You don’t get much further off the beaten track. In the hills in western border region of El Salvador, where flowers are blossoming as almost nowhere else. In the literal epicente of that Flower Route and coffee heartland: Juayua, the city that always seems to sleep.
Maria, the cleaning lady / chef of breakfasts / seller of coffee beans at Hotel Anahuac, spreads her arms as wide as she can. ‘Everything in this house was destroyed’, she says. ‘Not one wall was still standing upright after the earthquake. But my boss renovated it, room by room, year by year. And it has been my steady job since more than twelve years.’
With a smile
She is the kind of woman you would expect in good-tempered Central America. Voluptuous, with a smile that makes even a gay guys’ heart cheer up. And someone who has learned to deal with the challenges thrown at you in places like these.
Earthquakes are one of them, the last one around twenty years ago destroying many buildings in this village in the western volcanic region of El Salvador. Poverty is another one. Only the entrepreneurship of her boss – and others in the Juayua region – made it possible for Maria to have a halfway decent life.
Apart from growing fruits and vegetables – and selling them on the weekly sunday local food market – tourism really is the only proper source of income here. If it weren’t for the Ruta de Flores (Flower Route) – together with colonial Suchitoto probably the biggest tourist attraction of the country – this region would be an economic wasteland. ‘People work hard here’, knows Maria. ‘If they can find work…’
It’s hard though not to fall in love with the town and the people once you have finally made it here. Juayua is one of those many sleepy Central American villages where life moves at a glacial pace. Where pensioners meet every late afternoon on the benches of the Parque Central to discuss life and football. Where people are scratching and scraping to make money, by selling anything they can on the streets or in the chicken buses.
Juayua is the biggest and most well-known of the villages along the Flower Route. It actually is a great hide-out if you just want to switch off, though prefer to avoid the heat. But those who want to hike a bit will also find the town a great base.
Around three kilometres east of town you can have a swim in the waterfalls of Los Chorros de la Calera (book a guide at your hotel or hostel to be allowed into the area). There are three waterfalls in this area: if you have more energy, you can extend the walk along the Rio Bebedero to seven (!) waterfalls (Ruta de las Seite Cascadas), which will require an early wake-up though and a couple of hours of walking.
Another big attraction is the sunday food market, as mentioned above. The streets around the tiny lovely Parque Central (and the park itself) are filled with tables where you can sit down to enjoy the food sold in the many food stalls. Locals and tourists alike band together here: Salvadorans from across the country actually come here in the weekends to enjoy the food (and fill up the little hotel accommodation there is in Juayua).
Just walking around the village and its outskirts already gives you a first glimpse of the unimaginable richness of the flora here. Colors get new dimensions here. The garden of the Hotel Anahuac already looked like a botanical one.
To enjoy the rest of the Flower Route, you either rent a car to travel from village to village or you board bus #249 between Sonsonate and Ahuachapan. Depending on your pace, you can stay in several villages for an overnight, or rush through the 32 kilometre stretch on a single day to enjoy all the flowers.
Apaneca is known for its ziplining facilities. Salcoatitan has art galleries but especially a very healthy coffee industry. Concepcion de Ataco is a beautiful viewpoint, and in that area you can also find hot springs. Ataco itself is a beautiful sleepy village with artisan markets and cobblestone streets in an awesome mountainous setting. So you can do all this in 24 hours… or in seven days.
Admire the coffee
But I preferred to stay in Juayua. To test the hammock in the garden. To admire the coffee coming out of their own roastery. And to enjoy the smile and the good moods of Maria. ‘We might not have a lot’, she knows. ‘But we love where we are living, and isn’t that what it is all about?’
Good to know
- January and february are the best months to visit the Flower Route. The climate is gentle throughout the year though (beware of rain season, from april onwards for a couple of months)
- On the southern side of the Parque Central is a lovvely bakery (pasteleria), where typical Salvador life glides by. For food, there are many pupuserias (Sugey or Estelito for example). The Taqueria La Guadalupana serves excellent and very good-value Mexican food. R&R restaurant is the best one, but also pretty expensive, especially for locals
- If you are into reptiles, Reptilandia El Salvador might be the thing for you. The small museum / zoo is only two blocks away from the main square
- Hiking: apart from hiking to the waterfalls, nearby Santa Ana volcano is a major attraction. Take bus 238 for 40 minutes, then bus 248 to the entrance. Hikes apparently start 11am sharp, the last bus leaves at 5pm. You might not make it in one day. Lago de Coatepeque close to Santa Ana is worth a visit as well
- Getting there and away: bus 249 from Sonsonate to Ahuachapan. It leaves you hundred metres away from the main square. When going back, ask the driver whether it goes onwards to Ahuachapan or is returning to Sonsonate. From Ahuachupan it is also possible (but not easy) to cross the border to Guatemala. Pay attention: in Sonsonate there is one bus terminal for when you arrive from San Salvador, but you have to cross the street to a bigger terminal for the connection to Ahuachapan.
More pictures can be found here.