Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bienvenidos A El Salvador

February 5th to 9th

Crossing the El Salvador border is a formality - which is a relief as the midday sun is like a laser beam scorching exposed skin. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua share a common visa in a 'Group of Four' agreement that encourages trade and worker migration between the countries. That's the good bit, the bad bit is that we get 90 days to cover all four countries and fines for overstaying are stiff.
We've got 66 days left and knowing the speed we travel....

First impressions of El Salvador, hmmm, well it's early days, but once we are out of sight of the hired guns guarding the border, I am subjected to some of the most aggressive begging I've encountered on tour.
And all from a guy in his 20's with a 3 foot machete on his belt! I don't really want to get into a 'conversation' so I quickly refuse him which he doesn't like - it's a pretty scary situation. I ride back so Sue does not have to pass him alone and we put on a burst of speed....

Next we skirt a landslide that blocks part of the road leaving just a narrow strip of Tarmac high above the river valley. Loose stones are falling from the vertical earth wall where the road has been cut into the mountain. We've been here literally 5 minutes and it's a fine Welcome to El Salvador.

First impressions can mislead however, and the next 20kms is a never ending series of 'Holas' 'Bienvenidos' (welcome) and 'Que Le Vaya Bien' (May you travel well) from the locals we pass. El Salvador is the most densely populated of the 7 central American countries and we are greeted, it seems, every few meters. We hit a hotel and crack a local cervesa to christen the new country and life is suddenly better again...


A monster climb takes us 1450m up into the 'Sierra Apaneca Ilamatepec' to 'Ahuachapan' and the start of 'La Ruta de Flores' (Route of Flowers). According to Lonely Planet, from October to late February the mountain terrain is awash with wild flowers in a spectacular display for the next 25 miles to 'Sonsonate'.
Except it isn't.
Last years poor rainy season may explain their absence, but we're struggling to be impressed. Sue asks a friendly local for guidance...


To no avail and I am reduced to snapping the blooms in a hotel garden. A 'Bird of Paradise' flower....


A google search for the route of flowers reveals that no-one has ever taken a picture of a flower on this route! Volcanos, villages, colourful chicken buses - yes. Flowers - No! The only flowers are those grown in nurseries that dot the road side and I come to admire El Salvadorian marketing - a clever ruse me thinks.

Can't complain too much though. Villages like Ataco are decorated in a fantasy assortment of murals painted by local artists and buildings try to outdo each others for colour....


Once we crest the mountain range at 'Apeneca' we make screaming zig-zags down the other side racing locals who use home made box carts to transport everything from firewood to supplies to entire families down hill....


This is the volcano picture that everyone takes - the distant cones of Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde....


I love it when a plan comes together and we arrive in 'Juayua' on a Saturday for their weekend food festival. It's all too much!
The streets radiating out from the central plaza are all closed off to traffic to make way for the food stalls and the air is alive with a bonanza of enticing odours. You can sample traditional El Salvadorian fare - beans, spicy sausage, pupusas (fried tortilla pockets of cheese or meat), fried banana and salsa or more exotic rabbit, snake and kangaroo?? How do you choose - they all look so lovely! We decide to eat quickly and come back later for more...


Mmmmmm, in El Salvador - the food is good. Very Good!
The night life however is poor. Our scheme to spend the evening gorging turns to dust when we leave our hotel and the town has vanished. It's all just packed up and left while we weren't looking - and we missed it. It's 6pm! What happened? El Salvador is a start early - knock off early kind of place it would seem....
We eat pizza instead.

We too start early. Dawn over Santa Ana Volcano...


Dawn is 6am and by 8am it's boiling! The riding terrain is not particularly tough here, but much of the country is relatively low lying so there are none of the cool high altitude breezes of Guatemala. The sauna like heat with a constant series of short steep climbs over rolling hills combines to make the going tough. There is little tree cover in this deforested land and no protection from a fierce sun.

A road on our map turns out to be non-existent and we are forced to ride a grueling extra 3 hours climbing to reach Lago de Coatepeque. This roughly circular, 4 mile wide lake sits in the crater at the top of an extinct volcano beneath near vertical 250 meter high sides.

The restaurant sways alarmingly as people get up to leave their tables on the world's most rickety wooden structure whilst we dine. Apart from the risk of crashing into the lake, it's all very fine and a meal can be had for just US $5. The view is free!
We contemplate a day off. We need to rest weary legs.... but also to make the most of this incredible lake setting....


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