THERE ARE ADVANTAGES and disadvantages to carrying your own dive gear across the planet. Whileit's great to have equipment you trust and are familiar with, as opposed to taking your life in your hands with a leaking BCD and rasping regulators rented out by a sketchy dive shop, the stuff weighs a bloody ton. My main pack is 20kg+, mainly dive gear, with limited clothing. So after knacking my rib on the surfboard, I decided I'd do a tour of El Salvador without the big bag; Sean kindly agreed to mind it, as he was staying in El Tunco 5 weeks. I lent him my laptop in return for the favour. Packing three tee shirts, my shorts, one pair of swim-shorts, a book, my notebook and camera, I was ready for some serious chickenbus action. The big bag would be a weight off both my mind and my rib.
LAGO DE COATEPEQUE is an hour outside of San Salvador, then a further bus from another junction with El Congo gets you shoreside. It's a varied mix around the lake; walled villas of the rich sit as empty playthings until the weekend, while poorer locals eke out a living from dilapidated, tiny homes alongside the dusty road. I'd travelled up with a trio from Tunco, and we headed for the only hostel which seemed to be operational. And it had certainly seen better days. A couple of workmen were sweeping leaves from the pathways around a cloudy swimming pool. Talk about polishing a turd. The majority of the buildings were in urgent need of repair, it looked like the owners had bitten off more than they could chew. Having said that, this is Latino workmen we're talking about...get a team of Polish lads in there, and the placewould be completely refurbished in a week. But maybe the locals like to save a bit of work for tomorrow, and I don't suppose you can blame them.
We were greeted by the local woman who ran the show. She showed us the main building with pool table and TV, and rusting multi-gym in the gardens. The jetty to the lake was a little patchy, but safe to negotiate your way across slowly. The boss disappeared and returned with a laminated menu for dinner. I was observing the wide variety of food stains on her sweatshirt, silently musing on the age of them, as she passed it to me, leaving a greasy smudged thumbprint in the corner. Like I was going to eat there? I played safe and ate at Oscar's pizza shop; a tiny place dominated by his huge oven. He was a really nice fellow who made 5" pizzas for the local kids for just $1. There are not enough people like that in the world. Two impossibly cute little locals had been waiting for their pizza, and we offered them the slices of ours we couldn't eat. The poor little mites even ate the crusts we'd bitten into; that small detail made me feel really sad. Travel makes you realise how lucky you are.
COATEPEQUE should be a serene place. The lake is best swum in the morning when the wind is low, there are no waves and the water is clear. We were down there early for a day of swimming and reading. Said serenity was broken within minutes by the annoying buzz of approaching jetskis. The owners made figure-of-eight passes around the jetty, trying to catch our eyes. A smile and a No, gracias didn't seem to do the trick. They'd go no further than 30 yards away before heading back, gesturing at the machines and then pointing at you. Like one of us, after an hour of badgering, was suddenly going to leap up in a state of frantic excitement and shout "You there, my good man with the jetski...nothing would complete my life more than renting one of those at this very moment...do bring it over and force yourself upon my wallet, dear boy!?" About as likely as us taking the boat tours which tried the same tactic after the jetskis had given up. In he sailed, pointing down at his craft "Boat!" he cried. "Barco" I answered back. You name it in my tongue, I'll match you in yours. And no ta, I don't want a joyride.
Having had pizza for lunch, our dinner options were limited. We walked to the edge of the village to look for a local comedor, basically a kitchen run from someone's home. Seeing one that looked atmospheric and softly-lit, we headed in. I regretted my haste immediately as the woman jumped up from her dinner, swept bits of food onto the dirty floor with a greasy rag, and bade us sit. A stinking dog begrudgingly shifted its carcass from the floor to let us pass. English manners prevented me bolting for the door. A rictus grin adorned my face. As we ordered and waiting, I took in the surroundings. Unidentifiable animal skins splayed on the walls; lethal-looking wooden traps; faded photographs; huge machetes. Several weird relics dotted the room, laced with cobwebs; it looked like a set from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Grandpa was probably out back, weakly trying to hammer a tourist to death over a bucket. Thankfully the food wasn't as grim as the surroundings. The worrying thing for me was that my companions said that they'd eaten in far worse places on their trip? Like where...prison?
SANTA ANA was the next logical place to stay, being the gateway to the Ruta De Las Flores. The Lonely Paranoid describes it thus: "Hints of a wealthy yesteryear linger in the colonial backstreets...lively nightlife and proud enterpreneurial spirit...the plaza is among the finest in El Salvador..." The only way a local would be proud in this grimy, pointless dump would be if he'd saved enough for a car to drive out of there in. The main square is nothing to look at during the day, and gets very sketchy at night. None of the bars stayed open later than 8pm in that area. I wandered out around 9pm the first night, after smoking weed on the roof terrace with a genial 60-year-old Italian fellow. He'd been travelling on-and-off for years, had no ties, just enjoyed seeing the world...and getting stoned. I felt like Scrooge meeting the Ghost Of Christmas Future. Except he wasn't pointing at my grave, just passing me a joint. Gracias. Hunger got the better of me, and a girl named Kerry was peckish, too. Out we headed through the deserted backstreets to the plaza, encountering only various spectres in the shadows, most looking like rejected extras from Thriller. After a fruitless walk around the darkened square, we escaped the beggars and headed back...reduced to a Pollo Companero for dinner. Think KFC but ten times worse. I'd have been happily back at the lakeside smelling wet dog and playing Guess The Dead Animal Pelt while waiting for my undercooked chicken. It's just a shame that the Casa Verde hostal happens to be the best accomodation I've used, while being situated in the worst town in El Salvador.
ATACO is a beautiful little town where no-one pays much attention to Westerners. No-one, that is, apart from a few buses full of schoolgirls who ran over en masse when they saw us, politely demanding to have their photos taken with us. One said I looked like Paul McCartney. I asked if she meant in the 60s or in his 60s? The German girl with us was popular, blondes being a rarity in these parts. While his girlfriend was occupied being photographed I muttered under my breath to Andy, pointing out a shy girl stood at the back of the pack; she was far and away the most incredibly stunning young woman I've seen in Central America...jet-black hair and cheekbones you could slice bread with. If she walked down the street in London, no doubt she'd have a modelling contract by the end of the afternoon. Andy agreed, but said I was a dirty old bugger...she was only 15. But I honestly wasn't even thinking impure thoughts, simply wowed by the vision of her.
We used Ataco as a base to discover the Ruta De Las Flores (if you need that one translating, don't bother taking up Spanish, will you?), a network of small towns and villages linked by a single bus route. This area is supposedly prettier in the summer when the flowers are in full bloom, but the views of the surrounding hills and valleys were enough for me as they were.
JUAYUA is famed for its weekend food fair, and we headed there under the misguided idea that there'd be everything from frog curry to barbecued lizard. Unfortunately for us, it was the usual fayre of rice, beans and fried chicken. This food really is going to be the death of me. I've never had a bad meal in Thailand, and never had a good one in the Americas...bar the trout in San Gil, Colombia, and breakfast in El Tunco, El Salvador. Buy Phad Thai on the street in Bangkok, and it's far and away richer in taste than the shite forced on us here. Depressing. Anyway, Juayua isn't the most exciting place, but we had a great day there watching Barcelona stuff Manchester United in the Champions League Final. I think the locals expected us to support the Reds, but after the Fergusons crippled my football club this season, I was dancing with delight as the Spaniards humiliated them. Lovely.