Volcanos and Hooker Motels: Findings from an El Salvador Explorer

I knew almost nothing about El Salvador before I arrived. I knew the country went through a civil war recently, that it was roughly the size of Massachusetts, and that the Salvadorian government adopted the almighty American Dollar, but besides that I was clueless. Love that movie! My inner explorer was dying to take advantage of the uncharted waters. The El Salvador Rally group was excited to see what the country was like outside the gated all-inclusive resort everyone was docked at. That was the trouble though; almost every week I spent next to the pool in Bahia del Sol I told myself, “This week I will explore beyond the pool.” I knew I was good at being apathetic, but my time by the pool really took that skill to a whole new level. Bella Star, Knee Deep and Panache all knew a volcano trip would be amazing, so after much prodding by Nicole, she decided to plan a multi-day trip all by her lonesome. Apathy can in fact bring progress.

Aaron Nicole and I waiting for the rain to pass.

Washington Apples in El Salvador. WA BRA!

We were going to bus it to Santa Ana and use the town as a home base to explore nearby sights. Tours were offered through Bahia del Sol with transportation, but the bus system seemed easy enough to navigate and finding our own transportation would save us lots of money. I also hoped that finding our own way would make for some better stories.

Typical Salvadorian bus

The first of many buses would get us to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. There are many things you will notice about Salvadorian buses. The first time I saw one I wasn’t sure if it was the local public transport or a party bus. Bump cha-bump cha-bump cha-bump cha-bump was all I could hear, and the thing was decked out with cartoon character stickers everywhere, lounging stuffed animals, Jesus, a spoiler and flames dragging down each side. If that doesn't impress you, the efficiency will. The bus driver is just that; he drives the bus and stops when people need to be picked up. Totally separately, a money collector makes rounds on the bus to collect bus fare. It’s incredible how much time this saves when those two duties are allocated separately. There are no official bus stops; you can get picked up anywhere, but the best part is that merchants parade through the bus at most major stops, selling anything from snack items to antibiotics. Oh, preachers also give the occasional impromptu sermon as well. With all this commotion it makes for a pretty interesting ride.

All the theatrics are just to distract passengers from the ever-present danger on the road. A perfect example of this happened on that first bus to San Salvador. I was admiring a bucket of chickens busily pecking at Nicole’s feet when I noticed a second bus passing us. Did we stop? No, we were still barreling down a two-lane country road at 60mph. I was speechless. “Did that just happen!?” I look back at our gringo crew and everyone was watching with amazement. Everyone else on the bus fails to notice or was used to it. All the distractions in the world didn't help for what happened next. Our bus driver, apparently ashamed by being overtaken by some other bus, immediately throws the suped up Bluebird relic (an used bus from the states) into low gear and proceeds to pass the other bus in the oncoming traffic lane. We were neck and neck with the other bus and oncoming traffic was heading our way. Each bus is maxed out, but our bus is not backing down. In order to avoid a huge collision, the other bus slows (we were still going a good 70mph), and we pass just in time to avoid hitting the oncoming vehicle. My muscles relaxed half way, ready for yet another pass, but it never happened to my relief.

Three buses later we were still in San Salvador and ready for lunch. In the bus terminal that would eventually take us to Santa Ana, a nice array of snack shops were open, and we all decided to grub on the pupusa and soup shop that seemed to be the most popular. Nicole ordered the beef soup, which was actually hoof soup. Everyone but Nicole had fun touching and playing with the discarded hoof. My chicken soup was delicious, not a hoof to be found.

Do they have gun caddies? Cuz this thing is heavy as a mofo.

The final bus was a bit more plush than the others. After the crazy zigzag bus route we went through, we opted for the slightly more pricy (a couple dollars more) comfy bus. Leaving San Salvador we passed the military museum of El Salvador. I had visited it a week prior and was amazed by the way they presented their history. It was like taking a historical tour of El Salvador through all the guns that were used in all the conflicts. I guess it was one of the lasting, tangible relics from each period in El Salvador's military history. It was interesting to see the flow and sale of guns through a country that has participated in quite a few conflicts. They even allowed us to hold one of the light machine guns to get a feel for what soldiers had to carry for sometimes hundreds of miles. All this was a passing thought while I zoned out on the bus to my iPod.

Busy street in Santa Ana.

Santa Ana greeted us to a bustling street market. It took us several minutes to get our bearings before we could shuffle to our hotel. Many of the options were grim, and we decided to go with something midrange. This hotel turned out to be in the red-light district and was next to a strip club. Pretty sure one of the girls standing outside was a dude, but I didn't have the balls to go over and lift up her skirt to find out. I was ok with the hotel, Aaron and Nicole were ok with the hotel, but Molly and Ben were a little apprehensive having kids and all. We decided to give it a shot and stay for a night. I shared a room with Aaron and Nicole, and the Doolittle's had their own room that came complete with a family of cockroaches. Molly loved this. I personally loved the signs in every room that described how to properly use a condom and that anyone caught having sex with a minor would be castrated or imprisoned or something. I should really know more Spanish by now but I don't. JP asked what a condom was, and I told him “It’s like a glove for your penis.” JP found this exceptionally amusing. I had the misfortune of choosing the bed that probably had seen the most sex. I was able to make this deduction because it was the most sunken. The bed was significantly broken in. We had a round of beers to cope with our hotel faux pas that was reinforced when the owner excitedly told us how happy he was: “I have never had a family stay here before!” Great.

The beautiful room in the hooker hotel. Aaron and Nicole look so excited!

Soaking in the pool at the hooker hotel.

On our hunt for food we stumbled upon several beautiful parks, and a gigantic church that was right next to a beautiful tree-house-like restaurant overlooking the city. Having a big day of volcano exploring to do the next day, everyone returned to our hourly hotel for a nice family movie while God knows what was happening in the building next to us. It sure did sound interesting. Molly pointed out how ironic the situation was: Our little family was all huddled in an hourly hooker motel nestled deep in the red light district watching Toy Story 3. After the movie sleep was hard to come by with all the stripper music bumping next door. Early in the morning, after the music had stopped, someone was busy dropping screws or nails in the hallway. Maybe they were bullets, but I will never know. What I do know is that it was infuriating.

Chess in the park, Santa Ana.

Cute dog. Cute kid. Cute. A thanks to Bella Star for letting me borrow this image 🙂

Our early departure didn't serve any use to us, since we were too late for the one bus that transports people to the volcano trailhead. Option two was zip-lining in the mountain village of Ahuachapán. A good second option. This trip only took two buses and spat us out into some of the freshest air I have ever smelled. Correction, tasted. This little town clung to the mountain’s edge and produced some really delicious coffee. The streets were clean, and the zip-line tours were closed. We walked over to the town hostel to figure out a plan C. The hostel was cute, clean and had a surprising amount of Star Wars memorabilia, which the kids loved. I wanted to stay there for a night but we didn't bring any of our stuff. The owner himself ended up taking us all on a hike to a local lake where we ended up eating lunch and soaking up the sun. After the long hike up, everyone was glad to catch a ride back to the hostel in the back of a truck. Thanks, truck!

Armed guard at the bus station.

Fresh bread in Ahuachapán. 10 cents a roll. I ate four. I am fat, deal with it.

Pet raccoon in Ahuachapán. He enjoyed crawling all over me.

Grinding corn for papusas.

Wood stove cooking is still very popular in El Salvador. The country faces widespread deforestation. Bummer.

Owl butterfly.

Our return to Santa Ana did not take us back to the hooker motel. Everyone decided on a reasonably priced Holiday Inn lookalike. No cockroaches, hot water and a decent attached restaurant. Very tourist of us, but we needed some pampering.

Our extra, extra early wake up put us on the one bus that went to the volcano. After park fees and guide fees we were told that one more fee would be required when we hiked through private property. Fees fees fees. It was worth it though. It wasn't jungle as much as it was a mesh between coniferous forest and some jungle hybrid. The hike was hard but easy enough for a dog named Dogo to follow us the whole way. Part of the fees paid two armed guards to accompany us. What a deal! The hike transitioned from jungle, to pasture, to barren land on the side of the recently (geologically speaking) erupted volcano. It was more than enough to work up a sweat. The peak was actually a volcanic sulfur lake that looked up at us. The drop was gradual, but looked to be at least 1,000 feet. The sulfur-infused water gave an emerald green/blue hue and made our noses pucker. We watered up and returned to the trailhead that was, by that point, engulfed in mist. Our return bus was late due to the low visibility, so everyone amused themselves with freshly fried plantains and hide and seek in the mist.

Dogo the hiking dog.

Sulfer lake, Santa Ana Volcano.

Ancient indigenous rock painting.

Volcano man Aaron.

Cactus patterns

The Cruising Mafia.

Aaron touching a poisons plant on a dare. Live extreme.

Bush face in the mist.

The Doolittle family + Nicole

When the bus finally arrived, it was clear that the mist didn’t slow anything down bus-wise. With maybe 10 feet of visibility, our driver was barreling down the mountain. What is the big hurry!? Back at the hotel I took an insanely long shower and was ready for food. Aaron and I overruled Nicole’s protests, and we all went to McDonald’s for dinner. This fine establishment was located in a mall that could have been stateside. Even in El Salvador you can find America. I don’t have a problem with this. A good burger is almost a universal desire, just like convenience. These are American inventions but could have been anyone’s. If El Salvador had an incredible product, you would find it in America. Personally, I think McDonald’s should have a McPupusa.

The bus circus back to Bahia del Sol was a bit more toned down. This time we knew what we were doing, and had proper expectations concerning time. Even if our escape from the gravity of Bahia del Sol was only for four days, it was a rewarding four days that gave me a little more bragging rights when it came to the country. I could now sit by the pool without feeling guilty.

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2 Responses to Volcanos and Hooker Motels: Findings from an El Salvador Explorer

  1. Joseph Shedd says:

    1st time taking a vacation with my daughter, and 1st time visiting El Salvador. Two firsts turned into one fabulous vacation. The food was very good, always lots of choices at the buffet and food courts and the Ala Carte resturants were superb, especially the baby beef at the steak house.

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