Central America Travel
Pupusas & Garifuna Beat
Mark Bibby Jackson discovers a
wealth of culture and history during his
Central America travel through El Salvador and Honduras
Momentarily disregarding my middle-aged spread, I emerge from the turquoise clear waters like James Bond, at a generous stretch.
The fine, warm sands cling to the soles of my feet as I stare towards the flat horizon, just as a pair of pelicans slide onto the mirror calm surface.
This is the Caribbean of my dreams come to life.
Chachahuate is one of 13 small cays and two islands in Cayos Cochines, a small archipelago off the coast of Honduras. It is Robinson Crusoe territory, or the land of survivalist TV series, some of which have been filmed here, despite the presence of a research centre and conservation programme, where you can buy cans of beers.
A small community of Garifuna sailed here from the mainland in 1973, and a string of wooden huts dot the tiny stretch of sand. The seafaring Garifuna came to Honduras from Saint Vincent 200 years ago, although their ancestry can be further traced to West Africa.
A couple of days earlier, we had flown to the far larger island of Roatan, where we were entertained by some Garifuna music in the town of Punta Gorda. Men and women took it in turn to take to the dance floor, shaking parts of their body that Elvis could only have dreamt of, while their compatriots played the drums, shook maracas and blew conches, providing an irresistible, relentless beat I found quite mesmerising.
Before we had dined at Yurumei restaurant where I had experienced my first Garifuna food – machuca, a conch fish, mashed plantain and coconut milk soup which was excellent. Today, we are served a fresh snapper caught this morning and served at the community dining hall the 100 or so people share, taking it in turns to feed the steady flow of tourists from the mainland. It tastes amazing.
Climbing a Volcano
All this seems a million miles away from our arrival just over a week ago in San Salvador, the capital of neighbouring El Salvador.
Then, after a restful night in Barcelo Hotel, we had climbed a volcano – as you do on the first full day of your Central American holidays, after a 10-hour flight.
Ilamatepac – literally mountain of the old lady – is one of three mountains that come into view as we depart the capital, San Salvador. It’s also called Santa Ana. The other two are Izalco, or the Lighthouse of the Pacific. The third is Cerro Verde, with its luscious green national park.
Passing sugar cane plantations, we stop for the first of many selfies requested by our guide Carlos to satisfy the requirements of the Central America Tourism Agency (CATA) who have kindly hosted our motley crew of four travel journalists.
Carlos knows a short-cut which means we do not have to start our climb with the rest of the tourists – mainly Panamanians living in the US returning for a holiday, and students, although there is a German, an Israeli and a Chinese tourist too, as if a preamble to some awful joke.
Instead, we await them by the small community of San Blas, or rather where the community used to stand before the volcano erupted engulfing the small school in ash in 2005. Some 190 schoolkids were evacuated. Both the school and a church remain. You can also see the path the larva flow took chiselled into the side of the volcano.
Unfortunately, Carlos’ shortcut only bypassed the lower reaches of our climb and we still had to walk for an hour along a path that snaked its way up the volcano. Eventually, the forest gave way to rock and the most spectacular panorama opened up before us, more than rewarding our exertions. At the top, we could look down into the crater and the most glorious green lake.
Feeling virtuous, we descended the volcano and then drove down to Lake Coatepeque, where we had a quick dip in the slightly sulphuric waters before a very late lunch. The sulphur invigorated my skin – reminiscent of my experience in the Dead Sea – and as I ate looking back towards the other two volcanoes, and with a cool breeze coming off the waters, I began to realise why Salvadorians also call this La Octava Maravilla – the Eighth Wonder.
Creating Rectangular Pupuas
Santa Ana is also the name for the country’s second largest city. Ignoring the appeal of the central square at sunset, where the townsfolk slowly came to life, we set off for our restaurant for we had some serious business to do, making pupusas.
The corn flatbreads stuffed with a mixture of cheese, chicharrón (or pork rind) and refried beans are the staple of the country. Made with corn bread similar to Venezuelan arepas, pupusas are stuffed with the filling before being cooked on a grill. Eaten for both breakfast and dinner – for some reason lunch is bypassed – pupusas are the lifeblood of El Salvador.
Juanita stood in the kitchen of La Pradera ready to give us some elementary training in the preparation of the Salvadorian dough balls, which basically consisted in making a ball of the dough, then sticking your thumb in the middle to make a hole which you then fill with cheese plus chicharrón, or for the vegetarians refried beans. Finally, you fold the dough to seal the filling before clapping the ball into a round shape. What could be more simple?
Nothing, so long as you remember to twist your hands as you clap, rather than keep them parallel like you are applauding a fine play at the theatre – or, as my colleagues less kindly observed, like a preforming seal. So, as the others created round pupusas of varying sizes, I invented the rectangular pupusa, which in all truth tasted pretty much the same as its round cousins.
Coffee Plantations and The Flower Route
The following day, we started with some coffee. A whole estate of it to be precise. Initially introduced by German settlers in the 19th Century, coffee soon became El Salvador’s largest export.
Founded by the Alfaro family in 1930, just outside the town of Atico, El Carmen Estate produces coffee beans for export to brands such as Illy and Starbucks, as well as domestically under its Atico brand, which is about to be exported to Spain.
There is something vaguely sadistic about being led around a coffee estate in the morning, especially as the tasting comes at the conclusion of the trip after visiting the aromatic roasting house. Still, the experience of being shown the whole coffee-making process – apart from picking the red cherries – was interesting, especially as we took it in turns to rake the beans laid out to dry.
Atico is part of La Ruta de los Flores (The Flower Route), so named because of the white flowers that dominate the area when the coffee plants are in bloom.
Unfortunately, the relationship between coffee and El Salvador has not always been harmonious, as becomes apparent when we visit the town of Nahuizalco. It was here in 1932 that up to 30,000 indigenous Salvadorians were mowed down by soldiers, under the order of the dictator General Maximilian Hernandez Martinez. At the time, some 5% of the country was devoted to coffee plantations, but after the golden years of 1926-30, the price of coffee spiralled, influenced by the recessions in the US and Europe. Martinez gave the orders for the land to be usurped, and as the locals resisted, they were mowed down by the soldiers.
A small museum commemorates the Massacre of 32, for which there has been no official apology. Ironically, the general’s efforts were counter-productive as with nobody left to work the fields, coffee production fell into further decline.
Nahuizalco is also noted for the colourful murals which dominate the town, as is Ataco, which is a pleasant cobble-stoned town, where you could easily spend a night or two as you explore the coffee plantations and surrounding countryside. Set at an altitude of some 1,800 metres, the weather is much cooler than at sea level, especially at night.
Waterfalls and Chaparro
Our final day in El Salvador started with a treat. Carlos had arranged for us to try some of the local moonshine – or chaparro. In preparation for the sugar cane spirit, we had some fresh pupusas for breakfast at La Cazuela restaurant; they were the best we tasted on our trip, even surpassing my rectangular offering.
Chaparro used to be distilled in stills in the mountains far from the prying eyes of soldiers. It is here that the guerrillas used to hide out – some tour groups now visit their tunnels. This was until Claudia Caceres came along. The entrepreneurial woman decided that the spirit should have its own geographical recognition, much like champagne in France. So, she went through the painstaking process of sampling moonshine from 25 stills before settling upon the perfect chaparro.
This she now offers us after explaining the distilling process in her small still. Now, I have tried a lot of local hooch in my time – normally it brings water to my eyes. One particular occasion in provincial Vietnam for a colleague’s engagement that involved memory loss, unscheduled visits to the toilet and a flagrant disregard for footwear, stands out. However, Claudia’s chaparro – under the Flor de Fuego label – was remarkably smooth. No extra hairs appeared on my chest and my feet remained shod.
A short drive along La Ruta de Azul – the Blue route, named after the local indigo – and we found ourselves in Suchitoto, perhaps the prettiest of El Salvador’s ‘tourist’ towns.
Here we had an appointment with the tourist police. Normally, I try to avoid the local constabulary when on vacation, especially those carrying firearms. However, in El Salvador, the tourist police, in addition to ensuring your safety, take on the role of unofficial guides.
So we discovered as Francisco Rodriguez and his cohort led us to Los Cercios waterfalls just outside the town. According to our guardians, legend has it that the rocks, which resemble a giant game of jenga, were formed when a man refused to pay a craftsman for textiles he had created. The honest artisan was so enraged that he cursed his client and turned his rolls of textiles into rocks and the man himself into a goldfish that still resides in a small pool at the bottom of the falls.
To secure the tourist police’s services all you have to do is knock on the police station door and arrange a time to visit the waterfalls.
All that was left for us, was to dine at Suchitoto’s idyllic Casa 1800 with the most amazing views down to the valley below, as locals took it in turn to pose for their photos to be taken, before we returned to Hotel Barcelo, the first leg of our Central American adventure now complete.
“Tourism is a beautiful monster; it comes in, eats everything up and then it leaves,” Brad Martinez tells me over breakfast, as I rather guiltily polish off the last chunk of pineapple.
Together with his mother, Brad runs Big French Key, a private island and beach club, a short boat hop from the island of Roatan in the Honduran Caribbean. We have come here straight from the airport, having been introduced to the Honduran Minister of Tourism en route – I’m pleased to discover he is a fellow Liverpool fan.
In the high season, some four or five cruise ships arrive each morning at Roatan, departing the same evening – which partially explains why there are no rooms at Big French Key, although Brad is planning to build some cabanas for the April to October low season. The 9,000 people descending upon the island dwarf the 8,000 people who actually live here, leaving a wake of litter behind them, but also providing much-needed income for the tourism-driven island.
“That is why it is a beautiful island,” Brad explains.
The main reason people come to Roatan is for the diving and snorkelling. Set on the Mesoamerican Reef – the second largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef – the myriad of fish that come to these waters is breath-taking.
After breakfast, we take another boat and then plunge into the warm aquamarine waters. I am reassured to discover I still remember the basics of snorkelling, although I am discomforted by the excess of salt water floating up my nasal passage – I am later to learn that my moustache has prevented my mask from creating the perfect seal, which perhaps explains why you often encounter hipsters sipping coffee, craft beer and botanical gins, but never snorkelling in the Caribbean. Still, the schools of fish that swim with us, more than make up for this momentary discomfort.
Back on dry land, at Oak Ridge another boat takes us on a trip through some mangroves that inevitably ends up with us all swimming in the naturally filtered waters. After such activity, our appetites are once more whetted and we spend the rest of the afternoon in Punta Gorda, eating local cuisine and becoming mesmerised by Garifuna music.
Standing with Dolphins
Anthony’s Key is reputed to be the second-best dive resort in the world. It is also famed for its Dolphin Experience, and it is to this that we head the following morning, having spent a wonderful night resting in our resort – the Grand Roatan.
My one experience of swimming with dolphins had not exactly proved successful. Then, off the coast of Zanzibar I had spent most of my time fruitlessly diving after the creatures, as if I had some superhero powers. Fortunately, this time they came to me.
After a quick briefing, we stood in line as our dolphin performed her tricks in front of us, before being rewarded with food – the dolphin not us. I must admit to finding the ethics of the performance somewhat questionable, despite the dolphins seeming happy and non-coerced – occasionally they would refuse to perform –, and the approach was all carrot and no stick. However, although affiliated to the Roatan Institute for Marine Science, Anthony’s Key has come in for some criticism from Animal Defenders International, so I’ll leave it up to you whether you wish to include the show on your itinerary. However, Anthony’s Key does also have open water dives when the dolphins apparently freely swim out following boats returning the same day, so it is difficult to see how they are held captive.
Our sojourn in Roatan concluded with a fantastic lobster tail meal on the beach at the Grand Roatan, following sunset cocktails overlooking the Caribbean from the resort’s Deck, a romantic setting that was somewhat lost on us, especially when one of our troupe had to depart to get his Instagram photos uploaded.
Dry Land and Banana Republics
Departing early the following day by ferry to the mainland, we arrived at La Ceiba, from where we drove to the Cangrejal River for some white water rafting. Unfortunately, after a morning standing bareheaded in the Caribbean watching the dolphins, followed by an afternoon snorkelling direct from the beach at the Grand, I had developed a touch of sunstroke, so rafting was not high up on my agenda of things to do.
So, as my colleagues donned their protective helmets, I took some time out at the nearby La Villa de Soledad, resting in a hammock and listening to the birds chirping away. In many respects, this was my highlight of our Central American travels. Set in the Nombre de Dios National Park, the small hotel really is a restful place, with excellent trekking in the park and neighbouring Pico Bonito National Park just across the river. I would have willingly spent the rest of the day – and the next – becoming better acquainted with my book which had spent the rest of the trip stuffed at the bottom of my bag.
However, our hosts had other plans for us, and once my more intrepid compadres returned, we set of for La Ceiba.
The coastal town used to be the richest in Honduras. The influence of Standard Fruit in turning the country into a banana republic is well documented. Most of the fruit was unloaded from trains that ran along the pier in La Ceiba to waiting vessels, which would transport them to health-conscious consumers around the globe. When the company left in 1994, the city’s economy collapsed.
A short stretch of the pier that used to reach a kilometre in length, remains. As we arrive shortly before sunset, local fishermen are casting their thin thread into the sea trying to catch fish for their dinner. It is a timeless picture that might have belonged to many a place around the world, but none the less worthy for that.
As we were departing, the town’s dignitaries descended upon the promenade to toast our arrival with a dance performance by La Ceiba’s youth that was full of tradition and verve, and naturally spoke of an unrequited love.
The following day is the last of our travels and in the morning we take the boat to Cayos Cochinos before travelling up coast to San Pedro de Sula, pausing briefly at the pleasant Botanical Gardens at Lancetilla. Along the way we pass through the town of Tela, with its 35 kilometres of beach, which we are destined not to sample.
Back in El Salvador
San Pedro has flights to various parts of the US – from Atlanta to New York – but our route takes us back to San Salvador.
The final experience of our lightning trip, involves lazing around the Rancho Estero y Mar hotel a short ride from the airport, watching the waves of the Pacific crash onto the shore to dramatic effect. The difference between this and the crystal clear, mirror-like waters of the Caribbean cannot be more pronounced. I find myself more at home in the wild waters of the Pacific than the serenity of the other side of this narrow landmass.
Here, we see some turtle hatchlings being released on the beach as they scramble their uncertain way to the Pacific for a greater adventure than I will ever experience. Nature will determine whether they will return to these shores, I am sure that I will.