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   General   (below)
   El Salvador
   Costa Rica
♦   Trip Recommendations


ARGO has been marina-readied and is in good hands with several trusted friends.  We leave the air conditioner, programmed to “humidity” cycle, running as we have found that this keeps the boat cool and dry (i.e., keeps mildew and mold from forming) while not costing too much.  Rainy season in the Rio Dulce can make a mess out of a boat interior if proper precautions are not taken, as we have learned from others.  Other methods are using a dehumidifier, leaving bowls of vinegar out, using desiccants or chalk packets, and putting packets of formaldehyde (Sun Pacs) throughout the boat.

From the Rio Dulce, we bus it to Guatemala City for some routine medical checkups as it has been a year.  During our stay, we visit the consulates/embassies of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, collecting some useful information, maps, etc. (i.e., more stuff to lug around).  In the spirit of being a true cruiser, little advance planning has been done as to specifics.  When we leave Guatemala City, all we have are bus tickets to San Salvador and a reservation for our first night.


Most countries limit the number of days a foreigner can stay in their country; sometimes an extension(s) is routinely granted.  After that, you must leave the country for a specified period of time. 

In 2006, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, collectively called the "CA-4", unified under an agreement to act as one country for purposes of immigration.  So what this means is that when our time is up in a CA-4 country, we must leave the CA-4 countries  - which leaves Belize and Costa Rica as our closest options. 

In 2006 this was not being enforced (on the Rio Dulce, we paid "official" people to take our passports to Honduras to be stamped), but in 2007 it is being loosely enforced.  Under current law, we are allowed 90 days in Guatemala, then we must leave for 3 days. 

We are traveling during the “green season”, which is the tourism's spin on the “rainy season”; locals call it “winter” and tourists call it “low season”.  Whatever you call it, it coincides with “hurricane season” and spans from June through November.  Typically, the mornings are clear blue skies, and the afternoons may cloud up with a couple hours of rain, sometimes at night.  Accordingly, we plan our outdoor activities for the morning, and when we are out in the afternoon we carry an umbrella or rain jacket.  But the good news about traveling now is that there are a lot fewer tourists.  The best reason we can give for traveling at this time is that advance reservations (for anything) are not needed so traveling without an itinerary or timetable, as we did, allowed us to be totally flexible.  Accommodations (and other things) tend to be less expensive (we got several free room upgrades).  With the rains come greener and lusher vegetation and flowering plants everywhere, and more waterfalls, fuller streams and better river trips and rafting.  Scorching temperatures at the coast and lowlands are replaced with a bit milder climate and arid places are less dry and dusty.

I’m sure there are more than a few readers out there who are questioning our wisdom of going to El Salvador and Nicaragua:  “Isn’t it dangerous?”   “Don’t you know - there’re civil wars going on.”   “You’ll be killed or kidnapped.”   “I heard about  .  .  .  “ 

The truth is that the civil wars have been over for years and the countries are rebuilding themselves.  These countries are no different than being in Guatemala (ok, so some of you wonder about our judgment on that, too) or Belize or Mexico or Costa Rica  (more tourist get robbed in Mexico and Costa Rica than in El Salvador - ok, so more tourists go to those places).  We had absolutely NO problems of any kind on our trip (other than MasterCard cancelling our card due to stolen card numbers from a U.S. merchant – that’s why we always travel with multiple cards).

The key is that we always keep safety in mind when selecting our destinations, transportation, lodging and activities, even though it may cost us a little more.  And common sense goes a long way, too.  For example, cheap local buses (read: easy target) were only used when we weren't carrying luggage.

There is so much to see in these countries that we couldn’t do it all, so we had to pick and choose what we thought were the highlights of each country. For example, all three countries have more than their share of national parks, protected areas and privately own reserves, but Costa Rica is best known for it's fantastic rain/cloud forests and huge wildlife population.  (Civil war has kept El Salvador and Nicaragua from being overdeveloped and from ravaging it's natural resources; Costa Rica has protected it’s diverse ecology with over 27% of it's land being protected.)

For those of you readers interested in traveling to these Central America countries, we have put together “El Salvador – Nicaragua – Costa Rica Trip Recommendations” with lodging, transportation and activity information including costs and trip tips.  Even the casual reader may enjoy looking at this to get more details and an additional feel for our travels that have not been included here.










San Salvador – Suchitoto – Morazán/Perquín - Coffee finca in Juayúa mountains   (see map below)


Day trip to Perquín, the longtime stronghold of the FMLN anti-government guerrillas, with a guerrilla-turned-tour guide.





6.9 million   (92% mestizo)


8,100 sq. miles  (about the size of Massachusetts)


San Salvador, pop. 2.5 million


80%      (rural schools by radio)


$165/month   (highest in Central America, although stats vary depending on source)


Coffee, sugar, cotton


U.S. dollar adopted in 1991


21 known volcanoes; 3 considered active; Santa Ana erupted in 2005

CIVIL WAR:      

1980 – 1992:  75,000 killed; 300,000 fled country


El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and the most densely populated.  It borders the Pacific coast on the west side (known for it's surfing beaches), and Guatemala and Honduras to the north and east/south respectively. 

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated the country, leaving 200 dead and over 30,000 homeless. In January and February 2001, major earthquakes struck El Salvador, damaging about 20% of the nation's housing. An even worse disaster beset the country in the summer when a severe drought destroyed 80% of the country's crops, causing famine in the countryside.

Known as the Land of Volcanoes, there are 2 volcanic ranges in El Salvador with 3 of the 21 known volcanoes being active.  Two of these active volcanoes have coffee fincas (plantations) on it's slopes - fertile volcanic soil and their higher altitudes with cooler temperatures make them ideal for growing crops like coffee - however, it puts many people's lives at stake.  Volcano Santa Ana, after being quiet for over a century, erupted in 2005, followed 2 days later by torrential rains from hurricane Stan, creating massive landslides and burying villages.  Damage was worsened by deforestation and overbuilding in that area. 


During the civil war many Salvadoran families took refuge in the U.S., some vowing never to return to their homeland.  Nowadays, many go there strictly to send financial support to families back home.  Today, the population in El Salvador is 7 million; there are 2 million Salvadorans living in the U.S. (mostly L.A. and D.C.).  Those living in the U.S. with modest jobs, called “long-distance brothers”, send between $2 - $2.5 billion annually back to their families in El Salvador, which constitutes 16% of El Salvador's gross domestic product.  When those living in the U.S. come back to El Salvador for family visits, this constitutes 25% of the tourist traffic.  And, when returning to the U.S., “nostalgia commerce” accounts for $450 million (or 10% of the El Salvador exports).  We’ve heard it said several times that the flights from San Salvador to Los Angeles smell like fried chicken because the cabin is full of cardboard buckets of Pollo Campero fried chicken  - not to eat on the way but to give to homesick family and friends in the U.S..  But now there are Pollo Camperos in Houston and Los Angeles.  Gringos, cruisers and Steve really like their Pollo Campero!

The heritage of this country has been greatly lost through the years with 1) the near annihilation of indigenous people in the 1930's, 2) the fleeing of people during the civil war to neighboring countries, 3) the return of "Americanized" Salvadorans who were U.S. educated during the civil war, and 4) the large population of "long-distance brothers" now living in the U.S..  (See box LONG-DISTANCE BROTHERS.)  The general populace wears western wear (no, not the giddy-up type) and we noted how much more casual they are compared to Guatemaltecos.  For example, it is not unusual to see women, girls and even some men wearing shorts.  However, we still observed women and girls carrying baskets and all sorts of things on their heads, including an older woman carrying a regular car battery on her head - and with no hands!

When we visited, gasoline was $3.77/gal.  El Salvador, without a doubt, has the best roadways in Central America, paid for by gasoline taxes and probably from some other source(s).  Due to the civil war, roadways (and buildings, homes, cars, too) are only 15 years old.  We saw where an acceptable asphalt road was being repaved with cement to make it better; roadway construction takes place 24 hours/day; and get this, they actually use heavy equipment like in the U.S. (as opposed to by hand with rudimentary equipment as in Guatemala).

With little land to farm in this small country, El Salvador is trying to develop itself into a financial center and a customer service call center.  Salvadorans don't want to work the coffee and sugar cane fields as wages are very low and the work very hard.  Hondurans and Nicaraguans have been providing some of that labor force.  A family of 4 needs $500/month on which to live.  Thirty-four percent of jobs are non-tax paying (like street jobs selling food) and therefore no income tax is paid.  School is required for children through 6th grade but it is not enforced - families have to pay for their own uniforms, books and supplies so many cannot afford to send their kids to school.  Private schools are better but cost around $4,000 for "enrollment fee" + $400/yr + $125/mo., we were told.  Tourism is on the rise; however, most of it is from within the country so no real new revenues are generated.


BRIEF (I tried) HISTORY of EL SALVADOR:  In the late 1800’s coffee became El Salvador’s most important cash crop.  By the 20th century, 95% of the country’s income came from coffee exports but was controlled by only 2% of the population (14 families at one time).  With the Great Depression of 1929 drastically curtailing coffee exports, life became even more difficult for the working class who had no land to work.  An uprising of peasants and indigenous people in 1932, led by Farabundo Marti, was countered with the military (now aligned with the wealthy land owners) killing 30,000 indigenous people and supporters.  Indigenous traditions were lost as a result.  During the next 40 years, while the country was ruled by various military dictatorships, there were numerous revolutions, wars and border disputes with neighboring countries, while landlessness, poverty, unemployment, overpopulation, political fraud and corruption worsened. 

By 1979, various leftist anti-government guerrilla groups had organized themselves into the FMLN party (Farabundo Marti for the National Liberation), now a revolutionary army with the support of the rich people. Encouraged by the successful 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, the leftist FMLN saw an armed struggle against the military government as the only means toward reforms.  The assassination (during mass) of the outspoken Archbishop Romero (hero to the people) by the right-wing military in 1980 was the last straw that set off a full-scale civil war.  During 1979 to 1982, 30,000 people were killed by right-wing death squads backed by the military, led by Roberto D'Aubuisson (founder of the ARENA - National Republican Alliance). 

The civil war lasted for 12 years, 1980 – 1992, with a total of 75,000 people killed under the rule of the military government.  The FMLN guerrillas responded by blowing up bridges, cutting power lines, burning coffee crops, killing livestock – anything to stall the economy.  At the start of the war, and after the rape and murder of 4 U.S. nuns, President Jimmy Carter suspended trading and military aid with El Salvador.  However, in spite of scores of human rights violations, in 1981 President Reagan intervened on the side of the military dictatorship.  During the 12-year war, besides training many of their soldiers, the U.S. government gave a staggering total of $6 billion to the Salvadoran military government's war effort, which only fueled the fire and prolonged the conflict. 

Salvadorans see the civil war as a struggle between the U.S. and Russia on Salvadoran soil:  The U.S. supported the military government while the guerrillas were sponsored by Russia.  Interestingly enough, the Salvadoran civil war ended just after the Berlin Wall fell, and the Nicaraguan civil war ended.  In the end, neither the military government nor the opposing guerrilla forces won the war.  But everybody lost.  The war set back El Salvador’s development by 30 years.  Roads and bridges had to be rebuilt, coffee crops replanted and matured, utilities reinstalled, etc..  300,000 Salvadorans fled the country – to neighboring countries and the U.S. -  many promising never to return.

In 1992 the government signed a Peace Accords with the guerrilla forces, ending the 12-year civil war.  The guerrilla-based FMLN became an opposition party that the government agreed to work with and so far this has been happening.  It is remarkable in that this is a model example of where a former guerrilla organization has successfully joined the formal political process.  Many of the reforms have been made (e.g., voting, no more persecution, political) but economic reforms have been slow to come.

Today, this strong left wing FMLN party, although it does not have any executive power, has almost 50% control of the congress.  Elections are coming up in 2008 and some say the FMLN may be able to win.  Those in opposition say that if the FMLN wins, that that would be the beginning of communism.  But others argue that no Salvadoran wants communism, they’ve seen what has happened in Russia and in Cuba, and they value their relations with the U.S..  El Salvador’s government is low-profile/non-committal with neighboring Nicaragua, now that Ortega is back in power and in bed with Venezuela’s Chavez, Cuba’s Castro and Bolivia.

El Salvador attempts to closely align itself with the U.S..  In 2001, it adopted the U.S. dollar as the official currency (3rd to Panama and Ecuador in Latin America).  The nation implemented a free-trade agreement (CAFTA) with the U.S. in 2006, the first Central American country to do so.



-  -  -

A 4-hour trip from Guatemala City on a deluxe double-decker bus puts us in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.  As we crossed the border from Guatemala into El Salvador (no passport stamping due to the CA-4 thing), we were surprised by the immediate, obvious differences between these 2 countries.  Our first impressions of El Salvador:  Excellent highways – yes, we can actually call these “highways” -  impeccable surface, divided with landscaped medians, wide shoulders, well marked and good signage – we thought we were in Colorado; much cleaner and less roadside trash; lack of colorful traditional dress that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Guatemala; local buses (and cars) in much better condition. 

-  -  -

We spent our first night in Suchitoto, a small, cobblestoned-street, colonial town.  It is an hour north of San Salvador, situated high up on a hill overlooking serene Lake Suchitlán.  This town, once a cultural center, was a stronghold of the guerrillas during the civil war, and accordingly suffered great damage.  Since 1992, it has been rebuilt and become a weekend and holiday getaway for wealthy Salvadorans.  Although not obvious at first glance, there are several very nice hotels and restaurants, and a budding arts scene.  Some describe Suchitoto as what Antigua, Guatemala must have been like 25 years ago.  We ate Sunday lunch (Argentinean grill) at a nationally renowned artist's (wood sculptor and painter) house, which is his workshop and gallery Monday thru Saturday.   We stayed at a brand new guesthouse with a lovely view of the lake and surrounding volcanoes from the balcony.  Lake Suchitlán, constructed over pyramids in 1976 to make power, has water taxis but no recreational vessels (the water is considered unsafe for swimming due to runoff from the surrounding hills). Being pretty laid-back, we watched the holiday weekend festivities, explored locally and planned our next destination.

-  -  -

San Salvador, the capital, is a pleasant city with two very safe areas (Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalon) to stay in  and explore day or night, with lots of restaurants.  The international bus lines are also located here so we were able to easily "shop" our transportation to Nicaragua.  We also made use of the city buses to take us to several very nice museums (see Trip Recommendations), and one day inadvertently took a 2-hour city tour en route back to our hotel. 

El Salvador does not offer a lot in the way of artisan crafts.  Of note, however, is the folk art of Salvadoran Domingo Herrera, showcased in the small Museo de Arte Popular.  Her classic pieces are sorpresas - "surprises" - a tiny, meticulously painted clay figure depicting a profession or domestic scene, hidden inside a hollow clay "egg" cover.  This has flourished into a local, if not national, art form describing whole scenes of festivals, daily life, etc., made up of hundreds of these miniature figurines.  The tipíco sorpresas have evolved into pícara (mischievous) sorpresas - imagine the surprise when you lift the lid to reveal a petite ménage à trois! (not pictured).

A somber sight is the Monument to Memory and Truth, built in 2003, dedicated to the children, women and men who were the innocent victims during the civil war.  The monument is a 250 ft. long black granite wall - patterned after the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. - with an alphabetical listing by year of more than 25,000 (of the estimated 75,000 in total) people who were killed or disappeared during the war.  The number of names shown for 1980-1983 alone is staggering.  To one side of the monument is a long 3D mural depicting the Salvadoran people and their conflict.

-  -  -

Juayúa: We wanted to experience the fertile volcanic mountain area where coffee is grown.  We did an overnight trip to El Portezuelo Finca (elev. 3,300 ft.), in Juayúa, (near Sonsonate) along the Ruta de las Flores, where we stayed in the artsy guest house on a working coffee finca (plantation).  (The owner is one of the 5 major coffee producers in El Salvador and they sell exclusively to Starbucks.  Interestingly enough, we were NOT served their coffee for breakfast.


Being the only guest there, we were waited on hand and foot.  We did 2 guided hikes: One to the very hot springs/geyser flowing down the mountain with a great view into the valley (but cold springs would have been more refreshing!).  The other hike, our favorite, was through coffee fincas, a corn field and up into the cool tropical cloud forest, over the mountain and down to Laguna Verde, a crater lake, returning on winding, hilly dirt roads alongside other coffee fincas.  This is where we saw another use for snow chains:  Finca workers put them on their trucks so they can drive on the muddy trails. 


Outside the cities, and in particular on coffee fincas, we observed that most of the workers are women and girls, as the men and boys were killed during the civil war and others are in the U.S. sending money back to families.  The women and girls are very strong.  We saw them doing the heavy work, including an older woman carrying a regular car battery on top of her head (wish I had a picture) and girls using machetes to trim trees.  On more than one occasion, we’ve had a skinny girl working at the hotel carry all 3 of our backpacks at once – that’s probably about 70 pounds – but then we insist on carrying some.

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Morazán / Perquín / El Mozote:  Although we’re not history buffs, we wanted to understand what the civil war in El Salvador was all about.  As with probably most Americans, about all we knew was that there had been a long fought civil war in El Salvador in recent years (and hoped it was over with since we were here).  Thus, we decided we’d like to visit that part of the country best known for its guerrilla warfare. 

We took a long (14 hour) day trip along the Ruta de la Paz, “Peace Route”, up into the mountains in the far northeast part of El Salvador called Morazán.  This remote area, and in particular the town of Perquín, was the headquarters of the guerrillas during the civil war.  Through the tourism board, we contacted Mario who gave us an excellent, eye-opening private tour of the area.  A portion of the tour was conducted by Mario’s good friend, Luis, 38, a former FMLN guerrilla who began fighting at age 12.  Another portion of the tour was to El Mozote, the scene of a short-lived but brutal massacre of innocent people by the government.  (See below.)


(slide show below)



Perquín is located in the remote, high mountainous region of northeast El Salvador, very near the Honduran border.  This was the primary headquarters for the FMLN guerrilla war effort.  The guerrillas hid in the forest and in underground tunnels; trenches on top of the mountain provided safe observation.  The FMLN's underground radio broadcast was operated from here. 

Inside the Museum of the Revolution - we were not allowed to take pictures - we saw a large and extensive assortment of Russian-supplied weapons, ammunitions, missile/grenade launchers, etc. and some of U.S. origin that fell into their hands.  Lots of photos were displayed of the guerrillas and Luis pointed out his uncle (who we met that day) and other family and friends.  So many of them were very, very young - just kids, as was Luis.  Surprisingly to us, women played a very important role in the guerrilla war effort.  About 40% of the FMLN members were women, and they held 20% of the high leadership positions within the organization and composed a third of the active combatants.  Outside, we saw planes (of Russian and U.S. origins), each with a story to go with it.  More artillery.

We went in the room from which the clandestine FMLN radio broadcasts were made.  Located high up on a mountain helped the signal get out.  Again, no pictures allowed, but the room was totally "wallpapered" in egg cartons to absorb the sound, and various equipment was laying around.  Remember, the war only ended 15 years ago, so it hasn't been that long.

A walk around the "compound" revealed bomb craters, shell casings, oh yeah, and a Cadillac that somebody important rode in.  The organizer of the museum we met.



In December 1981, under false pretenses by government officials, residents - mostly women and children - from the outlying villages gathered in El Mozote to seek shelter from an impending military strike against the guerrillas.  But for no apparent reason (these people did not extend aid to the guerrillas), an elite U.S.-trained Salvadoran military group captured, terrorized and separated men from the women and children.  They were locked up in various places, and then sadistically killed - infants speared with bayonets, children machine-gunned down in the church, men decapitated, women and girls raped in the hills. The bodies were burned along with the town, or left to rot.  Only a handful survived (see box ABOUT OUR GUIDES below). 

Even though the FMLN guerrilla's underground radio reported the atrocities, and the Washington Post and New York Times interviewed 2 eye-witnesses, both the Salvadoran and U.S. governments denied this ever happened.  It wasn't until after the Peace Accords were signed more than 10 years later that exhumation of some of the bodies confirmed the massacre.

In all, almost 1,000 people, mostly women and children, were killed over a 3-day period.

Click here to view Slide Show of Trip to Perquín and El Mozote


Our trip guide, Mario Dominguez, 31, was born in 1976, just a few years before the civil war broke out.  His father, who was a traveling salesman and feared he would be killed, moved the family to Brazil, to return later after the war ended.  His family was more afraid of the National Guard and soldiers than of the guerrillas.  During our visit, Mario was noticeably disappointed that Americans in general weren't more aware of their civil war history.  Mario is a supporter of the leftist FMLN party.

Our ex-guerrilla guide, Luis, 38, was born here and lives in Perquín.  He was 12 when the civil war started and fought for 12 years with the FMLN.  He explained that there are many reasons why one becomes a guerrilla:  Luis had family members fighting (we met his uncle) and some were killed; others fight because they believe in the cause, while younger members might do so just because they live there or have older family members fighting.  

Our eye-witness survivor guide in El Mozote, Rufina Amaya rquez, was there when the soldiers stormed the village, and captured and murdered everyone.  She saw her husband shot and decapitated, and heard the horrific screams of her 4 children as each was brutally murdered.  At the end of a line of women walking to their deaths, she fell to her knees begging God, and just happened to be between 2 trees that hid her from the accompanying soldiers.  Having to lay absolutely still and silent as soldiers meandered around and the killings continued, she eventually was able to crawl into the thorny brush to await the soldiers departure.  She eventually made her way to safety where she was found naked by guerrillas who were thankful for an eye-witness survivor.  She is one of only a handful of survivors.  Her family was all killed - she showed us their names at the monument.

-  -  -

After an enjoyable and educational eight days in El Salvador, a 3:00 a.m. “luxury” bus takes us out of El Salvador, through the volcanic foothills of Honduras at sunrise, and into Nicaragua  .  .  .


Also seeEl Salvador – Nicaragua – Costa Rica Trip Recommendations” with lodging, transportation and activity information including costs and trip tips.  Even the casual reader may enjoy looking at this to get more details and an additional feel for our travels that have not been included here.

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