Ataco: El Salvador’s Cartoon Town

After my day of relaxation in Juayua, I was itching to explore more of the country. I decided to spend my last night in the country in Ataco, El Salvador, another small town on the picturesque Ruta de las Flores. Ataco is famous for its unique, cartoon murals. The town is characterized by large swatches of wall decorated with big-eyed, brightly-colored people and animals.

I spent all day wandering around town, gazing at the walls and sipping the incredible local coffee. The visual style was overwhelmingly charming. I stumbled across an artisan’s market and was unable to stop myself from buying several pieces of cartoon art to take home.

My First Experience with the Latin American Holy Week

Later in the day, I met up with one of the friends I had met in San Salvador. As we wandered around town, we stumbled across something incredible: a Holy Week procession. All over Latin America, during the week before Easter, communities hold elaborate processions celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ. The most famous are the flamboyant celebrations of Antigua, Guatemala, which is why I was heading there the next day.

ataco el salvador holy week

In a random stroke of luck, we witnessed Ataco’s much smaller version that day.  A Holy Week procession on any scale is an incredible event. Home owners on the path of the procession decorate the street in front of their home with alfombras, or sawdust carpets. The carpets take hours to assemble and vary from simple lines to painstakingly complex patterns. Then, in an instant, as the procession passes, they are destroyed.

As we walked around town we spotted the early stages of the alfombras. We began to follow the path, watching the families constructing their temporary pieces of art.

Later, we watched the procession itself. First, a large group of children clothed in purple marched down the street, inching around the carpets. They were followed by a group of men carrying an enormous wooden float depicting Jesus with the cross.

Jesus floated down the street towards us, quivering oddly with the beleaguered steps of the men. There was a tense moment as the float hovered on the edge of the carpets. Then they would lurch forward, trampling the art. A few minutes after Jesus passed, a group of women inched past carrying a somber float depicting Mary. We watched as the mass of people wobbled down the street past us, destroying the beautiful carpets and reveling in their community, spirituality, and tradition.

The whole event passed us in about ten minutes. It was shabby and quaint and heartfelt, an interesting contrast to the madness I was about to witness in Guatemala over the next few days.

A Fitting End to a Wonderful Stay

The next day, I awoke early to make the long chicken bus trek to Guatemala. I was surprised to realize how sad I was to leave El Salvador. What had started as an anxious, spur-of-the-moment decision had turned into a magical few days in the most welcoming and friendly little towns. I reflected on the startling difference between El Salvador’s big, bad reputation and it’s incredibly welcoming culture as waited to get my passport stamped at the border.

Noticing my unwieldy bags of souvenirs and art, the man behind me in line offered to help carry my bags forward as we waited. I gladly accepted and we began talking.

A few years younger than me, he was shy but curious. He knew a small amount of English and was as eager to practice it as I was to test my Spanish. I told him about my travels and work in Belize and he explained that he was moving to Guatemala to find work. He asked me what I had thought of El Salvador and I explained how friendly and open the people were. He smiled, acknowledging the ways of his countrymen as he lifted my bag and inched it forward along with us.

We chatted until we approached the front of the line. As we did, he handed me something small. It was a key-chain crafted out of a smoothed, clay-red rock and a string of small beads. He made them, he said, and he wanted me to have it to remember El Salvador. It felt satisfying and reassuring in my hand. I thank him profusely — it was a better souvenir than I could have possibly purchased.

my keychain from a stranger (and my favorite memento of el salvador)

We walked over the border bridge together and then got on separate buses heading into Guatemala. He waved me a amiable goodbye as we parted. It was a fittingly sweet ending to my short jaunt through warm, welcoming El Salvador.

Now…onwards to Guatemala!

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