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
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!
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.
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.