Ruta de las Flores means Route of the Flowers, just in case your Spanish is completely non-existent. But let me first clear up something: the flowers only bloom seasonally. When I was there, I saw a grand total of zero flowers on the Route of the Flowers. Not a single one. “Route of the Flowers But Only Certain Times of the Year, Otherwise It’s Just a Nondescript Route” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it though, I suppose. Thankfully it’s worth visiting the area for things other than flowers.
Myself and a Finnish-Swiss couple from the hostel I stayed at took a trip with a driver from the hostel. They’d been casually living in Lima, Peru for the last three years before abandoning their jobs and traveling around the Pacific islands and across Latin America for a year, with another six months to go, with no flight back home – in fact they had no home now – and no plans for the future. In contrast, I had taken a week off work, arriving on Saturday, leaving the coming Saturday, back in the office on Monday, planning my next vacation by Tuesday. While they regaled me with snapshots and stories of their adventures, I could only describe in detail the ergonomic advantages of my office desk setup compared to a typical workspace. They were not impressed.
Both Inka the Finn and Elias the Swiss spoke fluent Spanish, so they translated interesting tidbits of what the driver said throughout the day, because I could only grasp a few words here and there. “Pretty town”, “meet here at five”, “sorry you have to translate for the dumb Englishman”, etc.
Stop 1: Los Chorros (seven waterfalls)
We pay $3 apiece for a guide with a machete to take us from the large patch of dirt with chickens bopping around — humorously called a car park — to the waterfall. The path is straightforward but the guide is required for safety reasons, as they are for many tourist destinations in El Salvador: almost every headline or article you read about this country, and especially the travel advice from Western governments, warns that violent crime is prevalent, seemingly to the point where if you turn a corner and you don’t get killed, you’re one of the lucky ones. Obviously this is complete nonsense. I had no issues anywhere and heard nothing but good things from the dozen or so other travelers I met along the way.
The trail to the waterfall is slippery but the path is straightforward and lined with lots of local tourists with their kids, dogs, and picnic baskets. Naturally in such an environment we feel incredibly unsafe. Gotta be wary of all the guns packed into those picnic baskets! Gotta keep an eye on that pug that might leap at our throats at a command given by that ten year old boy wearing a Spider-Man shirt who must clearly be the leader of a gang!
We spend 30 minutes in this man-made pool at the waterfall, before heading back up via a shortcut with a lookout over a different waterfall. This shortcut, sadly, follows a stream along which was littered with a disgusting amount of trash bags, plastic bottles, ancient pieces of dirty clothing, and many other unidentifiable things.
Stop 2: Juayua
Juayua is the town along Ruta de las Flores closest to the waterfall, and a common place for travelers who want to stay along the Ruta to do so. It’s Saturday and a food festival is in full swing on a street next to the main square.
A canopy covers the length of the street, plastic tables and chairs stuffed with people on one side, their faces warmed by the sizzling grills on the other. On display in front of the grills are example platos to pick from; pork ribs with pineapple or tiny steaks or chicken breast, all served with rice and plantain chips and corn on the cob. All very cheap, all delicious. Local music plays over loudspeakers from the square which is decorated with a big Christmas tree, fairy lights strung between trees, and big plastic snowmen and reindeer standing incongruously in the hot sun. Poor Rudolph and Frosty.
We eat at a plastic table, talking intermittently, absorbing everything happening around us: street sellers selling everything from watches to handicrafts to a man selling three tiny bunny rabbits who thrusts them upon anyone who even looks his way. A frail old woman stops by each table asking for food; we wave her away but later we find her, give her our leftovers, then she sits down on the curb to eat but a table of locals invites her to eat with them. Stray dogs weave in and out of the tables, searching for dropped scraps, balking as stall staff race by carrying plates of food and bottles of soda.
Stop 3: Apaneca
We don’t see any other foreign tourists in Apaneca and it’s a short visit. There’s a covered building with a courtyard. Facing into the courtyard are stalls selling pizza, tacos, juices, fridge magnets and shot glasses, DVDs of movies that are still in cinemas, and more. A computer is set up next to the courtyard stage, playing a Spotify playlist of Latin hits.
Next to the courtyard is a hilly street down which kids are tearing away on bikes or in tiny cars. One kid, not more than four years old, comes back up the hill in his Jeep looking somewhere between sad and terrified. The three of us see him and we can’t help but burst out laughing. Past this street is another street, devoid of people, but beautiful because of the many murals on the sides of the buildings.
Stop 4: Ataco
Ataco is a cross between Juayua and Apaneca: it’s a lively place and has murals and beautiful quotes painted on the side of wooden buildings with overhanging plants. It’s also friendly to foreign tourists: there are cute cafes with English menus, a few small hotels and a hostel, and we overhear some people speaking English. Of the three places we visited, Ataco would be the best as a base to see this part of El Salvador, maybe more so than Santa Ana.
We walk around for an hour and then sit in the cafe with the best coffee, as recommended by our driver. Out of nowhere we suddenly hear multiple gunshots from somewhere nearby. Bang bang bang bang! All those stark warnings of violent crime and powerful criminal gangs come flooding back. We look around and the locals aren’t remotely perturbed, still sipping their coffee like nothing happened. Are they so used to gunshots they can be this blasé? Maybe those warnings were right after all!
But no, the gunshots aren’t gunshots at all. They’re fireworks. Even though there’s a few hours left of sunlight, someone is letting off fireworks. It’s jarring, but perfectly safe; there are no local warlords here, just a few oddballs, like anywhere else in the world, and if you don’t know any oddballs, well, you might just be the odd one…
If you’re in Central America, don’t skip over El Salvador because you’ve heard bad things. It can be perfectly safe and there are interesting and beautiful places to visit, like Ruta de las Flores. But depending on when you visit, don’t expect to see any flowers.