El Salvador - anything but a 'shithole'

The month prior to my visit, the President of the United States infamously referred to El Salvador as a shithole country. Anybody with the loosest grasp of Central American history understands the deep irony of this, given the gross culpability of the United States in the poverty of the region. Personally, I found El Salvador rather lovely.

For our first night I persuaded Claire to deviate from the highway to some hot springs, where - having not had a hot bath since Seattle - I hoped we might be able to camp the night and soak the following morning. Our visit to the unexpectedly fancy Termales de Santa Teresa took a couple of unforeseen turns. First we were told the perfect, covered 'camping area' was for day-use only and after protracted discussions were persuaded to camp instead on the terrace of their fancy 'Japanese cabin'. Second we succumbed, one at a time, to a nasty digestive bug that didn’t clear completely for almost a week. Given the latter, having clean loos and showers nearby (not to mention relative privacy) was a mercy. For my part it was only the second time in ten years I have vomited (the first being in Oaxaca)! Since we’re eating a primarily vegan diet we’re baffled what made us ill.

We could not have continued the following day so ended up staying a second night; I slept all day in a hammock and 11 hours straight the second night. Talking to a woman from the US Claire learned the owner of the spa had been murdered after refusing to pay protection money to a gang, which probably explains why they didn’t want us camping on the periphery.

The next day we made it up the verdant Ruta de las Flores through Ataco to Apaneca where I'd somehow persuaded Claire we might be able to camp by a small crater lake. Though only 4kms from the road we had to push our bikes much of the way up the steep dirt track, arriving at the lake rather later than we'd have liked. Fortunately there was a single raised palapa just waiting for our tents, a carful of rather drunk men and another of policemen both drove (!) away once the sun set, and we awoke the next morning to glorious silence.

After the Ruta de las Flores I struck off on my own via the second city Santa Ana to the capital. Though cities aren’t the easiest part of cycle touring I don’t really feel I’ve got the measure of a country until I’ve visited at least one of its cities. In Santa Ana I did some hasty laundry and visited my first Central American markets. The next day I I took a bus from Santa Ana into San Salvador. It's a horrific climb on a shoulderless motorway. In Santa Ana the first few bus drivers couldn't take me as their luggage compartments weren't big enough. A man and a woman who would hop on each bus to sell snacks could see I was struggling and made it their business to ask each driver. When one said yes they rushed round to the traffic side of the bus and instead of selling snacks helped me get my absurd bike into the bus in the blazing heat. Shithole country? I think not.

I spent a lovely day in and around San Salvador with new friend Majo. A highlight was a play about women’s reproductive rights in El Salvador performed, if I understood correctly, by amateur actors. I say ‘if I understood correctly’ because I forced myself to use only Spanish all day even though Majo speaks English fluently. This proved every bit as excruciating as I expected and I feel bad that in punishing myself for my lack of progress I effectively punished my host as well.

Next I headed back down towards the coastal highway to rendezvous with Claire, who’d had a rest day at a Warmshowers place near a beach. I’m very glad I made a short detour to visit a relief map of the whole of El Salvador at a military museum. Few things get me scampering about with excitement like that!

During our final days and nights on the carretera littoral we camped at two fire stations clearly well used to accommodating passing cyclists, and on a village football field where a neighbouring family came to say hello and not to be afraid (we weren’t). The firemen are always very helpful but one has to wonder what they really think of a succession of gringos turning up asking for a free pass.

El Salvador is in the grip of election fever at the moment, which manifests in billboards and flags everywhere, hideously noisy party political broadcasts from vehicles, and even noisier rallies. According to Majo none of the parties offers much hope of radical change.

While rates of violent crime remain very high in the country (a newspaper cover reported 23 homicides in one day during our visit, in a country the size of Wales) this rarely impacts tourists; we were certainly blissfully unaware of it. I’d read that people in El Salvador appear scared, but on the whole I didn’t pick up on that. Overall we both really liked El Salvador. Its main roads have good shoulders meaning huge trucks carrying sugar cane and the region’s famous ‘chicken buses’ could give us a wide berth. Like all the Latin Americans I’ve encountered so far people were very polite, and also friendly in an unfussy way that I appreciated. I hope to return.