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Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad – Alegría, El Salvador

The famous flowers grown in and around Alegría, El Salvador eluded us when we traveled there, but we did find the area’s suspiciously green and possibly haunted volcanic lake and a relatively affordable place to stay in this budget-travel-challenge of a town. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad.

The word alegría means cheerfulness in Spanish. However, this town gets its name not from its sunny disposition but from its most famous citizen, Presbytery José Miguel Alegría, a professor of Latin who founded a philosophy school in town in 1883. Remarkable. There’s a bust of him in the main square and the professor’s remains are in the crypt of the main church.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Coffee was king in Alegría until Santa Ana took that title a number of years ago. You can still see some shade-grown coffee on the slopes at 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) around Alegría but many local farmers have shifted gears from beans to blooms and commercial flower production is the main cash cow in town these days. Or so we’ve been told.

While in Alegría we saw signs for nurseries (called viveros in Spanish), however we never actually saw any flowers growing.

Coffee mural - Alegria, El Salvador

A mural in Alegría, El Salvador depicting the town’s coffee-growing past. Signs of its flower-growing present were weirdly hard to come by.

 

Hiking to a hot, nuclear-green lake

A winding, climbing gravel road out of town leads to Alegría Lagoon inside the crater of Tecapa Volcano which is still active enough to keep the water hot and infuse enough sulphur and other minerals into it to turn the lagoon a color we like to call “nuclear-waste green.” Those feeling a lot of alegría may agree with people who call the eery lake “The Emerald of Central America.” Or not.

Alegria volcanic crater lake, El Salvador

The creepy color of Alegría Lagoon is caused by sulphur and other minerals. It does a good job of hiding any trace of the murderous mermaid who allegedly lives in the crater lake.

If the color doesn’t squash any thoughts of swimming in Alegría Lagoon, consider this: a persistent myth tells of a mermaid who lives in the lagoon where she lures men she likes. Once she’s done with them, she releases their lifeless bodies which float to the top.

Despite the toxic color and presence of a love monster, locals flock to the lake to picnic along the shores and collect mineral-rich mud which many believe is medicinal.

Alegria volcanic sulfer lake, El Salvador

Hot, mineral-filled water flows into Alegría Lagoon from Tecapa Volcano at this point.

It’s more-or-less a three mile (five kilometer) round trip hike from town including the pleasant loop trail around the lagoon itself. The lagoon is open from 8 am to 5 pm and a man at the gate charges US$0.25 per person to enter. There’s a small shop selling basic snacks and cold beer for US$0.75. A hostel near the entrance gate has a prime location and offers rooms for US$10 per person.

 Serious sticker shock

Alegría is a small town which doesn’t yet rank on most foreign tourists’ itineraries so we  expected to find budget-friendly prices from a handful of hostels and restaurants happy to see a few visitors. How wrong we were. A steady stream of local tourists provide enough demand to keep prices on the high side by El Salvadoran standards. Entre Piedras Hostal, for example, quoted us US$16 per person for a basic, clean room with a private bathroom, parking and WiFi. The pleasant, three-year-old place, which is right on the plaza, was nearly full.

That’s too rich for our blood so we walked around the tiny town looking for a more budget travel friendly option. We found it at Hostal Danielle (just off the square–ask anyone) where we paid US$10 per person for the same amenities.

If you manage to find a meal in Alegría for under US$5 let us know.

Volcano - Alegria, El Salvador

A volcano view along the road into Alegría, El Salvador.

 

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From Turtles to Trails – Barra de Santiago and El Imposible National Park, El Salvador

One of the (many) things we like about El Salvador is its easy-traveling combination of diversity and size. It’s got beaches, cities, volcanoeshot springs, coffee plantations and archaeological sites and the place is so tiny you can get a taste of it all in a single day if you want to. This is why it’s possible to be releasing turtles on the beach in the morning near Barra de Santiago and hiking the trails of El Imposible National Park by afternoon.

Turtles run the gauntlet in Barra de Santiago

There are few things as adorable–or doomed–as a baby turtle. Even in protected areas where locals no longer sell and eat the eggs and organizations carefully re-bury and protect every nest, their survival rate is the stuff of nightmares.

Release baby sea turtles - El Salvador

Few things are more adorable–or more doomed–than a baby turtle.

This lends a bitter-sweet quality to the baby turtle releasing process. It’s sweet because you get to briefly hold the excited, squirming hatchlings before putting them on the sand and watching instinct take over as you hope that each perfectly shrunken version a turtle will get the chance to grow into a massive version of itself.

Baby sea turtles - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

Baby turtles ready to hit the open ocean in Barra de Santiago, El Salvador.

Baby turtles - Cocotera, El Salvador

Releasing baby olive ridley turtles at La Cocotera Resort in El Salvador.

Baby sea turtles  El Salvador

Karen holding baby olive ridley turtles.

But as you watch the last straggler disappear under the sea foam where the water hits the shore you know that out of the 100 or so baby turtles in each nest few will live to see tomorrow, let alone adulthood.

Baby sea turtle - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

A baby olive ridley turtle moments before scrambling to the sea.

Baby Sea Turtle release

Hurry!

Releasing baby sea turtle - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

On its way to the waves.

baby sea turtles released in Ocean  - El Salvador

Home at last.

Turtle release - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

Eric shooting video of the baby turtles’ instinct-driven march to freedom.

Still, we never say no to the chance to take part in the release of baby turtles, like the olive ridleys we released while staying at La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge. The six room resort, which generously hosted us for two nights, is wedged between two bodies of water: The Pacific Ocean is on one side and a mangrove-lined lagoon is on the other. Turtles love the location too and nest here every year. Resort staff collect the newly-dropped eggs and re-bury them in a protected place on the resort grounds until they’re ready to hit the water.

Watch the baby turtles’ epic journey into the Pacific in our video, below.

 

Sunset - Barra de Santiago, El Salvador

Sunset on the beach in Barra de Santiago, El Salvador.

 

Cool nature and a cool name in El Imposible National Park

El Imposible National Park gets its super-cool name from the extreme and daunting gorge at its heart whose steep, rocky sides claimed the lives of farmers and livestock before the area was made a national park in 1989. However, you would be forgiven for thinking the inspiration for the park’s name came from the “road” which leads to it.

El Imposible National Park gorge - El Salvador

The imposing gorge which inspired the awesome name of El Imposible National Park in El Salvador.

Once you leave the pavement you’re faced with a rough, rocky, steep road that’s so bad in places that locals have actually set football size boulder into the dirt for traction.  We bumped over this brutality for more than an hour before we reached the spectacularly unmarked entrance to the park which covers nearly 15 square miles (38.20 square km) of threatened habitat which is home to exciting rarities like puma and king vultures. It is generally considered the most bio-diverse spot in El Salvador.

Parrots - El Salvador

Parrots in El Imposible National Park in El Salvador, one of the most bio-diverse areas of the country.

Most hikes in El Imposible aren’t impossible but they are steep, slippery, strenuous affairs. When we visited the park Eric was still recovering from his cracked ribs so we settled on a 1 mile (3 km) loop that would at least take us past two lookouts with views down into El Imposible canyon.

We’d already paid US$3 per person to enter the park and another fee to park our truck so when rangers told us it would be US$10 for the mandatory guide to accompany us on what amounted to a little stroll we weren’t having it. Increasingly heated Spanglish was exchanged back and forth and it was finally determined that the US$10 was merely a “suggested” fee and the guide would be happy to accept any tip we felt like giving.Fine. But why the game in the first place?

Still slightly miffed, we hit the trail. We’d completed the mostly-shaded, well-built trail in less than an hour and the final stretches of the loop back to the parking lot took us past some of the park’s three basic but spectacular camping areas. Camping area #1 even has covered tent sites. At US$1 per person per night, the camping in El Imposible is a bargain.

El Imposible National Park - El Salvador

It might be time for a new sign at El Imposible National Park in El Salvador.

 

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Brand New Brews on the Beach – El Tunco, El Salvador

Of the string of beach towns and villages along El Salvador’s Pacific, El Tunco, a long-time surf mecca, is the most developed. Now, beach development comes in two forms. Bad beach development includes roving Hawaiian Tropic Girls and fly-overs by planes pulling advertising banners for Axe body spray. Good beach development includes hand crafted beer sipped with sand between your toes as you watch the surfers do their epic thing. El Tunco just got the good kind of beach development with brand new brews on the beach.

Welcome to El Tunco surf beach, El Salvador

El Tunco, on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, has been a surf mecca for years and now it’s got micro brews as well as waves.

 

El Tunco, El Salvador sunset

Sunset surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Welcome to a brew revolution

Even before we tasted his beer we thought Andy Newbom was pretty cool. The former coffee importer and roaster (he owned Barefoot Coffee in California) moved to San Salvador with his wife and daughter after falling in love with El Salvador during coffee sourcing trips. But coffee isn’t the only thing Andy drinks. Oh no.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution, El Tunco, El Salvador - Brewing Beer

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy likes beer too and while El Salvador’s Pilsner or Suprema are (barely) passable, he wanted a better brew so he decided to make it himself. A section of the family’s backyard was turned into a beer making area and when we dropped by the house/craft brewery Andy was working on an experimental batch of beer spiked with dried hibiscus flowers. His helpers were three local guys whom he was hoping to turn into home brewers as well.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution Beer Tasting, El Tunco, El Salvador - Barefoot Coffee

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy calls it a Brew Revolution and since we first met him he’s taken his revolution to the people. In June of 2012 he opened a micro cerveceria on the beach in front of Hotel Mopelia in El Tunco. Here he offers six different beers at a time. Three of them are constant including Mercurio IPA, an El Slavador IPA with “all american citrus hops and salvadoran panela,”  Venus Wit, a Belgian tropical wheat beer with local passionfruit and pineapple and Nyx Black Ale, an American Black Pale Ale with a good amount of hops and coffee. Three seasonal beers rotate in and out.

Prices range from US$4 for a 333ml bottle or draft to US$5 for a 500ml bottle or draft. He’ll also be offering special barley wines for US$6 to US$7. Not bad for what certainly appears to be El Salvador’s first craft brew. But hopefully not its last!

If you’re interested in helping Brew Revolution get even bigger and better by the time you get your butt to El Salvador, consider supporting the brand new Brew Revolution Kickstarter Campaign.

Unfortunately, Brew Revolution wasn’t open when we were in El Tunco but we still managed to have a good time. Here are the nuts and bolts of budget travel in El Tunco.

EL Tunco Travel Tips

We weren’t originally headed to El Tunco at all. We had our hearts set on checking out the smaller fishing village of Playa Los Cóbanos but the hostal there, Kalindo, was full. Then we checked out the town of El Zonte and Playa Sunzal which both seemed best suited to surfers on a tight budget, plus none of the accommodations offered WiFi.

Surfer Crossing sign El Salvador

“Slow down surfers in the road.”

We must have looked at 90% of the guesthouses and hotels in El Tunco, many of which were priced beyond our budget. If we’d had a little more to spend (rooms start at US$40) we would have checked into the Hotel Eco del Mar with its chic style, large sleek rooms and little plunge pool. It’s not on the beach but it is appealing.

Instead, we spent our first night in El Tunco in Tortuga Surf Club where we got a decent airy room right on the beach with a shared bath and very, very clean pool for US$30. Still a splurge, but the sound of the pounding surf made up for it.

El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surf report, El Tunco style.

 

Best budget bed in El Tunco

The next morning we discovered the best bargain bed in El Tunco at a place called Papaya Lodge. Now, there are two places in El Tunco with the word papaya in the name. You want the place directly across the street from La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate.

This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms with shared bath. We chose the latter for US$14 a night. Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

El Tunco beach sunset, El Salvador

Another day ends in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Swimmers be advised

Like so many great surf beaches, the beach at El Tunco is not good for swimming because of strong rip currents. The beach is also rocky and covered in uninviting, hot, nearly black sand. Then again, you’ll be too busy enjoying a few craft brewed beers while watching the surfers do their thing to mind!

Surfing El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Surfing wipeout El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Sort of surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

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Beyond the Break – La Libertad, El Salvador

Our guidebook warned that “this isn’t an area you want to wander around past dark” and “the overall atmosphere is that of a grimy port town.” That all may have been true in the recent past, but today’s La Libertad offers a revitalized malecon (Spanish for seaside promenade), great cheap eats and even a new surfer-chic hotel.

We almost didn’t stop in La Libertad at all when we traveled from San Salvador to El Tunco. But an ISA World Masters Surf Championship had just been held there and we were curious to see what all the hang-ten hoopla was about.

Surfers are early adopters

In their almost maniacal search for the perfect wave surfers often pioneer awesome beach destinations. Surfers from all over the world have been coming to La Libertad since the 1970s to surf the famous right break at Punta Roca (Rock Point) at the far western end of Playa La Paz. We don’t surf but we take it on good authority that La Punta (as surfers call it) is one of the best right breaks in all of Central America. La Libertad is still on surfer’s bucket lists.

Surf Punta Roca La Libertad El Salvador

Evening beach soccer on the beach and surfers in the water in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Like many beaches that have great breaks, the beach near Punta Roca is not great for sunning or swimming. The sand is mostly strewn with melon-sized rocks and while surfers appreciate the powerful waves they’re too much for enjoyable (or safe) swimming.

But the “new” La Libertad offers something beyond the beach and beyond the break.

 

Investing in tourism

If you’ve got 15 seconds and an internet connection you can find legit travelers’ horror stories about robbery and even assault in La Libertad, mostly fueled by a local drug problem that’s still being battled. But in recent years the government has invested a lot to revitalize the city’s infrastructure, bring back business and take back the streets, waterfront and beaches.

Malecon Ice Cream La Libertad El Salvador

Sweet refreshment on the revitalized malecon in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

A main focus of these efforts is the malecon stretching right to Playa La Paz from an enormous pier. This area is now a paved, painted and pleasant place to stroll and relax. There are benches and vistas and landscaping and open-air restaurants and ice cream shops and families and couples from San Salvador (just 30 minutes away) taking full advantage of it all.

Malecon  La Libertad El Salvador

Looking back at the shops, restaurants and bars on the malecon in El Salvador from the town’s lively pier.

 

A fish market for photographers

The long, partly enclosed pier in La Libertad is a massive fish market with vendors packed in shoulder to shoulder selling fresh and dried fruits of the sea, all of which are unloaded and cleaned on the far end of the pier every morning. At the very end of the pier are two massive cranes which transport the long, wooden fishing boats from the pier into the water and vice versa because the surf is too rough for the boast to enter and exit the water from the beach.

Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Incredibly fresh offerings on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Langostin Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fresh lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling seafood market.

Crab Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Crabs for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

That’s one huge lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Dried Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

It’s not just fresh fish that’s for sale on the pier in La Libertad. Dried fish makes up a good portion of the goods on offer in this photogenic, open air market.

 

Returning boats register their catch with a local cooperative, then go about cleaning and selling it. We saw all kinds of fish large and small being prepped for market. Sadly, we also saw one fisherman with a haul of more than 10 baby hammerhead sharks.

Hammerhead sharks La Libertad El Salvador

We’re pretty sure it should be illegal to bring in these baby hammerhead sharks.

Boat winch La Libertad El Salvador

A boat being winched back onto the pier in La Liberad, El Salvador after a day of fishing.

Fish seller La Libertad El Salvador

He just caught ’em and now he’s selling them on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fresh Fish La Libertad El Salvador

Haggling over the price of fish on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fish cleaner La Libertad El Salvador

This guy made cleaning a fresh catch look easy.

Fishing Pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fishing boats on the pier in La Libertad.

Drying Fish  La Libertad El Salvador

High-tech fish drying methods in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

We spent hours each morning photographing the action and trying to stay out of the way as hauls were unloaded, boats were lifted up and down and fish were gutted and sold all around us. It was truly one of the most active, pleasant and photogenic fish markets we’ve visited.

Fish La Libertad El Salvador

It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Pier  La Libertad El Salvador

Cleaning a ray on the pier in La Libertad.

Smiling child La Libertad El Salvador

A smile at sunset in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

From cheap eats to city style

Some of the day’s catch ends up in the hands of La Libertad’s talented ceviche makers. For US$3 we got about a pound (half kilo) of absolutely fresh, sweet and delicious ceviche which we scarfed down on a bench on the maelcon.

Ceviche Baldizon La Libertad El Salvador

All the fresh fixin’s for great ceviche on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

If you want an actual restaurant, there are those too. Large, basic comedors with plastic chairs and blaring televisions are located to the left of the pier (away from Punta Roca). They’re nothing fancy but the fish is fresh (and displayed out front for your approval) and prices are low. Pick your place and enjoy ceviche or cooked dishes and ice-cold beer with the locals.

Ceviche La Libertad El Salvador

Lunch is served.

Ceviche Restaurants La Libertad El Salvador

Seafood restaurants rub shoulders in La Libertad.

Open-air restaurants with style, skilled waiters and higher prices are strung out to the right of the pier. This is where we found Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant which was recommended to us by Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours. Owned by chef Danilo Ortega, the place is tiny and bright with eager staff and great smells coming out of a kitchen the size of a closet. Danilo’s is famous for his powerful but refreshing Muñeco Sour (US$3), a twist on the Pisco Sour made with local Muñeco liquor (think of it as Salvadoran white lightning).

Muneco Sour Libertad El Salvador

The signature cocktail at Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant on the oceanfront boardwalk in La Libertad.

Chef Ortega, who ran a successful bar in San Salvador for years, operates his beach eatery like a city joint, offering things his city clientele look for like hard to find Bucanero Cuban beer, fresh sashimi (US$6), classically prepared fish and signature dishes like shrimp in bacon with bbq sauce and baby back ribs (US$16 for 1.5 pounds).

Sleep here

It’s true that most of the accommodations in La Libertad are still geared toward surfers, ie, they’re cheap above all else. However, a company called Adventure Sports Tours (AST) had opened a surprisingly stylish new option right on the malecon. La Terraza AST Surf Hotel  was designed, rather than slapped together, which you can see before you even walk through the door thanks to landscaping and a waterfall wall at the entrance. Inside, La Terraza features chic earth tones, big bathrooms, A/C, an open-air rooftop restaurant and bar (with surprisingly good food), hammocks and, of course, plenty of room to store your board.

 La Terraza AST Surf Hotel LA Libertad El Salvador

The surprisingly stylish La Terraza AST Surf Hotel in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Opened in 2011, La Terraza is clearly meant for surfers willing to spend a bit more for substantially more comfort and style and for non-surfers who appreciate the hotel’s million dollar view of Punta Roca. The hotel is built so close to the beach that the crashing waves literally reverberate through the building. And since La Libertad has also invested in enormous, powerful flood lights which illuminate Punta Roca at night the break is dramatically visible 24 hours a day.

Local tourism authorities told us the city has plans to add lifeguards, night surfing, extend the malecon even further, renovate and upgrade the comedors and attract more cultural events to the small amphitheater on the malecon.

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Worst Birthday EVER – Piedras Iman, El Salvador

Our El Salvador savior, Miguel Huezo from Suchitoto Tours, tipped us off to a fledgling rural tourism project in the town of Piedras Iman in the mountains about an hour from Metapan along a back route to La Palma. A local family has up-fitted a string of traditional buildings to create three cabañas with multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, electricity and kitchens. There’s also a gorgeous wooded camping area complete with tents on raised platforms, tables, running water and shared toilets and showers.

view from Piedra Iman, El Salvador

The view from the tiny mountain town of Piedras Iman in El Salvador is peaceful and relaxing and nearly impossible to appreciate with broken ribs.

Toss in a babbling brook, gorgeous vistas and complete country peace and it sounded like a beautiful place to celebrate Eric’s birthday with a tour of the place, a bit of horseback riding to a waterfall on the property then a home cooked lunch featuring Sopa de Gallina India, a traditional chicken soup dish that is beloved in El Salvador.

Anxious to get to the lunch part of the program we mounted up for a sight-seeing ride. The horses were clearly borrowed from a neighboring farm–more used to working with their owner than accommodating strangers.

sunset view from Piedra Iman, El Salvador

Not even fractured ribs can keep Eric from taking pictures.

We hadn’t gone more than a quarter of a mile when Eric’s knees started cramping up in the short stirrups and tiny saddle he was using. He took his feet out of the stirrups to stretch out the kinks and his horse got a glimpse of Eric’s feet in its peripheral vision.

Going rodeo

Spooked, the horse started spinning and bucking at the same time. It wasn’t exactly the Calgary Stampede, but it was a powerful performance with no sign of stopping and Eric ended up on the ground landing more or less full-force on his left shoulder and side. The horse, now even more worked up, ran off and Eric tried to get up, gasping for breath.

At first we thought the fall had simply knocked the wind out of him but 10 minutes later he still couldn’t inhale without severe pain and we knew he had at least fractured his ribs and we had no way of knowing if something more serious had also happened. Our hosts were horrified and somehow managed to organize a relay from town to get ice up to us. The pain eased a tiny bit (or Eric just got somewhat used to it) and we managed to get through lunch, which was delicious.

Then we were faced with a decision: Should we spend the night in one of the very enticing cabañas and see how Eric felt in the morning or should we drive out the rest of the dirt road to the town of La Palma.

Since we had no idea how seriously hurt Eric was we decided it was best to be in a town with access to a doctor if we needed one. Eric clearly couldn’t drive (hell, he could barely breathe) so Karen drove extremely slowly and carefully over the very rough road.

Every bump was excruciating for both of us (okay, maybe more for Eric)

We reached La Palma well after dark and spent a terrible, sleepless, painful night there. The next morning we drove into San Salvador and Miguel, our savior as always, took us to a radiology clinic where are fears were confirmed: two badly cracked ribs.

broken rib x-ray

Inside Eric! The square marks the fractures in two of his ribs.

Next, Miguel took us to an orthopedist who gave Eric a naturopathic injection and a cream, a prescription for a pain killer plus a series of electrotherapy treatments to speed healing. By the way, full x-rays cost US$35, the doctor’s consultation, injection and cream was US$40 and the electrotherapy sessions were US$15 each.

It took six weeks for the pain to eventually disappear, making this the worst birthday ever.

PS: the rural tourism project in Piedras Iman really was lovely as are the owners and, despite the horseback mishap, we were thoroughly charmed by the rustic, ranchy vibe. We highly recommend a visit to Piedras Iman so contact Miguel if you’re looking for a few relaxing, bucolic days well off the beaten path. Just don’t go horseback riding.

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Dinosaur Bones and Cow Udders – Above Metapán, El Salvador

Montecristo National Park, encompassing mountaintop terrain above  Metapán, is famous for the array of birds which live in the park or migrate through including the resplendent quetzal. It’s also one of those cool border-straddling parks and has its feet planted in El Salvador, Guatemala (where it’s called the Trifinio Biosphere Reserve) and Honduras (where it’s called Montecristo Trifinio National Park).

Sadly, the road into the park was closed for repairs when we were there. But we weren’t about to let a little thing like a park closure stop us from exploring the hills above Metapán. We didn’t see any quetzals, but there were dinosaur bones and cow udders to make up for it. You heard us.

Montecristo-El Trifinio National Park Limo Valley - Metapan, El Salvador

Looking up at the El Limo waterfall and the bird-filled Montecristo National Park high above Metapán in El Salvador. 

The road out of Metapán quickly deteriorated into a rutted, rocky dirt track and we were
very, very glad we’d accepted a ride from Oscar Cabrera Mira, whose family owns nearly 500 acres (more than 200 hectares) of private reserve called Parque Geoturístico El Limo land just outside the national park. Our truck would have had trouble negotiating around some of the tight corners. Also, driving up the road with Oscar gave him the chance to pull over and show us something we never, ever could have predicted.

Meet Mr. Dinosaur

About midway up the mountain Oscar stopped the truck, opened a rickety gate and stood staring expectantly at a high mud bank. We stared with him. Then he started pointing out shapes and damn if they didn’t look just like massive dinosaur bones–vertebrae, jaw bones and more suddenly popped out at us. We watch the Discovery Channel. We’ve seen footage of digs. We were impressed.

Dinosaur teeth fossil - El Limo - Metapan, El Salvador

Are these dinosaur teeth buried in the hills above Metapán? One man sure thinks so…

El Limo - Metapan, El Salvador

Oscar, aka Mr. Dinosaur, made this playful sign marking the trail to the El Limo waterfall on his family’s property near the Montecristo National Park.

Oscar Cabrera Mira El Limo fossil museum - Metapan, El Salvador

Oscar, aka Mr. Dinosaur, outside the rustic museum which houses his fossilized finds from the hills above Metapán, El Salvador.

Leaf fossil - El Limo - Metapan, El Salvador

A fossilized leaf on display in the small museum Oscar has filled with his finds.

We were even more impressed when we reached Oscar’s family’s mountain house and he took us out back to see his museum. Turns out, the bones in the mud bank are just the tip of the ice age iceberg. Here in a small shed Oscar, a trained engineer who has taught himself about dinosaurs and fossils in general, has amassed ammonites, fossilized leaves, big pieces of compressed earth full of what looked like more bones and teeth.

If you’re a student or professor of paleontology please send a scholarly delegation up the hill so Oscar can finally get some expert opinions about his finds. You can reach Oscar at oscarmira2 (at) yahoo (dot) com. Trust us when we tell you that he’d be delighted to hear from you and ecstatic to show you what he’s dug up.

El Limo dinosaur sculpture

Artifact-inspired art outside Oscar’s museum.

Oscar was also anxious to show us some of the area’s more expected attractions, including the spectacular El Limo waterfall which we reached via a steep, windy trail up that followed a deep gorge in the hills. The multi-tiered waterfall was very dramatic but Oscar still spent most of the walk looking at the ground for more treasures to put in his museum.

El Limo waterfall - Metapan, El Salvador

A pretty trail leads up to El Limo waterfall, just south of Montecristo National Park in the hills above Metapán, El Salvador.

El Limo waterfall - Metapan, El Salvador

El Limo waterfall above Metapán, El Salvador.

El Limo waterfall - Metapan, El Salvador

On the trail to El Limo waterfall above Metapán, El Salvador.

Clear wing butterfly El Salvador

The jungle near El Limo waterfall was full of these nearly entirely see-through butterflies.

 

Just eat it

About 15 minutes back down the road lies Hostal Villa Limon. One evening we stopped by to tour their four wood, brick and stone cabanas with multiple bedrooms, fireplaces, full kitchens and patios and decks with awesome views (US$40 to US$55). There’s also a pool on site and a zipline course (US$15 pp) with eight different lines traversing the steep hillsides and gorges in the area. One of the lines is a quarter of a mile (430 meters) long and rises to more than 300 feet (90 meters) above the ground.

By the time we were introduced to Sigfredo Salazar Torres, the fabulously-named general manager of Hostal Villa Limon, it was too dark to try the zipline. Besides, Sigfredo and some friends and family were having a BBQ party and he graciously invited us to stay. Even though it was getting dark and we had to drive back up that dreadful road in order to return to our room at Oscar’s house we would have been fools to say no.

 Hostal Villa Limon tortillas hecho a mano

Tortilla being made by hand in preparation for a party and feast we somehow got ourselves invited to at Hostal Villa Limon above Metapán.

And so we found ourselves with glasses of whiskey and plates of perfectly grilled meat. The conversation got going (in English and in Spanish) and then a very special plate came out. It took a few explanations before we understood (we think) that we were being offered grilled cow udder. By the eager looks on everyone else’s faces we understood that this was a delicacy and quickly put a small piece on our plates. The rest was devoured almost immediately.

BBQ  Hostal Villa Limon Metapan, El Salvador

I’ts not a party without grilled meat–and a bit of mystery meat we ate for the very first time.

It actually wasn’t bad–it looked, felt and tasted like funky foie gras. And now we have a pretty good answer to give when someone wants to know what the strangest thing we’ve ever eaten is.

Sunset from Hostal Villa Limon Metapan, El Salvador

Sunset from Hostal Villa Limon with the volcanoes of Guatemala in the distance.

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