Central America is a dangerous place and El Salvador is a very dangerous place. That is about all I knew before I came. It can not be dismissed out of hand that El Salvador is a country with an extremely high crime rate, where violence is rampant. In El Salvador a person gets killed every hour. Why the hell would anyone go there? If you dare to go though you will meet some incredibly friendly people, who are very happy you came. You will find that every bus ride is a great adventure, as the infrastructure for tourism is scarce. You will find volcanoes, and charming little mountain towns, wonderful beaches and some of the best sunsets you will ever see. Also you will see a lot of trash and environmental problems. It is one of those countries that has not cleaned up yet to appeal to tourists. There is far bigger problems in El Salvador than fixing the paint on some old houses. But that is exactly what made it so appealing to me. It has not been repainted yet.
My first stop is El Tunco, which is still firmly on the Gringo Trail and a favourite spot for surfers. Here backpackers meet with El Salvadorian surf teachers and rich kids from the city. Families come during the day and they order big seafood plates and buckets full of beers. It’s a sunny and happy place. The Surf is wild and the Sunsets are round balls of fire. When night falls the VIP areas of the clubs fill up with San Salvadorians that order expensive bottles of vodka and the streets fill with backpackers drinking cheap bear from the store. Life is sweet here in El Tunco. A few people had their stuff stolen on the beach, but other than that I heard of no crimes. People must be getting killed elsewhere.
I move on to Santa Ana, El Salvadors second largest city. It is Sunday when I arrive and I wander around the town with its colonial buildings and cute traditional houses. Everything is closed, but I can hear that people are inside the Cantinas drinking. Every once in a while I come across a really drunk person stumbling home. One guy lies rolling on the ground and his sturdy El Salvadorian wife drags him to his feet, yelling insults. In the evening everybody is out on the main square. On one side some guy sings sappy songs. He is drawing a big crowd and some couples are dancing. At the other side they sell Hamburguesas and Sandwiches.
The next day I meet a guy on the square, who lived in the US for 15 years and has recently been deported. I didn’t understand the bureaucracy of his situation, but he has a wife and two kids in Arkansas. Now he lives in a shady part of Santa Ana with some people he met in the detention centre. We talk for a long time and despite being born and raised in this country he clearly does not belong here any more. He is scared of this dangerous country and he misses the amenities of living in the US. A car, air condition and hush puppies. He thought he would only have to stay here for a short time, but his lawyer in the US tells him that it will take month or even years to appeal his case. Meanwhile his wife has to support the family on her own and pay the lawyer. I realize how privileged my tourist view on this country is. It is easy to breeze through, stay in a nice secure hostel and think it is all fine, whilst everyday life is determined by poverty and gang violence. As a tourist we can escape these things. Just don’t walk around in the slums. But what if that is where your house is? I decide my new friend, whose name is Roberto, needs to get his mind off things, so I ask him if he wants to be a tourist for a day. I was on my way to the town of Itzalco when we met and he tells me that there is a nice swimming pool close by. They used to go there when they were kids. So we hop on a local bus, which Roberto thinks is a very dangerous thing to do. I assure him that we will be fine. The bus is a discarded American school bus. The drivers cabin is elaborately decorated in a FC Barcelona colour scheme. At the centre there is a gigantic stitched emblem saying 100% FCB. Plastic bats are hanging from the ceiling and there is a big Bart Simpson doll next to a sticker saying “Jesus loves you”. We are squeezed in three to a row and the radio is blasting 80s pop songs. Phil Collins “One more night”. Next to me sits a mother with her little daughter and a big box full of chicks. They frequently try to escape, curious about the outside world.
Itzalco is a lovely little town which offers amazing views of the Volcano of the same name. The pool is great. Fresh water streams trough it right from the Volcano. The locals stare at me curiously as if they had never seen a gringa before. On the way back some guy behind us is complaining loudly about us speaking English. Roberto explains that a lot of people hate Americans because of the role they played during the Civil War. So guess what, the US supported a right-wing military government despite outrageous human rights violations. The death squads of the military regime frequently massacred unarmed civilians, whilst billions of American aid money were flowing into the country. This money supported no one but the ruling elite and the military. Now the civil war is over gang violence has taken over the country. The gangs though mostly formed in the US, where war refugees organized in gangs to defend their neighbourhood. After the civil war El Salvadorians, who committed a crime in the US were send back to their home country. A country that was still struggling with the aftermath of the civil war. Thus there was no infrastructure to deal with gang violence and no prospects for young men. No wonder this guy gets mad when he hears people speaking English.
The next day I go and climb Volcano Santa Ana. I take a bus up to Cerro Verde National Park where you have to join a guided group. Accompanied by tourist police with shotguns we climb the Volcano, which is strenuous, but well worth it. It offers wonderful views of Itzalco Volcano and the surrounding Landscape, including Lago Cotapeque. The ample crater of Volcano Santa Ana features a sulphurous pool with milky turquoises water. Smoke rises out of the crevices on the side of the crater and the water is bubbly hot. It is stunning. On the way back with the bus we pass by coffee fields. An old lady gets on with a sack full of coffee beans. She says she makes about 10$ in 9 hours of hard work. That day she did not do well. It is not quite season for coffee yet so its hard to find the desired red beans. I think about 10$ a day and how the bus ride we are on already costs 1$. The old lady is all smiles though. When I tell her I am from Germany she says “muj lechos”, very far. It is indeed.