El Salvador: Serenity, Chaos and Romance
By Gary Singh
The route snaking its way up to the Boquerón crater in El Salvador, atop the famous San Salvador volcano, is now made of asphalt. These days, restaurants and gated mansions flank the paved road on both sides, but it didn’t use to be this way.
During the war, I’m told, this was a dirt path. Nothing was here. Except for a bunch of old men with pickup trucks, hardly anyone knew how to reach the top. No one else ever came up here, explains my tour guide.
As we navigate the road, escorted by tourist police, I learn that Boquerón is 1900 meters above sea level, its slopes a proud home for various cooperative coffee plantations.
Rich Next to the Poor
Affluent properties sit right next to slums along the sides of the road. We pass multistory buildings with definitive Central American circular barbed wire protection, but also side alleys and crumbling stone walls with Spanish football graffiti. Coffee plants sprout up all around us.
The occasional outdoor restaurant employees wave to the tourist buses driving behind and in front of us. Dogs sleep on the sides of the road everywhere, and sometimes even in the middle of the road.
Machine gun-toting policeman appear in the doorways of various establishments. No one seems to even contemplate that this is volcano territory, first and foremost. Mild-Mannered chaos pervades.
El Salvador covers only 18,000 square miles but contains 14 provinces, each divided into even smaller municipalities. The country features a grand total of 26 volcanoes, including the one El Salvador shares with Guatemala, as well as those on the islands. One-third of them are considered active or at least fuming. Wherever one roams in El Salvador, he or she will see a volcano somewhere nearby. They are an integral part of the landscape.
The sprawling capital city, San Salvador, boasts two million of the entire country’s seven million people, and sixty percent of those are under thirty years of age. After Guatemala City, it’s the second-largest city in Central America.
I’m told that due the consistent sprawl, even the residents can’t keep track of the city limits. But the iconic namesake volcano forms the definitive backdrop to San Salvador, as the city spreads up the slopes. The mysterious green shadows of the mountain are part of the city’s character.
As we arrive at the top of the mountain, nowadays reinvented as El Boqueron National Park, a casual trail takes us through various vista points where couples often come to smooch, but areas that provide wide, sweeping views of the entire crater. At the bottom of the crater, a cinder cone aptly titled Boqueroncito beckons the more athletic adventurers. It takes four hours to descend all the way down, I’m told, and it also takes four hours to hike around the entire perimeter, along the top.
View of the Top
On a clear day, from this vantage point, one can see two-thirds of the entire country of El Salvador. One can view the mountains of Guatemala and the Mighty Pacific. It only costs one dollar to get up here, quite cheap, another reason why it’s common for young couples to bask in the multilayered romance of the whole place. There’s a certain intuitive mystery that pervades up here at the top of the volcano, borderline mystical at that.
El Salvador’s Own
Steam rises from the vegetation, misleading one into thinking it’s from the cinder cone, far below. The cone says NOEL, apparently written by folks who climbed all the way down. The last active eruption here was June 12, 1917, and El Boqueron is monitored more often than any other volcano in the country. The scene is a harmonization of opposites: serene atmospherics juxtaposed against the brutal violence of what could actually happen to San Salvador should the volcano erupt again.
Place of Flowers
A beautifully ridiculous pan-flute version of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” fills the air in the town square of Suchitoto, just a 45-minute drive from San Salvador. Street vendors lounge in their respective booths, here and there, selling bracelets, chicken sandwiches with horchata, Salvadorean flags, bootleg DVDs and more.
One vendor blasts the ABBA cover from an old-school ghetto-blaster while schoolchildren scamper about. The screaming sun beats down upon the square while a scattered bunch of Anglo tourists try to deal with the heat. Locals also lounge about, while the tourist police, our escorts, kickback at a picnic table.
An old town with a serene colonial vibe, Suchitoto, roughly meaning ‘place of birds and flowers,’ is situated on a manmade body of water, Lago Suchitlan. Cobblestone streets, dirt roads, sprouting weeds, and meandering dogs give the place a laid-back slowness. Dogs also tend to sleep in the street everywhere. It is too freakin’ hot to do anything else.
Around these parts, a few upscale boutique accommodations have emerged in former colonial estates, catering to tourists and locals on weekend getaways from San Salvador. One can take to the lake on various boating expeditions or observe strange species of birds, which tend to arrive in groups. There’s even a local soccer team.
Gates of Romance
Spanish colonial architecture dominates Suchitoto, including a creative variety of wrought-iron bar-work adorning nearly every door and window. Historically speaking, the wrought-iron was not for safety reasons, I’m told by a local. The iron bars were not originally designed to keep out burglars, oddly enough.
In the old days, the original purpose of covering the windows with wrought-iron gating was to regulate the degree to which prospective boyfriends could talk to the young girl who lived in the house. The height of the window was usually matched to a horse’s height since young suitors often approached the window on horseback.
Some of the iron bars were even designed to open up in various sections to accommodate men approaching on foot as well. And the suitors were usually given one hour to talk to the girl. After that, no more.
These days, the wrought-iron adornment adds a displaced romantic touch to the faded but colorful buildings throughout Suchitoto. I can easily see myself in that era, on horseback, infatuated with a young woman at the window, only to have it slammed in my face one hour later.
Surf and Ceviche
“In El Salvador, we use Worcestershire Sauce on everything,” a local tells me at Cafe Sunzal, overlooking Playa San Blas and seemingly a zillion surfers down below. “We use it on ceviche, oysters, steaks, and pizza. Everything.”
As I devour the best ceviche I’ve had in years, the Worcestershire Sauce seems to make it better, and so does a healthy portion of Jalisco chili sauce.
All three constitute an aromatic jazz trio of tastes. Squid, octopus, prawns and other unidentifiable seafood are the norms here. Everything is impossibly fresh, coming straight from the fish market at the end of the pier, at the beach, down the road.
Also below us are several cordoned-off areas for hammocks. People simply set up shop and surf all day. Those with more money can drop for a room with a romantic jacuzzi outside on the cliff, overlooking the beach.
Within minutes of barefooting along the surf and the rocks from Cafe Sunzal, we arrive in El Tunco, a major party town reminiscent of a more vivacious Tulum or a surfer version of Playa del Carmen, that is, without the upscale shopping. An entire mile of beach bars flanks a relatively new cobblestone street. Tons of small hotels have erupted in just the last few years, all allowing beach folk to go on weekend drunks before splitting back to San Salvador.
Dirt driveways fan off the main road, all leading up to the private property, hotels, more outdoor bars, and restaurants. Everything is just moments from the main road leading back to the beach. Surf and gear rental shops abound, as do car rentals, trinket shops, and still more bars.
Scrap Metal Jesus
The décor at Iglesia El Rosario combines industrial concrete and scrap metal sculpture with Central American Catholicism in a totally unique and rocking juxtaposition unlike anything else on earth. On the outside, the structure looks like an airplane hangar designed by a strange socialist-era architect. Inside, bizarre scrap metal adorns the concrete walls.
A swath of multicolored stained glass descends from the ceiling. It’s quite dark inside, metaphorically and literally.
Some type of wooden pews are arranged in a haphazard semicircle around the altar, also quite dark and industrial. Statuettes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, atop cement pedestals, surrounded by flowers and scrap metal feature prominently on one side. The colors from the stained glass wash the entire back half of the scene, unlike anything this author has seen in his travels.
Even better, the building sits essentially across the street from Plaza La Libertad, right smack in the middle of the colorful chaos otherwise known as Centro histórico de San Salvador.
Folks Milling About
Thousands of folks mill about the neighborhood, the cathedrals, and the myriad storefronts.
Beautifully decrepit yet colorful Art Deco buildings sit right next to angular and more austere architecture. Concrete and barbed wire compliment street markets with hundreds of vendors hawing fruit, vegetables, electronics, underwear, engine parts, recycled computers, jewelry and everything between.
What little tourists actually do show up here to brave the fumes, traffic noise, radios, and screaming vendors usually visit the main cathedral and that’s it. They completely miss Iglesia El Rosario since it looks like something straight out of communist-era Eastern Europe.
My tour guide tells haunting wartime stories, when this neighborhood, Centro histórico de San Salvador, was filled with black market operations, illegal weapons trafficking, organ trafficking and drug running. Just about every building facade was a front for something else.
But now, he tells me, everything is being cleaned up. Rotten businesses are being forced out. Cement trash cans line the street to prevent illegal vendors from setting up shop on the sidewalks. Fenced off parks are being refurbished.
It’s true. As we drive around, I can see what he’s talking about. He is not lying or glossing over the dirty underbelly. This colorful chaos surrounding me, this multisensory experience, this symphony of traffic noise and street vendors, with a colorful riot of beautifully incongruous buildings, is all a sign of what is just beginning to percolate in San Salvador. To use an eastern metaphor, from the wreckage, a lotus might bloom, although it may take a while.
A Lotus Blooms
The good thing in Centro histórico de San Salvador is that historical and colonial infrastructures are being saved, not torn down. The thumping nightclubs and swanky restaurants haven’t moved in yet–that’s over in Santa Tecla–but San Salvador is just beginning to rediscover itself again. Tourism is just now starting.
The visiting tour operators I meet here are utterly confused about how to even sell the destination, which is hysterical. They seem to crave specific categories of experience, I guess. San Salvador, on the other hand, still remains in one of those Buddhist Bardo phases, that is, in-between certain death- and birth-eras of its own history.
In any event, I feel serene and comfortable, caught between the end of one such era, while a new one seems just beginning. Bring on the chaos and the romance. Welcome to the Bardo state of El Salvador.
Find out more about visiting El Salvador at their official tourism website.
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Gary Singh is a freelance journalist who surfaces most often in San Jose, California.