Monday, December 6, 2010

What's been going on

Me and the Brahva beer girl at the market

Wow, this is the first entry in about 5 months. I wonder if people are still reading this. I know that I get ticked when I am following a blogger who never blogs.

So I haven’t posted much on El Salvador ... because I have been mostly stuck in Toronto for that time period.
I was in San Salvador for a few weeks but am now in Toronto for a few more months.

We entered the dry season but we were still getting the occasional rain. No surprise since this has been a very, very wet rainy season.

It has been a bit of a crazy summer with the gangs escalating the bus ransom violence. That was in reaction to new legislation going after the gangs and it seems that they have backed down a bit. Mauricio Funes, once thought to be a communist stooge to his party and the scourge of good capitalists everywhere, has been doing a good job, especially considering the poor global economy. His popularity ratings are extremely high and everyone seems to like him, even grumpy Americans. It is actually quite amazing, really, that he has done such a good job considering he has little money to work with. How did he do that? Mammoth IMF loans? His party is stealing less than the last one which means more money for actual programs? Better management? Who knows but I am hoping for the latter two.

Other news? My buddy left his job as manager of Nvy (night club) so I guess I won’t be going there very much anymore. I was introduced to the new guy (who probably won’t remember me) and the doorman likes saying no to me (even though I have given him a bunch of good Cuban cigars). The Cuban restaurant Tumbao has closed and a new lounge/tapas bar called Likwid has opened at Multiplaza. As I am not young, beautiful or rich, I wasn’t invited to the opening so I cannot give you a report.

Dan set a nice table for Thanksgiving dinner

We went out to Playa Dorado to celebrate American Thanksgiving. This made it three turkeys for me this year. Went well except a had a gas oven minor explosion at home when I was toasting the croutons and another one at the beach house when the gas went out unexpectedly and then relit as I was checking on the baking stuff.


A beer canned toikey

We cooked a beer can turkey on the gas bbq, mushroom and sausage stuffing, beer and cheddar corn pie, candied carrots, roast brussels sprouts, and a lovely can of cranberry jelly.
We had 3 Salvadorans, 2 Cubans, 1 Canadian, and an American!

Waiting patiently for drinks at Remala.

My friend Minh moved his great Vietnamese/Thai restaurant from way above Escalon down to the Zona Rosa. He is just down from Alo Nuestro and Republic in a great new property. He is also across the street from Remala which is this great lounge housed in a gorgeous huge mansion on a large property. Hmmm, how the wealthy live behind big stone walls. Remala is owned by a French dude who inherited the property from his mere. Nice bar, great couches and some very groovy house/chill music (although better on the nights with a DJ). The cocktail list is pretty good and the drinks may actually taste good when the bartenders learn how to make all of them properly. I had a good apple martini and then a complete joke of a Manhattan (whiskey and vermouth poured over crushed ice in a martini glass) but they came back strong with the chocolate martin. A buddy asked for a Daiquiri and was expecting a lime based drink but they gave him a strawberry one as a surprise. We also went with our friend Claudia who was visiting town to check on her NGO http://www.treeswaterpeople.org/.

Beer and free (loud) accordian music

Took Claudia to my favourite lunch spot at the Mercado Merliot where we got trapped by a 5 piece band. I ordered the sopa de patas but Claudia is so gringa'ized that she couldn't stomach the thought of eating tripe.

The girls bumpin' at 4

The economy in general seems to be improving. Remittances are up from last year. The empty businesses in the Zona Rosa are starting to fill in. Mario's is back at the Code nightclub building - they specialize in 80's music and it is a lot of fun. The King Crab restaurant closed (who on earth thought they could serve small portions of freezer burned crab and charge $20 ... ate their once and that was enough) and they opened up a club (called "4") and a British Pub called the Red Lion.

Smoking a stogie at the Red Lion ... great music - Thompson Twins,
Culture Club, Human League, Simple Minds

The Pub ... is decorated nicely and I did have a bottle of Bass Ale but nothing on tap. They play only British music which is a nice change from frickin' reggaeton.

Frank with a bottle of the good stuff.

Frank the bartender is recently here from LA and speaks perfect English. Then we went next door to "4" which has the same owner. There was a private party downstairs so we went to the upstairs karaoke lounge. Pretty cool place, especially since no one was singing, with a nice decor and a drum set and guitars on the karaoke stage - I guess if you want to do more than sing. The V-Jay was taking requests and the girls got up to bump to Beyonce. I was smoking a big cigar which prompted the bartenders to turn on a giant fan built into the wall beside the bar ... I got the signal and left soon after. I think I saw them serve a beer to a kid who looked to be about 14.

Dan blasting out of the rough on the par 5 7th hole at the empty Veraneras course

The Veraneras golf course seemed to have survived the rainy season quite well. They added some drainage channels that helped with the heavy rains. One thing they don’t have is ... golfers! They seem to have reacted to this by raising their prices but I am doubtful that this strategy is going to work. On the helpful side, they have reduced the prices of their drinks and they let me suspend my membership while I was stuck in Canada. I was out golfing with my buddy Dan last Sunday and there were only two golfers in front of us and two behind us ... that is a total of 6 golfers for the entire day. The Canadian tourists coming down on Nolitours and staying at the Royal Decameron aren’t coming soon enough! We like having the course to our selves but don’t want the place going bankrupt.

I heard that a new new course is being built in the Libertad area by the guys who built the nice course in neighbouring Antigua, Guatemala (La Reunion Course?). They are going to charge $25,000 to join but that will be waived if you buy property in the club. I hear they are going after the wealthy Arab/Salvadoran market that is currently being shut out of the Campestre course (which is only 9 holes and costs $50,000 to join). This is a shock to me since there are already 4 courses in San Salvador and apparently only about 400 golfers. Plus another course or two are being planned. So either people really like owning golf courses (even if they are losing a ton of money) or they think they can grow the number of golfers (like has happened in North America) ... but good luck doing that since there are so few pros in the country and the courses don’t seem to like having middle class people showing up.

So far, I have a group of 9 coming down to visit me and a lot of people who came last year want to come again. I have been looking on the Internet for some rental properties and there are quite a few in the popular Costa del Sol area. They run from about $100 to $200 per night - the higher range includes places with 4-5 bedrooms, usually sleep over a dozen, a/c, a pool, and on the ocean.

Ooh, I can see the ocean from here

We did find one beautiful place out at Costa Azul (which is in the far west of the country, between Acajutla and Barra de Santiago, accessed along the coastal road that goes to the Guatemalan border). Very unique in that all the walls, floors, siding and terrace are all wood. The living room and dining room are completely open with just a big roof covering the whole area. It has been decorated very well by someone who had both taste and money (a happy convergence). All wood paneling and floors and a kick ass wooden deck. More than twice the price of anything else I have seen but may be worth it.

I think I am going to base my first beach house on this design. I want to have the property abutting the beach end of the property with a big deck and an infinity pool on the end. I think I’ll want to enclose the living area but maybe two garage doors (3 cars wide) can be put on the end so you can just open up the wall facing the ocean.

I have not had any luck finding a reliable contractor and I’ll think I’ll stop looking. I’ll hire an architect/engineer to do the plans, then my friend Dan (who has been a GC before) can do the construction planning, and I’ll get my brother-in-law (who is a civil engineer) to be the site manager. I’ve got the land picked out already ... just need to get some money!

The Emerald is ready for guests

A woman from Canada has just finished her property and is ready to rent it out. On Playa Dorado in front of a decent surf beach break, it has 5 bedrooms and the biggest pool I’ve seen on the coast.

Another interesting bit of law and order in San Salvador. The city centre (El Centro), where the National Theatre and some of the big cathedrals are located, has become more and more dangerous over the years. The streets have also become choked with sidewalk vendors who have built wooden kiosks on most of the major streets. They sell everything from fruits and vegetables to shoes and clothes to kitchen goods, cell phones, bootleg DVDs (including porn), and also drugs.

The nuisance is that you’ll have a three lane road that is effectively shrunk down to 1 ½ because of businesses on either side. This is despite the fact that there are numerous large (and often half vacant) purpose built indoor markets where people can set up their kiosks and be protected from the elements and be able to secure the goods overnight. Also, the street markets harbour a greater criminal element and contributes to a general lack of police supervision and control.

I have heard that the license fee on the street is about 50 cents a day while it is about $1.50 inside. So why don’t they all move into these nicer buildings? I have heard that there is more traffic outside so the vendors prefer to be there. I have also heard that the maras (gangs) control and extort from the people outside and have made sure that the vendors challenge the government when they talk about cleaning up the streets.

But the mayor of San Salvador, Quijano, decided to go in with a huge force of riot cops who started cleaning up the area street by street. They encountered some resistance in the form of rocks and fire barricades but they were able to reclaim the area. I just hope it lasts. I have been in the market a few times but generally with a Salvadoran friend. We park the car (in a very modern and guarded parking lot with a ticket machine and cashier), then walk very fast through the streets to one of the markets, we buy what we came for (usually polo shirts), and then walk out fast. No loitering, no eye contact, and nothing valuable on us. I have also been to the National Theatre to see Fatima dance but there was no security problem with that so it isn’t all bad. It will be nice to go there more often - I hear that there is a good market that sells artisanal souvenirs.

Okay, I am going to post this before I delay any longer. Cheers all.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Back to Antigua

Fatima and MJ walking in Parque Central

Wow, it has been months since I wrote on this blog. Sorry for the delay but after our visitors came, I was in Havana and then my laptop died on me. More on that later.

First, let me finish off the narrative on Guatemala. Deb came over to visit after spending a week in Quito where her son, Noel, is doing a Masters on renewable energy. This was Deb’s second visit to El Salvador and she wanted to check out Antigua. I had mentioned it to Dan and he said he’d like to come as well.

Road munchies

Since there were long road delays due to construction on the Santa Ana route, we decided to do the coastal route there and back. This is a faster and nicer drive although it is longer and you don’t get to drive through Guatemala City (although you miss that traffic as well). Immigration this time made all of us get out leaving El Salvador and entering Guatemala (and the same again on the route home). That border crossing is at sea level and it was very hot and humid so it was nice to get back into the air conditioned SUV.

Dan, Deb and I in the Hotel Antigua courtyard

I was able to make reservations at the Hotel Aurora http://www.hotelauroraantigua.com/ and realized that my recall of the place was correct and it is much nicer than most other places in Antigua. Even more remarkably, it is one of the cheapest places as well. It has a great location and one of the best courtyard flower gardens ... and parking as well. The girls got a room with three beds (one being a Queen) and Dan got the adjacent room with a nice King.

Breakfast is tasty and included

We let the girls roam around the city and Dan and I took off with Michael to the golf course on the nearby volcano. Michael wrote about it at http://www.examiner.com/x-22480-Central-American-Travel-Examiner~y2009m9d11-Nine-holes-of-bliss

Clouds rolling in

We park the car beside the only car there and a caddy comes up to us with some kids. They have to call around for a third caddy for our group. I look around and there is no proshop, no change room, no desk, and no cashier. Hmm, pretty basic. We trudge over to the first hole and the three of us promptly lose about 7 balls off the tee box. The course is very hilly (no kidding, being on the side of a volcano) and narrow with blind shots. A lot like Campestre in San Salvador (the club that costs $50K to join and may or may not admit Koreans as members). We play skins and pretty soon I have won most of the holes but then a cloud rolls in and it starts to rain. One of the drawbacks of playing at altitude. We knock off after 9 holes because of the cold rain and because it is hard to see through a cloud. Not a great course but for $10 for the round and $5 for the caddy, it wasn’t a bad place to hack at balls.

What the ladies did while we were golfing

The course has no bar or shop so good thing I brought some beer to go with the cigars. We head back into town, over a long dirt road, and by the time we hit the bottom of the volcano, it is sunny and warm again. We park the car, find the girls and make plans for the evening.

Michael and I at Hector's

We wanted to eat at Hectors so Michael called and went by to make sure they would hold a table for us. Hectors is a tiny little bistro-ish place right across the street from the big yellow Merced Cathedral. No sign but I think it is number 9 and the do put out a chalk board. I had been by there and met Hector and the girls, including an Aussie waitress who was Hector’s girlfriend. They all seemed very friendly and I was looking forward to going back for a nice cozy dinner with lots of wine. We are all heading over in 3 different groups and we ended up getting there half an hour before our reservation. I see the Aussie girl and say that we have a reservation and she says "We don’t take reservations" and I try to explain that we are with Michael but she interrupts me to say "We don’t take reservations" and I try to say that Michael is Hector’s friend and had come by half an hour earlier and she interrupts me to say "We don’t take reservations." Wow, what a shitty waitress. It didn’t matter since the restaurant has 6 tables and only one was taken! We get that table for six of us and order some drinks and wait for everyone else.

This kind of service is typical in Latin America and I was surprised to see it from a foreigner. Her job was too provide service and to enhance our dining experience, not to enforce the little rules established by the business. In many cases, all you get are people who think their job is follow rules and not to help people. Recently, I wired some money to my Citibank account here. They called us saying the funds had arrived and Fatima had to go fill out a form stating what the origin of the funds were. They said the funds would be available the next day ... then they said the next day ... then the next day. I finally went in with her and didn’t like what I saw. There were about 6 customer service desks and I counted 9 people in the area and they were helping two people. We had to wait 10 minutes until someone finally finished their paperwork and was ready to serve a customer. We spoke to the woman that Fatima had spoken to the day before and she said they lost the form and Fatima would have to fill out another one and wait another day. I got upset and asked to speak to the manager who ended up being a nice, older woman. We explained the problem and she asked where Fatima had filled out the first form and she told her at the main branch and she started to say it was their fault the form was lost and I told her that I didn’t care who screwed up, she represented her bank and she had to solve the problem. They had my money for 4 days and I wanted it in my account and I wanted her to waive the service fee. She told us there was no way she could waive the service fee and I asked her how the manager of a bank couldn’t waive a fee and she said that was the way it was. She called in the customer service agent (who had told us the funds would be available the next day without checking to see what the problem was i.e. missing form) but she insisted it wasn’t her that had spoken to Fatima the day before. Anyways, we filled out the form again, she made some calls and promised the funds would be in our account in 45 minutes. It turned out to be only 15 minutes so we were happy about that. What was the problem? Who knows. Maybe these people aren’t paid enough for them to care, maybe their training isn’t very good, maybe people have such low expectations of the level of service.

Turns out that the restaurant is just okay. It got too crowded, the food was pretty average, it got really hot, and unfortunately that Aussie girl stayed on as our waitress. Fatima had the beef and it was tough and of mid-level quality. I had the duck and it was tough as well and no where near as good as the food at Nicolas (but to be fair, it was a lot cheaper). The only thing that I like were the sweat potato fries ... and they were fantastic! I would go back for those. Dan picked up the tab which was lucky for that girl because I probably would have left a shitty tip for the shitty attitude ... reminds me of that saying about who most dislikes Aussie women ... and the answer is Aussie men.

Afterwards, we went to the street with the arch (sorry for the bad directions but if you go there, you will know what I am talking about) and the place was hopping. Clubs and bars were open and lots of people on the street. We ended up at a new place that had just opened up across from the Casbah. We got a nice outside table and were able to smoke cigars (which you can’t inside bars or restaurants). The girls went dancing across the street and we hung out and drank rum. I met an American guy who owns 3-4 hotels and his Canadian buddy as well as the Welsh owner of the bar. All very nice people whom we got to meet because we knew Michael and he was a local now.

Next morning, Dan wanted to take a horse and carriage tour of the city and we did so with MJ translating the very brief descriptions from the driver. He seemed to know names but no dates and no history of anything. Still, it was a nice hour drive in and around the town and I saw a lot of incredible ruins that I didn’t know existed. We made it back to the hotel and drove over to a Korean restaurant for lunch before hitting the road (food was okay but not great).

New (for me) ruins

We shopped around a bit for some artwork and found the prices to be about 10 times the price of Cuba ... with comparable quality. One guy did nice paintings of Antigua landmarks with peasants in their brightly coloured garb but he couldn’t do faces so all the paintings (maybe 5 of them) only showed them from the back ... and they wanted $600 for one of these! Hah, that is a lot of money for a guy who can’t paint faces.

Nice ride!

Drive back was uneventful and quick and Deb’s week went by very quickly and before we knew it, she was gone and that was the end of our winter visitors for the year.

So thank you for all the visits, for bringing down stuff, for bringing clothing donations, and I hope to see you next year.

A quick update of other happenings ... rainy season has started with a vengeance. Tropical Storm Agatha dropped some heavy rains on us. El Salvador saw 10 to 20 inches of rain over three days and some areas got hit by 30 inches! It rained and rained and rained and rained. Luckily, this was at the very beginning of the rainy and hurricane season so the ground was plenty dry and was able to soak up a lot of this rain without causing too much trouble. We just want to avoid another heavy soaking right away. We did have three days of sun and it was great to see some blue sky again. Roads have gotten bad as it does every rainy season as the rains erode the roads and create big pot holes. My friend has had three flat tires this week and I had one driving over a giant 6" bent piece of metal that drove itself into my tire.

Guatemala did not fare as well and lost a lot of bridges and houses. Must have been like the apocalypse with the 5 inches of volcanic ash covering everything before the rains came. And that crazy ass sink hole? Wow. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/06/100601-sinkhole-in-guatemala-2010-world-science/

The new government continues to do a good job and is investigating and prosecuting politicians for corruption. Now everyone expects politicians to steal but just don’t get too greedy or stupid about it! There is a great highway that links the road to Lourdes (and then off to Santa Ana and Sonsonate) past Santa Tecla and right into San Salvador by Multi Plaza and Calle Jerusalem but they never finished the last little bit so it is virtually unusable. I think someone stole funds so companies didn’t pay workers so it came to a grinding stop a few years ago. Now they are going to start it up again so it should alleviate a lot of Santa Tecla traffic and should shave 10 to 15 minutes off a trip to the western beaches.

Apologies about my griping on local service and I think I am getting worse. I have had arguments at several business in the last week and I think I am showing signs of what fellow Canadian Jason Ryan of http://kimchiicecream.wordpress.com/ refers to as "Culture Fatigue". This is where you start getting upset at local cultural norms ... or I am turning into an angry old man! Regardless, time to go up to Canada for my summer trip!


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Juayua Food Fair and the Apenca Zipline Canopy Tour

El Salvador is a beautiful country, populated by friendly and honest people (mostly), and is a burgeoning tourist destination. Museums and galleries, great restaurants and street food, clubs and bars, shopping be it in the cheap and dodgy el centro or the high end malls, golf courses, surfing beaches, national parks with their waterfalls, and picturesque towns such as Juayua and Suchitoto. There is one excursion or day trip that I can really recommend.

Some girls bugging me at the food fair

We drove an hour west of San Salvador through Sonsonate and up the Ruta de los Flores to the small town of Apaneca. They have a food fair every weekend with dozens of food stands serving everything from seviche and black clams to all sorts of grilled meats to frozen desserts. There is usually some good live music (I have seen/heard the most amazing Bee Gees cover band there) and a market selling touristy stuff and cheap clothes.

Jake eating his paella
We got a tasty assortment of foods including smoked ribs, seafood paella, grilled shrimps, and fresh tortillas washed down with cold beers. Then some frozen strawberries, bananas and watermelon dipped in chocolate.
Jenna enoying her dessert

We had some time to kill so we walked around the markets and bought some souvenirs. There were a couple of places selling woven goods from Guatemala and one guy insisted that his prices were cheaper than in Antigua. It could only be true if the stuff was from China .... which maybe it was. We did find one guy with some big hoppers full of T-shirts. I found a great old school Run DMC shirt and Jeff got a great vintage look Iron Man and Jake got a Spiderman T-shirt. And they were a buck each. I shit you not.

Kath souvenir hunting in Juayua

Then back into the car for the short drive to Apaneca ... a small town with not much going for it but beside a mountain with lots of coffee growing on it. We were the first there - they go out 3-4 times a day so you should call ahead to make reservations - so just hung out for a bit before piling into the back of a truck transporter with a bunch of the guys. It seemed like there were 12 clients and about an equal number of workers.

.Jeff hoping we don't drive off a cliff before getting to the zip-line

The drive up the hill was pretty bumpy and steep and we went through some locked gates into a coffee finca. Then to a staging area with a great view where we got geared up with harnesses, leather palmed work gloves, and hard hats.

Gearing up

Now The Apaneca Canopy Tours charges $30 per person - a price I found somewhat high in a country where a common wage is $10 a day. I wondered if the owner was gouging the tourists but after going through it, I think the price is fine. The infrastructure of hooking up a dozen steel cables along with platforms built onto trees often 40' in the air and then having the trucks and the workers all adds up.

On the practise lines ... Kath landing and MJ taking off

We climbed up to the first zip-line which was only about 10' off the ground and maybe 25' long. There were several of these little runs to get you used to the harness and braking, Then you get to the top of the main hill ... and holy crap! Over 400' above the ground and about 900' long. A Mexican girl in front of me asked the guide "if I fall, will I die?" and he, of course, said "No" and she was off into space.

When I got there, I pushed out and managed to manouevre with one hand while I filmed the run with the other. It was an amazing experience but ended too quickly

video

The reason why there were so many workers is that they have to man each of the platforms and they descend with the group. They would hook on and then throw themselves out into space, usually kicking off from a post or a bannister to give them more speed. Half way down, I told one of the guys that he had a great job and I wanted to join up. He gave me a "meh" look and I asked him if the pay was bad and he said it was really bad.

video

Yes, that is MJ screaming

Everyone had a great time and the scared Mexican girl got over her fears pretty quickly and was soon jumping off the platform.

Jenna hanging in space!

They give you some instructions on how to slide down with your hand breaking behind you. They have a series of signals to speed up, slow down, or to brake hard but they have a braking system at the end of the long lines in case you can’t stop yourself. I realized that I could come in at pretty much full speed and they would stop you without any problems.

Me filming the first run

As for safety, they were really excellent. Whenever you were on a platform, be it 3' or 50' in the air, you were always always hooked up to something. As you lined up to get launched, you would be on a safety line and then only when you were hooked up to the main zip line would they take off the secondary safety line.

video

Through the coffee plants near the bottom

They leave from Apaneca at 9:30, 11:30, 2 and 4 but call them at 2433-0554 to confirm the day and time since they can move around with the seasons. They provide water during the zipping and they photograph everyone going across the highest line ... although they charge an egregious amount for the hardcopy photo and an even more ridiculous price for a disc with the photos. It seemed overly greedy especially when they were only charging a dollar for a beer. We treated all the workers to a beer since it was the last run of the day for them.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Antigua Guatemala Part II

Wedding photos on the streets of Antigua Guatemala
Phew! Relaxing after a busy few weeks with the Combees visiting from Owen Sound, Ontario and the Semana Santa (Easter) weekend. Highlights of the week included another trip to Antigua, lunch at the Juayua food fair followed by zip-lining with Canopy Tours in Apaneca, and a few days at a beach house in Tunco.
The church at the parque central from the balcony of a public building

We piled into the Honda Pilot and headed to the Guatemala border. They seemed to have changed the rules because now we all have to get out of the car on both sides of the border. A few weeks earlier, only I had to get out with the passports. I complained to the desk guy and then spoke with the supervisor who said it was an interim program and they were going to streamline it soon. I was a bit pissed off that we all had to get out of the car and go inside while we saw several cars just drive through.

Crossing the border into Guatemala

There was more construction this time but we weren’t delayed very long. Going through Guatemala City, we stopped at the Pricesmart to look for stuff not available in El Salvador and then a Toyota dealership to look for car parts for a friend. Then down the mountain into Antigua. I had booked my friends into a nice little hotel http://www.hotelentrevolcanes.com/index.php which was right in front of the market. Nice place (although you may want to avoid the rooms overlooking the streets since it can get noisy in the morning) and great staff. Whenever we had to ask for something, the answer was always "yes". From staying out late to smoking cigars in the garden to checking out really late to leaving my car in their lot to having extra people for breakfast, they were always completely accommodating.

First floor of the Hotel Entre Volcanes

We met up with our friend Sandy who had been studying at the Christian Spanish Academy (not particularly religious but very professional) and doing a homestay. Hotels in Antigua are quite pricey at about $70 + per night but the homestays are really cheap - around $120 per week which includes all meals.

Lunchtime!

We did the usual ... shopping in the market for clothes for the kids, white belts, woven goods. Ate at the restaurant in front of the market (Restarante de los Antiguenos?) which has really good and inexpensive local favourites. I had the white bean stew with tortillas ... and a giant Gallo beer.

I stashed my stuff at Michael’s place and we went for a walk. He has been there for about a year now and knows a lot of interesting people and places. We stopped at a tiny but very cool looking restaurant called Hector’s in front of the Merced church which was preparing for a private party ... will have to eat there next time but it may be hard to find since they don’t have a sign. Then we dropped into the Jungle Party Hostal to chat with Monica, the Salvadoran owner of the place. She set up the first hostal in Guatmala ten years ago and now has a very successful and popular place. She was planning on heading back to El Salvador the next day so we decided that she would come with us. We left El Salvador with 5 people and were returning with 7. Check out her place at http://www.junglepartyhostal.com/


Michael recommended we go to La Pena de Sol Latina for dinner. The place is around the corner from the hotel and he is friends with Bill and Mary, a semi-retired American couple who have built a charming and cozy restaurant with a tasty and very inexpensive menu. Their signature drink is a delicious coconut lemonade. Bill is a former session musician who played for years in Memphis (with the likes of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins) and even raced in Nascar for a while. Now he plays with a local band that fronts Peruvian pan flutes. They also sell these amazing hand made candle screens with colourful and whimsical inserts (Kath bought one with pieces of a coke bottle built in) with the monies going to charity. Check them out at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=43415256326

The Combee/McKerihens and Sandy at the arch

So after the show and many drinks, I went back to the Hotel to smoke a cigar with Jeff. It was pretty chilly by then but we had hot coffee with rum to keep us warm. Then headed back to crash again on Michael’s couch.

A new market popped up on the site of some church ruins

The next morning, we had planned on getting an early start but between shopping and meeting up with Sandy and Monica and having lunch, we didn’t get away until about 3:00 pm. Boy, just in time for very heavy rush hour traffic and major construction delays. We should have taken the coastal route but, instead, took the north route and there was one stretch which was down to one lane and where we were basically parked for 30 minutes. Then I took the wrong road and then we dropped Monica at her Dad’s place in Santa Ana ... and finally got home about 6 hours later! Oh, we all had to get out of the car, again, on both sides of the border. Then we were stopped by cops twice to look through the car. I asked if they were targeting Canadian tourists and one cop said it was just a routine and random search.

I think I’ll be heading back in a few weeks. Deb is coming for a visit from Owen Sound and she wants to check out Antigua. There are so many interesting places to see and restaurants to eat at that the place never gets boring. I want to check out Hector’s with Michael.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A trip to Antigua and Barra de Santiago

The Elkertons in Antigua

Antigua, Guatemala is a picture postcard perfect little town outside of Guatemala City. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the former capital of the entire Central America. It has lovely old Spanish colonial architecture, many quaint inns, and some great restaurants.

On my first few trips to El Salvador in 1996, when people would find out that I was visiting their country as a tourist, they would all say, "you have to go to Antigua." I would answer "but I am here to see El Salvador" and they would repeat, "you have to go to Antigua".

So I did and had an amazing trip. We did the bus trip package - leaving from San Benito on Tica or King Quality Bus Line to Guatemala City, then a transfer to Antigua, and we stayed at the Hotel Aurora. We have some nice pictures from there of the lovely courtyard full of flowers, the same place where Fatima’s parents went 30 years earlier.

Since then, I have visited Antigua 4 or 5 times and every trip was by bus and a lot of fun.

Having more visitors this year I thought I would brave the drive over, especially since I had a GPS that should take me from my door to the door of the hotel in Antigua.

Historically, the trip from San Salvador to Guatemala has been problematic with bandits holding up cars (and even buses) once over the border. The Guatemalan Government used to organize extra security (I think you could go from the border in an escorted convoy during the busy Easter holidays) and once the Guatemalan president took the bus across to show it was safe. More recently, the police have been stopping people asking for the payment of an entry fee or an exit customs fee. One friend routinely gets asked for $100 (and once was asked for $700 to cover a purchase and exportation of an outboard engine ... and when he said he didn’t have the cash, the cops said they could go to an ATM with him before finally settling on the $20 he had on him) but he is a gringo in a pick-up. Another friend who is part Salvadoran and part Guatemalan usually pays the cops about 30 Queztales or USD 4.00. Another friend from Montreal blasts down the highway in his nice SUV and has never been asked for money on his 5 trips to Antigua. So what to make of that? My friend theorizes that if you travel in a big SUV with tinted windows, the cops might think that you are important/connected and might not be willing to ask for a bribe.

So, I had Chris and Janet and their kids down and I decided to make the trip. My friend who works in an embassy in Guatemala was chiding me for being a wimp about the trip. She had made it herself with no problems but I’d like to point out that she was traveling with another car and I think they had diplomatic plates so were a far less appealing target for bandits.

We loaded the car and I wanted to leave plenty early so that we would hit the border in the morning. As it was, we didn’t get going until 9:30 a.m. The road to the border was no problem - the GPS was working fine and the highways in San Salvador are fast and in great shape. On the Salvadoran side, the immigration officer took our documents because he wanted to record some information for statistical purposes. Then we crossed the bridge and ran into a big outdoor market before we even reached Guatemalan immigration. Tuc Tuc’s (the little cabs powered by motorcycle engines) were going back and forth and a bunch of people were shouting at us to change USD for Quetzales. Fatima had very strongly cautioned me not to change money ... since they would know how much we had and might call ahead to have someone rob us. As it was, we had almost no cash since we planned to take out money from an ATM in Antigua.

So we waited behind a line of big 18 wheelers until other cars behind us just drove around them and through some pylons. I realized that it doesn’t pay to be polite and to wait in line when you can just go around. Once I passed the trucks, I realized that they were waiting for some other procedure that we cars didn’t have to follow. Our procedure was to drive to the immigration building and ... what was going on? There was no sign telling us what to do, there was no one in uniform telling us to stop or park or go in, just an old woman begging for money. So I stopped and went in to the building and there were 5 women and one guy working behind the open counter. I had the 4 Canadian passports along with my C-4 residency card. After a few minutes, one of the women decided to do some work and asked for the documents. I handed over the passports and my card and she said I needed my passport. I was under the impression that the card was good for the 4 countries listed on it (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador) but I was wrong and I was glad that I had brought my passport as well. So she looks at them, does some stamping and that’s that. Oh, the tourist card entering El Salvador is good for those countries as well.

I get back into the car and as we are leaving, other cars are just driving through and not stopping. I have no idea how the system works ... maybe it is a voluntary self-reporting system?

So back on the road and we are booting along. We pass one, then two, then three cop stops but we are not waved down. There is some construction along the way which slowed us down but we made it to Guatemala in about 4 hours. Much faster than the bus. So we drive into the city and we pass the Pricesmart (where I wanted to do some shopping - stuff is cheaper there and they have some stuff that we don’t get in the Pricesmarts in San Salvador) and some car dealships that I was supposed to drop in on to get some car parts. But I want to get to Antigua quickly so we are following the GPS and I miss a turn off and have to take another road to get back to the route but it goes through a guarded gatehouse so we do a tricky U-turn through 4 lines of traffic and then miss another turn off and finally get on the right road but it is pretty small and goes up and down on some extremely steep hills and through a forest ... and gets narrower ... and we pass a horse ... and even narrower ... and then we pass some chickens ... and when the road turns to dirt ... we know the GPS is lost. I should have stopped at the horse. Turns out it is bringing us to a barrio called Antigua in Guatemala City instead of the town of Antigua. We reprogram it and we are soon back in the middle of the bustling city and heading to the right Antigua.

Michael and me in with one of three volcanoes in the neighbourhood

Once there, I stop in on my friend Michael who lives and writes there. Check out his blog at http://paladin123.wordpress.com/ and his writings for the Examiner at http://www.examiner.com/x-22480-central-america-travel-examiner

We go to the hotel where reservations were made but my friends wanted one room that would sleep a family of four ... and of course they said that three was the max per room so we had to take two rooms. I refused to take the rooms and we went looking for another place. Now renting a room in Antigua is much easier when it is done well in advance and through a travel agency. We checked the Aurora (always full including this time) and finally went to El Carmen which is never full because it isn’t nearly as nice. It does have some okay rooms and a beautiful rooftop terrace and a hot tub with cold water but some of the rooms aren’t great. Anyways, we didn’t want to waste more time on hotel searching so we took the room there.

Big Gallo beers in the market

Then I parked the car and we went for a walk. To the Parque Central and then to the ATM I always use and then to the market. We went to the very back where all the food stalls are and very few gringos (although the town is full of ‘em) and had some giant Gallo beers and lots of food. Then I needed to buy some more white belts and Janet wanted some souvenirs so through the market and the hundreds of stalls.


Janet made this woman very happy by buying a pile of stuff

We found a nice woman with a big stall and bought a bunch of stuff from her. I was asked to negotiate prices for everyone and did what I always try to do - pick a price that I think is fair and negotiate to it. If I see something that I think is really cheap or underpriced, I’ll pay what they ask but there is a lot of room to negotiate in Guatemala. You may be presented with a huge runner or table cloth that they say took 3 months to make and that you can have it for $80. You can admire it and say no thanks. Then they’ll follow you and say $60. If you say no again, they’ll offer it for $40.

Check out Nicole's yellow shoes!

So out of the market and Nicole spies some really cute yellow shoes - very Twiggyish - so I bought them for her and she proudly sported those shoes for the rest of the trip.

In Parque Central before being attacked by vendors

We went back to Parque Central and came across the indigenous women selling stuff out of bags - mostly jewelry and woven goods. Interestingly, many of those women spoke quite good English. We sat down to take a picture and a vendor came up, and then two, then five ... then the cops came to bust up the sale. They were quite stern and we eventually had four cops hassling the ladies. I asked the friendliest looking one what was the problem and he said that the park wasn’t for commercial purposes and they didn’t want it turning into a market. I said I understood so we concluded our deal and they shooed away the ladies. We walked to end of the park by the big white church and sat down and were approached again by the ladies and of course the cops came back ... I think we were being followed by everyone.

The view from our table at the Welton.

That night, we walked around looking for a place to eat. I think Nicholas has closed so we ended up at the Welton. Beautiful dining room and we took a covered table by the pool. The water was covered in the petals of a hundred roses and floating candles. Dinner was fantastic although Tyler ordered the most expensive meal on the menu - something my son used to do and which I find annoying - I swear, I should only take kids to places with a kids menu. But we all enjoyed our food - I had the lamb - and the wine was great and the service excellent.

Next day, I had breakfast with Michael at a very charming, large and empty restaurant. Met up with the family and we did some more walking around before jumping in the truck and heading back to San Salvador. We wanted to leave early since we were heading to a beach house we had rented from Manolo at the Barra de Santiago which is very close to the Guatemalan border before the Acajutla cargo and fishing port. We followed the GPS out of town between the two big volcanoes but it kept us on a very slow cobblestone road that was really going up and down. We knew the generally direction was good but I think the programming could have been better and should have put us on a parallel and faster asphalt road. But we got out of the city and headed for the coastal border crossing.

Really beautiful rolling hills and nice roads. We stopped at a shop to stock up on Guatemalan beer (they have a good dark bock called Moza) for the beach house. There were a bunch of dodgy looking drunk guys on the lawn of the store and we watched them and they watched us but we drove away without any problems. So we are close to the border and we finally get stopped by the cops! There are about 8 of them at a crossroads and one guy has a big automatic assault rifle and we are asked for our documents. They ask Chris to open the glove compartment and they look inside the car and ask to see inside Nicole’s back pack. I explain to the cops that they are Canadian tourists and they seem satisfied by that so they smile and say we can go.

Back on the road and we hit the border, more trucks, more driving around trucks, then we get stopped by Salvadoran immigration who really take their time asking us questions and recording all the info on the passports. As we are stopped there, every vehicle going back a few hundred feet drives past us with some of them not stopping at all including several big trailer trucks that have to squeeze by us on the bridge with just inches between them and my vehicle and the immigration officer standing beside me. So after getting all the info, they smile and say we can go.

Another half an hour and our GPS tells us to turn off to the bumpiest road I have seen in my life. It is completely embedded with round river rocks and it goes for about 20 minutes! Then dirt road, then paved road, then dirt road, then nice paving stones ... and we finally get to the turn off and have to drive down a beach to get to the house. Of course the directions are vague and I have to stop a few times and we get stuck twice and need a push ... and watch out for that dog ... and is that our place or is that our place, and no one is answering their cell phone. Warning lights are going off on my dash saying the automatic transmission is getting too hot and the differential light is on ... don’t know why. We finally get there and we are near the end of a beautiful open peninsula of sand. You can see it at the beginning of Manolo’s video at http://www.vimeo.com/4403298

The big open beach at Barra de Santiago

Then a day of splashing in the ocean, grilled freshly caught red snapper, more giant shrimps than we can eat, lots of beers, pitchers of Cuba Libres ... what a nice life.

Cuba Libres on the beach ... thanks Janet!
The custodians (slash fishermen slash boat tour guide) took my car out to get the shrimp and then to drive one guy home and they tell me that the front plastic underbody seems to have been ripped off and was lying on the beach. Hmm, don’t know if I did that or if they did that. I am thankful that they found it though. My mechanic suspects that it wasn’t attached properly - there are ten places for plastic fasteners and I don’t think they were all used. If Honda designs something for ten fasteners ... it needs ten fasteners.
A boat ride in the salt water estuary behind the beach house

We load up the car the next day and I make the fast run down the beach following the example of the guys - counterintuitively, we drive in the tire ruts of other trucks and not on flat sand. We also don’t try to drive on the wet sand near the ocean (don’t want to get stuck in that with the tide coming in). With the engine gunning, we make it to the road and enjoy another 20 minutes of severe bumps before we get back on the highway and then back home.

Fun trip!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Parques Boqueron and Impossible

New Years Day at Parque Boqueron - the volcanic crater above San Salvador
I am finally seeing more of this country! Naturally, it is a result of hosting visitors here and it has been a busy winter. First John came down from Ottawa via Guate for a few days. Then Brian from DF stopped off here from Honduras. Then Nadia came down from Owen Sound for a week of R&R after doing the single-mom thing for two years without a break. Yeah Nadia! Then Matt stopped in from between Guatemala and Honduras and had some overlap with the Chris, Janet, Tyler and Nicole who came down from Toronto for a week of sun and seeing and doing everything they could.

El Salvador is the Central American hub for Taca Airlines, the biggest regional carrier with Copa out of Panama being their biggest competition. Both are pretty good airlines and I would have to say that Copa provides better service although Taca has a better frequent flyer program and direct flights to Toronto. Both have generous baggage allowances although they can be picky if you are even a little over (which is par for the course with most airlines flirting with insolvency).

Anyways, so this is why El Salvador is a popular place for people to stop over. My friend Deb is coming back for a visit but is going to see her son in Ecuador first ... but it is a great flight from (I think) Toronto to San Salvador to San Jose to Quito and she is stopping over for a week on her way back. Also, San Salvador is so close to Guatemala City but more on that later.

With all of these people coming to visit this year, I thought it would be a good idea to get to know the country a bit more. I had only visited Suchitoto once and Cobanos most weekends for golf at Veraneras and once to the adjacent Decameron resort.

The view of the city from the big wooden pupusaria

So the first place we went to visit was Parque Boqueron which is at the top of the big volcanic crater beside the really big pointy volcano overlooking San Salvador. In fact, we live on the slope of these volcanoes. We went up with a friend, who knew the way, on New Years Day. He told me that the road up had recently been paved which made for a much nicer and more comfortable trip up. On this day it was very, very crowded. You enter off the main road from Merliot which crosses the top of the big mall Plaza Merliot and then take a funny left turn - but it is sign posted pretty well. As we climbed up the hill, the going got really slow with a lot of parked cars. At one point by a church, we had to back up to let a convoy of cars come down. A good thing as one driver told us that there was a lot of parking at the top and to keep on going. So we drove and drove and probably passed about 100 cars and many people hoofing it up the hill. At the very top, we turned into the parking lot and found about 15 spaces open in a parking lot that held 25 cars! So we parked and made our way down to the entrance but the security guard who had let us into the gated lot said the park was closed! So instead of paying a dollar each and going up through the entrance path, we paid nothing and went up the exit path along with a bunch of other people. We made it to the top and had a great view of the giant crater as the sun set over the lip. There were still a few hundred people up and around as we made our way down. Then some friends who we were supposed to meet pulled up (now well past the 5:00 closing time) but they went up the exit path to take a look as well. On the way out, I tipped the guard a few bucks and everyone was happy. We stopped at a café on the way down for some tepid coffee and some big tasty pupusas.

My next trip up was with Nadia and my new GPS. I friend bought a Garmin Nuvi at a Boxing Day sale and sent it down with Nad. Then Ben Quan of http://www.elsalvadorgps.com/ came by my place and programmed an SD chip to put into the unit. The system works fine ... if you can input the exact address in the right format - something which can be quite challenging. For example, if you wanted to put Segunda Avenida Norte, you have to type in 2a Ave Nte - not 2da Ave Nte or Avenidad or Norte. And Primera Calle Poniente is 1a Calle Pte.

We couldn’t find the right input address so we missed the turn off and ended up going up and over the mountain and as we were descending, we asked for directions and they told us to turn around. We finally got there and I was able to input the exact coordinate so now I can find it more easily. This time, we went up on a weekday afternoon and instead of hundreds of people ... there were ... just two others.

. Nadia on the footpath

It was quite nice and we took our time on the short climb up to the lip and through the 4 different observation sites.

Calais lilies growing on top of the mountain

There are signs posted describing some of the flora and there are many varieties of flowers to see and smell, including Calais Lilies ... which I thought were from northern France so go figure. You used to be able to walk down into the crater but I think the path was damaged and it is crazy deep so never mind.

Mountain berries

On the way out, there are people selling artesanal goods and fresh picked mountain raspberries (fuzzy!), blackberries (super tart), strawberries, Calais Lilies, Orchids and other flowers.


At the fancy place ... didn't get the name ... what a crappy blog
Instead of the café with the tepid coffee and incredible view obscured by trees, we stopped at a very nice and fancy place with a gourmet menu, beautiful landscaping, and amazing views. Don't remember the name but it is the one with all the big fancy signs. We had yuppie coffees and a delicious fig pie with ice cream.
Fig pie a la mode

On my next trip up with the Chris and Janet, we had an equally nice time and Janet kindly bought a mess of berries and flowers for our house. We stopped further down at a big wooden platform and had coffee and pupusas ... quite delicious but we had just the beans and cheese ones (I think if you are going to eat at a new pupuseria, which may be somewhat dubious, avoid the pork).

It was too hazy to see our apartment but we got a nice view of the sprawling city.

Eating delicious pupusas at the big wooden place ... again, didn't get the name

As I mentioned, Chris and Janet wanted to see and do everything they could so I made arrangements with Manolo of Impossible Tours to take them on a hike. I met Manolo through a mutual friend Paige who writes guidebooks for Lonely Planet and Norton and she urged me to visit Manolo’s town of Tacuba and the hotsprings hotel he manages. Check out Manolo’s video and website at:

http://www.vimeo.com/4403298

http://www.imposibletours.com/

Chris and Janet had scouted out some other trips on the Internet and there were some adventure tours being offered with a driver and lodgings but they weren’t that cheap ($300 for three days for each adult). I figured a day trip out and back would work. I called Manolo and he said no problems and whenever. He’s a very laid back dude and didn’t seem to be that busy so he was more than happy to work around our schedule. I think we called him a few days before we showed up and he and Alejandro were waiting for us.

The view from the courtyard of the guest rooms at Manolo's Hostel

The trip from San Salvador only took a few hours and we had a nice drive through Santa Tecla, Lourdes, Ahuachapan, and then to Tacuba. The roads are in perfect shape and are fast. The GPS got us to this small town perched on a volcanic mountain range and then we called Manolo’s parent’s hostel and they guided us to their place. Once we got there, the GPS recognized the Hostel but, of course, we never inputted the exact name (as it was recorded) so we couldn’t actually find it in the system until we got there. Maybe it would be better to get to the town first and then do a hotel or restaurant search and it will pop up the names of all the nearby places.

Manolo’s parent’s place is called "Hostal Mama Y Papa Manolo" on the GPS. It is a lovely and quaint 5 bedroom place that Frommer’s says costs from $5 to $15 a night (dorm bed or private room). It was surprisingly empty when we got there .... a strange occurrence we noticed at almost every tourism hotel we came across.

Manolo, Chris, Nicole and Tyler
Manolo offers many different kinds of hikes and will tailor a trip to your needs. My friends wanted to see a coffee finca and hike down to a big waterfall. I think Manolo said it was an hour down and an hour up ... but this guy is really fit and Chris and Janet had their kids. So they packed up water bottles and took off for Parque Imposible in the white Forerunner. I had made some sandwiches for everyone and Manolo got a bit pissed at me - he said that the next time I invited him to my house for dinner, he was going to bring his own food. Funny guy.The park was named this because it used to be next to impossible to travel through including a gorge and a path that claimed many lives. There is a bridge on the gorge now and it is now a National Park.

My view from the hammock

With my bad knees, I decided not to go on the hike and spent the afternoon in a hammock, making peace with the family of ducks living in the garden, and working on my iTouch (Manolo has wireless at the Hostal). So between checking my E-mails and using my cell phone, I was able to take care of some business I had in Toronto. Communication infrastructure in El Salvador is amazing.

No fear! Chris jumping in.

So a few hours later, they returned and it was a good thing I didn’t go on the hike. It was more like one hour down and two hours up and was quite grueling. For Manolo, it was a walk to the corner store. They had a great time and were able to jump into the waterfalls and saw a lot of flora and fauna that Manolo was able to describe including some rare lizzards and frogs.

Safe landing! Swimming hole, diving pool, outdoor shower ... all in one.

On the way back, we stopped at a stand selling honey for $3 a bottle (they used old booze bottles) and we tried it. It was delicious and they said that the bees get the nectar from coffee flowers! I don’t know if this is true but the honey was really light and clean with a floral ginger taste. We bought three bottles.