We fell for El Salvador within about five minutes of arriving. We'd booked tickets on the luxury bus from Guatemala City to San Salvador, but because we didn't fancy going from one urban sprawl straight to another, we asked them to drop us off in Santa Ana, El Salvador's second-largest city. Here we thought we might try to climb a few volcanoes or visit a few country towns, as we'd heard good things about the western half of the country.
True to their word the Guatemalans did just that, leaving us and our backpacks at a service station in the middle of nowhere, somewhere near Santa Ana, and with absolutely no advice on what to do other than a brusque adios and a screeching of tyres as the bus disappeared in the direction of the Salvadoran capital. This wasn't quite what we'd expected – we assumed we'd at least be dropped off at a bus station – but there we were, blinking in the hot sun, still dazed from an early morning start from Guatemala, in a completely new country... and a country with a reputation.
For El Salvador has a dark and violent past that continues to haunt the country. The civil war that raged from 1979 to 1992 is only really familiar to me as the inspiration for U2's most politically charged song, 'Bullet the Blue Sky', whose lyrics criticise the USA's intervention in the war. The Carter and Reagan administrations supported the right-wing government in their war of terror against the left-wing guerillas, thus prolonging the war with no perceivable gain; indeed, the right-wing government issued a formal apology in January 2010 for their role in past atrocities, thus effectively proving that the USA were funding the Bad Guys. So when Bono sings:
And he's peeling off those dollar bills
Slapping them down
And I can see those fighter planes...
he's talking about Ronald Reagan, while The Edge's guitar channels the sound of a brutal civil war through distorted slide guitar that sounds for all the world like bombs smashing into the women and children of rural El Salvador. And even though the war ended more than 20 years ago, El Salvador still has the second-highest murder rate in the world, and its gang culture is among the most feared on the planet.
So I wasn't particularly thrilled to find us stranded on a ring road somewhere in El Salvador, without a clue where we were, with six-string munitions crashing down in the back of my mind.
Lovely El Salvador
I needn't have worried. We soon spotted a road sign that said 'Santa Ana Centro' and set off down the road, and when we stopped after a few minutes because it didn't look as if this road was leading anywhere useful, a middle-aged lady came out of a nearby building and said, in perfect English, 'Can I help you at all?'
'Oh, yes please,' we said, 'We're trying to get to Santa Ana and our bus has just dropped us off here. Which way is it?'
'Well, you're heading in the right direction,' she said, 'but it's too far to walk. You need a bus.'
'Can we get one here?' we asked.
'Yes, no problem,' she said. 'If you cut through that side road you come to the main road, and every bus there goes to Santa Ana, so just wave for one. I'm not sure where in Santa Ana they will drop you, but you can ask them.'
'Thank you so much,' we said. 'And your English is amazing!'
'Thank you,' she smiled, 'I'm glad I could help.' And with that she waved us on our way.
A couple of minutes later we'd flagged down a bus, paid the grinning bus boy 25 US cents each – handily the Salvadoran currency is the US dollar, which is also the currency most travellers use for their emergency cash – and we were on our way to Santa Ana. Ten minutes down the road, I spotted a road number that was pretty close to the hostel we'd booked, and when I looked around to see if I could see any other signs to show me where we were, the driver caught my eye, smiled and said, 'Where are you going, buddy?', so I said the next stop would be good and we hopped out into the street. A short walk later we'd booked into the Casa Verde Hostel and were sitting there, sipping cold water and gently perspiring under the pure blue Salvadoran sky, while Carlos, the beaming hostel owner, told us our room would be ready in a few minutes, and we were to make ourselves at home.
El Salvador might have a dark past, but the people here smile naturally... and they smile with their eyes in a way that is instantly disarming and charming. They're so helpful to strangers and so welcoming to visitors, and as first impressions go, it doesn't get much better than this. I have a good feeling about this country...