El Salvador – Santa Ana

Transportation, among other things, is dirt cheap in El Salvador. Santa Ana is a good hour and half away from the capital and the bus ride to get there was only a dollar thirty, and that for was the direct air-conditionned and more comfortable bus. Taking the chicken bus (old american school buses) would have been under a dollar.

Santa Ana's skyline

Santa Ana’s skyline

Salvadorean burger and fries!

Salvadorean burger and fries!

Santa Ana is a pretty medium-sized town where there isn’t much to do except taking a break from it all. However, it’s the gateway to the volcan parks and some other sights. I checked in Hostal Casa Verde, which luckily had a lot of beds available despite advertising itself full on the internet. This hostel, rated the best in El Salvador, lived up to its reputation by providing pretty much everything a back packer needs and then some more. What it lacked though was ambiance, but I was certain the right group of people would spark a nice party during the days to come. Upon arrival, I unloaded my things and headed out to spend the remainder of the afternoon walking around the city. Santa Ana is a beautiful Central American city, with it’s buildings all painted in bright colors, some streets full of hookers and others filled with markets. It has a pretty cathedral that overlooks a very nice plaza (much much nicer than San Salvador’s) where people were enjoying an evening out in their city, Santa Ana felt warm, authentic and friendly. Back to the hostel ater a burger, I mostly kept to myself that night (except for that conversation I had in Spanish with a Japanese man) and did some writing and studying for my upcoming tec course.

Santa Ana's cathedral

Santa Ana’s cathedral

Bright and early the next morning, I had a quick cofee and marched to a bus stop hoping to catch the 7h30 to the volcano park. Owing to my poor abilities at negotiating public transportation, I stood waiting on the wrong corner and when it dawned on me that I was not in the right place, it was too late and I had missed the one bus that could take me there in time for the hike. Extremely frustrated, especially that today was the last day where the weather was clear, I went back to the hostel to think about a plan B. A quick look at the map indicated that the Tazumal ruins, which I had heard of already and which were supposedly El Salvador’s largest, were nearby and of much easier access than the park.

Tazumal

A quick chicken bus ride and I landed in Chalchuapa, which the ruins were nearby. The Tazumal complex was a museum and a single pyramid and within an hour I was out the gate, slightly disappointed. I then proceeded to check out Chalchuapa, which in turn was quite nice. I walked around the lake, had some fried yucca and pork at one of the yuquaterias lining the road to the ruins, took a stroll around the local market, searched a café that was in my guidebook (the best of El Salvador according to them) but no longer existed and spent a bit of time checking out the town’s cemetery. There were some natural spring water pools that I wish I could have checked out, but the sky was turning a menacing grey so I returned to Santa Ana.

Back at the hostel, I had a beer, studied a bit and went out for pupusas. On my way to the pupuseria, I passed right through the prostitutes and caught the attention of a couple of them. On the way back from the pupuseria though, I tried taking a different street back but quickly backtracked when I noticed it was full of drunken men and had no lights. So through the prostitutes again, which this time were a bit more insistent, with one of them (a transvestite) even trying to lure me in by taking a very suggestive position. I wanted to do some more writing that night, but while on the rooftop terrace I met with Francis, a New-Zealander and later on got joined by Dennis, a Canadian expat teaching abroad in Taiwan and we spent what remained of the evening downing Pilsners (the local cerveza) and smoking cigarettes.

Dennis trying to catch some sleep on a busy chicken bus

Dennis trying to catch some sleep on a busy chicken bus

You don’t get to sleep in in El Salvador, the city gets loud very early with the roar of turbo charged chicken buses so I had no trouble waking up before my 6h45 alarm, because again that day I would try to go the volcano park, but this time with Francis and Dennis, my two new buddies. We met two other fellow travelers, Nila, a Belgian girl and Liam, a British guy and this time showed up at the right bus stop and caught the bus to the park. The weather report predicted rain and thunderstorms for the day because of hurricane Earl passing over Honduras, but we had decided to go anyway. The chicken bus ride took two hours, during which we got harassed by an inordinate amount of snack vendors. They climb on, advertise their wares by yelling about what they’re selling while walking to the end of the bus, and jump off when they are done. Ordinarily, that would be fine, but in a full chicken bus with half of the passengers packed back to back in the aisle, it gets annoying fast but hey, everyone’s gotta make a living and no one must ever go hungry on a bus ride. Finally, we were dropped off at the park and had some fruits and coffee while waiting for the guided hikes to start. As it turns out, it was not permitted to go hike by ourselves and had to be escorted by two police officers and two park guides. Fair enough, but the most annoying part was the two hundred Salvadoreans also accompanying us. Well, I’m saying annoying because I like having my alone time in nature and that much people will scare any chances of getting of the wildlife but in reality, I’m quite happy that so many locals were actually here for the same reason as us. The whole country was on national vacations for the week which explained the amount of people but beyond that, it was great to see that El Salavador still belonged to the Salvadoreans. The prices for the hikes were very fair and the installations were geared towards the locals, somewhat of a rarity in Central America, where popular destinations tend to charge prices that are way out of reach of the locals.

On top of volcano Izalco

On top of volcano Izalco

The group split in two, with the majority of the people opting for the hike to the Santa Ana volcano and the rest to Izalco. I asked which of the two was the most proper looking volcano and picked Izalco, which was also a much harder hike, but still we must have been a good fifty persons doing it. We were warned by the guides that should there be rain we would abort the expedition but luckily we made it to the top with the weather still on our side. Francis and I, having arrived a solid twenty minutes before the bulk of the people, had enough time to circle the crater and go inside. While the view was clouded over, it was still cool to walk around this barren landscape of black volcanic stones. There were even hot air vents here and there and on occasions I picked up the smell of sulfur. It rained for a bit on the way down but again, the two gringos soon separated from the pack and at the bottom of the volcano, we decided to push on without police escort. The way back up to the park entrance was a strenuous 1300 steps, which I managed to climb up quite fast, getting a very good work out in the process.. The rest of our traveler group had gone on the other hike so Francis and I had some warm soup, a much welcomed meal as we were both wet and cold and once they arrived, we hoped back on the bus to Santa Ana town.

On top of volcano Izalco

On top of volcano Izalco, overlooking the creater

Having bonded a bit during the day, we had a couple beers at the hostel and later, joined by others, went as a group to Café Tejas, a nice restaurant/café/bar combo run by a Canadian expat girl and her Salvadorean husband. Dennis, back at the hostel had broken the ice by launching a round table discussion on who, as an adult, had ever shit their pants and it went on from there. We had food and several (with emphasis on word « several ») beers and got stupid drunk for some, especially Jorge, who having been put out of commission for a week due to Dengue, was catching up on all the beers that he had missed during his illness. At the end of the night, we managed to pack the 9 of us into the owner’s SUV for a joyous ride back to Casa Verde and then we all went to bed, not causing too much trouble. Dennis, on the other hand, had to leave at three (for Utila) so he skipped sleep.

The next morning, Nila remarked that it’s always when you have to catch a bus the next morning that you get drunk the night before and to that I completely agree with her. In my case though, I was feeling tired but otherwise fine. After a couple of buses, I arrived in La Palma, a quiet little town along the border with Honduras and the last place I wanted to check out before bidding farewell to El Salvador.

(Note : this long post covers just about three days of traveling. It seems I always start my writing with good intentions of being short and concise but very quickly I get into details and end up writing way too much content. If you find it tedious, please accept my apologies but also bear in mind that I’m writing for myself in the first place.)

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