Cathedral in the centre of Suchitoto
my trip to the cultural colonial city Suchitoto, an odyssey through San Salvador and a conclusion about El Salvador
To get to Suchitoto in the northwest of San Salvador, I decided to take the cheapest public bus again. First I had to take the bus #129 to Suchitoto from the centre of San Salvador.
a perplexed Salvadoran woman
At the bus stop I made sure again with a Salvadoran woman that I was standing at the right bus stop. She said yes and was surprised to see what I was doing here.
"Why are you here? Do you have family here?" the woman asked me
"No" - I said
"Well, then you have friends here" - the woman replied
Again I negated.
Then why the hell are you here?
To see the country. And at that very moment another pickup truck with heavily armed soldiers drove past us. In 2016, more people died violently in El Salvador than during the civil war that ravaged the country for 12 years between 1980 and 1992, killing 70,000 people. In 2016, the murder rate in the country was 130 (!) times higher than in Germany.
The Maras - The plague of the country
When others asked me why I was going to El Salvador, I sometimes answered for fun: "to join the Mara". While outsiders may still be able to smile about it, most Salvadorans or even Hondurans have a bad feeling about the word "Mara". The Mara have spread out there like a plague and have already mutated into a kind of "state within the state". They control entire districts, into which the police or the military only dare to enter in special task forces.
The maras are youth gangs and are divided into the MS-13 and MS-18, the numbers "13" and "18" refer to the place of foundation, street numbers in the USA. There they were founded by Salvadorian immigrants who fled their country to the USA during the civil war. When the USA deported them back to their homeland for their crimes, they found an ideal breeding ground in their destroyed country to continue their criminal business.
They follow the motto: "We can commit any crime at any time". The gangs act accordingly brutally. It is enough to set a wrong foot in one of their territories and you are shot down as an alleged intruder. Or it can happen to you like the French documentary filmmaker who made a film about the gangs. Shortly after the film was finished, he was shot down in the street by gang members because he didn't portray the gangs the way they wanted.
Suchitoto - the cultural capital of El Salvador
One of the cities most destroyed by the civil war was Suchitoto, whose population declined from 34,000 in 1971 to 13,850 in 1992. Despite everything, the city has been well preserved and the many buildings and cobblestone streets still date from the times of Spanish colonial rule. Tourists also appreciate the many small cafés here.
My bus first took me to the shabby centre of San Salvador. I reached Suchitoto almost 2 hours later. Tourist guides call the city the cultural capital of the country, because there are many small galleries here.
From here you can also visit the Los Tercios waterfalls. In the city I met a New Zealander in the tourist centre who had just completed this tour. He could not see a waterfall, because there was no water at all at the waterfalls (this is normal at the beginning of the rainy season).
In Suchitoto the sun burned again and the temperatures easily reached over 30° C. I quenched my great thirst at the main square of the city with a juice of freshly squeezed fruits, which you can often get for a small price in Central America. I enjoyed the beautiful view of the shining white cathedral and the fountain rippling in front of it. The blue sky also fitted perfectly into the scenery.
a breeze of sea air
I walked to Lake Suchitlan later. Only then did I learn that there is also a bus there. I breathed a little fresh sea air and returned to the centre. One has the possibility to make a boat tour in the lake, but alone I did not feel like it.
odyssey through San Salvador due to communication difficulties
After a short coffee drink I drove back to San Salvador. Once again I had another misunderstanding due to my lack of Spanish skills. The bus had already arrived at the place where I had got in. But I didn't know if this was the final stop. I had hoped that the bus would go a bit further to be closer to my hostel.
The bus guide told me that the bus would go even further in my desired direction (at least I understood that). The detour that the bus took became bigger and bigger and at some point I began to realize that the bus was heading for Suchitoto again. Other passengers confirmed this to me. Oh, crap! I liked Suchitoto, but I didn't want to go there again straight away haha
The other passengers helped me promptly to find the right bus back to the centre. Due to my odyssey I now also had to visit the centre at dusk, even during the day it did not make the most inviting impression.
crazy bus drivers
I still remember the drive back from the centre to my hostel very well. I was almost the only passenger on this bus besides the bus driver and the conductor. The bus had counted so many years that it did not even have a ticket machine. How oldschool is that! The door kept banging up and shut throughout the ride.
The profession "bus driver" is one of the most dangerous professions in El Salvador (and Honduras). Not because of the risk of accidents, but because of the criminal gangs who extort protection money from drivers when they drive through areas controlled by them. Bus drivers who do not pay must expect to be liquidated. In 2015 the government of the country went so far as to have the buses accompanied by military units because the youth gangs had attacked the vehicles too often.
And how did the bus drivers themselves deal with it? Well, my bus driver and the conductor told each other jokes the whole trip, their laughter echoed through the whole empty bus. When the traffic light at the crossing showed red again, they were even more pleased! The bus driver first really depressed the accelerator and raced over the intersection when it turned red! WTF!
In spite of everything, I arrived at the hostel in good condition.
Summary of my stay in El Salvador
Even though many travellers avoid the country because of the high crime rate and the horror reports in the news, I liked the country very much. However, I only recommend this country to people who love adventure. In El Salvador you should be prepared for anything, e.g:
a volcano ascent with police escort in Santa Ana
machete men in the bus
bus drivers who drive over the stoplight with a laugh
a hike to hidden waterfalls with local children as guides in Tamanique
spoiled and burnt food in the center of San Salvador
Lightning struck into my lodging in El Tunco with destroyed electronics as a result
If that's too risky, you'd rather visit Costa Rica or Panama, but then you have to accept the higher prices and expect to be surrounded by a large number of tourists. I was happy to finally get out of these tourist flocks and to explore everything on my own, without any tourist paths already having been entered infinitely often. And El Salvador rewarded me, among other things:
the city of Santa Ana with the best hostel of my entire trip
the turquoise-shimmering crater lake of the volcano Santa Ana
the cute and colourful villages of the Ruta de las Flores
the charming colonial town of Suchitoto
the black sandy beaches of El Tunco and the surfing community there
the delicious and inexpensive Pupusas
friendly and always helpful people
I didn't directly notice the much discussed crime, except that here many people have a weapon and armed security forces are to be seen almost everywhere (with the exception of the places at the beach).
I myself would go back to the country at any time and already look forward to visiting it next time.