Travelling is a funny thing. Generally, it is the “big” experiences that we expect to stick with us. When in El Salvador, these “big” experiences might be climbing a volcano or surfing a world-class point break. These are the things that should, and usually do, hold a special place in our memories. But occasionally, it is a fleeting and seemingly insignificant moment or interaction that can shape our perception of the places we travel.
El Salvador is a small and often forgotten country in Central America, and holds a dangerous reputation in the minds of many backpackers. The purpose of this post is to give an insight into the everyday magic of El Salvador through several of my own experiences whilst backpacking this special country.
For a laid-back city in the mountains of El Salvador, Santa Ana boasts a surprisingly impressive cathedral that towers over the bustling central square. Most travellers visit Santa Ana due to its proximity to the Cerro Verde National Park, and the opportunity to climb its resident volcano. After arriving from the coastal town of El Tunco, I ventured out to explore the city centre. The lights of the cathedral shined brightly against the night sky, as the humidity in the air threatened a wet-season downpour. As the sound of thunder rumbled in the distance, the sensation of hunger rumbled in my stomach.
A Small Gesture in Santa Ana
I was standing at one of the many street food stalls adjacent to the central square. I was the only tourist in sight – just how I like it. A young bloke was sitting on one of the few plastic stools, waiting quietly while his tortas (a toasted, baguette-style sandwich) were cooked by the always-smiling lady behind the grill. The grill was stacked full with tortas – it looked like the young guy was picking up an order for his whole family.
After I had ordered one-with-everything-extra-chili, an older bloke with a weathered face and ragged blue shirt ambled up and ordered the same thing as myself. Whilst we were all waiting for our food, myself and the older guy bonded over our shared love of extra chili. The majority of our conversation was him talking and laughing, with me smiling and nodding, trying to grasp on to the odd word of his rapid-fire Spanish. The young bloke collected his mammoth order and paid his bill, before saying goodnight and quickly disappearing down the busy street. When it came to my turn to pay, the lady told me it was not necessary. Confused, I asked her why. More rapid Spanish came my way. After some slow translation on my part, I realised that the young bloke had picked up my bill! It was a small gesture that cost him about two dollars, but it shows how the people of El Salvador are so grateful to have tourism in their country. A sense of gratitude hit me like a runaway chicken bus!
A Bigger Gesture
Several days later, getting out of San Salvador (the surprisingly Westernised capital of El Salvador) was proving harder than I expected. Standing on the edge of the stacked, three-lane highway and trying to wave down the #201 bus to Santa Ana was not going in my favour. The second #201 had just gone past me without so much as touching his brakes, and I could feel my frustration levels rising. The morning sun was quickly reaching the stage of being uncomfortably hot, and the sweat patches beneath my backpack were expanding. As I squinted my eyes against the traffic pollution and dust, I heard a whistle from behind me. Three police officers stood about 100 meters up the road, decked out with assault rifles. “Here we go…” was my first thought. We’ve all heard plenty of stories about corruption and bribery in this part of the world. As I approached, the officer in charge barked “Donde vas?” in a commanding tone. I replied warily, “Voy a Santa Ana, por que?”
To my relief, he broke into a wide smile. “OK, we will help you!” The next #201 approached us at speed on the inside lane. All three officers sauntered onto the highway, rifles still hanging by their side. With a nonchalant wave of the arms, all three lanes of peak hour traffic were forced to a standstill. The officer in charge beckoned me across. I made my way sheepishly across the tarmac, thanking the policemen on my way. Not many people get an armed escort onto a chicken bus! With a little help from my law enforcement friends, I was finally on route back to Santa Ana.
Santa Ana, A Destination Not to Miss
Whilst there are plenty of “big” experiences to be had in El Salvador, this is a country that offers up special moments like these on a daily basis. It boasts many of the same travel drawcards as it’s more popular neighbours – towering volcanoes, lush national parks, chill surf towns, and bustling cities showcasing colourful markets amidst colonial architecture. The difference is, in El Salvador you can enjoy these wonders without the crowds! The message is simple, and reflected in the country’s national tourism slogan – “Don’t skip El Salvador!”
Written by: Jackson Rogers
An advocate of both adventurous and sustainable travel, Jackson is passionate about sharing experiences and inspiring others to follow their travel dreams. You can see more of his adventures on Instagram
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