San Salvador and Lago Coatepeque

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of El Salvador  ,
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

We arrive in San Salvador with less than US$20 in our pocket and a bucket load of caution. Central American cities are not on the A-list for security and San Salvador gets a Z for reputation. At the same time, we don´t want to stay in the bland, homogeneous area, marked out by two giant American-style malls and several global fast-food chains. Eventually we choose a hotel in the old-town, very basic, gritty, but secure (sporting a large, thick iron gate). The appearance of the hotel reminds me of press-pictures of buildings hit by mortar fire in a war zone. The switch for the room-light is outside, halfway along a wire that disappears over the balcony above. How locals (who are at least a foot shorter than me) reach it is a puzzle. Maybe we´ve been given the tourist luxury suite.

We are successful on a number of counts in San Salvador. Firstly we´re able to top up our cash reserves - very important as cash machines are non-existent in many rural areas. Secondly, we´re able to navigate the streets, and take photos of the incredible cathedrals, while only being stalked by gang members once. They´re two guys from Mexico (self-confessed illegal immigrants), dodgy looking, maybe on drugs, who approach, eye the camera and begin to follow us through the streets. An old man points to them and signals caution. We make our escape on a collectivo passing in the opposite direction.

A word about Cathedral El Rosario with its incredible half-barrel construction of exposed iron and brickwork. The curved roof is a rainbow of coloured panels that glow with the morning sun. For me, this is the best-kept secret in Central America - a masterpiece of modern architecture.

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Lago Coatepeque - a mid-sized lake surrounded by volcanic mountains, tranquil and with a gentle climate, the occasional retreat of rich Salvadoreños from San Salvador.

We stay with Sandra and her family in a lakeside hospedaje. Like most Salvadoreños she is of mixed blood, but has stunning emerald-green eyes. She is open, friendly, and a very clear speaker - good for our Spanish. We spend time relaxing on the jetty and watching the sunset over Santa Anna volcano.

That night we meet Thomas and Chiz. Thomas is a great guy, a veteran of Central America (5 separate visits), a good Spanish speaker, banker, originally from East Berlin, single, friendly and very punctual. Chiz, his amiga, is from Northern England, a professional photographer, slightly scatter-brained, great company, and not very punctual.

Over the next couple of days we share some great fresh-water fish a la plancha cooked by Sandra (including celebrating Thomas´s birthday by candle-light) and do a couple of excursions with Thomas and Chiz, including scaling the grey cinder cone of Santa Izalco. The black river of solidified lava is spectacular viewed from the top.

We also visit the town of Joya de Ceren, covered by lava in 600AD, important not because people died (they had enough warning to escape), but because the way of life from that time has been perfectly preserved. A large proportion of the town still remains un-excavated.

That night we return just in time to farewell Thomas and Chiz, and arrange to meet Thomas in Costa Rica several months down the track. He promises to lay a towel down for us to keep our spot on the beach.

The next day we also depart, almost forlornly. We feel as if we´re leaving a small slice of paradise.
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