Tag Archives: Central America 2017

View from restaurant overlooking a crater lake in El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

An Adventure Unfolds in El Salvador, Part Two

For three days I had an issue with a guide situation. It was now the afternoon of the third day and the situation has only been escalating. The substitute guide was taking me from place to place while my guide was in court. I had no idea why.

Santa Ana Cathedral, El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Santa Ana Cathedral, El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

After leaving Joya de Ceren, a Mayan archaeological site, then going another 30 miles to Santa Ana to see the cathedral, Manual said, “I am going to take you to a beautiful lake where we can have lunch. Do you like pie?” I had no idea why he said pie. It has nothing to do empanadas, pupusas, tortillas, or any food we would likely be served in a country restaurant in El Salvador.  I said, “Is Moises going to meet us there?”

“No, he will meet us at El Tazumal.” This is the largest Mayan pyramid in El Salvador and it was on my itinerary.  Manual would say, “It is O.K. Don’t worry.” Some people make you feel comfortable, like a trained guide, but Manual was not like this. He was out of his element and sent off vibes that kept me on edge.

We left Santa Ana and drove 30 miles or more to another range of volcanos and a crater lake to a roadside, open-air restaurant. There was no one in sight except a waiter and manager. It was a clean and pleasant country restaurant and I felt O.K. stopping here. I believed Manual did well to find a good safe place for us to stop and kill some more time waiting for Moises; this was better than any place I had been since leaving my hotel early this morning. I Iooked at the menu and ordered for both of us, as I had the feeling that Manual had no money and Moises was supposed to handle all of this. You can imagine my feelings.

I enjoyed the lovely view overlooking a crater lake surrounded by volcanos, on a hot summer day, with a slight breeze blowing over the lush green landscape. We ate very slowly and I watched a professional football (soccer) game on a flat-screen television on the wall of the restaurant. I thought Manual was going to stay there all day. Finally I called over the waiter and asked for the bill.  I know Manual was waiting for a call from Moises, but my plan was to start moving back to San Salvador and take care of the guide problem before dark.

Manual said, “We are going to El Tazumal. Moises is going to meet us there.”  This was in another direction, but closer to the capital, with an embassy, my hotel, and the international airport—much better than Santa Ana, a poor place for me to be in my circumstances. We drove on and I watched the road signs and directions to El Tazumal, a historic site. The area was not a well-secured area, there were souvenir stalls, but no tourists—no one but Manual and me and one attendant at the gate. Manual said, “You go in, and I will park the car.” I was very hesitant. I had everything in that car as the original plan was to continue north and across the border to Guatemala that day. My suitcase and backpack were in the trunk and it was getting late in the afternoon.

El Tazumal, an ancient historic Mayan site in El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

El Tazumal, an ancient historic Mayan site in El Salvador. Photo by Madelyn Given.

This was not a good situation. I went to the gate and the attendant went into the ticket office; I paid him and he let me in the gate. There was a small, one-room museum with a few artifacts from this site. My attention should have been on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus on rare artifacts and history of this ancient Mayan site. I was not fighting to get a glance at one piece like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre with hundreds of tourists; I was the only person at this site except for the attendant. I had the entire site to myself.

After hurrying through the tiny museum, I glanced out of the gate and to my relief, Manual was coming towards the gate.  He asked if I had been in the museum and I said I would like to go in again. This time I read the labels and learned a little more about the artifacts. Of interest was the most treasured funerary piece in the museum: a container shaped to cover the deceased body. The buried were not mummified or cremated.  The plexiglass had been removed and it was left unprotected.

We walked out to the pyramid and this had a simple restriction chain encouraging people not to climb the steps. It was amazing to think a million Mayans lived in this area and less than a fourth of the ruins have been excavated or found. Two thousand years ago, this was a thriving, advanced empire.

I took a few photos and asked Manual to call Moises, since I wanted to talk to him. He gave me his cell phone and I listened and it was a recording. I passed him the phone and said please call him now. He handed me his cell phone again and this time Moises answered. I said, “Where are you? I want to talk to you in person.” He said, “Yes, yes. I am coming.” He said, “Things didn’t go well in court and I can’t cross the border.” He was now hours late! I had no guide!

Manual and I were both trying to contain ourselves with respect and decency. Manual said, “He is on his way; we must go back to Santa Ana.”

This was the worst of all places and it soon would be dark. We drove to Santa Ana and he was using his cell phone to find where we would meet. We came to an intersection with a gas station and both cars pulled in at the same time. We all got out and Moises had brought his wife, who he said played violin in the National Symphony Orchestra in San Salvador. I was so upset with Moises I said “Now I need to know why you went to court?” He went on and on telling me a long story about a young guide about money issues. Later when I was with the owner of the Honduras travel company he asked me what Moises told me. He said, “No, that is not true, he did something different.” He had known him for many years and said Moises was a former teacher.

I asked Moises why it took him so long to get here. He had planned to have Manual be my substitute guide for the next several weeks without telling anyone. He went to get money at a bank, and then he went to his home to have his wife get clothes for him for this trip. He had to get a folder of papers to cross the borders and credentials. All of this required much time and effort, going to different towns and driving quite a distance. Moises was in bad shape, pathetic, and full of apologies when he got out of the car.

At this gas station, as in all the gas stations in El Salvador, twenty-four hours every day, they have two or three armed guards with loaded assault rifles and they take it very seriously. Here we were carrying on without buying gas in their parking lot. All attention was on our little group of four: Moises, his wife, Manual, and me.  My cell phone was not working, so I asked to use Moises’s phone to call Edwardo, the owner of the Honduras travel company who had hired Moises.

In the terrible scorching heat in the parking lot, I paced back in forth in front of everyone, explaining to Edwardo on the phone what a terrible situation I was in. First I would not accept this driver, Manual, as my guide, because in actuality he was not a guide at all. I pointed out that Moises had lied to me, I was not off to a good travel adventure, and if it wasn’t taken care of now, on the spot, I was going home.  Edwardo said he would come himself if necessary, and he did. He also immediately sent another guide from his office. Both had to fly to get to me, and his assistant had to then rent a car and drive thirteen hours that night to reach me by morning!

Meanwhile at the gas station, it was terribly hot. In my current situation, the best solution was to have Manual drive me to my next destination across the border to Antiqua, Guatemala, as I had reservations there in a resort that night. We swapped cars and went in Moises’s little car, with the seat belt now repaired. Manual got his backpack and my luggage and we took off. In one way, I was relieved to be out of the gas station and away from Moises. It was an upsetting situation for all involved and the day wasn’t over.

It was a long drive for Manual and me in the unfamiliar territory of El Salvador. As the night went on, Manual became very tired. He didn’t have a map or GPS and he didn’t know the way. Five times we stopped at gas stations and asked directions to Antiqua. Each time the guns were aimed into our car windows.  We were stopped twice on the way by the police for no reason. We took all back roads, going through small villages and watching for cows, dogs, horses, cowboys, children and bicycles darting out in front of us. We didn’t stop for dinner or even a snack. There was no place I dared to stop in the dark in this area.

I had a place to stay, but Manual had no place to stay that night. That became a concern. He used his cell phone and tried a few places. He said he got a room but I was not sure; perhaps he slept in his car. I don’t know. He said he would meet me at 8 am at my hotel the next morning. He was still hoping to be my guide as he needed money. I knew there would be a guide there that Edwardo was sending, and it would be an embarrassing situation at 8 in the morning, but that was not my doing.

At about 10:45 pm, we came to a small border crossing between El Salvador and Guatemala. There was a long line of trailer trucks, but only a few cars, as most people do not travel at night, especially to cross an international border. We both got out and went through the dark parking lot to a small station. With Manual’s help I was passed though without a problem. He had to go to another office and go through a lot of paperwork, which took a long time, and I was standing outside, alone in front of the station. It was a relief to get back in the car and cross a bridge between the two countries, but on the other side, we had to do the whole process again. After the long day and the border crossing, it was a relief to be in Guatemala, but this was no picnic either. It was another 35 or 40 miles to Antiqua, though several towns, again asking for directions first to Antigua, then to the resort. Our cell phones didn’t work in many places and most places were closed at night.

The night manager at the resort knew I was coming, and I was warmly greeted that night.  I said good night to Manuel; I knew he had had quite a day and he was planning to meet me at 8 am the next morning. My room was fit for a queen, with a bed like the Princess and the Pea, and a midnight snack was on a small table. As soon as I was in my room, I received a call from Edwardo, the owner of the travel company, to see if we had made it safely, especially coming through the border crossing. He assured me my new guide, Rafael, was on his way and would be there at 8 am to meet me. As you can imagine, I was too upset to sleep well, and I would long remember this El Salvador experience.

(posted May 9, 2017)

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)