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El Salvador

Go Beyond… El Salvador’s beaches: Suchitoto and Alegria

Plaza and church of Suchitoto, El Salvador

We might love watching surfers catch waves as the sun sets, but we GlobetrotterGirls don’t surf. Since the beaches of El Salvador are great for surfing but rocky and not great for swimming, this was not the part of the country that grabbed our attention, nor were the big cities or the landscapes.

The most enjoyable part of El Salvador was the smaller towns and villages throughout the country with their peaceful mornings, friendly locals and artistic inspiration. We’ve already outlined the towns along the ‘Ruta de las Flores’, El Salvador’s flower route, but the two towns that have our hearts are Suchitoto and Alegria.Alegria Parque Central

Alegria

Alegria is a small mountain village in the Usulutlan region, surrounded by El Salvador’s highest mountains, coffee farms, and several volcanoes. The village itself is as sleepy as a mountain village can only get. When the bus lets you out on the main square, you might not see a single soul out in the midday sun, except for the two ladies making pupusas right on the square.

Alegria is famous for is the Laguna de Alegria, a crater lake two kilometers outside of town, which you can visit by yourself or take a guided hike like we did. There are only three or four accommodation options, and you may run in to one or two foreigners during your time in town, as this village is truly off the beaten path.

Church of AlegriaOther than that, there is not an awful lot to do in Alegria. You can sit on the main plaza and chat with the locals, eat your way through various pupuserias in the village, check out the views at the spot of the 100 Steps. To work off all the pupusas, walk up and down these 100 steps, or even jog them, like some of the locals do. Otherwise, tour the cobblestone streets to admire the street art and murals that color the town.

Painted house in Alegria

If you are looking for a place with nightlife, museums and entertainment, Alegria might not be the right place for you, but if you are looking to hang back for a few days, relax, take in some El Salvadoran village life and enjoy the fresh mountain air in the highest village in the country, then Alegria is this is the most ‘authentic’ place you can find.

Visiting Alegria – Practical Information

How to get there: From Usulutan, bus No 348 goes directly to Alegria

Where to stay: We have already recommended the superb hostel ‘Entre Piedras’ in our Hotel Tip of the Week, but we are not getting tired of mentioning again that it also contributed significantly to the memorable time we had in Alegria ($20.00 for a double room, free wi-fi).

Suchitoto

At a quick hour’s ride north of San Salvador, Suchitoto is the top mountain getaway pick for tourists and locals alike.

Suchitoto Street6

Although the town contends with Alegria for the title of ‘El Salvador’s most picturesque village’ we think Suchitoto wins hands down. A colonial town with cobblestone streets, a large, bright central square, well-preserved colonial houses and trees and flowers throughout town, Suchitoto is also home to buzzing restaurants, cafes, bars and pupuserias.

Santa Lucia1

During El Salvador’s civil war, artists fled the capital and made Suchitoto home, an inspiring influence which can still be felt throughout the town. Alternative artists and stylish residents browse through quirky shops and art galleries and the smaller Parque San Martin is decorated with sculptures. The creativity can even been seen on the iconic Iglesia Santa Lucia cathedral in central park, which has a stunning white façade, six columns and three towers on top which are decorated with….dinner plates! We love how creative and economical this decoration choice was.

There are several festivals throughout the year, when live music on the central square can be enjoyed while having a drink or a coffee in the many cafes and restaurants that line the Plaza.

Lago de Suchitatlan1

You will see Lake Suchitatlan from town, and this popular weekend destination is easy to reach from town by heading down 3 Avenida Sur all the way down the hill either on foot or by frequent local bus ($0.45) The lake can be crossed by boat or ferry, and is also the starting point of the adventurous hike to the Los Tercios waterfall (a bit too adventurous for us). For equally thrilling but less risky adventure, join the people who zipline across the lake.

Visiting Suchitoto – Practical Information

How to get there: Bus No 129 from San Salvador (Terminal de Oriente) goes directly and very frequently.

Where to stay: There is a cheap hostel often recommended for $10.00 for a double room (6 Calle de Oriente), but it was run down and we wouldn’t recommend it. We opted for the more expensive but also much more comfortable Villa Balanza ($20.00 for a double room, wi-fi, kitchen, TV, lake views), which also has a fantastic restaurant which is worth a visit for affordable typical food and creative décor.

Villa Balanza Sign

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Go Beyond… El Salvador’s beaches: The Ruta de las Flores

Waterfall panorama

Based on the available shuttles from Guatemala and Nicaragua to El Salvador, it might be easy to think that the only place worth a visit in El Salvador is the beach.

For surfers, the beaches of El Salvador – the most well known include El Tunco, El Zonte, El Zunsal and La Libertad – are apparently a dream. The waves always break in the same place and the lessons are about 25% of the price of learning in Costa Rica, the other Central American surfing hot spot.El SalvadorIf you don’t surf, the beaches of El Salvador don’t offer much. The actual beach is rocky, at times you’re clambering over rocks in flip-flops trying to find a patch of sand where walking into the water doesn’t require shoes. The hotels and hostels tend to have full service restaurants and pools, because swimming on the beach is that difficult.

So while the beaches are a cool atmosphere to visit, and give surfing a shot, we would encourage you to Go Beyond the Beaches of El Salvador and check out some of the inland colonial villages. In this article we’ll look at El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores, or the ‘Flower Route’.Ruta de las Flores

La Ruta de las Flores – El Salvador’s Flower Route

The name of this 40km stretch of western El Salvador comes from the plentiful wildflowers that grow along the road, especially between November and February when they are in full bloom. The Ruta officially begins in Sonsonate, which is easily reachable from La Libertad, the main beach town and transportation hub for El Salvador’s beaches, making it easy to combine with a surf getaway.

While the flowers are beautiful when in full bloom, it is the pretty colonial towns that line up along the Ruta,  plus the scenic waterfalls, lagunas and a weekly food fair  that attract visitors from around the country to this mountainous Ruta.

Ruta de las Flores

Juayua

Coming from the south, the first stop is the town of Juayua, famous for its weekly food fair. The otherwise sleepy town heaves on weekends when visitors from around the country, neighboring Guatemala and international tourists pack the streets to sample regional dishes and listen to live music on the plaza. Juayua is also the starting point of the ‘7 Waterfalls’ tour, a hike leading through series of breathtaking waterfalls. Don’t forget your bathing suit to swim in several of the pools at the falls.

Ruta de las FloresFood junkies note: Opposite the church on the main square, turn right and walk one block up to reach a large ‘pupuseria’. We loved the pupusas at this place.

Apaneca

The next little town on the Ruta is Apaneca, even sleepier than Juayua, with cobble-stoned streets and a beautiful church. There are scenic two crater lakes outside of town, Laguna Verde and Laguna de las Ninfas, which make for great hikes. Other than for the hikes, the town doesn’t need more than a quick stroll and you can head off to the next stop soon.Apaneca

Ataco

Ataco, just ten minutes from Apaneca, is a very charming stop along the Ruta de las Flores. The colonial town’s cobblestone streets are lined with brightly painted houses, several with beautiful murals. Two very similar churches anchor each side of town. Make your way up to the view point on the hill behind the church La Concepcion for views over Ataco and the coffee plantations that blanket the surrounding mountains.Ruta de las FloresThe best (but also the busiest) time for a visit is the weekend when there is live marimba music on the plaza, all of the little shops and restaurants are open and food and craft stands fill up the plaza.

Ahuachapan

The last stop is Ahuachapan, considerably more populated than the other towns along the Ruta de las Flores. Ahuachapan is missing Ataco’s charm, and being a much busier market town and transport hub on the way to Guatemala and over to the El Salvadorian city of Santa Ana, there is not much in terms of tourism to offer. The main plaza, filled with palm trees and flowers, makes a great spot for people watching and has a beautiful church on its north side. Check out the mural covered buildings on the right side of the church, which also house a few restaurants, but don’t plan in a lot of time here. If you don’t visit the Ruta with a car, we might even say to skip Ahuachapan altogether.Ruta de las Flores

Practical information for your trip to the Ruta de las Flores

The freedom of visiting the Ruta with a car means you can easily stop, hop out for a stroll and continue on to the next stop, and the entire route can be visited in one day. For those visiting by bus, plan in two days to cover all the stops. We used Juayua as our base and then explored the rest of the Ruta from there taking the 249 and 53 buses to each of the towns.

If you do combine the Ruta de Las Flores with a surf escape, Bus 287 runs from La Libertad to Sonsonate, the very southern end of the route, in about 2.5 hours. From there, you can choose which town to start in and take a bus to get there. If you need help, just ask, as the people are very friendly. The chicken buses in El Salvador are safe and easy to get around, and cost between $0.50 and $1.50 per ride.

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14 things we love about El Salvador

Laguna de Alegria

If you don’t know why anyone would visit El Salvador, read on for fourteen things we loved about traveling in the country. Why 14 things? Well, we spent 14 days traveling around this small Central American country, and we’re sharing one fact for each day we spent there.

  1. Pupusas We could eat these lovely little things morning, noon and night. Honestly: pupusas are reason enough why you should visit El Salvador!
  2. Sunsets over the Pacific – beautiful every single day we were there.why visit El Salvador
  3. SuchitotoWith loads of culture and located on the shores of lake Suchitlan, the cute colonial town is equally popular with foreign tourists and weekenders from San Salvador.
  4. Salvadorians – don’t let the number of people packing pistols throw you off – the good-spirited people of El Salvador are as kind and helpful as they are lively. There might be rotten apples in every bunch, but during our time in the country the number of times people went above and beyond to help us is countless.
  5. The Beer – El Salvador is hot, and they serve up their beer cold. There is nothing like a 5 o’clock Golden or Pilsener in El Salvador.why visit El Salvador
  6. Villa Balanza in Suchitoto – worth a visit for a cheap, very well-prepared lunch or a great hotel stay with wi-fi, lake views and peace and quiet.
  7. Climbing the volcano crater and mountains around La Laguna de Alegria
  8. Escencia Nativa although we were not fans of the beaches of El Salvador, Escencia Nativa hostel in the beachside spot of El Zonte does everything right. Owner Alex, a former champion surfer turned hostel owner and native of El Salvador, has constructed a perfect chill out spot which works as well for surfers after a hard day on the waves, as well as for non-surfers who spend the day relaxing at the pool and scarfing down the delicious food and drink.
  9. The Painted Phone Poles Artistic spirit is very much alive in El Salvador, and, more than in most other Central American countries, there is plenty of street art, murals, and inspiring graffiti. In the towns of Ataco, Alegria, and Suchitoto, the phone and electricity poles are all painted on the bottom, individually designed by different artists and displaying many positive messages and histories.why visit El Salvador
  10. The colorful buildings of Ataco, a village among the ‘Ruta de las Flores‘, El Salvador’s Flower Route
  11. Entre Piedras hostel in Alegria – read here for a full review.
  12. The vendors on chicken buses – Travel long enough through Latin America and you come to know: where there is a ‘chicken bus’ there are people selling food. In El Salvador, the entire bus+food vendor process is taken to a whole new level. Rather than one or two, there are up to 15 vendors on one bus at any given time. Regardless whether every single vendor on the bus is selling the same thing, each individual makes her/himself heard while selling pupusas, fish, or entire chicken meals with fries on plates wrapped in plastic. But it’s not just food. One day, we bought toothbrushes for a great deal on the bus. The next day, for half the price, we could have gotten the two toothbrushes with a pack of three pens. Why didn’t we wait? El Salvador
  13. Frozens – similar to licuados (or fruit+ water shakes), in the hot, hot sun of El Salvador, the Frozen is a very large, very frozen version and is delicious.
  14. The seven waterfalls around Juayua – these waterfalls are located just past the popular tourist town of Juayua, and tours can be organised in town. Jason and Aracely, the TwoBackpackers, also explored the 7 waterfalls when they came through El Salvador and have great video footage on their website.Waterfall Juayua, El Salvador

 

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Hotel Tip Of The Week: La Estancia in San Salvador

hotel tip of the week

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Welcome to our weekly series Hotel Tip of The Week. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves.

Set along a winding road in a quiet side street, there is no sign marking La Estancia, but almost every cab driver in the city knows the place. If arriving on foot, look out for a purple gate. Popular among Peace Corp volunteers and budget travelers from around the world, La Estancia’s chintzy wood paneling and decades-old furniture feel like a well-worn pair of shoes – the ones that look ugly but are your go-to, reliable pair.

The hotel has two dorms and four $30 double rooms. Our room, Room #5, is apparently the best. It had two double  beds, a large, clean private bathroom with hot water (real hot water, not an electric shower head), a TV with a DVD player and DVDs, and even a private (small) outdoor patio with a plastic table and chairs.

The dorm rooms have six beds and appeared safe and secure for $12, and dorm guests can also enjoy a range of DVDs on the 42-inch flat screen in the living room. Here there are two comfortable couches and a reclining chair, a DVD library and a small library as well with a good selection of books thanks to the many longer-term volunteers who pass through the hotel. A second living room has a TV (no DVD player), two couches and opens up onto a tiny patio space with a fountain. The wi-fi works well in all shared spaces and we were able to get some good work done in between all the DVD watching (oh, and sightseeing, of course). The fully-equipped kitchen, open to guests, is split into two parts – a cramped cooking/washing up space, and an open space with a very clean fridge, 8-seat round table, and plenty of dishes and silverware.

Breakfast is served out here, although it leaves much to be desired (see Room for Improvement below). Free coffee is available all day though, and cooking for yourself is no issue at all, thanks to the two mega-supermarkets located at the Metrocentro just five minutes’ walking distance from the hotel.  In fact, it is the hotel’s location that we found to be the best aspect of our stay at La Estancia.

Stand Out Feature: Location, Location, Location

La Estancia is five minutes from the Metrocentro Mall on Boulevard de Heroes, which is a North American style mega mall with supermarkets, restaurants, coffee shops, a 12 theater Cineplex and a healthy range of shopping options from high fashion to basic needs. Depending on how long you have been on the road, even those who like to avoid such mall monstrosities can appreciate the chance to run every conceivable errand around the corner from their hotel.

The Metrocentro is also a major transportation hub. Almost every city bus line and taxis pass by here, which makes getting home from a day of exploring the city that much easier.

Room for improvement

Breakfast is included in the price, but it is prepared grudgingly by a member of the cleaning staff. It just did not taste good. A toaster oven and a loaf of white bread is made available for anyone to prepare their own toast – certainly a wiser option.

Overall: La Estancia San Salvador

El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador, more specifically the swanky Zona Rosa district, has attracted several four and five star international hotel chains which jut enthusiastically out of an otherwise muted city skyline. Far from this glitz and glamour, visitors on a budget might have a hard time finding affordable, yet comfortable accommodation in the capital. La Estancia may not sparkle, but in terms of practicality, this budget hotel is hard to beat.

La Estancia San Salvador – the details

Location: Av Cortés 216, Centro, San Salvador
Price:
US$12 for a dorm, $15 per person in a private room
LGBT Friendly:
Unknown to us
Amenities:
Wi-fi, kitchen, free coffee, DVDs, hot showers
Contact: +
503 2275 3381

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Polaroid of the week: Dinner plate decorations on the Santa Lucia, Suchitoto

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

We spent the weekend in a beautiful town called Suchitoto in the north of El Salvador. The main sight is the Iglesia Santa Lucia, a white church that has a stunning façade with six ionic-style columns and three towers on top. After posting a picture of Santa Lucia on our Globetrottergirls Facebook Page, Juergen from Dare2go.com made us aware of the dinner plates on the roofs of the three towers, which we had not seen. So we went back the next day to take a closer look – the roofs are indeed covered by dinner plates! Apparently, the plates were donated by a bride who was married in the church as a sign of appreciation.

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Hotel Tip of The Week: La Barranca Hostel, Suchitoto, El Salvador

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves. This week: Hostel La Barranca in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

suchitoto hostel

We had arrived in Suchitoto, El Salvador during a music festival, and while this guaranteed us an eventful time while in town, our only accommodation option the first night was a room at a well-known but sub-par American-owned place. While strolling around town, we came across Villa Balanza restaurant, and as they had received a glowing review in our Footprint guidebook, we decided to sit down here for a bite to eat and ended up booking a room at the hostel for the next night at the same time we paid our restaurant bill.

This is not your typical backpacker hostel with restaurant (read: bar) attached. La Barranca is a peaceful hostel set at the bottom of a rather long, steep hill, a five minute walk from the restaurant with views of the major tourist draw, the famous Lake Suchitlan. The way down the hill with luggage is a challenge, even harder is the slog back up after check out, but for those who are reasonably fit (or have a car) the serene setting of the accommodation is more than worth it.

Lago de Suchitatlan

La Barranca is made up of a two story main house with five bedrooms upstairs over a very homey kitchen and living room downstairs. A second building just behind it houses another five rooms with doors opening out onto a peaceful courtyard with tables and chairs. Staying here feels more like staying in a suburban home, with all the appropriate comforts. The clean, well-decorated rooms have double beds, plenty of space and en-suite bathrooms. (The bathroom is built into the room, has a saloon-door entrance and is open on top, so we recommend staying at La Barranca with someone you know fairly well, as you will be sharing your bathroom noises with everyone in the room.)

The kitchen has beautiful mahogany cabinets, a squeaky clean fridge, all the necessary appliances and is roomy enough to fit a decent sized kitchen table with space to host dinner for a few friends.  The living room is equally spacious, with a couch, chairs, a TV, and a computer with internet for those who do not travel with their own laptop. For those who do, including us digital nomads, La Barranca offers free, hi-speed Wi-Fi, which works perfectly everywhere in the main house, fairly well outside in the courtyard, but unfortunately did not reach to the rooms in the second building.

Stand Out Feature: The restaurant – Villa Balanza

As we mentioned, our meal at Villa Balanza hugely influenced our decision to stay at La Barranca, run by the same family.  Set just off of a quiet park five minutes from the Suchitoto’s central plaza, this restaurant serves up stylish versions of typical Salvadorian food for just pennies more than the street food vendors in town, while the quality of the food would rival any Latin American restaurant in any major city.  The food itself is just one aspect of what Villa Balanza is really setting out to do, which is to define through food, art and history, what it means, and what it has always meant, to be Salvadorian. Hanging over the entryway to Villa Balanza is a large scale (‘Balanza’ means ‘balance’ in Spanish). On one side sits a 750 pound weapon from the armed forces during the fairly recent civil war, on the other, a stack of tortillas. The scale is meant to symbolize the counterbalance of the town’s history in the war with the country’s deeply rooted traditional ‘culture of corn’. Inside the restaurant, the walls are lined with a mix of contemporary oil paintings, centuries’ old photographs and some of the most delicious food in town.

Sculpture

Room for improvement: In-room wi-fi

This is often a frustrating, if not downright picky, request as so often hotels in countries like the USA and Germany rarely offer free wi-fi at all. However, for those who spend time travelling in Central America, free wi-fi is a given in almost all hotels, especially those in the budget category. Plus, La Barranca offers free-wi to guests. With a second router, the hostel would have gotten perfect marks from us, as we often work late into the night after a day of sightseeing, and would have preferred working from our room rather than out in the living room until after midnight.

Location: Barrio San José N° 7 Next to the San Martin Park, Suchitoto, Cuscatlan, El Salvador
Price:
$25 per room per night
LGBT Friendly:
Yes
Amenities:
Kitchen, wi-fi, lounge, yard

Tip: Check out Booking.com for the best places to stay in Suchitoto!

Suchitoto hostel

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Street food junkies on the hunt in El Salvador: Pupusas

pupusas salvador

El Salvador does not have a variety of street food, especially dearth are the vegetarian street food options. In fact there is really only one, single type of street food worth eating in El Salvador: The Pupusa. These magical little filled dough pancakes more than make up for the lack of options.

Pupusas are like very thick corn tortillas are stuffed with the below ingredients and flattened down by hand before being heated on the grill.

Ingredients include:

• Cheese (vegetarian)

• Refried Beans (vegetarian)

• Cheese and refried beans (vegetarian)

• Chicharrones (pork meat)

• Pollo (Chicken)

• Chicharrones / pollo & cheese / beans

Pupusas are on every menu in every restaurant, but it’s best to belly up to a table at a pupuseria, which is a very local restaurant dedicated entirely to serving up steaming hot pupusas. No hemming and hawing over what to eat, no menu to peruse. Instead, just walk in, indicate how many of which type of pupusa you want and enjoy a cool beer while you wait. There is even a special flat grill dedicated to pupusa-making which is for sale in every appliance/home store in El Salvador. We considered shipping costs for one of these more than once, but alas, to what home would we send it?

Once your stack of pupusas has arrived, top them with curtido, a pickled cabbage salad similar to coleslaw bur marinated in vinegar (actually tasty!) and pour on a medium hot red salsa. The ingredients can vary slightly, but are almost always identical. In El Salvador, the default dough is made from corn, but there is also a rice dough version. Stick with corn, we advise, unless you – like us – gorge so often on pupusas that you really need the change up.

Should you ever find yourself hungry on a bus in El Salvador, do not worry, as waves of women with baskets or trays of pupusas will constantly jump aboard and squeeze and shimmy towards you squealing ‘puuuupuuuussaaaaas”.

Not only have the Salvadorians dedicated an entire type of restaurant to these delicious doughy disks, they have also dedicated an entire day to honor them: National Pupusa Day on November 13th. We were lucky enough to be in El Salvador on this holy celebration. However, because we took to downing 3-4 at least once a day, every day we spent in El Salvador was our Pupusa Day.

The best part about pupusas is that they are not only tasty, they are cheap, varying between 25 cents and 50 cents depending on where you get them. The best price meets best quality at about 40 cents per pupusa. Even the biggest eaters need no more than four to fill up, which means lunch or dinner for around $1.60.

Throughout Central America you will see street food stands with ladies preparing pupusas, and there is usually at least one pupuseria in any medium-sized city. In Guatemala they were too large, and the cheese was decidedly not delicious. In Honduras they were lackluster; their makers were not dedicated to art of the pupusa. Salvadoran pupusas are definitely the best, with just the right amount of dough combined with a much more delicious cheese, called Loroco, than found in other Central America countries.

Tip: We had our best Pupusas at a professional pupuseria in the small mountain town of Alegria. Next best were the two stands nearest the church on the central square in Suchitoto. The pupuseria next to the café had the best rice pupusas we sampled while in El Salvador.

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Entre Piedras in Alegria, El Salvador

hotel tip of the week

This is our first article in a new weekly series Hotel Tip of The Week. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We’ll be posting one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves. This week: Entre Piedras hostel in Alegria, El Salvador.

Entre Piedras hostel is set in a small mountain town of Alegria in El Salvador. Like most budget hotels in Alegria, Entre Piedras is a converted family house. What makes the hotel stand out is the way it brings guests the perfect balance of an at-home feeling with all the hotel amenities and services to feel like a valued guest. You won’t find Entre Piedras in any guidebooks yet either, as this near-new hostel opened only at the end of 2009.

Entre Piedras

Entre Piedras: A wonderful hostel in Alegria, El Salvador

Unlike many hostels, Entre Piedras is similar to a cozy bed and breakfast in size and feel. There are only three rooms available – one dorm of 6 beds, one room with a bunk bed for two (both with shared bath), and one master suite with a sprawling double bed and private bathroom.

Entre Piedras HostelRoberto, who manages the day-to-day business at Entre Piedras, goes above and beyond for his guests. Up early writing one morning, I had yet to have breakfast, and Roberto brought me a new fruit to try – a zapote, something I would never have tried but am sure glad I did. He also told us about a hike around the Laguna de Alegria, and even joined the guide and us on our hike, teaching us about local coffee history and coffee along the way. Entre Piedras was not just a great hostel in Alegria, El Salvador, but one of the most memorable hostel experiences in all of Central America.

Entre PiedrasThe restaurant has an excellent, if small, menu of international food. Breakfasts for US$3 hit the spot, and this is the only restaurant in town which offers an alternative to comida tipica, or typical food. The public rooms inside are decorated as though you are simply staying in someone’s house, but the knick knacks, antique technology gadgets, stack of 50s magazines and very antique black and white photos are so well curated that this is clearly a subtly constructed living museum of sorts.

Hostel Alegria El SalvadorIn fact, Roberto’s family run the La Casa Mia Hostel & Restaurante in the small nearby town Berlin, which contains such a large collection of artifacts, trinkets and family photos that the space is also officially a museum of both family and local history. This same style spills over into Entre Piedras, and makes for some fascinating snooping around, which is encouraged. (If you visit Berlin but don’t overnight, at least stop in to La Casa Mia for a piece of delicious cake and have a peek around the living room and family room which double as the museum space.)

Hostel Alegria El Salvador

Stand Out Features: Entre Piedras

At this hotel there are two features that bring Entre Piedras a head above the rest.  The first one is the excellent coffee. Roberto is a true coffee lover himself and has a top of the line coffee bar machine. Indulge in the best americanos, cappuccinos and lattes in El Salvador.

The second absolute stand out feature is the entire family’s engagement in quality tourism development in El Salvador and Central America. In addition to owning the two hostels Entre Piedras and La Casa Mia, the family are a part of ‘Red de Posadas Rurales’ a network of rural hostels and hotels through Central America that are of high quality, eco-friendly and engaged in their community. Roberto himself clearly has good relationships with hostel owners throughout El Salvador and is working together with Alex, the owner of the (also excellent) hostel Escencia Nativa in El Zonte, on a website called El Salvador By Bus. This website will map out the best and easiest routes for getting around the country by local ‘chicken’ bus and will include prices, schedules and journey times. Tourism infrastructure in El Salvador is rough at best and such assistance is sorely needed and much appreciated.

For the digital nomads & travel bloggers out there Entre Piedras offers free fast reliable wi-fi, and the hostel is peaceful enough to get work done. Working at one of the living room or dining room tables inside also feels like working from home, which after spending days in cafes and restaurants, is a really comfortable experience. At the time of our visit at the end of 2010, Entre Piedras was the only hostel with free wi-fi in Alegria, El Salvador.

Hostel Alegria El Salvador

Room for improvement: The Bathroom Situation

The shared bathrooms are clean and well-maintained, but are located in the back of the property. Guests of the hotel have to walk through the back end of the outdoor restaurant with wet hair and shower products in hand, which breaks up the enjoyable outdoor atmosphere of the restaurant and is a tad bit uncomfortable for guests. This shouldn’t affect your decision whether or not to stay at Entre Piedras, which we can whole-heartedly recommend should you find yourself in Alegria.

Details: Entre Piedras Hostel in Alegria, El Salvador

Location: Northeast corner of central park in Alegria, Usulutan, El Salvador.
Price: US$20.00 double room with shared bathroom / US$30.00 double room with private bathroom / dorms US$8.00
LGBT Friendly: Yes
Amenities: Restaurant, Wi-Fi, Payment with Cards possible, Hikes
Website: Entre Piedras Hostel Alegria

Hostel Alegria El Salvador

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The Day We Became Mountaineers…well, kind of.

Laguna de Alegria

After debating whether or not to wear hiking shoes for what we thought was a simple day hike to a laguna, Dani and I headed out front of our hostel in Alegria, El Salvador to meet our guide for the day, Walter. This bright, energetic young man with a twinkle in his eye stopped sharpening his machete long enough to shake our hands and exchange initial pleasantries, in spite of his potential weapon.

Laguna de Alegria hikeWe were very excited for this hike, which was offered to us by Roberto, the friendly owner of Entre Piedras hostel in the small mountain town of Alegria. After a few rather disappointing days on El Salvador’s Costa del Sol, we had finally arrived to the village which our trusty guidebook had lauded as one of the most picturesque in the country, and home to the Alegria Volcano and Crater Lake just 2km outside of town.

Laguna de Alegria hikeAt breakfast the day before, Roberto described a hike that would lead us through lush coffee plantations, high up onto the volcano ridge surrounding the Laguna de Alegria, and after circling the crater and catching spectacular views of nearby volcanoes, mountains and across all the way to the Pacific Coast, would lead us down into the sulfur lake with hot springs. The days we spent on the beaches had been particularly lazy, and with a great desire to get active, Roberto had us at the word ‘hike’.

This is how we found ourselves at 8am with Walter, and Roberto who decided to tag along, wondering about our judgment to head into the El Salvadorian wilderness with  two men and a machete. Roberto had a fairly sharp knife clipped to his belt, too. “For fruits we find on the way,” he explained. “And the machete?” Somehow, this question never escaped my tongue, as Dani and I simultaneously considered being nervous for about half a minute, but instead decided to trust our gut – and Walter’s contagious grin. We set off through the streets to the base of the mountain.

Laguna de Alegria hikeThe start was a steep 45 minute uphill hike through coffee plantations, and we panted like dogs through some interesting conversations about the coffee industry in El Salvador. Once at the top, we were rewarded by terrific views, as promised, and Walter showed us the route we would take around the entire crater top then down to the lake. Looking at the emerald green sulfur lake below and enjoying the breeze, the remaining walk didn’t seem too hard.

Laguna de Alegria hikeWe continued easily along well worn paths, arriving after another 20 minutes to a guard station on top of a small hill. The soldiers inside, in their underwear and brushing their teeth, didn’t seem to be guarding much at all, though the bullet holes blasted into the cement on the side were reminders of the long-term civil war which ravished the country from 1979 – 1992.

Alegria El SalvadorJust past the guard station, the path abruptly ended. Had I asked about what the machete was actually for before we set off, we would have learned that we were the first hikers to do the walk after the winter rainy season, and that the path had disappeared under branches, trees, and overgrown plants. Walter began hacking his way through the bushes and branches, magically following a path which the three of us did not see. Luckily, we didn’t find out until after the hike that the area was filled with scorpions, snakes and other little critters.

Laguna de Alegria hikeSuddenly, instead of solid ground, we were confronted with boulders piled up in front of us, and the only way to go was to hop and scramble from boulder to boulder like professional rock climbers – or Super Mario Brothers. Good thing we chose to wear our hiking shoes that morning. What had been a fairly easy hike had now turned in to a mountaineering session, with Walter holding our hands as we ascended and descended with one hand, while whacking at thick branches and tangled bushes in front of him with the other.

Laguna de Alegria hikeFinally, after five strenuous hours and a steep slippery gravel descent, we took in the smell of the sulfur lake while eating bananas and taking a very well-deserved break. On our return to town we took a different path, through a private coffee plantation, past workers collecting beans and children picking and crushing walnuts to share with us. Though we never intended on becoming mountaineers, we both felt sure, as we nibbled our walnuts, that the adventure was well worth the challenge.

Alegria El Salvador

Interested in staying at Entre Piedras hostal in Alegria, El Salvador? Check out our full review here! And if you don’t want to spend the night – it’s worth stopping by for a cup of delicious locally grown coffee. Say Hi to Walter from us!

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Reflections: 200 Days on the Road

Crossing the Border Belize – Guatemala

It is amazing how much life you can squeeze into 100 days. It seems like forever ago that we wrote our first 100 days on the road post from Mazunte, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Between then and where we are now, in San Salvador, we have visited four countries, explored caves with Mayan skeletons, climbed volcanoes, swam with sharks and sting rays in the Caribbean, lived for a month in a beach front apartment in Playa del Carmen, had two fairly major illnesses, almost got robbed, traveled to places almost completely off the beaten path, met loads of people, worked full time, even took on extra work, blogged more, and we are nearly finished with a globetrottergirls.com website redesign.

In short, during our second 100 days, we have really gotten the hang of long-term travel. Balancing full-time work and full-time travel has gotten much easier, and it no longer feels as though we are ‘squeezing in’ time for the blog, either. Life on the road is certainly more spontaneous than stationary office life, but habits develop and life inevitably takes on a new, but distinct rhythm. What may have initially felt exotic is now second nature – chicken bus trips flinging us faster than roller coaster rides, hopping in and out of tuk tuks, bellying up to market stalls to wolf down street food, and even things like negotiating prices and striking up conversations with complete strangers now come with ease.

While some things have gotten easier, there have been some definite lows: Dengue, Giardia, bed bugs, serving as a mosquito buffet, and the typical bouts of some painful stomach cramps. In addition to interrupted good health, our work/travel pace has also been severely interrupted at times. A trip to Todos Santos and Chichicastenango in Guatemala and a hectic week in El Salvador kept us offline a lot recently, and we have had to make up for a lot of lost time.

During these offline times, it has become clear that the longer you travel and fall in love with exploring, the more you tend to fall off the beaten path, which means invariably means away from quality internet connections. This is fine for the mind-blowing life experiences column, but makes managing priorities a challenge, walking a fine line between staying planted online along the beaten path which ensures a much easier time of balancing work and travel, but strictly following the ‘Gringo Trail’ can be less than fulfilling for the explorers in us, even if it satisfies the worker inside. Our time in Antigua has also come and gone – a milestone of sorts for us. I lived in the colonial ex-capital for two years from 2001-2003, and since we met in 2006, I had constantly told Dani stories and even introduced her to some of the crazy characters from my time there. Finally after four years together and over five months on the road, we arrived in Antigua, staying for two weeks. We worked, I overcame the rest of my Dengue, we ate out (a lot!), and we basically recuperated and prepared for the heavy weeks of constant movement to come. It was amazing to have Dani explore with me not only the town, but this part of my path that may have always just been stories, had we never set off on this trip.

Two weeks was a great amount of time to rest in Antigua, but we spent even more time, an entire month, in a great apartment just two minutes from a nearly deserted section of Caribbean beach in Playa del Carmen. Here we worked intensely full-time, both of us, using the beach as the ultimate lunch break. Thinking back to the days of grabbing a sandwich and running an errand before stuffing ourselves back in the office in London, we appreciated every moment we had on the beach in Playa.

The Playa del Carmen segment of these last 100 days extended the Mexico leg of the trip even longer. After nearly three months, we semi-grudgingly cut off our time in Mexico toward the end of September, forcing ourselves to head on to Belize.

Of course, we ended up loving Belize, and Guatemala and El Salvador, too. During the former Reflections post one hundred days ago, we remarked that people, at least so far, are inherently good. Having now traveled to more countries, cities and smaller villages, our faith in people deepens, even despite an attempted robbery on my bag in a bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango (she razored the side, but didn’t get anything). Our enthusiasm for the people of Mexico (friendliest people on the planet) still stands, but we have been met with kindness, helpfulness and new friendships in each of the places we have visited.

One downside to our trip has been the fact that we eat out. A lot. We are tired of eating out in restaurants, and wish it were easier cook for ourselves. The food usually ranges from edible to delicious, but the waiting, the ordering, the clarifying what it means to be vegetarian (it has chicken, is that okay? No? Well, we have a lovely fish dish you might like to try….nothing with a face, you say?)…these things are time-consuming and complicated. Cooking for ourselves more often would be great, but only comes with our apartment rental and housesitting gigs, as the minority of hostels we stay at offers a guest kitchen.

But listen to us, complaining about the luxury of eating in restaurants, or eating at all. How ridiculous, considering the level of poverty we see as we move southward through Central America. It is not only the poverty, but the sharply defined divide between rich and poor. It is so absurd to see a shoeless man, whose feet are both black from dirt and bloody scamper quickly past an exclusive Nine West luxury shoe boutique in San Salvador to avoid bumping into an elegant middle-aged woman as she steps out of her Lexus SUV to purchase yet another pair of $200 shoes.

Shoes, in fact, have been a sensitive issue with us and we recently bought six pairs of them for six boys in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Some of the boys, on their feet selling goods all day long, wore tattered and too-big hand-me-downs or even only plastic sandals during freezing cold evenings and mornings. If you were to go to Chichi in the next couple of weeks and mention Dani and Jessie the kids of Chichi would probably still know who you are talking about. Rather than buying ourselves anything in the most popular market town in the country, we ended up buying only shoes and nearly 20 kites for about 15 different kids, and had kids chasing us around and in their best English begging, “Shoes por me, miss?”

With each day our awareness of poverty increases, as we see human beings fighting for their lives as a result of the most basic illnesses and it breaks our hearts. Just as heartbreaking for us are the terrible conditions of the thousands of street dogs running rampant through these countries. For any of you who can watch a film with murders without flinching but turn down the volume and cover your eyes when a dog dies in a film – you will understand how we feel here. For every dog treated as one of the family, there are one hundred street dogs treated like rats. People shoosh them away and even throw shoes at them to force them away. All breeds of dog, from tiny Chihuahuas and West Highland Terriers to Rottweilers, Collies and an amazing range of mutts, are bone-thin, starving, constantly scavenging, nose in any heap of garbage to lap up the remaining crumbs. Their skin is often open, bleeding, gouged from dog fights, or worse, the wrath of remorseless teenage boys. We have seen several dogs lying on the side of the road or in a park, breathing shallow sips of air in what are most certainly their last few breaths. In Quiche, near Chichi, I am sure that one of the dogs, had we gone back just an hour later, would most certainly be dead. But who to help first? How to start? This is where we are at now, and each and every day we see another dog, man, kitten, child, woman that we would like to help. And although we considered it, we can’t buy everyone their own pair of shoes or take in all of the stray dogs.

Even though we have recently decided to kick up our travels into a higher gear to make it to South America hopefully by January / February, don’t be surprised if we stop along the way to volunteer, and any recommendations for volunteering with children in Honduras/Nicaragua/Costa Rica/Panama are happily accepted in the comments below.

Lastly, in these last 100 days, as our site has grown and filled with content, we have decided to take globetrottergirls.com to the next level. We need a fresh design to display much more content at once, rather than the straight chronological blogging format. Some kinks and links might still need adjusting, but we would love to hear comments on the new look and feel of globetrottergirls.com. We also finally have a subscription box, so please please please feel free to sign up to receive email updates with new posts as they are published.

We can’t believe how long we have now been on the road and how quickly another set of 100 days has flown by. We have no idea where we will be after our next 100, which, unbelievably will come at the end of February 2011 – stay tuned and follow our journey along the way…

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