This one time in Nicaragua I attended a pool party at a popular backpacking hostel in the beach town of Las Peñitas. Conversing with a bunch of young travellers over many cans of Toña, a pattern began to emerge that I couldn’t really comprehend. These people have been all over South America, they’ve been to Panama, Costa Rica, and they’re now in Nicaragua. Next they’re going through Honduras for a romp around the Bay Islands, taking a peek at Belize, on to Guatemala, then maybe up to Mexico. Everybody’s trip was slightly different, but there’s a common denominator in all of their journeys. They’re not going to El Salvador.
What? I was the odd one out here, primarily because I was there for the night and not on some lengthy self-finding backpacking adventure, but also because my visit to Nicaragua was a day trip… from El Salvador. Where nobody’s fucking been.
Armed with only my phone pics and a bunch of good adjectives, I took upon me, there and then, the sacred duty of changing hearts and minds about that tiny, wonderful nation. I think I was reasonably successful – or that might have just been the Toña effect – but either way, I made some excellent points that I’m now going to share with you too.
I’ve already written about all the fun I had in San Salvador, the capital city and my base for most of my visit. Although El Salvador is small enough that you can see most of what it has to offer on day trips from any central point, you’ll probably find that some places are just too goddamn beautiful to leave after one day. Like El Cuco.
But before we get to Cuco, let’s talk a wee bit about getting to Cuco.
About 20 minutes out of San Salvador I decided I couldn’t drive past one more coconut water vendor without getting me some coconut water. We chose one we like the look of, and a badass lady with a machete takes a coconut, cracks it, and empties its contents into a bag (god, I love drinking out of a bag). Then she hacks it in half with a single strike, scoops out the flesh of the entire thing (you buy the coconut, you get all the coconut), puts that in the bag with the water, and adds a straw. Deconstructed coconut for the road. In a bag. I’m telling you that this is the best 50 cents I ever spent, and you better believe it.
Even taking into account the fact that you can get a freshly tapped coconut at any moment of your choosing, the best thing about the road to El Cuco is the scenery. Straight open roads and volcanos galore. I’m here at the end of the dry season, so everything that’s not near a river or lake is a little parched, but there’s nothing quite like firing down an empty highway that you can’t see the end of, through constantly-changing scenery, from flat grasslands and fields, to palm lined forests, little roadside towns with a weird number of by-the-hour hotel options, and yes, volcanos!
Volcanos make me very happy. They should make everybody very happy, look at them. This guy is Volcán Chaparrastique, poster child for the stratovolcano. He last properly erupted about 4 years ago, and has been spitting ash intermittently recently… but not today, unfortunately. From the road, you’ll also see the volcanos, San Vicente, Tecapa and the beautiful Usulutan.
About half an hour before El Cuco, the road turns towards the coast and begins to wind up through the hills. It goes up and up, and just as you think you can’t possibly be approaching anything resembling a beach resort, doooown you come, off the main road, through the town of El Cuco itself, then on to a dirt track for about three miles further to get to the place we’re going. The place everybody should go. The most chill place in the known universe: La Tortuga Verde.
La Tortuga Verde, or Tortugs as it is affectionately known, is a hostel/hotel, turtle sanctuary, yoga centre, pelican retreat, coconut plantation, surfers paradise, and all round awesome place to hang out. The first thing we did after parking our car next to a stray cow and dumping our stuff in our cabins, was head to the bar, grab a beer, and get out on to the beach.
And what a beach it is.
An endless stretch of volcanic sand lined with a thick fringe of palm trees. Powerful Pacific waves rushing up the shore, blackening every bit of sand they touch. The beach isn’t groomed, the palm fronds and other natural debris that wash up just sit at the highwater mark where they’re supposed to. The infrastructure is minimal – a complex of palm-thatched tiki huts, some rows of cabins, a bunch of hammocks and some plastic chairs. Tortugs is no luxury beach resort, and it’s not trying to be. But it is paradise.
And unlike other beaches I’ve been to recently, like Rio, Barcelona and whatnot, there’s a refreshing lack of people trying to sell you shit. Because there’s no rich tourists. The majority of people enjoying the waves and the drinks and the hammocks are Salvadorans, and, in general, the foreigners here are the ones working – a fun bunch of carefree nomads most of whom were just passing through on their travels (the ones that actually venture into the country) and deciding to stay a while, volunteering at the resort in exchange for free lodging and a daily dose of tropical bliss.
As he always does, my friend Ricardo knew a guy working here, a sound dude from Colorado who served us a couple of beers then decided that it was right about time to take the rest of the evening off to participate in the beer drinking himself. So we sat on the beach watching the sun go down behind the palm trees, drinking El Salvador’s second-best mass-produced lager and having a jolly good time.
Then somebody mentioned pupusas. oh my god pupusas. Screw the unspoiled beaches, the perfect volcanos and the super-friendly locals, if you need one single reason to go visit El Salvador… do it for the pupusas, people.
Pupusas: thick corn slash rice tortillas that are filled with really awesome Salvadoran cheese (or beans or pork if you want) before being flattened out and fried – so you end up with this pancake of carby goodness stuffed with salty melted cheese, and it’s served with spicy cabbage salsa on a plastic strainer plate that has a piece of polythene on top to stop it all falling through the holes AND THEY ARE THE BEST THINGS IN THE WORLD.
And like this place wasn’t paradise enough, there’s a pupusa place a few buildings down the road. Praise the lord.
AND (so much and) all the pupusas I could eat (which is many) plus a couple of large beers worked out at about $5. They make them there and then as you holler for them, and you sit at bench tables and mingle with cool travellers, and there’s hammocks and a German shepherd puppy called Moana. Have I convinced you yet?
Post pupusas, we went back to Tortugs and caught the glowing embers of that evening’s palm frond bonfire on the beach. The night ended up many hours later with tequila shots (w/ pineapple, not lime) and us all jumping into the warm Pacific, somehow managing to remain undrowned in the strongest waves I’ve ever been in.
Intermittently during the night, as I lay in my tiny private cabana, with an ocean breeze wafting through the net window, there would be loud crashes coming from the roof that even I wasn’t drunk enough to sleep through. About halfway through the night I finally had the epiphany. Mangos. Should have worked it out from the start really, given that we were surrounded by mango trees laden with the things, and there was about 700 on the ground all around our cabins.
The volunteers go around collecting the specimens that haven’t been maimed on their trip down to earth and make them in to smoothies and cocktails and other such joys. In the morning, still profoundly hungover even after a pupusa-based breakfast in the sun, a Swedish girl I’d met the night before hollers at me and throws me one.
Tiny and perfectly ripe, I peeled and ate it there and then, and, not kidding, that was the end of the hangover. The toll on the body of 11 hours of beer and tequila is no match for a Salvadoran mango fresh off the tree. And just as well, cause we had a hefty road trip to get stuck into, and that wouldn’t have been fun doing rough.
When I went up to the reception hut to pay for everything (one night’s accommodation, and a whole nights worth of excessive drinking) the total came to $29.65. Yes, you read that right. I think our friend may have been giving us some of the drinks for free, but there was still a fair lot on the itemised receipt so I’m just gonna put it out there that La Tortuga Verde is quite possibly the best bang for your buck that you’ll ever get.
Oh, and this is Alby. ^
The next few days were spent racing through Honduras and Nicaragua being chased by bandits and sliding down volcanos, but those are different stories altogether.
Safely back in El Salvador, it’s time for some more volcano-related tourism. This is the San Salvador volcano as viewed from my friend’s apartment:
If you look at it on Google maps in satellite view, you can see that to the left of the peak in the above photo, there’s actually a gigantic crater, El Boquerón, just behind the ridge, and in that crater there’s a tiny baby cinder cone volcano growing. Boqueroncito, as this wee volcanolet is named, appeared in 1917 after the last eruption of the main volcano. Happily for the people living in San Salvador, the lava flow from this eruption decided to go Northwest, away from the city. You can also see this in Google maps.
Being in the vicinity, we decided not to see it on Google maps and instead go and observe it with the naked eye. They’ve built a highway through it, so it’s nice and accessible. They also provide useful info about the volcano, the lava field and the tectonic intricacies of the region.
The lava field is… a field of solidified lava. If you’re into fields of solidified lava you’ll definitely like it. It’s been there for about 100 years, so you’ve got trees and stuff growing out of it where they can, but considering it’s been there for so long, the contrast with the surrounding grasslands is stark, and you can totally imagine the fresh lava bloobing its way down the hill, enveloping everything in its path. I like lava.
Continuing the volcano theme: It was Ricardo’s dad’s birthday, and to celebrate he was taking him out for lunch at a nice restaurant by some volcanic crater about an hour east of the city. Since I was his guest, I tagged along. I enjoyed a nice steak, had some banter with his family then we all went out into the garden to behold the view, which I’d been promised was quite good.
Behold the Coatepeque Caldera, a big crater with a lake in it. Perfect spot for making use of the panorama feature on one’s phone. Excellent
A short drive from the most beautiful crater I’ve ever seen in my life is the pre-columbian town of Ataco, a bustling wee hilltop place famous for its colourful murals, altitude-grown coffee, and fabric industry.
It was absolutely heaving when we arrived because it’s holy week and there was apparently some Jesus thing about to occur. Sure enough, up started the brass band, and a sea of purple youths carrying a large cross marched up the road to the main church. Gotta love holy week.
There was other festivities going on too – musicians playing in the square, outdoor eating and drinking, that sorta thing. Google images will probably give you a better idea of the feel of the place when it’s not absolutely jam packed full of people, but don’t think I would trade this buzz.
Also, I found that in Ataco you can eat cake and drink world-class, locally grown coffee in a tropical garden while a dude using a traditional, hand-powered loom spins colourful thread into checked fabric right behind you – which is something I never even knew I wanted to do.
So what have we learned today? Recap:
- El Salvador has excellent coconut water that you can buy from the side of the highway and drink from a bag
- El Salvador has awesome volcanos
- El Salvador has beaches that are unspoiled strips of paradise
- El Salvador has pupusas and pupusas are life
- El Salvador has mangos that will cure anything
- El Salvador has lava fields you can drive through
- El Salvador has lake-filled calderas that will blow your mind with their beauty
- El Salvador has mountaintop coffee towns where you can combine your love of cake and weaving
- PUPUSAS. Always pupusas
- El Salvador is one of the few places left on earth not crawling with tourists, and as much as I don’t want that to change, I also want people not listen to the shitty advice of other people who say that it’s packed with gangs and murder and rampant corruption and therefore “too dangerous” to visit. I’ve just listed ten reasons why you should go to El Salvador, and have a list of about ten more things that I never got a chance to do in my week there that I’ll need to go back for…
Bottom line and the whole point of this post: if you’re planning a trip through Central/South America, DON’T SKIP EL SALVADOR.