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Cruising into a Town Worth Your Time – Metapán, El Salvador

It’s the little things that can make a trip. Like cruise control. Since leaving the bitumen bliss of US and Canadian highways behind back in 2008 we’ve been rumbling, bumping and pot-hole surfing our way south over roads that often put the GM test track to shame (and we’ve driven the GM test track so we know what we’re talking about). However, throughout  El Salvador we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the comparatively good condition of most of the roads we’ve traveled down but we were still stunned by the heavenly smoothness of the new Northern Highway to Metapán, a nearly US$300 million project which was funded in part by the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This stretch of road is so good that Salvadorans recently held a skateboarding competition on it. We used our cruise control for the first time in years on this highway as we rolled smoothly into Metapán. It was nice to know it still works.

Metapán is the birthplace of Isidro Menéndez, a key figure in El Salvador’s independence movement and sometimes credited with drafting the country’s first constitution. This helps explain why El Salvador’s Constitution Square is in Metapán, not San Salvador.

Flags of Central America, Constitution Square - Metapan, El Salvador

The flags of five Central American countries fly in Constitution Square in Metapán, El Salvador.

Gun barrel fence in front of Metapan, El Salvador Municipalidad

Yes, the outside of Metapán’s city hall looks a bit like a casino. The fence around that big cat is made from defunct gun barrels by the way.

 

Chemistry is cool

These days Metapán is known more for its lucrative deposits of limestone than homegrown revolutionaries, which explains why the town’s nickname is “the white city.” Some full-size factories have set up shop in Metapán where they process limestone rocks into quicklime (mostly for use in concrete) on a grand scale. However, there are still about 30 lime kilns around Metapán which cook rocks down to this fine, white powder the old-fashioned way. And when we say “old-fashioned” we mean practically prehistoric.

Lime kiln - Metapan, El Salvador

Firing up one of about 30 traditional lime kilns around Metapán in El Salvador where limestone rocks are cooked down to quicklime powder the (very) old-fashioned way.

Los Caleros - Metapan, El Salvador

A calero, or traditional lime kiln worker, in Metapán, El Salvador.

Called las caleras, these kilns are constructed by workers called caleros who meticulously stack quarried limestone into an igloo shape. The stones must fit tightly and the finished igloos are gorgeous–like something sculptor Andy Goldsworthy might make and every bit as temporary. Next, a massive amount of wood is stacked inside the igloo and then it’s lit on fire. Over the next 12 days the fire reaches epic temperatures and cooks the rocks until they quite literally change form–going from dark to pure white.

cooking limestone making quicklime for cement - Metapan, El Salvador

A fired and steaming traditional lime kiln smokes in the sunset near Metapán, El Salvador.

Lime kiln fire - Metapan, El Salvador

Wood fires are stoked to incredible temperatures as limestone rocks are turned into limestone powder in traditional kilns which are still used in Metapán, El Salvador.

Take a look inside the fiery, ancient world of a traditional lime kiln in our video from Metapán, below.

 

It takes three days to cool the rocks to a temperature at which they can be handled. At
that point water is poured on them causing a chemical reaction marked by bubbling,
cracking and fizzing until the rock turns into white lime powder (called quicklime) right before your very
eyes.

Watch this amazing process in our video of the transformation from limestone rock to quicklime powder, below. If you don’t think chemistry is cool after you watch this then there’s no hope for you.

 

Time to cool off with some river rafting

An adventure of a different kind takes place on the nearby Guajoyo River where Raul Sanabria has created an aquatic park called Apuzunga where you can cool off in naturally fed swimming pools (US$3 per adult), zip line (US$10 per person), camp and go rafting with some of the best equipment and most professional river guides we’ve seen in Central America (US$40 per person and each raft always has three guides).

whitewater river rafting Apuzunga - Metapan, El Salvador

Heading out for a white water adventure on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River - Metapan, El Salvador

A raging section of the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River Apuzunga  - Metapan, El Salvador

Rafting guides paddling out on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

Raul also has a tilapia farm which supplies the freshest of fish to his open air restaurant and bar overlooking the river. Our post-rafting lunch was huge and delicious. Followed by cold beer and a nap in a hammock, it’s a perfect day.

 

The prince of pupusas

Forty years ago a teenaged Amadeo Gonzalez fled Metapán to escape the vicious civil war in El Salvador leaving behind a coveted spot on the national soccer team—a team that went all the way to the World Cup the following year during which the so-called “Soccer War” with Honduras began (though people in both countries are quick to point out that this short but passionate altercation was caused by much more than a soccer match).

By that time Amadeo was in San Francisco working at the Levi’s factory (back when the iconic American jeans were still made in the USA). An invitation to play soccer with a local team in SF turned into a paying gig which allowed Amadeo to quit the factory job he hated and eventually open a restaurant.

Twenty five years ago Amadeo opened Balompie Café in the Mission district long before gentrification made this neighborhood safe and stylish (balompie is a combination of the Spanish words for “ball” and “foot” which used to be used instead of “futbol”). It’s still there and about to be re-located around the corner to chic new digs designed by Amadeo.

A second Balompie restaurant followed, this time in Amadeo’s hometown of Metapán. Then Amadeo opened a second Balompie in San Francisco, solidifying his standing as the source for Salvadoran favorites to a growing Latin population in the city who craved dishes like yucca and chicharron and the most iconic Salvadorean dish of all: the pupusa. This gooey, rich, steaming disc of grilled massa (rice or corn) is traditionally filled with beans, cheese and chicharron, though Amadeo has expanded the offerings to include ingredients like basil and mozzarella.

 Amadeo Gonzalez Balompie - Metapan, El Salvador

Amadeo Gonzalez: Metapán native, soccer lover, owner of Balompie Cafe and the Prince of Pupusas.

The pupusas at Balompie have been voted Best Pupusa by SF Weekly and 7X7 magazine (which put a luscious picture of a plateful of Amadeo’s pupusas on their food issue cover).
Balompie has also been named one of the top 100 Budget Bites by the San Francisco
Chronicle.

We haven’t been to Amadeo’s SF restaurants but we have eaten at Balompie in Metapán with Amadeo and his wife Evelyn and their gregarious son Ama and we can tell you that it’s impossible to beat the open air balcony with views of Constitution Park and the San
Pedro church which some say is the most beautiful colonial church in El Salvador. The food was delicious and Amadeo’s very personal wall of soccer memorabilia and the fact that the back of his restaurant opens up right into the soccer stadium make Balompie a very smart upscale sports bar too.

 

TIP

Odds are your guide book will recommend that you stay at either Hotel San Jose, Hotel Cristina or (God forbid) the trucker-filled Hotel California while in Metapán. That’s because they don’t know about Hostal de Metapán. Opened in June of 2011, owners Rafael and Estrella have created a spotless, centrally located newcomer with eight rooms including private double rooms with A/C, WiFi, parking, bathroom, free coffee and daily breakfast for US$20. Contact Rafael directly at rafael.imortaga@hotmail (dot) com or call + 503 2402 2382.

We liked Metapán so much that we’re doing two posts about it. Check out our adventures
with an amateur paleontologist, a closed national park and fried cow udders in our next post from Around Metapán.

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The Pompei of The Americas? – Joya de Ceren & Tazumal Archaeological Sites, El Salvador

Ever notice how grand the descriptions get after a destination or attraction achieves UNESCO World Heritage status? In the case of the Joya de Ceren archaeological site that description is “The Pompei of The Americas.”

Joya de Cerren ruins, El Salvador

Preserved details, like these homes, are just part of the reason they call the Joya de Ceren archaeological size in El Salvador “the Pompei of The Americas.”

Joya de Cerren ruins buried under volcanic ash, El Salvador

Preserved details, like these homes, are just part of the reason they call the Joya de Ceren archaeological size in El Salvador “the Pompei of The Americas.”

Like Pompei, the small city here was buried under 20 feet (6 meters) of ash in AD 529 and residents left behind a treasure trove of everyday items. However, the citizens here had enough time to escape and no human remains were found at Joya de Ceren so it lacks that creepy feeling of witnessing the final moments of life which you get when you visit Pompei.

Joya de Cerren Mayan ruins, El Salvador - UNESCO World heritage Site

The Joya de Ceren archaeological site in El Salvador offers a unique chance to see how average citizens lived since their homes were preserved under volcanic ash.

 

Discovered by accident in 1979 and made a UNESCO site in 1993, many of the household and farming items unearthed here are now on display in the interesting on-site museum and they’re a welcome change from the usual pottery shards.

Joya de Cerren ruins, El Salvador - UNESCO World heritage Site

At Joya de Ceren archaeological site in El Salvador we got an interesting glimpse of how common people lived since their mud and twig dwelling were preserved under volcanic ash.

Of the nearly 100 archaeological sites we’ve visited on the Trans-Americas Journey, Joya de Ceren is the only one that offered a glimpse of how the normal people lived. At most archaeological sites only the royal dwellings and temples remain since they were made of stone. But because Joya de Ceren was preserved under ash, even the mud and twig dwellings of the citizenry remain.

 

Quit it with the concrete

Experts believe the Tazumal archaeological site, which is part of a large group of ancient cities most of which remain unexcavated, was a major trading center. It may have been inhabited for more than 3,000 years though not everyone flourished. The site’s names means “the pyramid where the victims were burned” in the Quiche Maya language.

Tazumal ruins, El Salvador

A temple at the Tazumal archaeological site in El Salvador.

Tazumal is a pleasant, compact site but it was hard for us to get past the concrete which early excavators spread over sections of the structures to protect them and mimic what the buildings might have looked like when they was plastered over and in good condition.They ended up making the remains look like a third grade art project. Despite rumors that the concrete was going to be removed in 2009 it was all still there when we visited.

Tazumal ruins pyramid, El Salvador

Early excavators were a bit heavy-handed with the concrete in an attempt to preserve the underlying structure and simulate what the building would have looked like covered in stucco when the Mayans flourished at Tazumal.

Tazumal Mayan ruins, El Salvador

Tazumal archaeological site in El Salvador.

 

There are lots of small restaurants across the street from the entrance to Tazumal which sell delicious yucca y chicharon (boiled yucca, pickled vegetable and crispy/meaty pork served on a banana leaf), so come hungry. It’s a great place to try this Salvadoran dish.

Yucca y Chicharon, El Salvador

Delicious yucca and chicharon from a small restaurant near Tazumal archaeological site in El Salvador.

Know before you go

When we were in the area the nearby Casa Blanca archaeological site was closed for renovations and when we arrived at the San Andres archaeological site its museum, the main reason to visit, was closed for renovations as well though they were still charging the full admission price. Check on opening status before you travel there or pay to enter.

Sheep grazing around San Andres ruins, El Salvador

One of only a handful of structures that have been excavated at San Andres archaeological site in El Salvador. Make sure the supposedly excellent on-site museum is open before you plan a visit.

Pyramid at San Andres ruins, El Salvador

A pyramid at San Andres archaeological site in El Salvador.

San Andres Mayan ruins, El Salvador

Only a handful of structures have been excavated at San Andres archaeological site in El Salvador.

 

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We’re Welcome (and you will be too) – Ahuachapán, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

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.

Bruno mural Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Artists Leo and Fabio Bruno created their distincitively whimsical mural style in Ahuachapán, El Salvador.

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.

street sign - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

The Bruno brothers have even painted some of the street signs in Ahuachapán, El Salvador.

Nuestra Senora de Ascuncion church - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Nuestra Senora de Asunción church anchors the center of Ahuachapán, El Salvador.

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.

Casa de Mamapan hotel - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

The owner of La Casa de Mamapan hotel in Ahuachapán, El Salvador commissioned local brothers to paint this wall of the business–and a style was born.

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.

Yucca y Chicharon vendor mural - Ahuachapn, El Salvador

The Bruno brothers’ version of the women in Ahuachapán who sell delicious yucca and chicharon on the street.

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.

Yuca y Chicharon

Delicious yucca and chicharron.

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.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador cemetary angel

Ahuachapán’s cemetery gets even more photogenic at dusk.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador cemetary angel

Ahuachapán’s cemetery gets even more photogenic at dusk.

 

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.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador Geo-thermal energy plant

Ahuachapán is a geothermal hot bed and we went hunting for therapeutic, mineral-rich mud not far from a huge geothermal energy plant (in the background).

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.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador Geo-thermal mud pit

Boiling mud pits mark areas in Ahuachapán where the geothermal activity is literally bubbling to the surface.

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.

Santa Teresa Hot Springs - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

One of the beautiful, roomy, natural hot-spring fed pools at Santa Teresa Hot Springs.

termales Santa Teresa Hot Springs - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

One of the beautiful, roomy, natural hot-spring fed pools at Santa Teresa Hot Springs.

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.

termales Santa Teresa Hot Springs at night - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

One of the beautiful, roomy, natural hot-spring fed pools at Santa Teresa Hot Springs.

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.

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Food for the Body, Food for the Soul – Juayúa, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

Sunday is fun day in Juayúa (pronounced why-YOU-ah) along El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores and it’s got nothing to do with church. Every Sunday the streets around the main plaza in the center of town are closed to traffic and become packed with vendors selling all manner of tasty treats.

Juauyua, El Salvador with Santa Ana volcano, Itzalco volcano and Apaneca volcano

The town of Juayúa in the valley with Apaneca, Santa Ana and Itzalco volcanoes (left to right) in the distance.

 

Food for the body

Local residents, weekenders from San Salvador and travelers pack together to wander past the offerings at this well-known Gastronomic Fair (Feria Gastronomica)  where everything from paella to grilled meat to shrimp on skewers to freshly baked cakes are available. Ask the right person and you can still get iguana along with even more exotic (and illegal) foods.

Town Plaza fountain Juayua, El Salvador

The main plaza in the town of Juayúa on El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores. A famous food fair happens here every Sunday.

Juayua, El Salvador - Ruta de las Flores

Volcano views from a rooftop in downtown Juayúa along El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores.

In Juayúa we stayed at Casa Mazeta Hostal where we got a private room (US$20 double) with a shared bathroom, use of a big kitchen, WiFi, parking and a lovely back garden. One afternoon we headed out from the hostel and walked to Chorros de la Calera, a rocky gorge with a waterfall that spills out of a rock wall and a swimming hole.

Sadly, the mile or so walk to the swimming area wanders along an increasingly bad dirt road increasingly strewn with garbage and lined with open drainage from the shacks along the way. The walk was not pleasant.

Chorros de la Calera waterfall - Juayua, El Salvador

It’s worth enduring the litter-strewn trail to get to Chorros de la Calera waterfall near Juayúa, El Salvador.

Eventually the dirt road dead ended at a fence where we ignored the Private Property sign and continued through a gate. This property is owned by a hydroelectric company but Chorros de la Calera has become public property. Chorros de la Calera is essentially a wall of stone which is perfectly dry at the top but sheathed in water from about midway down thanks to springs that erupt right out of the rock.It’s the waterwall which man-made versions in hotel lobbies and expensive spas aspire to be.

A concrete retaining wall has been built below the cascade to create a deep, inviting swimming area. A creepy tunnel diverts water out one side of the pool then down to the power plant below.

Chorros de la Calera waterfall - Juayua, El Salvador

A Salvadoran cools off in the Chorros de la Calera waterfall near Juayúa, El Salvador.

 

Food for the soul

Believe it or not we managed to spend a year and a half in Mexico without ever catching a Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebration. And we still haven’t seen a proper Day of the Dead blow out. However, we did catch All Souls’ Day in El Salvador. This holiday falls on November 2, the day after Day of the Dead, and also celebrates the memory of lost loved ones with a distinctly party-like atmosphere.

Colorful cemetery Juayua, El Salvador - All Souls Day (not Dia de los Muertos) Ruta de las Flores

The cemetery in Juayúa, El Salvador all decked out for All Souls’ Day.

Family visiting the cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

A family visits the grave of a loved one during colorful and festive All Souls’ Day celebrations in Juayúa, El Salvador.

In Juayúa the normally quiet small, wooded cemetery had been freshly painted and decorated with flowers and confetti in every color under the sun. Families had set up chairs, brought containers of food  and established a festive air at the graveside of their dearly departed. Candy cane vendors wandered between gravestones. A mariachi band provided the tunes.

The dead were being remembered in an appropriately festive spirit. Then it started to pour.

Mariachis in the cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

It’s not an All Souls’ Day celebration until the mariachi band shows up.

Cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

The cemetery in Juayúa, El Salvador all decked out for All Souls’ Day.

Cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

The cemetery in Juayúa, El Salvador all decked out for All Souls’ Day.

Check out some All Souls’ Day cemetery celebrations in Juayúa, El Salvador in our video, below.

 

The town of Nauizalco, about a 20 minute drive from Juayúa, has a night market at which, we were told, we could find delicious rabbit tacos. We have to say we were a bit disappointed, however. No rabbit tacos in sight and it turns out that a night market is pretty much the same as a day market, only darker.

Coffee on hillside in Apaneca, El Salvador - Ruta de las Flores

The intricate landscaping in this coffee plantation is meant to act as a wind break for the maturing coffee beans.

El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores is famous for towns like Juayúa and for the coffee plantations and volcanoes that surround you every step of the way. Near the town of Apaneca, the crater of a dormant volcano has filled with water creating picturesque Laguna Verde.

Laguna verde (volcanic crater lake) near Apaneca, El Salvador - Ruta de las Flores

Laguna Verde, a volcanic crater lake near Apaneca along the Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador.

 

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Trouble Brewing – Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

We love coffee (technically speaking, Karen needs coffee). Prior to traveling to the town of Ataco (aka Concepción de Ataco), part of the lush, mountainous Ruta de las Floras (Route of the Flowers) circuit in northern El Salvador, we didn’t fully understand coffee’s deep, dark role in this country’s history. Turns out, trouble was brewing in coffee growing regions like Ataco long before the official start of El Salvador’s civil war.

Coffee sacks - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

World class coffee grown in the Ruta de las Flores area of El Salvador, bagged up and ready for shipping.

 

Soldiers in your cup (sung to the tune of that classic Folger’s coffee jingle)

After the invention of synthetic dyes in the late 1800s, El Salvador’s wealthy indigo farmers scrambled to find another cash crop. They settled on coffee. And they did well.

The success of coffee cultivation in El Salvador created an even greater divide between the very rich and the very poor and in January of 1932 economic and social tensions reached the breaking point. Augustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist Party, led an uprising of peasants and indigenous people who El Salvador’s military quickly squashed by methodically killing an estimated 30,000 people. Anyone who supported the campesinos and anyone who looked or sounded indigenous was doomed. To this day, indigenous groups in El Salvador tend to shun their traditional clothing, preferring to blend in by wearing jeans.

This terrible time is known as The Massacre (La Matanza) and some consider it the actual start of El Salvador’s civil war which didn’t “officially” begin until 1980. Before La Matanza was through, Martí was shot by a firing squad but he remains a revered and martyred figure to many and is memorialized in the name of the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional) which is currently the ruling party in El Salvador.

Arty little town

There is no obvious physical legacy of all that trouble in the sleepy town of Ataco along the 23 mile (36 kilometer) stretch of scenic road dubbed the Ruta de las Flores after the blooms which explode here, particularly between October and February. The coffee plants sprout a blanket of fragrant, white blooms starting in May.

Coffee mural - Ataco, El Salvador

Good morning! Coffee beans and streaming sunshine in the distinctive painting style that covers much of Ataco.

Mural Ataco, El Salvador

Just one example of the vibrant, cheerful painting style that covers many of the walls in Ataco.

These days Ataco seems more intent on retaining its easy-going ways, cautiously welcoming travelers and fostering the distinctive local style of art than rising up against the coffee finca owners.

Some of the world’s best coffee is grown in El Salvador and some coffee plantation and processing plant owners are branching out into tourism too.

We now return to our innocent love of coffee

Brewing coffee - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Coffee made the traditional way by dripping through a simple cloth sack into a handmade pottery jar.

While in Ataco we stayed at Quinta El Carmen Coffee Resort. Owned by the Alfaro family for more than four generations, this sprawling property is part coffee farm, part homey hotel, part coffee processing facility and part adventure activity center.

Hotel first. We stayed in the original “quinta” portion of the property which is an airy, almost ranch-style building with four guest rooms, a large sitting area, wide porch and full kitchen where breakfast is prepared every morning.

The family’s separate, personal residence has also recently been opened to guests as La Casona. Five rooms of varying shapes and sizes have had modern bathrooms added but are still furnished with the family’s antiques. Hallways are lined with family photos, some dating back many decades. It’s a living museum inside an elegant homestay.

Coffee drying patios - Finca EL Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

At the El Carmen coffee beneficio coffee beans are dried in the sun on special patios or in enormous mechanized dryers.

Coffee drying - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

At the El Carmen coffee beneficio coffee beans are dried in the sun on special patios or in enormous mechanized dryers.

Both sets of accommodations are more than 100 years old and are located right next to the massive El Carmen coffee processing facility (beneficio) where two hour guided tours are offered (US$5). Opened in 1930, this is one of the oldest coffee beneficios in El Salvador and a tour here is a great way to understand the steps it takes to go from field to cup. A highlight is the massive, decades-old machinery that’s still going strong processing around 5,000 tons (4,545 metric tons) of fresh coffee beans, called cherries, every year.

Coffee Roaster - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Some of the massive machinery inside the El Carmen coffee beneficio dates back to 1930 when the processing facility opened. This practically antique roasting machine is still going strong.

Coffee depulperr - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

Simple but massive tools for de-pulping fresh coffee beans which are called cherries.

Industrial coffee grinder - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

They don’t make machines like this industrial coffee grinder any more.

El Carmen, which was named after the only daughter in the original patriarch’s family, processes coffee for the giant Illy corporation, among many others, and they pride themselves on their ability to track every customer’s specific coffee from start to finish to ensure consistent quality. Illy even has its own storage area at the beneficio to further ensure that its coffee doesn’t get mixed up with anyone else’s.

Coffee tasting - Finca El Carmen, Ataco, El Salvador

All set up for a “cupping” session during you learn the basics of how to appreciate the taste and aroma of coffee like a professional.

Turns out, watching coffee dry is actually pretty interesting. Check out our (sped up) footage of workers raking and aerating green coffee beans at the El Carmen beneficio in Ataco.

 

Amped up on adrenaline

If it’s adrenaline, not caffeine, you’re after Quinta El Carmen has you covered as well with a zipline and ropes course, ATV tours and horseback rides on El Carmen’s Peruvian paso horses.  We took the horses out for a meander through El Carmen’s coffee-covered hillsides and some of the surrounding mountain roads. It was the first time we’d ridden the breed, known for its clipped, yet steady gait. The horses’ legs prance furiously while everything from their shoulders up remains still. This unique gait was really comfortable in an unnatural kind of a way.

Horeseback riding - Ataco, El Salvador - Finca El Carmen

Touring Ataco on Peruvian paso horses, available for hire through Quinta El Carmen.

Next, we hopped on ATVs and roared up and down dirt roads that criss-cross El Carmen’s hilly, forested property. Okay, one of us roared and the other drove cautiously observing all reasonable safety measures.

Remember MTV videos in the 1980s? You get a similarly herky jerky effect when you use a GoPro to shoot footage while you drive around a coffee finca on an ATV. Unless you’re epileptic, check out our video of our ATV tour of El Carmen in Ataco.

 

Cascadas Don Juan waterfall - Ruta de las flores

Las Casacadas Don Juan, one of the most accessible waterfalls in El Salvador.

Also along the Ruta de las Flores is the 115 foot (35 meter) Don Juan Waterfalls (Las Cascadas Don Juan). Not only does this waterfall have a killer name, it’s also one El Salvador’s most accessible.

Look for a sign and parking area where you pay a US$1 entry fee. Then walk up and across the road to the head of a very short trail which leads directly to the base of the two-tiered falls. A perfectly swimmable natural pool is your reward.

 

 

 

 

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Scaling a Volcano & Hanging with a Soccer Star – Santa Ana, El Salvador

Our journey of pleasant surprises in El Salvador continued when we traveled west from San Salvador to scale a (shockingly easy) volcano and hang out with a soccer star. Would we lie to you?

Izalco Volcano_El Salvador

Izalco Volcano in El Salvador seen from the entrance to Los Volcanoes National Park, aka Cerro Verde National Park.

 

Taking the easy route

Here’s the thing. Volcanoes are dramatic and beautiful but they’re usually a real pain to climb because they have steep, scree-covered slopes devoid of shade-giving trees. Imagine our delight when the climb up 7,800 foot (2,380 meter) Santa Ana Volcano, the highest volcano in El Salvador, turned out to be such a walk in the park–literally and figuratively.

Izalco Volcano from Santa Ana Volcano_El Salvador

Izalco Volcano seen from the trail up Santa Ana Volcano.

Santa Ana Volcano is part of Volcanoes National Park (Parque Nacional Los Volcanes) which is also known as Cerrro Verde National Park (Parque Nacional Cerro Verde). Whatever you call it, the park is home to three volcanoes: Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde. There’s a campground and a short nature trail near the park entrance and this is also where you arrange your hike up either Santa Ana Volcano or Izalco Volcano.

Robberies on the trails and the fact that Santa Ana Volcano erupted as recently as 2005 mean that the park requires all hikers to take a guide and a police escort. In 2010 hikers who went up alone and were robbed of everything including their clothes. With that in mind, Eric and I headed up Santa Ana Volcano with a local guide (US$8) and two uniformed policemen. It was practically an expedition. Guided hikes depart at 11 am sharp so time your arrival accordingly.

Green crater lake inside Santa Ana Volcano - El Salvador

The water in this lake, which formed in the crater of the Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador, is more than 200 degrees fahrenheit.

Why did we choose to hike up Santa Ana and not Izalco? Three very good reasons:

1. Izalco is the iconic, conical volcano and the best vantage point for photos of its beauty is from Santa Ana Volcano.

2. There’s a gorgeous crater lake on the top of Santa Ana.

3. The hike up Santa Ana is far easier than the hike up Izalco which is requires a serious slog up its steep, scree-covered, treeless flanks. You also have to descend into an adjacent valley and a climb up out of that valley just to reach the base of the volcano.

Agave on the flanks of Santa Ana Volcano with Itzalco Volcano, El Salvador

Izalco Volcano seen from the agave-studded flanks of Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador.

The trail up Santa Ana passed through ample sections of shade, was never too steep and never too slippery. The only heart-pumping moment came when we heard a sudden buzzing noise which got louder and louder until our guide motioned for us all to crouch down on the ground. A swarm of bees was approaching and hitting the deck is, apparently, your best defense. The bees (Africanized) passed us by but we spent the rest of the hike on high alert for buzzing.

Police escort hike Santa Ana Volcano Itzalco, El Salvador

Two cops (with big guns) and a guide escorted us up Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador. We all hit the deck when the Africanized bees showed up.

Once at the top we enjoyed what we’d come for: getting great shots of nearby Izalco Volcano and peering down into the eerily green sulphurous lake that’s formed inside the Santa Ana crater. Our guide told us the water is 212 degrees fahrenheit (100 celsius) and we could see bubbling water and steam vents.

Panorama from the top of Santa Ana Volcano with green crater lake and Lake Coatepeque

Panorama from the top of Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador with Lake Coatepeque in the distance on the right.

Lake Coatepeque Santa Ana volcano - El Salvador

Lake Coatepeque with Santa Ana Volcano, the highest volcano in El Salvador, looming large in the background.

 

Cabin with a volcano view

As if we hadn’t gotten enough of an eyeful of Izalco, we spent the night at Casa Cristal (sometimes also referred to as Las Brumas after the farm the cabins are located on), which offers 12 extremely small and basic wooden cabins that go for $14 per person which is pretty hefty for such basic digs and such a dirty shared bathroom (something we’ve been told has since been addressed).

Casa Cristal Cabins and Santa Ana volcano

These tiny cabins at Casa Cristal have huge views of Izalco Volcano.

Four new and very nice two-bedroom cabins are better value for larger groups. They’re well-built and have private modern bathrooms, a living room, ample porch, TV and kitchens which go for $60 for up to four people.

You don’t spend the night at Casa Cristal for the accommodation. You come here for the view. Casa  Cristal is built on a small rise disconcertingly close to Izalco.  At certain points on the property (notably from cabin #1 and cabin #3) the volcano feels like it’s in your front yard. Spectacular.

View of Izalco Volcano from casa Cristal - El Salvador

Izalco Volcano in El Salvador as seen from the Casa Cristal.

Casa Cristal is a community tourism project and it’s part of a group called Eco Experiencias. While we were in San Salvador we met the passionate and innovative Rodrigo Moreno who started Eco Experiencias five years ago when he was only 20 using funds from USAID. Rodrigo is dedicated not just to building his own successful eco tourism business in El Salvador and across Central America but to supporting tourism businesses which benefit local communities.

Local tourism projects pay Eco Experiencias US$10, a nominal sum meant merely to make it clear that the Eco Experiencias is not a charity or an NGO. Rodrigo then offers management and promotional assistance. But Eco Experiencias is not a booking agent. All bookings and all profits go directly to the local community tourism projects he fosters, including Casa Cristal.

Be sure to call ahead to reserve a cabin at Casa Cristal (+ 2483 4679) and tell them if you want to eat any meals in the on-site restaurant so they can be ready for you (around US$2.50 per meal for basic fare). Oh, and when we were at Casa Cristal rates were per 24 hour period. For example, if you check in at 7 am you have to be gone by 7 am the next day.

Sunset over the Pacific from Santa Ana Izalco volcano El Salvador

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean, taken from the restaurant at Casa Cristal in El Salvador.

 

Stars of Santa Ana town

Okay, so nearby Santa Ana town wasn’t exactly “overwhelmingly” colonial as our Lonely Planet guidebook effused, but we did find some outstanding basics that made our time in town enjoyable.

Santa Ana Cathedral, El Salvador

The Santa Ana Cathedral in El Salvador.

With a name like Sin Rival (without rival) and a history that goes back 50 years to the days when these treats were sold off a cart on the street, you know the all-natural ice cream at this place is going to be good. And it was. You’ll find Sin Rival stores scattered around El Salvador and we recommend that you stop at all of them.

Hostal Casa Verde (US$22 private double room) is central, super clean, has great WiFi, free secure parking, plenty of hang out space (including a roof deck) and smart shared dorm room features like personal fans and lock boxes for small items at every bed.

Santa Ana Theater teatro - El Salvador

The theater in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Casa Verde also has a spectacular and spotless shared kitchen stocked with more tools and gadgets than the kitchen in our old apartment. Plus there are two refrigerators–one entirely filled with ice-cold beer.

But the real star of Santa Ana was yet to come…

We weren’t lying about the soccer star

His name is Rafael Gonzalo Henriquez Aldana but everyone calls him Chalo. And by “everyone” we mean everyone. Chalo is a legend in El Salvador.  He’s not an actor (though he’s got the looks for it). He’s not a singer (though he has a great voice). Chalo is a soccer star.

He played defense for El Salvador’s national team from 1979 to 1983. Chalo earned three national championship titles and played for El  Salvador during the country’s second trip to the FIFA World Cup in 1982 (they lost to Hungary).  In futbol-crazed El  Salvador, this is huge.

Rafael Gonzalo Henriquez Aldana - Cahlo soccer Metapan, El Salvador Santa Ana

GOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLL!!!! Our awesome backyard barbecue with Chalo–El Salvadoran soccer legend and Santa Ana native.

We met Chalo with another local soccer legend, Amadeo Gonzalez, in Metapan (more on that great town in an upcoming post) and we immediately became Chalo fans too. He’s good looking, fun-loving, larger than life and generous to a fault. It wasn’t long before he’d invited us to stay with him in Santa Ana where he was born.

We enjoyed a great evening in the backyard of his beautiful home with his wife, a prominent local doctor, fabulous barbecue and lots of drinking, talking and serenading (all favorite pass times of Chalo’s). We thank them both for their hospitality and such good times.

Rafael even went by Chalo when he ran for mayor of Santa Ana a few years back. He didn’t win the mayoral race, but our perpetually good-natured friend doesn’t seem too bummed out about it. After all, Chalo has had more than his share of victories.

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