T: It’s been raining for the past hour at the beach town of El Tunco on the southern coast here in El Salvador. Particularly unlucky as I decided to have a nap before grabbing some food and water and woke up late just as the storm hit. Finally it seems to halt, so I take the opportunity to find some eats. Having priced-out the majority of restaurants upon my arrival, I grab a seat at the place I know will do the job at a reasonable rate and fast. I haven’t eaten a proper meal all day and my plantain chips and melted chocolate snack is long digested. I sit down on a flimsy wooden bench and look out into the street, taking note of my surroundings as I wait to place my order. There is a line of ants skillfully balancing leaf bits and marching single file towards their lair. I follow them almost completely around my table, unsure of their origin and see that the army disappears around a wall. Not the kitchen wall, I silently assure myself, as the waiter approaches to take my order. All I want is some traditional papusas but they don’t have any. “Only Mexican food,” says the server, a soft spoken clean-cut Latin gentleman in his 40’s. Hmm. So I ask for fish tacos and a bottle of water, hoping my stomach will agree and that the fish is fresh. There are two massive spiders under the table beside me posing in the fluorescent spotlight and I force my mind to relax as I shift my chair back a few inches. To my left are two men, a mismatched pair at first glance, but then the commonalities present themselves; seldom washed hair, board shorts, sun damaged, weathered skin. Despite their age and differing nationalities, it is obvious that they share a passion for surfing. I open an ear to their conversation and my assessment rings true, although in Spanish, I gather they are discussing today’s outing on the waves. A woman props open the door to her tienda with a rock – the only store open at this hour. She merrily waddles past me and slumps down heavily at the table to my right, staring off into the distance, smiling. I trace her gaze and just as I reach its end, a torta is placed in front of her, disturbing her peace yet delighting her senses. She must have pre-ordered, or maybe she eats a torta every night at 11pm. A young Isreali couple slow their pace and cease chatting as they pass, stretching their necks and turning their eyes down just a smidge, checking out me, the lady’s torta and the kitchen. I’m distracted bya man, probably in his 60’s, who peddles by on a pink bicycle made for a girl of thirteen or so, compete with frilly flowery basket between the handles. The couple enter the tienda and my head turns to watch the shop owner, still seated in the restaurant. She moves only to consume her sandwich and doesn’t even glance up towards her shop with the open door. A local man, wearing a black apron, takes a cigarette break on a cement step outside the kitchen door. My food’s not up and I think he is most certainly the chef. The pair of surfers are laughing so loud all of a sudden that the waiter appears and walks over to them, to shush them I think, but no, he is breaking into their conversation adding to the belly roars. The chef chimes in, speaking Spanish in a loose, sing-song voice, that similar melody shared by many elderly Spanish or Italian men; slow, beautiful and so clear that I know most of what he is saying. They are joking about a woman with whom one of them is intimately acquainted, the chef’s remark, acting as the punch line. A young girl, about twelve, pops her head out the kitchen window and signals the waiter to retrieve my food. He does, swiftly, and before me are four fish tacos. The lady beside me gets up, picks her teeth with one long, pointed fingernail and takes incredibly slow steps in the direction of her store, outside of which the couple has been waiting patiently for some time. The waiter wishes me a “buen provecho” and kindly tries to shoo a stray dog from my feet so I can enjoy my meal without the begging whimpers of yet another sickly mutt. The dog, dejected, joins his friends who are lounging, belly up, in shallow muddy puddles across the street. I’m eating my tacos, barely looking up, aiming to get them down rapidly and beat the inevitable late night downpour. A remarkably poised ant struts along the tabletop beside the heel of my hand and stops as if to ask me a question before becoming preoccupied and scurrying off. Strolling by is a group of middle-aged locals carrying fishing rods, buckets and lamps. Taking a moment to yell at the restaurant owner for his order. The owner needs ten fish, mas o menos, depending on their catch. The fishermen tell him they will be back in a few hours and continue taking orders from people on the street, en route to the beach. I feel really good about my dinner selection but ponder the logistics of free dive fishing at night, with all the rocks and giant waves I’d seen in daylight; the beach is barely swimmable. I inhale my last bite and rise up to find an employee, meeting with my first server as he descends from the upper restaurant bar with an empty plate. I hand him $3.50 for my tacos and water and head in the direction of my hostel. I am greeted, on the dirt road, by an old woman’s massive grin; she’s missing all of her front teeth. I wave back like a child bearing witness to a magic trick, giving her a louder than appropriate, “bueno noche!” The bar balcony above where I’m walking is host to two obnoxiously loud, drunk, white girls, while at the table below, three prepubescent local boys seem to be plotting a murder amidst whispers, snickers and wide-eyed stares. This encourages me to quicken my stride, but I am careful to avoid little streams or rainwater and piles of dog poo, which both seem endless. A 90’s Volvo with tinted windows creeps past slowly enough to be suspicious. I casually hop onto the sidewalk and tuck in behind some cars, waiting for it to disappear before continuing on at an even brisker pace. Finally, just as thunder crackles, I reach my temporary home, intrigued and happy to be in El Salvador.
T: It had been a pretty quick decision to leave Guatemala. I had booked a collectivo straight to El Tunco, El Salvador to simplify the border crossing and long ride. Luckily, I was completely packed up the night before because for once in five months, my bus was on time! I had yet to take a bus that either showed up or left as scheduled in all my travels in Latin America, thus far. Needless to say, of course, on this day our alarm failed to go off. Luckily I woke up at five minutes to 6am and had just enough time to quickly dress and grab my gear as Erik held the collectivo outside the house. Annoyingly at such an early hour, my bus was full of hungover, party-chasing backpackers who had spread their bags, pillows, snacks and crap all over the bus. They all turned out to be very nice, but having hid in our hamlet of Panajachel for more than a month, I certainly wasn’t used to dealing with such a rowdy, obnoxious crowd. To top it off, I was the only one who knew any Spanish so when one of them needed to ask the driver to accommodate any number of their whims, they tapped me on the shoulder to please translate their requirements. By the end of the journey, the driver and I had exchanged many hilarious eye rolls at the oblivious pesky passengers. I thought at first this is the reason he never asked me to pay the rest of my fare, because he had taken a liking to me, but in reality he probably just forgot. I had paid half up front through the tour company and was supposed to give the driver the rest later, but I didn’t say anything and neither did he! I gave him a decent tip to appease my karma and he seemed none the wiser.
El Salvador was noticeably different than Guatemala from the get go. Woman wear impossibly tight clothing, music blares from everywhere and people seem to have a much harsher and more untrustworthy countenance. It is miles away from the strict conservative culture of Guatemala. I hopped off in a little town before the others to try and avoid being swept into the crowd, which proved a mistake as there were only a handful of total shit holes to stay at. After an exhausting search for a decent hostel I ended up walking for seemingly forever along a deserted rocky beach to find myself at the touristy part of town anyway. I immediately ran into the girls from my bus who were long settled and already cracking their third beers. Wanting to avoid their party, I found a cozy spot with a friendly owner and a little pool just off the beach. Sounds silly to have a pool, but in El Tunco, a huge surfing destination, the beach is not for swimmers. Even walking along the black sand can burn your feet during peak sunlight hours. Furthermore, the current is extremely powerful, and with every crashing wave comes several rocks big enough to bruise your ankles and crush your toes. Makes it easy to spot the naive but eager newcomers with grossly black and blue legs who have waded through the 100 or so feet of shallow surf lookng for a decent place to swim. In the next few days we found little inviting about El Tunco. The local population is made up of territorial male surfers with massive trapezius muscles, dark skin, long, dirty, bleached-blond hair and a hunger for drunk white females. Apparently, Steve-o of jackass fame had recently hit up the area to catch some waves and the bedside comfort of a very young Canadian girl I’d met. (She even had photos and text messages to prove it)! The best thing we found in El Tunco was a back alley papuseria where a group of sweet local women grilled up fresh papusas at 3 for a dollar filled with whatever you fancied. A far cry from the $1 apiece small bean or chicken papusas travelers would find across from the popular beach. If I haven’t stated it enough, for folks not in it to surf, the hype did not match the greasy, cheesy tourist trap that was El Tunco.
E: I finally show up to the beach town of El Tunco after a two and a half hour ordeal at the border. When some mates told me it had taken them three hours to clear their bikes through customs, I didn’t think they were serious. How could something so simple possibly take that long? Now I know how. I think the El Salvadorean border crossings are designed to be ‘make-work’ projects. Without exaggeration, I dealt with 20 different people at the border not including the blind money changer. He was a hoot. Geezer couldn’t see his calculator. I wanted to change 550 Quetzales into American dollars which they use in El Salvi. First changer I find, I ask if he’ll do 7.8 which is the prime for the day. I’m shocked when he accepts. Changers always try to shave a few points off the actual rate – that’s how they make their money after all. I tell him the amount I want to change and watch as he types 550 / 68 into his calculator. The total comes up, he looks at it and says “ocho dollares.” As he’s saying it I can see that even he knows that isn’t right. “Son usted no un cambiador?” I say mockingly. One of the hangers-on who is milling about in the background tells me in a low voice, “El es casi ciego” (He is nearly blind.) I can’t believe I’m actually dealing with a blind money changer. I suppose he survives on his customer’s moral inability to take advantage of him. I gently ask if I can use his calculator. Punching in the correct calculation using the rate we’ve agreed upon, I tell him it comes out to $70 dollars even. He readily nods his acquiescence and slowly begins counting the money out from his roll. I suspect he has a system for knowing which note is which but I still watch keenly as he thumbs out each bill. Our transaction complete, I bid the man a sincere, “Bueno suerte!” and jump back on my motorcycle about to enjoy a breathtaking ride along the coast.
I was extremely enthused by the scenery in the first few hours and was hopeful that El Salvador would turn out to be a magical location. Sadly the crowded and grubby traveler haunt of El Tunco left a lot to be desired. Tanya had found a fairly nice hostel with a pool in the yard and parking for my bike. Good thing too, because it was impossible to swim in the ocean here. This was a surfers-only spot and the shallow beach consisted of rough volcanic rocks and a strong undertow. We spent a few days wandering around the touristy streets amid the throngs of surfers and backpackers that converge here. Tanya had met a girl the day before who said she had met and shagged Steve O, of Jackass fame, just a few days before. (Apparently he does indeed have that huge tattoo of himself on his back.) It would have been cool to party with that guy although the girl said he was pretty low key having recently quit smoking and drinking. I managed to find a bar showing the NBA Finals and watched the Heat defeat the Spurs to win the championship. Definitely not how I wanted the playoffs to go, but I partook in most of the games anyway for a bit of familiarity. At one point we tried to escape from El Tunco taking the bike down the coast a half hour or so to Playa San Diego. This was a really beat down community with gangs of young kids sitting along the road, not doing much of anything other than looking particularly sullen and intimidating. The beach here, however, was gorgeous – soft, yellow sand and no rocks – perfect for swimming. We checked out a few local homes which claimed to be hospedajes, but every single person we encountered was patently unfriendly and told us the nightly rate was anywhere from $80 to $100 per night for the dingiest rooms we had yet seen. Screw that! After just a few days in El Salvador, we got the feeling that this is just not an easy country to be a traveler. We retreated back to El Tunco and our white peers.
The next morning during breakfast, Tanya spied a food cart being peddled down the bumpy laneway. On the side it read “Dane’s Calientes Cheveres” (Dane’s Hotdogs). Dane is the name of Tanya’s youngest brother. She’s been taking pictures of signs with names of friends and family throughout our entire trip so far. It started in Puerto Escondido when she saw a sign proclaiming Cabanas Edda, which is Tanya’s mom’s name. An unusual name to see in Mexico and since then Tanya has found and photographed signs with the names of her whole family but hadn’t been able to find a ‘Dane’. It had become a game, both of us scanning the sides of the street through multiple countries as we travelled along trying to find a Dane. And finally here it was on the side of a hot dog cart in El Salvador. Maybe this was our saving grace for languishing in El Tunco for so long.
E: Through Couchsurfing we hooked up with a guy who advertised that he ran an organic farm. He accepted our request with short notice and we decided to drop in on his property a half-hour outside San Salvador. I arrived at the meeting place, the only Mayan Ruins in El Salvi, arriving before Tanya who was bussing up from the coast. The security guard on the grounds very courteously let me use his cell phone to call our host, Mauricio. He showed up in about 10 minutes on his moto and lead me through a maze of little lane ways , fields, and washed out roads through his barrio. I could tell by the size and complexity of the houses that this must have been a wealthy suburb of El Salvador at one time which has since been ravaged by war and neglect. The house that Mauricio led me too was completely overgrown and there was even part of a tree which had been dragged across the narrow entrance to the property to conceal it. We squeezed our bikes through the underbrush and rode right into a large foyer with some chairs, tables and hammocks. While I dismounted and unloaded my gear so I could ride back and grab Tans on the highway, Mauricio told me a bit about his operation here. Like the other properties, this used to be a large mansion owned by a wealthy El Salvadorean family. The foyer that we were in was at least 2,000 sq.ft. It may have been enclosed at one time but the walls were gone now except for some crude cobb and pop bottle partitions built by previous volunteers. There were no windows left, just mosquito screen pulled across some of the openings. I didn’t see much of a garden, just the jungle closing in around us on all sides. I wasn’t sure if Mauricio owned the property or if he was just squatting. He told me that he had spent many years in LA but like many El Salvadoreans, was extradited after the war. He was short and muscular, spoke perfect English and had tattoo sleeves running down both arms. He explained that he runs the farm as a refuge for lost boys – children either abandoned or orphaned during the war, or just those who need guidance and companionship. They take advantage of the large property, which judging by the patio stones and empty swimming pool had once been manicured – now returned to jungle, to grow and harvest food. Mauricio teaches English and other subjects to the boys. He teaches them to cook, how to farm and how to be self-sufficient. Obviously an important proficiency for lads without family in a country with few jobs.
When I returned with Tanya on the back of my bike about an hour later, Maurico led us to the only available indoor room. It was pretty filthy, but Tanya and I felt we could roll up in our sleeping bags and make do. The other option was to sleep in the hammocks outside but we were afraid of being ravaged by the mosquitos and catching dengue. We stowed our bags in the room and wandered around to the open kitchen out back to help Mauricio’s girlfriend, Gloria, and about 8 teenage boys make dinner. We were genuinely excited to learn how to make traditional papusas and the boys were very sweet as they patiently showed us the ropes. Just as soon as we had finished a great communal meal, there was a booming crack from above and the heavens opened up a deluge upon us. We were thankful for the mostly waterproof awning jutting out from the house and just covering our table. As we cleared and washed up the dishes together, we were fixated at the extreme amount of water that was just teeming of the edge of the rolled, plastic roof. One more reason to make sure I didn’t get stuck riding at night in El Salvador. Tanya and I retired to our cockroach infested room and huddle together on our filthy mattress with all our limbs completely contained in our sleeping bags. As we were drifting off to sleep we listened to Mauricio counsel the boys on what is was to be a man, earn a living, and take care of their future families. The farm may not have been the Hyatt Regency, but at least these young men were learning some good lessons seemingly not bequeathed very often to vulnerable young men in post war-ravaged El Salvador. We were happy they had Mauricio and Gloria looking after them, feeding them and raising them the best they could. It made forgetting about the repellent, scurrying roaches a little bit easier.
The next day after breakfast we helped out on the farm. We were both surprised to see how many species of food were actually growing in the overgrown jungle landscape. From a distance, the whole yard looked extremely unkempt and natural. But when we started poking around we saw the amount of work that had gone into this Jurassic garden. There were edible plants and roots all over the ground, vegetables hidden under the soil and a multitude of fruit in the trees. Our first job was to cut down a huge bushel of bananas that were just about ripe and were threatening to pull the whole tree over. This was made somewhat more challenging and terrifying after the discovery of a huge hornets nest that had been constructed right beside our bounty. Mauricio, myself and one of the boys gingerly sawed off part of the truck and carried it and the dangling nest a safe distance away. No casualties thankfully. I then climbed up the rickety ladder to support the colossal load of bananas as Mauricio cut through the stem. They fell into my arms with a jolt and I was just barely able to climb down the few rungs to the ground before the weight became too much. Together we carried them back to the house and hung them from a beam to ripen further from green to yellow. Mauricio then instructed me to chop down the rest of the cellulose-filled trunk a foot or two at a time with a machete until only the truck remained. Apparently this is how you harvest bananas. When the tree grows up from the ground once again in about 4-6 months, there will be another bushel of bananas ready for consumption. Cool. Check that off the bucket list. Next we transplanted some cashew trees which had been started from seedlings, from their pots into the ground. Each tree we learned produces just one nut. No wonder they are so expensive to buy in stores. We also gathered up some yams and other tubers for the lunchtime soup. I stumbled upon another root which I took to be ginger. I tore off a piece and brought it over to show Tanya. She also thought it was ginger although we were surprised that it didn’t have the normal fragrant odour. When Mauricio walked over and saw us handling the root, he immediately told us to put it down and wash our hands. Apparently this wasn’t ginger at all but a particularly poisonous root of some type of weed. Very glad I didn’t decide to taste some of it. Our gardening duties done for the day, we ate a quick lunch, thanked Mauricio, Gloria and the lads for their hospitality and got ready to make our way to the capital city of San Salvador. It would have been nice to stay a little longer, but we couldn’t bare another night sharing our slumber with the roaches.
T: Mauricio’s property was situated a ten minute off-road motorcycle ride from the highway… basically in the middle of nowhere. Tough to depart from via the local bus system. When we left on our way to San Salvador, Erik loaded me and my backpack onto the bike and drove me to the highway, where I was expecting to wait awhile for a bus into the city. Erik, waiting with me, spotted a truck pulled over nearby so he ran up to find out where they were headed and scored me a ride into the city. It was my first time hitching on the trip. They were a perfectly nice Christian family and a solid choice in a city with a scary rep and hideously packed buses. I sat in the back with the young son and chatted with the family in my best Spanish. I felt like they were honestly thrilled that they could offer their help to a traveler. They dropped me at the inner city terminal and pointed me in the direction of the appropriate bus stop, handing me a slip of paper with their email and phone number in case I needed anything during my stay. The preconception I had of El Salvador was fading quickly… well, up until the point that the bus pulled out of the terminal. Not necessarily the same sweet, welcoming feeling I had with the family or previous to that on the farm. Peering out the window, the inner-city neighbourhoods of San Salvador were poverty-stricken and ominous, and being a quiet Sunday, the abandoned streets amplified my anxiety. I arrived at my stop, stared at the scribbled address, clutched my pack and prayed I didn’t have to walk far and that my sense of direction – which is famously horrible – was on point today. Randomly, a women sitting next to me offered her assistance to which I was extremely grateful. When the bus halted and I stammered, unsure, she pointed to my piece of paper and held open the bus door while yelling, “venga!” I followed, and when we got off, she explained that she worked nearby and she would walk me to my hotel, as she feared for my safety in a city once riddled with Mara gang activity. At that moment all the warnings about seemiingly “helpful” people who turn around and rob you, flooded my thoughts. But judging by her nursing uniform and the kindness of the other family earlier, I trusted the stranger and followed her down the street. Turns out that she was lovely and spent half an hour walking in circles with me until I was safely inside the doors of my hotel. Maybe she was late for work, maybe the family drove out of their way to drop me at the bus station and maybe arriving in a city with open arms you shall be received in the similar light.
After one night in a hotel, Erik and I were lucky enough to be taken in by couchsurfing host Andre, in his decked-out bachelor pad, complete with indoor fountain and fully equipped bar. We were beyond excited to check out what living in a local neighbourhood in supposed ‘dangerous’ San Salvador would be like. At first glance, Andre, was somewhat intimidating. He obviously spends considerable time looking after his physical fitness and could easily have belonged to a mara. He had a striking resemblance to Javier Bardem’s character (Anton Chigurh) from No Country For Old Men in both appearance and speech. However, he proved to be an exceptional host with a huge heart, handing out beers upon our arrival and calling up his best friend, a lively character named Paco, to come over and help us locate a bar where we could watch Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Despite the fact that we were in Central America, we sort of assumed The Stanley Cup would still be on television at one bar or another, but of course, nothing is ever easy in this part of the world. After getting shut down at a couple local bars we visited, the guys suggested an all-American classic in the heart of downtown San Salvador. They drove us to kitsch bar called Bennigans, where it’s always Saint Patty’s day, where green beers are on tap and all the servers sport leprechaun hats. Seriously? This is where all the Salvadorean men break the bank to take women they really want to impress. It definitely wasn’t cheap even by Vancouver standards, but we indulged in some amazing meals and a few Stella Artois while the Blackhawks took the cup. We were, in fact, the only people in the entire packed restaurant watching the game – a completely surreal experience for a couple of Canadians but definitely nice to watch some hockey, all the same.
Paco, known by his mother as Francisco, rounded out our group for the rest of our stay, providing lots of comic relief and random El Salvadorean facts. The guys took us to the best papusa joints, dive bars and even talked Erik out of playing pool with Maras (which he was a little sore about.) They drove us along the famous Ruta de Las Flores to a stunning town called Ahuachapan, more than an hour out of the city. El Salvador stretches a mere 300km in length and the guys did their best to give us the grand tour. The four of us geared up one morning to hike one of many volcanoes, from the top of which you could basically see the entire country. Volcan Izalco wasn’t our first choice, but it was the one we ended up climbing. Santa Ana, a larger more popular volcano complete with crater lake was our goal, but unfortunately, to reach its summit, one must pass through a number of private properties and submit to each individual land owners fees. That, and the entrance fee is set at almost double what you pay to climb Izalco. When faced with our scoffs, the guides just shrugged their shoulders and stared back at us. All these random taxes seemed a bit much, plus, there was the mandatory accompaniment of two armed police officers (who, of course, came with a price tag of their own). This, we learnt is for good reason as several years ago a couple of young female tourists went unguarded and became victims to extremely unpleasant crimes. So, with guards, guide and new friends in tow, we hiked the Izalco Volcano in a few hours and took in the incredible views beneath us. A beautiful, peaceful place to view the breathtaking landscape. For a country that we had once considered skipping completely, our experience in El Salvador were a far cry from the violent stereotype we had expected. Time and time again, hospitality and genuine good intentions cracked through gruff and rugged first impressions.
E: Our few days in San Salvador were interesting to say the least. It is a brash and gritty city, not for the faint of heart. San Salvadoreans are very stare-y and even when a smile is offered, one is seldom returned. This was the first place on our trip where we had a real hard time relating to the locals. Many seem to be in a trance. They don’t flinch when dogs start barking or fighting right next to them. They walk down the middle of the road and don’t bother to turn around when they hear a car or bus barreling down upon them from behind. The downtown core is reminiscent to the zombie mentality found on East Hasting is Vancouver. Even more accurately, the last time I have come across a society of people with such seemingly blank, empty stares was in Cambodia. Both cultures have recently suffered grisly atrocities and I suppose not enough time has yet passed for the memories to pass out of the collective psyche. However beyond the hard edge and dangerous reputation, we had a very nice time in El Salvador. We spent a day wandering around the hectic main plaza with it dilapidated church and the annoying buses wizzying around in every direction blowing huge plumes of thick black smoke (most unpleasant on the highway when you are trying to pass one…. or seventy.) We found a nice modern art gallery, MARTE, in the north of the city and were treated to an incredible Salvador Dali exhibit based on Dante’s Divine Comedy as well as haunting photos from El Salvador’s civil war. We enjoyed a pizza lunch sitting on the grass next to a mall parking lot with many groups of El Salvadoreans taking advantage of the same tiny piece of greenery in this asphalt covered metropolis.
After departing San Salvi, we stopped at a small colonial town called Suchitoto which we’d heard good things about. The main attraction was Los Tercios waterfall composed of large hexagonal columns of rock. The pictures looked amazing but after a twenty minute moto ride and half hour hike down into a steep ravine, we discovered the tiniest trickle of water dripping down the face. It was still a very impressive looking wall and was fun to climb. After returning to the town, we found a nice walking path leading down towards the lake. There were absolutely no people on the path which we thought was strange as we were so close to town. When we neared the bottom of the path we came to a small suspension bridge over the river mouth and realized why we hadn’t seen any people. On the anchorage tower, in black spray paint were the letters “MS”. This told me we were about to cross into Mara territory. I was, of course, aware of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 knowing them to be the largest and most ferocious street gang in the world. Staying with Oscar, an El Salvadorean refuge, when I was in Phoenix, he told me the chances of running into Mara (which means gang) was about 20%. These weren’t great odds considering their reputation. The gang originated in Los Angeles and is made up mostly of El Salvadoreans, Hondurans and Guatemalans that immigrated or slipped into the US during and after the Central American civil wars. Looking over to the other side of the bridge, we didn’t see any activity and we knew we needed to cross to make it to the lake. There wasn’t a soul anywhere around. The far bank of the river was strewn with garbage, clothes and beat up furniture. It was an eerie feeling walking across the bridge not knowing if this area was still an active gang stronghold. I admit I was angst-ridden but I didn’t want to be intimidated by some graffitti after having invested an hour of walking. Images from the movie Sin Nombre kept flashing through my mind. It turned out the path to the lake was completely grown over and we couldn’t find an alternate route. We were both relieved to turn back, as there were dozens more MS signs on trees and rocks all around us. Our last couchsurfing host, Andre had told us that two years ago, many of the leaders of the MS-13 that had been deported from the United States were all being held at a prison outside San Salvador. According to Andre, there was a fire which razed the entire prison and every prisoner perished. Of course there was wide speculation that the fire was set deliberately by the guards perhaps at the urging of the El Salvadorean and/or US Governments. We didn’t know if this was even true or if it had diminished the activity of the Maras in El Salvador but we were certainly relieved when we made it back to the sleepy town on the top of the hill and were safely back inside our guesthouse. The next day we would be on our way to Honduras.