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Friday, November 23, 2012

Underrated El Salvador


What a shame El Salvador gets such a bad rap….we almost avoided it due to the negative travel advice forums…..  “dangerous”, “don’t travel on local buses”, ”risk of kidnapping", etc, etc.  But while travelling throughout Central America we kept hearing great things from travellers who had actually been there (and survived) so we decided to see for ourselves.  We were totally and pleasantly overwhelmed.
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El Salvador has a spectacular landscape with amazing volcanoes, waterfalls, lakes and it’s all so incredibly lush and green. But what made our visit so very special were the warm and friendly people.  And no, we didn’t for one minute feel threatened…not even while travelling on those crowded public buses they warn you about. In fact we felt safer in El Salvador than anywhere else in Central America.
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After two days enjoying the seedy and crowded capital of San Salvador we caught the ubiquitous chicken bus to Suchitoto – a sleepy Spanish colonial town in rolling countryside 50kms north. 
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Set on a hillside above Lago Suchitlan, Suchitoto is a charming spot, seemingly far removed from the events of the civil war that raged all around here in the 80s and 90s.  The town was abandoned during the war but has since been resettled and buildings renovated.
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Our first stop was at a hostal with a gorgeous view over the lake and resident scorpion.  Yes…as we checked out the room a huge specimen ran out from under the bed.  Needless to say – we found another hotel!
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Having read and heard a lot about the nearby town of Cinquera, we wanted to visit. An organised tour cost $90 but we found a friendly local who drove us there for a third of that.  What we gained in dollars we forfeited in comfort - the battered old pick up was one of the roughest we’d been in!  Suspension was long dead.
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The road was shocking – full of potholes and rocks.  We lurched and bucked our way the 20km, never getting out of second gear. 
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The tail of a gunned down helicopter takes pride of place in the town square and there’s a moving museum which details events leading up to and during the civil war.  Some of the stories are heart wrenching. 
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Most of Cinquera’s occupants were murdered during the gruesome civil war (1980-1992). Suspected as being a hotbed of guerrilla activity, the town was targeted by the military led US backed El Salvador government who did everything possible to wipe out an uprising led by the FMLN (now the ruling party).  Scorched earth tactics were used and many nearby villages were razed and inhabitants murdered.
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Throughout the rebuilt town is evidence of its troubled past – most notable is the building with all the names of Cinquera locals who died in the war.  But other moving graffiti includes a saying from Farabundo Marti “The revolution is not carried in the mouth for life.  The revolution is carried in the heart for death.”
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Stoic locals have rebuilt the town and developed a fledgling eco tourism industry in the surrounding rain forest.  While there are many tragic stories the people we met were friendly and happy and just trying to move on.  One ex guerrilla we met recounted his story - he’d lived in the nearby jungle for nine tough years during the war. 
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From Suchitoto we headed to the Ruta de los Flores – a winding 40km road through the mountainous coffee growing region near the border with Guatemala.   Juayua is the largest town on the route and we stayed at a great hotel run by an enthusiastic young couple passionate about the area.  They only speak Spanish so we had to work hard but they organised a few trips for us including one to a nearby waterfall. 
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We spent a few hours hiking through coffee plantations to get there and back – rewarded by a wonderfully refreshing soak in the cool spring water.   Our guide there and back cost $3.
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We did day trips to some of the other gorgeous towns along the route and kicked back at some lovely local cafes and bars.  We ate our fill of pupusas and blamed them when we both ended up doing the Aztec twostep (a phrase coined by our sailing buddy Mark – quite apt too!).
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Dotted along the Ruta de las Flores are several sleepy towns that come to life at weekends as thousands of San Salvadorians and Sansonates drive up for a weekend escape from chaotic city life.  Stalls spring up all over the place and food fairs are held featuring delicacies such as grilled iguana.  We weren’t tempted.
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Having spent a few days exploring the towns during the week we were quite shocked when the crowds arrived….but the atmosphere was great with bands and dancing.  The aptly named Ruta de las Flores is lined with bougainvillea, daytura, hibiscus and other colourful tropical plants.  The surrounding hills are smothered with coffee plantations all with the backdrop of spectacular volcanoes.  It was magnificent.
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We spent a lovely morning at Ataco wandering through the coffee plantations and sampling the product at the local coffee shop. 
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Ataco is known for its brightly painted murals like this….
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and this….
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and this…..
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We were enjoying the area so much we decided to stay and have David’s birthday here.  The hostal cooked him a special pancake breakfast and a delicious cheesecake for a birthday cake.
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After four days and nights enjoying the towns and countryside of the Ruta de las Flores we headed for the university town of Santa Ana.
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It would have been very easy to stay in El Salvador longer but we had to get back to get Bandit antifouled, polished and in the water so when we heard there was a direct bus to the Rio Dulce we booked it.
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The trip was eight hours….we are getting used to long bus trips.  Our  driver was in a hurry - at the border he didn’t wait for us so we had to sprint down the road after the rapidly disappearing bus. 
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He seemed to be trying to set all sorts of records – fastest vehicle on the road, loudest music on board, worst overtaking manoeuvre etc etc. He tried to pass in some bizarre places – blind corners, going uphill – and seemed to put all his faith in the rosary beads swinging from his rear vision mirror.  Still, he got us to the Rio Dulce – we sure were delighted to see the wonderful river come into view – home!
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We left El Salvador with very happy memories of a wonderful Central American country – possibly the best – and would say to any others considering going – DO IT!  It’s a fantastic place.
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