We wound up deciding to visit El Salvador purely by dint of mathematics. I had been to 97 countries already and was not willing to let the arrival of children (presently aged 6 and 3) stop my desperate attempt to become the next world explorer. My husband was the one who suggested it. As he put it, “When you’ve been to 97 countries, you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel to find more.”
Not put off by his comment, nor the low socio-economic indicators, nor all the blogging websites from recent visitors – “very poor”, ‘nothing of interest”, “Why did I go?” – I duly bought the flight tickets and thus we were committed. I did make one concession to the natural poverty of the place: I booked us into one of the top two hotels in San Salvador for our entire week’s visit. We stayed in comfort in the Hotel El President Sheraton, complete with terrace restaurant, bar, and swimming pool with waterfall. I couldn’t complain as the internet rate for two rooms was less than the price of one room at the Walt Disney World Resort we had stayed in last year in Florida. (The other top hotel is the Hilton Intercontinental but, unlike the Sheraton, it is not located in the more affluent, quiet suburb of coffee shops and galleries.)
As we queued up at Los Angeles International Airport for our flight, we wondered what we had got ourselves into. Firstly, we were all fighting off colds, including the little guy, who was coughing regularly. Secondly, we were absolutely the only non-Salvadoreňos embarking. We were surrounded by Salvadorean families carting home televisions, microwave ovens, children’s bicycles and other vital consumer goods that you obviously could not find locally. The lightest traveler had six large suitcases. Thirdly and finally, United Airlines clearly considered it appropriate to make the entire passenger list wait outside on the street beside the airport building in the cold until an hour before the flight, when they graciously opened the doors and we at least had access to light and heating. After an hour standing outside in a light drizzle, we wondered if we had somehow already arrived in the third world country that we were planning to visit.
When we finally boarded, flew and then landed in El Salvador, we were most impressed. The airport was clean, airy and, most importantly, there was no line whatsoever for immigration (or even for returning residents). I had somehow omitted to fill out the landing cards on the flight and so the nice lady at immigration did half of them for me – and then charged me $10 per American passport as entry tax. That made it $30. As a Brit, I was apparently free from fees. I wished I’d brought the kids other (English) passports with me instead of their U.S. ones.
We picked up our rental car (four wheel drive is a must) without issue, and were on our way. We drove through beautiful rolling hills and above gentle valleys, past looming volcanoes and flat savannah. The countryside was truly spectacular. Unfortunately, there were no signs to San Salvador so we had no idea where we were going. They are not great believers in street indicators in this country, as we were to confirm during our trip. Most roads change names halfway along, not usually at the point indicated on any map, and to get out of cities, you mostly have to do legal (yes, really) U-turns in the middle of motorways without slip roads. (You simply drive across the median and shoot into the fast lane on the other side, usually with eyes closed – we couldn’t help it.)
After about half-an-hour, we stopped for directions and a coconut. Fruit-sellers lurk at every major intersection. There are usually a group of stalls bunched together, with no clear differentiation in product or marketing between them (same fruits, same wooden signs). This lead to interesting debates with my husband about how a seller wins in this competitive marketplace – something that is still unresolved in our minds.
Soon we were in San Salvador. We noticed the majestic Volcan de San Salvador on our left, not because we were looking out for sights of natural beauty, but rather because we were desperately looking for street names and you can’t miss a massive volcano towering over a city.
After a few more queries to passers-by, we made it safely to the hotel. We had been interested to find that, unlike in American cities, the random people whom we accosted from our car window did not have the red eyes or weird fast-talk of a drug addict or homeless person, but were perfectly well-spoken and helpful.
We valet-parked our car for the princely sum of $2 per day, and checked in. It makes it a lot easier to travel when the country you are in not only accepts U.S. dollars, but also has them as the official national currency.
As husband and kids recovered from the overnight flight, I pestered the concierge about what we should do for the next few days. He and his colleagues kept telling me: “Just ask your family and they will take you around”. It took a few goes before I understood that they were all assuming that we must be visiting relatives – otherwise, why else would we have come? Most of them had not even been to the historic locations that I was mentioning from my guidebook. Of course, we were somewhat handicapped by the fact that there are no guidebooks to El Salvador – bar the 2001 “On Your Own in El Salvador”, which I wasn’t, and which anyway was out of print. El Salvador is usually a ten-page section in a Central American guide, in which the “country highlights” paragraph is noticeably meager.
We spent our first full day wandering around the Zona Rosa, the area where our hotel was located. This is described in the book as the nicest neighborhood in El Salvador, perfect for wandering around safely, with a great art gallery called Galeria 123. After a two-minute jaunt out the hotel, we returned to deposit the stroller. There wasn’t much point having a wheeled vehicle for a three-year-old when there was no real pavement to speak of, just large slabs of cracked and broken concrete, impossible to push on, even without the parked cars rammed right up on the so-called sidewalk so you couldn’t pass them even if you wanted to. We went out of the hotel, down the small slope to the main road and turned right. There were none of the promised coffee shops and galleries, just auto mechanic garages, petrol stations and stores selling downmarket goods. The road was loud and busy, and we weren’t wild about having to step into it every time we wanted to pass a parked car. Suffice it to say that Gabriel (the three-year-old) got carried a lot. He didn’t complain but his parents certainly did. With aching backs, we soon returned hotel-ward, and cooled off in the pool (waterfall sadly switched off by then, complaints this time from Noah, aged six). Dinner at the hotel was a large buffet of Latin American food, changed nightly. Sometimes it featured food from Panama, sometimes Nicaragua, and on Sundays, the national cuisine. Weirdly, 80% of the nightly offerings were exactly the same as the previous evening. The food was excellent and after three large helpings plus dessert shared with all the family, Chris (hubby) declared it terrific value for $22. I ordered a split portion of plain spaghetti for the kids (all they’ll eat happily at night), which for $7 wasn’t quite such a bargain.
The next day we turned left out the hotel in the Zona Rosa, because the concierge, when I told him about our previous disappointing experience, assured me that I had simply gone the wrong way out the front door. We had exactly the same experience as the day before, though we walked longer and went further. Still no Galeria 123. And where were the splendid ’burbs where the rich 2% of the population lived behind gated walls and barbed wire fences in perfect harmony with the working community? It must be time to venture further afield.
We packed drinks and snacks and headed an hour north to Suchitoto: “a great little town with colonial buildings and cobblestone streets”. All this is true, but what really made the place special was our visit to Casa Museo Alejandro Cotto (past the police station, half-way down the hill turn left, go to the end of the road and notice a nicely painted white house with a huge wooden door – that’s it, then ring the doorbell if you can find it or no one will come). El Salvador’s most famous film-maker, Alejandro Cotto, has turned his home into a museum of Latin American (and other) artifacts. He personally insisted on showing us around, as his assistants disappeared with our children, promising to keep an eye on them. We saw impressive religious carvings that were four or six hundred years old, and even the first Salvadorean printing press, that Cotto’s father brought to the country in the early 20th century. It sounds very romantic, but that might just be due to my interpretation of Cotto’s Spanish explanations.
The best thing about the house is the fabulous view over Lago Suchitlán from a sandy grotto at the end of the garden. Cotto also has a collection of beautiful flowers, shrubs and waterfalls – and a small pond, where I found the children trying and failing to catch fish.
Another day, we packed more drinks and snacks and headed an hour west to the other colonial town of Santa Ana. It’s a madhouse. The streets swam with brightly-colored buses, dropping off and picking up passengers without stopping or even slowing down. The main square, Parque Libertad, is surrounded by stalls selling every one-dollar toy your child could possibly want to keep him entertained for the next five minutes (and no more), and there’s ice-cream, of course, nuts and candy. The colonial theatre off the main square has been beautifully restored and is much more interesting than the cathedral. Noah was allowed to go both on-stage and back-stage, and this has given him a new, if mistaken, appreciation for what actors are doing when we can’t see them at a show (“Do they all build stuff behind the scenes, when they are not performing, Mummy?).
The main roads in El Salvador are actually pretty good – much better than Costa Rica, and even better than most highways in Los Angeles. A pothole is rare. This allows for easy physical exploration, even with kids preternaturally disposed towards car sickness such as ours. We had no need for the airline sick bags we always have ready when we travel.
Another day we went to Tazumel, described in guidebooks (and online, which gave me comfort that it must be recently true) as the best Mayan ruins in El Salvador. I didn’t understand what the qualifier “in El Salvador” truly meant until we got there, as I was imagining something like the ruins I had seen in Mexico or Gautemala. On arrival, we spent twenty minutes looking for the car park, until we finally realized that there wasn’t one and the only place to park was on the street right in front of the entrance. Since there were no other tourists, bar busloads of schoolchildren, there was plenty of room. Much to my husband’s annoyance, I paid some chap $2 to look after our car (“a buck now, one when we return”), as (a) I thought it was a good precaution given we could be gone a long time, and (b) he asked for it. Five minutes later, we returned. The site’s worth is in direct proportion to the entrance fee – only $2.50 for all of us. ‘Tis but a small broken temple comprised of a few steps skyward with a flat top. At least, I assume the top was flat, but since the entire temple was fenced off, we were not allowed to climb a thing and I couldn’t really tell. The 2001 earthquake had caused the structure to bend upward in the middle and was no longer considered safe for mounting. The kids were most disappointed, as were we. The picture in the tiny museum showing the structure pre-2001 wasn’t much more uplifting.
The real reason to go to El Salvador is for the natural beauty and the volcanoes. There’s a path to the top of Volcan de San Salvador that is doable in a four wheel drive. I asked the hotel receptionists if we should give it a shot. “No, it’s not safe”, they said. “Why not? Is the track too difficult for our car?” “No, the track is fine, but there are thieves that wait out there, and then they will rob you.”
There was a slight pause. The receptionist continued: “Well, it’s not safe for your children, but if you don’t take them, you could be fine.” Why? Were the thieves going to rob me of my children? I never figured that one out, but we decided to be prudent and not go.
We were also cautious when visiting the historic centre of San Salvador: on repeated recommendations from our hotel, we did not get out of our car. The streets are crowded and dirty, filled with decaying shacks and broken glass. From our field travels beyond the city, Noah had already got a good understanding that there were people who lived in slums without running water or electricity (“Can’t we just invite them to come and stay in our hotel room?” Reply: “What, all five hundred thousand of them, wouldn’t it be a bit squashy?”), so we couldn’t put the exploration down to more cultural learning. We saw the new Gothic cathedral (1999) looking garish, the old Palacio and Teatro Nacional looking rather the worse for wear, and a couple of small decaying churches. That would do. On other days, we visited the small but interesting Museo de Arte de El Salvador, to acquaint ourselves with local artists. They did not have any paintings by Fernando Llort, El Salvador’s most famous living artist, whose paintings hang in the Vatican. We went to his official art gallery and bought one of our own (of course, we could not find it on the map, we passed it by accident on our way back from the historic city, screeched to a halt, leapt out, purchased and leapt back in vehicle).
We also popped into the splendid national anthropology museum (Museo Nacional de Antropologia), just down the street from our hotel, and had a short education in ancient cooking, weaving and dyeing techniques. There were several examples of cotton-making machines (Gabriel: “Can I touch it?”) and cooking utensils doing all kinds of things to fake food (“Can I eat it?”), so it was an enjoyable excursion. Nobody seemed to mind what Gabriel touched and poked, but that might just have been because we were the only people in the museum and it did not have hidden cameras or alarms. I will return the pots soon, I promise.
For upmarket excursions and as special treats, we took the kids to the Multiplaza, the nicest shopping center in San Salvador, where they have a Burger King and large collection of American shops (Tommy Hillfiger, Puma etc.) with corresponding American prices, and therefore they are all empty of shoppers. We found the Croissant Café and got delicious fruit-filled crepes and very strange ice-cream that was most definitely not the simple chocolate flavor that I had ordered.
We even went all the way south to the seaside to the Costa del Sol. Images of five-star hotels with lush gardens and large pools with slides and cool cabanas came to my mind. We covered the entire strip by car without spotting one hotel, but did pass a multitude of painted walls with large gates, behind which no doubt lurked the holiday homes of the rich and famous of El Salvador (those that couldn’t get to LA or Miami, that is). Finally, we passed the Hotel Bahia del Sol, the place that our concierge had said was the nicest there. We passed it because the sign was so faded that we could not believe this was the place. The road petered out a few meters further down, so we knew that had been it and returned. The scruffy guard told us it would be $20 per person to use the facilities for the day, and demanded Chris’s driving license if we all entered. I went in alone to take a look. The entire hotel comprised a few two-story apartments, an outdoor bar and a small café bordering the pool. Behind was the ocean, and a beach on which no child was playing. A few adults were dragging a bit of driftwood across the dirty grey sand. We decided to return a few miles in land to Atlantis, a waterpark that we had passed on our journey down. The kids loved the large shallow pools with many steep slides and shoots for the bare-bottomed and the rubber-ringed traveler. I took Gabriel round on the “lazy river”, so lazy that there was no current and I had to paddle the entire journey. At the end, I heard those dreaded words: “Again, please!” so we did. It was a splendid day out.
In perfect coordination with the fact that we had run out of things to do, it was time to go. As we did a final circuit of the Zona Rosa, I spotted Galeria 123, right next to Coffee Mix, the local coffee shop. It was closed.
A few more directional questions to friendly locals, and we made it back to the airport. It is amazing that, for a country that went through a violent and destructive civil war (that only ended in 1992), followed by a major earthquake in 2001 (in which 1 in 25 homes were in someway affected if not outright destroyed), the people are so friendly, open and eager to help. They also love children and enjoyed practicing their English on our monolingual offspring. However, I found the same thing applies as in Germany: Don’t mention the war.