I stood shivering in the stifling heat of early morning Managua. It was 5 AM and my shivers had nothing to do with the temperature. I was quivering with anxiety as I waited for my bus to El Salvador to pull into the station.
My snap decision to go to El Salvador was looking more and more harebrained the closer I got to the hour of departure.
Even besides the apprehension about El Salvador itself, I was experiencing an interesting phenomenon I’ve come to think of as “having lights on me.” Every time I enter a country for the first time I feel disproportionately out of place. Even if the region of the country I left was extremely similar to the region of the country I entered, I feel as if everybody around me knows that I’m brand new. It’s like having a floating neon sign above myself, advertising to every passerby “This person has no idea what she’s doing! She’s just another clueless, entitled tourist.” Everything seems a little more threatening and foreign for my first few hours in a new place.
This time around, I felt this before I even left Nicaragua. As I filed onto the bus with fifty other people, I felt certain that everybody there was a seasoned El Salvadorian laughing at my nervousness and insecurity.
I settled into my seat and tried to make myself comfortable – I had a fifteen hour bus ride and two border crossings ahead of me. These international bus services are an interesting experience. When you first board the bus, a conductor collects your passport and paperwork for crossing international borders. The bus drives you up to the country line and unloads everything and everybody on board. All of the passengers go through passport control as the bus is searched and then everybody piles back on and continues their ride. During this ride we would be passing from Nicaragua to Honduras and from Honduras to El Salvador.
The first border crossing was a little hectic and unnerving. Immigration officers are never kind or patient, and it’s particularly difficult to answer questions in Spanish when the person you’re speaking with is glaring at you while you struggle. Luckily, the conductor of the bus had realized that I might need help with the whole process and walked me through all the different steps. Though I’m often a proponent of taking local buses instead of these private charter lines, the comfort and support they provide is helpful if you’re feeling nervous.
I spent most of the fifteen hour bus ride devouring guide books for information on El Salvador. I had done cursory research during the early planning phases of my trip, thinking that I may stop in the country on my way to Guatemala. Now I was frantically flipping back through the same pages, trying to find hostels, bus routes, and safety tips for the country.
Don’t get me wrong: I was also bubbling with excitement. Part of me had always wanted to travel to El Salvador even though I had originally decided against it for safety concerns. Now that the decision was made I was excited to explore the region that had caught my eye in the first place: Ruta de las Flores.
Ruta de las Flores, or Route of the Flowers, is a string of five small coffee-producing mountain towns along a winding road in western El Salvador. They are named for the period in late May when the coffee crop blooms and the route is studded with thousands of the white flowers. The area is known for being beautiful, slow-paced, welcoming, and rich in food and drink culture.
I developed a plan: I would spend one necessary night in San Salvador when I arrived there that evening. I would leave the next morning to catch a bus to Juayua, the largest and most central town in Ruta de las Flores. From there I could either make day trips to the other towns or move on as I saw fit. Having a plan of attack calmed my nerves slightly, and I began to feel more comfortable with my decision.
One Night in San Salvador
I saw very little of San Salvador, but what I saw absolutely stunned me. It is a massive city, sprawling and chaotic and multi-faceted. The bus dropped me off a block from my hostel; the area surrounding it was shocking. It looked as if I had just stepped into an upper class suburb of New York or Los Angeles. The four lane roads were lined with sleek, modern architecture and international businesses. Sleek versions of McDonald’s and Pizza Hut rubbed shoulders with chic sushi restaurants and interior design storefronts.
I was amused to find, upon stepping into my hostel, a large blackboard declaring a trademark hashtag:
As I looked at it, I chuckled. I realized that almost every traveler I had spoken to on my trip had skipped El Salvador. Most took buses directly between Guatemala and Nicaragua, or else they stopped at the Honduras coast to go diving. A rare few had gone surfing on the El Salvadorian coast, but I had yet to meet anybody who had been to San Salvador. As my trip continued, I would meet more and more people who had spent time in the country. Every single one of them loved El Salvador and would stubbornly defend the country and their decision to explore it.
Without realizing it, I had stumbled onto the hipster backpacker trail through Central America.
As I stared at that hashtag, I began to feel my travel confidence returning to me. I had dealt with some truly unfortunate things in the past few days, but I had made a decision to move past them. Now that I was there, I was going to embrace every moment and dig into the realities of being in El Salvador.
After a surprisingly Brooklyn-esque food truck dinner, I crashed for the night in my half-empty dorm room. The next morning I laid in bed reading my guide book, working out how I was going to travel to Juayua that day. There were two other people in my dorm speaking a rapid Dutch-English hybrid to each other. I had been ignoring the chatter when a word popped out and grabbed my attention. It was “Juayua.”
Before thinking, I did something that six-months-ago-Caitlin could never have done. I leaned up in bed and called across the room, “Are you guys going to Juayua today?” They turned to me and nodded.
“Could I come with you? I was just trying to figure out how to get there.”
The Ride to Ruta de las Flores (and a Sweet Old Lady)
My heart started beating fast as my introverted brain caught up to my extroverted traveler’s impulse. It is not in my nature to be so socially forward. I need not have worried, though: they welcomed me into their group without hesitation. An hour later, the three of us set out to find the bus to Juayua. They explained that they had both been in the country for about a week and had just finished a three night stint in San Salvador.
When we hopped on the bus, I was glad to have company that had been in the country for some time. It was different than every chicken bus I had been on so far in Central America. Instead of paying a conductor once you sat down, you needed to hand the driver payment as you entered. I fumbled with some cash and sat down red-faced, thinking about the imaginary neon lights flashing over my head.
Side note: I had also been shocked to find, as we entered the country the day before, that El Salvador runs on U.S. dollars. There is no El Salvadorian currency. What’s more, one of the most common pieces of money in El Salvador is the gold dollar coin.
You know, the ones with Sacagawea on them that you used to collect as a kid? Did you think they were rare? So did I. As it turns out, they are just all in El Salvador.
Our first bus dropped us in a city in the middle of the country where we could transfer to a bus to Juayua. The stop we made between transfers was my first in-depth experience with El Salvadorians. We stood waiting on the fringes of a market for roughly an hour as we waited for our next bus. I took the time to hop into a nearby restaurant and order an enormous, juicy chicken-and-rice lunch that I paid for with a gold dollar and two quarters. I was nibbling on this and chatting with my new Dutch friends when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
My heart lept. I was still on high alert thanks to El Salvador’s reputation. Had I had done something wrong? I turned and was surprised to see a short, kind-faced old woman blinking up at me. She tried to hand me a bandage.
I stared at her in shock for a moment before I got my Spanish back. “¿Por qué?” I asked. She pointed at my foot and I looked down to find that my heel was bleeding. She smiled at me and shoved another bandage in my hand before patting my shoulder and tottering off.
I chuckled and bandaged my foot. I was beginning to feel quite good about traveling in El Salvador, indeed.
Good Old Chicken Buses
Shortly thereafter, we climbed onto the next bus to set off for Ruta de las Flores. I was comforted to realize during the ride that El Salvadorian chicken bus culture was no different from what I had experienced in the past. Across the aisle from me a woman had brought her adorable puppy on board. After half an hour of unquestionably being the cutest being on the bus, he vomited in the middle of the aisle. The owner proceeded to not care in the slightest, and the rest of us simply had to avoid the puddle of sick for the rest of the ride.