Whatever you do, don’t skip El Salvador

Whenever we discuss the route through Central America with our fellow travellers, most of them say they’re going to skip El Salvador. Mostly it’s because the country is so small, and that there are other bigger and more exciting countries to explore. To be brutally honest, we also considered to head straight into Guatemala and hop over El Salvador. Luckily, we are very competitive when it comes to the number of stamps in our passports, so we decided to give it a bash for a week. As always, we ended up staying for longer.

I won’t bore you with the story of how we crossed the border from Honduras to El Salvador (our border crossings are always the same – click here for details), but I can tell you that El Salvador’s migration officials are the friendliest we’ve come across – ever. Even when I went back to ask why our passports weren’t stamped*, they happily explained the reason without growling at me for pushing through the line of people with my gigantic backpack and slight musty odor. I even growled at myself for trying to jump the queue.

Dear El Salvador, I think I like you
This little country, wedged between Honduras and Guatemala is perfect for a city-slicking-surf-catching-countryside-cruising kinda traveller. We travelled all they way by chicken bus, and they were even more colourful than the ones we’ve encountered in Nicaragua. For less than $2, you don’t just get to San Salvador, you also get a free demonstration for an ointment promising to cure everything from cracked heels to baldness, a free sermon from a very spirited preacher, another demonstration of more miraculous medicines and a boy selling candied nuts for a quarter. But that’s not all – you also get to enjoy the soothing Latino dance tracks of DJ Burrito Mix played at full volume. Now, if that’s not value for money, I don’t know what is.

We ended up staying for three nights in San Salvador. To many it’s just another pollution filled Central American city with way too many cars and fast food chains. After travelling through small towns and beaches for just over two months, I was beyond myself when I saw a Zara in one of the shopping streets. Sometimes, a bit of familiarity can do wonders to an over-travelled pair of eyes.

To us, the capitol of El Salvador felt just like our hometown Johannesburg. When you stop your car at a traffic light, someone jumps out behind a tree and wash your window with a squeegee and dirty water. Or they try to sell you roses. There are also more potholes than actual street, and every building (including the hairdresser) is decorated with barb wire and a guard armed with a M16 rifle. However, in Johannesburg, we don’t have heavily armed men standing in front of beauty parlours. And we only have one Burger King.

Our walkabout through the city was more or less what we’ve grown accustomed to – beautiful old churches, busy markets selling everything from earbuds to peaches, and an oddly placed Art Deco surprise around every corner. But the biggest surprise, and certainly one of the most beautiful churches I’ve been in, was the Iglesia El Rosario. Designed by the Salvadorian sculptor Ruben Martinez, El Rosario beautifully captures the spirit of devotion without any frills or fuss. This brutalist structure was completed in 1971 and almost looks like a giant concrete turtle. But when you peek inside its unassuming shell it’s quite impossible not to go “Oh wow.” A steady rhythm of stained glass and thin slabs of concrete make up this barrel-vaulted structure and fill the entire church with light and colour. The Bearded Wonder, who used to be an architect before he swapped his desk for the open road, also pointed out that the exaggerated overlapping of concrete elements provides passive ventilation and reflected lighting. To us mere mortals, this basically means that the church is always cool and always filled with light. Beautiful.

San Salvador by night
Wearing my Sunday best (i.e. a clean pair of pants and earrings), we hopped on a chicken bus for a night out in Santa Tecla – a going-out-for-beer-and-a-boogie kinda town that’s located about 15km from San Salvador. Just as we were about to get off the bus, a rainstorm of Biblical proportions broke loose. Drenched and mouldy, we were very far removed from the Salvadorian chic that reigns this neighborhood. So we ordered the second cheapest beer (suitably called ‘Golden’), to lift the spirits a bit. It was nice. A bit on the light side, but nice. So we had another one and another one. Feeling a bit lightheaded, we went for a bite to eat. And what we’ve encountered was as comforting as the arms of an Italian grandmother.

Move over mac & cheese, there’s a new comfort food in town
I know I can get quite lyrical about food, but I really found a friend in pupusas. Take a nice handful of maize meal, stuff it with cheese and zucchini (ór chicken ór pork ór jalapeño ór garlic ór all of the ingredients mentioned) and roll it into a ball of goodness. Flatten said ball with the palm of a well-trained hand, and cook it on a grill until crispy. Serve with salsa and cabbage and eat until your belly resembles the shape of the pupusa before it was flattened. The biggest danger in eating pupusas is not stuffing yourself like a turkey, but burning your fingers to shreds. Every pupusa is freshly-made, so you have to wait a while for the good stuff. The moment the Pupusa Goddess presents this gift to mankind on a plate, one tends to go at it like an unsupervised child at a carnival. Piping hot and oozing with a wild-tasting cheese, I’ll happily lose my fingers to the art of eating a hot pupusa. They are yum.

But wait, there’s more. We also managed to stuff our bellies with dessert: freshly deep-fried churros, dusted with a blush of sugar and drenched in condensed milk. As you can see, heart palpitations and frizzy hair are just some of the perks of being a hungry, curious and beer-loving traveller.

With sticky fingers and condensed milk in my hair, I was ready to go home. While the snappy dressers of San Salvador were doing the salsa, we were drunk on food, sugar and the idea of another brand new country at our feet.

*It turns out that your passport doesn’t get stamped when you enter or exit El Salvador. It’s okay, we’ll go stampless again and again.

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The Iglesia El Rosario – it’s impossible to capture the presence of the building with a camera.

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The belly of the church – such a simple shape, but with such a grand effect.

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The streets of San Salvador.

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Two warm, inviting and delicious little pupusas laying side by side, just waiting to be ripped apart with my bare hands.

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Cholesterol county – plantain chips, corn on a grill and the twirly twirl of freshly-fried churros.

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