Where in the world are we?

Where in the World are We?

09 August 2008

Suchitoto, El Salvador

We left San Salvador on a bus headed to Suchitoto in the morning. We traveled by regular (aka "chicken") bus, an old American school bus, just like the buses here, but with a lot more personality. In El Salvador, the buses are given names (which we also noticed in Guatemala) and they are decorated with all sorts of stickers, airbrush paintings, images, stuffed animals, mirrors, flags, and pretty much all sorts of other random tchotchkes. The cupadora (conductor) collects the money and calls out the stops like an auction announcer. They also hang out the bus doors and in general are much more animated than their counterparts here in Belize. Our cupadoras and drivers were awesome on every one of our bus trips as they always made sure we got off where we needed to. They'd give us directions to our hotels, too, when they could, it was definitely helpful. The bus experience included some really interesting vendors. We are pretty accustomed to people and children coming on to buses selling food, but here in El Salvador in addition to watermelon and copious amounts of candy, we had peddlers offering face creams, special vitamins, and crazy big nose plastic glasses. The face cream man even had before and after pictures to show how well caracol (conch) cream clears your complexion and it was all for just $1! He even went ahead and would just put a little bit onto people's arms, quite a different manner of selecting your face cream!

After an hour and fifteen minute ride that incuded a stop in a village filled with vendors that the bus barely fit as it passed, we arrived in Suchitoto. The municipality expands through a long village and then comes to the town center, where we stayed. We disembarked at the bus stop and walked to the Parque Centenario to get directions to La Villa Balanza. We were connected to a PCV couple who serves in Suchitoto through our PTO (who previously worked in PC El Salvador) and they got us the reservation here because of the view of the mountains, valley and Embalse Cerron Grande (aka Lago Suchitlan), a reservoir for hydroelectric power. This is also the town where some of the earliest fighting of the civil war took place and we took a horseback tour in a nearby village to see some of the remnants of the war, which ended with a cease fire between the government and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, now a political party in the country) on February 1, 1992.

An oversized scale outside La Villa Bellanza Restaurant weighing a bomb and some flour tortillas

The view of Lake Suchitlan from the balcony of the hostel Villa Bellanza

Ginnie hard at work recording her observations in yet another journal entry

It is said by some that Suchitoto is what Antigua, Guatemala was before the tourists arrived. It is a quaint colonial town with cobblestone streets, art galleries, and cafes. We spent our first afternoon enjoying the beautiful view of Lago Suchitlan from La Villa Balanza, exploring the cobblestone streets, and relaxing in the park. We had delicious tacos at La Piedra Cafe.

Tacos with some fresh avocado and a thick slice of quesillo cheese to go with the beans

Artifacts collected from different civil war sites in and around the Suchitoto area. I took the fisrt picture avoiding the cell phone to the right, thinking someone inadvertently left it, but it became clear no one was coming for it and it was rather old looking, so maybe it is part of the display?

A funny sign posted down the road from the center of town. It reads "Don't throw trash here. Respect, Please"

Some of the many T-shirts depicting Latin American hero Che Guevera, a famous revolutionary, politician, author, physician, military theorist, and guerrilla leader

Three old caballeros taking a rest in the park on a quiet Sunday afternoon

Ginnie consulting the city map to find the closest art gallery among the four streets :)

Later that evening we met Amber and John (the local PCVs who work at the tourism office and gave us lots of great suggestions on things to see and do) for a dinner of pupusas - our first of the trip. Pupusas are a staple food in El Salvador which were reportedly first created by the Pipil tribes. They are a thick, hand-made corn tortilla (made with masa de maiz) stuffed with cheese (a soft Salvadoran cheese called Quesillo, which was also in our tacos earlier and is just fabulous), fried pork rind (chicharron), squash (ayote), refried beans (frijoles refritos), or queso con loroco (a vine flower bud). You can have them revueltos, which is a mix of queso, frijoles, and chicharron. Some pupuserias also make them using rice flour rather than the masa. Pupusas are typically eaten by hand accompanied by curtido (a pickled cabbage relish) and tomato sauce. We first tried ours made with rice flour and filled with beans and cheese because Karla had mentioned she loved the rice flour ones. It was delicious and at 40 cents a piece, quite a bargain dinner. We didn't get the chocolate drink with it, but Amber informed us that most Salvadorans have their pupusas with chocolate (a hot drink made using water or milk and a mixture of local cocoa and sugar that smelled wonderful, but it was just too hot for us to have that night). Needless to say, we fell in love with pupusas very quickly.

Our pupusa dinners with a side of limonada con soda

Yummy homemade bread with yogurt, fruit, and granola at Centro Artex Cafe

We headed out in the morning after the best breakfast at Centro Artex Cafe (fresh granola, strawberry yogurt, apple, and whole wheat toast with homemade strawberry marmalade) for Cascada Los Tercios, a small waterfall that flows over hexagonal stone spires caused by volcanic activity. We had an interesting walk out to the falls. Between information in our shoestring guidebook and the tourism office map and directions, we had a bit of a difference in the expected amount of time it would take to reach the property we should enter to then walk toward the falls. We were to look for a random sidewalk and fence and then head into the next property on the left. Well, after the amount of time we thought we needed to travel we saw what looked more like an intended drainage line, but could be considered a sidewalk and it had a fence, but it didn't seem like we could really enter where we were. We headed up the road some and came to a gate and a house, so we went on in and stumbled upon an old caballero snoozing on a hammock. He pointed behind him, but I did hear the word calle (street) and thought "are we to walk through the fields toward the street we see across the way or return to the street?" We continued on through a next gate and found ourselves in a cow pasture, which surely could not be right - all we could see were cows and a huge hill that just didn't seem like falls were near. We turned back and another farmer came to work and again he pointed us toward the pasture, but this time I clearly heard calle and asked if we needed to go back to the street. He showed Anthony where along the calle we needed to head, so it was back to the street.
Further along we come to what can be described as a sidewalk of stone and it is next to a fence. Right past it is a big gate and an apparently abandoned property - all the landmarks we are looking for - but the gate is locked and we think maybe they have decided they no longer want strangers walking through their land to the falls. We heard what sounded like flowing water, but something still wasn't quite right. Two young schoolboys came along and Anthony asked about the falls and they said we had about half a kilometer to go, maybe 10-15 more minutes. We walked along and came to what is clearly a random sidewalk in the road with a large steel fence, just along the hillside - if we'd just kept walking this would have obviously been what was described. The young boy showed us where to enter and we made our way into the field and had to navigate some slippery big boulders. The property is at the top of the falls, so we had to walk down to get a good view. When we came to the falls, it was worth the crazy walk because the rocks are so striking and there are so many beautiful, vibrant mariposas (butterflies) everywhere. That is something we noticed all over El Salvador, mariposas flying all over and with some of the most brilliant colors and patterns. We have no pictures because they don't sit still and when they do land, they close their wings. It was so peaceful to sit on the boulders overlooking the falls and have these butterflies surrounding us, it was sort of like something out of a movie.

Las Cascadas Los Tercios

A nice view of the surrounding area on our walk back from the waterfall

White corn drying out in a yard in the village. These will later be grinded down and turned into Masa which will then be turned into corn tortillas and pupusas.

After our trek to the falls, we rewarded ourselves with ice cream at Sarita (a chain in Central America, but sadly not in Belize) where they made a delicious banana sundae with fresa (strawberry) and vainilla (vanilla, obviously) ice cream. The remainder of the day was spent checking out art at some of the different galleries and cafes and ended with a dinner of gourmet pupusas at Tipicos del Portal. Anthony went with the rice flour and stuffed with beans and cheese, while Ginnie tried the masa flour and had one with spinach and cheese and one with mushrooms and garlic. They were all so good! If they weren't so filling, we probably would have had more! We also found our favorite beverage in El Salvador - limonada con soda (lime juice with sparkling water). After such a long day, we headed back early since we had an early morning ahead of us for the horseback tour in La Mora.

La Mora is a community about 30 minutes outside of Suchitoto on the road to Aguilares (where we were headed to transfer to a bus heading to our next stop in La Palma). We caught a 7:30am bus and reached La Mora just before 8:00am where we were greeted by a young boy who led us to the house where our tour would begin. The tour is operated by former guerilla fighters from the civil war (guerilleros) and passes through an area where heavy fighting took place, displacing over 200 families and leaving behind craters, underground bunkers (whose Spanish name we cannot recall), and destruction. Prior to heading out on the tour we spent about 15 minutes at the home of one of the former fighters, an older man who generously offered us breakfast, water, and interesting stories about the site. The home was a traditional Salvadoreno setting with an open fire pit/cooking area, no running water, and sparse furnishings, similar to many village homes in Belize (though we did notice most village homes were made of concrete and had red tile roofs rather then being wood and thatch as is common here).
During the tour we learned of the ways in which whole families would seek shelter in these small holes dug out under their properties whenever they heard the planes flying overhead; at one point they spent three days inside these holes that were just big enough to crawl in and lay down. We also saw craters left by the bombs dropped from the planes and the remains of a church and a school. The school became a guerrilla camp and is surrounded by the trenches dug for the fighters and holds a cemetary for them as well. Our guide, Marcelo, shared a lot of the history of the war and while he started off slowly with us (keep in mind this was all in Spanish) as we started to ask questions, he became more animated and spoke more quickly, which meant we caught about 50-75% of the story, but it was interesting nonetheless and we read some more about it later. The tour then ended at a beautiful vista that overlooks communities in the surrounding area.

A crater left by a bomb dropped from a military plane, you can't tell how huge it is from this picture, but it is really large

The photo on the left shows a family's hiding "hole;" on the right is the guerilla camp, the artillery shed/latrine is in the center background

At the Punta Vista, overlooking several other communities and mountains

A view seen as we rode back to town (all we heard was Anthony say "espera" so he could stop and take the picture)

Not sure why we are stopped here, maybe it was when we were heading out from the guerilla camp and moving to punta vista

The bathroom at the house, Ant took a picture because he knows Ginnie would not have been going in there

The tour operator (I wish we remembered his name!) again invited us to sit and chat when we returned from our three hours on the horses. We spoke about where we'd visited, what we do in Belize, the states we come from and then spoke more about the war. Probably the funniest moment of this day occurred when we got off the bus in this unknown village and then were walking to this house with a teenage boy speaking lone Spanish and each of us in our own minds starting to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into since we are not fluent yet. Neither of us expressed that concern to the other, but both shared it afterward when we were back on a bus heading out to La Palma. We both had been excited for the tour and to see a living museum but neither had really considered being on a horse and having a guide who spoke only Spanish. It turned out to be such a great experience and we are both so glad we decided to do it.

After our chat with our host and a short wait for a bus, we were back on the road. We quickly found our bus to La Palma after being dropped off in Aguilares. This one was a packed one reminiscent of Belize, but we were still able to get a seat in the very back when two thoughtful men helped move the ginormous packages of styrofoam bowls in front of the seats. Although this was our busiest bus ride, it still was not as packed as the stories we'd heard of chicken buses in Central America with 3 to a seat and 2-3 deep standing in the aisles. Our seatmate to the right was a really friendly, chatty gentleman who was very interested in our travels and in learning about Belize. He was very good about correcting our Spanish and very patient when we would answer a question not quite as he was asking. He spoke a little English, and we learned he was from Mexico. Since he was getting off the bus in La Palma with his boxes of avocados, he generously pointed us in the direction of our next stopover at Hotel La Palma.

So far our travels in El Salvador have been amazing and we looked forward to our stay in La Palma.

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