These past holidays we spent in El Salvador, and this was one of the strangest Christmases we had in our travels. No, it did not top our Christmas in India in 2014, when on Christmas Eve we nearly lost our camera, money, and Julia’s passport and ended up drinking opium in an impromptu ceremony in a local village. But our Christmas in El Salvador was still quite unconventional.
Traveling to Latin America over Christmas always creates a hole in the itinerary as everything from museums to restaurants is closed for the holiday. Several years ago, we arrived in Sao Paolo on December 24th only to find the entire city completely shut down for two days. The start of our two-week Brazilian trip was less than perfect as we struggled to find where to eat and what to do in the city. Armed with this knowledge, we anticipated that in El Salvador, everything will be closed on December 25th and hoped that maybe at least some places will be open the day before. However, things were different in El Salvador, where Christmas Eve is spent at home with family, while Christmas Day is often spent going out.
On December 24th, we drove from Suchitoto to La Palma, a mountainous town in the north known for its colorful folk art. The plan was to visit a local artists’ cooperative and a museum of Fernando Llort, a Salvadoran artist, who started an artists’ colony in La Palma back in the 1970s and put the town on a tourist map. To our disappointment, both the cooperative and the museum were closed for the holiday. Even Hotel La Palma, one of the oldest hotels in El Salvador, where we wanted to stop for breakfast, was also closed. The owners made an exception for us, let us in, and served delicious breakfast that we ate in the company of the owners’ cute dogs. We still enjoyed walking the colorful streets of La Palma and the neighboring San Ignacio; yet all the places we wanted to visit were closed. Having plenty of time left in the day, I suggested stopping at Chihuatan, an ancient archeological site, on the way back to Suchitoto; yet, once again, when we got to the entrance gate, the site was closed. There was not much to do in Suchitoto in the evening as everyone was at home celebrating Christmas. Our Christmas dinner was from a local fried chicken chain restaurant, the only place open that evening.
Preparing for the worst, we did not have high expectations for Christmas Day and were surprised when the town was much busier than the day before. Early in the morning, market sellers were setting up their stands and the square was bustling with people. After breakfast, we rented a motorboat for a one-hour excursion on Lake Suchitoto. This was one of the recommended activities in the area, and the boats were surprisingly available for renting, despite the holiday. We paid $25 to our boat captain, a young guy in his mid-20, and set out for the tour. As we glided through the shimmering waters of this large artificial lake, we passed three small crosses sticking out of the water. The captain told us that in October 2014, a Salvadoran Air Force plane carrying four people on board crashed into the lake, killing three. The fourth person was rushed to a hospital and survived. We soon reached a small island El Ermitano, where a local hermit had lived in a cave for more than 20 years until his passing in 2012. From the boat, we climbed a treacherous, vertical, wooden staircase and got to the top of the rock, where the remains of the plane were resting. To be honest, we did not know what to expect when the locals offered us a boat tour on the lake, and now finding ourselves surrounded by plane wreckage and a hermit cave, we were wondering how our friends and families were spending their Christmas morning.
In the afternoon, we continued with our adventures and drove to Cinquera, located 10 miles from Suchitoto. Like most of the north and east of El Salvador, Cinquera was a stronghold of guerilla activities during the Salvadoran Civil War, and we wanted to get to know this chapter of Salvadoran history better. The war is a complicated topic. It lasted from 1980 to 1992 and pitted the oppressive Salvadoran government against the left-leaning FMLN party and its supporters and sympathizers. Obsessed with fighting Communism in Central America, and after failing to do that successfully in Southeast Asia, the U.S. provided substantial financial support to the Salvadoran government that organized death squads tasked with suppressing and eliminating those who supported the left. The result was a bloody 12-year war that left thousands of Salvadorans dead and displaced. The war not only divided El Salvador and produced atrocities such as the El Mozote massacre but also had severe long-term consequences for the country. The current gang problem is the most obvious product of that war. Young people displaced and pushed out of the country were forced to survive in California by forming and joining gangs that were later brought back to El Salvador when the U.S. government started to deport Salvadorans back to their country. The country, where there were no gangs before the civil war, became one of the world’s most dangerous countries due to gang violence.
Before coming to Cinquera, I read that this town was completely decimated following heavy bombings by the Salvadoran army. During the war, the locals abandoned the town and guerillas took over, hiding in nearby forests and hills and fighting the government from there. We parked at the central square and could see the traces of the civil war everywhere. The walls of the church had bullet holes and there were unexploded bombs standing in front of the church. The church’s facade had images of Archbishop Oscar Romero and priest Rotilio Grande, both murdered by the Salvadoran government in the early days of the civil war and who became the symbols of the fight against the oppressive government. The wreckage of a downed helicopter of the Salvadoran Air Force was mounted on a beam in the center of the square with the fence in front of this grim display adorned with guns and rifles, the spoils of the war.
Outside of the central square, the main attraction in the area is Cinquera Ecological Park. These forested hills are now a tranquil park, where people can hike and explore the jungle with its beautiful waterfalls, plants, and colorful butterflies. However, just 40 years ago, this area was where guerillas hid and planned their attacks. We wanted to meet an ex-guerilla, but this was a long shot. The local tourism office in Cinquera could potentially organize such a meeting but it was closed for the holiday. As we walked the streets of Cinquera and saw people over 50 years old, I wondered what the chances were that they were guerillas during the war. We also could potentially hire an ex-guerrilla as a guide in the park but once we got there, no guides were available as they were all spending Christmas with their families.
We still enjoyed our hike in the park. We meandered through the jungle and discovered trenches used by guerillas for hiding. We even found a former guerilla camp. The posted sign explained that this place, well hidden in the jungle, was the guerillas’ headquarters, local hospital, and training ground. At the top of the mountain, we stood on the viewing platform and looked at the beautiful hills in the distance. The view was peaceful and idyllic. It was hard to imagine that an ongoing armed conflict was taking place here just a short time ago when both of us were children. And just like that, we wondered if in 40 years people will freely travel to Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq taking in the sights and leisurely searching for former guerilla fighters.
We left the park at sunset and drove back to Suchitoto. The town was happily festive. Restaurants, coffee shops, and gift shops were open. The central square was packed with people and food vendors, and Salvadoran families were out and about celebrating Christmas. We joined in, capping another strange yet so fascinating Christmas in a foreign country.