Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's Worth Coming To El Salvador, Just For The Food Festivals!



22 to 28 May, 2009 – Suchitoto (and Los Tercios), Juayúa, Ataco, and Tacuba (Parque Nacional El Imposible)

Suchitoto. We debated coming or skipping. Not too much of a diversion, but a vague reference to a weekend market, along with an interesting waterfall, backed up with a recommendation from our very good friends Ombi and Alex, and we found ourselves there. The town was very nice :D The market was quite disappointing :( And the waterfall was beautiful, despite lacking an important ingredient – water!


Columned Waterfall
Columned Waterfall
OK, so the water is almost impossible to see. In fact, most of the time, this waterfall has very little water. A sort-of waterlessfall. But we were there for the basalt columned cliffs that are exposed beneath the falls, and they were quite beautiful. Oh, btw, that IS me up the top there.


Top Of The Waterfall
Top Of The Waterfall
This angle highlights two things. Firstly, seeing the tops of the columns, it gives an idea of the size and shapes of the basalt formations. Secondly, it highlights how small the dribble of water actually was!



Maybe if it had been close to easter, we might have had some idea about the following...


Multi-Coloured Chickens
Multi-Coloured Chickens
This was on a bus. And yes, they do get nicknamed "chicken buses" because of the frequency that people will travel on the carrying chickens. But this was a first for us. When she got on the bus with a crate, I could tell they were chickens, but was sure I caught a glimpse of green through an opening. When she put them down, we couldn't stop laughing at the fluorescent chicks! We never found out why...



No time to stop. After spending Saturday at the disappointing weekend market at Suchitoto, we headed straight through San Salvador to Juayúa in the western part of the country. All indications were that this was the market to get to. And not for the regular market products, or the tourist market merchandise, but the food!

A gastronomy festival! Dozens of stalls greeted us. Apprehensively, we started scanning, expecting to see two or three dishes repeated dozens of times. But no, we had so much choice. Too much choice! Why didn't we get here yesterday? We would have had more meal times to try more food. Predictably, we went for seafood options. After eating (and drinking and eating some more), we enjoyed the entertainment – a singer of extraordinary talent and humour. Unfortunately, he didn't have any cds with him that we could buy. After all that eating, there was only one thing we could face – collapsing in our room for a couple of hours. And then it was time to hit the food stalls again! Except, they were closing up early on Sunday evening. Which was a real pity, as I was truly thinking about trying some grilled frog for dinner.


"Food Glorious Food"
"Food Glorious Food"
One stall showing a sample of the food on offer at the weekend gastronomy market in Juayúa. We did go a bit crazy!


Ensuring We Get Our Fruit
Ensuring We Get Our Fruit
Sometimes we find that we eat a lot of things that taste good but aren't necessarily so good for us. So we need to be disciplined and ensure we eat our fruit. Oh, chocolate and nuts on our strawberries? I don't know what THEY were doing there!



So, Monday was our chance to walk some of all that food. Off to some waterfalls.


Waterfall Near Juayúa
Waterfall Near Juayúa
One of a number of waterfalls near Juayúa.


Another Waterfall Near Juayúa
Another Waterfall Near Juayúa
One of a number of waterfalls near Juayúa.



Tuesday, via Ataco ...


Mural In Ataco
Mural In Ataco
Brightly decorated building in the mountain village of Ataco.


"Pinchos de Frutas" Shop in Ataco
"Pinchos de Frutas" Shop in Ataco
Cute mural on a shopfront, Ataco.



... to Tacuba.


Parque Nacional El Imposible
Parque Nacional El Imposible
One of the vistas on our walk.



El Imposible. So named because of the gorge that cuts through it. Once upon a time, locals transported coffee across the gorge with mules, using fallen trees to span the gap. Many lives were lost (human and mule). In 1968 a bridge was built. The reputation was lost, but the name remained.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Land Finding Itself Again After A Terrible Civil War



18 to 23 May, 2009 – La Palma, San Salvador, and around Perquín, El Salvador

We crossed from Honduras in to a northern town of El Salvador. A relaxed border, with a cursory passport check, and no stamp. We crossed with Emma. We had met Emma two buses earlier, when she approached us to clarify where exactly we would be deposited in relation to the border. What separates Emma from the average backpacker we encounter was her age. I'm guessing she was in her 70's, or maybe she just looks a little older than she is because she had two strokes last year and now gets about with the aid of a wheeled frame. Upon arrival at the border, they passed her frame down, and she hung two bags from the handles. A small day pack was slung on her back, and off we set. She shunned the offer of a rickshaw like transport, and we walked through to the El Salvadorian bus stop, about one kilometre away. She has travelled down from Mexico and is heading to Costa Rica. “I might have another stroke, but if I do, I would rather be dong something I love than sitting at home.” We think her family may have had one or two since she told them her plans! We think she's an inspiration!

La Palma was our first stop. A small town with a few colonial buildings, but these were not our reason for coming. We came for the folk art. We thought we would have to seek the artesanía shops to find it. And while there were plenty of shops, and they were full of examples of the style this town is known for, these were not the only places. On the main streets, practically every building was decorated. Either with the basic style, or some evolution of it. Lamp posts, too, and rubbish bins. Mosaics on benches and walls. Even shapes and pictures drawn in the concrete. It was a great town, other than the fact that we couldn't find a proper dinner. Two places offered us the same meal the had listed as breakfast – beans, plantains, scrambled eggs, and corn tortillas!


Armadillo
Armadillo
Wall art in La Plama, El Salvador.


Folk Art Everywhere
Folk Art Everywhere
On the main streets, and on the lamp posts, barely a surface is left undecorated. La Palma, El Salvador.


Main Square, La Palma
Main Square, La Palma
Mosaics too, not just paintings.


The Basic Style
The Basic Style
There are variations, but these paintings show the basic style that this town is known for. Many people have learnt the style, and now, a good proportion of the population make a living from it.



In San Salvador, we got in to the civil war memories of the country. First, an enlightening museum for some martyred priests, including Cardinal Romero, who is now considered a Saint by many Salvadoreños. He was killed by a gunman while giving mass. He had frequently spoken out against the government, and paid with his life. Nearly ten years later, six priests and their housemaid and her daughter were found murdered in a building in the university complex. The museum was built on the site of that building (which had been set alight after the murder).

In one of the parks, there was a very moving memorial to the 30,000 or so Salvadoreños who had either been killed or gone missing during the ten year war and the repression leading up to it. And not far away, the “Museum of Words and Images” has some temporary and permanent displays. Generally, they deal with aspects of the war.


Civil War Photo
Civil War Photo
One of the many images that are displayed in museums and memorials. This is recent memory for Salvadoreños, and we need to keep in mind that most of the people we meet have lived through this horrific page of their history.



Needless to say, we found these sights to be emotionally draining. We were able to break it all up a bit by interspersing some more traditional visits. Some churches and plazas, and a fabulous museum of popular art.


Industrial Art Styled Church
Industrial Art Styled Church
The hangar-like interior of Iglesia El Rosario, San Salvador.


Concrete And Steel
Concrete And Steel
Wonderful representation of Christ with the cross.


Una Sorpresa
Una Sorpresa
Amazingly detailed tiny figures, hidden inside a ceramic egg.


More Sorpresas
More Sorpresas
More tiny figures, and the tiny "eggs" (which are obviously not eggs in this case) that enclose them.


The Cycle Of Life
The Cycle Of Life
Courtship, Marriage, Sex, Pregnancy, and Children. Represented in tiny miniatures and intricate detail.



In the northeast, in the mountains, especially around a town called Perquín, the revolutionary movement was strong. The underground rebel radio station broadcast from here, and there were many bloody confrontations.


Remains Of A Chopper
Remains Of A Chopper
A helicopter that was downed with a booby trap.


Naked Innocence
Naked Innocence
Another powerful civil war image.


Fence
Fence
A fence in Perquín, decorated with spent shells.



There were many massacres during the war years. One of the worst occurred near Perquín, at a village called El Mozote. Having received assurances from a local military leader that the town would be safe, many people came to it for refuge. On December 11 1981, the military came in. Over 3 days, the butchered and tortured them all. At least 767 people. A group of children were locked in the church and machine gunned through the windows. The youngest identified victim that we saw noted on a plaque was 2 days old. The government and the U.S. administration of the day denied that it happened, despite evidence being presented. Ten years later, exhumations and forensic analysis at the site identified just how bad the event really had been.


Massacre Memorial
Massacre Memorial
El Mozote, the site of a 1981 massacre of the entire town's population, and more from the surrounding areas. In 3 days, at least 767 people were tortured and killed, men, women, and children. The youngest we saw listed amonst the names was 2 days old./small>

Shattered
Shattered
A broken mirror in the garden memorial to children killed in the El Mozote massacre.


Hope
Hope
One of the images in the El Mozote children's memorial garden.



Needless to say, this was another emotionally draining day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What's Yours Is Mayan



15 to 18 May, 2009 – Copán and Gracias, Honduras

Copán. One of the principal Mayan sites, but especially known for its beautiful sculptures. Really, there's not a lot to say, I'll let the photos speak. Note the lack of crowds – the reward for early risers.


Conversing Over Morning Tea
Conversing Over Morning Tea
A pair of scarlet macaws stuff themselves on snacks left out by rangers at the Copán Ruins.


"I'm The King Of The Castle"
"I'm The King Of The Castle"
Jo imagines herself to be a Mayan ruler looking down at her imaginary loyal subjects. We were early in the Copán ruins site, and had most of it to ourselves for much of the time.


It's Nice To Have Your Own Mayan Temple
It's Nice To Have Your Own Mayan Temple
Doing some background reading atop a Mayan temple at Copán. Again, being early has benefits of uncrowded enjoyment.


Jo Eyeballs A Rain God
Jo Eyeballs A Rain God
A rather large altar to Chac, the Mayan god of rain. According to ancient Mayans, it rains when Chac sneezes. Euwwww!!!!


Copán's Great Plaza
Copán's Great Plaza
Beautiful views down from the highest structures over the Great Plaza and ball court of Copán.


The Old Man Of Copán
The Old Man Of Copán
One of the fantastic Mayan sculptures found at Copán.


Glyphs
Glyphs
Mayan glyphs from one of the statues, with a pyramid behind.


A Funky Mayan Ruler
A Funky Mayan Ruler
Some clay statues were found of various rulers. This one, I believe he may have been the first, seems to have been a bit of a card, really. I think the hat may have come out when he was drinking with the boys. And as for the Elton John glasses...



I would like to add that the term “whinging Pom” certainly springs to mind when you start talking to somebody and they spend 15 minutes telling you why this is not as good as others, why they don't like certain things about town, how some people shouldn't do certain things, etc, etc. When she finally stopped for a breath, I excused myself. Negative people can be such downers. Jo had somehow manage to slip away after about 30 seconds – It was a while before I even realised she had gone and left me as this pessimist's sole listener.

Our last stop for Honduras was in the beautifully named town of Gracias. At the bus station, we were a little distraught at having made such a large detour for what initially appeared to be a rather unappealing town. However, a few blocks away we started to find the charm. Quaint street scenes, a couple of colonial gems, and one of the best meals we have had in Central America. Lenca food. The woman who cooked it described her passion for good food, and how she had received the recipes from her grandmother. The movie “Like Water For Chocolate” sprang to mind!


Looking Out
Looking Out
A family on the walls of the fort above Gracias.


Our New Friend, Nancy
Our New Friend, Nancy
Nancy, an exuberant and amicable local girl, enjoys the view from a fort overlooking the Colonial town of Gracias.


Iglesia de Las Mercedes
Iglesia de Las Mercedes
Beautiful colonial church in Gracias.



The fort overlooking town was really a nice spot, but it was made great by the fact that it was Sunday and scores of locals were enjoying the place, too. Some fantastic people watching was to be had.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

We Saw A Manatee!



7 to 15 May, 2009 – La Ceiba, Bay Islands, Cuero Y Salado, Cayos Cochinos

La Ceiba is Honduras' third largest city, and it has very few tourist sights. However, it is a stone's throw from quite a few worthwhile things.

First time through, we headed out to Utila, one of the Bay Islands. Really, we had only one aim. We wanted to snorkel with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea, up to 17 or 18 metres, I believe (although I did read reports of occasional monsters of 20 metres). They are also extremely docile sharks, and very approachable, mainly eating plankton. So we fitted up with snorkelling gear, and headed out. Unfortunately, the wind really picked up, making it impossible for the spotters to see the tell-tale signs of a possible whale shark. Also, the wind turned the water surface in to a choppy mess, making snorkelling difficult, and possibly dangerous for the boat to pick us up if we did go in the water. So, it soon became apparent that we were going to have to call the trip off, which we did, heading to a reef for some standard snorkelling amongst the corals.


Life's Tough, Hey
Life's Tough, Hey
Our "private" jetty, Utila, Bay Islands.



Due to the absence of a scheduled public boat between Utila and Roatán, we had to take the ferry back to La Ceiba, and then out to the second of the Bay Islands. Fantastic snorkelling! We bought a disposable underwater camera – you know the old fashioned type with a film which we have to go and get developed at some point. Can't wait!


Woodpecker
Woodpecker
Outside our room.


Caribbean Island Beach
Caribbean Island Beach
West Bay, on the island Roatán, Bay Islands.


Rusting Wreck
Rusting Wreck
One of a couple of wrecks in the main harbour of Roatán.



After a few days, we decided it was time for a break from beaches. So, back to La Ceiba (are you counting?, that's 3) and out to a nearby wildlife reserve. Getting in and out was part of the fun. After taking a bus, we had to board the "trencito". This is a little train (well, a pair, as we had to change after a few kilometres due to track maintenance work) that winds through banana and coconut plantations. It has been running for 90 odd years (the service – the little trains themselves were a fraction newer), and the wonks and warps in the tracks did not seem to bother anyone. Every now and then we would hit a serious kink which would send the carriages into a wobble for a few dozen metres.


Trencito
Trencito
The little train that accesses the wildlife reserve, working its way through banana and coconut plantations. The track has been in use for 90 odd years, and still operates largely for its original purpose of transporting produce.



At the end of the line is a small village, and the entrance to the park. We camped, and we went out into the reserve on canoes.


Cousins
Cousins
Two boys from the Garífuna village near the park.



We saw many birds. We saw lizards. And we saw what we dreamt of seeing, but could never have counted on. A manatee. One of the more elusive creatures that we have gone looking for a number of occasions. It was quite a way off, at first, just munching away on some plants growing on the surface. We were able to watch it for about a minute, floating quietly closer and closer. But suddenly, it saw (or heard) us, and with an almighty splash, it was gone.


It's A Manatee!
It's A Manatee!
Really, it is! The photo is not great, but it reminds us. We actually saw it quite well, munching away at the surface vegetation. When it saw us, it left with a big splash. Oh, btw, a manatee is sort-of a sea-cow, well sort-of. A mammal, weighing up to 600kg, looking like a very rotund seal.


Boat-Billed Heron
Boat-Billed Heron
A gorgeous heron watches us warily as we glide by in a canoe.


Heading Across The Mirror Trail
Heading Across The Mirror Trail
We canoed up a section of river known as the mirror trail. With good reason.


Basilisk
Basilisk
A different sort to the ones we saw in Costa Rica (brown instead of green). However, still with that distinctive head.



We spent one night in the park, making two trips out on to the water. And then we returned to La Ceiba for the fourth time, en-route to a small group of pristine islands called Cayos Cochinos.

This coming weekend is a big one on the La Ceiba calendar, with one of the biggest festivals in Central America due on Saturday. This whole week is a build up, with mini carnivals in various barrios of the city. So, we headed out to one. It was so cute, like a giant street party. Our only complaint was that there was not a lot of eating variety. Lots of people selling the same things, over and over again.

We decided to make our snorkellng trip on Cayos Cochinos just a day trip. And it was a magnificent day, well worth the early start and longish travel time. The snorkelling was first rate, and we met some great people, and the islands were very picturesque. The boat trips out and back were adventures in their own right, though. Out, we headed in to the wind. We slapped the oncoming waves hard and fast, jarring our bodies a number of times. Coming back, was “smoother”, although the boat struggled in some of the bigger swells, sometimes almost being swamped. And we got soooo wet on that return trip!


Such Great Snorkelling
Such Great Snorkelling
An idyllic scene at Cayos Cochinos, off the Caribbean coast of Honduras.



And finally, through La Ceiba once more. That's five times, but who's counting!

Friday, May 8, 2009

In To Honduras



5 to 7 May, 2009 – Danlí and Tegucigalpa

Not far from the border with Nicaragua is Honduras' premier cigar area. Growing high quality tobacco, Cuban emigrants in the 50's and 60's put this corner of the world on the map with fine hand-rolled cigars. We visited two of the factories. One known for its size, employing 2000 or more workers, an operation on a large scale exporting tobacco in many forms and qualities. The other, a much smaller operation, producing cigars only, in 19 different sizes.


Sorting Dried Tobacco Leaves
Sorting Dried Tobacco Leaves
Honduran cigars are world renowned as being amongst the finest available. The Plasencia Tobacco factory is reputed to be the largest factory. Over 2000 people are employed here. The workers here are sorting and grading dried leaves. Some are destined to be exported as-is (i.e. as dried leaves), while the rest are sent to other areas to be hand rolled in to cigars. The dried leaves are amazingly durable, and far less brittle than we imagined. They are very fine, and have a texture not dissimilar to silk. This workplace must take a toll on worker's health, as we found the environment to be quite overwhelming – you can feel the odour in your chest, like fumes. We both had trouble stifling coughs and sneezes.


Cigars Aging
Cigars Aging
Cigars go in to storage (environmentally controlled, of course) for quite a few years, depending on the style. Four years was a figure quoted, but many racks we passed were dated 6 or 7 years ago. This was the Puros Aliados factory, rolling some of the finest (and strongest) cigars in the world.


Boxed Cigars
Boxed Cigars
Packaged and ready for export.



Tegucigalpa is the capital of Honduras. How many of you knew that 5 seconds ago? (Don't worry, we have only just managed to memorise it!) We stayed downtown, close to the heart. With not too many real sights, a day was sufficient, but a couple of surprises made it a worthwhile stop. A couple of the squares were pleasant, with some nice churches. The National Gallery of Art was a highlight.

Most memorable sight, though, goes to the restaurant toilet that has been turned in to a shrine for the patron saint of Central America. In the 1980's, the small wooden statue of La Virgen de Suyapa was stolen. Less than 24 hours later, it was found on the floor of the men's room at this restaurant. The plumbing has been removed, the cubicle is decorated with pictures of the statue, and the walls are covered in newspaper articles covering the theft and recovery. Oh, and they do a pretty good fillet mignon!


Plaza Morazán
Plaza Morazán
The parque central (aka Plaza Morazán) of Tegucigalpa, with a statue of Morazán in the middle and the cathedral behind. Clouds add a touch of drama to the picture.


Stirring Remains
Stirring Remains
The charcoal remnants of an old statue of Christ, after an altar caught fire from a falling candle. We found this to be a particularly evocative image, now housed in the National Gallery of Art, Tegucigalpa.