Our suspicions were confirmed in Ahuachapán: El Salvadorans really are as friendly, proud and hospitable as Mexicans. And that’s saying something since the amazing energy and generosity of the Mexican people was a big reason why we ended up spending 18 months in Mexico and would return for more at the drop of a sombrero.
Welcome to Ahuachapán, El Salvador
Ahuachapán is the largest town along the 23 mile route through volcano-ringed coffee plantations known as the Ruta de las Flores. It’s also the birthplace of lauded Salvadoran poet Alfredo Espino and the source of a distinctive style of painting.
When brothers Leo and Fabio Bruno couldn’t find work (one is a lawyer and the other is an architect) Claudia Gazzolo de Munguia took matters into her own hands. A proud Ahuachapán native, owner of La Casa de Mamapan guesthouse (more on that in a moment) and head of the local tourism commission, Claudia put the brothers to work painting the outside of her hotel right on the town’s main square. Their bright, always smiling characters were soon in high demand and today Ahuachapán is full of their playful, uplifting work. They’ve even painted some of the street signs in town.
There’s no one better equipped to bring Ahuachapán’s bohemian best to life than Claudia–and not just because she runs the greatest guesthouse in town. Built in 1823, La Casa de Mamapan was Claudia’s mother’s home. When Claudia brought her children up from the capital to visit their grandmother in Ahuachapán the kids would say they were going to see “Mamapan.” The nickname stuck.
To grandmother’s house we go
In 2005, after years of neglect and a series of natural disasters which caused further damage to the house, Claudia decided it was time to restore the place and turn it into a guesthouse where other people could enjoy at least a little bit of the homey joy of those visits to grandma’s house.
Very few typical hotel concessions were made, much of the original furniture and the quirks of the building remains and, therefore, staying in one of the five rooms at La Casa de Mamapan feels like being in someone’s house not in someone’s hotel. The only thing missing was grandma.
La Casa de Mamapan has a prime location across from bustling, tree-filled Plaza Concordia. The hotel’s small cafe opens onto a pedestrian mall that runs along one side of the blue and white Nuestra Senora de Asunción church.
Taking the insiders’ tour
Claudia and her husband, Roberto, greeted us as soon as we arrived in Ahuachapán and for two days they were generous, enthusiastic and gracious with their time, information and hospitality giving us an insiders’ tour and sharing sights and experiences in and around their beloved town which we would not have had on our own.
We started our Ahuachapán adventure with a snack called yucca and chicharron which consists of boiled yucca (like a cross between a sweet potato and a parsnip) topped with diced tomatoes and onions in a vinegary sauce and hunks of rich, crispy, meaty, lightly fried pork skin called chicharron. it’s a lot like the carnitas we loved so much in Mexico.
Of course Claudia and Roberto knew just which street vendor would have the best yucca and chicharron and we enjoyed our freshly-prepared treats on park benches surrounded by more murals by Leo and Fabio.
That evening we paid a visit to the town’s cemetery which was unusually well-kept and full of ornate tombs and headstones–especially picturesque at dusk.Then our devoted guides took us to La Original for what they swore were the best pupusas in town. These filled griddle-grilled ground corn patties are the national dish of El Salvador and everyone has strong opinions about where the best pupusas can be found. We’d come to trust Claudia and Roberto’s expertise and the pupusas did not disappoint.
Just when we thought they couldn’t get any hostier…
The next day we piled into the couple’s car to check out some of the area’s famous geothermal activity. After passing a massive geothermal energy plant Roberto pulled over in front of a small house and the woman inside waved us through her fence. Soon we were carefully crossing a landscape of bubbling pools of hot mud and steaming vents in the ground in search of therapeutic, mineral-rich mud.
After gathering a few small bags of mud we re-traced our steps back to the car. A few minutes later we arrived at hot springs heaven.
We’ve been to some tremendous hot springs in our time. However, Santa Teresa Hot Springs (Termales Santa Teresa), just a few miles outside of Ahuachapán, blew us away with the beauty and size of the tiled pools and the relaxing, yet accessible, setting. At just US$10 to soak all day long we couldn’t figure out why the three pools weren’t packed. Instead, we had the place to ourselves.
As we soaked and covered our faces with the mud we’d just collected Claudia explained that the adjacent organic coffee plantation and processing facility (called a beneficio) is run on geothermal energy and naturally heated water is used during the processing of the coffee beans.
When we were at the hot springs the only accommodation was in one of three multi-bedroom bungalows with kitchens and patios arranged around the pools. There was a small restaurant on site and owner Marco Batres was in the process of adding a small hotel and some dorm rooms.
Just when we thought our hosts couldn’t possibly get any hostier Claudia excitedly announced that she had arranged for the four of us to spend the night in one of the bungalows.
In case you were wondering, it does NOT suck to wake up in the morning and stumble into your own private hot spring.
Our thanks to Claudia and Roberto for sharing their love of Ahuachapán and making us feel so welcome there.