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.
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.
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:
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.
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.