Navigating the gamut of public transportation to see El Salvador's sights
10/01/2004 - 10/06/2004 75 °F
Volcan Izalco not far from Santa Ana, El Salvador
Never before, had I been so un-alone on a solo trip. I knew I'd be spending a few days with Wayne -- a friend working with America West in San Salvador. The rest of the week, though, I figured I'd be pretty much by myself.
My first indication that this would not be the case was on the "collectivo" bus ride from the airport. The Salvadoran man next to me asked where I was from and why I'd come to his country. He seemed surprised to see a traveler wedged in amongst the locals on the minibus plying the 44 kilometer route from the airport to downtown. Nelson spoke good English and told me he was a security guard at the airport. As it turned out, he was from the town I was heading to that day -- Santa Ana, El Salvador's "second city."
Church in Santa Ana, El Salvador
He took me under his wing and guided me from our minibus onto a city bus to the terminal on the western side of town, where we'd catch the 2-hour bus ride to Santa Ana. He also recommended a hotel from my guidebook's list, then offered to show me the town's sights that evening. We ended up having a blast, meeting up that night with his friends for beers at their favorite bar (24 beers, 4 guys, $12 tab, total), then to a party till 3 am. We talked about music, politics and life all night.
The late evening meant a late start the next morning, as I eventually found the bus to Cerro Verde -- a jungle-clad, extinct volcano next to two more active ones. It was my plan to climb them: Volcan Santa Ana -- the tallest in the country, with a still steaming sulfurous lake inside; And Volcan Izalco, a classic, stark volcanic cone, and the newest volcano in the country. I arrived too late that day to do either, but instead took the nature trail on Cerro Verde and snapped pictures from scenic lookouts of the volcanoes, as well as gorgeous, nearby Lake Coatepeque.
"Chicken Bus" plying the streets of Santa Ana, El Salvador
El Salvador's countryside is simply gorgeous -- rippling with green hills, mountains and volcanoes, interspersed with circular mountain lakes of clear blue water shaped in rough circles from ancient craters of a volcanic past. Every day was warm and virtually cloudless, with brilliant blue skies. I'd expected sticky, tropical heat, but was pleasantly surprised by temperatures in the 70-80s, with little humidity.
On the two-hour ride back to Santa Ana (85 cents), I met Henning, a young German traveler. We hit it off well, exchanging travel stories. He was taking a year off before entering college to travel in Central America and perhaps do some volunteer work. That day, he'd climbed Izalco, doing Volcan Santa Ana the day before. Since now I'd have to skip one, I prodded him for details, which led me to decide upon Santa Ana for tomorrow. That evening, Henning and I went to dinner at a local restaurant he'd discovered and talked more about travel, Central America, the United States (he'd been an exchange student) and more.
Lake Coatepeque, western El Salvador
Henning's restaurant was not in the nicest area of town, so I did my best Richard Pryor imitation ("We bad...yeah, uh hunh...we bad!") on the walk back to the much nicer area of my hotel, near the town square. El Salvador has a reputation for crime and the guidebooks go out of their way to warn travelers to be careful. It HAD made me consider coming here, carefully, when Wayne invited me to visit. Everyone has their own level of what they consider safe. I am not foolhardy, nor am I timid. I realize there are likely parts of my own hometown of Columbus, Ohio, that would not be safe for me to walk at night. I would hardly discourage anyone from coming to Columbus, though. The same applies to my decision on countries: If there is not an active, shooting insurgency, nor a criminal or terrorist group targeting tourists, then I feel a reasonably cautious person can go there.
The next morning I took an earlier bus to Cerro Verde, in time to reach the guided and security escorted hike up the volcano. While waiting at the terminal, I met Vaughn, who was taking a year off college in Wisconsin to see Central America. Like with Nelson and Henning, I hit it off well with Vaughn, who is an avid photographer and works full time while in school to fund his traveling. We talked while admiring El Salvador's stunning scenery through the windows of our "chicken bus" to Cerro Verde.
Vaughn decided to accompany me on the Santa Ana hike. With the 30-odd folks on the hike, it proved to be the largest gathering of tourists I'd see in El Salvador. Even so, more than two-thirds of the folks were Salvadorans. One group of Americans were pilots on their two-week reserve duty, squeezing in a little sightseeing on their day off from flying.
The hike up the volcano was "uphill both ways" (doubtless, like your parents' walk to school). First, we threaded our way down the tree-covered slopes of Cerro Verde, then uphill through gradually thinning vegetation. About midway up the slope, clouds of sulfurous steam began to drift down towards us. Coughing broke out up and down the line of hikers. I tried breathing through my nose to protect my throat, and that seemed to help. As we neared the top, we passed through an exotic "forest" of agave plants. The views of the surrounding mountains, Volcan Izalco and the farmer's fields cut into neat rectangular shapes was breathtaking. I stopped to take photos frequently, losing track of Vaughn and the airmen.
Up on the rim of Volcan Santa Ana, western El Salvador In San Salvador
At the summit, we scrambled across bare rock onto the volcano's rim. A surreal, top-of-the-world scene greeted us. Bank after bank of clouds rolled up out of the volcano's cone, then whipped across the narrow rim we stood upon, the winds tugging at us with what felt like hurricane force. The clouds then sped down the mountainside, alternately obscuring or parting to reveal the view, far below. We crouched down upon the rocks, trying to shelter from the damp, chilling wind or dealing with momentary vertigo. My fingers numbed quickly at the 2,300 meter altitude. Unfortunately, the clouds parted only a few times to give us views of either the brownish-green sulfur lake inside the cone, or the gorgeous blue waters of Coatepeque. Eventually, the cold and wind forced us to begin our trek back down the volcano's sides. Once down, we had to hike back up Cerro Verde, the rim's cold forgotten as we sweated uphill.
That evening, Vaughn and I joined Henning for dinner at his favorite restaurant. We ate pupusas -- the national dish of El Salvador. It is a thick, corn tortilla filled with either cheese, beans or sausage (or all three) in "stuffed crust pizza" fashion. They were excellent, and would prove to be my favorite food during my stay. Over beers and pupusas, we traded travel stories. We met again the next morning for breakfast before Vaughn headed off to Sonsonate, and Henning and I to San Salvador. Henning had been raving about a place he'd been eating breakfast, inside the noisy, crowded Central Market. As I looked around at the dirty aisleways and tried to ignore the unsavory smells, I hoped for the best. As I sawed away vainly at the tough meat, though, I began to get an idea WHY Henning had been having stomach problems his entire time in Central America! This was definitely a meal to forget.
Henning and I bounced from city bus to city bus (like my breakfast was doing in my stomach), trying to find one that would take us near the Guest House he'd picked out. After three tries, we were successful, and stowed our backpacks in his room (I would be staying with Wayne at his hotel, that night). We headed back to the center of town to catch the bus to the scenic overlook of Puerta del Diablo. This trip went more smoothly, although today had reminded me of why I detest city buses. The view from atop the giant rock outcroppings, though, more than made up for the hassles. Looking West, we could see all the way back to Santa Ana and our volcanoes of the days before. To the north and east, San Salvador sprawled out before us, and beyond, the massive outline of gorgeous Lake Ilopango. When we turned south, we make out El Salvador's fertile coastal plain stretching to the sea. The waves of the distant Pacific were murky and indistinct in the coastal haze. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the view, as afternoon was waning and I had to find my way to Wayne's hotel, near the airport.
That evening, Wayne and I caught up news about each other over a beer or two, and he said he'd likely be able to take a half day off on Wednesday to sightsee with me. Tomorrow, though, I was on my own (which was fine, as I'd planned on visiting the Mayan ruins of Joya de Ceren and San Andres). As it turned out, I met up with Henning, again, on the bus to the ruins. The first, Joya de Ceren, is often called the Mayan Pompeii, as it is an ordinary village that was buried by lava. Visually unspectacular, it is neat to know that you are looking at the only preserved dwellings of the day-to-day life of the Maya, though. Next, we took the short jaunt up the road to San Andres, a more traditional Mayan ruin of temples, pyramids and plazas. Though not as tall and lacking the grandeur of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala, it was nevertheless atmospheric to wander amongst the low buildings, climb the green mounds beneath which unexcavated pyramids lurk, and look out over the lookout over the grassy expanse that was once an impressive ceremonial center. On another flawless day beneath clear blue skies, it was hard not to be thrilled by the physical touch of history at San Andres.
Mayan ruins of San Andres, El Salvador
For dinner, Wayne and I took the hotel's shuttle into town and ate at a local restaurant, relaxing on their breezy rear balcony. The lights of San Salvador spread out beneath us, along with the modest fireworks of a local fiesta. We finalized our plans for the next day. Wayne would work till 11 am, then grab the car he had access to and meet me at the hotel. We would drive around scenic Lake Ilopango to the village of Ilobasco, which was famous for its ceramic craft industry. Earlier in the morning, I would take public transport for a quick visit to the village Panchimalco, which I thought was closer than it turned out.
As the saying goes in the movie, "BIG mistake, Indy!" Public transport in El Salvador comes in all shapes and sizes. The smallest are simple pickup trucks with railings that people ride in standing up. A typical fare on these runs 12-25 cents. Then there are the minivans squashed full of people, followed by shuttle bus type vehicles, usually equally full. This was the type of collectivo I'd ridden when I arrived at the airport, almost a week ago. Then, there are the infamous (among schoolchildren in the U.S.) "short buses." Following those, are full sized ones, usually brightly painted with their routes and nicknamed "chicken buses." In my time in El Salvador, so far, I had ridden all except the short buses. It took two that morning to quickly get me to the turnoff for the road that led up in the hills to Panchimalco. I waited for almost an hour before the bus to the village arrived, and as it crawled its way along, I realized that -- for me to be back to the hotel by 11 am -- I should probably NOT have hopped on the bus, and instead turned back. Once in Panchimalco, I hurried along the main street, vainly hoping to find a taxi to expedite my return. Nope. I was "in the sticks," and even pickups and buses seemed to have disappeared.
My savior and way back to the hotel - four men in a truck hauling chickens
I raced back through town to where I'd been dropped off, and waited for something going downhill. I hopped in the first minivan, wedged myself into a seat, and hoped its route went all the way back to the highway. No such luck. As I stood alongside the road, waiting for another bus, the silence of El Salvador's pastoral countryside descended. Short Round was right: "BIG mistake, Indy!" I set off downhill, walking quickly, resolving to flag down any passing vehicles -- whether public transport or not. A private pickup truck stopped, and gave me a ride of a couple kilometers or so. As he parked, I began walking, again. Next, I flagged down a delivery truck, telling them where I was headed. There were already four guys in the cab, but two hopped out and climbed atop the white crates the truck was stacked with, leaving me inside with the cheerful driver and shotgun-toting guard. We stopped three times before reaching the main highway, and I laughed when I saw what was in the crates: Chickens! I had gone from a chicken bus to a chicken truck! Thanks to these four, friendly Salvadorans, though, I was only about a half hour late getting back to the hotel to meet Wayne and his coworker, Rory, for our drive to Ilopango.
After my morning's misadventures, I was a little leery of three gringos heading off in a car to parts unknown with only a tourist map -- no road map. We did an excellent job of navigating and asking questions on the way to Ilobasco, though, with only two wrong turns that cost us no more than 20 minutes drive time. The "panoramic route" alongside Lake Ilobango was aptly named, and we stopped to photograph the brilliant blue waters, village churches and rural buildings. Once in Ilobasco, we found a street full of ceramic artisans and their shops and parked. I have always enjoyed ceramics as souvenirs, but Wayne and Rory's purchasing spree put me to shame. Wayne got the hang of bartering in El Salvador quickly, and Rory proved a natural at it. Myself, I failed miserably to get them to come down one cent on anything except a nice T-shirt, which I got for $9 when she started at $14. I ended up buying no ceramics, as nothing really caught my eye as a "must-have."
Lake Ilopango, near San Salvador, El Salvador
As the sun began to lean westwards, we knew we'd better head back if we wanted to be at the hotel before dark. None of us looked forward to being lost, looking for street signs in the dark. Wayne wanted to try a different way home, and as navigator, I picked out a route. For the third time in one day, I should have heard Short Round's admonishment: "BIG mistake, Indy!" Suffice to say, we got hopelessly lost in San Salvador, winding our way through a never-ending procession of streets. Wayne was having a heck of a time, though. Back home, he enjoys going on drives just to get lost. Rory was calm and patient, sure we were headed in the right direction, while I -- Navigator Presumptuous -- threw up my hands in surrender. Eventually, we lucked into a sign directing us to the airport, and we found our way back to the hotel.
All in all, I found nothing but friendly people everywhere I went in El Salvador. Their reputed reserve "until you get to know them" was non-existent. Constantly, at every turn, Salvadorans were eager to help out, to make my travel experience smoother and more enjoyable. In fact, their kindness -- along with that of the other travelers I met during my week -- made me feel like I was on a group tour, not solo one. El Salvador's gorgeous, green countryside and blue skies were certainly memorable, but the smiles and the people I met there were equally so.