Our Central America tour (14): San Salvador – and three countries in three hours

Thursday started in San Salvador as we set off at the usual time of 8.30 am for what was billed as a city tour but was really just a visit to a cathedral and a model of the country. We were joined for the morning by a local guide called Alfredo whose grandparents lived two blocks from the main square downtown so that as a child he witnessed the tragic aftermaths of a number of demonstrations.

San Salvador was founded in 1525 by the Spanish explorer Pedro de Alvarado. It became the capital of the United Provinces of Central America from 1834 to 1839. Historically natural disasters have beleaguered the city including tremors in 1854 and 1873, a volcanic eruption in 1917, floods in 1934, and earthquakes in 1986 and 2001. Today it has a population of over 2 million. It is known as “the city with two sides of the coin’ because of the vast economic inequality but apparently violence is limited to a few neighbourhoods in the east of the city.

We drove downtown where modern department stores and offices share space with hundreds of non-legal street vendors whose stalls cover all the pavements and a good deal of the roads. We stopped in the main square of Plaza Barrios where plenty of armed police were in evidence.

The Catedral Metropolitana is far from the most impressive in the world – or even Central America – but it is noted as the site of the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated on 24 March 1980. The day after he made his latest speech on the need for human rights, he was shot dead while celebrating mass at a local hospital. To this day, nobody has been prosecuted for his murder and there is no absolute certainly over who ordered the killing, but Alfredo told us that “it is a well-known secret” that the assassination was ordered by the former mayor Roberto D’Aubuisson.

We saw his ornate tomb in the crypt of the cathedral and it was clear that he is held in great reference both nationally and internationally. Indeed moves are already in progress by the Catholic church to make him a saint. Officially two miracles are required.

From the cathedral, we drove to a place that used to be a military barracks guarding the presidential palace (or leading the latest military coup) but is now a military museum with a huge outdoor relief model of El Salvador in which all the altitudes are magnified double which emphasises the number of volcanoes in the nation (26).

North-west of the capital is the important archaeological site of Joya del Ceren known as the Pompeii of America because a small Maya settlement of perhaps 5,000 was covered by a volcanic eruption around 1400 years ago. The. devastation was caused by Volcan Loma Caldera.

Discovered in 1976, it is only a small site but its significance is that it is the only example of a Maya rural community accessible to archaeologists which is why it has been recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. There is an excellent small museum containing some of the artefacts discovered and then a walkway around the 10 structures that have been uncovered. Meanwhile the ubiquitous armed guard was wandering around.

We dropped Alfredo on the Central American Highway (not literally) and proceeded a little further north-east to the town of Santa Ana where we were deposited at a modern shopping centre to find some lunch.

We then headed north for the border between El Salvador and Guatemala where we had an easy crossing in just 20 minutes. The road in Guatemala was the worst of our trip and, sincee Roger & Vee were on the back seat, it was especially bone-rattling and bum-bruising. We were only using this road to reach the part of the border with Honduras that we wanted. We had to pay $2 a head to leave Guatemala and $3 a head to enter Honduras but the whole process only took 30 minutes. This meant that we had been in three countries in three hours.

Our destination in Honduras was Copan Ruinas which is only just over the border so were at our accommodation at 6.15 pm. It had been a journey of 300 km – much of it on a really rough road – but our hotel, the Marina Copan, welcomed us with a refreshing cocktail of rum, cucumber, honey and mint. It was our fifth hotel in five days – a new record for Roger & Vee and not one we will expect or hope to exceed. In fact, it is the most delightful hotel of our trip: spacious and well-provisioned rooms around a courtyard housing an open air swimming pool.

After such a lot of travelling, Roger & Vee and Brian & Cally opted to have dinner at the hotel and it was as good as any restaurant.


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