Quezal Tepeque volcano, El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

An Adventure Unfolds in El Salvador

It wasn’t until the third day in El Salvador that my guide situation had completely unraveled. Unknown to me, it had started before I had even entered the country. The first clue was when my guide did not meet me at the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport when I arrived, but he sent a transfer attendant to take me to my hotel. This is quite common if it is late in the day and no activity is planned.

I wasn’t concerned when the attendant handed me an envelope with a typed letter, explaining that my guide was going to be changed, and the new guide would meet me the following morning. On the drive from the airport to my hotel in San Salvador, the owner of the Honduras travel company called and asked to talk to me. He explained about the change of guides, assured me everything was OK, and welcomed me for a safe and pleasant trip. Before we ended the call I said, “What happened to the couple from Australia and family member from Vancouver, Canada who were joining me to make a foursome?” He said they were flying to the United States to get to Central America and had their flights canceled due to the border trouble with the US. They could not come. I was shocked.

I was dropped off at my high-rise grand hotel. In the distance, I could see the Quezal Tepeque volcano in El Boqueron National Park, where I planned to hike with my guide the next afternoon. My guide, Moises, met me on schedule and we visited museums, the cathedrals, parks, and many sections of the city. My guide was often on his cell phone, appearing anxious and apologizing to me after the call for interrupting our conversation while on tour.

In late morning, we drove out of the capital on the Pan American Highway to El Boqueron National Park, where we would climb the Quezal Tepeque volcano. It was not a difficult walk up the side of the volcano.

I had many questions to ask my guide as we were walking: “What kind of tree is this?” He always had an answer, telling me, “This is a cashew tree,” or “That one is the conacasta tree.” The path was well maintained with steps in several sections.

Quezal Tepeque volcano, El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Quezal Tepeque volcano, El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The volcano is 6,000 feet, and at the lip of the rim is a grand view into the crater 500 feet below. The volcano is considered an active volcano but it has not erupted since 1917. Outside the park entrance were several food and souvenir stalls and I bought a hat to wear, several nispero fruit, and a bottle of water.

Nispero looks like a kiwi fruit, but round, and inside, it has the fibrous color of a peach with a pit. The nispero and water were our lunch. It was hot weather for hiking and we met no one on the trail that day.

My guide was enjoyable and knowledgeable, but hints from his cell phone conversations (even in Spanish) were seeping into my ears, and I didn’t know what to think. Later in the afternoon, he said he must take his car to have the passenger seat belt repaired that day after he dropped me off. He said he would have a substitute take me the next day for only the morning, while he had to go to court. He said, “Don’t worry, it won’t be a problem.” I knew my next day’s schedule, the substitute’s name and information; I had my guide’s phone number, the owner of the company’s information and emergency phone numbers. I was becoming somewhat nervous but I believed it was not a set up. Tomorrow was to be my first time to see a Mayan ruin and I was truly excited.

The next day Manual, the substitute guide, came to pick me up on time and prepared to take me to the first destination, the David Guzman Museum of Anthropology in San Salvador. The museum was the best I had seen of anything in El Salvador. It had extensive artifacts from the Mayan sites in the country, and most were from the site we were going to that day, so it had particular meaning for me.

I noticed from the time Manual entered the museum that he was uncomfortable being there and I could tell that he was not a guide. I did not blame him, yet this was not what I had expected. I walked through the rooms on different levels, read the labels and information in Spanish, and absorbed what information I could by myself. This was not where we were to meet Moises, so I asked if we should leave.

Manual said, “I have a place I want to take you, I think l you will like it. It is a surprise; don’t tell anyone I am doing this.” This was not on my schedule and I was a little anxious. Before I got in the car, I asked him where is this place and what is it. He explained that it is a small museum at a nearby university and it is about the heroes of the rebellion of the 1970s.

The museum was close by at a private university in an upscale neighborhood. A security guard helped us find a place to park and it was safe. Each time something unexpected happened, I became anxious and when it turned out to be okay, I would relax a little until the next episode. Later, I learned that Manual was killing time by going here.

I went through this small museum reading the Spanish labels and learning a bit about the 1821 Act of Independence, 1931 rebellion, many coups d’etats, the 1960s Football War, the 1970s to 1980s leftist guerrilla warfare, and the liberation movement. I learned the national hero, Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980. During the 70s until 1992, 75,000 people died and hundreds of thousands fled to the United States and Canada. Half a billion dollars a year goes into this country each year just from relatives living in the United States sending back money. Since a 1992 agreement, the country has been more stable, yet very unsafe. It did not take long to go through this small museum and now I was anxious to go to Joya de Cerén, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993.

Manual and I were soon on the Pan American Highway out into the country to see the “Pompeii of the Americas,” a Mayan site with remains that existed of the foods they ate, the crops they grew, and their social structure. About 1,500 years ago, the Laguna Caldera volcano erupted and buried the village under layers of volcanic ash. This preserved the village including the remains of a tethered duck, a rat in a food storage area, corn stocks in a garden, homes, and a steam building used like a sauna.

Manual walked around the excavations of this village, but again he seemed out of place here, with a worried look on his face. It took a while to drive here and a while to see the different areas of the site, and then we went to the car and he was puzzled about what to do next. This was where we were to meet Moises and Moises did not show up. Manual said we are going to Santa Ana. I asked, “What is special about Santa Ana?” He said, “Not much, just the old church, which is beautiful.” It was another 30 miles to Santa Ana and off we drove along a paved country road in a small car that he rented on a weekly basis. To pass time I would view the landscape and also ask questions like, “Do you know Moises well?”

Without hesitating, Manual replied, “Yes, I have known him for 12 years and he is a good man.”

Before too long, we were driving through the narrow streets of a small old colonial city to a central plaza busy with locals buying and selling their vegetables and local wares. Manual drove up to the front of the cathedral and told me to get out and he would find a place to park. It was crowded with locals, I was not familiar with the area, it was not a tourist area, and I am a single foreign woman. I did not feel good about this situation.

He could see I had not budged from my car seat, so he said, “I will wait for you here,” and pointed to a place ahead along the plaza where he would wait for me. I went to the cathedral and at the gate, a woman told me in Spanish that the church was closed until two o’clock. I took a few photos and hurried across the street to the plaza where Manual was waiting beside his car and I got in, thankful he had not driven off and left me. In all my years of travel I have never experienced such fear of the unknown. I would get over it and something else would come up. Manual was always on his cell phone and I would ask, “Where is Moises?”

To be continued…

(posted April 25, 2017)

Madelyn Given poses with a military officer in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Central America 2017: El Salvador

El Salvador is the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere; it has had a bad reputation since the 12 years of civil war in the 1980s.  The capital, San Salvador, has the highest homicide rate in the world, and street gangs are mainly to blame. Extortion is common, and mugging, highway assault, and car theft are prevalent. A majority of serious crimes are never solved. If you are robbed, a visit to a police station is an exercise in frustration. Police officers are on the take, and corruption is everywhere. Every day while I was there, all of this was foremost in mind, but with no regrets—I was happy to visit this little country.

Why would I want to go here? I had never been here and I was anxious to learn about the Mayan history, hike up to an active volcano, and see the country and the people. When I was a young Girl Scout, we did a project on countries around the world. We dressed in costumes, carried the national flag of each country, and had speaking assignments about each country. Ever since then, I had wanted to come to Central America. El Salvador remains relatively untainted by tourism. It is the smallest country in Central America, and since it is next door to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, it made sense for me to include them all in a single trip.

Especially while traveling, I am keen on staying healthy and safe. I wear long pants and a long-sleeved expedition shirt sprayed with insect repellant. I take care of what I eat and drink. I shy away from street venders, tap water, agua en bolsa (water in a plastic bag), and chipped ice.  I carry my passport at all times, and at crowded places such as plazas, airports, and markets, I stay alert. I know it is important not to stand out, so I leave my jewelry and expensive camera at home. I am particular about having a trustworthy guide accompany me for the entire trip. Then I can settle down to a great adventure.

El Salvador has a population of roughly 6.5 million people and is the most densely populated country in Central America. It is divided into 14 departments, with 25 volcanos, 14 lakes, 3 large cities, and shore land on the Pacific Ocean. The capital, San Salvador, is in the central region. San Salvador has the largest malls in the region and Metro Centro was one of the first built in Central America. Since 2001, the official currency has been the US dollar. Former banks are now museums.

I spent a couple of days in the capital but only one day there with my guide, Moises. Together, we drove and walked in different residential and historical sections of the city to learn about the history and culture of El Salvador. We began with the Memorial Wall in the small unattended Park Cascation. The Memorial Wall depicted scenes of the 1980s civil war and those citizens who lost their lives. The country is still trying to gain confidence since that ugly period.

I tried to concentrate on my history lessons, but I was still getting used to the terrible heat. Although I had come from southern Florida, that now seemed mild compared to this area.  Despite the heat, we walked through many blocks of the city; venders lined both sides of the streets in front of storefronts, selling fruits, vegetables, shoes, clothing, soap, dog food, rice, grains, and hardware.

There is no welfare here and people work hard every day. The elderly are working, along with men and women of all ages, and children not in school help too.  Babies are attended at the workplace by their mothers.

We went to Liberty Square, which was being restored, but according to Moises, it has been going on for a long time—money is being squandered or going somewhere else. We visited the Cathedral, and in the basement is the crypt of Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, which has been visited by two popes. Romero is loved by his countrymen for his work to help the people gain a better life.  He was murdered during the civil war, but he remains El Salvador’s national hero. There are monuments, buildings, and streets named after him.

We went by the palace, but it also was closed due to a complete, long-term restoration. We walked through markets and Moises stopped at a tiny book store, looking for a math book to tutor his son.

Church of the Rosary, designed by modern architect Ruben Martinez, in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Sometimes Moises would stop and tell me general history of the country, and then he would say, “I have a surprise to show you.” We would walk another block, and in one case, the surprise turned out to be the Church of the Rosary, a modern marvel. Shaped like an upside-down U, it was designed by architect Ruben Martinez, who is still living. It is crowded between traditional buildings and until you go inside, it is difficult to see its grandeur. Simple, sparsely decorated, it is a place of spiritual devotion. The Stations of the Cross, the bronze sculptures of Christ, Mary, and the saints, show no heads, only outstretched hands. This edifice was certainly a surprise in this tiny traditional, poverty-laden city.

We drove to a military museum on a high hill with a clear vista of the city and surrounding villages. There wasn’t much at the museum, just a couple of cannons and vehicles on the lawn. There was an outdoor canteen and we stopped for something to drink. The officer in charge came by the deserted place and greeted us.  We passed the national fotebal (soccer) stadium but I missed getting a photo. A few minutes later Moises was driving up the hill of a residential section and stopped the car. We got out and walked across a grassy knoll, and there in full view below us was the stadium.

In the heat, I was glad to call it a day and to retreat to the refuge of my air-conditioned hotel for the night. Once I left the city, I would not have that luxury.

(posted April 4, 2017)

On the road to San Salvador, the capitol of El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Central America 2017: On My Way

The Central American countries have always appealed to me as places to visit for the warm climate—this is where bananas and coffee are grown—but I was also especially interested in studying the Mayan ruins. I began thinking about going a couple of years ago and recently got in contact with the owner of a tour company in Honduras; together, we made a plan that worked for me. I was able to fly into one of the countries, travel with a guide though four countries, and depart from the fourth country.

Before purchasing my flight tickets, I checked out pertinent information from the US Travel Bureau. These four countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, are listed in the top ten for most dangerous countries to travel. I am up-to-date on shots and health requirements, but I was a woman, traveling alone except for a native guide. I was concerned:  was my desire to study the Mayan ruins, learn about the culture of the people, and hike in the mountains reason enough to risk my safety? Again, I was putting all my trust in my guide.

This was the time when Trump had just been elected president and a ban on immigration had been put in place. I believed airport security could be a problem, either entering or leaving the country. I have gone through most of our country’s airports and many airports around the world; the atmosphere at Miami International has sometimes been quite unfriendly.

I thought about going or not and found a time of several weeks that were free for me. Finally, I committed to the trip. I only had a couple of weeks to prepare, but fortunately no visas are required, my passport was in order, and I planned to travel light: only a knapsack and a small suitcase. I knew it would be wise to leave behind jewelry and go low-key, bringing hiking shoes and sandals, pants and wicking tops, and a change of clothes. It is a very hot climate with only two seasons: dry and wet. I was traveling in the dry season.

I have been to South America and the Caribbean countries several times, but I had always departed from Maine in the winter. This time, the travel time and temperature changes would require less adjustment on my part, as I was leaving from Florida and only had a drive to Miami and a flight of less than two hours to El Salvador.

At Miami International Airport, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by friendly attendants and a new facelift of the airport interior. The trip was beginning on a pleasant note. The weather was good and there were no delays. I traveled by American Airlines and was surprised that the plane was only about one-third full of passengers.

Adventure awaits in El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Adventure awaits in El Salvador.

In late afternoon, I arrived at a small international airport and went through customs there. The customs officer attending me was friendly, and with documents in hand, I found it easy to gain access into the country. There was a transfer waiting for me at the exit. Soon we were on the way to San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, and I was on my way for a remarkable and unforgettable adventure.

(posted March 21, 2017)