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El Salvador, Lesser of Two "Evils"

Written by Jared on April 10, 2012

Jessica on a horsey.Start: March 25, Santa Ana
Finish: April 5, San Salvador
Plates of Street Food Consumed: 3
Hours Riding Horses Through Coffee Farm: 2
Wheelbarrows of Wood Burned: 4

El Salvador wasn't a country we had originally planned to visit. In fact, up until about a month ago we had little idea what there was to do or see here. In many ways our initial choice was a decision between the lesser of two evils.

Having heard few good things about Honduras, aside from diving on the Caribbean coast (not our cup o' tea) and the Mayan ruins at Copán (which we visited several weeks ago), we re-routed our itinerary and decided to spend two weeks in El Salvador.

Our first day and a half in El Salvador wasn't great, but it's gotten progressively better ever since. Not only have the people been very friendly, but we managed to find a hidden-gem of a campsite that may top my all-time list.

Our hotel in Santa Ana.

Our first stop in El Salvador was Santa Ana, the second largest city in a country slightly smaller than Massachusetts. We ended up at a hotel in a fairly sketchy area of town. Most of Santa Ana seemed sketchy to me, not really dangerous, just dirty and full of people who didn't seem to have anything to do.

The hotel - El Faro - was pleasant, the staff super friendly. The paintings on the walls inside the courtyard and rooms are amazing. Really, we were just after laundry, a shower and secured parking. After our fill of all three, we were glad to leave the heat and sketchy streets behind.

Getting our cell phone and 3G modem in El Salvador.

Mission number one after every border crossing is to secure a SIM card for our cell phone, and a wireless 3G modem for internet access. After spending 30 minutes at the official Tigo store, the largest wireless provider in Central America, we were rejected on the grounds that we weren't from El Salvador and didn't possess the correct identification number. Even for a prepaid plan.

Plan B was to walk down the street looking for alternatives, which turned out to be fairly easy. Find the store that advertises cell phone activation, then go next door to the cheese shop for a 3G modem. Makes perfect sense in El Salvador.

The cathedral at Santa Ana.

The one landmark we did want to see in Santa Ana was the cathedral. Given the parking situation in the city, we opted for a few drive by photos. Those little black dots you see around the arches and roof are pigeons. Hundreds of 'em.

Our campground by the beach.

Our next stop was Playa El Sunzal. A beach town south of the capital, San Salvador. We setup camp in the back yard of a hostel and did very little for two and a half days.

Back to the Pacific coast.

This was our first glimpse of the Pacific ocean since we left the Baja Peninsula in Mexico four months ago.

A surfer riding the waves.

Surfing is the main attraction on the beaches of El Salvador. Our hostel was packed with surfers who headed out every morning and afternoon to catch a wave. We don't surf, so there wasn't much for us to do aside from relax and drink beers in the heat. Hard to complain about that.

A highlight of our stay in Sunzal was meeting up with another couple heading south to Argentina - Brad and Sheena of Drive Nacho Drive. We'd heard of them via the internets, and have been following their blog for the past couple months. It's a small world, I'm sure we'll be running into them again.

The sign at the coffee farm where we camped for four nights.

After having our fill of the heat on the coast, we drove back into the interior of El Salvador to coffee country. We've learned from Guatemala that this means cooler temperatures, rolling green hills and a distinct lack of biting insects. We were not disappointed.

Portezuelo Park may go down as the best campground of this trip, or possibly the best campground I've ever been to. If it had a trout-stocked stream within walking distance there would be no contest.

Coffee plants surrounding our campsite.

Finding the park was a bit of a Google miracle. Jessica found a recommendation via a guide book, and after some searching discovered this place. Another hour or so of deducing how to get here, and she was 80% certain she knew where we were going, but we had little idea what to expect.

What Portezuelo lacked in fishing opportunities it made up for with an abundance of coffee plants, our campsite was surrounded. The park is part of a 500 acre coffee plantation that offers outdoor excursions like horseback riding, mountain biking and zip-lining.

A row of food stands at the food fair.

If getting in touch with nature isn't you're thing, there are three colonial towns nearby that cater to tourists along the Ruta de Las Flores (route of the flowers), a scenic 25 mile stretch of road that winds through the El Salvadorian highland.

Our true purpose for coming to this area was to visit Juayua, home to a famous weekend food festival. This turned out to involve several blocks of tents and street vendors selling just about any type of grilled meat imaginable.

Meat on the grill at the food fair.

Most of it was identifiable, but we definitely improved our Spanish vocabulary in the process. Jessica learned the word for rabbit. Every grill was stacked with chicken, a dozen varieties of sausage, ribs from no less than three animals, seafood, and of course the omnipresent freshly made tortilla.

Our first lunch at the food fair.

Our first lunch was a combination platter of sorts. Sausage, two cuts of steak, a beef rib, potatoes, rice and beans and grilled scallions. Plus some hot sauce - essentially raw carrots and onions soaked in a vinegar/jalapeño sauce.

And then there was the drink, it ended up at our table thanks to a lost-in-translation moment. I have no idea what it's called, or how to describe the taste. It is part salsa, part fruit cocktail and 100% weird. Total damage for lunch number one: $6.

Kobus makes the meat face while diving into a beef short rib.

Kobus tucks into the beef rib. Rest assured, there was naught but bone left when he was finished.

A shot of a street in Ataco.

From Juayua we drove up the Ruta de Las Flores to the the town of Ataco. Ataco is a bit smaller than Juayua, and definitely caters to tourists - although it seemed most of the tourists were of Central American ancestry, so the atmosphere was a bit more authentic than we've come to accept from places like this.

Lunch number two in Ataco.

After a bit of shopping, including a $4 pound of locally grown coffee, we sat down for lunch número dos. I went with a chile relleno, complete with a half-a-dozen sides.

A little food lesson for those of you back home: relleno means stuffed in Spanish. When you order a chile relleno at a US Mexican restaurant it's usually a pepper wrapped in egg and stuffed with cheese. This guy little guy was nothing of the sort. It was stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes and who knows what else, then battered, deep fried, kept warm on a grill and sauced with some magical concoction. Chile Rellenos will never be the same.

One of our many nightly campfires.

One of the best parts of our campsite at Portezuelo was the gigantic fire ring and abundance of free firewood. The camp host was nice enough to deliver a couple wheelbarrows full, so we enjoyed a raging inferno each night. All that was missing were the marshmallows.

This was the first time we've had a camp fire since our second campsite in Mexico, nearly five months ago. We've had plenty of charcoal cooking fires, but it's either been too hot, too hard to find firewood or not allowed to have an open wood fire.

We start our horseback ride through the coffee farm.

The next day we decided to take a tour of the coffee farm on horseback. It's been more than 15 years since the last (and probably first) time I've ridden a horse. What I lacked in equestrian skills, my four-legged companion more than made up for in mild-mannered temperament.

A hill with coffee fields.

Our guide took us on a winding two-hour tour through the plantation. The hills are crisscrossed with trees planted to provide windbreaks and shade for the coffee bushes. We learned that without these trees the wind would knock ripe coffee berries off the plants, and the sun would dry out the soil, killing the fragile coffee plants.

Another shot of Jess and Kobus on horseback.

Jessica was all smiles. She finally had a chance to put those cowboy boots and jeans she bought in Guatemala to use, aside from just looking pretty.

Jess and Kobus pass flowering coffee plants.

Above, Jess and Kobus pass through flowering coffee plants. It seems like we arrived shortly after the coffee harvest. Each white flower will eventually become a coffee berry, containing two precious coffee beans.

A shot of the ruins at Joya de Cerén.

After four days in the coffee plantation it was time to move on. The next stop was the capital city, San Salvador, where we stayed at a cozy bed and breakfast for two days, one of which was a work day. On our day off we drove north to visit the ruins of Joya de Cerén, also known as the North American Pompeii. The small village was covered in 15 yards of ash during a small eruption in 600AD. However, unlike Pompeii, the villagers here had time to escape.

This is a small site, very different than any of the other pre-Columbian ruins we've visited. Joya de Cerén is all about the average Joe. After a dozen or so Mayan ruins we've gained little appreciation for what life was like for the masses. Huge pyramids made of stone are fine and dandy, but they were built for the ruling elite and the religious leaders.

A shot of the ruins at Joya de Cerén.

The buildings at Joya de Cerén are amazingly well preserved, especially considering they are made of sticks and mud and are at least 1400 years old. Above is a three room house, complete with kitchen, sleeping quarters and storage room. Archeologists have also found a huge variety of plant material at the site, shedding light on what people of that time grew and ate. In the museum we found a 1400 year old fossilized agave plant. Bet that would make for some spicy tequila.

A shot of the El Salvadorian countryside.

El Salvador continues to impress. We had few expectations coming in, after all, this was supposed to be the lesser of two evils as we wind our way through the shadier countries of Central America. After a week it's impossible to regret our decision to spend a dozen days in this tiny corner of the world.

Up Next: A mad dash across Honduras to Nicaragua and the city of Leon where we'll spend the Easter holiday.

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