Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Traveler's Day

A great day for a traveler is waking up early in the morning with an agenda that includes a border crossing, 4 or 5 buses rides including a tricky and possibly dangerous transfer by local bus in a third world capital city, and lastly arriving in a tourist town just before the Christmas holiday and trying to snag a "good value" hotel room for 5 nights.

Reality: Out the door at 7AM and it's two easy bus rides from Ataco to the border. No hassle leaving El Salvador or entering Guatemala. A direct bus to Guatemala City is waiting just meters inside the border. Four hours later we are in Guate and with the help of bus drivers and friendly locals we ride one of the local "red" buses from near the Zone 4 terminal to the El Trebol intersection and immediately hop on a 2nd class bus to Antigua, arriving at 2PM. And by 4PM we are established in a pretty good room at Posada Don Diego, just across from Iglesia La Merced.

Details for travelers:
- Ataco to Ahuachapán - $0.40 - Bus #249
- Ahuachapán to Las Chinamas Frontera - $0.50 - arriving Ahuachapán ride bus #249 past the crossroads to the Parque where buses to the Frontera start. Ask a local to point out which side of the Parque for the Frontera.
- Guatemala Frontera at Valle Neuvo to Guatemala City - 40 Quetzales - 2nd class buses start/park right at the border. We tried to get on a 1st class bus that we coming through from San Salvador but the driver told us that taking on passengers was "not supported".
- Zone 4 Terminal in Guatemala City to Western Buses - 1 Quetzal - Take a local red bus signed "El Trebol". When we got on the GC bus at the frontera, we told the driver and conductor that we were headed to Antigua, so when the bus dropped us off on the sidewalk at or near the Zone 4 Terminal, the conductor pointed at a red local bus signed "El Trebol" which was just meters away. Once on the red local bus we told that conductor that we were headed to Antigua and also told some well-dressed lady passengers so when we got to the El Trebol Intersection stop, we had at least 3 people telling us to get off.
- Guatemala City to Antigua - 9 Quetzales - when you get off the bus at El Trebol - the bus literally stops in the intersection - ask the conductor or locals where to catch the bus for Antigua. If you're lucky, one will be coming by on the bus's right-hand side.

The bus from the Frontera to Guatemala City.
Antigua, Guatemala

The view from our room at Posada Don Diego.
Posada Don Diego - Antigua, Guatemala

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ruta de las Flores - El Salvador

If a sight is not mentioned in an older guidebook, then it's probably not worth seeing, right? So when we set off from Santa Ana for the only recently touted Ruta de las Flores (Route of the Flowers) we were not sure what to expect. The Ruta is described as a stretch of road, 36 kms long, linking quaint villages with scenic views of volcanoes, coffee fields, and flowers.

Since we are traveling by bus (not car), we parked ourselves in Ataco, and day-tripped one day to Apaneca, and another to Juayua (why-you-a).

Turned out to be a great choice to make Ataco our home, as it has many of the things we like in a town: a family-run hotel in a old building, a local market, a pleasant town square, drinkable tap water, street food, good transportation, nearby day hikes, a mirador, great weather, reasonable car traffic, and locals enjoying themselves. It does not have a river (or lake), sights, or lots of great architecture, but it does have murals.

In cool (~4500 ft elev) Apaneca, we hiked up to Laguna Verde, returned, and enjoyed a great lunch at the market.

Juayua was hot, and busy, and since we didn't hit it on the weekend food fair, a bit dull.

Ataco as seen from the mirador.
Ataco, El Salvador

The church in Ataco. [Bonus points for spotting a person in this photo.]
Ataco, El Salvador

Our favorite "bread lady" in Ataco. She carries that bread basket on her head all over town.
Bread Lady - Ataco, El Salvador

Papas with ketchup, hot sauce, and grated cheese from our fav papas vendor.
Papas - Ataco, El Salvador

A part of one of the many murals in Ataco.
Ataco, El Salvador

Sun-Ling and I having some Trompe L'oeil fun with a mural in Ataco.
Ataco, El Salvador

A mural in Apaneca.
Apaneca, El Salvador

Coffee fields "grid" the slopes around Apaneca.
Apaneca, El Salvador

Laguna Verde - Apaneca.
Laguna Verde - Apaneca, El Salvador

Vegetarian Lunch - Apaneca, El Savador
Lunch - Apaneca, El Salvador

Parque Central - Juayua.
Juayua, El Salvador

The church in Juayua is known for its Christo Negro image over the altar.
Juayua, El Salvador

And finally, our hotel room at Hotel Villa Santo Domingo in Ataco.
Antigua, Guatemala

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Santa Ana - Part 2 - Day trip to Cerro Verde National Park


Summary: A daytrip to Cerro Verde National Park with a guided hike up to the caldera of Volcano Santa Ana is worth the $11 (fees + transport) each. Great views, easy transport, an invigorating hike up to the summit of Santa Ana, and cool breezes. Here's the payoff photo.

Volcan Santa Ana - Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador

Our destination on our second full day in Santa Ana, was the summit of Santa Ana Volcano in Cerro Verde National Park. Bus #248, 90 cents each, leaves at 7:40 AM on Mondays and delivered us to the Park entrance at 9:30 AM. The last hour of the ride is up, up, up with pretty good views of Lago Coatepeque from the right-hand side of the bus.

On arriving in the park, we paid a $1 entry fee each, then walked around the picnic area, miradors, and flower gardens that surround the parking lot until the guided tour started at 11:00. Great views of Volcan Izalco from the mirador.

At the start of the tour we were told that we would each pay an additional $8 during the walk: $1 for the guided tour which includes a police escort, $1 to the owner of private land we would cross, and another $6 entrance fee to the section of the National Park that includes the Santa Ana volcano. And that's how it worked out, and we got a receipt each time we shelled out $$.

After an initial 20 minutes of downhill, we briefly walked across the private land paying the $1, and entered the other section of the park paying $6. Here we were joined by locals who had parked at the cabins of Casa Crystal and had walked a few hundred meters to the park avoiding the other park entrance fee and the strip of private land.

From here it was 90 minutes of up, up, up at a steady pace with awesome views at every step until we reached the top of the caldera and were rewarded with great views of the greenish lake inside the caldera.

After posing for photos and snacking we headed down under cloudy skies and a cool breeze. Back at the 2nd entrance (the $6 fee one), we left the others, with the permission of the police escort, and avoided a 30 or 40 minute uphill slog to the parking lot by taking a right and shortcutting over to the main road via the entrance/exit road to the cabins of Casa Crystal.

Then we headed downhill on the main road, with more great views among the coffee, pines, and cypress, until miraculously catching up to the 3PM return bus #248. I'm guessing the driver was taking a siesta. And we arrived back at Hostal Cerro Verde just after 4PM.

Volcano Izalco from the parking lot mirador.
Volcan Izalco - Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador

Sun-Ling making her way up Volcano Santa Ana with Izalco in the background.
Volcan Izalco - Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador

Sun-Ling making her way up Volcano Santa Ana with a corner of Lake Coatepeque visible in the background.
Volcan Santa Ana - Cerro Verde National Park, El Salvador


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Santa Ana - Part 1

Yes, you can travel by bus from Suchitoto to Santa Ana without having to go through San Salvador. We did it. See details below. Traveling by local bus, we are convinced that Central American bus conductors are among the hardest working people we've ever seen.

Santa Ana. El Salvador's second largest city, is the kind of place that a traveler might stay for awhile. We stayed three nights - long for us - haha. And one of the reasons was that Hostal Casa Verde lived up to its reputation as the best hotel/hostel for travelers in Central America.

The Parque Central of Santa Ana, surrounded by interesting architecture, was happening in the evenings with live Christmas concerts and food stalls. We grazed on tasty street food every evening: roasted ears of corn with salt and lime juice; papas with ketchup, mayo, hot sauce, and grated cheese; vegan tacos; and ice cream. There are many cafes and pastry shops. We patronized Ban Ban so many times that the staff got to know us.

We used Santa Ana as a base for two day-trips. The first was to Chalchuapa, 30 minutes to the west via bus #218. Chalchuapa is very tranqillo. We gazed at the Mayan ruins at the edge of town, then trekked to centro to the parques, mercado, and church.

Tip for travelers: It is possible to get from Suchitoto to Santa Ana without going through San Salvador, we just did it. The route, all done with public buses, is Suchitoto to Aguilares to San Pable Tacachico to Santa Ana.

From Suchitoto take bus #163 to Aguilares. Ride it to the end. The bus (not sure of the number - our bus had 3 numbers painted on it) to Tacachico starts 2 blocks from where 163 drops you off (ask the 163 driver to point out the Tacachico bus for you). Ride this bus to the end also. In Tacachico you change buses, but it's easy as the #232 bus to Santa Ana starts from the same intersection where the from Tacachico ends it's route. We killed the 45 minuted between buses by walking down to the square and buying ice creams.

Alternatively, you can take bus 163 to Aguilares, then go south to Apopa where bus 276 will take you directo to Santa Ana - our friend did this.

The Aguilares to Tacachico bus.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

Sun-Ling in full travel gear buying ice creams in San Pablo Tacachico, El Salvador.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

View to the Santa Ana Cathedral.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

Christmas concert in the parque.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

This corn vendor got a lot of business from us.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

This former bank is now a museum. Very cool stylings.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

One of the architecturally interesting buildings on the parque.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

Sunrise view from the Hostal Casa Verde rooftop terrace. That's a minaret at left.
Santa Ana, El Salvador

Igelsia Santiago in Chalhuapa with bicylists.
Chalchuapa, El Salvador

A view of the Tazumal ruins in Chalchuapa from the cemetery.
Chalchuapa, El Salvador

An interesting building in Chalchuapa.
Santa Ana, El Salvador


Monday, December 17, 2012

Suchitoto

Suchitoto is another one of those "much touted", "must see" colonial towns. After being underwhelmed by similarly touted towns in Honduras, we arrived expecting over-priced hotel rooms and hotter than hell weather.

Well, we stayed two nights and enjoyed our stay. The dueña of the Hotel Alta Vista was knowledgeable and pleasant. Following her advice we checked in at the nearby police station before walking to the Los Tercios Waterfall and received a free escorted tour of the waterfall with the tourist police.

And see more reasons why we liked Suchitoto in the photos below.

Los Tercios Waterfall with Tom from California for a frame of reference. The waterfall, with its hexagonal volcanic columns is pretty cool even when dry.
Suchitoto - El Salvador

From near the waterfall, we had this view of Lake Suchitlan.
Suchitoto - El Salvador

Both nights in Suchitoto we ate pupusa's on the town square, washed down the first night with beer, the second with hot chocolate.
Suchitoto - El Salvador

Suchitoto - El Salvador

And those ever present papas vendors on the square were hard to ignore.
Suchitoto - El Salvador

Suchitoto's Neo-Classical Iglesia.
Suchitoto - El Salvador

And as seen from the roof top terrace of our hotel.
Suchitoto - El Salvador

A bamboo Christmas tree spotted in town.
Suchitoto - El Salvador

And all of the Suchitoto photos are here.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Out of La Palma

Our destination, Suchitoto, is another over-hyped place, with overpriced hotel rooms and broiling weather. I loved the cool weather of La Palma, but there was no good hotel room to be had. Begrudgingly we packed our stuff as the conference was getting underway a second day. Having scoped out the bus situation, instead of trudging the few hundred meters to the main bus stop, we simply parked ourselves across the street in the shade and proceeded to patiently wait for the bus. Five minutes later, a kind man passed by, seeing us with our backpacks, alerted us that there will be no bus today. There is "el paro" (strike - a bus driver's strike) going on.

After confirming the situation at our favorite Mexican restaurant, John and I immediately switched into emergency mode. I did not want to go back to the hotel, so we had to go on. We put on our packs and marched down to the main stop. There was a micro-van going to south to Amayo which John immediately recognized as a town along the way. The driver even agreed to $2.50 instead of $3 for the fare, in such a crisis situation?! After a easy 45-minute ride, we arrived at the crossroad in Amayo. There were very many people waiting for alternative transportation, surprisingly orderly looking. We asked around for the various routes to Suchitoto. The consensus was to proceed south to Aguilares by waiting at the NE corner of the crossroad.

Less than five minutes later, two pickups drove up and people crowded onto them. The nice man John happened to ask about going to Aguilares came to tell us the second one was going to Aguilares. The fare was $1. We concluded these pickups were temporary relief for the strike, not at all trying gouge people. The nice man turned into our temporary conductor for the ride. He could barely whistle, which is how they communicate with the driver. haha!

When I got up this morning, I had no idea that I was going score another mode of transportation. Just five years ago, I would not have thought that could do it. Now that I have traveled and seen enough, I was mentally prepared for the ride.  Yet I was not physically prepared. Standing up in the back of a pickup was no problem what so ever, but the wind was like nothing I had experience before, considering I never like to have the car window open even a crack unless I am about to have a heat stroke.

I had been in speed boats in compulsory situations. The pickup was going much faster. I imaged parachuting minus the gravity challenge, or riding in a convertible without a windshield....Mercifully we arrived in Aguilares in twenty minutes. The regular bus to Suchitoto was running there, talk about the detour?! Turns our that only 5% of the drivers were out on strike.

When we finally settled into our hotel room in Suchitoto my cheeks were still vibrating from the pickup ride.

Suchitoto - El Salvador

Friday, December 14, 2012

On to La Palma

Another day, another border crossing - our 5th country in two weeks. More aggravation or no?

We were lucky to find a direct bus from Santa Rosa de Copan to the El Salvador border at El Poy. It's a through bus to San Salvador operated by Copaneco, but it stops at the Sultana office in Santa Rosa (adjacent to the main terminal) at 9:15 AM. The beauty of the direct bus is not having to change transport in Neuva Ocotopeque. In fact we could have taken this bus all the way to La Palma, El Salvador, but the fare for the 12 kms from the border to La Palma was almost as much as the fare for the 92 kms from Santa Rosa to the border. So the plan was to catch a local bus after crossing the border.

The ride to the border was very scenic and cooler with each passing kilometer as we headed mostly uphill. Much to our relief, this border crossing was uneventful. We got off the bus, changed our remaining Honduran Lempire to US dollars, the official currency of El Salvador, exited Honduras and entered El Salvador with no money requested or required. Sun-Ling's passport was examined thoroughly - it's really thick with lots of visas and stamps. ;-) We were surprised that El Salvador does not give you an entry stamp, they simply enter your info into the computer.

A short bus ride and we are in La Palma and take a poor room at a decent hotel - The Hotel La Palma. It's almost fully booked for a conference and we get the last room. But the wi-fi signal is strong, the air is cool (almost cold), and we sit alone on the peaceful veranda for one evening - the group will arrive tomorrow.

La Palma is known for a certain artistic style, that of Fernando Llort and there are many artisan shops around town; and almost every wall, including our hotel room, sports a mural. But the town has seen better days in our opinion. The murals are slightly faded and the truck and bus traffic on the main road from the capital San Salvador to Honduras lurches, rumbles, and growls through the center center on parallel one-way streets.

La Palma is less than 20 kms from the highest peak in El Salvador - El Pital at 8200 ft. So we catch the 8:30 AM bus to St Ignatio, the 9:30 AM to Rio Chiquito (which goes up, up, up) and at 10:30 we begin the 3km walk up to El Pital with our new friend James from London who we met on the bus.

We get some great views on the way up, but it's obvious that we are walking into the clouds,and sure enough there is no view from the top, just mist, a radio tower, and a summit marker (which also marks the border with Honduras). Even with no view, we very much enjoyed chatting with our new friend James, walking in the tropical cloud forest to Piedra Rajada, a huge cloven rock, and photographing beautiful vistas from below the clouds.

Back in La Palma it's a pupusa dinner (traditional Salvador dish) , a quick look at futbol matches on the town square, and then bed as tomorrow is another travel day - no border crossings so should be a tranquil 3-hour bus ride to Suchitoto.

The view from the bus as we head towards the Honduras-El Salvador Border. The pine is the national tree of Honduras.
The Road to El Poy, Honduras/El Salvador

At the highest point in El Salvador - El Pital.
El Pital - 8200 ft - The highest point in El Salvador

Sun-Ling descending in the tropical cloud forest.
La Palma, El Salvador

Near the summit of El Pital.
La Palma, El Salvador

Below the clouds on El Pital.
La Palma, El Salvador

John Chillin' on the veranda.
La Palma, El Salvador

A mural in La Palma.
La Palma, El Salvador

Another Mural.
La Palma, El Salvador

A semi rumbles through La Palma.
La Palma, El Salvador





Thursday, December 13, 2012

Santa Rosa de Copan & Gracias

From Copan Ruinas, we got on the 8:00 AM direct three-hour bus ride to the west to Santa Rose de Copan, Honduras, a stop-over on our way to El Salvador and then Antigua, Guatemala. [Note to travelers: That 8:00 AM bus goes through La Entrada but you don't have to change buses.]

Santa Rosa is a colonial town off the main tourist trail with old churches, cafes and restaurants frequented by locals (rather than tourists), a few cobblestone streets (and many unpaved ones), colorful buildings of many architectural styles, and a shady town square. We had heard good personal reports for SRdC, but in the end we were not much charmed. However, we saw buildings being spruced up, roads being paved, electrical grid work, and much efforts going into improving El Cerrito park and viewpoint - we enjoyed our sunset walk up the 150 steps.

During trip research, we had agonized over how to see the nearby town of Gracias, the oldest colonial town in Honduras. After much study, we began to suspect that Gracias was overly hyped. Just to prove our suspicions, we made a day trip and were not impressed. Gracias is heavily touted by most guide books, but it's hard to see why. Let's just say it was hot and dusty, the Castillo was uninteresting, and not much seems to have happened since 1536. Not all was lost as the bus ride was quite scenic.

Santa Rosa from El Cerrito viewpoint.
Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras

Atole de Piña, a favorite Honduran dessert that we checked out at Hemady's Tipico along with a nice meal.
Gracias, Honduras

On the road to Gracias.
The road to Gracias, Honduras

Not only was the Gracias bus ride scenic, but it's not every day that you get a fillup from an attendant sporting a pistol.
Gracias, Honduras

The Castillo in Gracias.
Gracias, Honduras

And some shots showing the architecture of Santa Rosa.

Cathedral(Catedral).
Santa Rosa de Copan. Honduras

Central Market (Mercado Central).
Santa Rosa de Copan. Honduras

Army HQ (Battilion).
The Battilion  - Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras

The former Cine Rex.
Santa Rosa de Copan. Honduras

And all the shots from Santa Rosa de Copan and Gracias are here.





Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...