El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, but we were surprised at what an excellent variety of experiences it had to offer. It's got beaches, volcanoes, Mayan ruins, cute villages and modern city life, and unique, delicious food...basically, everything else you find in other Central American countries condensed into one small area, and I am surprised that tourists have not really caught on to this yet! We were there for three days, but I think that we could easily have stayed a week or longer and not run out of new places to visit...and I can't say that for everywhere. (Also, El Salvador--like Panama and Ecuador--is on the US dollar, making dealing with money incredibly easy.)
Because the country is small, we based ourselves in the capital of San Salvador and took day trips to places of interest. San Salvador has more malls than we have ever seen in one city before, and the one we stayed near was Metrocentro, which is the largest mall in Central America. What's kind of amusing is that after wandering through it for a while you feel like you are seeing the same 10 stores over and over again: Metrocentro must have at least four Mr. Donuts, for example, but that's OK because we love Mister Donut (see Andy's forthcoming food post for more details).
Anyway, our hostel owners also have a beach house, and on our first full day in town, the husband happened to be driving out there to do some maintenance. He took us along and we got to relax on a lovely, nearly deserted beach in the far western part of the country. The Pacific ate my goggles, but otherwise it was a very pleasant outing.
There was even wildlife to spot near the beach. Like these colorful blue-tailed lizards...
...and a whole slew of turkey vultures on fenceposts! Andy got this great close-up of one.
That night, we went to (where else?) the mall! Which had a cinema, and it just so happened to be half-price Wednesday, so we saw that worldwide blockbuster, "New Moon," for $2 apiece. We both agreed that "Twilight" (which we saw on a tour bus in Peru) was better.
On our second day in the country, Andy and I mastered the city and regional bus systems to get ourselves out to our next destination. All ex-American school buses, by the way. Smoking is banned on these buses (yay!)...but apparently so is ice cream (boo).
Our destination was the Mayan ruins of Joya de Ceren, aka the "Pompei of El Salvador." These ruins, preserved by a volcanic eruption in the 600s AD, are the only surviving example of everyday Mayan dwellings (rather than the great temples and public buildings you find elsewhere). Also, they are the southernmost Mayan ruins, marking the far reach of the Mayan empire.
Here you can see an average Mayan's dormitory--the raised platforms on the left were beds. Each family dwelling consisted of three structures: a dormitory, a kitchen, and a "bodega" (which apparently does not mean little shop, but cellar, or storage area).
And here is the back of the shaman's temple. The shaman had a living space and a working space with lots of nooks for his potions and such.
Joya de Ceren is a small site, and it only took us about half an hour to see. So we hopped back on the bus and were back in San Salvador by lunchtime. Easy!
We took this opportunity to visit the old city center, which is a loud, crowded place filled with street stalls and bus fumes. Much of the old architecture has been destroyed by successive earthquakes, but the churches are still nice to look at. I think that this one is the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, probably the fanciest one downtown.
A tree up in the main plaza of San Salvador. The season is definitely getting underway down here...we heard a lot of Christmas songs (in Spanish, of course) playing over the sound system at (where else?) the mall.
That afternoon, after much hunting for the correct city bus, we visited a park high above the city where the "Puerta del Diablo" (Devil's Door) offers great, if slightly smog-hindered, views of a good chunk of the country.
And that night, we visited another neighborhood high above the city to eat amazing pupusas with our Salvadorean hero, Ronald, the cousin of our New York friend Julia, who had never met us before but nevertheless picked us up at our hostel to take us to a traditional dinner and city tour--how awesome is that!
Anyway, at Pupuseria Abbi, the diners next to us were serenaded by a full-on mariachi band. Apparently, many such bands rove the restaurants at night to play to paying customers. It was the first time we had seen this in our travels, reminding us of how we creep ever closer to Mexico.
Our final day in El Salvador was spent mostly in Suchitoto, a village known for its colonial architecture and proximity to a beautiful lake and waterfalls.
The town itself was a little sleepier than we'd expected, but it did have a nice main square and church.
We hiked out to the Los Tercios waterfall, which falls over these crazy geometric rocks. The waterfall was not the biggest waterfall ever, but fun to see nevertheless.
And right near the waterfall was an incredible mirador looking out over the lake. One of the more beautiful and peaceful vistas I have seen on our whole trip.
In closing, if you have a week or 10 days or so and are thinking of taking a Central American vacation, I highly recommend El Salvador. There's plenty to see, it's not too expensive, the people are very friendly, the food is amazing, and you don't have to shlep around a lot on long bus rides. Put it on your itinerary!