Once upon a time in Colombia, a shameless bandit, a pillaging plundering pirate, a shadowy fleet-footed looter … stole my phone, and along with it a haul of several thousand photos.
That’s not exactly a unique situation when it comes to travel, so there’s not too much more to say really. Last I checked the GPS tracker which tracks my phone, it was on a journey from Medellin in central Colombia to the capital Bogota, probably getting ready to board an international flight to a far off land.
The point of this post is, I’ve found it difficult to write anything, knowing I can’t add any pictures. Fortunately I found a stash of my favorite photos from the past few months (except Colombia) on a USB stick.
So now I’m going to reminisce and use my six recovered photos to explain why El Salvador is one of my favorite Latin American countries.
First things first – yes, they have chicken buses in El Salvador. The mountain roads and the city streets are full of the old faithful Blue Bird buses, however they vary from their Central American neighbors in a number of both good and bad ways.
The Chicken Buses
I took my first bus from the border with Guatemala at San Cristobal. I hadn’t done much research on where I was headed but the words painted on the bus windshield read ‘Santa Ana’ and it seemed like a good idea to check it out. Here are my impressions.
First the bad…
- They’re not as flamboyant. El Salvador’s chicken bus doesn’t seem so fussed with it’s appearance. The paint jobs are messier, there’s a distinct lack of chrome, they don’t have names but rather plain old bus route numbers, and they lack the overall craziness of the Guatemalan variant.
- They are not as well maintained. I spent overall about a week in El Salvador and in that space of time, three of my buses broke down leaving me stranded on the side of the road. Six months in Guatemala, and not a single one broke down.
And the good…
- They are WAY more comfortable. You actually get your own seat. No longer do you have to share a row with three other people, now you can enjoy whole seat to yourself.
- They seem a lot safer. The fact that there aren’t 80 people on board at the same time plus the relatively slower speed of travel seems to be beneficial on the break pads and momentum in corners. I think there is less chance of catastrophic bus accidents in El Salvador, which is a good thing.
- The people are super friendly. I was really struck by the El Salvadorean people and their openness and willingness to talk about anything and everything. It wasn’t unusual for the bus passengers to join in a giant group discussion ranging from the upcoming presidential elections to the best village markets to visit.
- The food in El Salvador is FANTASTIC. The buses usually depart from or close to the town market, and as the bus slowly makes its way through the market street, vendors climb aboard offering all sorts, but the best is the food.
Overall as far as Chicken Buses go, the El Salvadorean variant is a bit less wild and disturbing, but a lot more comfortable, with great company and good food. As I continue to carve out a niche as a chicken bus aficionado, I give the bus my whole-hearted support and recommend you take a journey.
A beautiful country
It’s hard not to be struck by the beauty of the country upon arrival. As my bus set off to Santa Ana, the sun began to set, and a little off in the distance a perfectly conical volcano rose out of the ground.
Santa Ana, El Savador’s second city, turned out to be a pretty university town with a nice center, and surround by beautiful countryside.
A short ride west and you could visit the ruins of Tazumal and the town of Chalchuapa where there is secluded Laguna Cuzcachapa – a place revered in Maya culture.
The Ruta de los Flores, a winding road through the highlands takes you through several old colonial towns with markets and food festivals on the weekends. It’s definitely worth the visit.
On the northern border with Honduras is the town of La Palma. Artist Fernando Llort founded an art movement known as ‘Naive art’ in response to growing tensions in El Salvador in the lead up to the civil war. The style features bright colors, holy scenes, strange animals and images of an El Salvador at peace with itself.
La Palma, where Llort moved to during the 70s is full of murals and is a delight for art lovers. The workshop Llort established is still functioning and the town continues to produce stunning pieces of art.
The friendly people
I’ve already mentioned it, but it’s worth reiterating – along with Colombia, El Salvador is one of the friendliest countries I have ever known. People would walk me through the streets personally if I ever asked for directions, they would make conversation and were always willing to share a beer together.
In Santa Ana I found myself on a street corner one morning, unsure of which bus I needed for the days adventures. I asked a lady standing in a nearby doorway and she took me into her house. Another lady was sitting on a couch. She had a large XVIII tattooed across her chest in Gothic font – a member of the Mara street gang ‘Barrio 18.’ She led me outside and pointed me in the right direction.
As she turned around to head back into the house, I noticed another tattoo on her back. Upon closer inspection i saw that it was a hastily done outline of the nefarious saint, San Simon, wearing his tie, suit jacket and sombrero, with a bag of $$$ and a cup of wine below him.
People say you should think before you speak. On this occasion the situation got the better of me and I blurted out a question to see if I could take a picture. I immediately regretted it but she she happily turned her back to me to get a few snaps.
Even the notorious Mara gang members can be friendly in El Salvador apparently.
On another occasion, I was invited to an after-party at a petrol station in the countryside, where a security guard, his shotgun in one hand,poured hot water into my pot noodle for me. Very friendly I’d say.
In San Salvador I was invited to a university house party on the outskirts of the capital, and on another occasion I had dinner with the two army veterans from the civil conflict.
(On a side note, the nightlife in San Salvador was great. I visited Santa Tecla where there is a pedestrianized street full of bars, clubs, live music, restaurants and street food. I would definitely recommend a visit. The malls also house large clubs which could be worth a visit. In fact San Salvador is worth a couple of days visiting as there are lots of museums and impressive view points.)
For all the negative things you hear about El Salvador in the press, on a personal level it’s an incredible country with plenty of warm and friendly people. Unfortunately they’re not the ones who make the news.
All in all, El Salvador is a great country – plenty of sights, small enough to visit much of the country and get a feel for the place, friendly people and lots of Chicken Buses.
And that’s it. My six photos of El Salvador. Fortunately I have plenty more memories.