Posted by: elgringoperdido | February 11, 2010

Duckin’ gunshots & dodgin’ earthquakes in El Salvador

I had a great time in El Salvador. There were some minor flaws but diving from high waterfalls deep in the jungle in the west, hedonistic partying in San Salvador and surfing on the Pacific coast were all highlights that I’ll remember for a long time. Keep reading, I’ll tell you all of it!

First, some words about El Salvador. It is mainly known in Europe and the U.S. for guns & gangs as it the birthplace and centre of one of the biggest and most violent street gangs in the Western hemisphere, Mara Salvatrucha or MS13. It was formed by Salvadorian immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s to protect themselves from Mexican and black gangs in South Central, L.A.

It grew to be one of the most wide-spread gangs in the States, after a while also accepting other Central Americans like people from Guatemala, Honduras & Nicaragua. When gang violence escalated in the early 90ies, America “solved” the problem by expulsing gang members to their original countries, which obviously led to enormous social problems since it is quite obvious what people will do who are career criminals and get sent back to a country where they have never lived before nor speak the language.

MS13 graffiti in San Marcos, El Salvador

El Salvador was troubled even before this happened, but it was far from being as poor or underdeveloped as Nicaragua or Honduras. Now, with gang violence and mafia organizations thriving, it is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world; currently being number 4 in the world when it comes to intentional homicide rate. Although, as in the rest of Central America, the vast majority of all crimes are commited by gang members, on other gangs and rarely involving foreigners. I never felt threatened in El Salvador whereas some isolated cities in Guatemala and most of Honduras felt pretty dodgy. Violence is escalating rapidly in the region right now and noone really knows what country is the worst right now…

El Salvador is obsessed with security. Huge amounts of the country’s economy is spent on security features, someone told me like 20%. One layer of barb-wire is not enough; two or three layers and a high-voltage electric fence is normal for a normal house for a family in San Salvador. Every store, from Wal-Mart to Hermès has an armed guard outside and even our hostel had its own shotgun-wielding vigilante.

Quiet neighborhood in San Salvador

"Please leave your weapon by the entrance of the store, thank you"

One would presume this is normal procedure in a country like this, although the real reason is a bit more interesting. El Salvador had a civil war that lasted quite a long time, ending in 1992, and after that the Republic had alot of unemployed men with no education and tons of guns. Solution – let’s hire them as security guards! Clever solution, but expensive. I was a bit jaded after Honduras, for various reasons, and wanted to start off by doing something else than messing around. I felt like hiking, for some reason. Got into El Salvador and went straight to the second biggest city, Santa Ana, cause around there was supposed to be lots of cool stuf to do.

Welcome to America. The mall was the size of Granby Centrum back home, but had McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Wendys, Dunkin’ Donuts  and Pizza Hut. Fantastic, I was in heaven! As everyone knows, I’m an aficionado for fast food, and this was exactly what I needed after all the beans and rice and beans and rice and chicken I’d eaten the past months, probably enough to feed a small African country for a year.

Got to the hostel that was supposed to be the most popular in town and it was… empty. Got a bit worried since I’d heard that El Salvador is by far the least visited nation in Central America, and I hadn’t seen a single tourist since the border. Luckily, after just a few minutes an older American man dropped by. Talkative, as most Americans, we had a long conversation and decided to team up for climbing the volcano of Cerro Verde the next day. In a bit, an Israeli-British girl and this really cool American surfer dude dropped by – we had a group. Had some beers and talked abit about rap with the American dude, he was from Queens and liked the same kind of rap as I do so we had a lot to chat about.

The  older American was in his mid-60ies I guess, had worked all his life as a firefighter while at the same time raising three boys, so he never really had vacation or time off work for all his life – thus, he went backpacking, but 40 years later than everyone else. Which is really cool, of course. He was living off his pension and travelling all around the world with focus on Latin America. We were hanging out like normal friends and he did everything that we did, age really doesn’t matter.

The next day, we got out to the spot early in the morning. We had to wait for a few police officers to come and accompany us, since they’ve had some problems with robberies and assaults on the way up this volcano. Got our police escort and started walking. The hike was kind of strenous since volcanoes are sort of… steep and all that. But it was also kind of nice to get away from everything and enjoy the amazing views and fresh mountain air. We got up to the top and in the middle of the volcano crater was a turquoise-green sulphur lake, damn cool.

I asked the guide: "Can I swim here?" and he replied "Yes, you will be able to swim about 2 seconds and then only your skeleton will be left" note to self: sulphur lakes are baaadass

I'm kind of camouflaged in this picture, let's play Find Rasmus

After this, we all moved to the small mountain village of Tacuba, near the border to Guatemala in western El Salvador. It was a quiet village but with some gang graffiti which I photographed of course.

18th Street Gang, second biggest gang in El Salvador

The next day it was hiking time again; I had heard that there were waterfalls to be jumped so I had to go there, whatever it may cost!

Bosque El Imposible is a natural park and this is where we went. It was a real mess to get there, took like 5 hours of straight walking there and 2 hours back, but it was kind of nice to get out to nature as well, and the landscape was stunning. Got to the waterfalls, some of them were definately not safe to jump from due to stones sticking out so refrained from a few, but it was really really cool. Dove from a 11 metre waterfall cliff! Got a video to prove it, too! Will upload it when someone gives me the password for a Youtube account, I can’t start one since I don’t have a cell phone so cannot activate it! Anyways, the trek was super-tireing but it was so nice to get back to the hostel and just… chill. And feel like you’ve earned it. A few beers and good conversations followed.

Hockeyfrilla

Hmmm...

The next day I went straight to San Salvador, and immediately liked the place. I like big, Latin American cities. The more dirty, hot, chaotic, loud – the better. San Salvador is the second biggest city in the region after Guatemala City, sporting about 2.2 million people. The feel of it is slightly different from other big cities in the region, it is hard to describe but it feels much more like a real, modern city.  There are some very nice areas, really clean and safe even at night. Big, U.S.-style malls where stylish, fashionista-Salvatoreños and Salvatoreñas spend weekend days strolling around are very wide-spread. Burger King every 100 metre, I think I ate every meal at a fast-food restaurant for about 4 days in a row…

Went there mostly to party, was really in that mood where you are tired of volcanoes and picturesque-places and just want to give in to the vibe. Met up an old friend, a British guy, who I’d hung out with for a bit back in Guatemala. We did some seriously crazy partying, went to the most expensive club in the whole country of El Salvador and we were the only foreigners there, everyone except us were super-rich local kids and there were lots of shady-looking guys in the VIP with tattoos and Tony Montana-esque Panama hats and white shirts. Wasted shitloads of money and got home at half past five in the morning but it was worth it for sure.

From the nice parts of San Salvador

What to do in case of an earthquake... you see these everywhere. Lots of earthquakes around here... San Salvador's been razed a few times, if I'm not mistaken. Think it was in 2001 that there was a really serious one, a guy told me that the streets were like waves in the sea going up and down. There were two small ones when we were there but didn't feel anything.

Downtown San Salvador, they told me not to flash around my camera here but just had to take some quick shots of the real El Salvador, dirty

On Friday, my British friend didn’t want to go out so I forced some Argentinian girls at the hostel to go out with me. They just wanted to have a beer or two so we went to this live-gig joint and watched a completely insane Ska-concert. Salvadorians do know how to party, that’s for sure. I was afraid the whole venue would be trashed, but it survived I guess. Kinda cool to see that a place like El Salvador can have a Ska-scene… not what one would expect, I guess.

The only real tourism El Salvador can be tributed to the surfing scene on the Pacific coast. Allegedly, the country has the best surfing in Central America so lots of Yankees come there since it is quite cheap to fly for them. I wanted to try surfing out, the last time I tried it was in the Canary Islands and I managed to break the board in half the first lesson. Wanted to avoid that this time…

Got to El Tunco, which is a quiet fishing village about an hour away from San Salvador. It is not that beautiful but really chill, quite cheap and has big waves. Had a lesson which was probably the worst surfing lesson ever – what he did was to push me into a few waves, basically. Didn’t learn much but instead got severily raped by swells and could barely walk the next day. But still fun, I love any water activity by heart.

Also met this Canadian guy Phil I hung out with back in Monterrico, Guatemala, the guy who had bicycled from Canada to Guatemala in just two months, ditched it and started travelling by bus instead. Really cool guy, works as a treeplanter in the remote forest up in Canada. Also met a group of American guys and some Irish girls, hung out alot with the latters. Other than that the hostel was pretty much empty – El Salvador isn’t Guatemala, that’s for sure. Surfed and chilled for some days.

Met this Swedish guy who had such a dream job. He owned a grocery store in the village, but didn’t really seem to work much there, mostly lying in his hammock outside with his insanely good looking Salvadoran girlfriend or down at the beach surfing… or partying in San Salvador. Gah… some people live the good life for sure. In general been thinking of staying for a while lately… get a hostel job or something, just work to stay afloat and not go home… I really don’t want to go home at all, not for a long time… if there is economic possibility I will stay for sure… will update you on what happens with that, anyway.

Surfing is so hard, probably the sport with the steepest learning curve I’ve ever seen. I barely got to stand on the board while in El Salvador, right now I’m alright with standing and all (in Nicaragua now) but it has been alot of blood, sweat and beers to get there. But it’s great fun to be out in the water, you can chill when you want to and just watch the waves or the sea for a while… or paddle like crazy and try to catch some waves…

Went back to San Salvador that weekend, did some more good-ass party. Met these wild Israeli guys who where all crazy in partying… lots of fun stuff happened. Also met some cool German guys that were more like day-time hanging out people. Too bad I didn’t get any contact information for any of the above, would definately want to meet up again at some point.

All done for this post… writing from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua right now… hope all is well back home, here it is grrrrrrrrrrrreat. Take care!

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