Wednesday, May 17, 2023

El Salvador March 2023

Monday, March 6th – We caught the first chicken bus out of Antigua, Guatemala at dawn. For those who are not familiar with a chicken bus, it is a 30-year-old school bus stripped of any safety gear that may have existed 30 years ago. The engine is removed and replaced with a high-performance turbo diesel, and any semblance of a suspension is also removed. The interior and exterior are fully customized, with a big screen TV and a better sound system than the best concert hall installed inside. The exterior paint job puts any Andy Warhol painting to shame.
To say the least, the six-hour chicken bus ride from Antigua, Guatemala to the Guatemala/El Salvador border was far from comfortable, though we did watch two Bruce Willis movies dubbed in Spanish.
At the border, we met our driver, Vitelio Barrera. The first thing he said was, “Ustedes están loco,” which means “you guys are crazy.” He told us that he would have been happy to pick us up in Antigua, as a car would have taken less than three hours instead of six. Live and learn.
We arrived at our final destination, Concepción de Ataco, where the famous flower route starts. After our long drive, we spent some time stretching our legs and walking through this beautiful little town. Everyone greeted us with a “buenas noches” as we walked by.
We are staying at the Casa de Graciela, a small boutique hotel just across from the town square. Great service and each room has its own unique design. We are in the Matrimonial Suite.
It has been a long day. Tomorrow we will see many of the villages along the flower route.
Tuesday, March 7th – Our first full day in El Salvador.
We had a nice breakfast in the outside courtyard of the hotel. We are fairly certain that we are the only guests at this time.
Our guide Eduardo picked us up at 8:30 AM. Eduardo will be our guide for the next eight days.
Our first stop was the El Carmen Coffee Mill, which resides on the El Carmen Estate - a coffee plantation and mill run by the same family for four generations.
Gusto, who has worked at the mill for 12 years, was our guide. He started as a raker drying coffee beans when he was only 14. The mill processes over ten million pounds of raw coffee per year, netting two million pounds of coffee beans.
Not only do they process their own coffee, but also for other local growers who are too small to have a mill. Some areas of the process are automated, while others are still done the way it was done four generations ago, such as tasting the beans to see if they are ready for the next step.
Stacking the 100-pound sacks of coffee beans is still done manually, as shown in a 20-second video we watched during the tour.

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After the coffee mill tour, it was time for the flower route. Eduardo, our guide for the next 8 days, explained that the flower route was someone’s idea that never came to fruition. The concept was to take a group of small villages in this volcanic region and have each village create beautiful flower gardens. The only part of the idea that was completed was the name.
However, the day was not wasted. We visited each of these villages and saw their unique qualities. Ataco, the village we are staying in, is actually a crater of a volcano, with many murals depicting the history of El Salvador on local buildings.
Next, we visited Nahuizalco, where we explored the local market and sampled many of the local fruits. During these visits, Eduardo gave us some history lessons on El Salvador.
Apaneca, the next village, has a beautiful main plaza, along with a large colonial church.
Juayúa has one of the largest and oldest trees in El Salvador - a Ceiba Tree that is well over 300 years old. This picture doesn't do justice to the enormity of the tree. It would take over 20 people with their arms stretched wide to completely encircle the tree.
The last village we visited was Salcoatitán, another small and quaint village.
Our last stop was Laguna Verde, also known as Green Lagoon. It is a lagoon located in the bottom of a volcano crater. We took a short hike around the lagoon before heading back to Ataco and our hotel.
So far, El Salvador has exceeded our expectations. The landscapes are beautiful, the people could not be friendlier, and there is a rich history. We will share more about the bitcoin situation soon.
On Wednesday, March 8th, it was time for exercise. Edwardo picked us up at 7:15 AM and we drove for two hours to the base of Santa Ana Volcano.

The hike started off easy and quickly turned into a steep rock scramble. After about two hours, 2.6 miles (4 km), and 5,000 feet of elevation gain, we reached the rim of the crater. It was worth the climb.
The pictures do not do justice to the colors of the water. Also, you cannot hear the constant hum of the steam pressure being released from the vents, nor can you smell the sulfur odor that permeates the air.
After spending some time at the rim of the crater, we hiked back down to the base. We had an hour's drive to our lunch spot, Coatepeque Lake. What a beautiful crater lake! We enjoyed a fresh fish lunch overlooking the lake. Edwardo has been a fantastic guide.
Tonight, we are staying at Casa 1800 Cerro Verde, a very modern boutique hotel in the middle of the national park.
On Thursday, March 9th, we had breakfast on the hotel veranda overlooking one of the many active volcanoes.
Today was Mayan Ruin day, and we visited three archaeological sites.
The first site, San Andrés, was discovered when they were clearing land for a school. El Salvador was the southernmost region for the Mayan people.
The second site we visited was Joya de Cerén. This site is one of the few where the area where the common people lived has been preserved.
The last and most impressive site was Cihuatán. This site was massive and well-preserved. Some funding for the restoration came from the United States.
Update on Bitcoin: In my informal survey, I asked to pay in Bit coin every time I bought something. The answer I got back, all but one time, has been: "We can’t accept Bit coin yet, we are still working on it." Once, I bought a bottle of water for $0.50 and they said I could pay in Bit coin. At the time, one coin was valued at about $22,000. That means the bottle of water would cost me 0.00002273 Bit coins. After about 20 minutes of the store owner trying to get their wallet to accept my 0.00002273 Bit coin, she gave up and asked if I could pay in cash.
What was interesting was during the 20 minutes, the price of Bit coin was fluctuating a few percentage points. Since the water was priced in dollars and not Bit coins, the owner did not know if she should adjust the number of Bit coins I owed her. By law, every business MUST accept Bit coin, but we are finding this is rarely the case.

On the ATM front, I found out that the Bit coin ATMs accept Bit coins, but only payout dollars. For example, I could have gone to the Bit coin ATM, transferred 0.00002273 Bit coins from my wallet to the machine, and received $0.50 to pay for the water.
Tonight, we are staying at a small town called Suchitoto. Our hotel is the Casa 1800 Suchitoto, a sister hotel to our hotel the previous night. After our long day of ruin seeing, we walked through town before getting dinner. The church in the main square was lit, and there was a lot of activity.
Friday – March 10th – Today, we had a 5:00 AM wake-up call for our birding trip at Suchitlán Lake. We took a kayak and spent a few hours watching all the activity. The company we booked with was Suchitoto Adventure Outfitters, and our guide, Réne, is the owner. We saw over 30 different species of birds.
Réne gave us his take on the Bit coin shambles. The current president promised to rid the country of gang members. When El Salvador moved to the Bit coin as the national currency, the government gave every citizen $30.00 worth of Bit coin. In a country where the average monthly wage is $350.00, $30.00 is a lot of money. To get the money, you had to fill out a form, give your cell phone number, and load a government-developed Bit coin wallet onto your phone.
Not too long after this, 60,000 gang members were arrested and incarcerated. How were the gang members found so quickly? Maybe the government was tracking their cell phone activity through the Bit coin app. Thirty dollars is a small price to pay to reduce crime to near zero. Just saying.
In the afternoon, Eduardo took us on a walking tour around Suchitoto. The church anchors the main square. We walked around town to see the murals and homes. Suchitoto is not a tourist town. In fact, we may be the only non-El Salvadorans in the entire town. We truly enjoyed the tour. We even got to meet the mayor of Suchitoto.
This evening, Eduardo had a surprise for us: a class on how to prepare Pupusas, a traditional El Salvadoran dish made with rice flour and different types of fillings, such as cheese and jalapeños, cheese and garlic, cheese and black beans. The filling can be cheese plus anything else. The Pupusas were delicious.
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That's it for today. Next stop: we rescue turtles - stay tuned.

Saturday, March 11th - Gorilla Trekking -
While I have gone Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and knew there were Gorillas in Uganda, I thought that was it. When I saw Gorilla Trekking on our itinerary, I was very excited until… Eduardo picked us up, and we started driving to Cinquera National Park. He was giving us an overview of our hike. He kept referring to "The Vietnam of El Salvador" and talking about the Civil War which took place in the 1990s. I interjected and said I thought we were going Gorilla Trekking. Eduardo looked at me with a puzzled face for a moment…
Then he said Guerrilla, not Gorillas!

The hike was still worth it. In the 1990s, the El Salvadoran Army, backed by the U.S., fought the El Salvadoran Guerrillas, backed by Cuba and Russia. Sound familiar?
As we hiked the area, we saw how the Guerrillas used many of the same tactics used by the Vietcong, which I noticed when we were in Vietnam. That is why this area is called Little Vietnam.
One example: they built fires for cooking with exhaust pipes far from the fires. This kept their enemy from locating their location.
This is the tomb of the unknown Guerrilla. Most Guerrillas did not use their real names; they all had an alias.
We also saw a field hospital.
After several years of fighting with no clear winner, a lot of loss of life, and destruction, a truce was announced.
The Guerrillas were each given a plot of land to own and farm, which is what they were fighting for.
After the hike, we walked around the small village of Cinquera, which has a memorial to the war in the center square.
Now we were off to our next adventure: the turtle rescue. We had a two-hour drive to Jiquilisco Bay, which is along the Pacific.
It has been seven weeks since my last haircut. With us getting to lower elevation, the temperature was raising along with the humidity. My long hair was getting uncomfortable. With the famous Oakland Barber Shop in Saint Vincent's on the way, we decided to stop and get my hair coiffed.

The drive was interesting in that the geography changed from highlands to lowlands. The volcanoes were being replaced with sugarcane plantations.
We will be spending the next two nights at Puerto Barillas Marina & Lodge.
What a unique place! Each luxury cabin is built up in the air.
We arrived in the late evening. Being already dark, we did not get to enjoy the views.
Sunday, March 12th – It's time for the Turtle Rescue! At first, I thought we would be rescuing kidnapped turtles. However, we quickly learned that in the past, the Hawksbill Turtle had been sold for various products and was almost extinct. The El Salvadoran government made it illegal to hunt these turtles and put incentives in place to protect them.
We were picked up at 10:00 am and learned that until 1989, not many people lived in the area we were heading to. The civil war forced farmers from the highlands to this area, which is mostly mangroves. People had to change from farming to fishing, and our guides for the day, Aldo, Melisa, and Melanie, are all products of this situation. Their grandparents and parents were farmers, but the three of them grew up on the water.
Our goal was to catch a Hawksbill Turtle, tag it, weigh it, measure it, take a DNA sample, and implant a GPS tracker. This information helps to ensure the success of the Hawksbill Turtle.
On our third try, we finally caught a juvenile turtle weighing in at 24 pounds (11 kg). As an adult, a Hawksbill turtle can easily top 160 pounds (73 kg).

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After all the work, we sent Wally the turtle off with its new pierced flippers.
What a great day. We learned a lot about the area and hopefully helped the Hawkbill Turtles.
Tomorrow is our last full day in El Salvador. We will be heading to the capital, San Salvador. If you're into Catholic Churches, you'll enjoy this update.
We were picked up at 9:00 am for our two-hour drive to San Salvador. The population of El Salvador is around six million people, with two million of them living in San Salvador. On our way, we stopped at the Monument of Reconciliation.
A very interesting monument, to say the least. The two soldiers, a female Guerrilla Soldier, and a Government Army Soldier, arm in arm makes sense. This shows the two warring factions have reconciled.
But why the naked female bust in the background? If you know the symbolism, please let me know. I asked around, and it is as much a mystery in El Salvador as finding someone that will accept Bit coin.
On the edge of San Salvador is a volcano. We decided to visit El Boquerón Volcano. Being a bit hazy, the views did not live up to the advertisement. But we did get to see the small crater inside the big crater.
Now for the highlight of the day. I have been to well over 1,000 Catholic Churches or Cathedrals.
Iglesia El Rosario is by far the most beautiful and unique I have ever seen. The architecture and art were spectacular. The pictures do not come close to doing it justice.

After visiting El Rosario, we walked around San Salvador.
That is it from El Salvador.



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