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We also saw the Pacific coast again - I always like that because I can watch the waves coming in and think, over there in that direction is home. The coastal highway actually runs along part of the coast (unlike in Guatemala) and here the views were not obstructed by cloud, fog and rain but rather by intense tropical growth, which I suppose is to be expected towards the end of a rain season. We did stop a few times and had some good views, but they were few. We stayed at El Tunco for a couple of days and would probably have stayed longer, but it was raining almost continuously (again), and that isn't the weather to be at the beach. We were heading east when we left there and a few kilometres down the road we stopped in La Libertad. It is not a very interesting town but it is where the fishing boats come in and the jetty has a fish market. After buying some fresh fish and a few vegies, we were on our way again.
From there we continued east and made what turned out to be a rather pointless detour to check out the Costa del Sol. This is an area that has been developed as a tourist resort, with many holiday houses and hotel complexes, which means that you can drive for kilometres along an isthmus which has ocean on one side and an inlet on the other and see no more than a glimpse of water. There are plenty of high walls and elaborate gates, but no free access to the beach.
Other than the possibility of some incredible views in the mountains, there are a number of other highlights which made us glad that we came to El Salvador. The first was La Palma, a small town only 10 kilometres from where we crossed from Honduras. 75% of the people in this area are employed either directly or indirectly in producing handicrafts. They were inspired in 1971 by the artist Fernando Llort, and his style is inherent in much of the craft. We bought a few things and were impressed by the variety. In many other handicraft centres we have visited, there are many shops but almost all are trying to sell the same merchandise. However, the thing that most caught our eye and impressed us is the artwork that graces the front of almost every building in the town. We stayed in the Hotel La Palma and the owner was very pleased to meet us, as he has family that moved to Australia during the war in El Salvador - he thanked us as if we were personally responsible for offering refuge to them.
Suchitoto was another highlight - not for the views it offered (or hid in cloud) but for being a quiet, relaxed town where one could easily spend some time just doing nothing. The town centre is comprised of a well kept square and an interesting cathedral, with various shops and enough restaurants surrounding it to just sit and watch the world go by. It is renowned as a centre of art but we seemed to be there at the wrong time. We found one gallery that was open and was exhibiting photos taken in Istanbul. They were fantastic photos, and made us more determined to visit our friends who are currently living there, but they didn't enlighten us very much about the art of El Salvador. We had wanted to visit the Casa Alejandro Coto - the movie director's home. It is supposed to house an extensive collection of paintings from El Salvador's most famous artists. When we arrived at the door at the opening time, we were told the owner was away in the city that day and we would have to come back mañana. Unfortunately we left for San Salvador that day and so didn't get the opportunity.
We parked our camper at a balneario on the edge of Lago Suchitlan, which is the largest lake in El Salvador, and made for a very tranquil setting. From there we could catch a bus to the town centre and back for very little money, as long as we were prepared to wait anything up to 45 minutes for it to come - its schedule was supposedly to run every half hour in each direction. We could have spent some considerable time in Suchitoto, but unfortunately we had to leave to go to San Salvador to get a visa extension, but more on that later - it certainly doesn't belong in a section concerned with highlights of the country.
The other two highlights were historical in nature. Joya de Cerén is a small important archaeological site, but not in the same way as Tikal or Palenque, which were largely religious centres with huge pyramids and temples. This place is a collection of well-preserved Mayan homes which were buried in volcanic ash somewhere around 600AD. Unlike Pompeii, the people escaped before being buried, but their lifestyle is very evident from the buildings, food and utensils which were well-preserved. They were accidentally discovered in 1976 when someone was using bulldozers to level the ground in preparation for building silos. Since that time the excavations carried out have uncovered a unique find that considerably broadens the understanding of the lives lived in pre-hispanic America. This experience complemented what we had already learnt from visiting the many ruin sites in Mexico, as well as Tikal in Guatemala.
The other historical site that we visited gives an insight into a more recent aspect of El Salvador's history. Perquin is in the far north-eastern corner of El Salvador and was the centre of the rebel uprising in the 80's. Once again we drove up and up into the mountains, this time in almost continuously pouring rain. I'm sure there were some great views out there somewhere. We arrived quite late in the day and asked if we could stay at the Museo de la Revolucion overnight before visiting the museum in the morning. They were all very friendly and helpful and happy for us to be there. The night guards were very interested to chat about all things Australian and German, since one of them had spent some time in Germany during the Civil War. The rain drove us indoors early though.
We toured the museum the next morning and were so glad we had come this far to see it. I confess to never knowing the details of the war in El Salvador, but it must have been a terrible time in the country. According to photos and information in the museum, the American support for the regime came in the form of bombing mostly churches and schools, and many of the martyrs were priests and pastors. There was a lot of international support shown, with doctors coming to work with the army of the rebels. There is quite a display of posters supporting the cause and many of them were actually in German. Next to the museum is some wreckage of planes and there is still a bomb crater in the back yard. It was quite a detour for us, but a great place to visit. Had it been the dry season we could have crossed the border nearby into Honduras again, but we had already experienced wet dirt roads in that country and had no desire to go back to some of the same ones again. So we drove back down towards Santa Rosa Lima and the border to Honduras that we planned to cross.
That covers fairly well the highlights and other interesting places we visited in El Salvador, but part of our 2 weeks there was also taken up with necessary practicalities. We had known since we left Guatemala that we would need a visa extension. In this part of Central America, the 4 countries - Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have formed an alliance. On entering any of these countries you get a 90 day tourist card at the border to use visiting all of them. We spent so much time in Guatemala that we had only about 3 weeks left for the other 3 countries. These extensions are only available in capital cities and a few other major centres. We decided that we would go to San Salvador to get ours and avoid Tegulcigalpa in Honduras. We did wonder at times if we had made the right decision.
The first problem we faced was the terrible traffic - they all seem to drive like maniacs, as if where they have to go is more important than anything else in the world. Driving the truck camper in this kind of traffic is a very nasty experience and this was one of the worst. Later we learned from a Salvadorian, that one reason for this style of driving goes back to the times of the Civil War: if you stopped your car anywhere, even at a red light, you would always risk having it car-jacked; in the best case the car would be used to transport illegal arms and retrieved afterwards, in the worse case it would be used as a car bomb. The second problem was finding somewhere to stay. We were happy to take a hotel room for a change and just needed a place which had a parking lot we would fit in. The parking lot in this case seemed to be easier to find than the room. There were almost no rooms to be had in El Salvador because of some big business meeting. Luckily, when we arrived at one hotel that was full, they spent considerable time on the telephone finding a room for us in another hotel. We were very grateful for the help but we spent our first night in a hotel so noisy that Juergen went out to sleep in the camper, which was parked in a guarded street. The next night we were in a somewhat quieter place, but the parking lot was not much more than the footpath and had such a steep incline that the fridge refused to work properly and everything in the freezer thawed.
Then we went to the immigration office. We went to the appropriate window and were told to take a seat. Next to us was an American who was in the office for the 4th day in a row and he proceeded to tell us that this office was the worst place in Central America to get a visa extension. Soon after a Canadian couple arrived who had similar tales to tell. We were starting to feel decidedly discouraged. After half an hour of conversation we were still waiting, so I went back to the window and made our request again to a different person. This time we were handed some forms to fill in. They wanted a letter of recommendation from a local who knows us - not possible, we say in our best explaining Spanish. Eventually a very nice young woman was sent out to us who spoke very good English. We explained our situation to her, gave her our website address and car registration number, and she helped us fill out the forms. After completing this task she sent us to pay at another window and then we passed in the receipt and were asked to sit again. Not long and we were again called and told to come back at 10.30 the next day to collect our passports. We were pleasantly surprised that it only took 1½ hours for that to be achieved. Meanwhile, our new friends looked like they might actually be getting their passports back too.
We decided not to get our hopes up until we had the passports in our hands. The next morning we arrived early at 10.15, were sent to another window and had our passports, with a 30 day extension, in our hands in less than 10 minutes. Not such a horror story as we had imagined. There were a few things in San Salvador which were pleasant experiences - although not really highlights! We had a very tasty dinner in a simple restaurant near our second hotel. We discovered La Panetiere which makes some excellent cakes and went there twice to eat cake and drink very good coffee. La Panetiere was in a huge shopping mall called Metrocentro and, while we had a good look around, we didn't really find much we wanted to buy. We also went to Las Cascades, another large shopping mall to go to a supermarket in the hope we could stock up on a few items that are not generally available in these countries outside the cities with their American style shopping centres. We still didn't find everything we were looking for, but we have learned to do without what we can't get.
By the time we left San Salvador and travelled the Pacific Coast, via Joya de Cerén, we hadn't seen a laundry for over 2 weeks. We have easily become used to dropping our clothes off at the Lavenderia and collecting them later all washed, dried and folded. Never mind that they are often dried on too high a heat and the elastic disintegrates as a result, the clothes are almost miraculously cleaned with no more effort than getting it organised. Not so in El Salvador. We kept our eyes open for any sign of a laundry and saw none. Then I started asking and was totally shocked to hear 'no hay lavenderia aqui' - there is no laundry here. The first time I heard that in San Vicente I thought, well it's just a small town; perhaps somewhere bigger will have plenty.
When we arrived in San Miguel, we went looking for a laundry and a Ford dealership - we found a dry cleaners and a Mitsubishi place! I went and asked at the dry cleaners where there is a laundry and they said, 'no hay lavenderia aqui'. I asked if they meant nearby - no, they meant the whole city. San Miguel is the 3rd largest city in El Salvador and has a population of about 380 000. I came to the conclusion that 'no hay lavenderia aqui' actually translates to no laundries in El Salvador! I had to wash a few things by hand and the worst thing about it was that it was still raining and a few pairs of knickers took about 3 days to dry...
We had a bit more luck eventually with the Ford dealership. The security guard at the Mitsubishi place pointed us in the right direction and we found the Ford place, which was actually a conglomerate of almost all possible car brands in one location. We finally found the Ford service department and asked for what we came for:
- Can you change our fan belt?
- Yes, do you have the part?
- No, that's why we came here...
They sent us to an auto spare parts shop called Impressa Repuestos - and they were actually very impressive. Rafael Paz worked hard to find us what we needed and other employees were climbing all over the truck just to find the part number on the fan belt and the oil filter, and to remove and look at the wiper blades. We had been trying to replace our wiper blades since Mexico, but couldn't find the right type - they had the blades we needed (and they are made in Mexico!). But Señor Paz just couldn't get us a fan belt - it took almost 1½ hours, and endless phone calls to other dealerships, and we spent less than $20 so I think we got the best part of that deal.
Many people seem to bypass El Salvador, but we thought it was really worth the visit. In the dry season there are some incredible drives you can do, often on reasonably good roads, that have really stunning scenery. The potential was obvious to us even if in fact we didn't get to see the whole picture. But we did have an awful lot of rain - and it doesn't seem to have stopped yet.
When we arrived in Santa Rosa Lima, the last town in El Salvador, from Perquin it was about 11.45. Since it was early in the day, we decided to go on to the border - and that's another interesting story...