I disliked El Salvador when we first arrived: a tummy bug, short changed twice, our first hotel room doubled in price on our second night, and few smiles. But I wonder now whether I was the grim faced person, especially on that first day, cycling 84 miles on an uncomfortable stomach!
From the coast we cycled north into the Parc National Los Volcanes, where the air is cool but the people warm and friendly. Carlos, and his team in the fantastic Casa Verde hostel in Santa Ana could not have been more attentive or hospitable. I loved our trip up Santa Ana volcano. Make no mistake, El Salvador not a safe country. I carry an old phone and fake wallet in case we are robbed, and an armed guard accompanies tourists on all hikes. Sometimes they follow us on the road, the same guys in an open van, checking we are safe. There is an edge to being in the city, but isn’t that true of most cities these days?
Food is excellent. In every town cantinas serve trays of piping hot meat stews, each piled high with vegetables and served with rice and pasta, proper chips and corn tortillas (I never want to eat a corn tortillas again!) There are loads of vegetables for me too – a plateful of colour – $5 for us both, including drinks. We snack on papusas, corn dough flattened into circles like tortillas ( we pedal to the clapping beat of women and girls shaping dough) but filled with black bean paste and maybe cheese. Served hot with chilli sauce and pickled cabbage and carrots. A typical breakfast is soft fried eggs on a tortilla, smothered in a spicy tomato sauce, with black beans, fried plantains and a square of cheese. Delicious, but we often eat our own cereal to be on the road by six.
We followed the Ruta de la Flores with its pretty hilltop villages (it had to be hilltop). My favourite is Ataco with its cobblestone streets, brightly coloured murals and mountain setting. We returned, full circuit, yesterday (after a 500m climb!) to sit and enjoy the shady square, church and fountain. Lovely. Then this morning a whopping 1350m decent down the road we climbed almost a week ago. I couldn’t stop smiling, it was wonderful, truly the best way to spend Christmas Eve.
But for another reason I shall never forget this day. This is a surfers’ coastline but notoriously dangerous for rip currents and strong waves. I told Charles I would not go out in the waves. It looked benign, and Charles went further out. I took a body board into the shallows and that was fun, but then from nowhere the water swirled around my hips rather than my knees. I turned and I couldn’t see Charles. I ran up the beach for my prescription sunglasses and frantically scanned the water. Nothing. Still nothing. He was gone, and for a moment I truly believed he had been swept away. Then he appeared, then he was gone again, and then he was out of the breaking waves and wading to the shore. Visibly shaken, he said that a series of maybe five waves had tossed and tumbled him about as though in a washing machine. Not knowing which way was ‘up’ he struggled to catch a breath and thought he might not survive.
A sobering realisation, so we had a beer!
We watched the pattern of the waves repeat themselves: huge rolling pounders followed by a spell of gentle waves. Repeat. Synchronized pelicans swooped to enjoy the lift of air above the breaking waves, it is beautiful.
El Salvador is a story of traders (Pipil Indians, from the Toltecs and Aztecs) and raiders (Spanish conquistadors). Just like in Guatemala, 14 European families owned the colony’s wealth. Independence came in 1821, but land reform is an issue yet to be resolved.
In 1932 the Ruta de Flores region suffered the horrible massacre of 30,000 peasant coffee farmers, slaughtered by government troops for mass protest. The usual story – wealthy landowners displace indigenous people to expand their properties then exploit them as coffee growers. To landlessness, poverty, overpopulation and unemployment, add attempted coups, death squads, assassinations and of course Uncle Sam, President Reagan’s anti socialist support for El Salvador’s military. A 12 year civil war drags on (in 1989, a dubious election and the guerrilla socialists attack the capital, then the military respond by killing 4,000 “leftist sympathisers”). In total 75,000 die.
The FMLN (former guerrilla now political party) were elected in 2009, and again 2014. But today, gangs prevent true peace. These gangs were formed against Mexican gangs in USA to control guns, drugs, illegal immigration and the sex trade. The USA deported all gangsters to here in 2004. No surprise then that El Salvador became the murder capital of the world!