Our next destination, El Salvador, is relatively small and is still often skipped by backpackers traveling though Central America (the main exception being a growing number of surfers, who are happy to spend weeks or months there, riding some of the continent’s best waves). El Salvador was a big deal for us, however, because Cindy’s parents were both born there, and most of her extended family still calls El Salvador home. Although Cindy was born and predominantly raised in the US, she spent most of her high school years in El Salvador, so she also has lots of school friends there. The last time Cindy had been to El Salvador was in 2010, and Sam had never been there, so this visit was a long time coming.
In all we spent just over three weeks in El Salvador, mostly staying with the matriarch of Cindy’s family, Mama Tita, in San Salvador (the capital). It is probably fair to say that in El Salvador, well off people live well, and Mama Tita is lucky to have the help of an amazingly caring housekeeper, Elma, who also spoilt us while we were there. From Monday through Friday every week, Elma prepares a massive lunch for Cindy’s extended family, who still drop in on their work/school lunch breaks whenever they can to have a meal at their mother’s/grandmother’s table. Being able to join in this day-to-day ritual was a great way for Sam, in particular, to get to know Cindy’s uncles, aunts and cousins.
The other group of people Sam was looking forward to meeting was Cindy’s high school friends. It was quite interesting for Sam to see the colorful personalities he’d heard so much about come to life, and Cindy enjoyed finally being able to meet some of her friends’ husbands, fiancés and kids for the first time. Cindy is almost twice as old as she was when she left El Salvador, but its a testament to the strength of the girls’ friendships that they still seem to pick up where they left off, constantly laughing like school children. Nowhere was this more evident than at the 4th birthday party for the first kid in the group, where the school friends, plus partners and children accounted for a third of the 75-person guest list.
El Salvador’s greatest asset is its relatively compact size, with lots of volcanoes, beaches and pretty colonial towns within one or two hours’ drive from San Salvador. One of the closest beaches is El Puerto, where we had lunch with Cindy’s family before driving on to checkout the nearby gringo surf hub, El Tunco.
Later in our trip, Cindy’s family also took us further afield to the dark sand beach of El Dorado to enjoy a beautiful lunch at a dreamy beachside ranch. For Sam, perhaps the most interesting family day trip was to Tenancingo, the small town where Cindy’s mum grew up, which had been ravaged during the civil war but is now experiencing a resurgence of sorts.
Cindy’s friends were also happy to hit the road with us. We went away for two separate overnight trips, firstly to a massive beachside ranch we hired for a boozy night and relaxed recovery day.
For our second overnighter we went to Ataco, a small colonial town on El Salvador’s famous ‘Ruta del Sol’ (Route of the Sun). We hadn’t even started drinking when on the way to Ataco when we stopped on a famous stretch of road where cars appear to inexplicably roll up hill. Still can’t explain that one. That night in Ataco we all went for a few drinks and were surprised with Cindy's uncle and family driving there to join us for a few drinks.
We spent most of the rest of our time in El Salvador eating and drinking, both at friends and families’ homes and at surprisingly good restaurants around San Salvador. Our time in El Salvador flew and before long it was time for us to leave. The day before we left we were treated to a beautiful farewell lunch at one of Cindy’s friends’ family country house, which was a nice and relaxing way to finish the trip.
Before arriving to El Salvador, Sam didn’t really know what to expect. He had studied the Salvadorian civil war at school and Cindy’s parents were just two of the countless people who were driven out of the country during that time. The war is over and security has improved dramatically, although gang violence is still a problem as, unfortunately, some of Cindy’s friends and family can personally attest. Seeing security guards wielding shotguns at the entrance to every store and major restaurant does take some getting used to. However, looking past this, Sam always felt very safe, especially in the knowledge that tourists are almost never targeted. What Sam found was a really pleasant, increasingly westernized country, full of friendly and, in particular, hardworking people.