A volcano hike, a food festival and 5 days of falling off a surfboard – my last week in El Salvador

It’s quite hard to write this knowing I’ll be on a plane back to Britain tomorrow. I’m not sure I’m ready for such mundane things as sorting out my car insurance and updating my CV!

I’d always planned to have the final week of my trip at El Salvador’s famous surf beach El Tunco, but I threw in a few extra activities too. I felt like I needed to see a little more of the country, seeing as I headed straight to the west on my arrival in December, before going on to travel through Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Belize.

Santa Ana – two nights 
After a very rough crossing by sea on a very small boat from Belize to Guatemala, followed thankfully by a more peaceful scenic river trip up the Rio Dulce, I caught an eight hour bus to El Salvador, completing my figure of eight through five countries (phew). The border guard wanted to know all about my trip and which country I’d liked most. As he was the immigration officer for El Salvador, guess what my answer was?!

I was in Santa Ana to finally hike a volcano. I meant to do this in Guatemala but got side tracked and I knew I couldn’t travel along the Ring of Fire and not risk my life hiking up at least one active volcano. I rather cunningly chose the easiest one, as although it’s the countrys highest volcano (last active in 2005) it’s also one of the oldest, so covered in vegetation with an access road nearly to the top. It’s only about an hour futher on foot. Of course, being El Salvador you need an armed escort and every day at 11am a guide and policeman accompany a group to the top. Some days apparently there can be up to 100 people doing the hike! The day I went we were only around 30 hikers but it was still pretty tedious stopping to wait for stragglers all the time, adding a fair amount of time to the hike.

 

It was worth it though, with spectacular views of two other volcanos as we ascended, then rather dramatically at the summit the ground opens up to reveal an emerald sulphuric crater lake bubbling away with steam rolling across its surface. Turn around and there’s a panoramic view dominated by huge Lago Coatepeque, itself an ancient crater lake (where I had a beer and a rather chilly dip after the hike).

 

An ice cream seller hiked up with us, carrying an ice box on his shoulder, then set up shop at the summit. It was pretty nice sitting admiring the view munching a frozen watermelon popsicle!

Juayua and the Ruta de las Flores – two nights
Just an hour from Santa Ana is the much hyped Ruta des Flores, a mountain road linking several small towns known for their cobbled streets, colourful murals and weekend food festivals.

After checking into my hostel and looking longingly at the inviting pool, I hopped back on a bus and headed along the Ruta to check out Concepcion de Ataco, two towns along. I have a feeling all the towns are pretty similar, but Ataco was worth a quick wander. I rummaged through the handicraft shops, admired the street art and treated myself to a cherry-topped mango ‘frozen’. Indigo textiles were prevalent in  most shops. Indigo used to be El Salvadors biggest import until coffee took over and a synthetic process for making the dye was discovered. Lately, with natural dyes back in vogue, local cooperatives are relearning traditional techniques.

 


The next day was a Saturday and the food fair in Juayua was up and running by 11am. Two streets around the central square were lined with tables and chairs, while food vendors set up cooking stations. I wasn’t surprised that nearly all the stalls were meat based, although there was some fish and seafood. I’d heard there might be giant frog legs and grilled iguana, but I couldn’t spot any. My treat was a rather nice pina colada (natural $2.00 or $2.50 with a rather large shot of rum) served in a whole pineapple. I chatted with a San Salvador family on a day out, while we watched a man with a giant snake around his shoulders joke with the driver of a horse and carriage, neither making any attempt to attract customers.

 

I was hoping there’d be more sweet treats and local delicacies on offer, but it really was just a lot of bbq stalls. So after a final ramble I headed back to spend the afternoon in the hostel pool and enjoy a beer or two.

Surfing in El Tunco – six nights 
Six whole nights in one place! What a treat. I wasn’t sure I was going to like El Tunco, it having a lot of hype as a backpacker beach and surf mecca. I deliberately booked a peaceful looking guesthouse on the outskirts of town (town being a very loose term for what was essentially two streets and a beachfront) so I could avoid party central.

But as it turned out I really liked El Tunco. Yes, there are several bars, smoothie kiosks with, gasp, menus in English and everywhere’s advertising a bucket of coronas for $12 but it was really relaxed with a peaceful vibe. I was one of only two people staying at Guanaquita Lodge, run by the welcoming Sander, and it was a treat to have my own room and terrace, as well as access to a kitchen and shady hammocks.

My days fell into a rather lovely routine of dragging myself out of bed to surf about 7am, back to Sanders to have brekkie around 11ish, then meeting up with the two nice Canadian girls I’d befriended in Juayua. We did a fantastic waterfall hike one day in the hills above El Tunco, jumping into pools and doing a slip and slide down algae covered rocks (so much fun)!. On arriving back from the hike in Tamanique, our guide Melvin proudly showed us the graves he had made in the village cemetery. Another day we went to the busy port town La Libertad, admired the numerous fresh fish stalls on the pier and had a delicious bowl of ceviche (if you’re unsure, that’s raw seafood with lime). And of course every night we ended up on the beach with a couple of beers or some rum to watch the sunset (along with literally every other El Tunco resident).

I can’t say my surfing improved, even with one to one lessons from local surfer Ronan. We had a lot of fun though and if nothing else I got a lot of paddling experience. I also learnt the Spanish for ‘get your hands off the effing board faster’ (screamed at me every time I managed to stand up) and ‘hurry up you’re wasting time’ (shouted at me every time I failed to paddle back to Ronan quickly enough after catching a wave).

San Salvador and a day trip to Suchitito – two nights
So, I’m back in San Salvador for my last two nights and staying (why not?) at the very same hostel where I spent the first two nights of my trip three months ago.  I’m writing this blog post in a coffee shop in delightful Suchitoto, a hour and a half from the city (that’s a hour to get out of San Salvador, then half an hour up the highway). I can’t believe that this time tomorrow my plane will just be taking off, headed for Heathrow via Mexico City.

Suchitoto is a nice place for my last adventure of my trip. On the shores of the largest man made lake in El Salvador, it’s also the birthplace of local film director Alejandro Cotto, whose gorgeous house is now a museum.


So, my coffee is finished and it’s time to go get the bus back to San Salvador where I will have one last pupusa and enjoy a can of the local Pilsner. I’m already counting the days until next winter – who knows what countries I’ll be exploring then?!

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