Monday, January 4, 2016

Suchitoto, El Salvador - October / November, 2015

Anyone who has read the few, but universally grim stories in the U.S. or Canadian press about El Salvador is probably wondering why we choose to travel in such a violent place. In other posts we've shared our personal "lightening strike" theory of life and travel in statistically dangerous countries, so we won't repeat that here. In this and our next post we'll just share our experiences traveling inland in Salvador -- and perhaps show you a bit about the everyday story which doesn't make good newspaper copy.  

[As an aside we can't help noting that, according to Facebook there are thousands of armed people wandering through Walmart stores in the U.S. every day . . . you're on your own if you want to brave Walmart.]

Around Town

The town of Suchitoto bills itself as the cultural center of El Salvador. And while it's not exactly London or Paris it has a nice art center; lovely, human-scale 19th-century architecture; 

Sleepy Suchitoto Above Lago Sucitlan

a couple of nice restaurants; a good coffee bar (Casa de la Abuela); a funky Marxist-themed bar; a good climate; cool-ish weather; a theater (nothing showing during our visit); and at least one very nice hotel (the Los Almendros de San Lorenzo - we neglected to take pictures, but the hotel's website is very nice).

The central plaza is sweet and the church that occupies one side has a beautiful, wooden interior (unusual to those familiar with Mexican churches).

Iglesia Santa Lucia

Wooden Interior 

Walking around town one can see other evidence that faith plays an important part in the life of the community . .. . 

A Plaque Honoring the Recently Canonized
Archbishop Oscar Romero

Abigail's God Bless You Store

. . . people living their everyday lives . . . 

Grocery Shopping In The Newly Renovated Market 
(Gotta Love The Market Ladies' Cute Apron Frills)

Commercial Tortilla Factory (Tortillaria)

. . . and signs that many people are committed to addressing the community's domestic violence problems which we were told stem in part from the separation of families and the general culture of violence resulting from the civil war. 

"In This House We Want a Life
Free of Violence Against Women" -

This Stencil is On Many Houses In Town

Suchitoto is the home of the Center of Art For Peace, opened in 2005 for the expressed purpose of supporting peace through the arts. What's not to like about that?

We Were There

A Wood Screen Detail - The Center Is Housed In A
Beautiful Ex-Convent Building

An Oral History Interview Took Place 
While We Were Visiting

Art Lessons Are Available -
Differing Views of the Oral History Interview Space

On a less elevated plain, Suchitoto is also home to the Museum of a Thousand Plates.  For only $1 one can see over 1,000 . . . plates. It's very kitschy -- but the operator is nice and he gave Molly the best tourist road map of Salvador that we've found yet. The map was worth the price of admission. The plates - not so much.

One Of The More Than 1,000 Plates

Another visit that most tourists make is to the El Necio bar, decorated with Che and FMLN posters. 

[Side note: The Frente Farabundo Marti Para La Liberacion Nacional (the Farabundo Marti Front For National Liberation) was named to honor Farabundo Marti, the leader of an ill-fated 1932 peasant revolution. The FMLN was the leftist guerrilla umbrella organization during the country's civil war and now, as a result of democratic elections, the country's ruling party.]

We appreciated the bar's theme and enjoyed the breeze in the upstairs seating area but were thoroughly confused when the bartender couldn't make a rum and tonic. The menu listed gin and tonic, vodka and tonic and Cuba libre but we couldn't communicate to the bartender (despite Bryce's relatively good Spanish skills) how to take the rum (Cuba libre) and the tonic (gin/vodka and) and make . . . a rum and tonic. Perhaps our comrade needs some bartender 're-education' . . . 

A Fair!

A little fair was going on, which enlivened our walks around town.

Preparing the Ferris Wheel (Look Bottom Right)

A Kite Flying Event In The Plaza

Night-time Merry-Go-Round
Complete With Watchful Moms

Beauty Contestants In Training

Church Fundraiser

Out of Town

We hired a guide through the hotel to take us to a couple of the "must see" places outside of town. He arranged a boat ride on Lago Suchitlan. The lake is covered with water hyacinths (though this picture doesn't show them) which we thought might be an invasive species problem, but our guide assured us they act to purify the water in the lake. 

Lago Suchitlan

We also visited the Los Tercios waterfall which is quite beautiful, even in a relatively dry year. 

We Were There

We were fascinated by the geographic formation of the falls - Bryce's comment was that it was like walking through the beginning of time.

An Great Upheaval Took Place Here

The best part of our guide experience was our conversation over coffee about his family's life during the war. Both of his parents worked for the FMLN as educators and traveled the country explaining the FMLN's political and strategic positions. He gave us an interesting perspective on the effect this disruption had on his family and told us a bit abut his parents' lives since the end of the war.

Dia de Muertos

Our last day in Suchitoto was Dia De Muertos in Salvador (November 2). We stopped by the local cemetery on our drive out of town and were interested to see the public celebration of the day. The streets around the panteón (cemetery) were choked with traffic. The road leading into the panteón was lined with stalls of plastic flower vendors calling out "Ooon doh-lahr! Ooon doh-lahr poor flohress!" (Un dolar por flores - One dollar for flowers!) [Reminder: El Salvador's currency is the U.S. dollar.]

Un Dolar!

The panteón was absolutely jammed with people of all ages. Those entering the cemetery were carrying several dolars worth of plastic flowers. 

El Panteón

The atmosphere was energetic. Friends and family greeted each other with hugs and handshakes; there was live entertainment; it was not at all a solemn occasion.

Not Exactly Funereal Music

We had to laugh at ourselves. For years we had avoided going to cemeteries for Dia de Muertos thinking we might intrude on solemn family events. We knew that in some towns in Mexico the community is used to seeing outsiders in their midst - Oaxaca and Pátzcuaro are famous for accepting visitors at their celebrations. But we were never in those places, so we didn't know how our presence would be received. But clearly, unless Salvadoreños and Mexicanos celebrate very differently, we would not have been intruding on anything solemn! 

Travel Tips

Suchitoto is located in the northern part of El Salvador, about 60 kilometers (but at least a 1.5 hour drive) north-east of San Salvador. Driving in Salvador has its challenges but you shouldn't miss a trip to Suchitoto or a stay at Los Almendros. That said, having made the drive from San Salvador to Suchitoto in the dark (due to a very long day at the customs office at the airport) our recommendation is to make the trip in daylight hours. The roads are sketchy, the signage even more so, the country doesn't seem to have real road maps (see above re: tourist map) and Mapquest directions are not terribly helpful. When the nice man at the gas station gives you directions - tip him. 

Another related driving tip: the market area of San Salvador is vibrant, crowded and exciting. But don't try driving through there at 5 p.m. on a Friday. Unless you have a fully insured rental car.


A drive along the Ruta de Las Flores.

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