Saturday, April 2, 2016

Ataco: Riding El Salvador's Buses, Juayua, Hiking with Dogs

We left Bahia del Sol on our road trip to the Ruta de Flores on Wednesday morning, catching the 495 bus to San Salvador in front of the hotel-marina driveway. Getting to our destination of Juayua required four transfers within El Salvador's extensive network of bus routes.

We had a general idea of the bus numbers and transfer points, but the devil is always in the details. The bus terminals are big and noisy with lots of people and buses in constant motion and not much in the way of signage, often none at all. To further complicate matters, our buses would arrive at one terminal and the next bus we wanted would depart from another terminal across the street or down some steps or around a corner, or down the street.  Thankfully, there are plenty of conductors and ticket sellers around that are very knowledgeable and helpful and got us to wherever we needed to be.

While the buses themselves are crowded, uncomfortable and noisy, they are also very frequent and very cheap. We didn't have to wait more than 15 minutes and $1 gets you a long way, over an hour's ride. (El Salvador uses US dollars for its currency.) One one leg of our journey, we splurged and spent $1.40 for an "especial" bus, which was air-conditioned, had a movie and cut 20 minutes off the nearly two hour travel time for the standard bus. 

Another nice and welcome aspect of bus travel in El Salvador is that the bathrooms in the bus terminals are quite clean, not something you would expect from how the rest of the terminal looks. To use the bathroom costs $0.30 "sin papel", $0.40 "con papel". Somehow this is enough to keep the bathrooms at least as clean or cleaner than the typical public restroom in the U.S.. I passed by a bathroom with a sign that identified it as "exlusivio" and which cost a bit more than the standard one. I didn't try it, but was impressed that it had a uniformed guard armed with a pistol-grip, pump action shotgun. I guess in El Salvador, having the money to splurge on fancy restrooms makes you a target for being robbed in one. The shotgun takes away that worry, for the duration of your visit at least. Unless the bad guys are better armed...

Five buses and about five hours after we left Bahia del Sol we arrived in the small town of Juayua. It is pretty nice town that seems to be working hard to be a tourist destination but not there yet, for better and for worse. We stayed at a rustic hotel on the outskirts of town that has a nice view of the countryside.

Yesterday we took a nice hike through coffee farms and forest to a bunch of waterfalls. I had made arrangements through a nearby hostel for a guide to meet us in the morning. When we arrived at the hostel to meet our guide we were greeted by a dog, Billy, who was very excited and happy to see us. It turns out that Billy gets to go on the waterfall hikes, too.

We walked through town with our guide, Germán and then about a kilometer down a dirt road until we got to his family's home. There he changed from his "city" clothes, blue jeans a neat shirt and good shoes, to his hiking clothes, tee shirt, sweat pants and old sneakers. As we departed down a trail from the back of his home, his dog Cuchon, decided to join us. So now we were a party of three humans and two dogs enjoying a trek through the tropical countryside.

We walked for a few miles on winding, hilly trails until we arrived at the first of seven waterfalls, a small cascade down a vertical, lushly vegetated cliff. Billy was a veteran of many waterfall hikes and knew her way through and around the cool falling waters. It was Cuchon's first time, though, and she was afraid to cross the waterfall and refused to continue. Germán tried to coax her along, but she would have none of it. I could tell he was troubled by having to leave her behind as his job and duty as a guide took precedence over dealing with a wayward pet. We would have willingly waited or altered the hike to make sure Cuchon was okay, but that just wasn't an option in Germán's mind, so we pressed onward hoping that Cuchon would find her way home by smell.

We hiked from beautiful waterfall to beautiful waterfall, one of which required us to free rappel down, which was more like having a rope handrail for balance than anything resembling technical climbing skills. The superfluousness of the rope was reinforced when Germán clambered quickly up the fall and back down to recover the rope from where it was tied off. In addition to the climbing rope, we were provided with hard hats which make the photos of our waterfall descent look more dangerous and exciting.

At the end of the hike, we returned to Germán's house and all of us were happy and relieved to find that Cuchon had successfully found her way home and was resting happily in the shade after her big adventure.  We walked back to town, bid farewell to Billy and Germán and then treated ourselves to an ice cream in air conditioning to cool down.

Yesterday we took a short bus ride (no transfers or VIP restrooms) to the town of Concepción de Ataco, which is just called Ataco locally.  Ataco seems about the same size as Juayua, but streets are wider and much cleaner and it seems to be a bit more propsperous and successful as a tourist town. There are several good inexpensive hotels and quite a few very good restaurants. I had one of the best cappuccinos ever at a nearby cafe that roasts its own locally grown beans and we enjoyed a nice dinner and bottle of Chianti in a tropical garden Italian restaurant. It still amazes me to find myself in a small Central American village sipping wine and eating housemade gorgonzola gnocchi in a light cream pistachio sauce, a seemingly unlikely location for such cosmopolitan gastronomic treats.

Today we are relaxing in town, enjoying strolling around town on market day and  the peaceful garden courtyard of our hotel. Tomorrow we reverse our five bus journey back to Bahia del Sol. Maybe I'll try the super-secure VIP restroom when we change buses?

View from our hotel garden in Juayua

Juayua street

FMLN party headquarters in Juayua. The FMLN was an umbrella group for five leftist guerrilla groups and a main participant in El Salvador's civil war. It is now one of the two main political parties in the country.

Front door of FMLN headquarters in Juayua, featuring the ubiquitous Che icon. 

Colorful murals in the R&R restaurant in Juayua where we enjoyed a nice dinner
Germán's, our guide's, house, the start of our waterfall hike with dogs Billy and Cuchon (in right corner)

Germán and Billy set off down the trail

The intrepid explorer Renee conferring with her guide on the best way to ascend the active volcanoes in the distance.

The Salvadoran highlands

The first waterfall, which Cuchon refused to cross

Renee's waterfall descent

Billy evaluating Renee's waterfall agility

Billy meditating at the base of the waterfall

Hiking a dry arroyo to the next fall

A cicada, one of multitudes making the forest a constant buzz

Close up of the face of a cicada

Refreshing, but I think this waterfall makes me look fat so I don't like it so much now.

Waterfall at the end of the hike, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch and a swim