Friday, January 6, 2012

Visits to Antigua

Buy the Ebook!

I know that I have posted this comment before but if you tell a Salvadoran that you are visiting the country and ask what you should go see, they will tell you Antigua. The funny thing about that is, Antigua is in neighbouring Guatemala.

Me and the famous author!

But Antigua is amazing and only 5 hours from San Salvador. The drive along the coast is nice and I heard the Hachadura bridge is open after the crazy rain storm hit and took it out. Last time I drover over that bridge, I recall the stream below it was a good 40 feet below ... well during the storm, the water was going over the bridge. That route is quite scenic and it avoids Guatemala City and the traffic there.

The high plains drifter.

Antigua has great little inns, great restaurants and bars. It is great having a friend of Michael there since he is an insider and local now and knows all the best places and the good gossip. And if you don't have a friend like Michael living there, you can buy his insider's guide book at for only $4.99. It downloads onto any E-reader (I put it on my iPad) and it will give you a lot of good information for your visit. Plus he is a very witty writer.

My favourite place is the Hotel Aurora - very central, just a few blocks from parque central, some lovely rooms, beautiful flowers in the courtyard, decent breakfast and one of the cheapest places in town. We like to eat at the Welton and Hector's and drink wherever there is a lot of noise and where Michael and I can sneak in a good cigar.

And come to think of it, if you are visiting the area and are going to download Michael's local insider's guide, you should download Paige Penland's excellent guidebook on El Salvador that became available recently on Kobo at

HAV and SAL again

I know that this is supposed to be about a blog about El Salvador but I was just in Havana and wanted to talk about the trip and some changes going on over there.
American Airlines plane leaving Cuba

At the airport, I saw an American Airlines plane taking off ... coincidence that they filed for bankruptcy protection and they are back in Cuba? Or a communist plot?

There has been a lot of talk about the new rights to purchase cars and homes. Of course it is just talk until someone actually buys a car or a house. I have friends looking to do both but, so far, I haven’t heard of anyone closing a deal.

Great art in Cuba: Jurgen Rodriguez - 'Sweet girl' 0.85cm x 1.00cm. acrilico/lienzo

Another big change has been the closures of the highschools and technical schools in the country. There were dozens and maybe hundreds of these spread out through the country. I asked a

Cuban friend what the reasoning was for their opening ... and he quoted Karl Marx and something about working the fields creates good socialists! Wowzer, what a reason. So the schools are closed (except for one or two), the kids get to stay in the cities with their families, and the government saves money on maintenance, food and transportation. Good one Raul!

Hey, you can buy cold Crystal in bottles at the liquor store at the side of the Melia Cohiba but good luck trying to buy ice anywhere! We checked 5 places in Vedado and no one had any to spare, even when we offered money.

Looking down the hallway at the new Chansonnier

Restaurants continue to be a new adventure in Havana.

Cool bar at Chansonnier.

Didn’t make it to Atelier this time but went to Hector’s revamped Chansonnier and saw the dude and his partner, the designer, Elizabeth? Beautiful place and nice drinks although they have a self imposed no smoking rule in the bar – there is one front room where you can smoke as well as the terrace.

Ruben singing his heart out at La Terraza - Prado esq a Virtudes 07 862-3626

Also ate at la Terraza at the top of Centro Cultural Astoriana again. Another great meal and Ruben was there playing the guitar. Unusually, there was a group of about 14American kids at the next table and they were so frickin loud! The Cubans, French, Spaniards and even the Italians eating there were disturbed by the level of noise. They have an art gallery now on the third floor and the curator, Hilda Barrio, has an exhibition called “Colorfull” with some amazing pieces. They are asking about a grand for each large piece which is a bit high for a young artist in Cuba but I hope to pick up some paintings the next time I am there.

Dayana, Fatima, Delia and a great photo bomb from Hector.

Also made it to Tien Tan and El Aljibe and both were quite good. Nice to see that some places have maintained their standards as other places (like El Palenque) have greatly diminished in terms of service and food quality – they just don’t seem to care anymore.

Ana Rosa and Grupo Ecos doing a tablada at the party.

Had a Christmas party and served tacos again. The usual suspects showed up and it was nice to see some old faces going back a decade or so dropping by. Grupo Ecos did a few flamenco numbers and that was nice but, as a sign of us getting old, I think the party folded at around 1:00 am!

Our typical dinner of tacos - a spicy corn and jalapeno topping and fresh pico de gallo.

On the flight back, Fatima took the direct 2 hour flight from HAV to SAL. I have turned into a frequent flier mile junkie and to make sure that I would hit elite gold, I booked my flight SAL SJO HAV LIM BOG SAL. So instead of 2 hours, my flight was 17! I did get upgraded all the way and the first few legs were okay. Flight left an hour late and had a few drinks on the way to Peru and a nap. Had to deplane onto a bus to get a ride to the terminal (even though there were a bunch of empty gates) but still, got to be outside in Peru for a few minutes! Cool and dry.

Pisco Sour at the Lima airport.

Then went to a nice bar right beside my gate in Lima and stupidly asked the barman if I could have a Pisco Sour. He looked at me like I was a “tired Asian-Canadian tourist hungover and very sleepy on a 30 minute stopover” idiot and said yes. Delicious and deliciously over-priced at $9 but he liked the tip I left.

Back onto the plane for a shorter flight to Bogota. 136 people turned left and I turned right into the departure lounge – no one telling me which way to go at 1:00 am but I figured I was one of few stopping over. Turns out, in the entire airport, there were only 6 of us. 3 cops, 8 cleaners and about 5 people staffing and stocking the kiosks (including a Dunkin Donuts). The next 3 ½ hours before the lounge opened up was a bit challenging. Quite cool so I was lucky to have a warm sweater. A dozen departure gate lounges, maybe a few thousand seats but not a single one that didn’t have big steel arms to prevent you from lying down. One smart person parked themselves behind a bank of chairs in a distant lounge and fell asleep on the floor. When the lounge finally opened – hot coffee, juice, fresh fruit, little sandwiches and big soft couches!

Went into the washroom and a sign in Spanish said, please do not flush anything into the toilets but I figured that no way do they mean the toilet paper. I mean this is an international airport! I was terribly wrong.

Jurgen Rodriguez - How tall you are? 1.85m x 2.20m. acrilico/lienzo

Back on the plane, short fight to San Salvador, quiet airport and Fatima was back, 12 hours after her arrival, to pick me up. Had a few cigars with me from Cuba as well as a pile of books that I was muling up to Toronto for Monica so thought that I would have to open my bags but the guy, after asking if I had anything to declare, told me to go and told me not to push the button (which randomly flashes green or red which means you have to open your bags for inspection). Don’t know what that was about since everyone is supposed to push it and it is supposed to be random so he wasn’t trying to ding the guy behind me.

Okay, so after this ridiculous flight, how many points did I get? Total miles earned with bonuses was 18,676 which ain’t bad since a ticket from HAV to SAL return is as low as 14,000. So one night of discomfort and a free ticket for a Cuban friend to visit me in El Salvador. Only 7,763 qualifying miles for the elite class target so don’t think I’ll be hitting the 70,000 diamond level very easily.

Corn pie with two cups of parmesan cheese!

Back in San Salvador and Christmas is just a few days away. I have been away for the past two Christmases so it was nice to cook for the whole family. Made a brined roast turkey with a sausage, onion, leek, bacon, mushroom and zucchini sage stuffing, corn pie with two cups of parmeian cheese, maple glazed carrots, roast vegetables, fluffy mashed potatoes, two types of cranberry sauce, and about a gallon of pan gravy with some extra chicken stock/broth that I made. Also a brined, rubbed, roasted and wine/coke braised pork shoulder with cider vinegar cole slaw and a Jack Daniels bbq sauce.

Snow in San Salvador!

Then the usual dancing and fireworks. I smoked a couple of cigars and enjoyed all the noise! New years we changed the menu with Fatima making some of her amazing lasagne and a cousin made a delicious rolled and stuffed beef tendloin that he had marinated in beer for a few days to tenderize. Delicious. Then a nephew gave us a real treat with the fireworks. The guy is quite the pyro and has had a few accidents with bottle rockets and firecrackers since he has no fear and even less after several drinks. H e was lighting fairly large firecrackers and letting the fuse burn down before tossing them in the air. They would explode in the night sky and the shredded paper would waft down like … snow! It was actually quite beautiful and made me think of Canada.

So after a week in Cuba and a week in El Salvador, the differences became a lot more crystallized for me. They are almost the complete opposite of each other. Cuba is full of charm and culture with great friendly restaurants and bars and lots of musicians and everyone is in your face. You can walk anywhere safely, day or night, but the public transportation sucks as does having or renting a car or finding a taxi. It may take years to buy a car, cell service is extremely expensive, and internet is difficult to obtain and very expensive for crappy dial up service. You can’t buy shit and there are only a few stores and everything is a pain in the ass. Everything is falling apart but the city is still gorgeous with beautifully designed buildings and charming and very unique neighbourhoods.

A typical highschool girl in Havana - Jurgen Rodriguez: Natacha la Especilista. Acrilico-Lienzo. 150x125cm. 2010 1000cuc

El Salvador is more buttoned up, a lot less culture (unless you count the excellent and very cheap modern movie theatres), has a lot of charmless places, and people are very proper and polite. You can’t walk anywhere but public transportation is everywhere (but not generally for gringos), cars are cheap and easy to buy (I could walk out of my apartment and buy, plate and insure a car in about 90 minutes), and you can rent a car for $10 a day. And you can buy anything you want between the Costco (signed Pricesmart here), Walmart, several grocery chains, and many huge and modern shopping malls. Cell service is excellent and cheap (I can call Canada/US on my cell for between 5 and 10 cents a minute and my Blackberry service only costs $14 a month) and there is wifi (often free) everywhere including a public park (which would be an excellent place for muggers to hang out). San Salvador is not the prettiest city in Latin America and most nice houses can’t be seen because they are behind 10 foot walls and razor wire.

They both have their advantages and I guess that I am lucky to be able to travel freely between the two.