For the previous two months, Guatemala had been my home. Sitting in a roadside cantina, a mere tortilla toss from the El Salvadoran frontier, a decision needed to be made. Should the Guatemalan adventure continue, or should El Salvador be the next port of call?
From my current location, I had firm control over my immediate destiny, I was at a crossroads. I don’t mean that metaphorically, either, I was actually at a crossroads. Reluctantly abandoning the relative tranquility of the cantina, I headed toward a cluster of chicken busses on the opposite side of the road. Still unaccustomed to the thick, black exhaust fumes and swirling dust clouds, my advance must have appeared rather haphazard. The approach of this slightly bewildered gringo served only to intensify the honking of the air horns and the feverish hollering of the chicken bus jockeys. In his wild attempts to get that fourth bum on a two-bum seat, one incredibly enthusiastic jockey stood out from the others. I checked the garishly decorated windshield to find out his vehicle’s destination – it was heading to the border. I was bound for El Salvador.
If ever a nation had an undeserved reputation for danger and hostility it would, in my humble opinion, be El Salvador. Maybe I have been fortuitous thus far, but I find that particular notion difficult to give credence to. I accept that the electrified razor wire atop the perimeter walls, the steel doors and the bars on almost every window aren’t solely erected due to a nation being overly obsessed with home security, but one can only speak as they find. Without exception, the folks I have met have been hospitable, good-natured and ever helpful. The visitor is made to feel a most welcome guest in this wonderful country. Together with the people and places, the smatterings of organized tours on offer are also decidedly enjoyable. Possibly due to the relatively few tourists that El Salvador receives compared to her neighbors, the excursions remain zealous, flexible and, with tourism seemingly in its relative infancy, personal. Constantly evolving, the fluid nature of these tours irrefutably adds to both their charm and excitement, and provides us, the tourismo guinea pigs, with an unforgettable experience.
Our introduction to this phenomenon occurred during our first evening in Tacuba. Shortly after arrival, we were tracked down by a local fellow who turned out to be the tourism wheeler dealer for this particular town. If he couldn’t be your guide for a desired activity, you could rest assured that he either knew someone who could, or he could at least supply you with the necessary equipment to undertake it yourself. Be it visiting nearby villages, horse riding, mountain biking, hiking, canoeing, swimming or whatever your elected pursuit, he was the man.
The following day I was privileged to test drive a new tour that our guide was shaping. This novel trip, to a collection of natural hot springs, was made possible, thanks to one of his associates and a few well directed U.S. dollars. A friend of a friend was currently housesitting for the wealthy owner of the coffee plantation in which the springs lay. With the owner out of town, we visited the plantation. Before we had even reached our destination, you could sense that this was no tried and tested operation; it promised to be a fun day out. Appearing from nowhere at the last moment, the main residence was first brought to our attention when we almost drove into the ornate hot water fountain that fronted it.
We parked outside a grand building – the hacienda at the heart of the plantation. Although now in the vicinity of the thermal spring, we felt it prudent to remain in the stationary car for a while longer – about the same amount of time it took for the two sizeable and extremely ferocious guard dogs to calm down a fraction. They were big, smart and very good at their jobs. It would have come as no surprise if, after a brief debate, they had actually left and returned with hydraulic cutters to remove their lunch from the tin.
Fortunately they chose to settle. Our intrepid guide cracked the door open and, growing in confidence, stepped out among the hounds. I half expected the driveway to turn into a scene from a 1970’s bad taste "B" Movie, to see our windows bloodied with smears from a pair of desperate, clawing hands. Mercifully, this was not the case. We gathered our belongings and followed his lead.
These so called guard dogs weren’t so bad after all. They calmly trotted around the turning circle and were generally enjoying the morning sun. Pursing my lips and making that "I can talk to animals" squeaking noise, I addressed the smaller of the two pooches and waited for the reaction. He looked at me with his large, brown eyes and could not suppress a little tail wag. Encouraged by this, I moved closer and repeated the noise that mustered the initial feedback. The response this time was a very deep, unsettling growl and a display of teeth the likes of which I had only previously seen through fenced enclosures. Instantaneously remembering that I had urgent business to attend to in the back of the jeep, I tentatively edged away to an altogether safer distance.
The handcrafted, cascading pools were wonderful. The highest, with a diameter of 10 feet or thereabouts, was the smallest of the six and almost completely obscured by steam.
By the third pool, the water had cooled sufficiently to enjoy, thus giving it the feel of the most luxurious hot tub in El Salvador. Climbing out of one bath and easing ourselves into the next, we loosely mimicked the flow of water as it made its way down the series of pools.
As delightful as the pools were, we felt we should not outstay our welcome. Not that this really could have happened anyway, since we hadn’t been invited in the first place. We made our way to the edge one last time. As if sensing our growing sense of unease, our escort reminded us of our busy schedule and pressed for a timely extraction from the thermal bliss. Within half an hour, we were dried off, back in the car and heading away from the plantation. The feeling of driving through the gates and back onto the dusty, rugged track was not dissimilar to that of climbing over a fence and out of someone’s orchard. Hastily rolled up in the damp towel, my wet swimming shorts felt like the supermarket carrier bag full of apples. This was no ordinary tourist outing – by the end of this free play excursion, I felt emancipated from the shackles typically associated with organized tourism, and also somewhat relieved that we didn’t get shot by security or eaten by dogs.
Shortly before midday, we arrived at the second stop on our big day out. Continuing with the geothermal theme, we visited a collection of Geysers on a patch of wasteland located a stone's throw behind a huge geothermal plant (supplies 15% of El Salvador’s electrical power). It didn’t take our man long to put us in the action, effortlessly locating a jet of steam spurting from a vent in the fragile moonlike surface, the surface that we now gingerly traversed.
Having previously purchased an egg and placed it in a polythene bag, the crazy guy approached the jet and nestled the bag at its base. Don’t try this at home, kids. Being no stranger to the Discovery Channel, I had a sneaking suspicion that we would be returning to this very spot at the end of the tour to be proudly shown a fully boiled egg – proving that the steam was indeed hot. As events unfolded, we soon realized we wouldn’t have to wait long to ascertain the temperature of the vapour.
"Look, you can feel hot steam is, like dis, si?" he said, thrusting his hand into one of the billowing clouds of steam. Almost instantaneously and with staggering speed, he whipped his hand away and tucked it under his armpit, it was as if he had just been stung by something. Instinctively reverting to Spanish, he spat out a word which I have yet to learn. I made a mental note that upon my return to the hostel, I would unearth my English-Spanish dictionary and seek out the significance of the word. Confident about finding the meaning upon first attempt, I would begin my search under F.
Evidently new to this particular tour too, our guide was learning all the time. Rather than being our leader or mentor, he had adopted a role more closely related to that of a mineworker’s caged budgerigar. If there were build ups of noxious gases within the mineshaft, the hapless budgie would take it for the team and inevitably go horizontal. If the budgie bought it, the miner would exit the pit.
Similarly, if a jet of superheated steam or boiling water forcefully and unexpectedly erupted ahead of us, our guide would disappear. If our guide disappeared, we would find his car keys, rescue his baseball cap and head back to the hostel, not forgetting, of course, to briefly marvel at the boiled egg on the way.
Two visits down, one more to go.
The final part of our day took us to the edge of the national park at dusk. We witnessed the daily spectacle of parrots roosting in a 600-year-old Ceiba tree. Even before this section began, I was hooked on this new variety of tour. It rocked, thanks to our eager and likeable guide. Both he and his homegrown adventure that he was good enough to share with us, were up there with the best of them. A wonderful day already, still more to come.
Much to our dismay, the final part of the tour passed without incident. Enjoyable and diverting, but sadly void of mirth. This was surprising considering the combination of inquisitive tourists, an enthusiastic guide and a tree containing at least 2,000 excitable parrots. The probability of witnessing a comedy moment was high, almost as high as that of me signing up for the waterfall jumping tour the following day.
You can read more Notes from the Road at Ubertramp.com.