Tag Archives: El Salvador

My year of travel – a summary

Well, the year of travel is over.   And it was absolutely awesome!  So much so, that I’m avoiding “real life” for another year and heading off again!   So more to come…

Here is where I ended up going over the past year:

The Places

Many people have asked me what has been my highlight from the year, which is always a tough one to answer.  

As far as places go, most would expect me to say Antarctica.  And, while Antarctica was truly incredible, what has stayed most keenly in heart is the 10-day Huayhuash Trek I did in Peru back in September (yes, I know the blog post only just came out – too many pictures to process!).   I traveled with incredible people on both of these journeys, but I think the reason Huayhuash pips Antarctica is that I had to work for it.   10 days hiking above 4,200m, with a pass over 4,800m every day – that takes some doing, and delivers a significant sense of achievement at the end.  

The other thing that Huayhuash had going for it, is that the only time my brain completely turns off is while I’m hiking.   And trust me  – that that point in my trip, I really needed to switch my brain off for a while!  10 days of not thinking about anything except my immediate surroundings was absolute bliss!    And the scenery was amazing!

As far as the biggest positive surprise goes – El Salvador takes that one out hands down.   I loved it there, as did all the people I traveled with.   The El Salvadorean people know that their country has a reputation for being unsafe, and go out of their way to help you and ensure you have a great time.   And oh the pupusas…..

As far as the biggest negative surprise – unfortunately, Cuba.   The way everyone raves about it I probably went in with too high expectations – but most of the time I just felt like I was a walking money-bag.   A couple of caveats with this – I suspect most people go on an organised trip and only stay in the “tourist triangle” – La Havana, Viñales, Trinidad, Varadero.    This would give you a very different experience to the one I had during my first couple of weeks in particular – travelling independently in the eastern part of the island.  

I can only speculate, but I have met several other people who where there either at the same time as me (and who I traveled with) or around the same time, who also ended up with the same opinion.

The People

Apart from where you go and what you see/do, the other key aspect of traveling are the people that you meet.  I strongly suspect that this is even more keenly felt by long-term travelers and, although I shared my journey with many, many wonderful people, the following have left a particularly strong mark:

Nicaragua:   Pedro Torres, Keith Manyin, Caite Handschuh, Tom Rendulich, Sven and Caroline Hansen, Sekar Bala

El Salvador:  Andre (did I ever know your last name Andre?), Susan Jung

Guatemala:  Susan Jung, Julia Koch

Cuba:  Wendy Moors, Rebekka Wessels

Ecuador:  Jenny Waack

Peru: Max Abé, Niccoló Quattropani, Jenny Waack, Rebekka Wessels

Bolivia: Jenny Waack, Kimberley Carter

Chile:  My old ESO buddies, Jenny Waack

Antarctica:  Tyson Brooks, Carl Enfohrs, Remco Verstappen

And a very special thank you has to go to Eliza Hernandez – the most awesome spanish teacher ever!   I am infinitely grateful to have had Eliza as my grammar teacher over the total of 3 months I spent at La Mariposa Spanish School both this trip and on my previous visit.  It is largely thanks to her that my Spanish is almost fluent!

What did I discover?

The other thing that people often ask about when they find out I’ve been travelling for a year is “what did you learn by doing it” and/or “how has it changed you”?   Well, it’s not like I specifically set out to learn anything (apart from improving my Spanish), though I did have a few periods of pretty intense reflection of what I wanted out of life.  

So here’s some non-exhaustive dot point musings about travel from the last year: 

  • it makes you live more in the moment.  I was not really worried about the future and what I needed to do/should do next.  Well, right up until the point where I had to decide whether I would return to my job or not…
  • it allows you to relax and encourages you to take time to do nothing.  Though somehow the days are incredibly full and I have no idea how I managed to fit a full-time job in previously!
  • it gives you the opportunity to meet lots of new and (sometimes) interesting people, and have different conversations to what you would normally have
  • it highlights how little you actually know about the world, and that you should ask more questions, always!
  • it really cuts through the rubbish and highlights how similar we all are, no matter where we come from
  • it teaches you patience and resilience.  Fortunatley I already had a good amount of both, having lived in Latin America previously
  • it forces you to live simply.   You cannot fit very much in a 60L bag, and I’m here to tell you that you really don’t need many material possessions to have an incredible life
  • it doesn’t change the fact that Australia is home and always will be (no matter how much I love Latin America).  If anything, I become more patriotic (but hopefully not in an obnoxious way) when I travel.   It also showed me just how little I knew about certain aspects of my own country (e.g. politics)
  • it makes you really appreciate the luxuries we enjoy in our everyday, first-world lives.   Clean drinking water, hot showers with plenty of water pressure,  the huge variety of fresh and cooked food in Australia, being able to buy a truly cold coke on a hot day from the service station or supermarket…

And what do I want out of life?   Well, I’m still not quite sure I know.  But I’ve always wanted to go back and live in Latin America again for a while, and that now factors into my plan for this coming year 🙂  Living in Ecuador (Chile is too expensive 🙁 ), doing freelance work for organisations back in Australia – it’s kind of one of the ideas Tim Ferriss puts forth in “The 4-hour Work Week”, though I’d had the idea before I read the book.   If it all works out like I hope – it could make for a great life for a while!  

Stay tuned…

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Icecream in Central America

You don’t have to know me for too long before you come to realise how much I love icecream!  I admit it – I’m an addict.   So how does the icecream here in Central America stack up?

Icecream in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, there are essentially two key ice-creameries.   Eskimo – which are absolutely everywhere, and Dos Pinos – which have slightly better icecream but are harder to find.  My recommendation is to go for the Neopolitan or any of the icecreams with peanuts in them (assuming you aren’t allergic of course) from either of the two icecreameries.  Most of the other flavours (on both sides) were a bit meh in my opinion.

The stand-out icecreamery in Nicaragua, however, is Kiss Me.   They are only found in León and Matagalpa and well worth seeking out, with flavours such as “Matagalpa Mud” and “Fruit Punch in the Face” showing the slightly quirky take they have on icecream.

Kiss Me icecream - Nicaragua

Given how hot it was in Nicaragua while I was there, my favourite turned out to the the passionfruit icecream – nice and refreshing if you could eat it fast enough before it melted!

Icecream in El Salvador

I started off in El Salvador eating icecream cones from La Nevería, but then never went back once I discovered Sarita icecream.  Then I discovered the Sarita Coco icypole and never had another icecream cone!   These coconut icypoles are the absolute best – even better than lemonade water icypoles in Australia!

sarita coco icecream

I only had one icecream at a more “upmarket” icecreamery, but it wasn’t anything to write home about (and in fact I can’t remember the name of the icecream place) – stick with the Sarita Cocos!

Icecream in Guatemala

Both La Nevería and Sarita are also found in Guatemala and I continue to buy the Coco icypoles for a quick treat (they are less than 50 cents after all).    But then Susan told me about the Sarita Frozen Yogurts and I just had to try!   Oh how I shouldn’t have 🙁

sarita frozen yoghurt - guatemala

These are very similar to the YogenFruz frozen yogurts I was addicted to when I lived in Chile – favourite flavour: coconut, pineapple and papaya.   Fortunately finding a Sarita shop that makes these is much more difficult than finding a Sarita Coco and they are 5 times the price  –  so not indulging in too many of them.

I also tried one of the not-quite-so-much-of-a-chain-shop icecreams – FruitiHelados.  This is a Mora and Yogurt (Blackberry and Yogurt) one and yes, it has been hand made in a plastic cup with an icypole stick stuck in it.  Actually quite good to be honest!

Fruitifrozen - Guatemala - icecream

And then I discovered Helados Exóticos in Antigua.  This is the Kiss Me of Guatemala but (dare I say it) even better!   It is a hole-in-the wall related to the Sobremesa Restaurant and offers up the most intriguing and bizarre flavours –  Wasabi Fig (not bad actually – you get the wasabi hints but it is not overpowering), Apple Chipotle, Chocolate Bacon, Strawberry Parmesan anyone?

helados exoticos antigua - icecream

I’m slowly working my way through the different flavours (you know I have to) but to date my favourite is the Piña Cobanero.  This icecream has sweet pineapple chunks offset with a mild (but noticable) burn and smokiness from conabero chiles.  I look forward to my homework each day at this intriguing icecreamery 🙂

 

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Final thoughts – El Salvador

I wasn’t sure what to expect from El Salvador.  It has a reputation as a dangerous country, everyone tries to dissuade you when you say you plan to go, and most other travellers I’d met had spent a maximum of 2-3 days there, passing through on their way from Guatemala to Nicaragua.

Having now spent almost 3 weeks in El Salvador, I am here to tell you – it is an AWESOME place! I was planning to write a “Top 5 reasons why you should go to El Salvador” post, but my awesome travelling companion for the last week in El Salvador – Susan – beat me to it!   We spent a lot of time talking about this so, not surprisingly, her Top 5 are pretty much the same as mine 🙂  Here’s my take on Susan’s headings.

The People

I was essentially adopted in my first 24 hours in El Salvador, and absolutely everyone I met was super-keen to talk to me and make sure I had an amazing experience.  I think they are very aware of the reputation El Salvador has in the world and are very eager to change perceptions.  It really worked!

Estela and me at Los Panchos

Estela and her friend Beatrice essentially adopted me on my first day in El Salvador.

Nature

El Salvador really is much, much greener than Nicaragua and actually has water!  A political border is pretty arbitrary, so it was a huge surprise to note this difference between the two countries.

Green El Salvador

The Food

I LOVE pupusas!  They are cheap as chips and awesome patties of cheesie goodness.  Favourite fillings:  1) Refried beans and cheese, 2) chicken, jalapeño chili and cheese, and 3) prawns and cheese.  In addition, I got to explore a huge range of other El Salvadorean dishes from desserts, to drinks, to a full miscellanea of corn-based plates.

pupusas - El Salvador

The size of the country

It doesn’t take forever to get from place to place and the chicken buses are far less crowded than in Nicaragua.  They also don’t play music at limit of the speaker system!  Still no bathroom breaks, but this is less of an issue given the journeys are shorter.

Chicken Bus - El Salvador

Other Travellers

I’d always read other people’s accounts of how they met other travellers at hostels and ended up travelling with them for a few weeks.  This had never happened to me before El Salvador.   But in my ~3 weeks in the country, I think I only spent about 3 days by myself.  Somewhat surprising given how few travellers actually spend any time in the country!

travelling companions - El Salvador

Thank you André, Ryan and Susan for your amazing company through this incredible country!

Oh, and I finally found all the Australians in Central America!   Having only encountered one other Aussie in ~4 months in Nicaragua, it was quite a shock to discover they made up the majority of tourists in El Salvador!  Not that there are that many tourists, but those that were were predominantly from Australia.

In summary, El Salvador is an amazing country with incredible people.  So long as you are sensible, it is not really any more dangerous than any other country in Central America, as the main danger comes from gangs and is not targeted at tourists.  So don’t skip through it as you move from Guatemala to Nicaragua.  It has an enormous amount to offer and I’ll definitely be returning!

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San Salvador – Iglesia El Rosario

After stuffing my face at the Juayúa food festival and trying to mitigate the damage a little by hiking the Siete Cascadas, I said goodbye to Susan and headed to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, for a few days.   I usually try to avoid capital cities like the plague, but I wanted to send a parcel home and I’d heard some good things about San Salvador from a few others.  I decided to stay with Edwin from EC Tours (and his mum and grandmother) and do his Free Walking Tour of San Salvador the next day.

Edwin was really amazing (and his mum and grandmother lovely).  He came and picked me up from the bus station, took me to the post office and sorted all the things I needed to send my parcel home, then took me out for dinner to try another typical dish in Central America – Iguana.  I only agreed once he assured me that the iguana were farmed in El Salvador, and I admit I was curious.   Had the mixed plate which included iguana soup and roast iguana.   I know it sounds exceedingly cliched, but it really did taste like chicken!

iguana soup and roast iguana

The next morning Edwin showed me around central San Salvador on his walking tour.  It was a fascinating tour that covered the stories behind several important sites, including Kilometre Zero from which all distances in El Salvador are measured.

Kilometre Zero - San Salvador - El Salvador

We also visited the Central Plaza, and the Cathedral, which houses the resting place of El Salvador’s most important son – Óscar Romero.

Tomb Óscar Romero - San Salvador - El Salvador

Edwin also talked a little about the National Palace and the National Theatre, and we visited the Civil war memorial in Parque Cuscatlán which names more than 30,000 people and has a plaque for the many, many unnamed people killed during El Salvador’s Civil war between 1980 and 1992.

Civil War memorial -San Salvador

But the absolute highlight was the El Rosario Church, which sits along one side of the Plaza de Independencia.  I’m not typically one that goes in for churches – I might poke my head into one or two for 30 seconds or so as I’m wandering around – but I don’t find them terribly interesting. I make an exception here.  This church is beyond amazing!

It was designed by one of El Salvador’s most famous artists and architects, Rubén Martinez, and from the outside, it looks just like a concrete bunker or disused aircraft hanger with a rusty sailing mast for a cross.  Not a traditional architecture for a Catholic church and I am amazed that the Vatican (yes, the plans went straight to the Vatican) actually approved its construction!

Iglesia El Rosario - San Salvador - El Salvador

But inside – oh my gosh!  It is unbelievably amazing!   It is built oriented north-south so that as the sun transits the sky during the day it successively lights up the different parts of the arch of coloured windows that replaces the stained-glass windows of a traditional church.

Iglesia El Rosario - San Salvador - El Salvador

At a certain time of year, the sun lights up the back wall, which also has injections of coloured glass in the shape of the eye of God.

Iglesia El Rosario - San Salvador - El Salvador

The church has no columns or pillars, so as not to obstruct anyone’s view of the very simple altar that is placed at the same level as the congregation.

Iglesia El Rosario - San Salvador - El Salvador

The entire interior design is very simple and based on concrete, recycled metal and wood. These metal friezes depict, in a somewhat abstract style, various religious motifs and run the entire length of the back wall.

Iglesia El Rosario - San Salvador - El Salvador

Abstract depictions of religious art in recycled metal: the rosary (top), an angel (middle), christ (bottom)

Continuing with the theme of abstract artworks, the church houses the most incredible depiction of the 14 stations of the cross.  Made from concrete and black iron, and showing only the arms and hands, it is the most amazing series of sculptures I’ve ever seen!   Very, very powerful work.  And the story goes that Rubén Martinez designed it in less than a month!

Iglesia El Rosario - San Salvador - El Salvador

From top to bottom, the gallery of the stations of the cross; Jesus is condemned to death, Jesus falls for the first time, Jesus falls for the third time, Jesus is stripped of his garments, Jesus is nailed to the cross, Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus in the sepulchre, Jesus is arisen

I ended up visiting the Iglesia El Rosario 3 times during the 2 days I stayed in San Salvador – I just couldn’t get enough of the stark beauty of it, and the incredible but simple artistry of its interior design.  It alone made the trip to San Salvador worth it!

If you find yourself in San Salvador, you have to go see it!

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Siete Cascadas – Juayúa

My trip through El Salvador was timed to ensure that I would be in Juayúa (one of the towns along the Ruta de Flores) on the weekend so I could explore the Food Festival that they hold there every week.    The other key attraction of Juayúa is a 5 hour hike called the “Siete Cascadas” or the “7 waterfalls”, and given the amount of food we would be eating, Susan and I decided we’d better get some exercise in as well!

We arranged the trip through the place we were staying – the Hotel Anáhuac – and our guide was there to pick us up at 8am – we were the only 2 on the tour.  We walked out of town (it’s not very big) and picked up another couple of guides along the way – one with 2 legs, one with 4.   Actually the 4-legged one, aptly named Chase, kept testing to see how good our stability was.  He was a young dog and kept falling behind and then racing forward between our legs, often bumping into our calves and/or stepping on our shoes as he raced past.  Here he is gearing up for another charge.

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador

The first part of the Siete Cascadas hike was up through steep coffee fields where we got a little explanation of how coffee grows – our guides worked in the coffee fields when they weren’t doing the waterfalls tour.  The trees had already flowered and the green coffee beans were everywhere.

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador - coffee growing

At a different time of year, there would be some wonderful views from the top of the ridge, where you can see one of the key volcanic complexes in El Salvador.  However, as is common at the end of the dry season, we mostly got clouds and haze (and bugs!).

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador

The waterfalls are really amazing, and still plenty of water in them despite us visiting at the end of the dry season.  One of the most interesting things is that the water isn’t surface water that flows over a lip of rock to form the waterfall.  It actually emerges from between the rocks.

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador

One of the coolest aspects of this trip is that you get to semi-rappel down one of the waterfalls.  It’s not a true rappel, given that it was not a vertical or overhang, you are not strapped in, and you don’t jump and release.   If anything it was slightly more frightening given that you had to rely on your own grip and arm strength to avoid falling.  You would never be allowed to do this in Australia!   This is part of the reason I love travelling in developing countries 🙂

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador - rappelling

It was also very wet business – here’s me looking a tad unco as I make my way down the last part of the waterfall.

 

These are not small waterfalls and I couldn’t imagine doing this tour in the wet season, though our guides told me that they did!

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador

The last couple of waterfalls on the hike form the Chorros de la Calera, where swimming pools have been created at the base of the falls.   These can be reached directly from Juayúa, and the majority of people actually drive most of the way to these falls to enjoy them on the weekend.   When Susan and I arrived, they were very crowded with locals!  Fortunately I had visited earlier in the week on my day trip with Ian and Erika. On that occasion, we were the only ones there and it was beautiful and tranquil.

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador - Chorros de la Calera

When we arrived at the first pool, our guides set about unpacking a lunch of baguettes, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, capsicum and tomato.   After a quick meal, we headed into the pools for a swim.   Word of warning – brace yourself for cold water!   Nice and refreshing after a hike, but not water you can stay in for a long time.

The final adventure on this trip was to brave the dark tunnel that links the two waterfalls of the Chorros de la Calera.  This freaked both Susan and I out, but we followed our guide into the dark abyss with hearts racing.

7 Cascadas tour - Juayúa - El Salvador - tunnels

The first part, walking from the light into the darkness neck deep in water, was the scariest part. Entering completely into the unknown! Fortunately, just as we completely lost the light from the tunnel entrance, the tunnel turned a 90 degree corner and we could see the light from the exit ahead of us.  This put us much more at ease and the added advantage was that rocks protruding from the roof were silhouetted for us to see so we didn’t gonk our heads as we kept nose and mouth (but not much else) above the waterline.  Definitely an experience!  Really glad we didn’t chicken out 🙂

Thanks to Susan, my wonderful travelling companion for the past several days for the video and being my model in the pictures!

 

Recommendation:  It is definitely worth doing the Siete Cascadas tour if you are in Juayúa, or at least visiting the Chorros de la Calera.  Would recommend spending a couple of days in Juayúa actually – it is a lovely little town with some of the best pupusas I’ve had in El Salvador.

Booking:  Arrange through Hotel Anáhuac or Hostel Casa Meseta the day before (or earlier).

Time Required:  About 5-6 hours which includes the hike, lunch and swimming time.

Cost:  US$20 each for the full Siete Cascadas tour (US$2 to just visit the Chorros de la Calera).

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Water baggies – slightly better than a bottle?

In much of Latin America, the water out of the tap is not drinkable.  In fact, the latest edition of Revue (Guatemala’s English-language magazine), features a story on a company that is trying to assist poorer families to have access to clean drinking water and to reduce the number of people who end up in hospital with parasites.

Fortunately, most eating establishments (no matter how small) do used filtered water (sometimes purified water), so I rarely have any stomach problems when I travel (touch wood!). And most of the hostels I’ve stayed in on this trip have provided drinking water refills for their guests from large containers.  This means that I’ve rarely had to buy water or use my trusty Travel Tap microfilter bottle that, according to the brochure, is supplied to Peacekeeping forces, Special forces, and USA Dept Homeland Security!   I have to admit, I was a little nervous to use it the first few times, but it is a total winner!

There have therefore only been a couple of occasions where I’ve really needed to buy water. But rather than buying yet another bottle that I don’t need or want, here in Central America they also sell 500ml water baggies.

water

8 cents for this one in El Salvador – about half the price of a bottle of water.  All you have to do is bite off a corner and squeeze!

Its really common for street vendors and bus vendors to sell these baggies rather than bottles (they save room for bottles of Coke and other sugary drinks that the majority of people are thoroughly addicted to), and it does seem to be slightly less wasteful.

The plastic is, in theory, recyclable (see logo on the baggie), but given that recycling is a relatively new phenomenon here, and certainly not adopted by all places, if only the plastic were biodegradable…

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Juayúa food festival – El Salvador

Juayúa, one of the key towns along the Ruta de Flores, is famous for its weekend food festival that is held in and round the central park.   For this reason, a whole bunch of us from the Casa Verde ended up descending on the town in order to eat our way through the culinary delights of El Salvador.

Unfortunately, although there was plenty of food, it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. Only one and a bit streets were set up with food stalls and most were selling very similar things – large plates of chicken, beef, or chorizo with rice, tortillas, and salad.

Juayúa food festival - El Salvador

We had all been expecting more of a “tasting” style of festival, where you could buy small portions of different dishes, including typical dishes from El Salvador.  But, given that that was not to be, both Susan and I agreed that this beef and prawn skewer was the best looking dish of the weekend.  Must admit, it was incredibly tasty!

Juayúa food festival - El Salvador

Later that night, after we had managed to digest most of lunch, we were wandering around town and found a stall set up in a different street (ie not part of the food festival) that sold a more typical dish – riguas.   These are like the ubiquitous pupusa, but while pupusas are made from dried corn masa, riguas are made from sweet corn masa.  It’s the same idea as tortillas in Nicaragua being made of dried corn masa and Güirilas being made of sweet corn masa.  Of course we had to try!

Juayúa food festival - El Salvador - Riguas

I was surprised to find that the sweet corn taste was not as strong as it is in the Güirilas in Nicaragua, but that might have been because these were stuffed with a heap of cheese that perhaps masked the flavour somewhat.  Still yum, and Susan declared that she actually preferred them to pupusas!  Big call!

On the Sunday we hit the food festival again and this time headed straight to the one stall that was selling more traditional food – particularly focused on corn (a dead giveaway that it is more typical in Central America).    While Susan went back in for the Riguas (this time with coconut instead of cheese – the cheese ones were better), I wanted to try the Elotes Locos (Crazy Corn) and the Atól con Elote.

Elotes Locos is a corn cob that has been boiled and then covered in tomato sauce, mayonnaise and mustard.  Finally, the server throws grated Parmesan cheese around the outside so that it sticks to the sauces.  It’s surprisingly good – even for a person who doesn’t really like mayonnaise.

Juayúa food festival - El Salvador - elotes locos y atol con elote

Elotes locos (left) and Atól con Elote (right)

Atól con Elote, yet another type of Atól, was super-sweet and, as the name suggests, had kernels of sweet corn buried in the thick drink.  Not for you if you don’t have a sweet tooth!

To finish off lunch, I had to have a pincho de fruta – another very common dessert in El Salvador, and they looked so good!  It is essentially a fruit skewer that has been frozen and is then dipped in chocolate and coated in nuts/sprinkles/etc in front of you after you have ordered.  I had the “mixto” with a strawberry, massive grape, banana, watermelon and pineapple, and Susan eventually caved into to have one just with strawberries.   Again – yum!

Juayúa food festival - El Salvador - pinchos

Also managed to try a few other foods over the course of the 3 days I was in Juayúa, including: chorizo (not as tasty as I’d hoped and drier than I am used to), Torta de Queso (cheesecake with a texture between the cheesecake we are familiar with and flan), Tortitas de Elote (essentially balls of sweetcorn that have been deep fried), and quesadilla.  Yes, a quesadilla in El Salvador is quite different to what we would think of.  It is not a cheesy tortilla, it is essentially a butter cake!

Juayúa food festival - El Salvador

Clockwise: Chorizo, Torta de Queso, Tortitas de Elote, and Quesadilla.

Lots of eating, and that’s not even counting the pupusería we went to 2 nights running with others we’d met at the Casa Verde!  This was one of the best pupuserías I found in El Salvador and was very popular with the locals as well.

Juayúa - best Pupuseria

Pupusas are amazingly addictive and dirt cheap – yes at is US 60 cents for one!  I had tried all the pupusas on this list (except the Locas, which is an extra-big pupusa with everything in it), and the one pictured here with a mountain of curtido (cabbage salad) is the Papelillo – yet another green leaf.  The reason there is a little pile of green papelillo on the plate is that when I ordered it I asked what it was.  The cooks were lovely and included this taster for me as well 🙂   The people in El Salvador are just amazing!

If you want to know my top 3 pupusa flavours:

  1. Frijoles y queso (refried beans and cheese)
  2. Pollo y Jalapeño (chicken and jalapeño chili and cheese)
  3. Camarones (prawns and cheese)

I’m really going to miss pupusas when I leave El Salvador!

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Santa Ana – El Salvador

To be honest, apart from visiting the Cerro Verde National Park to climb Volcán Santa Ana or Volcán Izalco, or using it as a base to explore some of the Mayan ruins or the Ruta de Flores, there isn’t much to do or see in Santa Ana itself.  So mostly hung out enjoying the Casa Verde and catching up on photo processing and journal/blog entries while I was there.

Of course, there is the main Cathedral – an elaborate gothic structure that was started in 1906 and completed in 1959.

Santa Ana cathedral El Salvador

And I was fortunate enough that the Russian Ballet was performing “Sleeping Beauty” at the amazing Santa Ana Theatre while I was there.  I had never been to the ballet before and had no idea if I would enjoy it or not, but I figured for $12 for the cheap seats – it was a perfect opportunity to find out.

Santa Ana Theatre El Salvador

The seat numbering in the Theatre was a bit confusing so I started off sitting in the wrong seat.  Was having a wonderful chat with Jasmine, the lady next to me who wanted to see what Australian currency looked like (unfortunately I didn’t have any one me), when the person whose seat I was in arrived.   Bid adieu to Jasmine, changed seats, and then got chatting to Genesis – a 12 year old girl who loved the ballet.

Russian Ballet at Santa Ana Theatre El Salvador

I have to admit that, unlike Genesis, I’m not a fan of the ballet 🙁  And although Genesis offered to relate the story to me (and even leaned across at one point to ask if I was understanding the story), there seemed to be a lot of superfluous people on the stage at most times, some of who didn’t actually dance at all, but just walked on and stood around for large amounts of time.   I also felt that the guys were more graceful than the girls, and it was a bit distracting to hear the “clunk” of the wooden points of the girls as they danced.   Still, glad I went, and at least now I know that it’s not for me.

Pretty much the only other thing I went to see was the ruin of the Escuela de Artes y Officios Jose Mariano Mendez.   I had caught glimpses of this on the various buses I’d taken so decided to take a closer look.

Santa Ana - Escuela de Artes y Officios Jose Mariano Mendez

It must have been an impressive building in its days serving vocational education in careers such as carpentry, boot-making and horticulture.   They have recently done a survey to see how much it would cost to restore the buildings – anyone have US$35 million?

 

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Joya de Cerén Archaeological Ruins

If you’ve spent any time at all in Guatemala or Honduras, you will have seen at least one (and probably several) Mayan ruins.   Tikal in particular is incredible (at least that’s what my memory from 16 years ago tells me), but I have also visited Copán in Honduras, as well as several other lesser-known sites.   All of them are important ceremonial sites that show the elite side of life, rather than how your average, run-of-the-mill Mayan lived.

El Salvador also has quite a few Mayan sites, but they tend not to be as impressive as the more famous locations.   And lets face it, you do get a bit ruin-ed out after a while – just like you get a bit church-ed out or museum-ed out in other parts of the world.

So I had been planning to skip all ruins on this trip through Central America, but was invited by Ian and Erika (a couple who were also staying at the Casa Verde and going overland for a bit as part of their most recent sailing adventure) to accompany them and the driver they’d hired for a day trip to some of the key sights around Santa Ana.   How could I say no?  Our first stop – the ruins of Joya de Cerén.

The good thing is that these ruins are not like all the others!  Joya de Cerén is sometimes known as the “Pompei of the Americas” because it is a pristine site that was suddenly buried under 4-8 metres of volcanic ash when the nearby Volcán Caldera erupted in about the year 590.  Its other unique feature is that it is not a ceremonial site, but rather a simple farming village that shows how ordinary Mayan people lived.  It seems as if the people of the village had time to escape the eruption as no bodies have ever been found, but the items left behind show that they left in a big hurry.

After looking through the museum, we joined one of the free tours of the ruins and I got to practice my Spanish interpretation skills.   Our first stop was “Structure 4” – the building that the tractor sliced through leading to the discovery of the ruins in 1976.  The holes in the wall are actually nests for the Guardabarranco – and there are heaps of them flying around in this area!

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

The next building, “Structure 3” (yes, they are imaginatively named), is thought to be a communal place where the village leaders gathered.  In the doorway you can clearly see some of the 14 layers of ash that fell on the village when the volcano erupted.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

Then there was the sauna!  The domed roof is partially collapsed but you can clearly see the thermostat above the entrance (the round thing).  This was a wooden plug that was kept suspended by the steam within the sauna.  When the wooden plug dropped, they knew they needed more steam and would have to put more hot rocks into the sauna.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

They have created a replica sauna at the site and we crawled in to see what it was like.  The door is purposefully small and low to keep the heat in, and the steam is produced by pouring water over hot rocks that are placed in the domed pit in the centre.  It’s actually much bigger than it appears from outside and surprisingly comfortable even though you are sitting on stone benches.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

The next building was that of the Shaman (medicine person), who may have actually been a woman.  It is one of the most decorated buildings in the complex and the stones slotted into the front of the building may have been benches used for people waiting to see the Shaman.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

And finally, my favourite, a really interesting look at a typical home for a family featuring 3 distinct buildings.  The closest (round) one is the kitchen complete with a fireplace (the three stones), the one in the middle is the storeroom and the one over the back is the living area (the raised platform is the bed).   Over on the lower left you can even see part of the family’s cultivation area.  Each family home in the village was composed of these three parts, and each family looked after one of the important community buildings.  In this case, given the proximity to the place of the Shaman, the family probably looked after the Shaman’s building.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

The tour was fascinating and lasted for about an hour – highly recommended if you can understand a bit of Spanish.   The ruins themselves are displayed really well, protected by very large structures that don’t impinge on what you are there to see and with basic information at each structure in English and Spanish.  The modern, on-site museum is air-conditioned (if you’ve spent any time in Central America during summer, you’ll know why this gets a special mention!) and houses artifacts found during the excavation with explanations in English and Spanish. And then there are the beautiful gardens in which the whole thing is set.   Really, really enjoyed this site!

 

Recommendation:  If you want to see how the other half lived in Mayan times, this is a must.  If you’ve visited one (or more) ceremonial Mayan sites, it is also definitely worth a visit and really very different.   Probably easier to visit from San Salvador than Santa Ana though.

Time Required:  About 1.5 hours, depending on how long you spend in the museum and enjoying the gardens/cafe.  The tour is about 45 minutes.

Cost:  Entrance is US$3 for foreigners.

 

 

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More typical dishes – El Salvador

I was telling Carlos (the owner of the best hostel ever – Casa Verde) about my fascination with trying as many of the typical dishes of the country that I’m visiting, and rattled off the El Salvadorean food I’d eaten to date.   I was missing some of the very common dishes so he invited me out for lunch so I could add a few more to my list.

We went to a comedor just around the corner and Carlos ordered me two dishes:

Chile relleno – green capsicum stuffed with mince and vegetables and wrapped in an egg “pancake”.  It was served with a tomato, onion and garlic sauce and was really tasty.

Chile Relleno - El Salvador

Pacaya – the flower of a type of palm, wrapped in an egg “pancake”.  Carlos insisted that I try this as is first of all, and then try it again once we put lime on it.  Without the lime, it was not very flavourful, but the addition of the lime gave it an acidity that really brought out the flavour.  Also served with the tomato, onion and garlic sauce.

Pacaya - El Salvador

We then went down the road a bit more to a lady who sells sweets on the street near one of the parks in Santa Ana.  There I got to try a tartarita con dulce de leche – which is basically a shortcrust pastry filled with caramel.  Super sweet as you can imagine but very tasty.

Tartaritas - El Salvador

Was a wonderful surprise to be taken out to lunch and very glad to have had the opportunity to try some more of the typical dishes from El Salvador.  Thank you Carlos!

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