After walking across the border from Nicaragua into Honduras, we rode the bus to the nearest large town, and then switched to a bus that would take us to the El Salvador border. We passed many police checkpoints, the bus being occasionally searched by men wielding machine guns and dressed in intimidating black uniforms. Nevertheless, with all the stories of hijackings and kidnappings, I was actually glad for the police presence along the highways. We crossed into El Salvador without incident…and were met with a Burger King and an air-conditioned luxury bus that whisked us directly to the capitol through the wild terrain of the eastern region of the country. Everywhere, the strong ties of El Salvador to the USA were apparent…strip malls and fast food chains like Quiznos and Wendy’s lined the highway, US dollars are the national currency, and everyone has a family member living in the big nation up north. San Salvador, despite its nasty reputation for gang activity, looks like a photocopy of an American city. It was quite disorienting after 18 days in undeveloped Nicaragua…but I can’t lie and say it was not really nice to be able to buy soy milk at a big grocery store and take my first hot shower in almost a month.
After our night in the capitol, we found our way to the bus station, where we caught the bus to Sonsonate…and from there onto the Ruta de las Flores. The “Route of Flowers” is a line of mountain villages in western El Salvador, which are famous for their weekend food festivals and their fresh air away from the crush of the city. Built mainly for local tourism, we found them very quiet and peaceful during the middle of the week. We spent our first night in Apaneca, known as the place of winds. Perched on the highest part of the country, this village has views of the surrounding mountains and the checkerboard pattern of trees acting as wind breaks for the coffee plantations. The first thing we noticed about this village, which became a theme of our time in the Ruta de las Flores villages, was the wildly painted murals on many buildings in town. Local scenes, fanciful animals, and dreamlike pictures turn the streets into a surprising canvas. It was also Ash Wednesday on the day we arrived, so a procession of children in purple was making a tour of the town as we tried to hunt down a hostel.
We eventually found Massimo, a Salvadoran with an Italian father, who runs a little hostel in the backstreets..and also happens to be a HUGE Star Wars fan. He introduced us to the best local pupuseria, where we gorged ourselves on the country’s representative food. Further, he offered to be our tour guide for a reasonable fee and take us to the Laguna Verde and a cacao plantation that also hosts a gorgeous waterfall. We agreed and hopped in his car to drive up to the old volcano crater where we walked around the “green lake.” Two local boys delighted in showing us around the whole lake and entertained us with their antics on their bicycles. From there, we got back into the car and took a scenic drive partway down the mountain to the plantation, where we nibbled on cacao pods and walked up the trail to the waterfall. The farmer is building some facilities next to the natural pool there so that visitors can also enjoy a refreshing swim…although it was a bit too chilly for us to consider diving in! It was a gorgeous spot to sit and chat while we put in our feet, though.
That afternoon, Massimo drove us to the next village along the Ruta, Ataco, where he introduced us to his friend who has a small hostel and café. We happily checked in, quaffed a demitasse of local coffee, and set out to explore this village. There were even more colorful murals, and a stunning little church on the edge of town. Streets full of artisan wares in silver and crochet led onto a peaceful main square full of gnarled old trees that hid old fountains and colonies of high altitude parrots. We found yet another delightful local pupuseria, where Sangbyeong ordered his favorites, with cheese and pork, and I ordered ones with just beans. Eaten with pickled cabbage, they make a filling meal. As dark set in, the streets lit up with the romantic light of dim streetlights and the bright moon overhead. Back at our hostel, we sipped tea before bed and watched the local football (soccer) match on TV with the owner.
Friday morning dawned, and we ate a filling breakfast from the café and headed to the post office before we set out to catch a bus to Santa Ana. We would have liked to stay longer on the Ruta, but we knew the weekend hordes from San Salvador would be arriving in the evening, and we preferred to remember Apaneca and Ataco as sleepy little mountain villages. In Santa Ana, we wandered through the market, past some graceful old buildings and found the onward bus to Metapan, near the Guatemala border. We splurged on a “real” hotel for the night. After wandering the local streets, we climbed up the high hills outside of town to see the view before heading back into town for an evening meal…but discovered that all the restaurants closed down by 5pm! The supermarket was still open, so we fashioned a dinner out of cornflakes, soy milk(!), fruit, mixed nuts, and chicken wings for Sangbyeong.
We were glad for that night of rest, as the next day we planned to do two border crossings again…it is safer an quicker to cross into Guatemala than to cross directly into Honduras if one wants to get from northwestern El Salvador to Copan Ruinas. The van in Guatemala took us through winding mountain roads and dusty, cheerful villages to the transport hub of Chiquimula. From there, we hopped another van that took us to…the middle of nowhere, where we stopped for an hour. A good excuse to try Gallo, Guate’s best beer, anyways. We finally reached El Florido, where we crossed into Honduras, and wedged ourselves into yet another overstuffed van for the 15 minute ride to Copan…where we instantly fell in love with the town.