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.
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)