Describing my trip to El Salvador would be a hard task, but let’s begin with my last experience in this Hispanic country to get a taste of my voyage. It was Monday, June 2, and my hosts, my best friend’s family, were driving my intrepid grandmother who joined me in my vacation and I to the airport.
Since she lives in Mexico City her flight left before mine. Still, I decided to tag along the two-hour drive from San Miguel, a famous town of the country, to San Salvador, the main city where Comalapa International Airport is. En route there I entertained myself by looking at the green mountains, the baby-blue sky and the farm animals that wonder about in the roads.
El Salvador is still a developing country, the towns outside the city bearing stone roads and in many cases dirt roads; but it is this image that gives it all a flair of traditionalism and history in the middle of today’s modern age. It was those same dirt roads, though, that took us into an unscheduled adventure. We had left San Miguel at 10 a.m. to arrive in San Salvador at one-ish and check my Grams into her 2:30 p.m. flight without problems.
Everything went well until the roads of San Miguel joined other roads that in turn joined the highways to the airport. Somewhat confusing. Our driver for the day, and father of my best friend, was nonchalant about finding a main road momentarily. A gas station attendant had told him to follow a path all the way down to reach an intersection. That "way down," turned into an hour of wondering while rain began to pour. We continued driving through a narrow road that was slowly flooding.
There was no turning left or right because, as I nervously noticed, there were only trees and fields on our left and right. It was time to ask for directions, if only there had been people around to ask them to. We continued to drive straight since there was no way to turn back and during our drive I became scared three times.
The first: when the bottom of our little Toyota, carrying six people plus luggage, began hitting rocks â€¦and I could feel the bumps hit my feet. I expected a hole to appear at any moment. The second: when I felt my toes were a little bit colder than the rest of my feet and saw it was because they were wet. I guess a hole did appear somewhere. At least my feet weren’t as wet as my grandma’s, which had water up to her ankles.
The third: when we were finally reaching higher land along and apparently reaching people. From a small shack came a mesmerized young man who asked us, "where are you going?!" My best friend’s dad explained that he needed to go to the airport, noticing that the road we were in became a dead end a few feet ahead. The young man said as nicely as possible, "Gracias a Dios que han pasdo ese camino, pero tienen que regresar," (Thank God you passed that road, but you gotta go back).
He guided us to a side road 20 feet behind us- how many of these hidden side roads had we missed, I wondered? As the car began to drive on reverse I imagined water going into the exhaust and killing the engine; pushing the little Toyota and catching some disease from the water and ruining my dress, which was white.
Fortunately, we reached the side road and saw through the dense rain that it was less flooded. The water, which had reached halfway up our doors and officially flooded a portion of the car, would reside. We also realized that out from the bushes started coming large gray things. They were large gray cows. And so we waited for the cows to clear the road for us to move thru. All in all our interesting detour left us stressed, angry at Mother Earth and in a hurry since it was already two o’clock.
We reached a highway and drove as fast as the car would let us, leaking along the way. We got to the Mexicana Airlines check-in desk and by the mercy of the Lord, and an agent named Juan, got my grandmother in the flight 10 minutes before departure. After our main task was finished we packed into the little wet Toyota and decided to go eat pupusas, a staple of Salvadorian food. On the way to the restaurant I read a text sent to remind me that my flight was scheduled for Monday, June 2, at noon. I didn’t make it.
Although it was scary and random I loved the way I bid adieu to this country. The Republic of El Salvador is like my story tries to paint it; a little fun box where you don’t know what you will get but where you will be amazed by the beauty, candor and excitement of its nature, people and tourism.
Although it has had many political problems, with a bloody civil war lasting about 11 years, El Salvador today is pushing towards a brighter future. Recently, the country adopted the U.S. dollar as its national currency, to mixed reviews. In doing so, however, it opened the doors to a whole new range of tourism potential; with five-star hotels, like the Hilton, now in business, varied museums and some of the best shopping in Central America.
Aside from this, political leaders continue to fight drug trafficking and violent gangs to create a safer environment for families. The need to re-energize the country is real and the many construction sites for new schools, apartment buildings and malls make it even more apparent. Thankfully the country’s roots are not left behind in this makeover.
In every other corner and shopping center there are traditional Salvadorian food restaurants and the popular coffee and donut eatery chains, "Mr. Donut." Highly recommended are the corn tamales, but think twice before taking a gulp from the Chuco- a chocolate and bean based drink.
As you drive in the city or ride the town buses there is an abundance of trees, flowers and hillside viewpoints all around. El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American countries, with an area equal to that of Massachusetts. Most of the country is on a fertile volcanic plateau bordering the Pacific Ocean between Guatemala and Honduras. This helps maintain the vegetation of the nation and beaches along the coastline that are ideal for surfing.
The democratic republic is divided in 14 departments and four zones. When arriving at the airport, after paying a $10 tourist fee your customs check will be much shorter if you know which of the zones you’re visiting. I learned this from my own foolishness of forgetting to ask my hosts where they lived.
Customs official-"So what department will you visit?"
Yours truly- "El Salvador"
Customs official-"Which one within El Salvador?"
Yours truly- "Uh, El Salvador?"
(Followed by a lesson on the basic history of the republic)
The trip continued to be filled with quips from locals who wanted me to speak "Mexican" and sold me fresh cinnamon coffee with sweet bread for 67 cents. It was the best 67 cents I spent in the vacation. I took advantage of the cars my host family had access to and traveled around with the young folks.
We visited Suchitoto, a colonial-style town an hour away from San Salvador. There we embarked in motorboats painted in bold colors to ride along Lake Suchitlan. In the middle of the lake laid the Island of the Birds, home to cranes, seagulls, eagles and other avian species I am not specifically acquainted with. We had a delicious dinner at La Posada, an inn atop a mountain. It was picture perfect.
On another day we drove to La Libertad to try out "canopy," zip lining across trees in the jungle. We climbed, walked, hung and even swallowed some bugs as we screamed of excitement. At one point we hung over a lake where, as our tour guide stated, Cayman crocodiles lived. I confess with deep apologies that I did not check the facts.
A trip to the main market in the center of the city was well rewarded too. Aside from buying refreshing horchata, a rice water drink served in mini plastic bags with a straw, I purchased handmade crafts and crystal rings starting at a mere 70 centavos (cents).
The greatest trip was the one to San Miguel, were my last adventure started. San Miguel is the home to the most famous carnival the country has. Started 1958 it has gone through ups and downs but it is now, "better than ever" as the locals boast. In the past five carnivals alone Latin starts like Daddy Yankee and Calle 13 have performed for free as part of the celebrations organized by local government.
Plants that creep up outside walls adorn homes and riding "taxi-bicycles" is a common activity. The town was getting ready for a special activity at the time of my visit, though. The pillar of my best friend’s family, an uninhibited grandmother known by all as "Mamema," was turning 90. The party planned for the occasion, complete with a benediction, toast, dinner, live band and three-tiered cake, was phenomenal.
As tradition rules at the end of every party thrown in San Miguel or by a San Miguel-an, a mini-carnival ends the fiesta. I got a glimpse of carnival, which happens every November, and wanted to be there for the real deal. With wigs, confetti, face masks and foam people dance to their oldest and liveliest San Miguel songs, preparing to head home to cure aching foots or hangovers.
The day after the party we spent the day at my host family’s beach house in El Cuco, with the hammocks ready to serve as our beds. Walking in the brown-sanded shore I admired La Ventana or "the window," an arching sea rock that frames the sea. It can only compare for me thus far to Los Arcos of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Overall, I arrived expecting nothing and returned with great expectations to go back. This year is San Miguel’s fiftieth carnival. The event is rumored to be amazing. Falling in the weekend of Thanksgiving, I may have to book my flight now and eat a pork pupusas then in remembrance of our pilgrims.
With so many packaged vacations to already popular destinations it is nice to know there are still countries that can offer the exclusive and the rustic. The Republic of El Salvador can certainly fulfill your need to pamper while giving you the chance to explore and have adventures of your own.