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 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:

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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Korean Food in Central America

Bamchan in San Salvador
This is the second part of my blog on Asian food in Latin America. I was deriding the quality of sushi in these parts and wanted to go catch my own fish. Dan churning up the water in his fishing boat 20 miles off the coast of El Salvador.

Went out with my friend Dan on his nice little boat. About five miles out of Acajutla port, he tells me to take the wheel ... fun but a bit nerve wracking since we were really booting along, looking for drifting wood (where the fish congregate) and I didn’t want to run over some submerged tree or run over one of the many many sea turtles we saw out there. Alas, 5 hours later and going out as far as 20 miles, we didn’t catch anything.

Sushi Handrolls at Home

Had a sushi party at the house for MJ’s 25th birthday. Invited about a dozen people and had about 10 show up. Again, I didn’t want to risk raw fish but I think I may be overly paranoid. The fish is, in fact, iced when it is caught (all the small fishing boats going out from Acajutla put ice in their holds) so I should just suck it up and buy some. I did get some very nice nice fresh shrimp at the Mercado Antiguo Cuscutlan from the niece of Maurita, the woman at whose big food stand I eat at once a week. I’ll ask the niece the next time I see her and hope she can assure me that the fish is super fresh. I used some Scottish smoked salmon from Pricesmart which is fine albeit a bit salty. That and very nice creamy avocado, cucumbers, tamago (egg), and red peppers made for very nice hand rolls ... and the rice worked out pretty well.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the food very much although I think they were more used to the typical salmon and tuna sushi and "creative" rolls. Oh, and we started with bacon wrapped figs (canned and in syrup but usable) with a mascarpone dip and veggies with an awesome dip that Nadia (visiting from Owen Sound) made for us with mayo, sour cream, chipotle peppers in adobe sauce, and green onions. Went to Club Nvy where the poorly dressed doorman looked me up and down and said "Members only". Had to fake being friends with the owner to get in but we did and ended up in the VIP room and drank two bottles of Absolut ... ouch! And tacos and burritos at 4 in the morning.

Yeah Baby ... Nad and me in the VIP lounge.

So this was okay sushi and I am certainly nowhere near even being a kitchen helper in a good sushi restaurant although I am probably close to the level of a mall or supermarket sushi kiosk.

More Soju? Yes please!

While the lack of good/great sushi in Latin America may be lamentable, the Korean food rocks! I have had great Korean in Panama and there are two excellent places here in San Salvador. Pabelion Coreano is my favourite place and has gas cookers on the tables.

As I think I mentioned earlier, sushi is trendy and people will say they like it even though they may only like the idea of it (or maybe just funny rolls with no raw fish and very little nori). The Korean food here is decidedly not trendy and the three restaurants I have eaten at were owned by Koreans with Korean cooks serving to mostly Korean clients.

Mmmm, the porky goodness of Sam-gyup-sal.

The Pabelion has cold Soju for $7 a bottle and lots of delicious bam chan. We usually get the bulgogee, the sam gyup sal, and a few spicy soups. The grilled meats come with big chunks of raw garlic and jalapeno peppers ... which I find a lot hotter than the standard Korean green chillis.

Note the chunks of garlic and jalapeno rings behind the pork ... sesame oil and ko-chu-chang dip

If I get carried away, I’ll eat all the jalapenos on the table and will be up all night with a burning stomach ... but it is usually worth it. The also put out the cold face cloth in case you get carried away with the peppers and it is nice on a hot evening.

BBQ Chicken ... Korean style.

MJ is fond of the spicy fried bbq chicken and the bi-bim-bop is good. They have a lot of other stuff on the menu but we really like our regular stuff so I haven’t been that adventurous.

And they have these amazing frozen melon flavoured popsicles from Korea ... don’t know how they can ship frozen stuff from Korea to Guatemala to San Salvador but it is pretty impressive.

The restaurant also sells Korean food, a lot of it purchased in Guatemala City and brought over here. I usually get my staples in Toronto but I do buy the kimchee and tofu at the restaurant. The owner Alex is very hospitable as is the waitress there.

U-kae-jang and more soju

What else can I say? You can smoke cigs or cigars there, they have other kinds of Korean liquor, they serve sashimi, and it is full of old Korean golfers on Sunday night (I know as I saw them on the golf course earlier that day ... which must make me an old Korean golfer too).

Fatima and Nad enjoying the Bamcham

We usually have some bottles of the straight Soju and do a pitcher of lemon Soju. As far as I know, this is only a Toronto/Korean thing. You get a small pitcher full of ice, add the juice of 2-3 fresh limes, add the Soju and top it off with Sprite and serve in the small glasses. A refreshing beverage!

I usually go with a bag of cigars and the last time I was there, Alex asked if one of his Korean friends could have a cigar. Then a woman grabbed me and asked me if I was married. I asked her if she had a single daughter and she said she did so I said I was married. Then tow others asked for cigars including one woman who wanted a big one ... I was too drunk and polite to say no.

So I have only tried Korean food in Panama and El Salvador but I'll try to get to a place in Guatemala City and give you a report on that. For now, I can say that it is some of the best Asian food in the region and certainly some of the most authentic. And gotta love that cheap Soju.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Holidays and Havana

Roasted Ayote (squash) with Brussels Sprouts with Truffle Oil
at the Christmas dinner

Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while. Christmas and New Years were busy with the big family dinners. We didn’t get too ambitious this year - just the regular roast turkey and a big roast beef. We have a small oven so we brought the 15 lb top sirloin roast to a relative’s house to cook with firm instructions to cook it on low heat for 5 hours and followed up with a few phone calls ... only to get back there to find a 350 degree oven and a black piece of meat that had shrunk to half its size. Luckily, it was USDA Choice grade with a big fat cap so it was still edible and somewhat tender even though it was super well done.

The funniest part of the day ... watching the little grand-kids
beating the crap out of the Frosty Pinata.

The lovely cousins getting down after the dinner. Purple was the "in" colour.

On New Years, I felt lazy so bought a smoked and precooked Butterball turkey which only had to be warmed up. A cousin made a delicious sauce/gravy from drippings and tomato puree. And we assembled the quite popular and usually somewhat mediocre pan con pavo. But with the moist hot turkey, the fresh white bun (from Super Selectos), the cold and crisp lettuce and cucumber, and the hot gravy poured on at the last minute ... WOW! It was frickin delicious.


Walking along the Malecon on a cold and blustery day.

Then I had to head to Cuba for business and would have preferred a quick one week visit but Fatima wanted to visit friends, take some classes, and relax (i.e. sleep ridiculous amounts of hours) so we went for 15 days. We had a good time but, there is a dirty little secret that travel agents don’t mention, the weather in Cuba between mid December to mid January can be terrible. How terrible you ask? How about 3.5 Celcius with no heating! We couldn’t find the blankets in the apartment so it was kind of frigid. Rain, cold and gray for at least 8 of the days.

The view from the Saratoga Hotel.

Luckily, I had purchased 200 raffle tickets for the International School’s fund-raising golf tourney and won a weekend in the Hotel Saratoga. They kindly upgraded us to a junior suite and we had a lovely view over Prado and the Capitolio. So on the coldest nights of the year, we were under a bunch of warm blankets with lots of hot water for long soaks. The service was fantastic and, in a country where you hear "no se puede" (translates to "you can’t") ALL the time, we never heard it once in the hotel and they accommodated every request we had. We even asked if we could invite some Cuban friends up to our room to play dominoes ... and they would have had to register them ... but the receptionist suggested we go to the second floor bar to play. We did and we smoked cigars and even drank our own rum! The bar even provided us with glasses and ice. Room service was great as were the buffet breakfasts.

Flamenco at the Meson with Hanoi, Rita, Dayana, Me, Angela, Warren, Vicky and Brian.

My friend Warren managed to grab a cheap flight down to Cuba so we met up with him and saw Grupo Ecos at Le Meson de la Flota. We are joined here by my old business partner Brian and his wife Dayana who were visiting from DF in Mexico. Pretty good food, nice wines and great dance and music. Also chicken at El Aljibe, some seafood at Nardos, and Tien Tan in barrio chino.

The spread at the Tien Tan. Lots of shrimp and spicy Mapo-tofu!

We were on the second floor and there was a table of about 20 young Chinese students who got very loud and very drunk with some beer drinking games. They seemed to relish the opportunity to be around mostly Asians and just be themselves in such a very different country. The food, as always, was great.

Had the requisite taco and domino night at Delia’s. She was still away in Italy on tour but Jose graciously agreed to co-host and picked up the pork leg which his Dad cooked downstairs. So we did a pulled pork in cochinito pibil sauce, Fatima made a huge mess’o refried beans from scratch, we had plenty of fresh tortillas, and lots of pico de gallo and cheese. I had gone to the store to buy jalapenos and took a picture of the shelf. A big grocery store with not a lot of selection but they have tons of jalapenos since no one every buys it. Same with the Tobasco sauce - and I had met with the McIlhenny people at the big US food show and asked if he was selling a lot - he wasn’t very friendly and didn’t seem to have a clue that most Cubans don’t use hot sauce ... and probably won’t pay $3.75 (or a week’s salary) for a single bottle!

Had to drive 10 miles to find a supermarket with eggs but my local place had unlimited sauerkraut.
I also took a picture of the canned sauerkraut ... which seemed like another funny thing to stock ... when a store worker came over and said "no se puede tomar fotos" and I said "seguro" and gave him a snappy salute. So I bought two cans of jalapenos and chopped them up with onions ... and that was the very first thing to go. I have been a good culinary influence on the gang in Vedado.
Matt and Jana destroying Jose and Maylin.

The dinner was quite good and we had a lot of food! Grilled a couple of big whole fish and did some shrimp skewers in a Goan fish curry sauce. Then to dominoes! Matt and Jana almost never play but they managed to reel off 7 victories in a row playing a diabolical game of "bota gorda" which confounded most of their opponents. Then the heavy hitters sat down to get them off the table but they too lost! With two young kids at home, they eventually had to head home but they left undefeated. Fatima was playing against me with Jose’s new girlfriend and I got badly spanked, repeatedly, until we left at around 4:00 am.

Hanoi making Mojitos for Warren and myself at the Hotel Raquel.

Saw quite a bit of my friend Hanoi and his new girlfriend Rita who is a newly graduated computer programmer and artist. We saw her at the amazing new Artesan’s fair building in Old Havana. The feria used to be near the Cathedral Square where all the tourists go but they moved it to an old harbour warehouse.

Warren outside the Artisans' Fair

It is much nicer and the vendors rent out stands which have locks on them so they don’t have to drag everything there and back again each day ... but it is pretty far from anything else so they get less business. Still, an impressive building and a great hard currency vacuum for the Government. Tourist walks in and changes Euros or CAD for the local CUC at the bank in the building. Then tourist buys amazing art work, wood carving, clothing or cigar related stuff and pays in CUC. Vendor makes money and pays about $200 a month for the stand.

The open harbour side of the complex.

There must be a few hundred stands there and there is a waiting list to get in. And there are clean washrooms, cafes, and restaurants in the complex and the workers stay warm and dry.

The roosters that will be painted on tiles.

I found an artist painting these great roosters and got him to paint six of the on ceramic tiles for our kitchen - I’ll pick them up when I am back in April.

Oddly, not many taxis in front so we took a Coco Taxi ride back to Vedado along the chilly Malecon.

We also commissioned Rita to do a painting for us ... and asked for a big one. She showed up the last day we were there, very sleepy from working and painting all week, with a gorgeous 1 x 2 metre abstract. We bought some other artwork and got the requisite customs certificates. A small painting cost us CUC$2 plus $15 while Rita got a different certificate for just CUC$2 avoiding a potential $70 charge for the big canvas. A wee bit of a worry leaving and having to explain why we paid $17 for the little tourist painting while we only paid $2 for the major work. So to the airport with certificates in hand and fully expecting to have to unroll the giant canvas ... but the customs woman in charge was fast asleep at her desk behind the x-ray machines. Mind you, it was 6:30 a.m. so I don’t think anyone could fault her.

And here is the painting in our living room. It is entitled "Sofa 30".