If we ask you what you know about El Salvador, what do you answer?
If you’ve never visited the smallest country in Central America, you’ll plausibly talk about bloody turf wars between gangs. Tattooed street thugs who first slice a machete between their brother’s ribs and then go pray for forgiveness in the nearest church. Drug deals in chicken restaurants and drive-by shootings in the broad daylight.
But if you’ve actually been to El Salvador, you’ll talk differently. You probably can’t shut up about the cosy villages with cobblestones, cute little churches and fountains on squares, foodie festivals, delicious coffee and flowers, flowers, flowers.
Nowhere in El Salvador is that image so prevalent as on the Ruta de las Flores. That name alone – the route of the flowers. This blog’s twee level is instantly higher than that of a Belle and Sebastian concert in a pink candy shop.
The employee of the month is… a cat
The Ruta de las Flores is a scenic route in mountainous western El Salvador, 38 kilometres of road through coffee plantations and snug, sleepy, picturesque villages. We chose a peaceful town called Concepción de Ataco, or simply Ataco, as our base to explore the flower route. Lots of other bloggers seem to prefer Juayúa, perhaps because of its weekly food festival, but we were very happy about our choice. We liked Ataco most of all the villages we visited along the Ruta de las Flores.
We could make a list of things to do on the Ruta de las Flores, but frankly, the best thing to do here is let time pass you by. Enjoy a coffee in an outdoor café, admire a mural, eat soggy fries from a styrofoam bowl on the central square or go for garlic pupusas, savour the moment, read a book. We definitely took it slow and spent a lot of time in our guesthouse, breakfasting endlessly in the garden, writing and hanging out with the empleado del mes, a lazy snow-white cat.
President disturbs peace
Ataco’s church, adorned with bright pennants, is one of the prettiest we’ve seen in nine months in Central America. In front of the church, two boys kicked a ball around. All over the central square, people enjoyed themselves on benches, munching on snacks and gossiping idly. Vendors sold shaved ice with flavoured syrup and fresh fruit, the ice cream of the poor, while a drunk villager slept his hangover away on the pavement – a scene you see regularly anywhere you go in Central America.
Joy seems to be in the air of places like Ataco. Its people can’t feel anything but blessed. And the ones visiting, for example from the capital, are probably happy to be breathing clean air for once.
This is El Salvador at its best. Relaxed and on a human scale, far away from the bustle of San Salvador, its loud markets and busy streets, far away from the parties in El Tunco. The only noise here comes from the rambling evangelical preacher on the bus connecting the various villages. At least when there are no presidential candidates in town, trying to buy votes with loud music, inflammatory speeches and so many fireworks that the cost could probably pay off the national debt. Well, maybe next time.
No grey allowed
The Ruta de las Flores is also a massive explosion of colour. Everywhere you go in Central America, life is colourful and houses are painted in pastels and fluorescents, but nowhere more so than in villages like Ataco. No grey is allowed. The most lively colours splash from the walls. If you’re a painter, it’d probably be a good idea to look for career opportunities in El Salvador.
Ataco’s murals depict village life and Salvadoran culture. We found scenes that showed coffee farmers and pupusa makers and villagers preparing sawdust carpets for Semana Santa. Not to mention the cats in psychedelic colours. Ataco houses a good number of artists and craftspeople, as evidenced by the many souvenir sellers and ateliers.
Two tortillas and a spoonful of beans
Near Juayúa, we saw the flower route’s other export product – coffee.
We wanted to hike to Los Chorros de Calera, a waterfall not too far out of town. The men in the tourist office warned us that robberies regularly occurred on the road to the waterfall. In weekends, police patrol the environs but we visited on a weekday. The men advised us to hire a guide. At a cost of $5, it was an easy decision. The guide took us on an alternative route over small mud trails straight through the forest, where old villagers were picking coffee.
A rather idyllic rural scene, we thought. But in the 1930s, this region was a battlefield. “There appears to be nothing between these high-priced cars and the oxcart with its barefoot attendant”, remarked a visitor from the USA in 1931, “There is practically no middle class.” 14 families owned 90 per cent of the country’s land and they made shitloads of money with coffee. On the backs of the indigenous inhabitants of the land, whom they fed two tortillas and two spoonfuls of beans at the beginning and the end of the day.
When the price of coffee crashed after the Great Depression, the farmers had enough. They rebelled against the suppression and attacked farms. The government reacted with fire and fury; the army killed the protesters in droves. Although the exact figures are unknown, it’s estimated that 30.000 coffee farmers didn’t live to tell the tale.
Fortunately, things didn’t get that tense during our visit. After a brisk hike down the hill, during which the guide pointed out all kinds of plants and birds, we heard the clatter of Los Chorros de Calera. We slipped into the chilly water and wondered if we could stay forever.