COATEPEQUE LAKE, El Salvador – The palms are swaying restlessly in the electric darkness, waiting for the storm to arrive. Lightning flashes over Santa Ana Volcano on the far side of the lake; just a few minutes ago I was walking along the shore with Elmer, catching the last bits of sunset over the lake.
He sensed the storm coming before I did. “Ya viene el agua,” he said. Literally, “Now the water is coming.” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect; rainy season notwithstanding, El Salvador gifted me with a blue sky my first full day in the country, perfect for visiting the pyramids of Tazumal and Casa Blanca, then catching a bus to this sparkling expanse of blue amid the volcanoes.
Yesterday, my first afternoon, the shower passed quickly to a glorious sunset over the gothic cathedral in Santa Ana’s central plaza, and I enjoyed the national symphony in Santa Ana’s spectacular theater before a short walk back to my hotel, La Libertad.
I left Guatemala City around 10 a.m. yesterday and arrived in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second city, at around 2. The terminal was in the southwest part of the city and as I tried to get my bearings, a genial Salvadoran Archie Bunker type approached. “Taxi?”
It was hot and my pack was heavy. “Sure,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he rushed off and shortly pulled up with a yellow car, meticulously hand-painted with the word “Taxi” in black and red. The inside was just as quirky, with every square inch of the dashboard decorated with something – a Tasmanian devil, a leopard-skin cloth and coins from around the world.
Ismael was his name, and he was friendly and engaging, but not cheap. Our roundabout search for a hotel set me back $15. Getting used to the dollar again wasn’t going to be easy, I realized.
Ismael offered to take me to Lake Coatepeque for $75 – which he insisted was the going rate. Later I checked with another driver and it seemed to be true. So I decided to stick with public transport, and for less than a dollar, the ruins of Chalchuapa and this spectacular crater lake were mine.
Granted, the accommodations weren’t the most luxe – the hikes to the bus stops and the waits with my 40-pound pack being the biggest deterrent – but they weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. The routes were long and winding, but there were no chickens this time, and the buses here were not as cram-packed with humanity as the ones in Guatemala had been. In fact, after the Guatemalan chicken buses, they were downright comfortable.
The food service was excellent, with locals coming aboard to vend everything from fresh fruit to “yuquitas” – corn-wrapped yucca balls. And the stern-looking young man driving the bus down into Coatepeque, the same one that had wired his bus for maximum sound and was blasting Central American rap music when I boarded, surprised me by switching to a gentler tune as we approached the lake and stopping the bus every time I stood to shoot a photo.
At first I thought it was just because of the tumulos, the monstrous tubes of concrete that are used as speed bumps here. But after the fourth or fifth time, I glanced up into the rearview mirror and saw him looking at me. This serious young man was proud of his beautiful country, I realized, and he wanted me to capture it well.
The bus was full when I boarded, and most eyes were averted to avoid having to deal with me and my monster backpack. A young man with a friendly face smiled at me, and that was all I needed. “Here, let me help,” he said, and held my pack on his lap.
Manuel was his name, and he was 26. He was trying to figure out how to get back home to Honduras after being deported from Mexico. He’d been trying to make his way north, but his luck had been bad. He’d nearly drowned crossing the Rio Grande, and had been deported from Las Vegas and San Antonio. Now he had been deported to the border of El Salvador, penniless, a five-day walk from the Honduras border. His pantomime of the terrifying river crossing was comical, and he smiled through most of his story, as if he were talking about a movie with a happy ending.
Why didn’t he just stay home? I asked him.
“What will I do there? There are no jobs,” he said, and smiled his charming, little boy smile. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday, I discovered, so I fished out my emergency stash of nuts from my backpack and handed them over. I paid his bus fare and found a $10 bill I could spare, and tucked it in his hand before he left.
The driver dropped me off right in front of Torre Molinos, the hotel I’d read about in the guidebook, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of a few hours of relaxation with a swimming pool and a lakeside view. The hotel has a decadent charm, and after a long run of backpacker-style hotels at $12 a night, I decided it was ok to splurge.
I ordered mojarra a la plancha, grilled tilapia, and was savoring the meal along with the sunset out on the balcony overlooking the lake, when Elmer, one of the employees, dropped by to make conversation.
America is the land of opportunity, he told me – that’s why an estimated 4 million Salvadorans live there, more than half the 7 million who live here. There’s just no opportunity here, he said.
“But you have a good job here at Torre Molina, no?” I asked, naively.
Elmer laughed and shook his head. “Six dollars a day,” he said. “For that I can rent a room. I can’t have a house. I can’t get married or have kids. Why would I want to bring children into the world when I can’t support them? Why would I want to marry a woman and make her miserable?”
“Oh, that’s so sad, Elmer,” I said.
“Oh, but it’s not so bad. Here at least I meet interesting people – and in the restaurant, they give me food,” he said.
“Oh! That’s good…. Like, mojarra?”
“No,” he smiled. “Never! Like, tortillas and beans.”
I looked down at my flaky white tilapia, my salad with slices of avocado and lime, my hand-made tortillas and fresh pineapple licuado. It had been a splurge at $12 – two days’ salary for Elmer.
“That’s why we keep coming to your country, no matter how many times you throw us out,” he was telling me, laughing. “I’m one of the lucky ones – at least I have a job. Those who work at the fincas have it much worse; they earn $50 every 15 days.”
The sunset was vanishing rapidly, as was my appetite. Fortunately, I had enjoyed most of my meal before Elmer arrived.
“Speaking of work, I have to do mine,” I said, changing the subject. “Where can I get the best photos of the sunset?”
So Elmer shifted into tour guide mode, showing me the path along the lake, the national flower – izote – and the presidential quinta. The shore of the lake was lighting up now that the sun was gone, and Elmer explained to me that most of the lights belonged to quintas, or private vacation homes of the wealthy. Lake Coatepeque, unlike Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, is mainly the preserve of the rich. Which, in this context, I am, despite my meager earnings as a freelance writer.
Elmer promised to wake at 5:30 to shoot the sunrise with me, and he says goodnight. Relieved, I order a coffee and a sorbet. Another $1.80. The coffee is Nescafe, but the sorbet is exquisite. The rain patters satisfyingly around me, an occasional bolt lighting up the volcano beyond this quinta’s arched window. I sigh.
It would all be so much more enjoyable, I think, if the world were just a bit more fair.
Photos from Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second-largest city and the capital of the department of Santa Ana:
From Tazumal, Casa Blanca and the town where they are found, Chalchuapa:
From the spectacular Lago Coatepeque and Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, including a climb of Cerro Verde and then Volcan Santa Ana, with views of Volcan Izalco: