Santa Ana: Chicken Bus Lessons in Pupusa Heaven

It felt too soon to leave Guatemala, but we had already more than exceeded our intended time there. Perhaps Guatemala is just one of those places you never feel quite ready to depart. Gearing up for our first border crossing in 50 days, we hopped on a bus in Guatemala City and headed for the hotter and more humid pastures of El Salvador.

Guatemala is a very bright and colorful country. Of course it has the passport stamp to match.

Whohn Brose was both nervous and excited to cross into El Salvador, mostly due to the lack of information regarding its tourism. El Salvador suffers from a major deficit of online backpacker advice when compared to every other country in the region, save for Honduras. We even found this to be the case when chatting with travelers who started in Panama and were working their way up, as many of them opted to skip El Salvador altogether.

While it is true that Honduras and El Salvador rank first and second respectively in terms of the world’s highest murder rates, the few pieces of advice we could get our hands on assured us that tourists are largely untouched by the violence. More so, the positive things we read or heard went even further to say that those who skip El Salvador deny themselves a wholly unique and unforgettable experience.

Clinging to both the positive reviews and our adventurous spirits, we decided to pay El Salvador’s second-largest city—Santa Ana—a visit. Nevermind that dreadful warning the U.S. State Department issued in February, they have their own troubles at the moment. We took it all with a grain of salt and ventured toward the northwest region of the country.

This is one of 23 volcanoes that pepper Central America’s smallest and most densely populated country.

Our first impressions of El Salvador were off to a great start, as the border crossing officials didn’t even make us get off the bus while they checked our passports. Driving through the lush, volcanic landscape, it was hard not to feel optimistic about the opportunity to appreciate El Salvador in its own right. That and we had managed to find a rare direct shuttle to Santa Ana without transfer! Or at least that’s what we thought.

As we neared our destination, Whit realized that the bus driver was barreling down the highway that merely skirts the edge of the town rather than the highway that leads into it. With no desire to backtrack from the shuttle’s next planned stop in San Salvador about an hour away after sun down, Whit rushed to the front to tell the driver that their tickets were for Santa Ana.

The bus driver was unsympathetic to whatever miscommunication led him to believe that Santa Ana was not on his route; and because he had collected our tickets when we boarded and handed them to the administration office back in Guatemala City, we were unable to prove that they did indeed say Santa Ana on them. The best he decided he could do was pull over and leave us with our bags in front of a gas station about six kilometers from our destination.

This was the point where all the things they tell you not to do in El Salvador began to flood our frustrated minds.

With the sun setting, it was getting darker by the minute, and we weren’t about to walk along the narrow shoulder of the highway with 55-liter packs and zero reflectors or lights in tow. We were also wary of public buses, as we had yet to give them a go at any point since arriving to Central America. Weighing our options, we decided our best move was to go into the gas station and see if they could call us a taxi.

Communicating with the gas station employees proved more difficult than either half of Whohn Brose had imagined. Whit was feeling pretty confident in her Spanish at this point, but Salvadorans, we would come to find, have a tendency to slur their words through a fairly thick accent. Our prior optimism about how successful we would fare in this seemingly uncharted territory was admittedly starting to wane.

Nevertheless, the people who assisted us in travel triage at the gas station were super friendly and helpful. Once we all figured out what it was we were asking for, they assured us that a taxi was on its way. No less than five minutes later, Victor the taxi driver—or a friend of an employee who was available that night and down to make $6, we’re not really sure—rolled up in his beat-up 1980s Datsun, cool as a cucumber and ready to save the day.

Santa Ana during the daytime: much less menacing than at night.

Arriving to our hostel, we could feel our heart and respiratory rates calming. Our new digs for the next three days, Casa Verde, has been consistently ranked as El Salvador’s best hostel for several years running. It didn’t take us long to figure out why.

The bed in our room was the most comfortable we’d slept on since arriving to Central America, and the shower actually ranks as one of the best either of us has taken maybe ever. What makes this place truly remarkable, though, is definitely Casa Verde’s owner.

Carlos is a friendly and welcoming host who is truly invested in making sure you have a good time. He greeted us into the hostel with warm enthusiasm, and then proceeded to order us some pupusas for delivery that expanded our consciousness in terms of what kind of magic one can work with masa harina. Needless to say, we put our prior inconveniences behind us and slept like rocks that night.

Santa Ana’s cathedral is located in the town square, along with dozens of delicious street food vendors.

Seeing as we were spending our three days in Santa Ana over John’s birthday weekend, we had a somewhat specific itinerary as per the birthday boy’s request. The plan was to wake up early on Saturday, John’s birthday eve, and catch a bus to the Santa Ana volcano for a day hike to its crater. The following day would be spent celebrating his 29th at a food festival that takes place every weekend along the nearby Ruta de las Flores.

Of course, as is often the case with Whohn Brose, things that require punctuality don’t always work out according to our plan. With very little time to get ourselves together and to the bus station in time for the only bus that would get us to the park before the guided hike left, we accepted our fate and decided to alter our plans. Saturday would be spent at the Juayua food festival, while Sunday would be spent hiking the volcano.

Our new plan was all fine and dandy, but then we hit our second speed bump. Piecing together what information we could find online about bus schedules, we made a safe and educated guess about what time we should get ourselves to the bus terminal. This left us standing in the bus terminal waiting for a decked-out yellow school bus with the word Juayua above the window for close to two hours before one rolled into the dirt parking lot.

It’s incredible how many buses maneuver into these tight parking spaces with the help of one person directing traffic.

Bored, eager, and slightly annoyed, we hopped on the bus and quickly realized our mistake as it continued to roll to the actual bus terminal around the corner from where we were standing. Chances are, there was a bus to Juayua we could have caught around back about an hour-and-a-half prior.

Intent on keeping our spirits up, we sat on the bus and waited for it to pull out en route to the Juayua food festival. Yet another hour went by as it slowly filled up with passengers, going from eery silence to full-blown chaos.

In between the flow of passengers boarding, people selling everything from candy and pre-made salads to light bulbs and headphones hopped on the bus to hawk their goods. It’s astonishing what you can purchase just sitting in your seat waiting for the bus to move.

This is why they call it a chicken bus! In the words of Tom Robbins, “Never trust a country that won’t permit live poultry to ride on the bus.”

The constant flow of homemade and prepackaged goods did not wane as the bus roared to life. As we inched our way out of the terminal, entrepreneurs both young and old continued to hop on the bus, entering through the front door and leaving through the back. This also happened at various bus stops along the way, just in case you change your mind about needing a refreshment or crisps or some batteries.

Once the bus was really moving, our first chicken bus journey was an experience in and of itself. Just ask yourself this one question: If you haven’t sat in a decked-out yellow school bus with 60 other passengers as it moves absurdly fast around windy mountain roads while Pitbull is blasting through the speakers, have you really lived?

The Juayua food festival, which is located in the town’s main square, was winding down by the time we finally arrived mid-afternoon. Fortunately for our hangry selves and each other, we were still able to enjoy some delicious seafood platters and a dessert consisting of cakes and tamarind horchata.

The first of two shared plates we munched our way through.

After the food festival, on the last bus back to Santa Ana—again, great fun all its own—John noticed a guy wearing a Portland Trailblazers shirt. Turns out we were on the bus with a couple from the Portland area, who also happened to be staying at our hostel. They are doing a year-long trip through the Americas.

The next morning, armed with the right knowledge of which bus to take and when, Whohn Brose sprung into action bright and early, determined to add another volcano summit to their list. Joined by a fellow traveler from Australia, Whohn Brose set out for the bus terminal.

We were as prepared as possible (meaning only somewhat) but we couldn’t manage to squeeze in a breakfast before heading off for a full day of hiking. Lucky for us, bus vendors are a reliable staple in the Salvadoran transportation system. First order of birthday business was pizza for breakfast, sold out of a cooler by some guy who hopped on about an hour in. Sure, we asked for solo queso and received pepperoni—but hey, you can’t win them all. Another new experience for the books when we picked the meat off and went to town on what turned out to be some very delicious homemade za.

After the long journey to Volcán Santa Ana finally came to an end, we had lots of waiting around to look forward to. The hike requires both a guide and an armed police officer, and does not start until 11 a.m. after they’ve determined that the weather is permissible. The bus drops you off at the park around 9:30 a.m.

If that sounds frustrating, just imagine how people feel when they catch the early bus, ride it for an hour-and-a-half to the park, and then wait around another hour-and-a-half just to be told the hike is cancelled due to weather. That’s actually what happened the previous day, when we had originally planned to do the hike.

Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to so they can work out the way you need them to. Fortunately for us, the weather decided to behave for John’s birthday hike.

The giant succulent garden of Whit’s dreams.

The volcano hike itself is beautiful—a mix of dense forest and rocky desert terrain with plants that look like giant succulents, until the very top where it all turns to volcanic ash. The view into the aqua blue sulfur lake in the crater is the coolest part, though. It was a fairly easy hike that took about two hours each way.

On a clear day you can see the Pacific Ocean from the summit. However, with it being the rainy season, we were unable to see past the clouds surrounding us at the top. In fact, we made it to the top just in time, because after about 20 minutes of gawking at the lake, the rain began to fall.

This lake ain’t for swimming.

Once we made it back to the base, there was one thing left to do. Can you guess what it was? More waiting, obviously! The hike ends around 3 p.m., but the bus does not return to take you back to Santa Ana until an hour later at 4 p.m. At least there are plenty of food stands to grab pupusas, elotes, and delicious hot chocolate from.

After our long bus ride back, John declared the evening a pizza and beer night. Taking some spectacular advice from Carlos, we ordered some pizzas and vegetable tapas from a local spot called Simmer Down. With grande Pilseners—El Salvador’s main beer—in hand, we sat down to watch game two of the disappointing NBA finals that Carlos set up on the big-screen projector for all the hostel guests to watch. It was a splendid way to end a successful volcano hike, and a nice way to celebrate John’s 29th.

The next day, it was off to El Tunco for some surftown rest and relaxation. Carlos came through yet again with a ride to the bus stop and one last killer food recommendation. After a few easy chicken bus rides, we found ourselves walking into the eerily quiet, almost deserted coastal town of El Tunco. But as we would soon find out, things in El Tunco pick up as the week goes on. More on that later, though!

Public buses in Central America were not made for John’s long legs.

3 thoughts on “Santa Ana: Chicken Bus Lessons in Pupusa Heaven

  1. Hi John and Whitney. Quite the adventure for sure! You both look wonderful- little close to that volcanic lake though behind you-lol. My heart rate got a little elevated too, on your travels to Santa Ana, but you made it to Santa Ana! The cathedral is beautiful. Great that you are experiencing the culture! Food looks delicious! Carlos sounds wonderful too, and made your 29th memorable. We love you!


  2. What an adventure for sure! Certainly getting Central-American-Smart – knowing that the bus wasn’t heading INTO Santa Ana, but alongside it. Not only the sites and culture along the way are incredibly enriching, but the people as well, perhaps more importantly.


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