Day 1: Flying by the Seat of Our Pantalones

Day 1: Flying by the Seat of Our Pantalones

So how the heck did we wind up in El Salvador? Well, I love me some Central America. I’ve been to Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Brian and I had originally wanted to go to Nicaragua, because Brian works with a guy from there who says it’s safe, cheap, and beautiful. But when we were booking his flight from Los Angeles to Managua, and mine from Medellin to Managua, the cheapest options both connected through San Salvador. We’re so limited on time, and El Salvador is so much smaller than Nicaragua, we decided to just make that our destination. We felt confident that we could easily cover most of the country in a week with a car. Not so in Nicaragua. Logic=Logistics.

I’m starting this blog with this disclaimer. Brian planned this entire trip. I was too busy with work to even look at it too much. I had a few things I wanted to do, told him those, then left it to him to get the car and rooms. Seriously, I am sitting in this hotel room waiting on him to arrive, and have no idea what is on the agenda for tomorrow other than “pick up rental car”! We’ll see if we’re still together by the end of this trip! 😉

I woke up in Medellin about 6am. Showered, packed, ate the last of my ham and cheese sandwiches, and left a tip for the kind cleaning lady who moved my clothes from the window to the dry rack. John picked me up at 7am. We drove through relatively quiet streets, as most people are off for Semana Santa. He is just such a NICE guy. Seriously. I told him I’d put in a good word for him over at TripAdvisor. He is seriously a god send to anyone who doesn’t speak much (or any) Spanish and who wants to get out of town for a day or so. Check in was a breeze, as I had my boarding pass on my phone and wasn’t checking any luggage. Was through security and at my gate in about 15 minutes. I had some time to kill and some pesos to get rid of (the chances that I’m a millionaire from all of the random currency I possess from all over the world that sits in a drawer is fairly high…), so I decided to shop . And damn if I didn’t find the PERFECT thing!! Colombia spelled with a U is Allison’s mega pet peeve. When I saw this shirt, I knew I had to get it in honor of my Medellin hostess!

It was a quick flight to Bogota and super easy to get through immigration. I had a little less than an hour until my flight, so I grabbed a sandwich and a coke (ugh, but my baby is bringing me a DDP (diet dr. pepper)!!). Once on board, empty middle seat. YAY!! I was texting Brian and poor guy was running around like crazy. He had to get up, drop Sophia off at camp, come back to the house to meet the housesitter, then go to work and get everyone lined out, then catch his flight. I could sense the “fluster” in his texts. I reassured him that soon we would be having amazing adventures together, so take a deep breath and HURRY UP AND GET THERE!! 🙂

I napped for about an hour of the two and a half hour flight. Much needed. Played my favorite airplane game, Bejeweled, the rest of the time. Soon we were preparing for landing. We got lower and lower and lower and then higher and higher and higher and did kind of a fast turn that made me a little queasy. An announcement said that there was some difficulty with landing so we had to reapproach. Seriously? After the technical difficulties on the plane from Bogota to Medellin, now this? I’m starting to think it would be safer for me to walk home next week… Anyway, it took us an extra 20 minutes to get repositioned for take 2. We made it (otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this!). Not gonna lie- I was a little nervous about that one…

Got off the plane and stepped into your typical fairly non-descript Central American airport. My plan was to just wait for Brian to arrive- he was sitting in his plane getting ready to take off while I was getting off my flight. I figured I could blog and hang out. But when I sat down, no wi fi. Ugh. Since the chances of me surviving for 5 hours without wifi are less than me surviving a failed runway approach, I told him I’d go to the hotel and he could meet me there, or I could come get him. He said he’d meet me there. I went through immigration and paid an unexpected $10 fee for a US entry visa (told you I hadn’t done any research!). Was on the sidewalk within minutes with people yelling “Taxi! Taxi!” at me. I was standing there texting Brian, when a woman approached me, said she was from a transport service, and could take me to my hotel- Hotel Rancho Argueta. I asked how much. $25. She’s gotta be out of her DAMN mind. Look, lady, I didn’t just fall off the turnip plane (those of you from the south will get that, those of you not from the south- the general translation is “I ain’t no idiot!”) I knew the hotel was super close- we booked the closest one because Brian was getting in so late (and it was cheap, $35 a night, which is always a major consideration!). I told her that was too expensive and no thanks. She smiled, walked off slowly, and looked back- like she thought I was going to change my mind as soon as she walked away. I guarantee she saw a white woman alone, knew she was one of the few people on that sidewalk that spoke perfect English, and could probably play on my “newbieness” to extort (yes, $25 is EXTORTION!) that kind of money from me. Next guy walks up. No English. So I used my broken Spanish to tell him where I was going and ask how much. He said $10. That’s more like it- still pricey, but doable. I got in the van with him and we were literally at the hotel before Brian’s plane took off!!

Check in was easy. Between their English and my Spanish I explained that my boyfriend was coming at 7 and I needed to pick him up (after my experience on the sidewalk and knowing that my Spanish is collegiate level compared to his, and knowing he wouldn’t have wifi to contact me, AND it would be dark, I figured it was better for me to get him than leave him alone to fend for himself! #helicoptergirlfriend). The guy said the airport shuttle is $6. Perfect. I then didn’t feel so bad about paying $10 earlier. The room is tiny, no windows (probably because it’s the cheapy $35 room), but it’s clean, quiet, and has excellent ac! Which is important with there being no windows. This ain’t Medellin with 75 degrees and hardly any humidity…I knew I was in Central America as soon as I stepped off the plane! 🙂 I then proceeded to spend the next few hours catching up on blogging. I have a ton of work to do, but the internet was just too slow for me to be able to do it. 🙁 Oh! And there was a menu on the desk for the restaurant downstairs. When I read it, I started seriously questioning Mr. Hummel’s reasoning for booking this hotel!! He has not asked the blessing of my tax attorney and accountant yet, nor has he gotten down on one tentacle to ask (inside joke about an octopus ring he gave me at a castle in France)!!

Um, I didn’t come here to honeymoon…

Soon it was time to head to the airport to get Brian. I went downstairs, and met my driver, Enrique. PERFECT English!! And oh my goodness, just such a genuinely nice man! We talked about El Salvador, I asked if it was safe and he said yes and the people are very friendly. Also that they really want more tourists here and for me to please write something about the hotel. I will! I stood outside of the airport doors with a huge group of El Salvadorians holding balloons, signs, flowers, and video cameras the size news stations use!! I felt rather inadequate and woefully underprepared for the arrival of my loved one…Soon he was out of the doors! I was so excited to see him, and I really did refrain from making the first question “Did you bring the DDP??”. I think sometimes he feels like I only meet him in other countries so I can have him haul Diet Dr. Peppers across multiple time zones to feed my addiction!! BTW, he brought 5 of them. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 We hopped in Enrique’s truck and made our way back to the hotel. Went to the restaurant for a nice little dinner with the most lovely waitress! She didn’t speak much English at all, but really wanted to, and was full of giggles! She said “chicken” when she gave Brian his chicken and giggled. I spoke to her a bit in Spanish. She really was just so wonderful! When she brought the check, it was $15.25 total. She pointed at it and I could tell she wanted to know it in English. I told her “Fifteen (she said fifteen), twenty-five (she said twenty five)”. Then we put it all together “Fifteen twenty five”. I could tell she was so pleased with herself! She went over to the front desk to give the guy our credit card, and I heard her happily say to him “Fifteen twenty five!”. Made me smile so hard. 🙂 All in all, a wonderful introduction to El Salvador!

Our hotel is like 2 miles from the airport. And they rent cars! Wish we had known that when we booked the room. 🙁

Lobby and restaurant. They’re doing a ton of renovations right now, so it’s going to be super cute when they’re finished!

The courtyard

Day 2: Regreso! Soy Vieja! Muerto! (AKA: Santa Ana Volcano)

Day 2: Regreso! Soy Vieja! Muerto! (AKA: Santa Ana Volcano)


IMPORTANT TIP: Santa Ana Volcano: There are only 3 trips a day! At 9, 10, and 11, so get there early! I recommend the 10 o’clock tour at the latest so you aren’t rushed down so fast. Park in El Tibet. Walk down the road you just came up until you see the little parking lot off the side of the road on your left. Take that. If there are masses of people, follow them. There is a hiking trail just past the parking lot on your left. Take that up to the park entrance where you will pay $3 per person. Do NOT drive to the top of the road, or it will cost you an extra $9 and 45 minutes of hiking!

Woke up early (because like I always say, that’s the best time to start an adventure!), got our things together, and headed downstairs to get a ride to the airport to pick up our car. I sooooooo wish we would have known that the hotel rents cars, because the cars there were cheaper than the one we rented through Budget, and it would have saved us airport shuttle money ($12 whole dollars round trip, but still…). And guess who was STILL downstairs? ENRIQUE! We got in the car and I asked him where he learned such perfect English. He said he lived in California when he was younger. I asked where. He said Van Nuys. I said, “WE ARE FROM RESEDA!!!!!!!”. He almost died from shock!! In Los Angeles, which is massively spread out, Reseda and Van Nuys border each other!! He was just in disbelief and said it’s such a small world. That was such a fun connection! He asked me about checking in yesterday with the front desk guy, and how his English was. I said it was good enough to communicate. He said they were trying to get the staff up to speed on English, hoping for more tourists. Love it. We said our goodbyes to Enrique (our neighbor!), and picked up our car. Check in with Budget was super easy, and we were blown away that we literally got a BRAND NEW Hyundai SUV with just a little over 200km on it! WOW! I’m used to dented, scratched up vehicles in Central America. Plus, the desk lady AND the guy who took us out to the car both spoke English! Pulled out of the airport and found our way to a little gas station to grab some water and snacks (we didn’t eat breakfast. Please remember this fact for future reference). And what to my wondering eyes did appear??? A familiar maroon can in the cooler…could it be??? YES IT WAS!! DR. PEPPER!!!!!!!!!!! Brian picked out a bag of chips that has become my new favorite chip ever (well, tied with Nacho Cheese Doritos)-

We had grand plans for the day! To visit Mayan ruins! First up, Joya de Ceren, then off to two other Mayan ruin sites. Hitting the open road in our fancy schmancy brand new car….WOO-HOO!! Google maps led the way through San Salvador to Joya de Ceren which was a little over an hour away. We pulled up to the gates exactly at 9am when the website said it opened, and were met with….locked gates. There was no sign of life whatsoever inside. I immediately knew that this was Jesus’ fault. It’s holy week here (Semana Santa), and this was Thursday before Good Friday. Another car pulled up with people who spoke English and Spanish. They talked to a guy across the street who said they were closed until Saturday. Ok, no worries, we’ll just drive over to the next set of ruins that was really close by. And guess what? CERRADO! Obviously all government run sites were going to be closed, so there was no sense in driving over to the other one. Now what? Now do what we do so well, and why we are the best travel partners EVER…completely change plans midstream seamlessly with no stress! Looked on google maps to figure out where we were and what was around, and saw the volanco park we had in our plans to do later in the week and decided to head over there. Took about an hour, during which we drove along a BEAUTIFUL lake- Lake Coatepeque, which is a huge volcanic crater lake.

I will say, the roads in El Salvador are quite good and very well marked- nothing like what I expected. Soon we saw the turnoff to Cerro Verde National Park, where we would have lunch then go on a hike. Before we got there though, Brian had to make a quick stop. 😉

Yes, dear. I TOLD you this was going in the blog. NEVER trust the evil girlfriend with the camera!!!

Look, we honestly had NO IDEA what we were doing exactly, and I didn’t have enough of a signal for internet data to do any on-the-fly research. We pulled into a little area called El Tibet. There were a zillion people all walking together in a group headed somewhere. There were signs for some of the volcanoes (there’s more than one here, but we knew from prior research that Santa Ana was the easiest one to hike), but not Santa Ana. There were a ton of roadside vendors with fruit and water. No restaurant. A policeish guy walks over to us and I asked if he spoke English. He did!! What the what the?? I can’t believe how so many people here speak English! I really wasn’t expecting that, knowing that El Salvador isn’t exactly a hot spot for tourism. He said that we could park here and then he pointed up the road and said we could walk up there to do the Santa Ana tour. I asked if it was a fairly flat trail or very steep. He said a little up and down- holding his hand flat, and then at a slight angle, and then flat again. Ok, doable! He walked off and Brian and I still weren’t sure exactly what to do. So we got out and bought a piece of pineapple and a couple of pieces of melon, since there was no real food anywhere to be found. We also bought a couple of extra waters. There were still masses of people walking down the road. I told Brian that if we had to walk up the road, why didn’t we just DRIVE up the road? So we got in and headed up. A mile or so in there was a gate. $3 per person and $1 for the car. (This would become a recurring theme!). Paid, parked, and saw a huge group of people standing there waiting to go on a guided hike- you have to have a guide to hike here. I asked a man who looked rather official was this the groupo para Santa Ana? No, and he pointed back to the guard shack. Went over there, and fortunately the guy spoke broken English. He explained that we had to walk all the way to the top of the road and the tour was starting at 11. It was like 10:45! He said we had to pay $3 per person. We explained that we had already paid when we came in. No, ANOTHER $3 per person, and $1 each for a guide. And hurry or we were going to miss the last tour of the day! Up we went. Nothing was marked, it was super confusing, I asked a couple of people what to do and where to go, there was a restaurant- but no time…. Finally we found where the tour started. There was a long line of people and we fell into place. We each paid $1 to the people who were taking us in, who reminded us in Spanish that we had to pay another $3, but we couldn’t figure out where that was going to happen. Whatever, we headed down the trail with the masses, in last place so I could at least get some decent pictures without tons of people! And oh, by the way, out of all of these masses of people, NO white people. Bonus score! 🙂

We went down, down, down, down, and DOWN. Being a physics teacher, I know that what goes down must come up. And oh, by the way, did I mention that this was going to be a FOUR HOUR HIKE?? And that said 4 hour hike was going to be done on basically some chips we ate on the way to the volcano and a piece of a piece of fruit we got on the side of the road. I knew I wasn’t about to be coming back up this, and started getting REALLY nervous. We were completely unprepared for this hike, and most importantly I wasn’t mentally prepared!! After about half an hour we popped out on to a road- in El Tibet! The same damn place we had parked the car earlier!! I was overcome by two emotions. One, frustration. We didn’t have to spend that extra $9 on the parking and guide!!!!!! GRRRRRRRRRRR!!! Another…elation! Brian could go back and get the car when we were done and I wouldn’t have to climb back up that hill from hell! But at that point, as we were walking down the road in a mass of people, I realized that was selfish. I wanted to hitchhike back up the road!! Now THAT would make a good blog entry! I settled it in my mind, did the thing I do where I start formulating what to say in Spanish to make it happen, and was kind of excited at the prospect! We went up another hill that wasn’t as horrible as the first. It ended in a little area with snacks, bathrooms (very, VERY loose term. #gag), and a place to pay $3 per person to enter the park.

Brian standing in line while I stocked up on the only protein there was- Peanut M&Ms, which I learned are M&Ms Amarillo (yellow).

The masses started heading up another hill, and we followed. Back of the pack again. We came upon what I refer to as a “No Mary Zone”- crazy tower thing with a ladder to access each level. In other words, a death trap. Brian went up and got some nice shots of the valley below. I talked to the guides in Spanish and asked them if there were monkeys here. Nope. Pizotes.

Off we went down the trail. It was a bit of a climb to this point, but now it was nice and flat. YES! I can do flat for DAYS! Also, it was a shaded trail through the forest, which was key because, again, we weren’t prepared for this and had no sunscreen.

Shady and flat. Just the way I like it!

No sunscreen, no food, no mental preparation. We’re happily walking along, I’m talking to the guide in my broken Spanish, and all is good. Until it wasn’t anymore. Until we hit an area where the trees disappeared and the trail got rocky and steep. Um, did I mention no physical fitness on my part? I have literally been on a couch working, basically since last summer in Malaysia. I didn’t really hike in South Africa. The only thing I’ve done recently was that climb up El Pinon last week in Colombia that was fine while it was happening, but wrecked me for about 3 days after! I didn’t want to be wrecked first thing out of the gate in El Salvador! My other situation is my knees, who are not real keen on climbing these days… As I looked up, WAY up, and saw a winding trail of masses like ants in a solid line far above me, I started to get nervous. Nervous about not having any food to fuel this monster hike. Nervous about getting mega sunburned and being miserable the rest of the trip (luckily though, there was pretty good cloud cover). Nervous about my knees. Nervous about my fitness level. Nervous about heights. Nervous about falling, because we saw multiple people slip and eat it that were coming down the steep parts. And when I get nervous, I get complainy. So I started voicing my concerns about all of these things- multiple times. Poor Brian, he’s just so steadfast and encouraging and patient… Honestly though, I didn’t think I could make it to the top.

Um, I did NOT sign up for this!

See all the people??

No, at the top where all those people are is STILL not the real top (even though Brian told me it was the top on about 3 different occasions).

The climb was long. It was steep. It was hard in places. It was real. The constant flow of people coming down the same narrow, steep, difficult trail we were trying to go up didn’t make things any easier. Cries of “Regreso!” and “Regrasamos!” (I’m going back and We’re going back!) were heard multiple times. I added my own cry to the mix. Muerto! Soy viaja! And I wasn’t kidding. Then, my right knee decided to start discussing the matter with me about ¾ of the way up (and about 2 hours in to what was supposed to be a 4 hour roundtrip and we still couldn’t even see the real top of this thing). The clouds were pouring in. I asked a woman who was coming down if she could even see the lake in the crater of this volcano because of all the clouds. She said yes (I was kind of hoping for a no and a good excuse to regreso!). People, I am not joking when I tell you we literally saw someone sitting on the side of the trail crying. I asked in Spanish if they needed water, no, just tired. I felt their pain. I trudged on, and on, and on. Every time I thought we could see the peak and we reached that area, there was just another steady line of people winding up and up. We bonded in Spanish with a woman and guy who had just about had it as well and were trying to make it. We were at the tail end of this last group. Finally, desert like vegetation of yuccas and straggly grass disappeared as the landscape became more gray and stark. More and more lava rocks were everywhere. We were close. And then….THE TOP!! The real top this time!! Brian was ahead of me. I shouted to him was the view of the lake worth it (by god it better be or I was going to throw myself into the cauldron as a sacrifice!). He said yes. I clambered up behind him and wow. Just wow. Like take your breath away wow. Yes, indeed, it was worth it. Three hours of near death and almost constant despair were worth it.

Finally at the top!

Raise your hand if you just climbed the highest volcano in El Salvador on some chips, a couple bites of fruit, and some M&Ms!

So what’s the dealio with this volcano and lake? Well, upon research AFTER the fact, this is the highest volcano in El Salvador- 7,605 ft!! Holy Christos! The last eruption was 2005, when the volcano killed a couple of people and hurled rocks the size of CARS about a mile away!! The indigenous name is Ilamatepec. I couldn’t find any good information on the lake itself, except for an abstract from a scientific paper that stated the lake is actually a lot cooler than what you would expect- about 68 degrees F!! But that during times of increased volcanic activity, temperatures were recorded at 86. Honestly though, not bad for a lake inside of a volcano! Oh, and it’s shallower than I thought- about 90 feet. Statistics aside, it’s beautiful, and the camera really couldn’t pick up the gorgeous muted jade/blue tones.

I shit thee not, we hadn’t been up there 3 minutes before we hear whistles blowing. What the…it was the guides saying it was time to go. Everyone off the volcano. I’m sorry, but FUCK YOU. I didn’t trudge 3 hours up here to spend 3 minutes and turn right back around. And anyway, I didn’t take whistle in high school, so no comprendo! We walked around a bit with whistles blowing and snapped shots. The whistles started getting more fervent, so we headed down after the masses, among the last in the line again.

Heading back down…

Um, see that little villagy area WAAAAAAAY down there? That was our general location. Is it too late to just sacrifice myself to the volcano and call it a day??

Up, up, up and now turned into down, down, down- my knee’s least favorite pasttime. And the discussion it had started on the way up now turned into a full blown argument, that by the time we got near the bottom was turning into a domestic violence issue and a request for a restraining order. The young man in front of me would help me down the steeper steps, while Brian was on the other side. Some people had ended up behind us somehow, and we let them pass while I rested me knee, so I lost the nice young man. We finally got back to the forest and the clouds were thick. It was literally like walking through some kind of haunted fairy tale forest, except it was my knee that was the villian. I would have preferred a witch or wolf… We were now at the very back with the rear guides, and they were trying to help me hobble down the best they could. I felt like a 90 year old. Embarrassed, but there was literally nothing I could do. It just wouldn’t cooperate. Two hours, yes TWO hours of this making it a FIVE hour hike total with no decent food, and we came out to the little park entrance area again. Praise be! But there was still a bit to go. I started discussing how we were going to get back to the car- the park was basically shutting down and we didn’t think anyone would be driving up to the top to hitchhike with. Brian was going to just walk up and get the car while I waited if that was the case. We got to the bottom, and damn if the guide didn’t put us in a truck!!! $1 per person!! And me, being an invalid, got to ride in the cab with the driver instead of stand up packed like sardines in the back (which we’ve determined is an official mode of transportation in El Salvador!). That was THE best $1 I have ever spent in my life. Hands down, no question. Oh my god, I was so relieved. Because I really didn’t want to wait at the bottom by myself.

The eerie, haunted looking forest…

Soon, we were back at the car and heading back down the road toward San Salvador. I was tired. I was cranky. My knee hurt. I was hungry. In other words, waaaaaaaaaaaa!!!! We wanted to get back to our AirBNB and check in before dark. Put it in google maps and found it easily. Super nice little modern condo with free secured parking! Dropped our bags and it was time to find FOOD!! It was after 6pm by this time!!! We drove around the neighborhood a bit and couldn’t find anything, so we pulled into a gas station and asked a guy on a motorcycle. He pointed and told us “Metro Center” and indicated that there were a lot of restaurants there. We found it, and went into the first restaurant we saw- Pueblo Vieja. The waiter was so happy to practice his English with us, and even brought over another waiter to help him with his English as well. The food was awesome, and our waiter even took our picture. 🙂 At the end, he wanted me to tell him the proper way to ask a customer in English if they were finished with their meal. Guys, El Salvadoreans really, REALLY want English speaking tourists here, and they are trying very hard. It’s so heartwarming to see!

Taken with my craptastic phone camera.

Next up, so we would NEVER be stuck without food again, was a trip to the grocery store that was in the same center. It was dark out by now, and we felt perfectly safe walking around. Of course, there are armed guards EVERYWHERE in El Salvador. Like seriously. Everywhere. Went into Super Selectos- an excellent, very well organized store! One thing I will say…El Salvador ain’t cheap. They use the US dollar as their currency so are directly tied to our economy and it shows. We grabbed some eggs to boil, some more of our favorite chips, and some fruit. And, there it was again, on the shelf…DR. PEPPER!! Oh, El Salvador…you surprise me in so many ways!! Headed back to the condo and crashed. Our first full day here was certainly that…full!

Day 3: Santa Semana en Sonsonate

Day 3: Santa Semana en Sonsonate

Know how I knew this morning was going to be a Good Friday? Because I woke up and my knee wasn’t incapacitated as I had suspected it might be. Plus, Brian had drank a full on glass of WATER at the restaurant last night, and I had a drink with ice. Neither of us were clutching our guts and declaring the bathroom a toxic dump site. Woo-hoo! I had been very worried about that…. Those things, and it was literally Good Friday. In Latin America, it’s called Semana Santa (Saint’s Week), and it is a BIG DEAL. Like THE high holiday. I knew from being in Colombia that there were all kinds of processions and things, and really wanted to experience that! Searched the internet high and low for information and really couldn’t figure out where or when anything was. The waiter at the restaurant the night before said there are these things called alfombras (carpets) that are made in the streets for the processions to walk over, and that they are very popular. We ate some boiled eggs and headed out on foot, with plans to just walk the 3 miles to the main cathedral in town: La Catedral Metropolitana del Divino Salvador del Mundo. We figured there HAD to be something going on there. First stop, a little farmacia that was open near the house. We walked in and kind of wandered around looking for sunscreen. Lo and behold, and man walks up to us out of the blue and introduces himself in perfect English, asking what we needed. He was just a customer there, named Charlie, and he worked in a call center so he knew English. He asked the lady at the counter if there was any sunscreen. No. 🙁 He then asked us what our plans were. We told him, and he said San Salvador is dead (no pun intended, Jesus) because everyone leaves the city to go to the smaller towns or the beach. We asked him for suggestions, and he wasn’t really sure, so the guy calls his brother to ask!! Seriously, the people here are SO friendly and SO lovely!! Nicest I’ve encountered anywhere, really. The brother says Sonsonate is where it’s happening. That advice, coupled with the fact that my knee was already complaining slightly and we hadn’t even walked 2 blocks, made us decide to go back, get the car, and head to Sonsonate! We joked that some people can turn on a dime. We turn on the head of a pin. 🙂

There’s a thing about El Salvador. Every place is 1 hour and 21 minutes away, no matter where you’re going! Small country… We drove along the roads, which I must say that by Central American standards are quite good. Not a ton of pot holes, hardly any topas (speed bumps), and well marked. Along the way we saw very typical El Salvadorean things. People JAM PACKED into trucks, vans, buses, whatever. John Fredy (our driver in Medellin), had a joke with Allison. He could get a vehicle to give her and her friends a tour that would fit 8 Americans or 15 Colombians. Here, that joke would be revised to “or 23 El Salvordoreans”. Another thing we see a lot are sticks. Sticks piled into trucks. People gathering sticks. People carrying sticks. Sticks piled in yards. We’re pretty sure they’re for firewood (for cooking, not heat!). And babies. Babies doing all kinds of things babies in the US are definitely not allowed to do. Babies standing in buckets of water. Babies riding on a motorcycle down the highway with no protection, just kinda stuffed in between mom and dad. Babies crawling from the shoulder out on to the highway (no lie!!) from a roadside vendor. Naked babies just hanging out on the hood of a car. The only plastic they don’t have here is bubble wrap for babies. It’s natural selection at its finest! And speaking of plastic, I hate to say it, but damn this country is a mess. There is trash EVERYWHERE. We have seen so many people just throw stuff out of their car windows. It’s a damn shame. 🙁

Baby in a bucket. I just missed the shot of him pouring that little bucket full of water over his head. In the US, we call this “BABY DROWNING HAZARD!!!!!!”, then promptly wrap the child in bubble wrap.

As we drove, we could see the volcanoes in the distance. It’s the tail end of dry season here, so everything is brown.

We arrived at Sonsonate. And had NO CLUE where to go (running theme). The gps had taken us to some neighborhood with some dirt roads. We knew that wasn’t right. I zoomed in on the map, saw a green square, and knew that where there is a park, there is a church! We headed for it and there it was! The place was packed, but we parked within a block of it because even though there were hundreds of people, only a few cars were needed to get them here! 🙂 Purple was the colore de la dia!! There were lots of people dressed in purple robe type things- children, men, women. I’m guessing it signifies the royal color purple- the color of kings- for Jesus. The fountains even had purple water. One had red, I assume to symbolize the blood of Jesus.

This kid smiled so much after he realized I snapped his pic. 🙂

Super creepy clown for blowing up helium balloons…

Oh, speaking of bloodshed, I had read on a blog about Sonsonate that it was one of the most dangerous areas of El Salvador. They specifically mentioned to cover up any tattoos to avoid attracting the attention of gang members. That meant that I made Brian basically dress in a burka for the day…the 95 degree day. Let me quell any fears- Sonsonate, at least during Semana Santa is completely safe. I can not tell you how many times I said “These people are just so WONDERFUL” after every encounter. I’m used to people I’m paying to be nice to me. These people are just geniunely nice because they are. So helpful, so friendly, so accommodating. Anyway, I digress to say this. Brian could have worn shorts and a shorter sleeve shirt. 🙂

A lot of people were lining up in front of a big decorated building. When in El Salvador….so we lined up too. We were kind of an anomaly. And by that, I mean the ONLY white people. Kids especially would look at us so curiously! Some followed us around! We stood there waiting for we had no idea what to happen. We could hear drums in the distance, and soon, we saw the procession arriving! Jesus arrived from one side of the plaza, two women figures and an angel from the other side. In the middle was a stage and they were very loudly acting out the trial of Jesus.

News reporter, in what I assume is traditional Santa Semana attire. 😉

The trial of Jesus was dragging on about as long as OJ’s trial, so I was ready to cut out. I wanted to find those alfombras! The people running the bathroom service (which for a crowd this large was very nice!) directed us in Spanish to where they were. We headed that way. As we walked along the streets, there were women selling all kinds of fruits and vegetables. In this area, the women all had these beautiful aprons on. I stopped on one side of the road and heard a mass of giggling behind me. There was a woman in a bright pink shirt laughing about me taking those women’s picture, and calling to them across the street basically saying “Ha, ha, you got your picture taken!”. I smiled at her and kept walking. The guy at a cart about 20 feet away told me in Spanish, with a mischeivous gleam in his eye, to go back and take her picture. I started walking back, she saw me, and started laughing her head off. I gave her puppy dog eyes, put my hands together in a pleading way and playfully said “Una fotographia, por favor…por favor???” She giggled and ran. It was on! I chased after her! Brian said I looked like the papparazzi! I knew it was all just a fun game and I wasn’t offending her or anything. She was laughing so hard, I was trying to snap a picture. I finally got one and walked over to show her. She about died laughing!!! It was SO MUCH FUN! I’m telling you (again) these people are WONDEFUL!!!

Pink shirt….my new bestie!

We turned a block and saw a bunch of alfombras that had already been walked over by the previous processions of the day. I think there was one early in the morning, and then that noon one that we had seen. But I knew the main one was this afternoon at 4 (the bathroom guy told me).

Around another corner, we saw them! Well, the beginnings of them. Salt was being spread out into some big wooden frames. It looked like they had a lot of work ahead of them! We continued walking and saw people preparing these huge stencils of palm trees, I assumed to put into the salted frames. They were no where near ready (it was about 12:30), so we decided to go back to the square and explore the church.

We wandered around the very crowded church for a bit, then decided to get some food. Every restaurant was closed, so we found a street vendor that advertised a chicken lunch with a coke for $2.50. Now HERE were some decent prices finally!! Brian got the chicken with rice, avocado, and tortillas (we are NOT fans of the tortillas in El Salvador- they’re too thick and don’t have much flavor). The chicken and rice were FANTASTIC!! I got bean and cheese pupusas which were really good as well. We also ordered some deep fried yucca things that had kind of a sweet sauce with them- almost dessert like- that were really good. The people at the food stand were bending over backwards for us. Got us seated at a table under their canopy. Made sure we had everything we wanted. Cleaned up the mega mess Brian made with the sauce all over the nice table cloth (I can’t take him anywhere!). And when I asked for a knife to cut the chicken with, they didn’t have one and apologized. Like 30 seconds later, a woman appeared with a knife. Again, SUCH LOVELY PEOPLE!!!

During all of this, the mega loud Jesus trial was still going on. We’re two hours in at this point. Soon, we heard the band playing, so we wandered over to the street and the procession was heading our way. Let me tell you about that Jesus thing they were carrying. There were 4 rows of about 8-10 men struggling to keep it held up! Ahead of Jesus were the guys waving the incense burners. Behind all of that was a large band. Behind that, the women and angel figures, all carried by women (much smaller to carry). I was pretty much right in the middle of the street snapping pics of it all!

After the procession passed, we headed back to the street with the alfombras to see what progress had been made. Those palm stencils were to paint on the street! There were guys who were basically mopping in between the lines with oil. Then a team would lay down a palm tree stencil and shake colored sand all over it. There were several teams working on this all the way up the street. And progress was being made on the alfombras! We oooed and ahhhed over them. I asked one guy what time would they be finished. 4pm. Holy crap. I was not going to just sit here for another 2 hours. Time to find a new adventure!

I hit up google maps and found some kind of ecopark thing in the area that was about 20 minutes away. We decided to go check it out. On the way back, we passed by my friend pink shirt again! I shouted “Hola!!” a few times across the street, but she didn’t look up. A guy next to me said something and she looked over and DIED laughing again! I snapped a quick pic and went to show her, then Brian said we should all take a picture together. They agreed. Now THESE are ladies I’d like to hang out with!!

Brian was all worried about giving up our sweet parking space. I told him it was FINE. We headed off to the town of Caluco. Down pavement which gave way to dirt roads. And I never felt safer. The eco park ended up being a bunch of really dirty looking pools that were PACKED with people. The water running through them was river water. We basically hit a dead end and turned around. Found a church and stopped to see if there was any interesting Semana Santa stuff going on. Not much.

Back down the road to head to Sonsonate again. We saw a kid on the side of the road with crabs on a string. I told Brian to turn around!! We pulled up alongside of him and I said I didn’t want crabs, but how about a picture. He agreed, and I snapped this shot. I handed him a dollar for his trouble. 🙂

Brian was completely wrong about parking. We parked practically on top of the alfombras this time! Of course, I heckled him half to death about that. “Oh gee, I’m not sure we can handle walking a whole 30 feet….” He loves me. 🙂 We checked on the progress of the alfombras. It was a little after 3pm and the thing was starting in less than an hour! Progress had been made, but still not quite finished!!

We walked around the streets. Me with my massive “Hello, I’m a tourist with money to burn on a fancy camera” camera swinging from my neck. Never felt safer. A lady asked if I would take a picture of her and her children. Damn thing came out blurry!! I was so pissed. But here they are. The ladies carrying things on their heads were so interesting.

Mayan woman

The best thing to kill time anywhere is to go get ICE CREAM! Which we did. And in that shop was the only whitish looking person we had seen all day (way to ruin it, white lady!). After ice cream, it was about 3:40. I wasn’t interested in seeing another procession, because it takes forever and I wanted to be back before dark. We decided to just accept whatever was finished of the alfombras, and then head out. And here is what we found…

Ummm hmmmm….now what does a unicorn, a werewoman, a fairy, and Jesus all have in common?? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. This area has a strong Mayan presence (which was shown on the alfombra with the parrots and MAYAN TEMPLE). I was so damn proud and pleased with these people! Well played…well played, indeed. Hilarious!!! High five, Sonsonate, for making this day so “magical”!! Love your town, love your people, love your culture!!

Day 4: Mayan Ruins & Roller Coasters

Day 4: Mayan Ruins & Roller Coasters

Today was Saturday- the day the Mayan ruins we tried to visit from Day 2 were supposed to be open. We got up and got ourselves out the door so we could be there right when Joya de Ceren opened at 9am. Turned on our jam- 102.1- and started our 1 hour and 21 minute (because EVERYTHING is that far away!) drive. Let me tell you about 102.1…it’s an 80’s station. And not your typical 80’s station from the US. We heard zero Madonna in hours of driving over days. No, they play the songs you literally have not heard since 1987!! And some of them are crazy mixes of those songs. It’s so trippy! We love it! Perfect road trip accompaniment.

Pulled into Joya de Ceren 3 minutes before 9. First (and only) ones in!! Woo-hoo!! $3 per person (because EVERYTHING in El Salvador is $3 per person and 1 hour and 21 minutes away!!). Now I’ve been to a lot of Mayan ruins in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Probably about 10, including the biggie at Tikal. But Joya de Ceren is very different from all of those ruins. Most ruins are all about the city center, with temples and buildings and such. Joya de Ceren is about the outskirts of these areas that people rarely realize existed. The “suburbs” of the big cities, so to speak. The farming villages that sustained these massive civilizations. We don’t normally see them because they were build out of mud, not rock, so they haven’t lasted the centuries. So why did Joya de Ceren last? Here’s a clue- it’s called the Pompeii of the Americas!! And just like the Roman Pompeii in Italy (which I have had the pleasure of visiting last summer!), Joya de Ceren was buried during a volcanic eruption, and perfectly preserved! People had been living in this area as far back as 1200 BCE (over 3000 years ago!! WOW!). In 590, a nearby volcano erupted and covered the village under about 20 FEET of ash!! Unlike the Romans, who stuck around praying for their gods to make Vesuvius stop acting up, the Mayans high tailed it the heck out of there. No human remains have been found, in fact they left so fast they didn’t take much with them. (Note: See how well action works vs.. “thoughts and prayers”??…we could learn something from these ancient civilizations!!) That means scientists have been able to use the site to learn a lot about everyday Mayan life! So how did they find this place, buried under 20 feet of ash and layers of stuff from 1300+ years on top of that? A bulldozer was doing some excavation and uncovered it in 1976. Since then, over 70 buildings have been found, and about 12 have been fully excavated (including homes, sweat lodges, storage houses, and ceremonial houses). The parts that are open to the public are all under huge sheds- not out in the open like Pompeii. Pompeii was built from stone. Joya de Ceren is built from clay, so it would not withstand the elements very long if exposed. It was declared a UNESCO site in 1993. And the awesome thing is that even though the information was fairly limited (and the museum was closed, from what the sign said permanently 🙁 ), the signage on each site was in Spanish AND English!

They had a model sweat lodge built that you could go into.

It took us probably about 45 minutes to go through Joya de Ceren. Next on our Mayan road trip was San Andres, which was right around the corner, maybe 5 miles away. We drove in and there were a few people milling around. Paid our….wait for it…$3 per person. 🙂 San Andres was a ceremonial center. In fact, it’s still used by the Mayans for ceremonies, which is pretty cool! Again, lots of signage in English, and a really cool museum! The ruins themselves were kinda “eh”. Brian has never been to any, so they were good for him! One really cool thing here is a tunnel that was excavated under one of the pyramids- it’s over 250 feet long! Unfortunately you couldn’t go in. 🙁

Now something REALLY crazy happened when we left San Andres and I got a decent data signal. I’m not going to go into this entire drama, but let me give you a little of the backstory. I found out I was adopted 11 years ago. I found my birthmother immediately through a person called a “search angel” (someone who helps adoptees find their birth family). Met her, drama ensued, she refused to tell me who my birth father is, yadda, yadda, yadda. I was at a dead end. Fast forward a decade when the genetics teacher can now order a DNA test and find potential relatives that way! I took the test 2 months ago. Yesterday morning, I got an email that they were ready to view, and I posted my information on a site. A search angel said she would help, and spent all day yesterday tracking down potential matches and leads and building family trees to narrow down the possibilities. Never in my wildest dreams did I think anything would happen for a few weeks at LEAST. I mean, people get their DNA tested and it can still take months or years to find the right trail, because it is reliant on the right people who are related to you getting tested and building out their family trees! Well, here I am, in the middle of no where El Salvador, and a facebook message pops up from my search angel that she thinks she’s found a potential family member.  Just like the Santa Ana volcano death march, I was NOT mentally prepared for this right now. So my mind is spinning at like 10,000 mph, I’m what iffing and kinda freaking out on the I don’t know how long (probably 1 hour and 21 minute) drive to the next Mayan site. Emotional roller coaster from hell, not enough data to do searches of my own for more information…ugh. Then we get to the town, Tazumal, and google maps is just toying with us. We ended up off on the far side of town somewhere down dirt roads, and had to turn around. This was just google practicing for later…

We finally found it (dead giveway: it’s on the street that is covered in souvenir stalls.) We parked and the guy made it very clear in English that he would be requiring a tip upon our return. I needed food. I needed to sit down. I needed a stiff drink and a bullet. I NEEDED A SCREAMING FAST DATA CONNECTION!! We’re sitting on this street, no white people anywhere (which literally has been the norm this entire trip), and I’m ordering food in Spanish. Nothing is registering. Somewhere between San Andreas and here I went from the “shock” stage to the “anger” stage. I have tears in my eyes, Brian isn’t sure what to do with me, the food kinda sucked. UGH. We finished and went across the street to the ruins. Of course, it’s $3 to get in. We’re out of small bills and Brian (who is in charge of Spanish while I am fighting off a nervous breakdown) hands the guy a $100. He says he can’t change it. OH HELL NO. Brian, in his super cute innocent way, says let’s go find an ATM. Um, the streets are one step up from dirt over here. I’m doubting there’s an ATM on the corner!! I’m over it at this point. The US dollar is the currency, there are DOZENS of people inside the ruins right now and I know damn good and well he has change. I walk back up to the window and blab a bunch of stuff in Spanish that includes the word cambio, probably looking half crazed and ready to lose it at any point. He takes my $100 and gives me $94 back in change. Gracias.

We’re putting our cambio away, and a guy comes running up and hands me something. It’s the guy from the restaurant, handing me my PHONE!!! The only lifeline we have in El Salvador because I’m the only one with T-Mobile and free international data. Without that phone, we couldn’t find our way out of the parking lot!! Oh my god, I thanked him profusely. I NEVER leave my phone anywhere. That was the state of mind I was in… And let me say it yet again, the people here are SO LOVELY!! The best I’ve ever dealt with in all of my travels…

The ruins here at Tazumal were much more impressive than San Andreas. We hiked along the perimeter through a very peaceful and quiet area (which I needed) that was right next to an extremely colorful typical Central American cemetery.

The museum was very nice, but nothing was in English. Not sure why it was in the other 2 places and not here. These are some of the most interesting pieces.

Headed back to the car, made sure we tipped the guy, and looked at google maps trying to figure out what to do next. We could head directly back to San Salvador the way we came. Or….we could take the Ruta de Las Flores and then head toward the beach and come back into San Salvador that way. Anytime we can take a road we haven’t traveled, it’s a good day. So off toward the Ruta de Las Flores we went! The drive was nice, but would have been MUCH nicer if it wasn’t the end of dry season. Everything that should have been lush and green was kinda brown and sparse. Honestly, not much to see that was exciting. But then we saw a sign on the side of the road…my eyes scanned it quickly and just picked up the word “cascadas” which I knew meant waterfall! Let’s do it! We pulled over into a little parking lot across the street, and started walking up a path alongside the road. It was maybe a 5 minute walk to some quite lovely waterfalls with a lot of locals hanging out. We have seen one, that is ONE, possibly white English speaking woman and that was in Sonsonate. #travelingright While I was snapping pictures, a youngish guy came up and started talking to Brian in perfect English. His name is Alex. He went to join his parents in the US when he was 10 and grew up there, graduated high school there, and spent 16 years of his life there. The current immigration policies forced him to come back to El Salvador, a place he hadn’t been since he was a young child. He says he likes it here ok. He lives in his parent’s old house so he doesn’t have to pay rent. A very clean cut, well spoken young man. I felt awful for him.

Our road was taking us through numerous small towns as we wound our way over the mountains and to the beach. There was a dark red line on Google near the beach town of La Libertad. It was Easter Sunday, and we had already been told that EVERYONE goes to the beach. We figured that by the time we got there, the traffic would clear out. And hopefully as we drove this coast road, we’d see some stunning scenery. We were wrong on both counts… Every once in a while we’d catch a glimpse of the ocean, but for the most part it was obscured by fences, the side of the mountain, or vegetation. The best view was at the “goat turnout”, so named because it was one of the few turnouts we saw to catch a view of the water, and….well….there was a goat! Which of course Brian immediately befriended, even though I’m not so sure the goat was reciprocating the love, as he was trying to head butt Brian!

We kept watching the red line on Google, and it wasn’t getting any better. Soon we hit the traffic. I live in Los Angeles, I know traffic. This was the worst mess I’d ever been in! It literally took us almost 2 hours to go about 5 miles. People were lining the streets trying to sell us all kinds of things- water, some kind of huge bright pink tortilla looking things, mangos that had been cut to look like flowers and covered in something that looked like chocolate, french fries with ketchup and mayonaisse (I would have paid $10 for some plain fries!!). People would speed up and pass you on the shoulder. Or, they would drive in the oncoming lane for as long as they could and then practically kill you to get in front of you to avoid being killed by an oncoming car. It was INSANITY, and how Brian kept it together I will never know. I, of course, am still trying to process the news of maybe finding my family while stifling the urge to ditch the car and walk back to San Salvador to save time. There were police around. We have no idea what their purpose was. When we finally got toward the end of it, this chicken and cross pretty much summed up our experience!

And you’d think that would be the end of our day. No, no it wasn’t. It was dark as we wound our way up toward San Salvador. We really don’t like to be out after dark. Got closer to town and we were starving. We decided to just go to Metro Center, where we ate the night before, and grab something fast at one of the restaurants. Put Metro Center into google, and headed there. Made a right hand turn, saw Pollo Campero on the left, and said “Let’s do it!”. But San Salvador has these huge cement barriers in the median everywhere you go. We couldn’t turn left into Metro Center. No worries, there has to be a U turn in a block or two, right? Wrong. Google maps told us it would be .6 miles before we could make a left turn and get back around. We counted down the tenths of a mile and then the feet so we’d be sure not to miss it in the dark. When we found it, it was barricaded off!! What the hell?! Google maps said, “No worries, you can turn in another half mile!”. Ok…except that turn was not possible either!! We didn’t know what to do, had no idea what part of town we were in, it was dark, we were tired, we wanted food, and it was just a damn mess!! We just kept going, thinking soon there HAD to be a way to turn left. YES! Google maps said soon!! We got ready, got to the turn, and it was blocked off for construction! Traffic was flowing quickly, and before we knew it we were diverted up on to this bridge thing with metal rails. I swear to god it looked exactly like the rails on the sides of a roller coaster as you’re going up the hill. Brian was flying (slow the fuck down is not in his vocabulary), and all of a sudden we almost reached the top and….just like a roller coaster….couldn’t see the other side! It was scary as hell, because you never know if they’re going to throw a barrier or a chicken or something in your path. Made it off of that and at that point, Brian was frazzled. Somehow we finally made it back around, and then missed another turn we needed to make, which took us into a completely different area of town. We didn’t know if we were in a “no gringo” zone or not. But we did see the glowing sign of Pollo Campero!! We pulled in, locked the car, and walked in. I ordered in Spanish, and we sat on the little bench next to the counter waiting for our food. At that point, between the roller coaster of emotions and the roller coaster car ride, I finally lost it. I started giggling, and I don’t even know why. I could NOT stop. I could barely breathe and had tears running down my face. We’re talking about 3 full minutes of this. Of course, being the only gringos in a locals packed fast food chicken place wasn’t obvious enough, I had to be acting like I was possessed! Oh for Christ’s sake!!!!!

Got our chicken, and wandered through dark streets, finally making it back to the condo. We ate our Pollo Campero (I am now firmly a Pollo Campero person- I do not like Don Pollo or Pollo Compesto (there’s a lot of Pollo to be had in El Salvador). Went to bed and I started doing research on what might be my family…

This is not “our” Pollo Campero, but a pic of a sign I snapped the next day. They’re everywhere. And now, Pollo Campero is a major part of our El Salvador memories!!

Days 5 & 6: Puerto Barillas, Chocolate, and Our Soledad :(

Days 5 & 6: Puerto Barillas, Chocolate, and Our Soledad :(

DAY 5: Puerto Barillas

Today, I had a lot of work to do. And work wasn’t cooperating. I didn’t finish until almost noon, at which time we had to check out of the AirBNB and head to our new location for the next two nights- Puerto Barrillas. By now, the awe, shock, and horror of the previous day’s events had merged into acceptance of the situation, and of the fact that I really want no part of more crazy in my life. Brian is enough of that. 😉 We drove to Usulutan and stopped off at Super Selectos to grab a few groceries to take out to the resort. We knew it was quite a ways away and there probably wasn’t much in the way of facilities. We followed the directions and turned down an 11km dirt road (YES!!), passing through a couple of guard gates on the way down. Checked into the office and followed a guy on a bike through a lovely forested area to our little cabin. Oh man, it was CUTE!!

Brian, doing the Woo-Hoo jump!!

Brian falling down after said Woo-Hoo jump. #dontbreakahipoldman

We had a boat ride that was to start at 3pm, so we walked back down to the office area on the cutest little cobblestone path that crossed a little stream. I was liking this place! We needed sunscreen (still), so we stopped into the little store. A tube of sunscreen was $25!!! Are you kidding me?? Um, I’ll take potential melanoma for $50,000, Alex. We sat in little chairs near the water’s edge and waited about 10 minutes for our boat guy. He didn’t speak English. We cruised along many of the little islands that are a barrier between the Pacific and the mainland, and home to a lot of fishing villages. No access except by boat. I know this, because I used one of my new words I had learned on this trip. Puente. “Hay un puente a esta isla?”. No. 🙂

We pulled up on to a little tiny beachy peninsual thing. Literally about 20 feet across at the most and about 30 feet long before there was a barbed wire fence. There were a ton of birds hanging out here. We got out and walked around (that took about 5 minutes and the trash was just so disheartening). From what Brian gathered, we were supposed to sit out here in chairs that were on the boat and watch the sunset. Um, sunset was a good 2 hours away. I can barely sit for 2 minutes. We declined and headed back. It really was a nice little boat ride, though. It would have been fun to actually get out at some of the villages and wander around.

Came back to the resort and went to the room to get my computer so I could blog. The only wi fi was in the restaurant area. We ordered ceviche (OMG it was GOOD!!) and a plate of beef and a plate of fish. Pretty tasty, and not heinously expensive for being trapped at a resort where there were no other options. Used our phones as flashlights to navigate back along the forest path to our cabin. All in all, an easy, relaxing (for us) day. Which was much needed after yesterday!!

Traveling, Blogging, Ceviche, and My Baby- can’t ask for anything more!

Day 6: Chocolate, Wildlife, Our Soledad, and an Earthquake…

Today was the reason we were at this lodge. WILDLIFE!! When searching for where to see wildlife in El Salvador, nothing really came up. Apparently Medellin, Colombia and El Salvador have made a pact to make this trip as void of wildlife as possible… I searched for sanctuaries, and learned that Puerto Barillas had a monkey sanctuary nearby that we could tour, and a tour of a cacao farm (chocolate) as well. Sounded good, so here we were. And I must say, we were really digging the vibe at Puerto Barillas, which is surprising because we are NOT resort people. This was rustic enough to not feel like a resort, plus, there were no gringos to be seen which helped the matter. We went to the restaurant for breakfast and were handed menus. We had paid for breakfast with our room, but I could seriously not come up with the words to ask what breakfast was included with the room! Luckily, I had my computer, so I typed it into google translate and the lady laughed, read it, and showed us which ones. Sometimes, technology is just easier than fumbling through my limited vocabulary of nouns and verbs! Pagamos! Cuarto! Desayuno! Oy!

After a tasty breakfast, it was time for our cacao tour. It was just us (yay!), the driver, and the one office lady who could speak English. We have done a cacao tour before in Panama, but this operation, although still done by hand, was a bit more efficient. The owner of the plantation showed us his operation, with the lady translating when we needed help (which was most of the time!). He showed us the greenhouse with over 20,000 plants they are using to replace the old trees in the plantation. They will live to be about 70, but start being less productive around 40. Most of the trees in this plantation were ready for replacement. Sometimes they completely replace them, and sometimes they use them to graft on to mature trees which have been cut. It was really quite interesting!

Next he showed us the area where they bring the fruit to be processed. Literally, people bust open every pod by hand, scoop out the beans, and throw the shell into a container (the shells are used to feed cattle- no waste). The insides are put into a bucket, which is then dumped into containers made out of a special type of wood that doesn’t leach into the fruit. Here, it is fermented for several days. It starts out in the top box. The slats can be removed so they can shovel and turn the fruit into the next row of boxes when it’s time. Then, the last row of boxes. When this process is done, they go out to the drying trays. These trays are really smart, because if it starts to rain they can quickly slide them all under the roof- kind of like drawers. Way better than the old way of spreading them out on a huge cement foundation and hoping for the best- especially since they have to be outside for several days to dry. The English speaking lady took one of the completely dried beans from a tray and peeled it for us. The bean tasted like super dark chocolate (kind of bitter). I’m a milk chocolate girl, so that wasn’t really my gig. Then we got to try the bean right out of the pod. Well, not really the bean, but the white stuff around the bean. You kind of suck/chew it off the bean. Man, it was GOOD!! I wanted some kind of drink made from that stuff!!

The beans right out of the pod

The fermenting boxes

The drying trays

Souveniors. They’re the bane of my travel existence, because I am PAF (picky as fuck). I don’t want some random ass “I came to XYZ country and all I got was this dumb, meaningless dust collector made in China” souvenior. No, they have to MEAN something. And preferably be completely unique- like a carving or piece of art done by a local, that sort of thing. Here we were, Day 6 in El Salvador, and I had not seen one thing that even slightly spoke to me. Until I walked into that cacao warehouse. They had these burlap sacks that they put the dried beans in to ship off to Honduras. I KNEW I had to have that! When we were ready to leave, I asked the English speaking lady to ask the owner if I could buy one. He told her there were bags at the office in town. She said she’d see if her driver could pick one up. I said I’d pay for it, but really wasn’t confident that that was going to happen. The guy then walked into the warehouse and brought a bag out. He said it was dirty and I wouldn’t want that one. OH YES I WOULD! I wanted a dirty one!!! More character!!! I think he was rather shocked by my excitement over a dirty sack. I asked if I could pay him for it. No. And that is how I got my El Salvador souvenior. It’s going to go into a huge frame and up on the wall. And I bet no one else has one. 🙂 🙂 #score

Back in the van to head to the monkey sanctuary. We’re on all of these back roads deep in the cacao, banana, and sugar cane plantations. There are these 3 guys on bicycles with some kind of weird rope/belt thing wrapped all around them. The lady asked us if we’d ever seen coconuts harvested. NO!!!! We jumped out and went over to where they were climbing the trees. It was AMAZING how fast they could climb up! The guy would then tie off a bundle of coconuts and lower them down to the ground with a rope. So interesting to watch!

Head out on the open (dirt) road again and pulled over at what the lady said was the turtle and alligator lake. She said we could go this way to the monkey sanctuary- across a rickety ass bridge. If you have followed my travels, you know that rickety, high, shaky bridges are NOT on my itenerary, but somehow I keep ending up on them! This one wasn’t high or shaky, but it literally looked like any extra weight on any half-rotten board would cause you to plunge (about 4 feet) to your death in alligator infested waters!! She was doing it in wedge heels, so I figured what the hell. But I was nervous…. Halfway through we stood on said rickety bridge to look for gators- scanned the banks, but nothing. On the other side was a GORGEOUS little path through a lush forest. Eagle eye (Alligator eye?) Brian somehow spotted an alligator through all of the brush! I still don’t know how he saw that thing! It was a young one, maybe 4 feet long. The lady said there were some in here that were 12 feet! YIKES!! We didn’t take too many more steps before the forest broke out into calls of what sounded like a duck arguing with a monkey! Research has shown this to be a boat billed heron! And man, they were so cool looking! But they flew into the far trees across the gator lake as we approached. Between the distance and the foliage between me and them, these were the best pics I could get.

Really? How is it that I manage to find the most terrifying bridge in every single country??

We didn’t walk too far before we ended up in a clearing with a little ramshackle house, which was the home of Miguelito- the man who has been caring for the monkeys for the past 20+ years. Before I discuss our experience, let me tell you about this sanctuary. One thing I’ve learned in all of my travels, is that there is no one meaning for the phrase “animal sanctuary”. This one was most like the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary we visited in Borneo- farmers realizing they were destroying an animal’s entire habitat, and saving some of it for them. But it isn’t as much as they would normally have in the wild, so they are also fed by humans to supplement them. But the monkeys are for the most part wild and can come and go as they please. How did they get there, when there apparently wasn’t another monkey anywhere in all of El Salvador (at least that I had seen)? Well, in the 60’s and 70’s there was a personal zoo of sorts back here on the property. A few spider monkeys had escaped. As the land was sold off for agricultural purposes, it was known that the monkeys and other wildlife were surviving on what little patch of remaining forest there was. The various plantation owners decided to protect this strip of land, and today there are about 30 spider monkeys living here (along with the birds and alligators, and supposedly even some wildcats!).

The first thing we saw though was a monkey that couldn’t come and go as she pleased. Meet Soledad the spider monkey- the only woman I think I could possibly lose Brian to! Soledad was rescued from being a pet, and there was no place in El Salvador to take her (seriously, there are NO sanctuaries in this entire country, believe me I researched and researched before we went!). They brought her to Puerto Barillas hoping to integrate her into the wild with the resident spider monkey troop. Well, she had no clue about how to live in the wild, and the other monkeys had NO interest in adopting her. In fact, they harrassed her and fought her. To the point that she had to be separated from them to keep from being killed. That was five years ago, and she’s still caged. They bring in vets annually to check her, and have had promises from other organizations to come and get her, but here she still is. And it’s heartbreaking. These are social creatures. She deserves to be in the wild. But she has no survival skills. And the other monkeys would kill her if she was released. It sucks, but the reality of the situation is that there are two choices- cage her or let her go and die. God, I don’t know which is worse, and as much as my heart broke for her, I can not walk in there with my 5 minutes of experience and tell them what to do. They’re doing the best they know how with what they have. Soledad and Brian took an immediate liking to each other. She pressed her back up against the wire for Brian to scratch her, changing position every few minutes so he could reach another part. When she reached through the bars to touch him when he was standing a foot or so away, we almost both lost it. All she wanted was love and attention. The sadness in her eyes….God, god, god. I’m about to cry right now writing this.

Sweet, sweet Soledad. 🙁

While we were fawning over Soledad, Miguelito was out calling to the forest “Pancho!! Pancho!!”. He’s the alpha male. About 10 minutes later the trees were shaking with monkeys jumping all around. It made my heart break for Soledad even more- to see these free monkeys and be trapped must be hell. And I’ll be honest- I didn’t even care for these monkeys. They made me angry. Why couldn’t they just accept Soledad? Why did they have to be so cruel for no reason. Because primates, that’s why. And as a member of that group, I know how we are. And in reality, they are almost as trapped as Soledad- trapped on a small island of wild, surrounded by farms. Genetically, they can’t be very strong because there is so much inbreeding (Soledad would have been a welcome addition to the gene pool!). Who knows how many more generations they’ll last…

Maria, the alpha female, and Miguelito. She wasn’t happy with what he had, so she went right into his house to get what she wanted!

I seriously didn’t want to leave Soledad. I wanted to take her with us. And with my feelings being that strong, I can only imagine how Dr. Doolittle (Brian) was feeling. We left, full of ideas on how to better her life, and knowing we were helpless to do anything.

Back at the resort, we sat down to a cup of hot chocolate- Mayan style- made with the local cacao beans. It was really smooth and really good. While we did that, Brian was facetiming with work. I have photographic evidence now that he can work from anywhere in the world!!

Digital nomad????

It was still early- like 2 or so. We decided to go for a walk on the property and down some of the dirt roads we had driven down earlier. And it is here that I taught Brian about doodlebugs- aka ant lions. Those little critters that build the cup shaped holes in loose dirt, waiting for an ant to aimlessly wander in. Apparently Brian either a) never had a childhood or b) was imprisoned in Nebraska for his childhood where apparently even doodlebugs know better than to try to exist. (Spoiler alert: It’s b). I taught him how to take a little blade of grass and run it around the hole, mimicking an ant trying to climb out. At that point, the bug starts flipping dirt, and you can scoop your hand in and catch it! I did it on my first try. #tomboy Brian gave it a valiant effort on several holes, but just didn’t have the perfect techinique. I think it’s something that can only be acquired before the age of 10… I then caught an ant and put it in a hole, showing him how the gruesome process plays out in real life. Seriously, we had a ton of fun doing that for 10 minutes. We’re easily entertained!

We walked the grounds and then out on the dirt roads, hand in hand, talking and enjoy the sounds and sights of the forest. In between snapping pictures, of course!

Beautiful grounds of Puerto Barillas Lodge!

Have you ever seen a more perfect road to wander down??

This is Brian’s favorite tree- Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum). He really wants one in the front yard. It would shade us AND the neighbors!

Turquoise browed motmot- (Eumomota superciliosa)…a stunning bird!! And just so happens to be the national bird of El Salvador!

Came back to the resort, and sat out under one of the palapas by the water’s edge so I could blog. All of a sudden, I’m moving, or Brian is moving, or the palapa is moving- HELL IT’S THE ENTIRE EARTH MOVING!! Just this really weird back and forth rocking motion. I’m sitting there staring at Brian like “What is happening?”. It lasted a really long time- like 10-15 seconds. Long enough to realize a) this is an earthquake b) this is not stopping c) we are 10 feet from the water and one of my top 3 fears is a tsunami. It was the biggest earthquake I’ve ever been in (and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years!). Kept updating the USGS site waiting to hear word on where and how big. It finally popped up- 5.9 just off the coast of Puerto di Triunfo- which was litterally the closest “town” to us and was just up the dirt road!!! The epicenter was about 20 miles from us. Further research shows that it was in the same exact location as a deadly 7.7 that hit in 2001. Eeps. (Side note: 3 days later I was sitting home in Los Angeles and ANOTHER earthquake hit!! Seriously, world?)

Blogged for the afternoon, until the no see ums (henious creatures that almost make mosquitoes seem tolerable) came out and started eating us alive. Bug repellent was in the store, but lord knows I wasn’t going to pay the price for it. We moved into the restaurant which was still open to the outside but a little further from the water. We still got bit a ton, but not as bad. Had a lovely dinner (with that awesome ceviche again), and headed back in the dark for our last night in our little forest cabin in lovely Puerto Barillas. We really like it there.

Day 7: A Grab Bag of Adventures for Our Last Day

Day 7: A Grab Bag of Adventures for Our Last Day

Our last full day in El Salvador, and we didn’t have any major plans. We had found an El Salvador travel book put out by Avianca Airlines in our cabin. Brian saw a lagoon thing that looked cool. And we wanted to check out Ilopango Lake because, well, we didn’t really have anything else to do as we made our way back toward the airport for our flight tomorrow. Packed our things, ate breakfast, checked out, and off we went to explore.

First stop, we headed toward the Laguna de Alegria. We had been spending all of our time in the area to the Northwest of San Salvador. This was our first time to really explore the Southeast side. The roads here were lovely with lots of plants and trees, and didn’t seem quite as dry as the other side. After about, well, an hour and 21 minutes of driving LOL, we saw this sign and knew we were in the right place! Turned off down a cobblestone road that went for a few miles back through coffee plantations. (Note to readers: If you are ever on this road, stuff chewing gum in your fillings and hold on to your spleen. Yowza, it was rough!) Soon we arrived at a little guard shack back off in the middle of no where (our favorite destination, hence the name of this blog!). And here, El Salvador threw us a curve ball. It was NOT $3 per person to get in!! It was $1 total for both of us!! Bargain!! (But the $1 I spent for the truck back up to the car after hiking Santa Ana volcano is still the best $1 I ever spent!).

Ok, here comes the back story. Laguna de Alegria is a volcanic crater lake, inside the Tecapa volcano. Legend has it that a mermaid lives in the lagoon!! Mermaid?! I’m there!! Another legend states that there is a Palmerito tree that has the ability to move itself from place to place within the crater. We parked and walked all the way around the lagoon. The waters are a dark emerald green mixed with a jade color. Very pretty. I wish the sun had been out so the lighting would have been better. We got sprinkled on a bit, but not bad. The water level was really low because of dry season, and the extensive banks were covered in powdery yellow sulphur. In places, holes were dug about 6 inches deep, and you could see that it was a solid layer of sulphur powder.

I was keeping my eye out for any little ripple on the water that might betray the location of the mermaid. But it was completely still, except for the rain drops. When we got about ¾ of the way around though, we saw her! Perched on a rock! I’m sure that when the water levels are up it’s a little more mermaid-esque, but it was fun to spot her anyway! No sign of a moving tree, though. 🙁

Continued our drive all the way out, through the exit (it’s one way), and back down the internal-organ-rearranging road. We started to drive through the next little town, Alegria, but it looked so cute and welcoming, that we had to stop! It was very “touristy” with stalls and shops all set up, but it just seemed to be such an odd place for a tourist trap! The only other place we had seen tourism at its souvenior height, was the ruins at Tazumal. Otherwise, El Salvador is pretty quiet on the tourism front. Still no idea what the huge draw is here, except that it is a very pretty little town with a really nice vibe to it! It didn’t feel quite as “gritty” as the other towns we had been in. And well, there were horses just walking down the middle of the road, so there was that!

Next stop, Lake Ilopango. There was no way to miss it- it’s the 2nd largest lake in El Salvador, after all! I always liken Google Maps to an abusive relationship- it beats me down, takes me on wild goose chases, tells me to “trust it” and turn the wrong way on a one way street, tricks me into thinking there’s a turn somewhere when there isn’t, etc… Frankly, it should be renamed Gaslighting Maps. But like a fool, I keep coming back for more, trusting it with its promises of “I swear, I’ll get you there THIS time!!”. So began our trip to Lake Ilopango… First, we had to drive through the INSANE city of Ilopango. Oh my god, we thought we had seen bad drivers in El Salvador. That was before Ilopango. Cutting us off, zero concepts of lanes, and the word “merge” apparently translates to “see who can get there first and shove the other person off the road”. Oy. The people of El Salvador are the lovliest I’ve ever met (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again). But put them behind the wheel of a car and all bets are off! Somehow we made it through the main part of town without a scratch on our brand new rental car. Of course, that was just google warming up…. We get on the far side of town and on a half dirt/half paved road. Up ahead…what was that?? A mirage?? Um, no. A mud puddle the size of a volcanic crater lake with a little stream feeding it on the right, and overflowing the side of the road on the left. Flashbacks of Cuba, when we had to turn around after MILES of traveling down a dirt road because the mud puddle was too deep and the closest tow truck was Miami… We just kind of stopped and stared at it. It was so murky we had no way of knowing how deep it was. There were tire tracks on the other side, so SOMEONE had made their way across, but how much clearance did they have. We didn’t think Budget would be pleased if we called them with, “Um, hello…you know that brand new Hyundai SUV with 200km you gave us? Yeah…it’s stuck engine deep in a pond in the middle of the road. Where? I don’t know- somewhere outside of Ilopango??”. What to do…what to do… We REALLY wanted to see this lake!! Fortunately, there was a man with an axe crossing the bridge. Yes, we have no qualms about discussing the depths of road ponds in Spanish with a man carrying a huge axe on the outskirts of some town in the middle of no where El Salvador! Axe man says if we stay to the left, we’ll be fine. I didn’t even want to know the situation on the right… Brian expertly drove through the road pond, thanked the man with the axe who gave us a huge smile, and we said our oft-repeated phrase for this trip… “I don’t think this is a road gringos go on!!” #bestkindofroad

From the middle of the road pond…

The google maps obstacle course, Ilopango Version, continued. Next obstacle, cows. Everywhere. Going somewhere important and not giving one single cow fuck about a car with two white people in it. Like seriously, they would NOT move! I’m not a huge fan of cows, in fact, there are only two kinds of cow I like- burger and steak. Something about them just freaks me out.

Our road starts getting a little worse (ha! Worse?! We didn’t even KNOW what “worse” was!!!). It’s now dirt, with occasional washed out ruts running through it. We are really far back into whereever we are. There was a little village back here. It has no name that I can find on any map, but it’s on a little peninsula that juts out into the west side of the lake. Google maps tells us to go straight through the town. We did. It then wanted us to continue up some road that really didn’t look like a road we should be on- more like a driveway. We decided to ignore google maps and turn around. We had seen a glimpse of the lake down another road that was to our left, so we decided to head down there instead.

Got to the end of the road and BINGO! This was the lake! There was a little restaurant, a beach side cafe, a few locals lounging around, some swimming, and of course chickens. And it was BEAUTIFUL!! I was so glad we had made it down here. And there were these awesome things, swimming in a little school, with just their eyes sticking out of the water. I had NO CLUE what they were, but was completely fascinated. Research shows they are four eyed fish! They only have 2 eyes, but they have evolved in a highly specialized way so the upper part allows the fish to see out of the water, and the lower part allows them to see under the water!

FOUR EYES FISH!!!!!!!!!!

We walked around a bit, then decided to head back. It was almost 3pm, and we still needed to get back to San Salvador and return the rental car before dark. We both had to pee big time. There was a line of 4 shady looking banos that had a sign that we had to pay to use them. We weren’t even sure who to pay. So we decided to forge ahead, sans bano break and hope for the best. So I’ve mentioned our loathing of retracing our route down roads- we like NEW roads. And google maps was showing two ways to get back to San Salvador. The way we came (boo-hiss, plus we didn’t relish the thought of driving through that crazy town again), or out the other side of the village. The out the other side of the village route showed 52 minutes. Perfect! We took off down a road that was definitely our best candidate for “I don’t think this is a road gringos go on!”. There were pigs tied to the side of the road for pork’s sake!

This was not a road, google maps. This was a glorifed cow trail. No lie. It started getting steeper and steeper. We had an SUV, but did not have 4×4 (which is our preference when we travel because we KNOW the kind of situations we get ourselves into, but they didn’t have one available). After the third time of barely making it up a hill because we were sliding backwards so bad, we got to thinking. If we got stuck back here, who knows how long it would be before someone came along. And we had an early flight the next morning. And it was just a couple of hours from being dark. We did not have any interest in traversing this “road” in the dark. We had to admit defeat and turn around. As soon as we got turned around, I said to Brian. “Do you know what we should do??”. Hell yeah, he did, without any explanation. BANO BREAK! In the middle of a road in the middle of no where El Salvador. And it was free. 🙂

Made our way back through the little village. I highly recommend coming here on a weekend (we were there on a Tuesday). Apparently there is Karoke! 🙂 Seriously though, the vibe there was really awesome. Oh, and I recommend coming during dry season. There was only one live stream crossing, but there were multiple dry ones that I am sure are interesting when it’s pouring!! Google maps wound us all through the city, through a dumb traffic jam because a school bus was trying to turn around in a space that would barely fit a compact car and held everyone up for like 15 minutes. Of course, the El Salvodorean drivers sat there patiently, waiting for the bus to resituate itself and get on the road again. Oh wait, no…they all honked and tried to fit into every conceivable space where a car might cram itself into- in their lane or not- to make sure they were 17” closer to their destination. Sigh. Drove through streets and made more turns than seemed humanely possible, and we even managed to make most of them and not have to turn around! Soon, we were back on the main road to San Salvador. We pulled our rental car into the parking lot of Hotel Rancho Argueta- the place we stayed at the first night.

Let’s discuss our vehicle, shall we? We pulled out of the Budget parking lot 7 days ago with literally a brand new shiny SUV in perfect condition with 200km (125 miles) on it. The vehicle in our possession now was completely filthy from being down every dirt road in El Salvador (some twice!). And it had over 1200km (750 miles) on it. Yeah, we’d been busy! Fortunately, as I mentioned in the Day 1 blog, this hotel rents cars. That means they have to be able to wash cars. I had to talk to the front desk about all of the following in Spanish…1) we needed to check in 2) we needed a car wash 3) we needed someone to pick us up at the airport after we dropped off our car at Budget 4) we needed a ride to the airport at 6am the next morning. That was a lot of Spanish, a lot of misunderstanding, but we finally figured it out! How much for said car wash….well, how much is everything in El Salvador?? $3!!!!!! And holy crap, that car looked BRAND NEW when they were done! Washed, dried, vacuumed, interior wiped down. I told Brian that I am so bringing my car down here for it’s annual cleaning!! And who was our brilliant car wash person? ENRIQUE!! Our English speaking “neighbor” we had met on the first day!! We stopped and talked about our trip, how much we had seen and done, and how much we enjoyed it. He was pleased. Dropped the car off at Budget with no problem, came back to the hotel, crashed, and got up the next day to head back to California.

A sign we saw on the way to Laguna de Alegria.

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on this trip. El Salvador was totally an afterthought when we realized that our flights to Nicaragua both laid over in San Salvador. But I am SO glad we came. This is Central America in the raw. No mega tourist hot spots and mega resorts over run with obnoxious white people. In fact, the only white person we saw in 7 days was the one woman in Sonsonate. You don’t see billboards for resorts, zip line tours, and the such. There really isn’t tourism here to speak of. The tourism we saw seemed to be more focused on locals rather than foreigners. It’s very much a “Create Your Own Adventure” kind of place, and when it came to that, we really kicked in the El SalvaDOOR (I made that pun up halfway through the trip and was determined to get it into this blog one way or another!!). The people here are WONDERFUL. I have never encountered such unbelievably friendly people every where we went. So warm, open, helpful, smiling, fun. And that says a lot coming from a self-professed people hater. 🙂 If you read this blog, you know we were EVERYWHERE. And not one time did we feel unsafe. Not one single time. In fact, the two things that concerned me the most about El Salvador was how safe it was and the language barrier. Neither of those things proved to be an issue at all. We encountered many English speaking people, and when we didn’t, the graciousness and patience of the people as I mangled their language to get my point across was heartwarming. And it gave me the confidence to speak Spanish and not feel like I was being judged or laughed at. Oh- and the dogs! By Central American standards, the dogs in El Salvador live like royalty! They all looked well fed (for the most part) and healthy. Thumbs up for that, El Salvador! Those are all of the pros. The cons? I can only think of two. The drivers. It’s kind of a free for all, so be aware. You really have to stay alert. And the trash. Oh, El Salvador, the trash!! Please quit throwing everything out of your car window and disrespecting your beautiful country! That said, all in all, I would HIGHLY recommend El Salvador for a traveler who is looking for a real, authentic experience without all of the bells and whistles. If you are a low maintenance type of person who can go with the flow, El Salvador is right for you! Will I be back? Probably not. Just because we really did hit all of the major things to see, and there are so many other countries in the world we still have to explore. But El Salvador will always hold a special place in my heart- mainly because of the people. Let me say it one last time….they are wonderful.