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Firework Ridden Bulls

We crossed the border of Guatemala into the lands of El Salvador with open minds and ready backpacks. El Salvador is an often avoided backpacker destination, with travellers opting to shoot through it on a nice cosy bus, flying out the other side into Nicaragua unscathed and hassle free. The very nature of this though is what bought us to this intriguing country; we were looking forward to getting off the Gringo trail, experiencing towns and cities where tourists were infrequent and where our lingual dexterity would be put to the test.

Our adventure though didn’t start well. After clearing customs and wondering why no stamp was needed in the passport, we alighted at San Salvador bus terminal to be greeted by obnoxious money driven taxi drivers who knew they were our only option of finding our hostel of choice. After some fierce negotiations and joining up with another foreigner we settled on a price and headed on our way.

It left a slightly bitter taste in our mouth; that the first contact with El Salvadorians was mixed with greed and stubbornness, but nevertheless we arrived at our hostel around 10:30pm and crashed out with thoughts on moving on quickly the next day, heading West to the town of Juayua.

The backpackers privilege of freedom and drastic life altering decisions being made on the fly, however, was bought into play the next morning as we chatted to our host and made internet checks on transport options throughout the country. Although roads exist like a spider web of connectivity throughout the land, in a twist on the ancient Roman proverb, all roads lead to San Salvador, which means that any links from one stop to another would involve a change in El Salvador’s capital. We altered our plans that morning and decided instead to head to Suchitoto a few hours North, allowing us to hit the beach town of Los Cobanos before finally settling at Juayua the next weekend – giving us plenty of time to experience the food festival that the town is famous for.

I hastily emailed the hostel I had booked in Juayua to change to the next weekend, and booked Han and I into, for our 5 year anniversary, what Lonely Planet described as … ‘Without a doubt this is one of the best places to stay in El Salvador. A posh boutique hotel set in a restored 200-year old home, high-end Salvadoran art, antique and modern furnishings, custom-made doors and several gurgling fountains set the scene for six immaculate rooms.’ I put my credit card details in, was amazed as again they were accepted by my grudgingly obliging bank, and we set off, the hotel a surprise.

The rural farming population, 6 elderly smiling ranchos with their machetes slung across their backs, the colorful, the weird, the wonderful, and one other gringo, piled onto the market good laden bus and trundled North through the country. Stopping seemingly randomly for anyone who stuck out their hand, and some who didn’t, we slowly but perceptibly got more and more cramped until the ‘maximum 49 passenger’ stickered bus was holding around 90 people, before my vision got impaired by a man wielding a large broomstick that was a holder for another 25. Edging my backpack, my day sack, Han’s backpack, my juggling ‘fun bag’ and our food bag into tighter and tighter corners, trying to not be the stereotypical ‘annoying gringo who carries too much’, I got as comfy as possible and held on.

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Three hours later on the two-hour journey, with the bus slowly emptying as passengers jumped off at random grass strewn village lanes, we trundled into an amazing colonial town, piled the baggage onto our unwitting bodies and strolled down to the amazing hotel. We checked in, somewhat embarrassingly with our backpacks, smelly clothes and obvious biscuit and bread strewn food bag, got shown to our room and immediately knew we were in a for a treat for the next couple of days. With a bed wider than it was long, adjoining bathroom with, as its namesake suggests, a bath, and a view over the swimming pool and further off a lake to the East we took a well earned sigh. The architecture, art and attention to detail in the hotel were impressive as well as homely.

Centered around a town-orientating 1853 impressive white washed church, that sits grandly in-front of the ‘every town needs one’ town square with fountain combo, the small town of around 25,000 inhabitants throws its cobblestone roads out in semi-formulated blocks. Boasting colorful walls and door ways, iron-worked gates, prints of birds painted onto structures and pavements alike, the photogenic town gave off a calm and serene nature, where speed was only a factor if you tried to rush around.

Two main sites were heralded in the Lonely Planet and internet forums alike; Suchitlan Lake, and the Cascada Los Tercios (literally ‘Waterfall of Thirds’), along with wandering the town, visiting the galleries and eating the famous El Salvadorian pupusa. Basically a corn tortilla filled with cheese and then an option or combo of meat, vegetables or refried beans, all fried, and then covered in a spicy sauce and vinegered salad, the pupusa was soon to become our go-to food item during dinner and snack time (snack time is an un-designated backpacker time of the day when eating street food is allowable and has no effect on later designated food times, such as lunch or dinner; you are allowed your snack time 20mins before a full dinner if so desired).

After settling in and a quick walk around town, we hiked down to Suchitlan Lake and took in the bird filled, reed-clump covered expanse of water. We sat, became unsettlingly mesmerized as a boat navigated across the lake pushing the reeds apart as it slowly crawled through the vegetation, observed the birds sit on and fly off a zip line that connected the main land to a small island, and relaxed watching the world go by for an hour or so. Dusk was settling in before we wandered back up the steep hill back to our luxury abode.

We sat at our hotel taking in the tranquil music and surroundings and got chatting to Chris Moss, a travel writer who’s written for The Guardian, The Times, a host of magazines and was currently doing a piece for the Financial Times on Central America. We got on really well and all headed out for the staple dinner of pupusa’s before having a few drinks in the central square overlooking the church, hearing rumors that a guy runs around the square dressed as a bull with fireworks on his head during the ‘Week of the Immaculate Conception’, which we had landed in the middle off.

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We assumed we had lost something in translation, but enjoyed the drinks with a horde of people who were cajoling, playing and screaming fun on the 1960’s fair ground rides and games. I had a go at popping a balloon with a dart, only to be obviously scammed with blunt darts, we ate some sugared coconut biscuits and sat back sipping a beer watching the crowds. As the second beer was poured a tangible thrill went through the crowd, and suddenly a guy, holding a big metallic bull structure above his head, came running through the crowds shooting Catherine wheels and rockets off in random directions. Health a safety eat your heart out!

It was apparent that the ‘bulls’ main aim was to run at the biggest crowds, who ran away screaming in delight, as an unknown countdown was happening to when the next set of fireworks would explode in a furry of fire filled mayhem at anyone and everyone who was anywhere near (or far away) from the bull. Would the bull shoot a rocket at this manic crowd? Would that line of people get burnt with Catherine Wheels screaming through their ranks? Kids screamed, parents laughed, music was blaring, and above all rocket propelled explosives were being firing at crowds and cars alike! It was quite truly amazing, terrifying, shocking and absolutely, without doubt, mind blowingly brilliant.

I admit, my knowledge of the Bible or the immaculate conception is not completely up to date, but as far as I am aware there was no rocket fuelled bulls in the stories, and I’m still not sure on its origins or reasons, but still, for 30 minutes I was mesmerized. Brilliant, just brilliant fun!

The next morning our aim was for some more relaxed affair in the form of the Cascada de Tercios, so the first port of call was naturally , of course, the police station. After some research and questions to the hotel staff, it turned out the 3km walk to the waterfalls can be a bit dangerous with local villagers deciding to loot unwitting passer-bys, so it was advised that we speak to the police about a police escort. They told us to come back at around 2pm and they would take us to see the cascades, ensuring our safety and integrity were kept in tact.

We spent the morning therefore having a wander around town, looking in the galleries (and buying a painting), chatting to and marveling at an ancient pupusa making machine, with ancient pupusa making workers, and having a midday dip in the cooling waters back at our hotel. 2pm arrived, and in typical Central American time sensitivity, at around 3pm a police truck came by and Han and I, two other tourists, and two local policemen jumped into the trailer at the back and headed off.

We had been warned that the water level at this time of year would be really low, and the cascading torrent of water would be more in the vein of a trickle of liquid, and although this did hold true, the rock formations were worth a visit unto themselves. Reminding me of the Giants Causeway in Ireland, the waterfall was formed of hundreds of upright hexagonal stone pillars, some warped and twisted with age and the elements, to create a 3D jigsaw of rocks that I could fathom no natural reason to occur. After the usual tourist photos, we chatted to the police as we trekked the 3km back to town, our lift obviously finding more pressing matters than showing tourists some trickling water over some funky rocks.

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We spent the evening chatting to Chris again, carrying out an impromptu pupusa making course as I made my own dinner on the streets with my street food vendor, watched more religious celebrations happening with floats, village prom queens and fireworks all in attendance, and sipped away on a couple more beers, before collapsing into our wider-than-long bed.

Whether staying in relative luxury, meeting some great people, watching real people get on with real life (instead of living off the tourist trade) or having weird town celebrations were to blame (probably all of the above), but we had both really enjoyed Suchitoto and the people in it. We were sad to see it go, but a backpackers life is rarely stationary for too long, and it was happy-not -heavy hearts that we trundled back on the bus the next day to navigate southwards to Los Cobanos.