Alegría, El Salvador: The road to happiness leads through hell

I know that most travel blogs are just a glorification of all things travel. And I understand. Travel is magical, most of the time. Besides, no one really cares about the time you spent on a bus to get to that picture-perfect waterfall. Yes, it’s annoying when the bus is four hours late and when you’re squeezed between a box of chickens and a man with a body odour that’s considered a biological weapon by the United Nations. But just don’t go on about it. You’re not in the office sweating over some report that has to be filed by noon. You’re not hungry. You’re a privileged fucker on his way to a picture-perfect waterfall. So just accept it and shut up about it – the bus, the chickens, the body odour. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

But sometimes, the journey is integral to the destination. The two can’t be separated. It’s yin and yang. For example on the way to Alegría, in the east of El Salvador, on the day we discovered the difference between the ‘ordinary’ buses in El Salvador (‘ordinario’) and the special ones.

Bus or TV show?

We woke up in El Tunco and I wanted to see the beach caves. As if walking on hot coals, I limped over the rocky beach for half an hour, ripping my soles open on sharp stones and shells. Self-chastisement to no avail, as the tide was too high to explore the caves. With a serious delay, we set off for La Libertad in the early afternoon. In this port town, we found out that El Salvador is no Guatemala.

In Guatemala, bus boys find you before you find them. Sometimes, you’re still miles away from their bus, but they’ll come running to you, as if they smelled you, shouting “Puerto Barrios?! Puerto Barrios?!” or “Huehuehue!! Huehuehuehuehue!! They hurry you through busy streets and markets, pull the backpack brutally from your back, shove you in a full chicken bus and climb on the roof with your luggage, tie it to a rack with 300 metres of rope and clamber into an already speeding bus through a small side window. You constantly have the feeling you’re in a TV game show and, whatever you do, you can’t disappoint the rest of your team. It’s all highly frenetic and efficient.

Quicker by bicycle

In El Salvador… Well, let’s just say that things aren’t as rushed as they are in Guatemala. No bus boys approach us when we arrive in La Libertad. It took some asking around to figure out that the next bus to Zacatecoluca only left 1,5 hours later. Fifty kilometres separate La Libertad and Zacatecoluca, but the bus crawled over the roads so painfully slow that it made me nervous. The driver entered every side street on the highway. It took us three hours to reach Zacatecoluca. With a decent bike, good legs and a slight back wind, we’d have been quicker.

To make matters worse, it started raining cats and dogs when we finally had Zacatecoluca in sight. This was no ordinary shower, it was the apocalypse. Upon arrival, we had to jump with all our luggage over a swirling river to reach the pavement. We stood there for quite a long time in the entrance of a shop, grumbling between a bunch of locals who, like us, were taken hostage by the rain. The storm took on biblical proportions. There was no way we could get through, unless we sacrificed all of our technological toys to Chaac, the rain god.

Meanwhile, time ticked relentlessly. The bus to San Vicente left only two blocks further. As soon as the rain lessened, we ran to the bus stop. The last bus to San Vicente departed as soon as we jumped on it. Not before long, it started getting dark. It’s against our principles to travel at night. Central American roads are not safe after dark and, more importantly, it’s harder to read on the bus. Luckily, this bus ride didn’t take as long as the previous one.

No keys

San Vicente was busy. Builders erected a stage on the central park of the city. An event for the next day, we suspected, but no: it turned out to be the preparations for a concert that same evening. The hotel on the square – according to Lonely Planet “the only accommodation we found in the city” – was completely full.

Fortunately, not for the first time, Lonely Planet hadn’t done its job adequately. In a dark side street, we found a motel of questionable stature. An old pot-bellied man in a dirty shirt searched his keyring for ten minutes before he found the key that fitted on the door. Perhaps a sign that the habitual guests did not leave their room too often, maybe because they usually rented it for an hour or three at the time. The room was in shambles; a shower curtain was the bathroom’s only privacy. But at that point, I had stopped caring. I was already happy that we’d found shelter. A beer and a quart of cheap sugar cane rum made us forget everything and put us to sleep in no time.

Motel room in San Vicente, on the way to Alegría.

Anete getting ready in our four-star suite.

After our night in that unsavoury hole in San Vicente, we were more than happy to continue our journey the next morning. Four more buses took us into Alegría. Spanish for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’, even though that name is a bit of an overstatement. Nevertheless, Alegría is a pleasant village in the mountains. Later during our Salvadorian sojourn, we’d encounter villages that radiated even more charm, but it was all new for us in Alegría.

But what to do in Alegría?

Make a stroll and admire the views

There isn’t much to do in Alegría besides walking around. So when we’d found accommodation in a concrete cabin, that’s what we did. Alegría is El Salvador’s flower capital and, according to Lonely Planet, it’s a place that makes you stop and smell the rose bushes. Alas, we only found a couple of cactus sellers around the central park. We paraded around the square, green with plants and trees, and past the snow-white church. We checked out the street food stalls, picnicked in the company of a bunch of sad stray dogs and bought some local home-made fruit wine from a friendly chap who let us taste half a dozen flavours.

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It was weekend, the time when middle-class Salvadorians from nearby San Miguel and Usulután leave the big city behind to relax in the mountains. Families sat in cafés, ate chicken and savoured hot milky drinks with almonds and raisins. Alegría, however, is very much off the beaten track from foreign tourism. The few tourists attracted to El Salvador generally stick to the attractions in the east of the country – El Tunco, the Ruta de Flores and the environs of Santa Ana. Alegría provides a sample of pure Salvadorian life.

The local restaurant rolled out the big guns – in the shape of at least seven barkers – to get people in. Not us. Once again, the only ATM in town refused to give us any cash, so we stuck to cheap pupusas. Plastered to a mountainside, the streets of Alegría offered grand views, especially from El Mirador de las Cien Gradas, the town’s viewpoint. Even the local football players could enjoy panoramas during their games.

Boys playing football in Alegría, El Salvador.

“Kick it out of the stadium, José”

Hike to Lake Alegría

Lyrically described as “America’s Emerald” by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, this turquoise crater lake is Alegría most convincing claim to fame. Two kilometres out of town, it made for an easy hike up and down again over a gravel road. Once more – and I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself here – we gorged on beautiful views of volcanoes.

Local tourists barbecued or simply mooched about around the lake. None of them jumped in for a swim. Maybe the sulphur smells scared them, or the mud that almost swallowed us. According to a local legend, a mermaid lives in the lake. As even mermaids have needs, she regularly kidnaps young men who dare to swim in the lake. The unfortunate men never return, but at least, I imagine, they’re treated to a unique experience. During our visit, the mermaid never showed up. Probably afraid of Anete’s revenge.

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