36. San Salvador
Where did San Salvador come from? Tall buildings, fast food restaurants, large shopping malls, car dealerships, traffic lights, multi-lane roads, billboards - our chicken bus dropped us in a large, Westernized city, something we hadn't seen since the US (even Mexico City didn't have the same feel). It was such a strange sight given the lack of all these things in the other places we had visited. In a way it was sort of comforting, a homely familiarity. Unfortunately it came with higher prices too. We'd had a good run.
Rocking up to a big city in one of these bad boys. Every bus needs wheel spikes, right?
Our first stop was the Zona Rosa, the expensive hotel zone full of upscale restaurants and bars. Not because we were staying there (not even close with our budget), but to visit the Museo de Arte de El Salvador. We weren't expecting much but the quality blew us away. Located in a modern building, it covered numerous styles of art from the 1900s onwards. There was also a section on the civil war, which was horrible but fascinating. The temporary Pop Art expo was also captivating. I was glad we made the effort to seek out this gem.
Next I visited downtown. Alone. One thing the guidebook says is to avoid downtown, especially if you are female and even more especially if you are alone (the city is often on the top 10 list of the world's most violent cities). I also read plenty of internet sites that said I would be fine. And of course you can believe everything you read online. So I took the risk.
Downtown was completely different from the rest of the city. No high-rise buildings, no highways with free-flowing traffic, nothing new installed within the last 50 years. Every street was lined with market stalls that spilled out into the middle of the road, traffic was a nightmare, the centre squares were kept watch by armed officers, beggars abounded - really it wasn't much different to other big cities in Central America. I stumbled upon a church that looked a little odd and dilapidated on the outside but ended up having a stunning interior, with layers of stained glass windows crafting intricate patterns across the room. It was a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle outside. Although I never felt unsafe at any time, a couple of hours in this part of town was all I needed to see everything worth seeing.
Downtown: Endless street markets.
Cool church. The photos don't do it justice.
We organised a self-guided day trip to El Boqueron, a volcano only 25km away from the city. Armed with public transport instructions from our hotel's manager, we were set for an early start to capture the best views. Off we went, with high hopes for a nice day out.
It took us three hours to travel that 25km. I can run faster than that. The day didn't get much better.
We jumped on the peak hour bus to Santa Tecla without difficulties, but we had no idea where to get off. Luckily a local man helped us out and told us where to disembark. Which we did - in the middle of suburbia. We had no clue where to go from there. We walked around until we found another bus that was heading to the centre of town, so we caught that to some place resembling a town square. We then went around and around in circles, asking everyone we could find where to get the bus up the mountain. No one could help us (damn our lack of Spanish). We gave up and caught a taxi, which was probably what we should have done from San Salvador.
To reach the viewpoint we walked through peaceful pine forest, but that's where the positives ended. The crater was predictably massive, but also full of trees, which was unexpected. In fact it looked more like a small canyon than a crater, and I didn't come here to see small canyons. Because it was so late in the morning the sky was hazy, so there was zero view over San Salvador or any other part of the countryside. With nothing else to do we walked out and caught a pick up going back to Santa Tecla. All that effort for about 30 minutes of volcano action. If you can call it a volcano. Or action.
Our day still got worse. Santa Tecla was a pretty town but most shops were shut on Monday, so there was no way to make our trip worthwhile there. We grabbed an average lunch, then as we were about to start heading back to San Salvador it poured down with rain. Which didn't stop for hours. We tried to wait it out but eventually gave up. Slipping and sliding we ran through the rain to the bus stop, and quickly hopped on board the correct-numbered bus. Which went in the opposite direction. It took us 10 minutes to figure this out. We hopped off in the middle of a residential street, looking completely out of place, crossed the road and waited for the right one to come along. It was a long day.
Thankfully San Salvador was on our side. While Danny hit a brewery (surprise surprise), I visited the Museum of Word and Image, mostly dedicated to the uprising of the 1930s and the civil war of the 1980s. It was heart-breaking to learn about these events, however some positive tales were included too. It blows me away how I am completely unaware of the history of Central America, how it is never spoken about in Western media, never mentioned in the history books I have been exposed to. Yet what happened in these countries and to these people is just as devastating as the more commonly told stories in our society. It makes you realise how big (and depressing) the world is.
How Danny unwound after a crappy day. Me, I went to a museum.
I think I know who had the right idea.
ATMs were an ordeal. One morning we walked around to 10 different ATMs, three banks and tried multiple credit cards before someone could help us. The problem? We were only allowed to withdraw $100 at a time. That's how inexpensive this country is. You never need more than $100 on you.
Our last night was spent at the cinema. Occasionally we craved a simple, normal existence, as though we were back home and it was merely another day in our ordinary lives. Close to our hotel was a large shopping mall with an English-language theatre, so we picked a movie on at the right time, sat down with a family-sized bucket of popcorn and enjoyed hearing other people speaking our language for a while.
Other than a couple of people at the first museum we visited, we did not see a single other tourist in San Salvador.