El Salvador - Day 1
Let's start this travelogue where the previous one - Honduras 2005 - ended, in the Guatemalan city of Chiquimula. For me, it was a transfer point with a convenient accommodation in hotel Darío. My first destination for this day would be the nearby city of Esquipulas, also in Guatemala. From there, I would take a direct bus to the border of El Salvador.
Esquipulas is one of the holiest places in the Americas. The local basilica keeps El Cristo Negro, a sacred wooden statue. Huge festivities take place here every year on January 15, with many worshippers coming from the whole Central America and Mexico. My colleagues warned me, that I could encounter difficulties with transport and accommodation. I had no choice though - Esquipulas was half-way and if I wanted to see it at all, I had to come on January 14. Getting a hotel in Chiquimula was luckily without problem. Esquipulas was packed, as expected, with many people and stands everywhere. Many families with children were camping in blue tents in a park in front of the church. They were poor pilgrims, who considered important to come for the holiday, but could not afford a hotel. Many female visitors - whether in the camp or elsewhere - wore traditional native clothing. The church was dark inside, lit only by hundreds of candles. I saw the holy crucifix from a distance of about 10 meters - standing in a long line to see it closer was too much for me.
I was more interested in a cave in a suburb, where the statue was found according to a legend. After asking several people, they pointed me to a gas station, where a steep uphill trail started. Many people walked in that direction. I followed them, and after a short hike got to the entrance of the park. However, there was a problem - when leaving the city, I somehow missed the beginning of the road with a ticket agent (admission fee was 5 Q = $0.70). There was no ticket booth on this side of the hill - and I had to give 9 Q ($1.20) to a guard (I had only a 10 Q bill, and he only a 1 Q coin). But I was happy that he let me in. The ecopark looked similar to the park in front of the church - people were camping, cooking and washing clothes. I did not have the courage to enter a narrow cave full of smoke and burning candles. The area is ideal for family camping - a creek flows through and children can go to a playground or a minizoo. One lady in a native dress could speak English. She lived in Panajachel on the shore of Atitlán lake and worked in tourism.
I did not stay long at the cave. I descended back to the city and took a direct bus to the Salvadorean border at Anguiatú. Crossing the border was easy - the Salvadoreans first checked, if I need a visa, and as I did not, I crossed without hassle and without payments. The border is in a wilderness, in a narrow valley. A bus comes here from both sides. After waiting a short while, one arrived and took me to the nearest city of Metapán. Unlike Guatemala or Honduras, all bus lines in El Salvador are numbered (e.g., Anguiatú - Metapán has number 211A) and conductors in inter-city buses issue tickets. Another pleasant specialty of El Salvador is the currency. Several years ago, they canceled their local Colón and introduced U.S. Dollars. It is said that prices have risen because of this, but everything is still cheap and it is not necessary to change money.
Metapán was the first city in El Salvador, which I wanted to see. In downtown, there is a famous church. I did not get inside (I would have had to come in the morning), so I at least took a look from outside, walked around the city (there are few other interesting places) and continued to Santa Ana. The third biggest city is much more interesting. I got accommodation in Hotel San Miguel ($6) and went to see the downtown before sunset. Apart from a splendid cathedral, a theater and a city hall, it is also worth going to the former National Bank, closed after the introduction of U.S. Dollar as national currency. Nowadays, the building houses an archaeological museum with a rich collection of music instruments (whistles, floutes), statues, ceramics and other excavations. No less interesting (at least for an economist) is an exhibition of historical Salvadorean bills and coins. Until the early 20th century, currency had been issued by private banks.
From Santa Ana, I also called my friends in San Salvador. As it was Friday evening, we agreed that we would meet on Sunday January 16 in the morning in the capital. I extended my stay by one night and planned a tour of several nearby places, located to the West, for Saturday.
© Jan Peula, 2005