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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100 Years of the Calgary Stampede – Calgary, Canada

They call the Calgary Stampede the richest rodeo in the world because it awards a million dollars in prize money. 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the annual event which is held every July. This got us reminiscing about our visit to the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” when we traveled to the Calgary Stampede early in our Trans-Americas Journey.

Calgary Stampede - Carnival Ride 100th anniversary

The Calgary Stampede isn’t just the world’s richest rodeo. It’s also a full-on fair with the rides and food to prove it.

Inside the Calgary Stampede

In addition to the rodeo events, the Calgary Stampede also features a whole concourse of carnival rides and all manner of fair food including the usual suspects (hello, corn dogs!) plus a local cult favorite called Mini Donuts—basically tiny, tiny donuts that everyone buys and eats the straight from the bag right before they get on a big, fast, spinning carnival ride. What could go wrong?

There’s also a beer garden, big-name concerts, ag displays and more.

Cowboys - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Cowboys commute to work at the Calgary Stampede.

Classic rodeo at the Calgary Stampede

The main attractions, for us, were the classic rodeo events during which we watched dozens of the best cowboys in the world compete for some of that famous Calgary Stampede prize money. We were amazed by the athletes both human and non human. Here are some photographic highlights from each event.

 

Bareback bronc riding

Bareback Riding - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

This amazing athlete leapt about four feet straight up into the air the moment the gate was opened. The cowboy was no slouch either.

Bareback Riding - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Good form…

Bareback Riding fall - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

…and bad form.

 

Bull riding

Bullriding - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

The bulls, mostly bred on the official Calgary Stampede farm, were huge and smart. In other words, very, very dangerous.

Bullriding Fall - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

We have no idea how this cowboy ended up in this position. We can tell you he got up and walked away.

Bullriding chase- Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Some of the bulls were just plain mean, too.

 

Saddle bronc riding

Saddle Bronc - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Bet you didn’t think horses could fly.

Saddle Bronc - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

That’s one way to dismount…

Saddle Bronc - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Everyone in the stands held their breath, wondering if this horse was going to fall over backward after this dramatic exit from the gates. It did not fall over and it’s moves just got more athletic and unbelievable as the ride continued.

Tie-down calf roping

Tie down calf roping - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

In this event you need a racehorse with anti-lock brakes.

The goal is to catch, rope and tie down a calf as quickly (under 10 seconds) and precisely as possible. These experts make it look easy as you can see in our animated gif, below.

Tie down calf roping motion gif - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Barrel racing

Barrel Racing - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Barrel racing is the only event at the Calgary Stampede in which women compete. Champion June Holeman, above, was 63 when we watched her win the event with this ride.

Barrel Racing competition - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

This barrel racer was narrowly beaten by veteran champion June Holeman during the Calgary Stampede.

 

Steer wrestling

Steer Wrestling competition - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

First, leap off a galloping horse then, literally, grab a steer by the horns.

Steer Wrestling - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Cowboys dig their heels into the ground and use them like brakes in order to stop and flip the steer.

 

Chuckwagon races

The biggest adrenaline rush of the entire Calgary Stampede came from a competition which isn’t, technically, a rodeo event. We’d never even heard of chuckwagon races but we were soon hooked.

Meant to recreate the important duties of traditional chuckwagons—the mobile kitchens which fed the pioneers heading west by covered wagon train—each modern-day chuckwagon racing team includes a smaller, lighter replica of a chuckwagon, a chuckwagon driver, a team of four thoroughbreds to pull the chuckwagon, a team of four outriders on four additional thoroughbreds, and a bunch of bits and pieces that represent the gear used in these mobile kitchens.

Chuckwagon Racing - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

We’d never even heard of chuckwagon races before we attended the Calgary Stampede. Now we’re huge fans of the history and controlled chaos of this event.

At the beginning of each race all four outriders from each chuckwagon team must dismount. One of them throws a barrel into the back of his team’s chuckwagon and another tosses in poles, a tarp and other gear. Then the chuckwagon speeds off as the four outriders re-mount on the gallop so the whole team of five men and 32 horses can fly through a figure eight course before thundering (the ground literally shakes) around an oval racetrack in a frantic bid to beat three other teams doing exactly the same things at exactly the same time.

Chuckwagon racing is (barely) controlled chaos as 15 men and 96 horses race around the track at the same time. Get a taste of what it looks like in our animated gif, below.

Chuckwagon Racing action - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

If you ask us, chuckwagon racing is the new extreme sport. But you can judge for yourself since we have plenty more action-packed Calgary Stampede Chuckwagon Race Photos.

Chuckwagon Racing Rangeland Derby - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

The ground shakes as teams push to the finish line in the chuckwagon racing event at the Calgary Stampede.

We were so inspired by the whole Calgary Stampede experience that Karen finally gave in to her decades-old desire for a pair of true cowboy boots. Since this is no faddish whim, we headed straight for the Alberta Boot Company. Listen, if they’re good enough to supply boots to the Canadian Mounties, they’re good enough for us. Karen is still wearing her Alberta Boot Company boots, by the way, and she gets compliments on them all the time.

Cowboy Boots - Calgary Stampede Rodeo 100th anniversary

Good luck picking a favorite from the hundreds of handmade styles at the Alberta Boot Company in Calgary.

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