We saw these guys on some inland traveling in El Salvador. We’ll probably have more to say about our travels in a later post, but I wanted to point out these crazy dudes. They ride these giant homemade skateboards down the mountains of this country (El Salvador has more volcanoes per square mile than any other country – it is a jungly, mountainous place). They usually carry a load of wood behind them and use a spare piece of it as a brake by jamming it under the “vehicle”. They steer with their feet. Note the tiny metal wheels and generally rickety construction and then imagine riding one of these things down a potholed third world road amongst traffic at about 40 mph. There’s just a different approach to safety here. Life is full of risks.
Picture this: You and friends are sipping drinks at a table by a hotel pool on the beach. Several other tables are also filled with quietly chatting folks when a local guy walks up from the beach with a machete in one hand and a small sea turtle in the other. He flips the turtle onto its back and raises the machete.
Mary cowers in terror, as several of us run over to tell the guy not to do this in front of everyone like this. You hate that endangered animals are eaten, but you wish at least they would do the butchering out back somewhere. But before you get to the guy he gently taps the machete against a growth on the underbelly of the turtle. It’s a barnacle. He knocks it off and then repeats it for a bunch of barnacles on this poor turtle.
By this time the turtle has stopped flapping for its life and is calm. He has either given up or knows somehow he is not in danger. The guy painstakingly knocks barnacles off the underside, shell, legs even the head of the turtle. It’s amazing what these guys can do with a machete. He even very gently pries one off its eyelid! By this time we realize he is not some turtle butcher with no social graces. He is a kind of Tortuga whisperer. When he has all the barnacles off, we all, including Lucy, follow him back to the ocean to watch the turtle swim away newly unencumbered by the little parasites.
The turtle hero has zero English and his Spanish is different and incomprehensible to us. So we are only able to communicate our wonder and appreciation for this bit of kindness in a world where people are often so indifferent to animal suffering with smiles and cheers.
What a welcome we received upon our entrance to El Salvador. We had buddy boated down from Mexico with Kia Ora, Mermaid and Talos IV. We actually had great winds for part of the trip, so the 250nm journey went faster than anticipated, ending with us all anchored out in the ocean waiting for high tide to “cross the bar”. The entry into the harbor has a shifting sandbar with waves breaking over it, making it dangerous to cross without a knowledgeable pilot to guide you through the narrow opening.
Even in the opening there is often a cresting wave that causes a boat to surf on in. Surfing a 30,000 lb boat will make you a bit anxious. At the appointed time, we lined up with the other boats and nervously anticipated the crossing. When it was Neko’s turn we went full throttle towards the prescribed path and just as we braced ourselves for a wild ride down breaking waves, we heard the voice of our pilot over the radio welcoming us to El Salvador. Wow, that was a relief and, frankly, a bit of a let down. You don’t want to surf the boat, but you kind of want a little wave. Alas, in the long run I think it was better to have had the uneventful crossing.
They don’t get a lot of tourists in El Salvador and even fewer boaters, so they were very welcoming and friendly. When we arrived we were greeted on the docks with smiles and cheers by immigration officials, the port captain, locals and rally members. (We have joined the very informal El Salvador Rally which begins in a few weeks. In the meantime we plan on exploring on our own and with our other boat pals.)
They handed us welcome cocktails, snapped photos, helped with our lines and bombarded us with information. As you’ve read in previous posts, we normally have to drive or walk miles to officially check in/out of a country, here we only took a few steps to an air conditioned (ahhhh) office with ALL necessary personnel ready to stamp, stamp, stamp our way into El Salvador.
Apart from their love of official government stamps, El Salvador is really quite different from Mexico. Everything from the landscape (volcanoes and lush jungle), people (friendly, but a little more shy), food (not spicy) and even their Spanish is slightly different (tend to drop endings of words). Mexico was great, but we are ready for a change.
We’ve met great folks here and within our first week have been welcomed into their homes, experienced an early season lighting storm,
watched a turtle rescue (click here for turtle story), started volunteering at an English language school for children, run by a wonderful woman, Jan.
sampled several versions of pupusas, the quintessential El Salvadorian dish,
taken long beach walks along their wide and empty beaches,
had the boat’s generator removed for repair
The restaurant grilled us a delicious fish lunch over a charcoal fire right in the thatch-roofed hut. It was really only a platform on piles in the river with a few tables. The restroom was a bench in the mangroves across a rickety catwalk.
The next day we spent running errands in the crazy city of San Salvador, made even crazier by a hotly contested presidential election. It was a close race, with both sides claiming victory and demanding recounts; all that was missing were hanging chads. It’s interesting to note they do not serve or sell alcohol the day before, of and after the election to try to mitigate tempers. (In the US, they’d be better off shutting down the internet). Sadly, this goes for visitors as well, so only cocktails on our boat (oh, how we suffer).
San Salvador, like all of El Salvador is a place of haves and have nots. You see everything from shacks on the outskirts of town to huge homes behind high walls and gates.
Apparently there is a lot of gang violence here, although we never felt any danger, you can’t go 50 feet without seeing guards with machine guns posted outside every store, bank, home, even zipping down the road on a motorcycle.
This is the capital and largest city in El Salvador, with almost 2.5 million people in the metro area. And it is very much a big city, people are busy and going about their business and it is an interesting change of pace to be somewhere where tourism isn’t the name of the game.
After four fun filled months in Mexico, it’s time to go, but first…
One of the greatest aspects of travel is the people you meet. You become fast friends with fellow boaters because you are experiencing this strange new lifestyle together and can completely relate to one another. You become friendly with locals at each stop and benefit from their knowledge and eagerness for you to experience their hometown. You meet folks on their vacations who are perplexed by your strange way of boat life. These interactions are the brightest part of our travels, but our stay at Casa Raab was somehow different. It didn’t seem like we were meeting new friends; it was more like coming home to old ones.
Rebecca, the owner, lives on this 40-acre ranch that her husband’s family built in the 1960s. Now she, her husband Tony and her mother Coralie run the inn/boutique mezcal farm/animal rescue center.
Yes, you heard me right, animal rescue. When we pulled into the gravel driveway we had to slow down to avoid hitting any of the dozen or so dogs that were running to greet us. Lucy was happy to see the other dogs and even happier when she learned that the humans carry treats in their pockets. Rebecca is a true inspiration to me as she has rescued hundreds of local dogs over the years. In fact, just the day before we arrived she had taken in 8 puppies. And no, dad, I did not take one home.
Tom, his wife Judy and his other wife Jane (LOL, just kidding), long-stay guests at the inn but really honorary assistant managers, made the introductions to all the dogs and gave us a tour of the grounds.
The stunning scenery and charming home includes horses, cats, turtles, donkeys and of course the dogs, as well as acres of agave plants they grow and use to brew their own mezcal.
We met with a varied cast of ex-pat characters staying in the main house and casitas on the property as well as neighbors, all of whom welcomed us into their little family and turned a sightseeing trip into a special treat. We quickly learned that Casa Raab is a place where people come to stay for months at a time and come back year after year. Yikes, I’m making it sound like a cult, but seriously it is a group of wonderfully interesting, funny and kind people who know how to enjoy themselves. We all sat around gabbing and drinking and within a few hours, as we sat down to a marvelous homemade Mexican dinner, we weren’t sure if we’d checked into an inn or arrived at the home of long time friends.
Tom and his wife Judy from Richmond have been coming here for years and stay for several months at a time. You think we are crazy to travel with Lucy by boat – they drove to Mexico from Virginia, so their two dogs, whom they adopted from Rebecca’s rescue, could be with them. Their friend Jane who also is from Richmond was there and we immediately bonded, as she became by fashion consultant. And Rebecca’s friend Debbie was using the house as a home base for her buying trip for her store in Texas. She really knows her Mexican folk art and crafts and taught us a lot and even was kind enough to let me have the pick of the litter from her collection of hand woven bags. We met Melanie and Norman from Brooklyn, and they gave us a much-needed dose of NY. And, of course, Coralie, Rebecca’s mom, was a delight. Every morning at 7am, everyone is welcomed to join in on a hike with other visitors, neighbors and the dogs through the 40+ acres of Casa Raab grounds. It is a beautiful setting, feeling much like the hills of Tuscany, only with agave fields instead of olive trees and in the distance Mayan ruins instead of old forts. Tom kindly offered for Lucy to stay under his watchful eye one day so we could more easily explore Monte Albán and head back into Oaxaca to explore museums and have dinner. We love Lucy to death but this is a rare treat as visiting museums, nice restaurants and shopping can be difficult with Lucy in tow. Monte Albán lives up to its reputation as a fascinating archaeological site.
The next day we were treated by Jane serving as our first tour guide of the day and she took us to a small organic market and helped me pick out an embroidered blouse made by man from Mixes (MEHAYS), an area so remote it isn’t even mapped yet.
She also took us to a local artist’s studio, which had a beautiful home and workshop where we saw the most impressive alebrije (colorful wooden folk art sculptures) we’d seen in Oaxaca. It was fascinating to see the precision of their artistry and skills, far surpassing the brightly colored traditional figures we’d seen throughout the area. This is one of those places we’d have never discovered on our own and were so grateful to Jane for the insider’s tour. But, the fun didn’t stop here, in the afternoon Judy took the lead and drove us to an incredible artist space known as El Centro de las Artes San Agustín Etla, or simply CASA.
CASA is located at an old weaving factory that now has been restored into Mexico’s first eco-arts center founded by famous Mexican artist Francisco Toledo. The building itself seems like a work of art and amazed us that a factory would be placed in such a grand edifice.
Old water pipes from a former hydroelectric plant were utilized to bring water in for Arte Papel a handmade paper facility. The grounds alone would have been worth the visit, but we were also treated to a Toledo exhibit and the opportunity to watch artists in residence working on intricate fabric creations, printmaking and papermaking.
We returned to a farewell dinner of the most interesting dish I’ve tasted since we came to Mexico. Judy and Jane made Huitlacoche (weet-lah-KOH-chay) served over pasta. What is Huitlacoche you ask. Don’t worry, I asked too. Well, simply put it is corn smut or fungus. Oh yes, nothing but the best for us, LOL. Seriously, it was so delicious and is considered a delicacy to many, now including us. You may see it in the states marketed as Mexican truffles, but really there is no need to spin it, it’s fungus and it’s fabulous.
Finally on the morning of our departure, we said our teary goodbyes as if we had known this group for decades. Loaded down with gifts (beautiful bread from Tom and Judy, mezcal gourds from Rebecca, a belt from Jane and the bag from Debbie) we aimed the car back to Huatulco and those windy roads.
Our stay was way too short, but this was definitely a quality trip and truly called for a hasta luego and not an adios to our new amigos. If you are reading this, guys, we want to thank you SO MUCH for a wonderful time!
When we first pulled into the outlying parts of Oaxaca City, we thought, this is what we drove 6.5 hours to see? But as soon as we turned into the colonial downtown we knew right away we made the right decision.
We arrived late in the day, but after a spin around the Zócalo (the main square and center of town), a leisurely bite to eat and an evening of people watching, Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka) began to live up to its billing. Oaxaca evokes an old European city with a special Mexican touch. On this and most Sunday evenings the Zócalo is filled with live music, people dancing, families strolling and lovers embracing.
What we found so fascinating was that, even though this is an old city, full of churches, gorgeous old stone buildings, churches, cobble stoned streets, and did I mention churches, it not only preserves the historical but also celebrates the new.
The churches range from the highly baroque to the modestly simple and everything in between. Most of them are working churches and not museum pieces. But Santa Domingo’s former monastery now is home to the fascinating Museum of Oaxacan Cultures and Botanical Garden.
It was just enjoyable walking through the city taking in the bright colors and finding delightful courtyards behind wooden doors. Impressive stone homes from the 1600s still
stand and house both historical and contemporary museums, art galleries, libraries and host film festivals. Click here to check out the cool doors of Oaxaca.
What also is special about Oaxaca is the number of indigenous people who live here. We heard estimates that the many indigenous groups, the Zapotec and Mixtec people being the dominate ones, make up 1/3 of the population of Oaxaca, with many of them speaking their languages and not Spanish. The woman are tough cookies; strong and noble. One lady let me have it when I was taking a street shot outside the market place and she did not want to be a part of my tableau. You don’t have to speak Zapotecan to know she was pissed off. From then on, I asked for permission to take photos, even if it was of a piece of fruit. And they always said yes. Speaking of fruit, click here to read about the food.
This is a food town for sure, with corn, chocolate and mezcal being the cornerstones. Once again what is compelling about Oaxaca is the way they preserve and celebrate their traditions, but also welcome the modern take on them. And food is no exception, from the fantastic marketplaces and family restaurants, to today’s chefs putting new twists on locals dishes.
One tradition is chapulines, baked and spiced grasshoppers. They sell them by the bagful in the marketplace, but we also saw them on restaurant menus. And yes, we did try them. We just sampled some from a street vendor. Peter’s was spicy and crunchy and mine tasted like a dill pickle and crunchy. Let’s just say we can check that off the list.
Chocolate comes in numerous forms from a beautifully crafted hot chocolate to the famous mole poblano. The complex sauces can be bought throughout the markets and of course ordered in restaurants. Many debate if there are 6 or 7 official types of moles, so Peter decided not to try just one and ordered a tasting that came with roasted pork in 6 different moles.
Hot and cold chocolate drinks are made with the same intensity as your coffee barista. They scoop steaming milk into ceramic pitchers and break in chunks of dark chocolate from solid bars and feverishly mix and froth with a traditional wooden dowel called molinillo (moh-lee-NEE-yoh)
One thing Oaxaca is really into is Mezcal – not the rot gut downed by Hollywood banditos, but rather high-end, aged clear Mezcal, sin worm. Mezcal is made from maguey, a type of agave and is meant to be sipped straight. Thanks to a tip from our friend George, we went to a little hole in the wall mezcaleria called In Situ. Its walls were lined with hundreds of bottles of Mezcal, and only Mezcal.
The liqueur is made in dozens of factories around Oaxaca, from Mom and Pop shacks to fancy places with tasting rooms that would not look out-of-place in Napa. A red-cheeked round little man named Ulisses Torrentera runs In Situ, and he wrote the book on Mezcal (literally – he handed us the book he wrote but alas it was in Spanish). However, even with his limited English and our nearly non-existent Spanish we learned a great deal from him and tasted several varieties before settling on a bottle with a nice smokey flavor to bring back to the boat.
It was fascinating to watch a farmer come into the shop with several large soda bottles filled with his product to sell to Ulisses. After tasting it, Ulisses let us know under his breath that this particular batch was not very good and he wouldn’t be buying any. We felt bad for the farmer but that’s business I guess. Although it isn’t as well know as tequila, mark my words, I predict it will soon be the next drink de jour in the states.
The Juárez and 20 de Noviembre mercados are giant labyrinths of food and craft vendors selling everything you can imagine and some things you can’t. On our days, yes we made several trips there, we ate and sampled and bought everything from Oaxaca cheese (like string cheese), chocolate to those damn grasshoppers.
Peter was in carnivore’s heaven when we wandered into the smoky carne asada alley. It’s about 200 feet long and lined with glowing barbecues on each side. You can barely see your hands in front of you, due the smoke. He didn’t know what the procedure was, but after a little Spanish and a lot of pantomime, he was handed a plate with raw peppers and scallions and pointed to the row of identical stalls grilling beef and sausage.
He picked one and handed his plate and the vegetables to the grill master and said “mixto”. What he didn’t know was that the meat was sold by weight and, not specifying an amount, they decided how much he wanted. We sat and waited and soon a kilo, maybe more, of perfectly grilled meats and the aforementioned scallions and peppers as well as tortillas and salsas were delivered to the table. It was really a meal for two or three people and all for about $9. I went to another stall in the marketplace for a tlayuda. This is a pizza-size baked tortilla that is covered with any combination of things, but always based with black bean paste.
Again this was enough food to feed the town and was only $5. I wasn’t successful finishing mine (I shouldn’t have filled up on those grasshoppers 😉