Tidbits from El Salvador

We’ve now been in El Salvador long enough to have experienced chicken buses, hot pupusas off the grill, a local soccer game, visits to unique towns, tide travels in the estuary, and even a small earthquake!  So here you go….a little bit about our first impressions of this complicated country.

First off, a mini history lesson about El Salvador.  Being the smallest and most densely populated of the seven Central American countries, with a population of approximately 6.34 million, El Salvador was traditionally an agricultural country, heavily dependent upon coffee exports. The service sector now dominates the economy and the government is trying to open up trade and expand manufacturing.  However, the country continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, inequality, and crime.  They’ve had a tough road to recovery following the bloody civil war that ended with the 1992 peace accords; just as the country began to recover, they were devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and by a major earthquake in 2001.

I mention this brief history in order to address everyone’s question when we said we were coming here; “is it safe”?  I guess the real answer to that is “mostly yes”.  Yes, there are gang and turf wars in parts of the city, and locals are forced to navigate through the invisible gang borders, but as gringos we’re pretty isolated from that, and of course we limit our travels only to safe areas.  The people we have met are hardworking, honest, friendly, and sadly, very poor, yet they consistently greet us with smiles and helpfulness.

So, on to the fun stuff…our latest adventures!

Chicken buses…

Bus travel here is not a relaxing experience.  It’s a constant jostle for space, with minuscule leg room pushing the average gringo’s knees up to chin level. That’s if you’re one of the lucky few who manage to get a seat at all. Otherwise you’ll be in the aisle, hanging on above the flow of vendors and the conductor, leaving you bumped and bruised by the time you reach your destination. Chivalry is not dead however, and the older women are usually given seats, then they put other peoples’ babies and small children on their laps.  Pop and salsa music is played at full volume, with the drivers’ favorite CDs left on a loop.  We happened to have the same bus driver coming back from town as when we’d gone in, and the same CD was playing.

Referred to as chicken buses, for the squawking chickens that might be stashed in the luggage rack, these buses provide not just transportation, but a virtual community on wheels. There is a stream of buskers, freaky looking clowns, and soap-box orators, as well as snack sellers forcing their way down the aisle at every stop. Any time of day you can buy individual sweets torn off a long strip, little packets of peanuts from a clever basket that attaches to the hand holds, taco chips and cashews, plastic bags full of fluorescent drinks, ready-peeled oranges (which are sucked for their juice then thrown, like everything else, out of the window), pizza slices, chips, hot dogs, and of course, pupusas complete with chopped salad and chili sauce.

Considering the average travel time in this tiny country is about an hour, I was confused as to why everyone was eating everything that came along. I was told by one of the expats here that the locals eat on the bus because it’s cheap!  In a country where a high wage is still only single digits per day, a 25-cent pupusa is a good buy.  Add the dollar for the bus fare and voila, dinner is served.

Then there is the tireless ‘cobrador’, usually a small and wiry man chosen for his agility to worm his way through the bus, hissing and clicking his tongue for fares, and hanging out the doorway, shouting out “Avisa, avisa!” for more customers to pile on board. The running joke in El Salvador is “how many people can you fit on the bus”…”one more!”

The language…

We’re having a hard time getting used to the differences in the Spanish spoken here from what we were used to in Mexico.  In other words, we’re lost.  Everything is spoken faster (if that’s possible), the words are shortened (Buenos Dias is just Buenos), and there are quite a few different words for things.  More to learn!

The food…

El Salvador is known for pupusas, a traditional dish of a thick corn tortilla stuffed with a savory filling such as cheese, beans, or meat.  They are typically accompanied by curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage relish, and tomato salsa.  We like them served hot off the grill…awesome!  We’ve also enjoyed some great grilled steak, huge local prawns, and fresh fish that is cooked whole.  All yum!

The earthquake…

We were aboard Happy Dance one day when the boat started shaking.  While it’s not unusual to get rocked a bit from boat wakes or the current, this was a different feel.  It was as if Happy Dance was floating in a bowl of water with someone banging the sides making ripples shake us from all sides.  Weird!  There wasn’t any damage that we know of and it wasn’t a big one, but it was a new sensation for the Happy Dancers.

Drinking water…

Since we’re in an estuary that is very silty from the tidal changes and mud bottom, we’ve pickled the water maker and have to rely on local water sources.  The dock water isn’t an option, so we have water delivered by one of the locals who pulls it out of their well.  The delivery was a new method for us and was pretty funny.

A few boats ordered water at the same time, so the panga arrived with six 50-gallon strategically placed open barrels.  We put out our fenders and the panga tied alongside and started pumping water up to us.  He had made a pump by wiring a battery to a bilge pump and sticking the hose into our tanks – genius!

Soccer tournament…

We dingied over to the island one day to watch the local soccer teams play and share in the local scene.  Even playing on a rocky, dusty field these guys were serious about their soccer!  Marty enjoyed yakking with the local kids who took the field during a break, and we also enjoyed pupusas off the grill.  Everyone from the island came to watch the fun, and fun it was!

San Sebastian…

This is a small town located approximately 30 miles northeast of San Salvador and it is known for high quality, colorful, patterned textiles, that are made into hammocks, purses, tablecloths, blankets, etc.

Traditional “telares” or large wooden looms are used to weave the cloth, just the way it has been done for over two centuries.  We visited three different workshops and watched the weavers at work.  Only men work the big looms as it is a strenuous process, and they are paid by the yard, earning two dollars for each four yards of material made.

It’s a much larger process than what I learned from Gran when I was young!  She and I used to warp (the warp are the long threads on a loom) her loom together with me handing her the next thread one at a time to pull through the heddles.  These men are winding on miles of warp from a huge warping spool that turns like a giant rotisserie.  It was mind-blowing to watch and to realize the hours of work that goes into each hammock sold by the side of the road.


Illobosco lies on top of a hill at 2500 feet above sea level, 35 miles east of San Salvador on the Pan-American road.  It’s famous for ceramics and is one of the oldest artisan towns in the country and in Central America. Some say the ceramic activity began sometime in the 1700s. Unfortunately (Marty might say otherwise) we didn’t have much time to visit the gazillion shops full of colorful ceramics, but we saw quite of few of the varieties of things they make here.

There are traditional types of pottery including griddles, pots, pans, and flower pots. The popular types are Christmas gifts such as catholic images: Saint Joseph, the virgin Maria, mules, ox, and the 3 magic kings.  My favorites were the decorative types with all sorts of original, colorful designs, and miniatures that represented daily life in El Salvador.  The artwork is quite detailed and original from artist to artist.

We also stopped for lunch, which cut into my shopping time, but it was sooo good!  We had grilled steak, chicken, chorizo, and hot freshly made tortillas while sitting out in a lovely garden area.  The tortillas here are thick like a griddle cake, not like the type we’re used to in Mexico.  Okay, so maybe that was better than shopping..ha!

The Jaltepeque Estuary…

We’re situated on a long peninsula of land called Costa del Sol that separates the estuary from the ocean.  There are large tides and strong currents in the estuary and sometimes the current running past the dock is more than three knots.  It’s been fun to drive the dinghy around as we visit palapa restaurants on stilts, the nearby island of Isla Cordoncilla, and soon we’ll take the dingy up estuary for some shopping at one of the small towns. It’s wild to see mangoes falling off the trees, and cashews growing wild.

One day we all piled in a panga for a tour of the estuary on our way to the Rio Lempa.  Along the way we visited a small fishing village on Isla Colorada, where the government built a dock to help the fishermen and to provide water access to the village across the long mud flat that exists when the tide is out.  The fishermen bring their catch to the dock and one panga collects it all and then is escorted by armed guard to and from the market.  The houses are each fenced and there is a walkway down the middle of “town”.

Isla Colorada is also where the local women create some beautiful beading and sewing.  A few years ago, a woman came to the village to teach the women how to sew and how to make jewelry and as a result of the success of the project the government provided money so that they could tile the mud floored hut, buy some sewing machines, and create a center where the local women’s group can work together.  This allows the women to earn money to help support their families.

After traveling by miles of huge mangroves, with lots of white egrets and smaller yellow birds, we arrived at the mouth of the Lempa River.  The Rio Lempa is the longest river in El Salvador and is approximately 240 miles long.  It enters El Salvador from Guatemala in the northwestern corner of the country and flows across the coastal plain to its mouth on the Pacific where we enjoyed lunch, a beach walk, and a nice swim!

So there you have it, all the news that’s fit to print!  We’re about to hop in the dingy for another adventure, heading to a palapa restaurant for lunch, followed by pupusas at a local’s house tonight…it’s all good in El Salvador!!

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