Tuesday, June 14, 2016

El Salvador and Guatemala

Wading in the cold waters of Lake Atitlan
While the flow of my friends willing to visit me has reduced to a trickle, there are still some people who are curious about Central America. My old friend Stefan from my early years in Havana has been more recently posted to Buenos Aires and Brazilia where I have visited him about 5 times in the past few years. 
Kids jumping off the big pig at Tunco
The sheer weight of guilt finally pushed him to book tickets, with the lovely and charming Mary, through Panama to Monsignor Romero International Airport in Comalapa, El Salvador.
Chillin in Tunco
It was nice to have friends visiting who had no preconceived ideas of this country. We did most of the usual things including a day out at Tunco eating lots of amazingly fresh clams and oysters. 
Stefan zipping through space
Also a day out in the west doing the awesome ziplining at Apaneca, dropping into Juayua for the food fair, and then racing over to Tazumal before it closed early on the Sunday. We actually got there after they closed the ticket booth but they still let us in for a quick walk around the temple. Very nice of them.

Great food and ambiance at the Welton in Antigua
I think I must be a real Guanaco now because I now agree with the locals that a must see, when visiting El Salvador, is Antigua, Guatemala. Okay, but really, this whole region used to be one country so it isn’t so wrong to see that the areas are related. 
Pollo Campero on the road to Antigua
We drove to Antigua for a night and had a wonderful meal at the Welton. This place has been producing great meals with great service and charming ambience for years. We were hoping to sit by the rose petal strewn pool but they had just cleaned it but our table was covered in the petals.
At the Ocelot Bar? Cool Aussie bartender making us lots of cocktails.
We spent the night in the very nice Hotel Antigua: very central and very rustic but the rooms have all been redone so it is very quiet and comfortable. Also very reasonable and they do a nice breakfast in the mornings – either the fruit, cereal and toast included in the meal or the cooked breakfast that is a bit extra.

Michael sharing his cigar friendly places in Antigua
Also hung out with Michael who told us of the very few places you could have a drink, hang out and smoke a cigar! Since this is very forbidden in Antigua, I won’t mention where we did it. But at one place, we received no complaints, staff was very cool, and we handed out some Habanos to some Americans who said the cigars smelled really good.
Who needs bridges?
We also took the opportunity to drive to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan. We used my wobbly GPS and Fatima’s recollection from a bus trip she took many years ago ... and started off. Through fields of produce and out into the country, we hit a very winding stretch that got quite dodgy quite quickly. We came upon a collapsed bridge and wondered what to do until we saw on-coming cars driving through the river bed. No worries with the Honda Pilot. But up steep roads, blind curves, small land slides and almost no traffic! I was thinking that the town must be really tiny and beers must be $5 each if the trucks have to drive this road to get up there.
Hanging out in Panajachel
We finally arrive and Panajachel is quite big with hundreds of cars and we got lost trying to find our accommodations at Jessica’s River Bed and Breakfast. Very cute property and tiny but cozy rooms all done in wood. We got lucky as our stay coincided with the weekly breakfast in the garden. A great spread of local and international breakfast foods. The people were also quite interesting and met some some gingoes who had driven from Guatemala City ... and who told me that there is a giant multi lane highway coming in from the north and west (we went south and east) and some interesting folks from NYC who were down buying Guatemalan crafted goods for sale in their boutique.
A beautiful Lake Atitlan (click to enlarge)
Okay, why am I talking about that when I should be mentioning that Lake Atitlan is gorgeous! A huge glittering lake, hundreds of metres deep, brilliantly clear and surrounded by volcanoes high up in the air. It was a joy sitting at the lake side restaurants, even if they were tourist traps, looking out onto the lake. We decided that we didn’t need to order the extravagant meals they had on offer and found places that would allow us to drink beers and smoke cigars and to order the luncheon specials with the small, but very fresh and delicious, fish lunches.
Purple jade from street vendors in Panajahel
At every turn we were approached by the locals who wanted to sell us artisanal goods. Lots of it was lovely and we bought what we could. A friend of mine from Canada had asked me to buy purple jade. The stores in Antigua were asking $100 for a tiny piece. The stores in Panajachel were asking $50.  But on the streets, I was buying big pendants of pink and purple jade for about $10 to $20 each. Got some great stuff.
Mary enjoying (and not sharing) her pasta as Stefan looks hungrily on
We went out for dinner and took some local advice and ended up eating some rather mediocre food. Actually, Fatima, Stefan and I had a pretty average soup and pizza dinner while Mary had what looked like amazing pasta but she wasn’t sharing with us since we all looked so hungry and would have devoured her entire dinner.

Antigua amongst the volacanoes
We took the highway route back to Antigua and it was super fast and a lot safer but it was a lot farther so it took about the same amount of time and was certainly a lot less interesting. Once back in Antigua, we had more time so we did a big walk around town to the Merced church, to the textile museum, to the big ruins, and then to the market. 
The markets of Antigua
I did not know that there is a market behind the market behind the market. We went in really deep and it was very interesting with lots of stuff being sold that we didn’t see up front. We bought lots of pepitos (pumpkin seeds) as they were a third of the price in San Salvador. 
Smoking cigars and drinking cocktails inside!
We had dinner at a very crowded traditional Guatemalan restaurant just off the main square. The food was very good but they purposefully charged us for two bottles of wine instead of one. We caught it and made it clear that we were quite annoyed with them. I hate when they try to rip off tourists but it happens everywhere.

The next day we had a leisurely breakfast at out hotel, Los Olivos I think? The rooms were quite interesting as you would enter into a small living room with the washroom and a TV. Then up stairs to a landing with a giant bed and a big TV. No windows up there but a skylight. Everything looked to be constructed with giant wooden beans and foot thick blocks of stone but that wasn’t the case as Stefan was kept up by a late check in and lots of thumping from next door. More walking around town and hanging around with Michael who gave me another gem of local knowledge.

Wonton noodle soup in Central America!
A new Chinese restaurant that served really good food including  wonton noodle soup! This is the Holy Grail (or noodle bowl) of Chinese food for me, having grown up on it in the Chinatown in Toronto. I had high expectations and it was really great. Perhaps not perfect noodles but they threw a bunch of giant shrimps on top, even with a bunch of fat shrimp filled wontons, so I was happy.
The ruins in Antigua (click to enlarge)
Back on the highway and passed maybe a total of 10 Guatemalan police check points but we were not stopped by a single one. Across the border at Chinamas and five minutes later, I am stopped by the Salvadoran police! I got out of the car and told him that I had spent three days driving in Guatemala and wasn’t stopped once and I drive a few miles into my own country and I get stopped. He laughed, took a quick look into the back of my SUV and told me that I could go. I think they, and the customs at the border, were looking for people transporting goods for sale in El Salvador.
Touring Tazumel
Last night was smoking cigars and drinking awesome artisanal pints at the Cadejo bar in the Zona Rosa and my friends jetted off back to Brazilia.
Other things they really enjoyed in ES? Very authentic and delicious Korean food at the Pabelion Coreano in Merliot. Also spent a night on the Paseo del Carmen walking up and down the street. They have this big food area towards the end which had dozens of stands selling all kinds of delicious foods. Too bad we had eaten so we couldn’t try everything we wanted to. I bought a cool CBGB Tshirt and we ended up at Thekla Bar which had a four piece female indy band that seemed to tune up for about twice as long as they played.

Part three of the atomic bomb. Boom!
The bar has an interesting shooter drink list so Stefan made the classic mistake, only second to starting a land war in Asia, of challenging a Korean to a drinking contest. A few hours later, we both clearly had enough. I think it was the Atomic Bomb that was a three level drink. Pull out the shot of Jack Daniels and knock it back. It dislodges a shot of Jaeger that falls into a glass of Red bull, Pulling that out dislodges a Baileys layered over Jamesons that falls into a stout, and then choke that back and burp. Ugh!

Grilled leeks, steaks and sausages, and a big salad on the beach.
Spent one night at the beach at a friend’s house. Nice to have a bbq and then walk along the ocean while the tide was out. Cigars and rum into the night and Stefan slept outside on the deck, listening to the waves all night. 

Stefan and the ladies saying goodbye to the sun
El Salvador is a very small country going through a difficult period with its gangs and crime but it is also a very beautiful country full of happy, hard-working and hopeful people. Come and visit.