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El Salvador, Part 2: From Santa Ana to Surf City

Published
May 4, 2024
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AFTER SAN SALVADOR, Rick and I headed a short way westward to one of the most touristy parts of El Salvador.

El Salvador. Map data ©2024 Google. North is at the top in this map and all the others in this post.

It was in this western region that we were to see the city of Santa Ana, the Mayan ruins of Tazumal, the mountain town of Juayúa where a famous food festival is held each weekend, the Santa Ana Volcano, and the beautiful crater lake of Lake Coatepeque. After that, we would head south to enjoy some of the beaches of El Salvador, and some of its waterfalls at Tamanique.

Santa Ana and environs, El Salvador. Map data ©2024 Google.

In Santa Ana, there were more magnificent churches and other public buildings. That was the first thing we noticed!

Catedral Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana

Interior of the Catedral Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana

The Municipal Palace of Santa Ana

The main square of Santa Ana is called Parque Libertad. You can see the twin spires of Nuestra Señora peeping up behind. To the left is the beautiful, green, Teatro Nacional de Santa Ana.

Santa Ana: Parque Libertad

The Municipal Cultural Centre of Santa Ana, also on Parque Libertad

In the middle, Parque Libertad has its own statue of liberty.

At night, we saw a Holy Week procession.

While during shopping hours, we made sure to buy some cheese from an old-fashioned cheese shop, Quesos de Matapán.

‘Quesos de Matapán’ cheese shop

Inside ‘Quesos de Matapán

Santa Ana is hugely walkable, with almost the whole city made up of regular blocks that are less than 100 metres on a side. It is the kind of old- fashioned city that many from richer countries, ruined by cars, should visit for inspiration. I think that tourism saves places like this, laid out in a somewhat more gracious era of living in which nothing happened very quickly: as, otherwise, the authorities might try to modernise them and speed things up with motorways — perish the thought!

In Santa Ana, we hired a motorbike for $15 a day. Riding on the country roads was a bit hairy, a bit scary. RN 12, between Carretera (highway) 128 and Juayúa, was sealed, but narrow and winding with no centreline, though the carreteras, including the Ruta de las Flores, are wider and do have a centreline. In places, we were on dirt roads.

The motorbike, on a dirt road

In Juayúa, we stopped off at the outdoor food markets. Every weekend, Juayúa has La Feria Gastronómica, the ‘food fair’. This is a really major attraction for foodies!

It was out of season for the flowers. All the same, Juayúa was halfway into the mountains and would have been a really good place to stay for that reason, because the mosquitos were vicious lower down.

Like everywhere in El Salvador, Juayúa had wonderful churches.

Churches in Juayúa

After Juayúa, we hit the road to the Santa Ana Volcano.

The caption means ‘Location Plan: Volcano Complex National Park’. C. is short for cerro, meaning peak, and V. for volcán, meaning volcano. I think all the local mountains are volcanos, however, the ‘cerros’ just the ones that haven’t erupted in historical times.

Unfortunately, you had to get to the mountain at 9 am to be able to climb it, a climb which is only two hours up and two hours down. We got there at 12 and couldn’t climb it, which was a bit of a bummer.

Road to the volcanoes

Loma de las Cruces lookout

So we went down to the lake, Coatepeque. It looked stunning, but unfortunately it is affected by algal bloom. You need to be wary of water in many places, of where to swim; and not just because of the crocodiles, where present.

Lake Coatepeque from the Mirador Turistico Ensenada de Los Pinos (‘Pines Cove Tourist Lookout’)

A Restaurant Pavilion on the shores of Lake Coatepeque

Looking out over Lake Coatepeque to the other side

We had a coffee and a pescado, a kind of crunchy fried dried fish salad.

On the way back, we were breathalysed by the police. They were very surprised it was zero. A lot of people drink and drive here. A good reminder to apply the same sense as living in your own country.

The reason we were late to the mountain was because we had spent the morning visiting Tazumal, west of Santa Ana: the local epic Mayan pyramid site.

Tazumal, in relation to Santa Ana. Map data ©2024 Google

It cost $5 to get in, past some imposing gates, and there was a drone video of the site that we enjoyed watching, before setting out to explore it ourselves.

‘Top (western side) of the Tazumal main pyramid (structure B1–1) as viewed from the top of structure B1–2. Chalchuapa, El Salvador.’. Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz), 12 June 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A selfie at Tazumal

After Juayúa, we headed for the beaches, such as Playa Costa del Sol and Playa El Tunco, where I was to spend next five or six days, with time out for a visit to the Tamanique waterfalls.

The location of Playa Costa del Sol, and environs. Map data ©2024 Google.

The location of Playa El Tunco, Map data ©2024 Google.

Playa means beach, of course, the equivalent of plage in French. I don’t speak Spanish, but knowing a bit of French helps with figuring out what some of the local placenames mean, at the very least.

As you may suspect, I have a lot less to write about concerning this part of the journey. And that is because it was to be mostly a matter of lazing around on the various playas.

Throughout this relaxing time, I would be based at the aptly named Hammock Plantation Hostel, in another beachfront village called El Zonte. This cost me $30 a night for a room to myself, and $15 a night for a dorm bed.

Spot the Hammock

Feet up at the Hammock Plantation Hostel

I made a video of a night-time religious procession at Santa Ana, the food markets at Juayúa (a name that seems to be frequently mispronounced), the Cordillera de Apaneca, and of putting my feet up at the Hammock Plantation Hostel: here it is.

And so, we set out to explore the beaches.

Playa Costa del Sol

Thatched roofs at Playa Costa del Sol

A local road

Another local road

Here’s a folksy sign for a restaurant, Los Brothers.

And I saw pelicans as well.

Though I haven’t studied it, they say that Spanish is the easiest foreign language for English speakers to learn. Certainly, this sign did not seem to need any translation.

I don’t know why surfers should demand more attention from drivers than other pedestrians, but anyway, there you have it!

Indeed, this is an issue. We hired a car for $20 a day and drove along the main road behind the beaches. We discovered that it runs through populated areas with stalls and stands alongside. Someone was knocked off a motorbike on the main road and killed just while we were there. We heard that a more modern sort of motorway is being built behind the coastal villages, however, to try and divert the ever-increasing through-traffic out of them.

El Salvador is becoming famous as a surfing destination, with the area around the town of La Libertad, almost due south of San Salvador, becoming rebranded as Surf City: a name that seems to have caught on around the time of the 2020 World Surfing Championships, held in El Salvador.

It is the big Pacific swells, I suppose: the same sort that put Hawai’i and California on the surfing map back in the fifties and sixties, except of course that those places are all crowded and touristed out these days, whereas El Salvador —described by one surfie website as “a world-class wave playground of endless right-hand point breaks,” whatever that means precisely— still offers a chance to “travel back in time.” It’s much the same in Nicaragua just to the southeast, and indeed all along this coast, of which El Salvador is just a part of course.

Well, that might be the attraction now. But I can’t help thinking that if President Bukele’s plans for Surf City succeed, in another thirty years all those little thatched villages on the coast will have been replaced by skyscraper hotels.

So, that’s another reason to visit the playas of El Salvador while they still are a string of thatched villages! Leave it too late, and it’ll be like Waikiki. Or the Mexican resort of Cancún, which I planned to visit next.

Meanwhile, here is the curiously shaped rock outcrop known as Piedra El Tunco, meaning ‘pig rock’, at Playa El Tunco.

Piedra El Tunco

Nearly all of El Salvador’s beaches face toward the sunset, more or less: a further advantage, and another reason why you can see how they might be a lot more commercialised, and a lot less charmingly rough-and-ready, in another generation.

Just slightly further northwestward of El Tunco there is another rock, called the Roca Sunzal, after which this cafe is named.

Roca Sunzal Cafe

Guesthouse El Bálsamo, in El Sunzal

A Tsunami Evacuation billboard, which looks due for replacement

This looks like a bus stop

A lot of people seem to be squatting on land that has no definite title, or disputed title: this is partly a consequence of the upheavals of the Civil War. There seems to be plenty of land to erect shacks and shanties on.

I imagine all this will be gone, in our hypothetical thirty-years-hence resort.

At the other extreme from squatting on land with an uncertain title behind the beach, a lot of the actual beachfront is privatised, and you have to either stay in a hotel or pay to use hotel amenities, as much as $40 a day, to get access to it. One advantage of these privatised beaches, at least, is that they all seem to be patrolled by security: so, you can leave your stuff on the beach without having to worry too much about having it stolen.

There was another hostel that looked like it would have been a good one to stay at, as it had a travel place next door, Go Travel El Salvador, with information about all the shuttle buses.

I believe that there is a regular backpacker trail that winds its way through Central America, going through all these major towns, such as León in Nicaragua.

After a few days at the beach, we got bored and headed up to the Tamanique waterfalls.

The location of the Tamanique waterfalls, in relation to San Salvador and its beachfront communities. Map data ©2024 Google.

As you can see, the season of flowers was by no means over completely.

This was on the path to the waterfalls, as advertised by the sign below.

The Waterfalls Route

In places, the trail was rougher, and you also came across long-eared cattle.

But it was great when you got there!

Here is a video I made of beach scenes and the waterfalls. In the thumbnail, you get an idea of how many hopeful surfers there are, even if the waves don’t look especially huge on that day!

All in all, the food was great, I tell you. I got this pescado at Playa Costa del Sol for only $5.

Another specialty was ceviche, a traditional dish of the Spanish-speaking countries on the Pacific coast, consisting of fish or shellfish marinated in citrus juices and seasonings.

‘Fish Ceviche as served in La Punta — Callao (Peru). Note presentation with choclo (maize), yuca (cassava), cancha (toasted maize) and camote (sweet potato), covered with yuyo (sea weed).’ Photo by Jorge G. Mori, July 2007, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

What else can I say about the food experience? Apart from local food, you can also get international food, such as Chinese dishes. The beer was cheap as well (in Guatemala the beer was cheaper than water).

As a random traveller’s tip, in Central America, flights such as the one I was on from Mundo Maya International Airport in Flores, Guatemala, to the Óscar Romero International Airport in El Salvador are quite often cancelled or delayed at the last minute. In Flores, the usual issue is fog from nearby Lake Petén Itzá, which is said to be quite common in the morning. At other times, and in other places, the issue can be ash from the region’s many volcanoes!

Also, nobody seems to take credit cards, save possibly at the more expensive hotels, I suppose: and it costs $15 for a foreigner to withdraw money from the banks the old-fashioned way, at the counter. Roughly 70% of the population don’t have bank accounts, I was told.

Next: I head for Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where the high-rise resort of Cancún shows El Salvador an image of its future, or one future at any rate; and where I visit several more old cities and famous Mayan pyramid-sites as well.

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