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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Not So Scary – San Salvador, El Salvador

You will be warned not to stop in San Salvador. These warnings will come from Salvadorans. You will be tempted to heed them. After all, the capital of El Salvador does have a growing problem with gang violence. Newspapers sometimes refer to the victims as “the new disappeared” in an eery, fear-inducing flashback to the country’s not so distant civil war. Some areas of the sprawling city really are seriously sketch to travel through (looking at you, Soyopango area), but we stopped in San Salvador anyway. And we stayed. And we found that the city is really not so scary.Here’s what else we found.

The most jaw-dropping church in Latin America (so far)

We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is in the middle of San Salvador. The irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario) was created in 1971 by artist and architect Rubén Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America.

 Iglesia de Rosario - San Salvador, El Salvador

Artist and architect Rubén Martinez tweaked the standard elements of a Catholic church when he created Iglesia el Rosario, the Church of the Rosary, which is the most surprising Catholic church we’ve seen during the Trans-Americas Journey (so far).   

The exterior looks like a derelict airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews.

Exterior Iglesia de Rosario - San Salvador, El Salvador

Yes, this is a church and the inside of Iglesia el Rosario is even more unexpected and compelling.

To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadoran independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia de Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this church.

Stations of the Cross sculpture, Iglesia de Rosario

This is one of the stations of the cross inside Iglesia el Rosario in San Salvador.

Sculpture by Rubén Martinez in Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)

Rubén Martinez, the creator of Iglesia el Rosario, is also a renowned sculptor. This piece is in the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) in San Salvador.

Just a few blocks from Iglesia el Rosario is the Metropolitan Cathedral which was recently rebuilt then renovated. Honestly, it looks like a mash-up of church and the conference room in a Marriott hotel and is weirdly modern and bland inside.

Metropolitan Cathedral - San Salvador

The modern Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

The cathedral is home to a (well) hidden site, however. Go to the right side of the cathedral and walk into an unmarked door. Go down a flight of stairs and you will find yourself in the final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The priest’s assassination by death squads in 1980 tilted El Salvador into civil war and the sanctuary around his tomb is a serene, reverential area that’s been set aside for personal reflection. Do not miss it.

Tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero

The final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Romero underneath the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

 

One of the best  boutique hotels in Central American

Opened in 2011, Casa ILB is a minimalist, elegant and (for now) shocking affordable winner of a boutique hotel with rates from US$110 double including a lovely breakfast buffet. Check out our full review of Casa ILB for iTraveliShop. Another reason to check in to Casa ILB? Il Buon Gustaio, the iconic restaurant adjacent to the hotel which the owner has run for more than 10 years using family recipes to create authentic Italian dishes from scratch. The handwritten menu is extensive and traditional. Your fellow diners will likely include ambassadors, socialites and heads of industry.

Speaking of food, not far from Casa ILB, in the same swanky neighborhood, is Restaurante Citron. Opened in 2006, this hip/chic restaurant is helmed by chef Eduardo Harth a Salvadoran who was raised and trained in the US where he was sous chef at the award-winning Grapeseed Bistro in Bethesda, Maryland. Then he decided it was time to bring his talents home.

Now chef Harth prepares daring dishes in a house that’s been converted into a restaurant. He bakes his own bread, makes his own cheese, kills his own farmed venison and changes the menu more or less monthly. We loved the rich/sweet/salty house-cured duck prosciutto with maple syrup, venison loin so tender we didn’t need a knife and giant squid on a bed of grilled asparagus and radicchio with a complex sour orange and cinnamon glaze. Eat at the bar in front of the small, open kitchen and you get a free show with your meal.

When it was time to leave Casa ILB we embarked on the hunt for our more normal level of accommodation. We found Villa Florencia. At US$13 a night for a clean double room with a fan, private bathroom and WiFi plus secure, enclosed parking big enough for our truck we were sold. The only bummer is that Villa Florencia is located in the depressing, neglected downtown area. While not exactly unsafe, downtown is certainly not interesting unless you’re into dirty streets and decaying buildings.

Decaying buildings - San Salvador, El Salvador

Sadly neglected buildings in downtown San Salvador.

 

Some very moving monuments

El Salvador was in a bloody civil war from 1980 to 1992, the second longest civil war in Central American history. During that time at least 75,000 people died and many, many more “disappeared” and pre-war massacres killed many, many more. The war may be over, but the remembering is not.

Revolutionary mural - San Salvador, El Salvador

El Salvador’s civil war is commemorated in many ways.

Monuments large and small commemorating the war and the fallen can be found all over El Salvador. The capital has the most moving places to visit which mark the start of the war and it’s aftermath.

The situation between the military backed Salvadoran government and the country’s poor was already bad by March 24, 1980, the day Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by government death squads while performing mass. His assassination, proceeded by the Archbishop’s request that US President Jimmy Carter stop backing the Salvadoran military and a call for members of the military to defy their orders and stop massacring villagers, tilted the country into outright civil war.

The chapel at Divine Providence Hospital (Hospital la Divinia Providencia), where this tireless defender of the rights of the common man was killed with a single shot to the heart while standing at the pulpit, is surprisingly modern and bright and serene. It’s still in use.

Church at Divine Providence Hospital where Romero assisinated

The chapel at Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador where death squads murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero during mass, plunging the country into full civil war.

Much more intimate and moving was a visit to the humble house near the chapel where the Archbishop was living at the time of his death. His beloved Toyota Corona is in the carport (the owner’s manual is also proudly displayed). His monogrammed towels are hung neatly in the bathroom, as if he’s due back soon. His typewriter, used to compose sermons, is on his desk. His passport and a collection of oddly hippie-ish rings are on a table.  His blood stained vestments are in a glass case.

Mural - Divine Providence Hospital where Romero was assissinated

A mural at Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador honoring Archbishop Oscar Romero who spent his last days living and working here until death squads killed him in 1980.

Many horrific things happened between the day the Archbishop died and the day the peace accords were signed in 1992. While the country struggles to come to terms with the atrocities of war a monument to those who died has been created.

The Monument to Memory and Truth (Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad) in Cuscatlán Park is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Completed in 2003, this 300 foot long (85 meter) black granite wall has been engraved with the names of nearly 30,000 people who died or disappeared–less than 1/2 of the estimated total body count.

Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador

The Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador is a massive wall of black granite inscribed with the names of just a portion of the tens of thousands who were killed or “disappeared” during El Salvador’s 12 year civil war.

The wall is also engraved with the town names in which massacres took place leading up to and during the civil war. There are so many of them that they had to be organized by year. Some village names turn up more than once. The wall does not include the 30,000 plus Salvadorans killed during genocide that took place in the country in the 1930s, but sometimes it takes baby steps to get to the truth. It’s a start.

Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador

The Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador is a massive wall of black granite inscribed with the names of just a portion of the tens of thousands who were killed or “disappeared” during El Salvador’s 12 year civil war.

The park is a calm, relatively green oasis in the middle of San Salvador, an appropriate place to visit and reflect on what happened in El Salvador and continues to happen around the world today.

Part of the Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador, El Salvador

The people hold up a picture of Archbishop Oscar Romero on a portion of the Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador.

Monument to the Revolution - Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)

This massive mosaic in front of the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) is called Monument to the Revolution.

 

A delicious battle of the pupusas

Take a palm-full of masa (corn or rice paste), form it into a ball, spoon in a dollop of filling, then flatten it and grill it on a hot griddle and you’ve got yourself a pupusa, the national dish of El Salvador. Pupusas are usually filled with chicharon (fried pork), beans, cheese, loroco (the flower bud of a vine which tastes like asparagus and is said to be an aphrodisiac) or a shredded squash called ayote or any combination of those ingredients. But there are creative alternatives if you know where to look.

Though pupusas are available everywhere in El Salvador, perhaps the best place to sample them is a neighborhood of San Salvador called Antigua Cuscatlán. Salvadorans come from miles around to feast on pupusas here and everyone seems to have a favorite pupuseria among the dozens or so that have set up shop in this part of town.

Papusas at Pupuseria La Unica - Antigua Cuscatlán, El Salvador

Making our favorite pupusas at La Unica pupuseria in the Antigua Cuscatlán area of San Salvador.

In our humble opinion the best made, best priced examples of this ubiquitous food are found at a pupuseria called La Unica, a large, bustling, bright little eatery which hunkers down behind the church in the square in Antigua Cuscatlán. Many swear by a nearby much fancier pupuseria that is certainly the place to go if you want ingredients that go beyond the usual suspects (like jalapeños and mozzarella cheese). They’ll even give you a knife and fork (!?!?) to eat your gourmet pupusa with. However, we’re traditionalist who prefer the classic ingredients and like eating with our hands.

An eco hotel worth the name

We’d gone to Antigua Cuscatlán to check out an eco hotel called Arbol de Fuego. The hotel has implemented all the usual eco measures including long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives like low-flow showers (using a simple adaptions dreamed up by her handyman), a greenhouse created for drying laundry which is washed using EPA approved detergents, all appliances are unplugged when not in use and all garbage is sorted so that local collectors can pick up pre-sorted bags to recycle without the indignity of digging through the hotel’s garbage looking for tin cans or glass bottles. The result of many small, smart steps has been an epic reduction in energy use, water consumption and pollution.

The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of all those pupuserieas.

One regret: we never made it to a coffee shop called Viva Espresso to sample coffee made by Alejandro Mendez, the 2011 World Barista Champion.

 

Guadalupe church - San Salvador, El Salvador

The Guadalupe church in the Antigua Cuscatlán area of San Salvador.

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Doin’ Time in Tegus – Tegucigalpa, Honduras

You wouldn’t automatically put most Central American capital cities (BelmopanGuatemala City, San Salvador, Managua, etc.) on the top of your travel to-do list but they do have their charms, you just usually need some local help to uncover them. For example, we didn’t have high hopes for Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, but then we found a great burger, a really good museum or two, a nice little hotel and more with a some help from our local friend Edo.

Tugucigalpa (just Tegus to some) has been the capital of Honduras since 1880. In 1921 Tegus was also the capital of the Republic of Central America, created by mashing together Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. You can imagine how well that worked out.

Cathedral - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The Cathedral in central Tegucigalpa, Honduras was completed in 1782.

Cathedral altar - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The ornate altar in the Cathedral in central Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

The city started life as a mining town and has never quite shed those down and dirty roots. The city now suffers from Los Angeles-like sprawl, creeping and oozing over a vast area (we got horribly lost coming into town). Buildings decay, cars honk and belch and people continue to migrate to this city that seems supremely ill-prepared to take them in.

Still, thanks to Edo’s insider suggestions, we found some eating, sleeping and touring highlights in Tegus. Now you can too.

Lempira statue - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

A statue of legendary Lencan leader Chief Lempira in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Someone stuck flyers calling for worker' rights on his chest.

 

A perfectly respectable burger

In-N-Out has nothing to worry about, but the burgers we had with Edo at an outdoor institution called Bigos were more than respectable. We ordered at a window (80L or about US$4 for a big burger and 24L or about US$1.25 for a beer), then ate on plastic picnic tables in the midst of a parking lot. Not classy, but we liked the vaguely ’50s drive-in vibe and the grilled burger was not puny and came on a good bun with a pile of tasty fries.

More than 40 embassies and consulates currently exist in Tegucigalpa which means food from around the world is available, some of it world-class. Edo was dying ot take us to a place called Había Una Vez. The owners are French and Peruvian and so is the food. He loves the bar as well. Sadly, Habia Una Vez was closed every time we stopped by.

Edo also told us there’s even a place in Tegus which sells local microbrewery beer. It’s called Joe’s Sports Bar but it’s weirdly and inconveniently located by the airport so we never got there either.

We did grab a bite at Asados El Gordo, an Argentinian steak house that Edo recommended. We weren’t hungry enough for a steak but we really enjoyed their filling and relatively cheap empanadas.

Food fights

Tegus is also full of international fast food chains (not that that’s where you want to eat) and their presence has inspired some very interesting controversy. When we were in town McDonald’s and KFC were the target of angry graffiti accusing the chains of tax evasion.

McDonalds & KFC wanted for tax ivasion - Nicaragua

This spray painted protest on a wall in Tegucigalpa accuses McDonald's and KFC of tax evasion. Occupy Nicaragua!

We also came across a business called DK’d Donuts complete with pink and brown colors and a distinctly Dunkin’ Donuts script. The story we heard is that the owner of DK’d got screwed out of his Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Tegus and opened DK’d instead.

DK'D donuts - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

If it looks like Dunkin' Donuts, smells like Dunkin' Donuts and tastes like Dunkin' Donuts...

Copan stelae -  National Art Gallery, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

A stelae from the Copán archaeological site displayed in the National Art Gallery in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Despite it’s vaguely disturbing name, the relatively new Museum for National Identity (Museo para la Identidad Nacional in Spanish) provided a comprehensive, if a bit overwhelming, collection of Honduras’ greatest hits. From pre-Columbian times to a virtual theater experience of the country’s world-famous Copán archaeological site to the present day it’s all here under one roof (though don’t be fooled–nothing compares to actually visiting the Copán site). Worth the 60L (US$3) admission price.

The National Art Gallery (Galeria Nacional de Atre in Spanish) charged a more reasonable 30L (US$1.50) and delivered ancient art and petroglyphs but we enjoyed the modern art (all by Honduran artists) the most. The building it’s in is beautiful as well.

The National Museum of History and Anthropology Villa Roy (Museo Nacional de Historia y Antrhopologia Villa Roy in Spanish ), in a mansion that was the home of ex Honduran President Julio Lozano, also sounded interesting but it was closed to do water damage when we were in Tegus.

For culture of a different kind, Edo recommends Café Paradiso, a bohemian coffee house in the center of Tegus where you can watch independent films or find poets reading their work.

Iglesia Los Dolores - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Carvings on the front of Iglesia Los Dolores in Tegucigalpa represent scenes from the Passion of the Christ.

 

A homey haven

With all those embassies, consulates and expats around Tegus is full of international business-class hotels (Intercontinental, Marriott, et al). But we wanted to see what an ambitious, locally owned hotel was all about. Portal del Angel, which was just about the first boutique hotel in Tegucigalpa when it opened ten years ago, hosted us while we were in town. While their website may oversell the “boutique hotel” part of this establishment, which is showing signs of wear and tear which the owners are slowly addressing, the hotel is in a quiet neighborhood and was a calm haven.

Day trips

A short trip northeast of Tegus takes you to Santa Lucía and Valle de Angeles,  two towns known for offering great Honduran food and well-made handicrafts at reasonable price–in other words, eating and shopping. Edo says not to miss the tea house in front of the church in Santa Lucia.

Edo also urged us to visit La Tigra National Park (Parque Nacional La Tigra in Spanish), the first national park in Honduras. The park is famous for its cloud forest, but the US$10 per person entry fee kept us away.

 

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Brews and Views – Lake Yojoa & Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

Travel just south of San Pedro Sula and you’ll find the biggest lake in Honduras. Lake Yojoa (Lago de Yojoa in Spanish) was formed in a volcanic crater and is shaped vaguely like the state of Florida. On the lakeshore there’s a small archaeological site where you can walk around the remains of a Lencan city which dates back to 700 BC and hundreds of types of birds (and vacationing Hondurans) love the place. But those aren’t the only reasons we went to Lake Yojoa. We also heard there was beer.

Lake Yojoa from Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

Lake Yojoa as seen from Cerro Azul National Park in Honduras.

Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Lake Yojoa in Honduras.

 

The brews

D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant was opened by Robert Dale, a guy from the US who wanted someplace to get a burger and a beer so he created one. When we visited D&D a new owner named Bobby had just taken over but the burgers and the brews on tap (made by a Honduran who was trained by Dale) were still going strong. Okay, D&D’s beer isn’t as good or as affordable as the stuff Thomas is making at his Sol de Copán brewery in Copán Ruinas, but it still beats Honduran Salva Vida any day.

D&D Brewery - Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Welcome to one of only two microbreweries we found in Honduras, the D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant on Lake Yojoa.

D&D also has a pool, a place for your tent and a range of rooms which were getting a much-needed renovation (new paint, new mattresses, etc) when we were there.

D&D Brewery - Lake Yojoa, Honduras

Happy taps at D&D Brewery Lodge & Restaurant on Lake Yojoa in Honduras.

Plhapanzak Waterfall, Honduras

Pulhapanzak Waterfall is a 140 foot (43 meter) rager near Lake Yojoa in Honduras. Guides will take you over rocks and through swimming holes to reach a small rocky space behind the crashing water.

 

The views

Less than an hour from Lake Yojoa is Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park (Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar in Spanish). Established in 1987, the park covers 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) ranging in elevation from 1,600 to 6,500 feet (500 to 2,000 meters) providing habitat for more than 50 species of mammals.

trails Cerro Azul national Park, Honduras

Karen exploring some of the 10 miles of trails through Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

 Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

A rare glimpse of the often-cloud-covered high peaks of Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

 waterfall Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

One of the many waterfalls in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras which is one of the country’s largest watersheds.

Cerro Azul has benefited from the know how, funding and management of a Canadian NGO called PANACAM. Unlike most parks in Central America, Cerro Azul has knowledgeable staff members on site, dorm rooms and gorgeous private cabins for rent (800L, about US$42, for a cabin but bargain a bit) and nearly 10 miles (15 kilometers) of marked and maintained trails through different vegetative zones and past waterfalls. There’s even Wi-Fi in the park’s beautiful restaurant.

sunrise over Lake Yojoa & Santa Barbra National Park, Honduras

Sunrise  from the campground in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park with Lake Yojoa and Santa Barbra National Park in the background.

cool mushroom - Cerro Azul National Park, Honduras

A cool mushroom in Cerro Azul Meámbar National Park in Honduras.

Cerro Azul also has what just might be the best campsite in all of Honduras. For 100L per person (US$5.25) we set up our tent on a flat surface under a metal roof near clean bathrooms with flush toilets, cold water showers and functioning sinks. We even had electricity and a pair of aracaris (basically small toucans) perched in a tree near our tent. The only thing missing was an ice cold beer.

 

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New Copán – Copán Ruinas, Honduras

It’s confusing, we know: The closest town to the ruins of the Mayan city of Copán, the most famous and widely studied archaeological site in Honduras, is called Copán Ruinas.Therefore, the comparatively new city of Copán Ruinas is your base for exploring the positively ancient remains of Copán ruins.

Copán Ruinas is tiny but jam-packed with tourists and the services that come with them. Because the number one tourist attraction in Honduras is right on the town’s doorstep, most offerings are of the mediocre but overpriced variety (case in point: laundry is $1 per pound). We visited Copán Ruinas on two different occasions and found a few finds that stand out from the rest.

Sunset view over Copan Ruinas, Honduras

Sunset view over the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras as seen from Hacienda San Lucas hotel.

 

Sleep with the Mayans

About a mile and a half above the center of Copán Ruinas lies one of the most noteworthy hotels in Honduras. Hacienda San Lucas is the 100-year-old home of the Cueva family, whose patriarch was a passionate amateur archaeologist and instrumental in early protection and exploration of the remains of the Mayan city of Copán.

Hacienda San Lucas - Copan, Honduras

The inviting patio and sprawling lawn at Hacienda San Lucas hotel above the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

His daughter, Doña Flavia Cueva, oversaw a disciplined reinvention of the family home which she has transformed into an eight room hotel. Flavia did a lot of the work herself (don’t miss the photos of the restoration in progress–Flavia is smiling in every single shot) and she worked hard to retain country touches like exposed beams, thick walls and ample patios.

Modern touches like electricity, hot water, great beds and WiFi were added. One thoroughly modern addition to Hacienda San Lucas is the large, colorful, graphic art work of Falvia’s daughter, Frida Larios. Frida has turned her artists’ eye to Mayan glyphs, transforming the traditional ancient stone carvings into modern graphic art which decorates the hotel. Frida calls it Modern Mayan and it’s great stuff.

The Hacienda San Lucas kitchen, staffed by Mayan women, also turns out some of the best food in the region. We had some of the tastiest tamales we’ve ever eaten here and dinner, open to non-guests too, is a set menu, multi-course affair featuring dishes made from traditional Mayan recipes paired with wines. The town of Copán Ruinas and the edges of the Copán archaeological site itself can be seen in the valley below.

Hacienda San Lucas, yoga pavillion - Copan, Honduras

Yoga with a view at Hacienda San Lucas hotel just above the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

 

Your own (sort of) private ruins

Though touring the ruins of Copán is the main draw, guests at Hacienda San Lucas are only a ten minute walk away from a tiny, little-visited archaeological site called Los Sapos (The Toads) that’s actually located on land owned by Hacienda San Lucas. About the size of half a football field, the Los Sapos area features boulders carved into the form of toads. Dozens of types of toads live in this area and the toad is the Mayan symbol of fertility. The origin and importance of this odd little site are still being studied but one theory is that Los Sapos was a fertility and/or birthing site used by the inhabitants of ancient Copán.

Los Sapos - Copan, Honduras

Look closely. Can you see the toad in this carved rock at the Los Sapos Mayan archaeological site near Hacienda San Lucas hotel?

If Hacienda San Lucas is out of your price range we can also recommend Hotel Patty. Located right in downtown  Copán Ruinas, the basic rooms are clean with bathrooms and TV, there’s a  big secure parking lot, the WiFi works and the owners are friendly. Rooms start at US$25 double occupancy.

The best microbrew in Central America?

Tomas, Sol de Copan Brewery Honduras

Your new hero: Thomas, owner and brew master of Sol de Copan Brewery in the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Sol de Copan beer

One of the best microbrews in Central America at Sol de Copan in Honduras.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Fabricio. He’s a local customs officer who we met when we crossed the border from Guatemala. If he hadn’t told us about “the big German making beer” in Copán Ruinas we might never have found Thomas Wagner.

Thomas is serious about beer. Serious enough to drive 10 miles for his spring water. Serious enough to wear a lab coat while he brews. Serious enough to import all of his equipment and ingredients from his native Germany. He is not, however, very serious about signs. His tiny brewery and mini German beer hall is located down a residential side street with no more than a small sign right at the entrance. Ask anyone in Copán Ruinas for directions to the Sol de Copán Brew Pub (closed Monday and Tuesday), then look for the building with wacky castle-like turrets just a few blocks away from downtown.

 

Thomas, who has won awards for his beers in his native Germany, makes strictly German-style beer and you will find two different brews on tap along with a short menu of German dishes (spetzel, schnitzel) made fresh by Thomas’ bubbly Honduran wife. Their schnauzer, Sammy, usually makes an appearance too. Locals fill the place. Laughter spills out into the street–mostly Thomas’ laughter. He is visibly thrilled every time someone takes a sip.

It’s a good thing Thomas is getting joy out of his beer because he certainly isn’t getting rich. At 55 Lempiras (less than US$3) for a half liter of the delicious stuff, Thomas’ handcrafted beer is only slightly more expensive than a liter of Salva Vida, the ubiquitous but mediocre beer of Honduras.

We are happy to report that microbreweries are gaining a foothold in Central America (more on that in future posts) but we can say with certainty that the stuff Thomas is making in tiny, remote Copán Ruinas is by far the best microbrew in the region.

Honduras draft beer - Sol de Copan Honduras

The only thing we loved as much as Thomas’ excellent German-style beers were his tattoos.

 

Hot springs worth the splurge

We set aside just a couple of hours to visit the Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs located in the town of (surprise, surprise) Agua Caliente about 12 miles out of town over a pretty rough dirt road. The US$10 per person entry fee seemed like a whole lot at the time, however, as soon as we walked through the gate, over a hanging bridge and into a series of atmospheric pools, falls and dipping areas artfully crafted into nature over a trail-laced hillside the fee suddenly seemed worth it.

 Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

The wonderfully natural Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs near the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

None of the crystal-clear pools are sizzling hot, but they do the trick. There’s even a pool that includes containers of therapeutic mud which is high in minerals and great for your skin. Another area has a small circular path lined in smooth river stones and filled to ankle-level with hot water. Walk around it and you get a free foot massage! We could have soaked all day.

Relaxing at Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

Eric and his brother Jeff getting their money’s worth in the hot springs at Luna Jaguar Spa near Copán Ruinas in Honduras.

Mud bath Luna Jaguar Spa hot springs - Copan, Honduras

Eric’s brother, Jeff, trying out his moves on his sister-in-law. That’s hard to do while covered in mineral-rich mud…

A special note for drivers: If you’re driving to Copán Ruinas be prepared for the town’s cobblestone streets which are very narrow, sometimes steep and brutally bumpy. Parking is also tough. We had some tight squeezes in our truck.

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