Sunday, June 30, 2013

El Salvador

El Salvadore's fertile cropping lands

In the bright afternoon light I briefly headed southwards into El Salvador before turning inland where a steadily climbing, rocky trail took me initially through small villages and cropping land and then through increasingly forested hills until eventually I arrived at Parque Nacionale El Imposible where, fortunately, it was “posible” to camp. With the calls of birds cascading from the forests above, and the laughter of children drifting up from the villages below, I set up camp once again. As darkness descended the sounds of men and beasts gave way to the rumbling of thunder and flashing of lightning across the mountains as the predictable wet-season storms rolled in bringing refreshing showers and cooling breezes. A  dance in the rain provided my shower before settling into the cozy comfort of the van with a Chilean red wine and the rain pattering steadily on the  roof.

The luxuriant cloud-forests of El Iposible
The next couple of days were spent exploring the trails of El Imposible, firstly with my guia, Albierto, who has spent 30 years in this park - he knows it pretty well! The trail that we took gave us great views across the valleys to jungle-shrouded mountain slopes to the south and east before descending steeply to a beautiful stream that cascaded over a series of small falls interspersed with enticing, crystal clear pools. While the birds were not very cooperative, teasing us with their calls yet remaining elusive in the thick forest, we did find a small snake and catch a glimpse of a small tail-less mammal (an agouti I’d guess) that scurried through the undergrowth.  A delightful morning with broken spanish for communication, in a stunning tropical forest.

After that, I explored the other trails on my own, including a night walk that revealed nothing more than a kinkajou, but it was magic, standing quietly in the middle of the jungle with the light turned off, listening to the noises of the forest with not another soul within miles.

From El Imposible,  it was a relatively short trip to the nearby park of Cerro Verde, with a brief stop at a roadside tienda to stock up on vegies (and beer). A little bit of a wait as the lady quickly cooked me some fresh tortillas.

My campsite was in the parking lot of the park with views over the classically conical Volcán Izalco one of the youngest of the various volcanoes in the region. This volcano has reminded locals of its presence at regular intervals through the 20th century. Above me, shrouded in brooding clouds was the higher Santa Ana or Ilamatepec which is also only snoozing, having erupted as recently as 2005. 

Volcán Izalco

Firstly, I tackled the rocky slopes of Izalco with a group of half a dozen younger San Salvadorean guys, and was encouraged to see that I was in better shape than these guys 30 years younger than this viejo (old fart). A novel aspect of the climb was being accompanied by 2 armed policemen - never hiked with someone riding shotgun before! 

The next day was a longer but less steep climb up Ilamatepec which, while less classical from the outside, had a crater at the top with all of the spectacle and drama that one expects from any self-respecting volcano. The swirling clouds with brief flashes of sunshine added to the drama but as thunder and lightning started to build we scrambled back down, arriving back at camp as the rain started. Together with a few other hikers we piled into the van for a hot coffee before the others headed off on their bus and motorcycle respectively.

Atop Llamatapec

View over Lago Coatapeque
A brief descent took me to nearby Lago Coatapeque. I was thinking that I would find a comfy hotel for a change, but it turns out that the lake-front is owned by wealthy El Salvadorians and, as you drive around it, you effectively drive behind big concrete walls that prevent anyone else from enjoying the spectacular views that the lake offers. Fortunately, virtually at the end of the road there was an area for community access where I was able to find a very pleasant campsite - after declining the prison-cell-like “habitationes” that they offered. On the edge of a stunning volcanic crater lake, the rooms had no windows, and the two uncomfortable looking beds took up almost all of the floor space! Instead, I suggested that I might be able to park my van on a nice flat spot with views across the lake which they agreed to, for a fee of $4. In response to my question about whether they sold beer, they said no, but they would go and buy some for me and deliver it to my van, so 15 minutes later, as the light faded, my beer was delivered and I was comfortably ensconced in my cosy cocoon when the rain started yet again and the surprisingly comforting sound of thunder rolled across the lake. 

On the shores of Lago Coatapeque

My treat for the following morning was the discovery of pupusas.  Like me, it seems that El Salvadorians have acknowledged that tortillas are actually not very interesting and that, if you fold beans, cheese and/or green vegetables into them, they get a lot tastier - yum! Normally I wouldn’t eat at a “restaurant” that has no other guests, but on this occasion it was obvious that I was just sharing breakfast with the very friendly family that looked after the place and there was nothing in the ingredients that was likely to go  off. 

El Salvador is the smallest of the central American countries,so it doesn’t take long to get around, even going as slow as I am, so I set off towards La Palma, near the Honduran border, but a sign to Suchitoto on a side road tempted me and I diverted to this little pueblo known for its arts scene on the weekends. There’s no denying that it is a very pleasant little town, but I guess I have been spoiled by the cultural richness of Mexico and the mountain villages of Guatemala. Mind you, it is mid-week and the place may come to life on the weekend, but it was pretty sleepy today. Maybe one also has to reflect on the impact of the awful history of this country, with the active discrimination against, and even extermination of, indigenous communities and the loss of cultural heritage that goes with it. Many of the El Salvadorian towns are practical, semi-functional service centers and you get the feeling that places like Suchitoto represent an attempt to rebuild and recapture some of that tradition rather than being a natural consequence of a slowly evolving heritage. One can only admire the resilience of these people after what they have lived through!

La Palma, my next stop, sat in the cool ranges that bordered Honduras. Hotel La Palma’s parking lot provided a great place to spend a couple of nights - nice restaurant overlooking the river, very friendly owner (all of his family had moved to Australia), wifi, and close proximity to a great pupusaria to offset the more pricey hotel restaurant. 

Folk art on the streets of La Palma
The highlight of this little pueblo is the simple and colorful street art that captures the daily aspects of life and the environment of El Salvador. It seems that much of this style is attributable to Fernando Llort Choussy who tought and inspired local people to try to make a living through art. 

La Palma happens to sit at the bottom of El Salvador’s highest mountain, El Pital, the peak of which is shared with Honduras. A very steep road, which turns into an even steeper and rougher track, takes you to within a short walk of the top. A small flat area provided my campsite for two nights with great views over the valleys below. While there is virtually no view from the top of  El Pital itself (too much vegetation!) a sendero (trail) through beautiful cloud forest takes you to a lookout that has to be reached by crossing a crevice on a fallen tree trunk with only a single cable for balance.
Near the top of El Pital

My descent from El Pital was momentarily halted by a car stuck in a ditch and blocking the road. They were tourists from San Salvador out for the weekend and had no idea how to get themselves out of their difficulties.  For the fourth time my rescue gear came in handy, (fortunately on all occasions rescuing someone else) and I quickly winched them out which probably saved them from a cold wet night on the mountain, as I don’t think they were going to get themselves out. 

Another night in the parking lot of Hotel La Palma in preparation for the border with Honduras. Woke up with a very unsettled stomach. Obviously something I had eaten did not agree with me - probably the not-quite-ripe fruit that I bought from some young kids on the roadside. After getting most of it out of the system, I set off for another dreaded border crossing .... and by all accounts Honduras has the worst crossings. With an unpredictable stomach, I was not looking forward to it and was hoping that I would be accosted by touts who would help me through the process, but no such luck - not a one to be seen. So again, I drove past all of the trucks and then managed a fairly straightforward, albeit time consuming process. It was slowed down by the fact that my timing coincided with lunch, so the banks where I had to pay for my vehicle import permit, and the photo-copy shops where I had to get the the dozens of photocopies, were all closed, turning what would have been an hour and a half crossing turned into two and a half. 

But my stomach held out and finally I was on my way into Honduras.

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