buildings had a sense of design and purpose. The streets were lined with impressive looking restaurants we could hardly wait to peek into.
As we explored, Juan shared a bit of his own story. Born in San Salvador, he eventually moved to Minneapolis in the United States, which is where he perfected his English. Now he’s happy to be back in El Salvador, this time in Santa Tecla where he runs the Mango Inn and a nearby restaurant.
While there are many things that come to mind when thinking of Santa Tecla, two in particular stick out — Daniel Hernandez Town Square and José María San Martin Town Square, both fantastic public spaces featuring no shortage of locals either relaxing on park benches or chatting amongst themselves into the early evening hours.
The latter was named in honor of José María San Martín, who while president of El Salvador in 1854 issued the decree to temporarily move power to Santa Tecla while San Salvador recovered from the aforementioned earthquake. The Town Square’s namesake had an impressive list of accomplishments that surely made his peers cower in shame. First and foremost Hernandez was a teacher, but he also contributed significantly to then-Villa Tecla’s urban design while the city served as the capital. The implementation of water services in Santa Tecla can also be attributed to Hernandez, not to mention the foundation of nearby San Rafael Hospital. His park sits off a street of the same name, also known as the Pan-American Highway.
Following our tour, we returned to the Mango Inn to meet Lillian, a language exchange friend of ours from italki.com who lives in Santa Tecla. She took us for traditional Salvadoran ice cream on the outskirts of downtown. It’s still not clear to me what was Salvadoran about it, but you can never go wrong with ice cream served with fruit and a crunchy cone.
Lilian is the friend everyone wants. Always smiling, even when talking about something discouraging, like the local news. You want her to follow you around for a confidence boost because she’s always willing to laugh at your bad jokes.
Following our ice cream, we continued to a local bar for a drink. Here the bartender caught wind of our plans to explore the country over a week, offering his own suggestions on where to go. This would be a theme throughout the trip. Salvadorans everywhere were eager to know more about why we were visiting before giving their own itinerary, and sometimes even thanking us for visiting despite the less than stellar international reputation. We then continued to Pizza Italia, a rather bizarre iteration of a pizzeria. Bizarre in that it looked as if a cultural bomb went off. At least two Elvis posters donned the walls, surrounded by countless others of random celebrities and Italian memorabilia. Outside kids were playing on one of those plastic playground sets you typically see in North American suburbs. Back inside the large town hall-style eatery, a Johnny Cash tune was playing.
Before parting ways with Lillian, she managed to top off her generosity with a small book on Iglesia El Rosario, a church in San Salvador that, despite not being a religious person, holds a lot of meaning for her. We regretted not having anything to return her generosity.
The next morning we were off early for the approximately two-hour drive up to Suchitoto. Though less than 24 hours into our week, we were already finding that El Salvador did not match its international reputation. The warnings we had received from friends, family, and acquaintances to either not go or be especially careful were countless. Somehow I think we already knew after that first day that this was going to be a special experience and that El Salvador, both the country and its people, would continue to surprise us.
We were off early for the approximately two-hour drive up to Suchitoto. Less than twenty-four hours into our week, we were already finding a stark contrast between El Salvador’s international reputation and our experience. The warnings we had received from friends, family, and acquaintances had thus far proven to be off base. We had not been caught in the crossfire between rival gangs and national police, nor did those mythical Gringo-hunters snatch us right off the street. To the contrary, I already knew El Salvador was going to be a special experience that would shape my worldview for years to come.
One of El Salvador’s selling points is its density. Not its population density, mind you, which is the highest in Central America at 301 per square kilometer. (The United States is about thirty-two and a half). Population density has historically caused issues with neighboring Honduras. Attracted to the less populated, larger land mass, poor Salvadorans immigrated to Honduras and became squatters. This culminated in the 1969 Football War or 100 Hour War that kicked off (no pun intended) with riots during a qualifier match for the 1970 FIFA World Cup. The Salvadoran military briefly invaded until the Organization of American States negotiated a cease-fire. Approximately 130,000 Salvadorans fled or were forcibly expelled as a result.
El Salvador’s geographic density, however, is very much a selling point. Mountains, rivers, coastline, and an ocean are all within an easy day’s reach. In just an hour’s drive north from San Salvador (with the same silent driver as before), we were already in the colonial village of Suchitoto.
Heart of the Salvadoran Civil War
Bouncing on cobblestones, we hopped out of the car and into the decadent entrance of Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. Inside we caught our first glimpse of how the rest of the world sees El Salvador. After passing through a decorated gate and magnificent hallway covered in impressive paintings that just as easily could have been in an art museum, we caught the front page of La Página. Two cops had been killed; one served as a witness against a gang. They weren’t even the first cops to be killed in the year, and it was only the middle of January. Still, we felt perfectly safe as we had no plans to get involved in the local drug trade overnight.
With its cobblestone streets, it was immediately clear that Suchitoto is a city full of history. The world “Suchitoto” itself translates to “Bird-Flower” in the indigenous Náhuatl language. Pipiles, indigenous Salvadorans, get credit for first settling in the Cuscatlán region in the eleventh century where modern Suchitoto sits. History shows that they were one of the most formidable foes of the Spanish conquistadors. Unfortunately for the Pipiles, history also shows that there’s a simple reason why these men were known as conquistadors: they conquist-ed.
Following Spanish control, the region became known for its indigo trade. The industry eventually collapsed once synthetic colors were discovered in Europe, thus forcing Suchitoto to reinvent itself—a historic theme for the city, though no event forced change among the people of Suchitoto quite like the infamous Civil War that ravaged El Salvador between 1980 and 1992. Approximately 80,000 died as a result of the conflict, creating an additional million displaced peoples both internally and internationally.
Oddly enough, there are very few signs of leftover conflict to the untrained eye (i.e. my eye), especially if you’re not looking for it. Of course we know that many Salvadorans still feel the sting of conflict. Many of those involved with the infamous maras (gangs) that the world associates with El Salvador are former soldiers who seemingly have no other way of making a living. Not to mention the nation’s youth unemployment rate of about ten percent lends itself to creating more chaos.
Despite it all, Suchitoto seems to have successfully come out of the ashes of war to become one of, if not the top places to live and travel to in El Salvador. The colonial town remains a stronghold of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), the leftist political party that started as a guerrilla movement during the war, but this is only apparent through political signs and flags around town—not bands of marching militia.
Hotel San Lorenzo
Today, it would be difficult not to enjoy yourself in Suchitoto. Melanie and I spent countless hours walking the quiet cobblestone streets, enjoying the homes painted in brilliant shades of orange, red, blue and white that made Suchitoto pop to the eye. One of our hosts at Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, Fernando, explained to us that the town had traditionally been painted entirely white. The decision to add color to create a visual sense of vibrancy was recent and by most accounts, welcomed.
Like Roberto, Fernando is a native of San Salvador who spent a considerable amount of time overseas. Impressively, Fernando served his country as ambassador to Europe. It was in Paris where he learned his French and met Nathan, his co-partner at Los Almendros.
Over dinner at the restaurant at Los Almendros, Nathan shared his love for his adopted country. The people and density of the country, he said, were natural selling points. Though now in the tourism game, he questioned the seriousness of those in charge of promoting the country. Perhaps it’s inexperience; the ministry of tourism only launched within the past decade. The lack of tourist infrastructure didn’t bother us. Unlike the touristy corners of Costa Rica, you will be expected to speak Spanish. Any passersby will jump into a conversation with you assuming you speak the language much like an American in the U.S. would English.
Just like in our last stop, every Salvadoran we met asked us what brought us to their country. This wasn’t as standoffish as the question might suggest, but seemed to be out of genuine curiosity. They wanted to know where we were from, where we were going, where we planned to go and tell us where we should go next. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted us to share the experience with friends and family back home, so they too would plan a visit to El Salvador. My only hope is that El Salvador maintains its sense of self that, at least for me, has separated it from other experiences in Central America and worldwide. Most travelers can think of a city or town that has completely changed itself over time for the sake of tourists. Worse, it’s not entirely uncommon to read about a stretch of pristine beach once enjoyed by the public being quarantined off for a resort catering primarily to foreigners. As of this writing, Suchitoto very much remains a Salvadoran town.
At dinner, we discussed what we had planned for the rest of our trip. Our hosts at the AirBnB in Cerro Verde would be sending a driver to pick us up. From there, we would be off to El Tunco where we had yet to secure any kind of lodging. Without even asking for help, Nathan and Fernando said they had a friend in El Tunco working for a new hotel that just opened up. He promised to send an email introduction, and by the next morning, we had our last two nights taken care of.
Centro Arte Para La Paz
Formally retired, Fernando spends his time giving back to El Salvador. One of his pet projects has been to restore Teatro Alejandro Cotto, a theater he hopes will be used to give local children an outlet in the arts. Speaking of the arts, there’s also Centro Arte Para La Paz launched with the help of an American nun named Meghan. The Center works to, among other things, prevent violence against children and women. This helped explain the ubiquitous stencil drawings outside of local homes, taking a pledge to end violence against women.
Erick, a Suchitoto native working at the center, was kind enough to give us a tour, sharing El Salvador’s progress and history through a variety of displays and short documentaries. Here it seemed as appropriate as it ever to ask about Salvadoran opinion of U.S. Americans. Most of us (myself included before reading Frazier’s book) are unfamiliar with the objectively heinous role our government played in El Salvador’s civil war. For the United States, this was the last actual battleground of the Cold War. Of course, it wasn’t Americans or Soviets who were suffering. It was the approximately five million people of El Salvador.
(Cue Uncle Sam awkwardly murmuring chants of, “USA!” underscored by a sad trombone.)
In short, the Reagan administration was funneling a million U.S. dollars a day to the far-right ARENA government—the same government known for sending death squads throughout the country. President Jimmy Carter had halted funding to the Salvadoran government when he learned of these atrocities (and after a plea from Óscar Romero), but that all changed with the inauguration of President Reagan. If only Salvadorans weren’t so busy being bombed by an American-funded military, they could have looked up to see Reagan’s shining city on a hill. Salvadoran 1: What’s that bright light beyond the smoke and rubble? Is it… freedom?
Salvadoran 1: What’s that bright light beyond the smoke and rubble? Is it… freedom?
Salvadoran 2: That’s a glare off the tank. GET DOWN!
Thankfully for us and other American travelers, Salvadorans like Erick are able to distinguish the American people from the government. We had noticed this to be true throughout Central America. Considering our abysmal history in the region—from purposefully infecting Guatemalans with syphilis to regime change—we would have been back stateside long ago if we were held personally accountable.
People like Meghan are also brilliant reminders of the good work U.S. Americans and other foreigners can do in the region. She ended up in El Salvador after working in South America. Meghan and her fellow nuns wanted to be closer to home, and Central America is closer, relatively speaking. Like Nathan, Meghan fell in love with the people of El Salvador, and so she stayed—before, during, and after the war. In passing, Meghan lamented the ongoing crises of the world: war, poverty, climate change. She apologized for the dysfunctional planet her generation has left us with, but remained confident in the next generation who would be inheriting the problem. As the topic turned to El Salvador, she thanked us for not listening to the many who strongly cautioned us against visiting.
In passing, Meghan lamented the ongoing crises of the world: war, poverty, climate change. She apologized for the dysfunctional planet her generation has left us with, but remained confident in the next generation who would be inheriting the problem. As the topic turned to El Salvador, she thanked us for not listening to the many who strongly cautioned us against visiting.
Pointing to my camera, she said in her thick New England accent, “I hate to use the word ‘weapon,’ but that thing is a weapon. Use it.”
Leaving Suchitoto was tough. I knew immediately that I was going to miss this town. I would miss the hilly side street our hotel apartment was on, crammed in between a row of homes that some local kids turned into their playground. I was overcome with a moment of guilt. How could people back home and throughout the world think this place isn’t worth visiting or living in? Could they tell those kids that? To their face? Think about the countless big-box suburbs and exurbs that exist from California to Maine that look exactly the same. There’s more character and life here in Suchitoto, I promise. I, for one, left envious.
We spent our final night taking one last walk around Suchitoto, admiring every uniquely built door we saw and hanging around the town square after a delicious dinner at La Lupita del Portal. Families were out in larger numbers than previous nights, presumably because of the coming weekend. Parents watched their children play on the cobblestone plaza, which was anchored by a magnificent white church constructed with perfect symmetry. I’d almost consider going to church if this is what it always looked like.
Before setting off the next morning, we took a quick trip a couple kilometers outside of town to a waterfall that, we were told, would make for excellent filming. Unfortunately, this was the dry season and there wasn’t a drop to be found.
There was, however, Cesar, who popped up from a ledge of rocks. If I had to guess, I’d say he was around five-years-old. He assured us that this dry patch of the cliff was, indeed, the waterfall we had been sent to see. Perhaps sensing our disappointment, Cesar was quick to guide us to another nearby site. He sprinted barefoot across the rocky trail as if he was running on pillows. First, he took us to a tree he likes to climb to pretend that he’s a monkey.
“Soy mono!” he shouted in between his chimpanzee mimicry. Next, he took us over to another cliff with a more open view of the vista ahead. A couple of
Next, he took us over to another cliff with a more open view of the vista ahead. A couple of picnic benches sat just ahead of the ledge. This, Cesar shared, is a good place for a nap.
Duly noted for future reference.
Our next stop promised a stark contrast to the cozy colonial town situated on an equally calm lake. Next, we would be dropped off in the middle of a Salvadoran national park, Cerro Verde or Parque Nacional Los Volcanes. Even the Spanish novice can sense plurality in the latter name. “Los Volcanes” refers to the three surrounding volcanoes of Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Santa Ana. Reaching Los Sueños Verde required a steep climb up a winding road that continued well after the concrete turned to dirt. Afterward, it was hard to imagine any vehicle, even the Volkswagen pickup truck we were riding, on the narrow patch of dust we had just climbed. This looked more like a hiking trail, not a thoroughfare.
Our jaws dropped faster than a cliché on a CBS sitcom as soon as we saw the view. If the ride itself didn’t clue us into just how high we were, we knew it as we stood practically eye-level with Izalco — a rather young volcano, geologically speaking. Izalco formed in just 1770 and erupted constantly until 1958. Its tendency to remain aglow gave it the nickname “Lighthouse of the Pacific,” which is more charming than the fact that it killed 56 people while burying the town of Matazano in 1928.
There were no internet or phone signals during our time at Los Sueños. But why would you need them? The land itself was a playground for adults and kids alike, though admittedly aimed more towards children with the mini-canopy tour and playground equipment adjacent to the main house. Still, this was a time to stare at nature and let your mind wander to the world’s most perplexing questions, like “How the f@%k did this all get here?” before settling into a bedazzled state of Mugatu.
“I Was A Solider.”
We awoke early the next morning to prepare for a hike up Santa Ana. Santiago, a caretaker for Los Sueños, joined us as a guide with his obligatory machete equipped on his side. There was some confusion regarding when and where to start the hike. See, you’re actually supposed to be escorted by a police officer. But nobody was where Santiago had thought to be the meeting point.
So we ended up spending a considerable amount of time wandering around through a few abandoned farm buildings and a church that were left after the last eruption in October 2005. Fun for us, but hardly so for the two people who lost their lives and seven who were injured by rocks the size of cars that were shot as far as a mile away. Volcanoes really can be quite terrifying. Just ask the fine people of Pompeii.
With time to kill, I decided to ask Santiago about his experience during the civil war. Because what better way to spend a sunny afternoon than to recount one of the most horrific times in your life with an ignorant gringo?
Santiago shared that he, indeed, fought in the war.
“I was a soldier,” he said simply.
“Do you mind if I ask which side?” I replied.
“For the government,” and he paused before gesturing northeast, back toward Suchitoto. “FMLN’s on that side of the country.”
What struck me as remarkable was the nonchalant tone in his voice. He spoke of his position in the war in the same tone I use to specify café negro over café con leche. I didn’t hear any animosity in his voice as I somewhat expected, considering the position on FMLN was once that they’re a bunch of commies thirsty for innocent capitalist blood. Perhaps he just didn’t feel like getting into it with someone he knew for a whopping 24 hours. Otherwise, it spoke to me just how far El Salvador has come since that horrific chapter.
Vale La Pena
Eventually, we ran into the right people who were able to point us toward the trail entrance, which had a park ranger of sorts holding down the fort. He told us a group just left with a guiding officer and that we could probably catch up. This supported my theory that the constant recommendation to hike with an officer or guide throughout Central America is more to protect their image on the rare chance someone does get mugged and posts all over TripAdvisor as if there’s an epidemic rather than an actual threat of crime.
Sure enough, we caught up and were able to ascend Santa Ana in about two hours. What I loved about this hike was the diversity. We started our hike in dense forest with dirt covered paths. About a third of the way up, dry and loose rocks covered the paths and the forest cleared up, allowing us a glimpse of the view that awaited us at the summit. Suddenly we felt like we were back in Phoenix, climbing Camelback Mountain.
Nearing the crater, life, as John Cleese would say, ceased to be. Nothing but wide expanses of rock could be seen like a panorama from Mars without the red hue. Hikers started to follow the path of least resistance rather than any formally marked trail as that had also disappeared for the most part. I remember looking back, seeing hikers further down the volcano march ahead like lemmings.
Finally, at the summit, the wind naturally picked up. Guides expecting over-eager photographers ushered us to where the wind was blocked, allowing us to peer over the edge to see the crystal clear view of Santa Ana’s crater some 2,380 meters above sea level. This combined with the 360-degree view of the surrounding area, even the Pacific Ocean well over an hour’s drive away, made this one of the most enjoyable hikes of my life.
Vale la pena or “worth it,” as they say.
El Salvador, for us, would end on the beach. Perhaps appropriately so since what tourism has existed here has been a result of surfers who historically pay little attention to the local situation or international reputation if it means finding a good wave. More practically, this is
where we could pick up a shuttle to Antigua, Guatemala where we would be spending our second week of travel.
The ride to El Tunco from Cerro Verde speaks to the, let’s call it, dense diversity I have been mentioning. Within a couple of hours from urban Santa Tecla, we were in colonial Suchitoto. Another couple of hours, Cerro Verde where the temperature dropped to the low fifties at night. Then not even two hours away we were in sweltering hot and humid El Tunco on the Pacific Ocean.
Our final stay was at Boca Olas, referred to us by our hosts back in Suchitoto. We walked into a gorgeous complex geared toward longer stay travelers that had just launched within the new year. We were more than willing to help break it in.
After a quick jaunt across the rocky Pacific coast that was our backyard, we joined Lisa (who worked in marketing and PR for the hotel) and her husband for a drink at the hotel bar. Cadejo Brewing Company from San Salvador was generous enough to leave a six-pack with a few different flavors upon hearing of our visit. Damn fine stuff that could stand up to most American craft breweries. Lisa shared that Cadejo once ran a satirical campaign for president. Who wouldn’t want to support a brewery like that?
Joining Lisa were her in-laws who had worked in the government during the Civil War. They have since moved up to Houston to be closer to grandchildren but were in town to visit Lisa and her son who lives in San Salvador. Lisa herself comes from the States, but you can tell she considers herself just as much a Salvadoreña in the way she talks about her adopted country. When the conversation inevitably turned to the Civil War, Lisa admitted some frustration with how foreigners continue to perceive El Salvador.
“This country could really use some good PR,” she said with a bit of a sigh. She wished El Salvador would get some credit for absorbing the guerrillas of the FMLN as
She wished El Salvador would get some credit for absorbing the guerrillas of the FMLN as a viable political party rather than continuing the battle. In fact, the FMLN has now held the presidency multiple times, and their far-right rivals in ARENA are still around as well. No war would have clearly been preferable, but you get the point. As one of the older tourism stopping points, we saw more foreigners in El Tunco than
As one of the older tourism stopping points, we saw more foreigners in El Tunco than anywhere else in El Salvador. Ultimately Lisa sees El Salvador as a melting pot, and it surely is in El Tunco. Boca Olas alone is full of foreign staff mixed in with Salvadorans. At the front desk, we met Laura, whose New Zealand accent threw us off when she told us she’s from Switzerland. Like other foreigners who have landed in El Salvador, she fell in love with the place during a backpacking trip through the Americas. She’s since gotten married and was happy to call El Salvador home for the foreseeable future.
El Tunco struck us as a beach-town unlike any other we had seen, especially within Central America. The town is essentially one narrow street lined with a mixture of homes, hostels, shops, and restaurants that lead to the calle peatonal or pedestrian street. This “street” is simply a strip of sand surrounded on both sides by an even larger mixture of businesses to poke in and out of that eventually lead back to the beach.
Unlike the rocky corner of the beach near our hotel, we now found ourselves on a wide expanse of perfectly flat black sand. Wading into the ocean, the ground remained consistent for as far as my atrocious swimming skills allowed me to go. Surfers had their own corner where the waves were powerful. I was where my people belong—people who enjoy flailing themselves at big waves with the relative assurance that the ground is neither painful nor going to sweep you away. It was also on these sands that I had a bit of a religious experience. I cannot say for certain if it was remnants of a bug bite I got in Suchitoto that left me ill for one evening or something I ate, but I suddenly felt a bomb in my colon ready to blow.
Oh, God, please. Oh, God, please. Oh, God, please, I chanted to myself, like a Buddhist mantra praying desperately to avoid unspeakable embarrassment.
I needed a solution—fast. But beaches are notoriously the worst place to be for an emergency. Unless you’re near your hotel, all the bathrooms are for guests only. We were about a half-mile or more from our hotel, a distance my rumbling digestive system would not
Desperate, I approached a group who appeared to be offering surf lessons. I cut them off before they could give me the pitch
“Do you know where there’s a bathroom?” I asked, flexing every muscle in my trembling body.
They pointed behind them, to another hotel.
Oh, God, please. Oh, God, please. Oh, God, please, I repeated as I darted by the sandy steps up to the hotel patio bar and over to the bathroom, praying that the Gods would answer my call for porcelain.
Success. Travesty averted.
I don’t often discuss my appearance, but it saved me from turning my shorts into a Jackson Pollock. When being fitted for my wedding tux, I was told I had the exact dimensions of the store mannequin. I could sneak into a J.C. Penney catalog unnoticed thanks to my blonde hair, blue eyes, slender frame, and pasty white complexion. This is all to say I’m built in a very non-threatening way. Nobody sees me and trembles in fear. I barely register on anyone’s radar, allowing me the opportunity to, say, sneak into a hotel bathroom for emergencies without suspicion, as I did in El Tunco.
After a day at the beach, we rewarded ourselves with some sloth mimicry and a bit of gluttony thrown in for good measure—just to cross off a couple deadly sins within a few hours. This led us to Sweet Garden Café & Crepas, a small eatery perched on the second floor with an enjoyable overlook of passersby where we were consumed a delicious crepe concoction of chicken and cheese. Perhaps it was the sun rendering me useless and hungry, thus truly excited to eat just about anything, but dammit if that wasn’t one of the best lunches I’ve ever had, topped off with a strawberry fresca natural.
On our final day, Laura hooked us up with her husband’s cousin Luis for a hike to a series of waterfalls. She sold us on the hike over a Greek dinner as we sat on wooden swings that surrounded our high-top wooden table on the restaurant’s front patio with the Ohio State college football national championship game on in the background. A drunken German tourist had followed us briefly, apparently mistaking Laura’s ability to speak German as an invitation to bother us. Talk about a cultural explosion.We met Luis a little after eight in the morning. He was dressed in a light long-sleeve shirt
We met Luis a little after eight in the morning. He was dressed in a light long-sleeve shirt and shorts with long black hair coming out from underneath his mesh ball cap. The drive was about twenty minutes to what we were warned would be a somewhat rigorous hike. But after noting we had just done the hike to the crater of Santa Ana, we were assured it wouldn’t be too challenging.Unlike the Santa Ana trail, this was nothing official. When I asked Luis for the name, he
Unlike the Santa Ana trail, this was nothing official. When I asked Luis for the name, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Caminata Cascada” or “Waterfall Hike.” It was something Luis said he remembered using twenty years ago when he was a little kid before moving to Maryland with his parents. It hadn’t changed a bit since, he told us.
The hike was more technical than difficult. The entire hike to the collection of waterfalls was moderate, but the rocks were as sturdy as if they were natural rock climbing walls. Twenty or thirty minutes later we had arrived at the waterfalls. Luis suggested jumping off one that dropped fifteen feet below, but I wasn’t going to do a damn thing until I saw him do it first. Admittedly nervous, Luis waded into the pool of water between waterfalls to get a sense of where the rocks were. Then he jumped in from a spot around ten feet high before finally taking on the highest point.
Ten feet seemed manageable for me. Surely I wouldn’t paralyze myself, I thought, even though I’m not typically one for jumping off the safe ground to the unknown. The nerves kicked up a bit, but I climbed up, convinced I was only going down one way. Needless to say it wasn’t nearly as bad as my mind had made it out to be. It never is.
This conjured up an obvious metaphor for El Salvador. You hear all these stories about the country that either make you nervous or completely disinterested in visiting. I’ll admit that I let the uneducated warnings and documentaries rattle me in spats. Maybe you make the decision to visit anyway, but you’re still nervous as your trip nears.
Finally, you go and see the reality of El Salvador is not black and white, just as you would find in any country. You see the indisputable fact that this a fascinating country full of kind, hard-working, curious and welcoming people. Then you realize characterizing an entire country’s people based on a handful encounters is a bit cliché, but it somehow feels okay for tiny El Salvador. And so you jump in. By the time you land, you’re glad you did it and you’re looking to climb back up and do it all over again. On our way back, we passed by a group of school kids playing in the river with a handful of older chaperones looking on. They laughed, shrieked, and squealed like any kid does around the world when playing outside. This is when it hit me. I thought of all the people who blow off entire countries and groups of people as too dangerous.
I thought about how this is almost always based on ignorance and prejudice. I thought, well, fuck ‘em. Seriously. Fuck anyone who can look at a group of kids playing outside, like you and I did growing up, and dismissively deem their entire country not worth seeing or their culture not worth experiencing because of something they may have seen on the news a few years ago. Anyone that bullheaded doesn’t deserve to travel.
But I suspect most aren’t like that. I suspect there’s wiggle room to change minds and perceptions—to scrub away the stereotypes and show the true character of people around the world. That’s something I can work with. Just give me some wiggle room. I left El Salvador with a new preference for traveling to and documenting places that would raise eyebrows among the average North American traveler. I don’t want the perceived safety of distance, I want to get up close. I want to meet people, hear their stories, see their country, learn about their culture and share it with anyone who will listen.
Maybe if we knew a bit more about each other, we’d be a little less okay with killing each other. Maybe we’d even get along. Maybe the world would suck that much less.