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.

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 chicharon 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 chicharon. 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 chicharon and we enjoyed our freshly-prepared treats on park benches surrounded by more murals by Leo and Fabio.

Yuca y Chicharon

Delicious yucca and chicharon.

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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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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