El Salvador – La Palma

This one will be short I promise.

La Palma is a quiet little town known for its murals and artists. Luckily this time, my bus ride there went without a hiccup and fairly late in the afternoon I hoped off the bus. Not having a reservation anywhere, I entered the tourism office and quickly was directed to some cabins in the outskirts. Two employees were kind enough to walk me there and the family that ran the cabins was extra nice and welcoming to me. The little shack that I got for12US$ was extremely rustic, but I really needed no amenities beside a bed an an electrical outlet, which it provided.

Street in La Palma, El Salvador

My things dropped off, I went for a stroll around town, which I managed to circle about twice given how small it was. Having made the promise to my girlfriend that I would send her a postcard, I had forgotten until then so I made it my first mission. I could only find some at a café which were by a local artist but not too evocative of El Salvador. Regardless, that was my only option so it had to do. For supper, I ate some of my last pupusas and walked back to my place but not without a small supply of beers that I bought at a tienda. There, I handed my postcard to the owner of the cabins so he could mail it on Monday, which he gladly accepted. Salvadoreans are definitely the nicest bunch. Once in my cabin, I opened my computer and started writing, but soon got intrigued by the sound of live music playing in town across the river. Still early enough for me to head out again, I went and checked it out but it turned out to be a religious gathering in the local church. I hanged around for a while but quickly got bored and made it back to my cabin to get on with writing. The next day, I was up early (right before the chickens) to catch the bus to the border. I had a long way to go that day.

My thoughts and opinions about El Salvador? It’s a Central American country alright, with all that implies (chaos, pollution, heat, crime, etc.) but it is definitely the road less traveled and its inhabitants are extra nice, authentic, endearing and hard-working. In all the countries I’ve been to in this part of the world, I would rate this place close second behind Nicaragua. As an added bonus, their Spanish is slightly easier to grasp that everywhere else and the food it top notch. No attraction there is as grand as Costa Rica’s parks, Nicaragua’s colonial cities, but the people more than make up for it, making visiting El Salvador a very human experience rather than a sightseeing one.

Posing in La Palma, El Salvador

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.)

El Salvador – San Salvador

I had been in Central America before, but having spent too much time in Utila, I had to sacrifice some destinations. Sadly, little El Salvador, too much out of the way and with little (obvious) appeal, was booted off the list first. Only for a time though, because I knew I would be back and when I did, I would make El Salvador a priority.

So a couple years later, here I was, in the airport with a plane ticket to San Salvador. In itself, it was not what motivated me to come back to Central America (a tec diving course in Utila is what did), but I had nonetheless made it my first destination. Normally, I would start the story on arrival at a new country but this time, its different. When checking in for my flight, the machine had asked me if I wanted to be on the “flexible passengers list” to which I had replied yes and named a price of 300$USD. That list is basically those passengers that are willing to give up their seats and for what price if the flight gets overbooked. So guess what, my flight was indeed overbooked, but when I showed up at the counter to offer my spot, the Delta employee told me they were offering a 1000$USD credit with the company if I wanted to give up my seat and take the next flight, to which I happily replied : “Of course”. The next flight was only four hours away and my original layover being a good 10 hours in Atlanta, waiting there or here in Montreal made no difference whatsoever to me. The 1000$USD however, will be put to good use, but I’ll let my girlfriend figure that one out.

So onto San Salvador, obviously the capital of El Salvador to which I arrived very late in the evening as it was pouring outside. On the taxi ride to hostel, I dusted off my Spanish discussing with the taxi driver and getting travel advice, which he happily provided. El Salvador, he told me, had everything one could hope for as a travel destination even though it is small. He was aware of the reputation his country had for being one the most dangerous places on the continent, but he assured me those days were over and things had gotten a lot safer lately. Anyway, this all had gotten me very excited and I went to bed feeling quite glad to be there and eager to get out and explore the city for the coming days.

San Salvador's central market

San Salvador’s central market

San Salvador's cathedralFirst morning, I was up somewhat late because of a pretty hefty sleep debt that I had to repay and the extremely powerful snoring of one of my roommates. So after a quick coffee, I set out and walked around for the better part of the day, only coming back when the sun was starting to set. During those couple of hours, I walked through a shopping mall (to see what the Salvadoreans are up to on a Saturday), the central market, checked out the main cathedral, encountered a very loud (with explosives the likes of which I had not seen since my time in the army) protest commemorating the murder of some university students by a repressive government in the 70s, attempted to visit the university but got turned back by guards and finally made my way back home walking through the back streets. The evening was spent having drinks and discussing politics (Brexit, Brexit and Brexit), travels and such with Felix, a German traveler passing through the country on his way from Guatemala to Nicaragua. El Salvador is definitely not on most’s people’s list.

Protest in San Salvador

Protest in San Salvador

Sorry for jumping subjects, but while taking a break I just had a 20 minute conversation with a Japanese man in … Spanish. Evidently, his English was not up to task so we defaulted to that language as for having spent a year here working in economic development, he was quite proficient in it, slightly more so than me. I would never have thought of that happening in my lifetime :)

So back to San Salvador. Just like any other Central American capital and even more so in some cases, it’s polluted, chaotic, loud and ugly. It has been invaded by those fast food chains that are so familiar to us to a point where they occupy prime land, are multiple stories high in pristine buildings all fenced off and guarded by armed security guards, making them the nicest infrastructure in an otherwise run down city. Speaking of security guards, they’re everywhere, standing in front of most commercial or official buildings with shotguns and pistols at the ready. As for the fast food joints, evidently, Salvadoreans, given how overweight they tend to be, enjoy their presence a lot. I entered a McDonald’s to see what was up on the menu and could not help but noticed how expensive it was, even more so than in Canada. It’s somewhat of a pity because Salvadorean cuisine appears to be much more rich and varied than it’s regional counterparts. The city is dotted with small kiosks and comedores offering a large variety of snacks and plates, only outnumbered by pupuserias, small stands serving pupusas, a national dish comprising of small tortillas filled with anything from black beans to cheese, tomato sauce and coleslaw. Plus, a single dollar will buy enough for a proper meal.

San Salvador stood out of the other national capitals of the region for its inhabitants were much more friendly and it was entirely devoid of gringos. As a matter of fact, I did not see any on my walk the first day save for two that were having a beer on a pricey terrace in the center. It did not feel dangerous and I could be out at night without fearing too much for my life. Not that I really wanted to party and come late (altough no occasion presented itself), but it’s nice to be able to go out at sundown for some pupusas.

The second day I had to wake up extra early to go diving with El Salvador Divers. Evidently, that drink with my German buddy extended itself to some whisky which I had brought from Canada so I went to bed late and was welcomed with, again, the earth-shaking snoring of my bunk mate. In total, I must have accumulated four hours of sleep and by pure luck I opened my eyes in time for my pick-up to go diving, as I had put my earphones on to use them as earplugs and had overslept my alarm. Since it was the rainy season here, there is no diving in the pacific as coastline waters are clouded with runoffs for the whole summer. Instead, we went to lake Ilopango, an ancient volcanic crater. At 80 square kilometers, it must have been quite an eruption and in fact, geologists do think so as well (it’s downfall has been found in the ice records). Nowadays though, it’s a somewhat quiet volcanic lake surrounded by villas. The top layers of the water were quite opaque because of recent raining but the visibility at the bottom was excellent. Both dives were made along a black volcanic rock cliff, which made for spectacular and unusual environment for me. Back at the hostel, I caught up on my sleep with a huge nap and woke up just in time to go to the Modern art museum. I hurried there but on showing up at the gate, I was told by the (armed) security guard that it was exceptionally closed for fumigation. Disappointed, I walked off and soon encountered huge traffic, which was inordinate I thought for a Sunday night. I traced it back to its source and came upon la feria Consuma, a festival it seems devoted to shopping. For a 1.50$, I bought my way inside a interesting piece of local life and did some people watching for some time before I headed home to study for my tec course.

El TuncoI had wanted to spend only two days in San Salvador but feeling there was a bit more to explore, I extended my stay by one night and took off early to get to El Tunco, a famous surfing beach some 40 kilometers away on the coast. Getting there took slightly longer than expected as I did not make the bus connection that I was supposed to and ended up at the wrong terminal, but eventually, I found the right bus and an hour later was dropped of at the beach. Not that I had some expectations about the place, but I was left somewhat dissapointed as all there was to it was hotels and restaurants and everything appeared to be geared towards surfing. The beach, or lack thereof, was a small stripe of rocks about a meter wide. I have to admit though, it must have been quite the spot as the waves where immense and fairly close to the coast. I had taken my bathing suit with me just in case I had wanted to rent a board, but this place was way out of my league.

La Libertad

La Libertad

Having had enough of El Tunco, I caught a bus back to La Libertad, a port town through which I had passed on my way to my first destination. My Lonely Planet guide (from 2010) described the town as sketchy but a lot must have changed in the recent past as I would describe it as quite the opposite. It was lively: the seafront was packed with restaurants and a huge wharf featuring a bustling fish market, some ceviche stands and fishermen working on their boats after a day out at sea. Passed the restaurants, there was a nice paved walk (by Salvadorean standards) which ended at another surfing beach, where I sat for a good hour having a beer and watching some pretty talented surfers negotiating breaks several meters high. I would have stayed longer, but buses in El Salvador don’t run late so I caught the 17h30 back to the capital, had some pupusas and spent the rest of the evening on my computer.

The day after, I checked out, went back to the art museum for a quick visit; took a bus; stopped at the right place to catch another bus that would take me to the terminal; waited for a while without seeing that bus; decided to walk to the terminal; while walking, finally saw the bus but omitted to ask where it was going (the same bus routes do not necessarily take you to the same place); ended up at the opposite end of the town. Normally, I would have hoped off before, but since I was carrying all my belongings, I did not want to be left in a random neighborhood and having to walk to find my way. Some ladies told me to wait until we would come across a proper bus stop so I could catch the right bus going in the opposite direction. After an hour lost circling around town, I finally arrived at the terminal where I could catch transportation to Santa Ana, my next destination. Time wasted in transportation is part of traveling and even though I’ve been at it for quite some time now, I don’t seem to get better at negotiating my way around public transport.

Pimped up bus!

Pimped up bus!

 

Georgia, part 2

Georgia is small and can be traversed from one end to the other in a couple of hours provided there are not too many trucks: on a single day of driving, we departed from Yerevan in Armenia and made it to Stepansmida (formerly known as Kazbegi) deep in northern Georgia. Lauded as one of the best destination for hiking, Stepansmida lies close to the Russian border high in the Caucasus mountains but only a 2h30 drive away from Tbilisi  using the famous “Georgian military highway”. Our original goal was to spend two days there but due to unforeseen delays we only had one. Nonetheless, this would have provided us with half a day of hiking around as the rental car was not due until the middle of the afternoon.

The scenery on the way to Stepansmida

With hitchikers

With hitchikers

The drive up was spectacular, even more so than earlier mountain scenery we had been exposed to. The weather was noticeably cooler, the peaks higher, the valleys deeper and the terrain more abrupt. On the way there, we picked up three Ukrainian hitchhikers which we managed to cram in the car along with their backpacks and a guitar. Our vehicle, already struggling, was taxed almost to its capacity but it was worth taking our time as the view was worth it. Having dropped our guests at their destination, we kept going until we encountered some weird Soviet era monument a bit before the Jvari pass. The structure was curious, but it was the scenery that caught our attention the most. I might be breaking graphic design rules here but I think it’s worth two large photos in a row.

Monument on the way to Stepansmida

Monument on the way to Stepansmida

Going down into the clouds

 

We resumed the climb, crossed the Jvari pass and dived through a thick layer of clouds under which layed a large valley. However, something strange was profiling itself on the horizon. Trucks, and lots of them, stopped by the side of the road, with their drivers out just killing time with one another. What was wrong? Was the road damaged? The car we were following just kept going as if it was nothing important so we continued. For several kilometers and until we hit our destination we passed countless freight trucks stopped in the same fashion. Weird.

Having not booked any accommodation, we were turned down at the guesthouse we were hoping to sleep in. It was high season after all and that small town was one of the most popular destination in Georgia. After almost an hour of driving around to find beds, we finally had to settle for an expensive hotel that was offering us a (still expensive) discounted room. While eating diner that night, we asked the waiter about all the trucks lining the road. Turns out it was the lineup for the Russian customs. With the border in South-Ossetia and Abkhazia being closed to traffic coming from Georgia, that border crossing was the only one linking not only Georgia to Russia, but also Armenia and eastern Turkey.

The next day, I woke up to find out that my girlfriend had been sick all night from the a sketchy kebab we had eaten for lunch in Armenia. Some medication I gave her managed to improve her condition slightly, but she was in no shape to go on a hike. Anyway, the weather was foggy so in all cases our morning was ruined. The drive down from the mountains back to Tbilisi was not as spectacular so we went as fast as possible and managed to return the car on time but not without me informing the rental agency about all the issues the vehicle had. Independent rental agency tend to offer lower prices than franchises, but their cars are often in a rougher shape.

The first time we had been in Tbilisi, we had opted for a dorm in an hostel but given my girlfriend’s condition, we had booked a proper hotel. However, they had an unpleasant surprise waiting for us on arrival: the prices advertised on the booking site were inaccurate so they wanted to charge us way more. Wanting to explore other options, we walked around for a while trying to find an alternative but soon realized rooms in the old town were pricier than expected. In the end we ended up taking the room we had booked. The owner, feeling very sorry, excused herself many times and explained that the price discrepancy was due to the booking site (hostelworld.com) not working properly. Feeling she was the problem rather than the site, I offered her my help so while my girlfriend was catching a nap, I painstakingly rebuilt her hotel’s page on the booking site.

It was easy and contrary to her belief, everything was working as expected. Her issue was a case of failing to RTFM (read the f*cking manual). It took two hours but I was enjoying the experience of guiding here through the interface and giving her marketing advice for her establishment. Immensely grateful for my aid, she offered me coffee and snacks while I was working, charged me the price we had originally expected to pay for the room, promised me free beers that night and a ride to the airport the next day. I had wanted to use that time for work, but instead I got to discover how to set up and hostel on hostelworld.com. For the remainder of the day, not much happened, she went to bed early while I caught up on blogging and work, sipping on my well deserved free drinks.

Inside Tbilisi Sameba cathedral

Inside Tbilisi Sameba Cathedral

Tbilisi Sameba cathedralThe following day, our last, she was doing much better so we checked out, left our bags at the hotel and proceeded to walk around Tbilisi. The Sameba Cathedral was our first objective. Built in 2004 to bolster faith and unity in a post-Soviet Georgia, nothing was spared in making it one of the most impressive structure in this corner of the world. It was immense, on many levels and took easily an hour to explore. The rest of the day was spent walking as far as we could and catching the metro back to the old town. We went through nice parts of town and some more popular ones, reminding us that Georgia is still a developing country and that our standard of living is the exception rather than the norm.

In the old town

In the old town

Our time in Georgia was almost over. We were leaving at 6h30 the next day and wanted to arrive at the airport around midnight to sleep there. There was however one more thing we needed to do: have a proper taste at Georgian wine and buy bottles to bring back home. That was what our last evening was devoted to. We visited a couple of shops which offered us cheap samples and poor service but settled on one that was a bit out of the way but about which I had a good feeling. I was right in my intuition, samples were plentiful, we got freebies and excellent service. Extremely satisfied with our experience and slightly inebriated, we decided we would give them the extra alcohol we had brought into the country but could not take back home. I had a bottle of Ouzo and some Quebec made Chic Choc spiced rum. I hope the gift was appreciated.

Tbilisi’s airport was small and crowded but we scored a pretty decent spot with an electrical outlet. She slept while I killed time on the computer until check-in started. After connections through Kiev and Amsterdam, we landed home at the end of the afternoon. It always takes a bit of time for the brain to switch out of traveling mode.  As we were gazing in amazement at cars and houses, It felt like Montreal, a city extremely familiar to us, was new and exotic. That was obviously not the case, but it was certainly much different that what we had been used to seeing over the last few weeks. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia had been feast for the eyes. Similar to each other in some aspects but very alike in others; it’s amazing how much diversity was packed in such a small area. The last weeks had been filled with amazing landscapes, amazing food and amazing encounters and our minds, not yet weened off the drug, was still craving for more even if a huge part of us, exhausted and in need of a rest, was happy to have arrived.

Our great disappointment was not having spent enough time in the region, but two weeks was all we could spare. In that time, we have barely brushed the surface of those three countries. We do not regret the ways we organized our time. It’s not like we can easily come back there; this may have been only chance to see that part of the world so doing a quick tour was in our opinion the best way to make the most of that trip. It’s hard for me to say what I enjoyed the most but I would most definitely put food and scenery at the top of the list so if I do come back, I’ll certainly orient my trip towards hiking expeditions, urban exploration of abandoned Soviet infrastructure and spend a bit of time in the wine making regions.

Oh yeah and if I do rent a vehicle, it’s going to be a 4×4.

 

Armenia

It was around 18h00 when we finally passed the border. The scenery around us was a large expanses of grassy hills with herds of cow pasturing here and there punctuated by small villages. We had been told that the roads in Armenia were of dismal quality but we were still on decent pavement. The sun was setting and light was transitioning towards orange.

Armenian scenery

Abandoned plant in Gyumri

Abandoned plant in Gyumri

The first large city we passed through was Gyumri. On both sides of the road were old socialist style apartment blocks, one after the other and nothing else except for some large trees. It was gloomy. Once we had passed Gyumri we started encountering large abandoned industrial complexes, relics of a bygone era of Soviet Armenia. I was aching to visit one but given the hour an my companion unwillingness, I had to let go of that project.

Some more barren scenery of earth, pastures and industrial left overs and we arrived in Yegenadzor, another large city which given the diminishing light, appeared as gloomier than is previous counterparts. Careful not to generalize that impression to the rest of Armenia, we had however came to the conclusion that the country was much much poorer than it’s neighbors. Given the hardships of passing the border and my companion having fell ill the night before, this certainly did not set an uplifting mood. Anyway, we arrived quite late in Dilijan, which even at night, looked a lot more inviting than other cities in the region. After a good meal provided by the guesthouse, she went to sleep while I did some catching up on the writing.

Visiting the Haghartsin monastery

Visiting the Haghartsin monastery

At breakfast, we met an Austrian couple traveling within the region. That morning, they wanted to check out the two nearby monasteries, Haghartsin and Goshavank. Thinking it was a great idea, we offered our car in exchange for their companionship. Monasteries are the thing in Georgia in Armenia, they’re on almost every iconic picture of the region and always numerous in whatever region you may be. Though Armenia’s monasteries are slightly different than Georgia’s, we were not exactly thrilled of visiting yet another one but we felt we had to make the effort. The first monastery was nothing really picturesque but to our pleasant surprise, there was a priest in the chapel who decided to gave us blessings during a quick ceremony where we were given grapes and an a printed icon of Jesus Christ. At the second monastery, which offered us a more interesting visit due to having been restored more recently, was a family which according to the most plausible theory we came up with, was baptizing a newcomer to their circle. They had a sheep on leash, which again according to our analysis, would be eaten later on in the day during the ensuing celebrations. We did not stuck around long enough to witness the fate of the animal.

The Haghartsin monastery

So we dropped off our Austrian friends at a nearby lake and hit the road towards Lake Sevan, Armenia’s only sizable body of water and a popular destination for Yerevan’s inhabitants during hot summer days. One mountain pass and a bit of highway later, we had reached it. Not much time was spent there: we drove around, stopped for a grossly overpriced meal at a crappy restaurant and got the hell out. The Lonely Planet guide had made the place sound like a perfect spot for taking an afternoon off, but it was filthy and overcrowded. Every inch of coast was monopolized by a restaurant or bar competing with one another for the loudest sound system. There was so little room that people were forced to bathe in the boat launch.

Scenery outside of lake Sevan. We stayed so little time on lake Sevan that we barely took any pictures.

Scenery outside of lake Sevan. We stayed so little time on lake Sevan that we barely took any pictures.

Again on the road, going around the lake, we were hoping for pretty views of the landscape around but it was just an endless stream of poverty. Having not eaten enough in Sevan, we attempted to get some food at a supermarket but only got out with two bottles of wine to take back home. What we did also get was a good laugh at all the kitschy merchandise the place was selling and the gross incompetency of the staff working there. Our next objective was the Yeghegis valley, seemingly a nice place with plenty of ruins to check out and we arrived in the middle of the afternoon after an amazing drive in spectacular plateaus, mountains and canyons. To our amazement, the roads in Armenia were much better than we had expected. Bumpy, certainly, but at least continuously paved, wide and travelable at a good speed. With less truck traffic than Georgia, we were actually eating kilometers at a greater rate than up north, we the road system was supposedly better. At least this was true for the major roads, which I think were being financed by international aid as every other piece of public infrastructure was crumbling.

Arates Vank monastery

Arates Vank monastery

Scenery in ArmeniaThe Yeghegis valley held many sights but not wanting to be off-roading again with a compact car, we could only reach two of them: a church and a mysterious Jewish cemetery. Having had enough time, it would have been worth settling there for a day of two and explore the place on foot of with bikes. Far from any large agglomeration, the people inhabiting the small villages we passed were quick to give us directions and some even offered us freshly picked fruits. A pleasant departure from the general rudeness we had been exposed to so far. This seems to a rule that is true everywhere: the smaller and more remote the place, the nicer the people are. The original plan had been to spend the night there but with enough daylight to drive for two more hours but not to visit more sights,  we pushed to Yerevan, the capital at which we arrived around 21h00 but not without passing the impressive mount Ararat, towering 5 kilometers over the city.

While having our morning Armenian coffee (a Turkish coffee really), we read the guide and came up with a list of things we each wanted to visit in the city. First a visit of the nearby mosque  (the only one remaining in Yerevan), then, we proceeded to a quick tour of the contemporary art museum and after, we walked across the river to the Ararat Brandy distillery, which I really wanted to check out. Visits were normally by appointment only, but we managed to insert ourselves in an afternoon English tour. I did not know what to expect, it would either be a stupid museum of an actual visit of the installations. Regrettably, it was the former, with no chance of witnessing the actual brandy making process. It sort of reminded me of the Heineken museum in Amsterdam, which my brother really insisted we visit, but which I was certain would be a waste of time and money. The Ararat distillery was not as bad, but I was hoping for a lot more: I really really don’t give a damn about the evolution of the design your bottle, I want to see rows of casks, pipes, fermenters and alembics.

Yerevan's cathedral

Yerevan’s cathedral

Next up was the cathedral and a metro ride (also build soviet style) through the city to check out the Cascade, but not before having coffee in one of the numerous parks in downtown Yerevan. With its circular layout, the core of the city is belted by a large longitudinal park and dotted with other smaller green spaces. It is clean and well maintained and is obviously the focus all the investments as other districts are depressingly poor and run down. For that reason, Yerevan feels very different than the rest of Armenia. High-end restaurants, luxury cars, fashion outlets even we could not afford, it is an island of wealth in a sea of poverty. The cascade, a gigantic staircase decorated with recessed fountains sort of exemplifies the Yerevan reality.

In front of the Cascade. I had no reason to be sad, I had a great time there

At the bottom of the Cascade, making a sad face for no reason

Started in the 90s under Soviet rule, the project was halted for several years and then brought to a state of semi-completion though a donation from a rich Armenian. It’s a spectacular piece of urban architecture and from the bottom, it looks finished. The top part however, still a tangle of rebar and concrete littered with soviet machinery, has not been touched since the 90s. At the top of the stairs sits a run down monument celebrating 50 years of Soviet Armenia which offers a nice view of the city with mount Ararat in the background.

 

View of Yerevan from the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia monument

View of Yerevan from the 50th anniversary of Soviet Armenia monument

The day after, we had to get back in Georgia so to celebrate the end of the Armenian portion of the road-trip, we had dinner at a upper-class French-Armenian fusion restaurant. Several glasses of wine, appetizers and entrées costed us no more than your average meal out in Canada. They had truffles on the menu so upon asking if I could try one at a decent price, they offered me a slice of the black and the white variety free of charge. Afterwards, we had a beer at the hostel and that was it, we had to leave early the next morning.

Out on the road around nine, we again passed through Lake Sevan and Dilijan and at noon we found ourselves near the border at a small roadside restaurant, having a meal of kebab, shashlik and salad. Afterwards, we visited the Sanahrin monastery  which was highly recommended in the guide and frankly worth the detour and then reached the border an hour later. There, we still had to go through the mysterious custom broker employees to get our paperwork in order, but overall it was a lot simpler than on the way in. In line with us numerous poor souls trying to navigate Armenia’s border control bureaucratic mess. The weather was hot and so were the tempers. Thankfully, we were in and out quite fast.  On the Georgian side : a quick glance at our passports, a stamp and the friendly border guard wished us « Welcome back to Georgia! »

Armenia was beautiful, intriguing ( I would have loved to explore all this abandoned infrastructure and delve deeper in the country’s Soviet past), but somewhat depressing so we had mixed feelings about our short time there. We found everyone we interacted with unpleasant and the food did nothing to compensate for that. Then again, Armenians are sort of excused. They have suffered many hardships in recent history, have very limited access to resources, an economy in ruins and a limited ability to grow things due to their country being very mountainous and dry. Evidently, we were grateful for having had the opportunity to visit, but we both felt like contrary to other countries in the region, there was not much there that would entice us to come back.

The good old days of Soviet Armenia...

The good old days of Soviet Armenia…