It was time to move on and explore the northern half of the Ruta de las Flores. I was hoping to be able to do a loop from the top of the Ruta through Parque Nacional El Imposible where I was told there was a bus that could take me through. I wasn’t entirely sure if this was true as some maps show a road and some don’t. Plus locals were in two minds as well. Still, I thought I’d give it a go and see how far I could get. Worst case scenario, I just retrace my tracks back down to Sonsonate.
I caught the bus to Apeneca, the next town on the Ruta. As we came to the outskirts of town, I noticed a sign at a fork in the road pointing left for the town centre and right for the Ruta, so got off the bus. Mornings with bronchitis are brutal for me, so it was a slog walking into town with my pack even though it was only a slight incline and a reasonably short distance. I was well and truly done by the time I found the town plaza and thankfully plonked myself on a wooden bench at an adjacent comedor. I croakily ordered breakfast and took a leisurely break before slogging back to the main road again. I didn’t have to wait long for the next bus and to find out that had I stayed on the previous bus, it would have taken me straight into town further down the road! I had to have a chuckle over this.
I had found out about an amazing plant nursery which had a restaurant attached at my hostel in Juayua, so got the bus to drop me off there next. One of the girls that was also staying at the same hostel was there so I joined her for a coffee. She kindly offered to give me a lift into the next town which I gratefully accepted as I was fading fast. A quick look around the beautiful grounds of the nursery and we were off further up the Ruta to Ataco.
I don’t know why they chose this particular part of El Salvador to call the Route of the Flowers, as I had travelled in many other parts of the country with the same beautiful flowering plant vistas, but it certainly did live up to its name as it traversed through gorgeous little cobbled stone towns, all with the ubiquitous Salvadorian liberal splash of vibrant colour. Ataco was no different, with a beautiful white and azure trimmed church in the main plaza and a matching one further down the road, nestled in front of a hill. An impressive water fountain took centre stage of the plaza and immaculate gardens lined the paths cross crossing its centre.
I was taking some photos of the plaza when I came across the skinniest street dog I had ever seen. It was literally almost all skin and bones. I’m usually pretty good with street dogs in that it does pull on my heartstrings when I see one sick or injured, but I reconcile myself with at least they are free to roam and that one can’t save them all. This dog, however, was not one I could walk away from. I got directions to the local supermarket, bought a small bag of dog food, and returned to feed Delgado (skinny in Spanish…). By this stage, I had also picked up another street dog who I’m pretty sure was blind. I fed them both and got water out of the fountain using a discarded foam cup lying around. I don’t what the outcome for either dog will be, but at least I was able to do something for them in the meantime.
I got direction to pick up the bus again and finished travelling along the Ruta. I had to change buses in Ahuachapan to get to Tacuba where I hoped to find this elusive bus through the national park. I often wonder whether places like this are made deliberately beautiful so that when you finally reach a certain point in your journey only to find that the road doesn’t continue where you want it to and hence you need to retrace your steps, at least you can appreciate the scenery from the other direction. That’s what happened in Tacuba. Still, I had travelled out to another remote Salvadorian outpost and experienced some more breathtaking mountainous countryside.
Back down the Ruta, I was starting to feel I knew the southern part particularly well now as it was my third traverse – on foot, via pick up and now via bus. On we continued though to the city of Sonsonate, a big bustling place that appeared to have a faded colonial charm in places as we roared through. It was dark by the time we arrived at the bus station and as I had no map of the area, and hence no orientation, I decided to get a taxi to the hotel I picked out of the guide book. Unfortunately, it appeared that that hotel had closed down and there were no other cheap hotels in the vicinity. I asked the taxi drivers where I could get a room for around USD10 – 15 and they bustled me into a taxi to take me to one.
Out along the main highway, the driver asked which place I would prefer to go to and rattled off a few names. I told him I hadn’t been here before so didn’t know any of them. El señor driver then decided to turn into Hotel de Tres Ases, a brightly lit expansive highway motel. He drove into the property and pulled into a ground floor garage. I was a bit confused and asked where reception was. He said just go up the stairs and knock. Hmmmm. I went upstairs straight into a motel room. A closed door led into an ensuite bathroom. Another closed door was locked from the other side. I ran downstairs to find the taxi gone and garage door closed. I found the switch for the door, grabbed my pack and went to find someone who could explain this strange set up.
I found a security guard who took me back up to the room and explained how this place worked. One had to ring reception and payment (by the hour…) was made via a small wooden box with a cover which rolled both ways. Everything was extremely discrete and it didn’t take me long to work out the real purpose behind this illustrious hotel. A menu offering items such as condoms, lubricants, extra sheets and a suit cleaning/pressing service; not to mention the on tap porn channel, the roll of tissue on the wall next to the bed, and the super sized mirror adjacent to the large bed made it all too obvious. Still, it was cheap (USD12) and probably the flashiest place I had stayed at thus far. As the door was locked from the other side, I made sure I locked all my valuables in my backpack, just in case, but had no interruption during the night.
After hacking up half the night, I decided that doing the seven waterfall trek was probably not my in my best interests. Instead, I opted for a more leisurely jaunt to a nearby village where one of the best coffee co-ops in El Salvador is situated. I caught a bus to Majada and had a wander around the tiny settlement adjacent to the coffee processing plant. This very basic rural community is situated in some of the prettiest countryside in El Salvador, with coffee plantations nestled in between towering volcanos.
I had been told that the coffee co-op does tours of it’s processing plant but usually you have to book in advance. I thought I’d just ask on the off chance I might get lucky. As it was, the head of production took me on a private tour for free! It was interesting to see how my favourite brekkie bevie was processed. They roast on site and I got to see how personal the process was. An hombre in charge of the roasting process, pulls a bean out of a little plug hole and cracks it open to check. When he’s satisfied, he pulls the lever and the whole cache drops into a rotating airing tray. A couple of señoras package up the roasted beans when they’ve cooled and the net result is exported around the world for coffee lovers like me to savour.
After a most informative tour, I got a bus back to Juayua. I was hoping to go further down the road to do a loop, but as in this part of the world, that plan didn’t come to fruition. Back in Juayua, I decided to walk the couple of kilometres to the next town in the other direction. Salcoatitan is a pretty little town famous for its public mosaic displays. There was a particularly beautiful one stretched out along a retaining wall next to a 300 year old Ceiba tree on the southern entrance to town.
I was feeling like walking still and as the road was going downhill, thought I would walk a ways until I had had enough. Needless to say, three hours (and 12 kilometres…) after I set out from Juayua, I arrived at the start of the Ruta de Flores in which this beautiful part of the country is located. I must admit, I enjoyed getting out in the countryside and stretching my legs. As it was all downhill, I didn’t need to exert myself much so my poor bronchioles didn’t have to work too hard. It was nice to be able to stop and take photos when ever I wanted and of course, the slower pace of travel gave one a different experience again.
On dusk, I thought I would make my way back again and hailed down a pick up truck. This is the most authentic way you can travel in El Salvador. This truck was standing room only and truly was ‘cattle class’. There was between 30 – 40 people tightly wedged in the small space, with the back few hanging precariously on the back. It was wonderful, though, travelling on a rural Salvadorian road, watching the moonlit sky, with the wind on one’s face. It’s times like this that you just appreciate life, with all its little quirks.
Back in Juayua, I made my way back to the hostel. I was in dire need of a pee and a Pilsener. And a shower! I calculated the cost of my little adventure and it came to a whole USD.80c. Add in food, drink and my dorm bed and the total cost of my day in paradise was USD16.80. That was a cheap day, but even so. Shows you one doesn’t need to spend a lot of money in this country to have a great time.
The Travel God of Health desperately tried to make amends by at least giving me the strength to get up mid morning and get ready for the day. I decided to chance checking out and slowly wander around Santa Ana with regular rest intervals. I had a tasty breakfast at a local little restaurant and drugged myself up for the day. Had I more time up my sleeve, I would have gratefully rested for the few days it would taken for the worst to pass. As it was, I had to forgo a volcano hike I had planned.
I wandered down to the Central Plaza where some most magnificent buildings lined its outer limits. I went into the Teatro de Santa Ana and was completely blown away with its ornate splendour. Built in 1902 in a neoclassical French style, this fully functioning theatre retains most of its original features, including period light fittings, theatre chairs, and doors opening to individual stalls. Together with opulent decorations throughout, including the two foyers, one felt like adorning oneself in a pastel French muslin gown and promenading the room with a dainty glass of champagne in one’s hand. Instead, I clomped around in a pair of shorts with a massive camera in hand. Sort of the same…
From there I went over to the adjacent Cathedral. I was bemused by the signage inside the Cathedral warning people of the dangers of feeding pigeons and the health risks that they expose themselves to, when right outside the door are vendors selling corn for people to do just that! So much for a community working together to solve a problem.
By now, I had reached my practical limit for the day and decided to cash up and head out of town. A wander through the local market on the way back to the hostel, lead me to the crazed woman from yesterday sitting on the steps of an old building. She was still calling out her impassioned gibberish and then sitting quietly watching the world go by.
I collected my pack and got directions for where to catch a bus to Juayua, my next port of call. On the way to the bus terminal, however, I was distracted by an old ruin and went for a quick explore. I couldn’t find out any information about it, but it looked as if it would have been a grand building in its door.
I found the bus I needed and jumped on board. As it was just on dusk by the time we left, I didn’t manage to see much of the countryside on the way. We did skirt the Volcán de Santa Ana and were able to see the city lights spread out in the valley below. Travelling of an evening does put things into a different perspective, as you get brief glimpses into local life after dark. Of course, having a beautiful moon illuminating a lacy sky adds to the experience.
I’m Juayua, I located my hostel and checked in. A UK expat runs it with a Norwegian girl and they have done a great job creating a really homely place with a lovely garden outside. I ended up joining in a board game before I had even got myself organised and had a great night with some fun people.
The Travel God of Health took his eye off the ball big time and I came down with a full blown dose of bronchitis. I had only organised to stay one night as time was ticking and I had lots more I wanted to do in this fabulous country. However, I wasn’t capable of walking from my bed to the bathroom so wouldn’t be checking out of my digs anytime soon. I eventually stumbled downstairs to let someone know I would be needing to stay an extra night. As I had no voice, I had to write all this down and was thankful that I learned how to write in Spanish as well as speak it – knew that would come in handy one day!
About midday, I awoke to what I thought was a Salvadorian soap opera, only to realise it was a crazed woman outside my window. I was feeling a little better so had a wash and went out to get something to eat. An airy cafeteria off the nearby markets met my needs and I was able to make myself understood enough with my croaky, poorly spoken Spanish. As I returned to the hostel, I saw the crazed woman from earlier, sitting on the pavement. She was extremely disheveled and had deformed feet, but didn’t appear to be begging.
Back to bed and I was glad to be where I was if I was going to be sick. The upstairs dorm was large and airy and had a gentle breeze wafting through the room. I slept fitfully throughout the rest of the day. Carlos came in to check on me which was really sweet of him.
Early evening and the Italian girl who moved into the bed next to me earlier in the afternoon and an English woman came in and we started chatting. They were going out to get some pupusas for dinner and as I was feeling a little better, decided to join them. We walked the couple of blocks to a great little roadside pupusaria and had a short but pleasant evening. After that, it was back to the bed for this little black duck.
After breakfast in one of the grimiest comadors I have ever eaten in, I had a wander around town. When I got to the church overlooking the town plaza, I noticed amongst the large throng, people dressed as characters from the nativity. There followed a parade through town to another smaller church several blocks away where they collected the ‘baby Jesus’ and brought him back to the main church. Midway through, the ‘three wise men’ were given mounts and led on horseback. A small group of youths followed the procession, firing off rockets at regular intervals. It was a noisy, lively affair greatly enjoyed by the local parishioners.
I had got directions as to a bus which went down a remote mountain road from close to the Honduran border to the town of Metapan. I caught a bus to the border town of El Poy then made further enquiries of the bus I wanted. It turned out there was only one bus a day and I had ten minutes to catch it in the next village! I jumped in a tuk tuk and we sped off towards Citala where my bus was warming up ready to go. I made my way past a señora delivering the Sunday sermon to the travelling mob to take a seat next to a wizened señor.
For me, travelling is more about the journey than the destination. Seeing the countryside, experiencing everyday local life and generally soaking up what a country has to offer. Thus, opportunity to slowly meander through remote Salvadorian mountain country well off the beaten track in an old, clapped out, ex-US school bus crammed full of locals jumping on and off, was not to be missed! The dirt road was in fairly good condition and looked as if it had been recently graded. However, it was narrow and severely winding which meant the bus was forced to traverse at snail’s pace.
As we slowly wound out way around the sides of the mountains, we passed tiny communities consisting of little more than a handful of tiny mud brick shacks. Subsistent farming was being eked out of this remote pocket by carving small fields into the hilly and heavily forested terrain. The vistas we were provided on this traverse were stunning at every angle.
Three hours after leaving Citala, we finally arrived in the large town of Metapan. By this stage, I needed a rest stop before hopping on another bus to Santa Ana where I decided I would spend the night. A nearby little restaurant filled this need most effectively! A final bus took me from Metapan into Santa Ana where we drove into a sumptuous sunset. Unfortunately, I started getting a sore throat which I prayed wouldn’t develop into the dreaded bronchitis I am plagued with at times.
I asked the driver to drop me as close to the town centre as possible as I had chosen a hostel out of the guide book not far from there. By now, I wasn’t feeling at all well and just wanted to dump my pack and crash on a bed. Preferably a clean one. The plaza at which I alighted was about a kilometre away from the town centre. I was busting for a pee, but the only place I could see en route was a dodgy dive of a bar populated by rough señors and a handful of even rougher señoras. Still, I was desperate so dumped my pack behind the bar and ordered a cerveza.
One block further on, I passed two hygienically superior large family restaurants which in hindsight would have been far better options, but mission had already been completed so I continued on. Once at the plaza, I got my bearings and walked the further nine blocks to where I intended staying. At the crossroads just past where the hostel should have been, I turned around and checked again. Nothing. As I was contemplating trying to find somewhere else, I heard a shout from above ‘Casa Verde?!?’ The hostel had been marked on the wrong side of the map, was extremely poorly signed and I was trying to find it in the dimly lit night. No wonder I failed!
Checking the map for how to get to my next destination, Chalatenango, it looked like I would have to skirt around a large lake to get to where I wanted to go. Unless…..there was a way to cross the lake. I asked and it appeared there surely was. What luck! Not only did I not have to detour and later retract my steps, I got a boat ride too.
Armed with bold ambition, I got directions to where I had to catch a bus which would take me to the ferry. I sat on the sidewalk with a señor selling handmade hammocks and had a chat whilst waiting. The minibus arrived and we roared off through town and down to the water’s edge. A local boy was racing our vehicle on his push bike, much to the merriment of two other children on board. He was going pretty fast over the heavily cobbled roads and I can’t imagine it would have been a comfortable ride.
Down at the dock, I was directed to a Señor in a smart white polo-shirt. Boat across the lake to San Francisco Lempa? Si, 5 dólares. Perdón?? 5 dólares. How long will the trip take? Oh, about 10 minutes. 5 dólares?!? Si. I was astounded. USD5 is way out of kilter for what one would expect for a ten minute boat road. But then I saw the reason why. A boatload of foreign tourists puttered along on a cruise of the lake. I understand that some like their third world country experience sanitised, but allowing themselves to be financially exploited like this creates a duel economy which doesn’t do anyone (particularly the locals!) any good. I’m a firm believer in grassroots travel – it’s way more ethical and you truly get to experience all a country has to offer.
The boat ride across the lake was lovely, though. Clusters of mauve coloured water hyacinths formed tiny islets past which the little boat was manoeuvred. All backdropped by hills draped thickly with tropical vegetation. On the other side, I enquired of some locals where to catch the bus to San Francisco Lempa, when a small group of soldiers and a military policeman standing nearby piped up and said they would take me there. I had a pleasant chat with them as we hiked up the hill to where the bus went past. They ended up boarding the bus with me and making sure the bus assistant knew where I wanted to go, then jumped off. I must admit, that was my first armed escort in Central America.
As the bus climbed further up the hill, one got glimpses of the beautiful lake I had just crossed. We drove alongside it higher up the hill for quite some time and I was glad to have paid the money for the lake crossing to have this beautiful vista on the other side. Eventually, we pulled into Chalatenango. I really liked the look of this large town. It had quite a prosperous feel to it, with department stores selling a range of goods rather than the ubiquitous American second hand clothing stores. The pleasant bustle of locals added to the vibe.
I got off the bus to explore a little further. The central plaza was quite unusual in that there was a large military garrison on one side of it. Evidently it was built during the Civil War to sort out those pesky guerrillas. As one would expect, there was also a fairly thorough guarding of the garrison, including a couple of soldiers wearing balaclavas. How they managed that in this heat is beyond me!
I located a bus that would take me west to my next destination and jumped on board. Shortly afterwards we picked up a most entertaining hawker… This señor stood at the front of the bus addressing the punters. Then he pulled out of his satchel a blue pen. Nothing fancy, just a plain blue biro. And started banging on about it. For one whole minute. I’ve never heard anyone exult the virtues of a blue pen quite to this extent before. But then there was more! Not only did you get this amazing blue pen, but you also got a black pen and a red pen all for USD1! And if that wasn’t enough, there was a free gift. Of a black marker pen. Looked like an ordinary black marker pen to me, but somehow this hombre managed to market it for a further 30 seconds. And…. a red marker pen. Now we had a blue pen, a black pen, a red pen, a black marker pen AND a red marker pen all for USD1!! Incredible.
As our humble hombre packed his items back into his satchel, I thought the show was over. How wrong I was… He pulls out a toothbrush. Just an ordinary plastic toothbrush. There followed an enthusiastic monologue about qualities of said toothbrush. For another minute. But what about the free gift?? He reaches into his satchel and pulls out one of the blue wonder pens and the kitschiest little notebook in town. What they had in common with the toothbrush was beyond me, apart from the fact you might be able to use the duo to record your daily dental regime. But of course, there’s more! Our hombre pulls out of his Tardis of a satchel a small flashlight. One can only assume that señoras would use that to check that their wayward niño had actually used the transcendental toothbrush the way the Good Lord intended. I nearly gave this sensational salesman some money just for the entertainment value!
I was dropped off at a crossroad to catch another bus heading north to La Palma. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long as it was hot and there wasn’t a lot of shade. On board my next and last bus for the day, I had enough room to kick back (as much as you can on a cramped Salvadorian bus…) and really enjoy the scenery. We reached what I thought was the fringes of La Palma and some people hopped off. I thought I would wait until we got to the town centre, however, had no concept of how tiny this little town is as we roared right out of it again! Not to matter, I just went on to the next town, San Ignacio, which ended up being a far better choice.
San Ignacio isn’t in slightest bit touristy, which was lovely. Just a small rural Salvadorian town close to the Honduran border. It had a lovely tranquil, community feel about it and I enjoyed a most pleasant evening at a local pupusaria adjacent to the town plaza, watching the locals interact with genuine comradery. There was someone playing a saxophone in the plaza which provided a soulful soundtrack as the sun slipped down over the mountains through a scarlet sky.
I awoke to a cacophony of bird chatter at dawn. Deciding to join the feathered throng, I padded out into the garden in my jim jams. The señora of the casa came out shortly afterwards and offered me a cup of coffee. That was a lovely bonus and I enjoyed my early morning café in the gardens watching the birds frolicking.
I was directed to an amazing restaurant overlooking the vast valley below Alegría. Even though the valley was shrouded in cloud, it still provided a most spectacular vista to enjoy over a tasty local breakfast. A pleasant morning wander around town capped off my visit to Alegría and I collected my pack to move ever onwards.
My next port of call was Suchitoto in the country’s more northern reaches, but of course, I had my own preferred way of getting there. I caught a bus to the neighbouring little village of Berlin, then another bus to the town of Mercedes Umaña on the Carretera Panamericana. From there I could catch a San Salvador bound bus to where I wanted to get dropped off for the next leg.
I was feeling quite smug thinking I had finally worked out how to travel on the routes I wanted when I made the fatal error of asking the bus assistant as he was dropping me off in San Rafael Cedros where I could get a bus to Suchitoto. That was it! My pack was hoiked back on the bus and I was hastened aboard. That’s not the way to Suchitoto. You have get off further down the road! I explained in vain that I didn’t want to go down that particular road, but the one I had chosen. To no avail; I was assured that they would drop me off at the correct stop and I would get to Suchitoto. Sometimes, Salvadorians can be a little too helpful…
After the driver dropped me off at the ‘correct’ spot and waved me adios with a beaming smile, I hastened across the hectic highway to collect a bus heading to Suchitoto. My wheels for this leg of the journey happened to be a clapped out minivan, packed to the gunnels. I shared a seat with a old señora clutching a chicken with its legs tied together. I didn’t want to know whether the chook was destined for a peaceful life pecking in the yard or was intended for the pot, so didn’t enquire as to its fate.
It was nice driving up through the hills again after the hot flats of the Carretera Panamericana. Due to the nature of the terrain, traffic is forced to slow, making for a pleasant scenic trip and a chance to peek into everyday rural Salvadorian life. Frequent stopping to pick up and drop off passengers added to the slow pace.
We eventually pulled into Suchitoto and I took my cues from the other exiting passengers that this was where the bus terminated. Central Plaza was only a block away as it turned out. I got my bearings and made my way to a hostel I picked out of the guidebook. Blanca Luna was a great choice as I ended up with a nice little room with private bathroom for only USD10. With a beautiful flowering plant strewn balcony and terrace, I think the Travel God of Accommodation was giving me a break from the dodgy dives I had been staying in of late.
As I had a couple of hours of light left, I dumped my pack and took myself for a wander around town. Late afternoon in downtown Suchitoto is very laid back and communal. Old señors gather in small groups to chew the fat on the issues of the day, small boys kick scruffy footballs in the streets, and señoras rock babes in their arms whilst chatting with a neighbour.
It was back to the central plaza for dinner and a cerveza, watching the passing parade of locals. Mass was being said in the church, which melded in with the other sounds of early evening activity. A very pleasant way to spend an evening in a relaxed little town.