Leaving behind the curl of Salvadorian waves, I traveled towards the inner city sprawl of San Salvador. I was certainly earning my frequent travel miles while crossing El Salvador. As my bus turned north from Carretera del Literol at Puerto la Libertad, I turned to watch the beach dissolve behind me, blending into the silhouette of the sun. Clear, cloudless skies and the purr of the sea crashing relentlessly against sand soon gave way to the sounds of a city: clanging church bells, insistent honking, and the hum of activity.
Santa Tecla, El Salvador: Downtown Santa Tecla flaunts an architectural style similar to what I enjoyed in the small villages of Juayua and Suchitoto. (I’m a fan of cobblestone streets, red-tiled roofs, and vividly painted doorways, and Santa Tecla brandishes all three traits.) While San Salvador is considered to be somewhat undesirable and unsafe, Santa Tecla is patrolled by armed police and other guards. Literally, there is one standing on almost on every corner, in front of every hardware and furniture store, near every bank, and inside all music, clothing, and comida entrances, most often holding a huge (presumably loaded) rifle. Whether they know how to use said gun is another story and, more often than not, the “guard” looks sleepy and blase. I appreciated being able to walk around and enjoy the brightly painted buildings and cosmopolitan culture of Santa Tecla, especially the historic district of Paseo El Carmen. This hotspot offers many live music, bar, and culinary options with everything from specialty cappuccino shops to Argentine steak houses and French bakeries to pizza shops. The nightly street market also features arts, espressos, and crafts.
Santa Tecla seems to be a yuppie neighborhood for the wealthy and elite escaping the hubbub and dangers of downtown San Salvador. New SUV’s and Mercedes sit outside houses with flower-draped verandas and towering terraces. Many of the houses are owned by Salvadorians that have relocated back to El Salvador after living abroad. Having either studied or worked in California, Texas, New York, or Florida, they were now buying property and retiring or launching their entrepreneurial efforts back on home soil.
This mash of high-society elites, everyday middle class, and hard working, ? lower class made for a charming atmosphere around town. Several churches were framed by sprawling, shady, tree-filled parks. Here, locals relaxed with a newspaper, couples strolled hand-in-hand. women balanced baskets on their heads and announced their merchandise with a town-crier singsong, and quaint gazebos stood ready for nightly bands and DJ’s.
During my daily jog, I discovered the “exercise” park with an actual running track. I ran three or four miles with the local soccer team and other men, women, and children that showed up throughout the morning. The park had small benches and areas set aside for pushups, abdominal exercises, and pullups. There were also “community” scales and samples of green tea to sip in between laps. It was a fun atmosphere.
I also found a GREAT supermarket complete with bright overhead lighting, granola, chia seeds, yogurt, real cheese, and other western-delights. It was a wonderful change from the usual dank, poorly stocked pulperia’s lining most of the central squares. It was also the ideal stop for stocking up on deodorant, conditioner, and toothpaste too. I do love a good grocery store.
Ins and Outs of San Salvador: Aside from exploring the downtown area of San Salvador, I gave myself a museum day. The buses around San Salvador are a bit crazy! I admit that I got lost a few times and found myself in the middle of the city staring intently at my map on more than one occasion. However, the locals were always ready to jump to my help, and they stayed patient while I became frustrated….which happens when it’s hot and you’re lost and hungry. But I eventually arrived at the museum campus and spent a full day touring two of San Salvador’s best museums.
Museo de Arte de El Salvador: It is easy to carve out two to three hours in this little museum. Much of the art reflects the country during the civil war in the 1980’s and some of the pieces are quite beautiful.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia: This fantastic museum features a permanent exhibit that traces the timeline of Salvadoran history from Pre-Columbian times to the present political issues. There was also a small exhibit traces El Salvador’s religious history and another explaining the origins of country’s arts and crafts. Some of galleries had bi-lingual signage (which was wonderful), but a few were only in Spanish. It was an enjoyable afternoon, nonetheless, and a perfect way to spend my final day in the big city.
My next bus trip took me through central El Salvador on the Pan American highway. This was a breathtaking trip through coffee plantations, humid landscapes and indomitable, unspoiled beauty. On the journey east, the Pan American highway twists and turns, climbing higher and higher through deep ravines, shady riverbeds, and tropical woodlands. Dirt roads deviate off the main road, descending into fertile valleys and lush banana plantations. It was really a stunning ride, and I was sad that it was only a three hour trip from San Salvador to my next destination of Alegria.
Alegria – Alegria is a sleepy mountain village in the Usulutlan region. One of the highest villages in El Salvador, it is surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, and coffee plantations. “Alegria” is the Spanish word for happy, and the little city certainly lived up to her namesake. Blossoms cheerfully flowed from every building, climbed terraces, and roped themselves around high wires. Even the waste baskets in the town plaza were painted with flowery designs.
There honestly wasn’t much to do in Alegria. It was uncomfortably hot, especially under the midday sun. The main plaza featured a huge, white church, a shady gazebo, tents selling flowers, and a few food stalls. A couple of ladies sold pupusas in the evening, and a trio of local musicians meandered around the square, serenading lovers, families, and finally…me!
Of course, a visit to Alegria wouldn’t be complete without a hike to the mystic Laguna de Alegría, a green, spring-fed sulfur lake inside the crater of Volcano Tecapa. From Alegría’s town center, it is an easy walk along the cobblestone road outside of town, or guides are available for hire. The hike takes just under an hour one way.
Unfortunately, the morning I was to hike to the Laguna, it was pouring down with rain, and I decided not to make the trek under stormy skies. Instead, I parked myself on a park bench, waited for the clouds to clear, and scoped out photo opportunities throughout the morning. I couldn’t help but take a candid of this cute man while he caught a quick siesta across from me. When he woke up, I bought him a coffee and chatted with him for a bit. He wanted to practice his English, and we wound up talking for the rest of the morning until it was time for me to board my bus. Next stop – Nicaragua!