Strictly for Partying Surfaholics

El Tunco, El Salvador

March 17, 2017

El Tunco is one of those hamlet-grown-into-a-village that are scattered around odd corners of the world, its claim to fame being the waves that crash onto its beach. Well known in the surfing world it is here that many come to play in the waves during the blisteringly hot days. On weekends the assorted travelers are joined by well-heeled Salvadorans who come to party. The narrow street down to the beach is lined with shops selling the usual tourist kitsch among sarongs and beachwear. Bars, cafes and restaurants

have wait staff proffering menus to entice tourists with food and drink. A long line of bars and restaurants line the beach as far as the eye can see. Come sunset the village parties. It booms to music loud enough to rattle window panes and restaurants serve up a constant stream of delicacies as tourists, more domestic than foreign, crowd the tables and line deckchairs on the gray sand.  The pounding surf breaks onto the beach constantly,  the waves rushing to the shore in a constant luminous line.

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Sights of Santa Ana

Santa Ana, El Salvador

March 15, 2017

Santa Ana may be the second largest city in El Salvador but even its most bustling moments tick in a low-key sort of way. There is none of the frantic pace that characterizes most large cities and even the drivers seem to be more courteous than many others in cities around the world. At the heart of the city set around the Plaza Libertad are stately buildings of the Cathedral de Santa Ana and the Teatro Nacional. The warm yellow columns and façade of the government building hides battered wooden shutters that look down on a lush inner courtyard but the Archeological museum wears a slick face.  A couple of blocks away is the central market with stalls that spill out onto the streets. The vendors call out to buy mangoes and avocados and jocotes and assorted vegetables. One woman juggles handing out change and piping hot empanadas. Another smiles over her cushion of giant sized needles.

But as daylight wanes they shut down, the stalls wrapped tightly in plastic and tarp. And come nightfall the streets are deserted in the area around the metro centro. Vehicles are few and far between and there is not a single person on foot. The only places that are not locked up tight for the night are the occasional pupuserias.

A short bus ride out of Santa Ana, in the town of Chalchuapa are the Mayan ruins of Tazumal. Excavation work was done mostly in the 1940s and 1950s but large parts of it remain unexcavated to this day. In their wisdom, the original workers plastered over the steps and the sides of the pyramids, successfully ruining the ruins. Underwhelming at best, it takes a bare fifteen minutes to make the circuit and climb the stairs that are accessible.

Next door to the ruins is a large cemetery with hundreds of tombs and we wander among them for a bit. Not surprisingly, many of the graves date to the civil war. Most are family graves, the tombstones bearing the names of several family members. There seems to be no pattern for these graves and they run the gamut from functional ones made of porcelain tiles in all sorts of shapes to elaborate cupolas. Some are so old that the plaster has long fallen victim to time and trees have taken root on the walls and others are as recent as last year. All but the very oldest are lavishly decorated with plastic flowers ribbons and wreaths.

Would You Like to See Our Family Farm?

Ahuachapan, El Slavador

March 13, 2017

It all started with a request to share their table. This was the busy food festival in Concepcion de Ataco over the weekend and all the tables in the eating area were occupied by families and visitors. I needed to find a seat. We said out hellos as they graciously let me share their table and introduced ourselves. Small talk soon turned into a longer conversation and I learned that Mario and Beatrice live in San Salvador but come into Ataco every Sunday to amble through the town, eat at the cafes that spring up over the weekend. Their ten year old son is not quite as enthusiastic about the weekend festival but is delighted to stay at Mario’s brother’s and play with his cousins.

Our conversation continued over the meal as we strolled through town and I was invited for coffee at one of their favorite restaurants. A bit further out from the central plaza, this was quieter with a grand view of the area from its balcony. Mario and Beatrice both come from these parts and Mario remembers helping to harvest coffee on his father’s farm as a child. It was a time when the Ruta de Las Flores was still a dirt road and the buildings in the villages, more rudimentary. The farm still exists but is not an active farm anymore. In fact it is close to the farm that Mario’s brother lives and it is there that they have to go to pick up their son. My interest in the ways of life then and now, no doubt prompted their invitation.

“Would you like to come with us to visit the farm?” they asked.

They had a car and would show me the farm, pick up Mario junior and then drop me off in Juayua where I was staying on their way back to San Salvador. I needed no second urging and promptly accepted.

Up we went along Ruta de las Flores to the town of Ahuachapan. A small detour through town was deemed necessary to show me the sights and soon after we turned off the asphalt. A dirt road stretched out before us lined with small plots with houses. Lines of laundry fluttered in the breeze and some children stopped in their play to stare at the car. A few dogs started to get up to bark but thought the better of it as they no doubt recognized the car. All this area used to be farmed not so long ago they tell me, but many of the farms are now sold. The houses we saw along the road belonged to one such farm before the owner parceled the land into small plots and sold them off.

Soon we turn into a wooden gate and drive up through large empty fields to a sprawling house with tiled roof. Bright yellow and orange painted walls greet a cheery welcome and as we get out stern admonitions are called out to the four dogs that come loping up to the car. The roof extends out over the wrap-around porch and is supported by hand-hewn logs. All the wood came from the property says Mario and this house, now some seventy-five years old was built by his father. Not lived-in anymore, it houses some old furniture and other odds and ends from older generations. To the side is a large reservoir for water. The house sits empty but there is a small cabin-like structure that I presume houses the caretakers. To one side of it is a woodpile where a couple turkeys strut their stuff and a small puppy rolls on the dirt.

The coffee trees had been hit by a plague and it never quite got back to being a working farm since then. Some of the coffee trees still stand surrounded by other trees all over the property. There are mango trees festooned with bunches of mangoes not quite ripe yet. There are trees with those small oval fruits called jocotes and next to it is an avocado tree. My eyes pop out of their sockets as I recognize bunches of starfruit hanging temptingly from another tree. I ask if I can pick one to eat. They laugh to see my enjoyment of this deliciously ripe fruit as with juice dribbling down my chin I reach for another. Before I know it Beatrice has got a plastic bag and they have manage to fill it with starfruit and green mangoes. There are other small buildings on the property. None used now, they sit in this tranquil spot bathed in the rustle of leaves and the chirp of birds. How I would live to spend some time here I said.

“Anytime you want” smiles Mario. Who knows? I may well take him up on his offer.

I meet their son Mario junior as he comes from his uncle’s house. Much as he loves the weekends he spends here, he wants to be a pilot he tells me. Not long after we pile into the car and drive back. Exchanging contact information and phone numbers, I know I will keep in touch.

How lucky am I to yet again to meet with such kindness and generosity. In a country with people as open and friendly as Salvadorans, it probably should not surprise me I suppose but nonetheless it does.

The Delights of Feria Gastronomica

Concepcion de Ataco

El Salvador

March 12, 2017

The small towns and villages that pepper Ruta de las Flores in western El Salvador wear a somnolent air most of the week but come alive on the weekends. The chicken bus that trundles along this scenic route is crowded with locals and a smattering of tourists and is joined by a steady stream of cars as Salvadorians drive in from San Salvador to towns of Juayua and Ataco among others. The weekend Feria Gastronomica and the artesanal markets are in full swing.

Shopfronts lining the cobblestoned streets are festooned with colorful wares and most spill out on the street. Vendors set up shop selling local arts and crafts. Handcrafted wooden toys include slingshots and old fashioned tops. Neat rows of beaded jewelry vie for space with pottery and terracotta. Handmade candles and incense are artistically arranged tempting customers. Stalls near the market are piled with fresh fruits and vegetables and small bags of freshly cut fruits finds eager buyers. Small bands of musicians play at street corners and people stroll along the congested streets. Many of the streets are blocked off to vehicular traffic and temporary tents are set up spreading out from the central park. The tantalizing smell of food perfumes the air and the restaurants do a brisk business at the large covered communal eating area. Children and adults alike delight in quirky rides and line up for treats from the street vendors. Not quite frenetic, this has a mellow feel as I join the throngs in sampling foods and drinks. To my delight there are quite a few that I don’t recognize.