Monday, February 22, 2010

Notes From a Small Country

February 13th to 16th

Shadows are long in the golden light of dawn as we ride North to the Honduran border. We get one and a half blissful hours of cool riding....

After leaving Colima and crossing over the edge of Lago Suchitan, the land tilts sharply upwards once more towards the Cordillera Matapan Alotepeque range that divides El Salvador from Honduras. We want to be as high up as possible into the fresher mountain air before the sun peeks over roadside vegetation and cooks us in our skins.

It's a chase we just about manage to win as altitude and a strengthening sun balance out to keep a steady temperature as our morning wears on. Our reward is a hazy view back to the now distant lake over the dense forests we just climbed through....

Those forests have changed from tropical palm, through to mixed deciduous trees that finally begin to give way to pine as we ascend above 4000 feet. The air is suddenly scented with resin as the breeze picks up and the skies resound with a thousand bird calls as the number of homesteads reduces. It's a steep ride, but it's also a great feeling to be tested by the gradient alone, knowing you can work hard now in the cooling air - without overheating.

Eight miles short of the border is the lovely little mountain town of 'La Palma'. It's a Saturday and the Central Park is a hive of activity and excitement. Children run this way and that as news has spread far and wide - The fair is in town!!

The central square looks like a scrap yard after an explosion in a paint factory. Brightly coloured chunks of metal lie piled up and abandoned wherever they could be unloaded from the back of an assortment of wagons and pick-ups. High above it all, two men scramble with the agility of spider monkeys assembling the big wheel. Harnesses and safety lines would just slow them down and they rely on an uncanny sense of balance and skill....

Smaller children make mischief amongst the chaotic playground, until they are chased of by workers. Older kids stare on in anticipation, their necks craning further and further back as each section is bolted on....

The carnival starts a little later; an army of masked drummers beating out a noisy tattoo....

As a series of carnival dancers and costumed figures light up the street....

This wouldn't be Central America though without the food stalls, and there are street vendors wherever you look with the usual array of burgers, fried chicken and grilled corn on the cob. But you can get that anywhere and we are more interested in the entire streets given over to sweets and cake stalls. Local sugar is employed in a variety of inventive and tasty ways that takes a fair bit of time to come to terms with....

A large stage has been erected behind the church and live music (of various quality) booms out well into a night enjoyed by a large friendly crowd.

The fair is a bonus – we never expected it to be here and as we have found in many of the places we have passed through, things are done by word of mouth here rather than through commercial advertising. Sometimes you just get lucky!

Even without the festivities, La Palma is a colourful place, home as it is to an artistic movement called 'Naïve Art' which was founded here in the 70's by Fernando Llort a French trained architecture student who sought refuge here in the mountains as tensions built before the civil war . He set up workshops where other artists could come to learn the style that has come to represent modern El Salvador. Colourful murals line the streets on the sides of buildings....

Farming scenes represent the new hope as a country rebuilds....

A final climb between the imposing 8000 feet peaks of Cerro Montecristo and Los Planos takes us to the Honduran border at 'El Poy'. Again, the crossing is a formality and we have time to chat to a couple of the immigration officers who seem slightly miffed that we spent so little time in El Salvador, especially when they can see how long we spent in Guatemala from our passport stamps.

What can we say.... it's not that we didn't like the place.... true we had some elements of doubt when we read their spectacular crime and murder statistics, but any fears were soon allayed by the almost fanatical friendliness of the people. El Salvador IS a nice place and it has some great destinations like Lago Coatepeque.

But that's the problem maybe – as a country I came away thinking it was just 'nice' where Guatemala was spectacular and Belize was so interesting due to the vast mix of indigenous people. El Salvador strikes me as a place with a bit of an identity crisis. It was the main tourist destination in Central America, before it tore itself apart in the 80's and it would obviously love to make up lost ground and reclaim that title once more. At the same time it is now the most densely populated country in CA, with the highest standard of living, partly due to the number of ex-pats working in America and sending money back home. Now it wants to modernise - drive up to the mall, in it's jeans and 4x4 jeep, order food to-go and step into that homogenised, air conditioned world that it remembers from working abroad.

I don't blame it for that - but there is a price to pay.... El Salvador just came across as a bit more bland than Mexico's colour, Guatemala's scenery and Belize's diversity.

But then what does it care what I think....

We roll on into Honduras, as ever with eyes fresh and staring. A new country, new treats ahead.... Look left, look right – what's new!


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