land of jewels
Cuscatlan – land of jewels. Most people won’t think about El Salvador when reading these words. Over twenty years after the brutal civil war, the country is still associated with murdered nuns, the death of journalists, the assassination of bishop Romero, death squads, Mara’s, earthquakes and hurricanes. In other words, everything but jewels.
But for those of us who do not believe El Salvador’s treasures have been shipped to Spain centuries ago, the country opens it’s arms and gives you a warm embrasso.
El Salvador welcomes those who dare to step off the beaten track with treasures that in many other tourist destinations are buried under piles of Samsonites and Canon camera’s. In Cuscatlan you find friendly prices and friendlier people. People with humor and a positive view on life despite the sometimes deep poverty and challenging circumstances they live in.
San Salvador, the capital, is like many Central American metropolis big, noisy and full of fumes. Some neighborhoods are better off without you visiting, but many are waiting for you to drop by.
A couple of days under a different kind of (toxic) blue sky being surrounded by a continuous stream of horrific car accidents (the average El Salvadorian in a car is a continuously honking man who drives by impulse not insight) is usually enough to make you want to get out of the urban jungle. Once decided to get out of the madness, you’ll be standing on top of a picture perfect volcano sucking up fresh air in no time. Taking a distance from San Salvador is not very difficult.
A day trip from San Salvador takes you to the top of two volcanoes. With an altitude of respectively 1900 and 2300 meter, the Izalco and Vulcan Santa Ana seem to look upon all that mortal madness down at their feet with beautiful amazement. The Izalco comes straight out of a Tintin album: cone shaped, black and bald. It was born in 1770 en evolved from a small pimple to a bump of fire right up until 1957 when it suddenly stopped erupting and died.
The other volcano is a bit friendlier despite the sulfer clouds surrounding it. In company of a few armed park guards, the Santa Ana offers an easy hike to a top with stunning views. The weapons by the way are something you get used to after being in El Salvador for a couple of days. Automatic rifles, revolvers, shotguns and what have you, are as common a sight as the mariachi-groups you can find for hire on the corner of every gas-station in town.
Much of El Salvador’s countryside is dominated by coffee, cashew and sugar canes. Visiting a coffee factory or a cashew plantation on for instance Isla Montecristo is a must. It gives you an opportunity to learn and meet enthusiastic and proud farmers and laborers. Isla Montecristo on the West coast is also an interesting place to visit for another, less positive, reason. Many years after the civil war ended, the island still carries plenty of scars. During the dark episode in El Salvador history, much of the island’s population fled for the violence that was brought to the Isla by para military groups. When this storm finally blew over, the next one arrived being the 1998 hurricane Mich which devastated the island. But between shipwrecks and ruined houses, the spirit of Isla Montecristo has survived and is well worth visiting.
The civil war is something which is still hard to avoid while in El Salvador. Whether it is graffiti on walls, monuments or statues made of armory, the war is still alive. Close to the capital you’ll find Puerto del Diablo. For centuries people have been thrown of this steep cliff, the latest episode being the civil war.
Another place where you still feel the ghosts of the past is the region of Chalatenango. This former FMNL stronghold was hit hard between 1979 and 1992. Memories of this time are still very alive here. For instance in San Carlos Lempa. In this village you find a gruesome museum where bullet holes direct you to the old swimming pool, now being a mass grave filled with the bodies of executed FMLN soldiers and villagers instead of water.
But El Salvador is more than memories of war and natural disasters. Near Lago Suchitlan for example you find a gem from the colonial era, Suchitoto where adobe houses line the streets and have been turned into art galleries. Cobbled stones and the lack of mass tourism make this a very inviting place to spend a couple of days enjoy history, culture and the nearby pristine nature.
Further back in time, before the Spanish came to Cuscatlan the Maya’s cultivated the land. And even though El Salvador does not have Tikkal or Copan like Maya sites, there are a couple of temple complexes which are interesting. Moreover, unlike Copan or Tikkal, you won’t be one in a million but most of the time find yourself all alone amongst ancient structures and artifacts. Joya de Cerén, San Andrés and Tazumal are all close to San Salvador. Much of this indigenous history is still buried underground, but more and more work is being done to uncover these ancient treasures.
Food in El Salvador is as varied as it’s history and landscape. Greasy pupusa’s, chicken fast food from Pollo Campero, frijoles, mucho pescado and other oceanic delights (La Libertad is one of the fishing centers), wonderful fresh, sweet fruit and every now and then an armadillo. El Salvador has it all and San Salvador even has more. Like every capital in the world you’ll find sushi next to a latte next to a pizza next to a bottle of fine French white wine.
‘In short’, El Salvador has it all and better, you’ll have most of it to yourself. For now.