After leaving Kathy in Guatemala, I really felt like I was on my own as I headed for the El Salvadoran border. But that didn’t last long. A little background on El Salvador: it is the smallest country in Central America and often overlooked by travelers. Plus, since El Salvador has the best economy in Central America, there has been little need to focus on catering to tourism and backpackers. Therefore, travelers in El Salvador often receive shocked reactions from locals. And solo female travelers throw them off even more.
I had hardly crossed the border when some teenage boys (who had been on the same bus with me) approached me and asked if I was traveling alone. They said their mom was coming to pick them up and that she could give me a ride if I wanted. I waited until she came, and then I figured that they knew the area better than I did so they could at least direct me to where I needed to go. However, they were all afraid of me traveling by myself to Santa Ana in the late afternoon and insisted that I stay with them at their house in Metapán, a town half an hour in from the border. So within an hour of being in the country, my first El Salvadoran family adopted me. Awesome.
I stayed the night with them, washed some clothes in the pila, got organized, hung out with the mom, went out to get papusas (a typical food—more on those later) with the boys, and got a great night’s rest. The next day, one of the brothers, Henry, drove me to the bus station and sent me on my way to Santa Ana, which was actually only about an hour and a half away.
In Santa Ana, I settled into the most amazing hostel I have ever stayed at. It was like a giant home complete with a pool, hammocks, fully stocked kitchen, lounge, Wi-Fi—you name it. Even each dorm bed (no bunk beds!) had its own nightlight and small fan. Anything you could think of or needed was covered and at your fingertips. The owner had thought of everything and did a really great job! It was so nice, I didn’t even want to leave the hostel, but I did wander around town and over to the famous cathedral in the central park that looked like a perfectly sculpted white castle—and the inside was just as breathtaking!
It was in Santa Ana that I met my next travel buddy, Tibo, from France. He was staying at the same hostel and a small group of us would hang out and have dinners together. Most of the others went their own ways, but since Tibo and I were headed in a similar direction, we decided to stick together for another day or two. So from Santa Ana, we headed out to the Pacific Coast with the famous El Tunco beach in mind as our destination. El Salvador is renowned for its Pacific beaches, specifically in the world of surfers because it has some of the best breaks. To our surprise and slight disappointment, the “surfer” beach we had in mind was hardly conducive to the non-surfer’s enjoyment. El Tunco was terribly rocky and very unpleasant to walk on. We walked it nonetheless, but I immediately decided that it wasn’t the place for me.
Despite the fact that neither of us really fit well into Surfer Town, Tibo and I really had the best time together. He’s a great talker (even though he would say otherwise) and extremely smart and polite. He has such a way about him that he seemed so nice as he listed off all the stereotypical obnoxious behaviors and superior attitudes that Americans tend to exhibit toward the rest of the world. Of course he acknowledged that the French have acquired their own set of stereotypes as well, but he had more fun bashing the Americans in his charming way. And there was little to deny…
In the evening, Tibo and I decided to take on the notorious nightlife scene of El Tunco. But we agreed to have each other’s backs the whole time and make sure we each got back to our own dorm beds that night. (It was good that we had our buddy system because certain dorm mates seemed to have gotten lost on their way to bed that night.) So off we went to find some live music and dancing and new friends. El Tunco attracts some crazy people and one unforgettable night was plenty for me. The stories Tibo and I could tell from that night could go on and on. Better left off the record, though…
I had already decided that afternoon that one night there would suffice for me and then I’d be ready to move on so I set up plans with another family for the next day. In the morning, Tibo and I went out to breakfast together. It was a little sad for both of us to be parting ways, but I couldn’t take any more of El Tunco; I had to move on. As we enjoyed our last meal together, we laughed over all the inside jokes we had created during the week. I am so grateful for the friendship we created that week. Tibo is such a wonderful person to be around and I hope to one day cross paths with him again. Maybe in Europe next time…
From El Tunco, I hopped on a bus headed for San Salvador, the capital, where I was meeting my next family. On Christmas, I had met a guy, José, and his parents, Herbert and Liliana, at Mass at the cathedral in Antigua and we got to talking. They were from El Salvador and José was currently working as an engineer at BMW in Germany (and thus living there). We’ve kept in touch so when I knew I’d be in El Salvador, I told him that I’d like to stop by and say hi to parents. Sure enough, it all worked out. Liliana came and picked my up from one of the bus stops, took me out to a nice lunch (more papusas and other typical fare), and then brought me back to their house to visit with her and her husband for a couple hours. It was the perfect timing for a lovely visit and so good to reconnect with such a nice family before bouncing to yet another local family.
Liliana gave me a ride to my next destination—the home of a complete stranger. Well, not 100% unknown. When I had posted on Facebook that I arrived in El Salvador, my friend from college, Diana, wrote to me saying that she told her aunt and uncle I was there and that her aunt, Yolanda, wanted to show me around. So we got together that Friday afternoon and, little did I know, I was going to be attached to them for 11 more days!
So I was just on this train of family-hopping through El Salvador. I was originally planning to spend only about 6 days in El Salvador before going to Nicaragua, but when I kept getting adopted by families, it made it hard to leave. I ended up staying in El Salvador for over two weeks! And one thing I can definitely say is that El Salvadorans are some of the most hospitable people I have come across. It was such a joy to be included in these families when they hardly knew me and vice versa. Also, I had the rare opportunity to experience the tiny nation almost completely from a local perspective, something many backpackers don’t get the chance to do. I am happy I hadn’t made any solid plans beforehand either because I would not have had the same experience.
Yolanda was so excited to take me around, and it turned out that the whole country was celebrating a national holiday that week so everyone was on vacation. She invited me to go with her and her husband, Alejandro, to their other home in northern El Salvador where we were joined by her cousin, Elsa, and Elsa’s husband, Anival, and stayed for three nights. They showed me Ahuachapán, Ataco, Apaneco, and Salcoatitlán, all towns along the famous Ruta de las Flores (Flower Route), a tropical stretch of highway dotted with flowers and vegetation, and they took me to a nice beach on Costa Azul on a day where I met even more of their family.
They were so eager to show me the best parts of their country and teach me all about the Salvadoran culture and especially the cuisine. Yolanda made sure I tried everything she could think of. Some dishes included canoas, large, cream-stuffed boiled plantains, atol de elote, a sweet warm drink made from baby corn (that has so much more flavor than Guatemalan atoles), tamalitos de elote, again, corn tamales that are soft and lightly sweet and oh-so-delicious, casamiento, the Salvadoran rice ‘n beans dish that is basically just rice mixed with refried (not whole) red beans, horchata de morro, made from a special seed unique to El Salvador instead of rice, and lastly, but most importantly, papusas, corn-based pancake-like savory patties that are made from mixing the cornmeal with cheese plus another ingredient (such as beans, pork rind, squash, spinach, chicken, or loroco [an edible plant]) and then letting the patty cook on a heated griddle. Papusas are the pride of El Salvador and for good reason!
Back on the outskirts of San Salvador, I stayed in the guest room of Yolanda’s beautiful home and was fed well and entertained for the rest of the week. Yolanda, Leonel (her son-in-law), Andrés (her grandson whom she absolutely adores), and I went on a couple outings including one to El Salvador’s Volcano National Park. Because Andrés wasn’t even three yet, we didn’t attempt any crazy hiking that day. Instead, we took a 45-minute walking tour around one dormant volcano, Cerro Verde, where we had views of two other active volcanoes, Volcán Izalco (last eruption was in the 1950s) and Volcán Santa Ana.
Another pleasant surprise I had while in El Salvador was being able to get together with another college friend, Danilo, from St. Mary’s. Danilo is half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadoran and just happened to be in San Salvador for a family reunion during the same time I was there! (I probably could have jumped families and been taken up by his if I wanted to be because that is just how Salvadorans are, but I was pretty set with Yolanda’s family who had lots more plans to take me around.) Danilo and I were able to spend an entire afternoon into the evening together catching up and swapping stories. What a great time we had! It was so nice to see him. (He saved my computer once during college so we always laugh about that and have plenty more stories to go around.)
The next outing Yolanda took me on was to a beach called Costa del Sol. The thing about El Salvador’s “nice” beaches, though, is that the coastline is lined with exclusive clubs that own the property and you can only get access to the beach if you have a membership to the club. Lucky for me, Yolanda had a membership. Our outing included Yolanda’s brother, Carlos, and his girlfriend and her daughter, Leonel (who had the day off work) and Andrés, Yolanda (who is retired), and me. It was a beautiful day and we all enjoyed the resort-like accommodations that this particular club was equipped with: a large pool, hammocks, beach access, and fresh coconuts to order. We later had a fantastic seafood lunch. It was like a little slice of paradise, but El Salvador (and a lot of Salvadorans) can afford to have that.
The beach was absolutely perfect to me. It had plenty of golden sand and lots of waves, but the waves weren’t so big that they could drown you. The water temperature was just right and the beach went down a long way in both directions—great for strolling. Since I love to walk on the beach (an activity that I have come to realize that, oddly, only a small percentage of people are interested in), I took off in the afternoon for some walking exercise. My guard was down as I was enjoying this lovely beach and its crashing waves so I didn’t hear the dogs that attacked me until they were too close. I got scared, screamed, and started backing away, but I didn’t make it into the safety of the ocean until after one of the two dogs put a gash in my thigh. (I am pretty sure it was a territory thing; we checked with the dogs’ owners and had them monitored for rabies during the next week and everything was fine.) It was definitely a reality check on the yin and yang of life, though: even my perfect beach had its flaws.
That evening when Leonel’s wife, Karen, got off of work and we all had dinner, Leonel, Karen, and I went out to experience the famous nightlife of San Salvador. The town was hoppin’! Since they have a little one, they don’t usually go out much, but Leonel was eager to show me, the visitor, a good time. We ended up at a place called Los Rinconcitos, which was like a 3-in-1 entertainment spot. We started with section that had the live band playing which really revved us up. From there, we walked into the attached building to have a run with karaoke night. And when we got tired of that and decided it was late, we had to pass through the dance club which had high-energy music playing that pumped us up again so we stayed and danced for about half an hour longer before finally going home. The thing about nightlife in El Salvador is that it doesn’t end until the sun comes up—there is no closing time.
A few days before when we had gone to the Volcano National Park, we made the plan to come back on Saturday to hike Volcano Santa Ana when Karen could supervise Andrés. Unfortunately, she ended up having to work that day which meant Yolanda was on grandkid-duty and Leonel and I were the only two who were able to take on the hike. But we did it! It was about a 4-hour round trip trek, beginning on Cerro Negro, and out of all the volcano climbs I have done, I would say that the crater of Santa Ana was coolest one I have ever seen. It has a small turquoise-colored lake that looks like a precious jewel lodged in the crater, and this volcano (last eruption October, 2005) still shows signs of activity on a daily basis with sulfur vents spewing vapors from the lake and crevices in the walls surrounding it. The natural beauty was spectacular!
Like most volcanoes, the altitude at the summit creates a very cool atmosphere and tends to attract a lot of clouds and fog. We arrived sweaty, but had to bundle up some in order to be able to enjoy the rewarding views. We munched on the snacks we had brought and walked around for a little while before making the descent. We felt so accomplished!
On the way back home, we decided to stop at Lago de Coatepeque, a fine, pristine lake at the foot of Volcán Santa Ana, for a couple hours to relax and cool off. This lake, just like along the Costa del Sol, is practically monopolized by exclusive clubs and very wealthy Salvadorans with lake houses. Leonel had his membership, of course, which allowed us access to the grounds and pool. We rented a jet ski and took it all around the lake for just over an hour in the late afternoon. It was so exhilarating and neat to be able to explore the entire circumference of the lake and the little island in one of the corners at high-speed. What a fun activity! However, it did feel a little strange to be taking a jet ski for a spin in a developing nation…
The next day was also a very active day. It started with yet another trip to a volcano, this time El Boquerón in San Salvador. Danilo was still in town so we invited him along for the trek, only it wasn’t much of a trek. You can drive your car up most of the way, and then, once you get out, it takes only about 10 minutes to get to the viewing area for the crater. It was pretty cool, but good company always makes a trip better, and that is what I had.
After that, Leonel dropped me off to get a clinical pedicure. According to both Leonel and Danilo, El Salvador is famous for their clinical pedicures. Danilo told me that that is the first activity his family does upon arrival to El Salvador every two years because it is so amazing. The feet “clinicians” really get down into your feet and toenails and dig all the gross stuff out, scrape off any callouses, and smooth everything else down. No nail polish at the end, just really clean, fresh feet and toes. I got mine (for less than $10) and can honestly say that, although some of the machines they used which I had never seen in my life kind of scared me, it felt like I had a new pair of feet when they were done with me.
Because I was planning on leaving El Salvador the following day (a Monday), I took the rest of Sunday as my travel preparation day: washed my laundry, repacked my backpack, went to the grocery store to stock up on snacks, etc. Since everyone in the house knew I was planning on taking off as well, Leonel planned a really nice going-away family lunch that day for me, and he even arranged for him, Karen, and me to go get massages later that afternoon.
One of the unique aspects regarding staying with this family for so long was that I got to listen to their stories and get to know many family members on an individual basis as well as see the local perspective regarding El Salvador’s brutal history. El Salvador is a tiny country, but not very many indigenous people exist there anymore because the majority of them were killed off during the civil war. El Salvador never had the landmass or numbers to garner the type of strength that Guatemala could during its civil war. Most citizens are ladino now.
Yolanda’s husband shared a story with me from the civil war: he said the government had issued a countrywide curfew during that period and that all people had to be in their houses by 7 PM every night. Soldiers who had orders to shoot anyone they found outside after 7 patrolled the streets. Alejandro told me that one night he was hanging out with some buddies and lost track of time. On his way home, he was detained by soldiers. They had a gun to his head and were about to kill him when one of the soldiers who was from that town recognized Alejandro and stopped the army from carrying out the sentence, sending Alejandro hurriedly on his way home. Alejandro was forever grateful to that friend and the twist of fate, but he recounted his stories very solemnly, recognizing the difficulties the country faced and expressing thankfulness that times have changed.
Speaking of how things have changed in El Salvador, this country has adopted many American habits. As you could probably tell, this family is well-off. Not wealthy, but able to afford more than enough. We had a great discussion about consumerism and Yolanda admitted that she has trouble escaping the consumer society that San Salvador is becoming. She also lives a very fast-paced lifestyle with appointments, schedules, and routines. It was interesting to spend so much time with her because her lifestyle stressed me out, sometimes making me very anxious and putting me on edge. I recognized it as a little taste of reverse culture shock and I managed to find ways to communicate with her when I needed to slow down or do my own thing. It made me identify some of the readjustment issues I will likely face coming home, and I decided that all this traveling is going to significantly help make my transition home go smoothly because I don’t have to take reverse culture shock head-on all at once; instead, the Central American traveling allows me to take the developed, fast-paced world in doses and retreat from it as I need to.
It was so great to be with Yolanda’s family. They absolutely spoiled me, providing me with my own comfortable, room, feeding me whenever they could, and showing me everything they love about their country. I hardly spent any money in El Salvador and when I tried to pitch in for a meal or activity I did with the family, they reprimanded me! El Salvador is an inexpensive country to travel in and the American dollar stretches far especially when you only need nickels, dimes, and quarters to pay bus fares and buy street food, but it got to a point where I really started wanting to spend to my OWN money. (El Salvador actually uses American dollars as its national currency—as does Ecuador—because in 2001, the United States experimented with these two countries to see if they could make the dollar the uniform currency in all of Central and South America; it didn’t work out but El Sal and Ecuador maintained the money system nonetheless.)
A couple times I caught myself wondering why I was spending so much time with that family and not my own, and it made me miss MY family. I also felt that I had gotten to know the inner workings of that family very well—maybe too well—and although I was so grateful for their hospitality, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and I knew it was time for me to move on and be on my own again. I wanted my independence back, plus Nicaragua was calling my name.
Before I left, the family insisted that I tend more to my dog bit so Leonel took me to the health center on Monday to have a consultation with the doctor, which meant that I couldn’t leave until Tuesday, making a grand total of 15 days spent in El Salvador. Of all the Central American countries I have visited, El Salvador comes out on top in regards to hospitality, ease of getting around (in such a small country, everywhere you want to go seems so close and takes just an hour or two to get there—a nice contrast from the 5, 10, or 16-hour bus rides I had gotten used to in other countries) and local food. (Mexico beats El Sal with the cuisine, but that is not in Central America…) I still dream about papusas and tamalitos de elote, both of which I could probably eat on a daily basis without tiring of them. All in all, I really enjoyed the time I spent in El Salvador and would gladly go back.
More writing on the way! I am finally making some exploratory progress in Costa Rica, as well…