We started out around noon on Friday on the Pan American Highway, which is actually the road my school is on - in Guatemala City it's called the Road to El Salvador. We had heard about more relaxed border crossings in the press lately, there is a new agreement between most of the Central American countries, so we weren't surprised to be told we didn't need to stop and come in on the El Salvador side. El Salvador is on a dollar economy, so no currency changes were needed. People we asked in the town of Santa Ana directed us, after several tries, to the turnoff to Cerro Verde National Park and we snaked our way up the mountain road. Climbing, the views of the beautiful lake below and cliffs beyond were disappointing, hampered by foggy clouds. At the top of the road, an outdoor eatery served local foods. A group of park staff there told us that, yes, there is a hotel here. The road doesn't go that far, it's about a 15 minute walk to get there, and one of them could take us. Upon further discussion, we discovered the hotel has been closed for 3 years. Missed it.
The top of the volcano was a 4 hour hike. We were feeling a little discouraged as the clouds moved in and engulfed us, and reduced the visibility to near zero. Not the best conditions for a hike, with no view. There were more places to stay around the lake, we were told, so back down the road we went. After being herded into a little hotel right on the lake by a persuasive young man who stopped us on the road, we looked at a room and learned the bathroom was a long walk down a shaky wooden stairway in the dark - and no shower, you can wash in the lake. We continued on to find a nicer place.
Lake Coatepeque, shrouded in mist, was quiet and peaceful in what must have been the off season. I believe we were the only guests. A long elevated wooden bridge connected to a covered structure with tables high above the beach. Birds dived under the arches past us, we were just at their flying elevation. Waves lapped gently below. Sherry, my traveling partner, is an energetic morning walker. She walks like she drives, with determination and speed. We explored the road around the lake until we could go no further, and met an enchanting surprise on the way back. An old woman bent gathering wood on the hillside. At our greeting, she stopped to talk. Standing straight with her kindling under one arm, wearing a white headcloth and apron, 85 year old Geraldina de la Rosa told us a little of her life. She recited a lengthy prayer, a benediction in Spanish.
Deciding against the hike, we drove south to the beach at La Libertad for our last night in El Salvador. This stretch of Pacific coast is popular for surfers, strong high waves crashing into brown sand beaches broken by cliffs. The endless horizon of ocean and the rhythm of the waves is always relaxing and comforting to me. The hotel (actually a club) had stairs down to two beaches from its rocky perch, one on each side of the cliff. Sherry dug a birthday greeting in the sand for her brother, a teacher in Beirut. I collected round rocks. A meandering walkway connected the beaches. When we arrived the waves were splashing up over the trail and into a couple of small cement pools nestled in the rocks - we had to wait for an opening to run across to the other side. By evening and next morning, the mysterious salt water pools were full and calm, tide receded. It was a wonderful place to linger for a while.
Lacking in El Salvador were the local crafts - we saw none in three days, the only Central or South American country I've visited where they weren't ubiquitous, with insistent vendors. There is a very small indigenous population in this country, largely assimilated. Perhaps that's why. Following the winding coast road, holding on white knuckled while Sherry screamed around the curves and passed slow moving vehicles, we reached the border. (Confidence, she says, is the key to driving this fast.)
Our easy entry turned out to be problematic. We hadn't gotten our passport stamped and had to pay a fine to get out of El Salvador. (My principal later described this as a racket.) At first it was $121 for each of us, then it came down to $80, and finally, after close to an hour of polite protestation and explanation on our part, it landed at $57 a piece, the "minimo", the official emphatically stated, even if it was their error. An expensive visit.