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…