Traveling in El Salvador
El Salvador is not yet on the major tourist routes, largely because of echoes of the decade-long civil conflict of over 15 years ago. Most roads and bridges have been repaired or replaced since then and many new ones built, but getting around can still be an adventure. Traveling at night or alone is not advised, nor is camping; there is bandit and gang-related activity in the countryside, especially at night.
On the other hand, El Salvador is no more dangerous than most urban areas in the United States or many other tourist attractions in Mexico and Central America. And the country is still largely unspoiled by tourism and over-development.
El Salvador is tropical that means warm. Don't forget your hat, sunscreen and bug repellent. Please remember that wearing shorts and sandals or a scanty top to archaeological sites will surely result in sunburn, bug bites, and scratches. When traveling between May and October, bring a rain poncho or umbrella; there will be tropical thunderstorms with attendant cloud bursts. Occasionally, when there is a hurricane in the Caribbean, there may be several days of rain.
Don't go out of town without water. Agua Cristal is available in bottles and in bags (really useful, as they fit into your pack) in most stores and in the mini-marts associated with large gas stations.
Traveling in El Salvador is best done by private car or by bus. There are numbers of car rental agencies in San Salvador; most have desks at the international airport. If you can, make a reservation for a car before you arrive. Check any good travel guide for current agencies and their fax or 800 numbers. El Salvador now requires the use of a seat belt at all times as well as the use of turn signals and obeying the speed limits. You cannot bribe the traffic police.
Try not to drive at night and do not go out into the countryside alone. Be very careful of people who try to stop you on the highway or who seem to be following you in town, especially at night or in areas of light traffic.
When visiting archaeological sites, you may find it more convenient to hire a car and a driver through a rental agency or to contact a tour agency to show you around. You can also rent taxis (with driver) by the hour. for this service it is best to call one of the established taxi companies, such as Taxis Acacya or Radiotaxi, and make a reservation. Alternatively, there is good bus service, though in daytimes only. In El Salvador, as elsewhere, you must be careful of pickpockets and various kinds of thieves on the buses, especially in the city. Many bus lines, especially those in the countryside, have gotten quite dangerous, especially in the afternoons, when gang members often extort money with menaces from passengers and drivers alike.
Visiting An Archaeological Project
Everybody wants to visit an excavation in progress. Fired by Indiana Jones and countless television programs and books, they want to witness the exciting uncovering of the past and maybe even see the finding of a fabulous lost treasure. Alas, it isn’t that easy. First of all, a great deal of anonymous dirt tends to get moved—very slowly—between any find and, second of all, well we all have limited time and funding for fieldwork and every day, or even couple of hours, deducted from that is time deducted from real work. This is why you won’t receive an enthusiastic greeting if you just show up and demand to be shown around or otherwise make a nuisance of yourself. We are busy. My general greeting to unexpected guests is “Go away”. Followed by calling the security guards to block access to the excavation.
Note, I said unexpected guests. Archaeologists, all of us, are very often glad to have visitors. Education is part of our job and we are pleased to have friends, colleagues, or small groups of students visit. But please remember these strictures:
Wait for an invitation. Yes, you can hint or even ask. If we sound dubious or unwilling, it’s not because we don’t like you or want you, it is because we are in the middle of something that cannot wait while we show people around. Don’t push, ask, “Well, is there some time that would work for you?”
When you get an invitation, it will be for a specific date and time. Be there. Don’t think you can arrive 2 days later or at 4 PM when you were invited for 9 AM. In fact, if you can’t make it, call. We all have cell phones these days.
Do not arrive with more, uninvited, people. If you say you are bringing 10 students, don’t bring 50. Don’t suddenly decide to entertain your family reunion by bringing all your aunts, uncles, and cousins along with you. And, please, do not bring your tiny children or pets. They make terrible messes and get in the way and fall into pits and are generally a nuisance.
Ask before taking photographs. This is not your project. Maybe we have an agreement with our funding agency that all photographs will be vetted by them (National Geographic Society does this, as do some others). Maybe we don’t want our backdirt featured on the front page. Listen, reporters, ask and then find out what it is that you are photographing. Your story will be more interesting and we won’t think up excuses to not invite you the next time. As for colleagues, this is not your project. You wouldn’t go into someone’s lab and start snapping photographs or, if you did, you would be escorted firmly out. Well....
And when we ask you to step away from something, do so. A lot of archaeological remains are very fragile. Also, we may be taking samples of analysis and with many of these we have to take serious steps to avoid contamination.
Don’t fiddle with the equipment or the artifact bags. In archaeology everything has to be carefully labeled and not mixed. We will not appreciate your spilling the contents of the bag from Pit A in with those of Pit C. Our equipment is often delicate and sometimes dangerous. City kids do not realize how dangerous corvos are and careening into the total station will mean a bill of $10,000. For you. Not to mention the screaming fits we will be having at your kid, you, and anyone else you have dragged along.
Keep these things in mind and you, and we, will enjoy your visit. And we might even ask you to come again.
However, just visiting a site is something else again. So do visit Cihuatán and the other wonderful archaeological sites in El Salvador. You will like them and come to an appreciation of the magnificent past of this country. And, who knows? If we are there and not really busy with something urgent, you might get a real archaeologist as a guide!
Cihuatán is the largest known archaeological site in El Salvador. Although the original site covered most of the Loma de Cihuatán, the park encompasses only the two ceremonial centers and a bit of the residential area to the south. The Western Ceremonial Center and West Terrace are open to the public. The Eastern Ceremonial Center or Acropolis is closed to visitors, because it iscurrently being excavated and the remains are unconsolidated and very fragile. You can look at the excavation from the "mirador" at the east end of the Western Ceremonial Center.
Cihuatán is open from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, Tuesday through Sunday. It was recently (November 2007) inaugerated as an archaeological park and now has tourist facilities. There is a site museum for orientation, modern, clean,bathrooms (with paper), and a shady picnic area. A small snack bar selling bottled water, soft drinks ,and snacks is located just to the side of the museum. You can also get your guide leaflet (available in Spanish and English) to the newly re-designed Interpretative Trail at the snack bar (you can also download one from the FUNDAR web site). There are no guides, so the leaflet is essential to understanding the site.
Access to the ruins area is secured, as it is in all archaeological parks and you are not allowed to enter with food, balls, radios, dogs, firearms, etc. There is 24 hour a day security at the site. Cihuatán can be very hot in the afternoon, so a good strategy is to visit it in the morning and then go on to Suchitoto (about 25 minutes away on a decent road) for lunch at one of the many restaurants in this well preserved traditional town.
Cihuatán now charges the same entrance fees as all other parks:
Citizens and legal residents of El Salvador: $1
Non-residents and foreigners: $3
Parking: Cars $1, Busses $2
By Car From San Salvador
Take the Carretera Troncal del Norte. Just past Aguilares you will see the ridge of Cihuatán and the main pyramid ahead on your right. The entrance to the site is about 3.7 km past Aguilares and is well marked on both sides of the road. It is a tree-edged narrow, unpaved, road which ascends the ridge upon which the site is built. The access road is passable in all weather. Parking is indicated to the right, just below the site museum.. The trip takes about an hour from San Salvador on a good highway, although traffic can be very heavy during morning and evening rush hours.
By Bus from San Salvador
From the Terminal de Oriente (by the Flower Clock...anyone can tell you how to get there by bus or taxi) take a 119, 124, 125, 0r 141 bus. When you get to Aguilares, where the bus will stop and be inundated with food vendors, ask the cobrador (this is the guy who takes your fare) to let you off at the entrance to "las ruinas." It's just a few minutes past Aguilares. Get off and walk up the road (about 1km) to the site. The bus trip takes an hour or a bit more, depending upon traffic conditions and how many stops it makes. Buses only run until about 4 PM, so plan your trip accordingly. The fare is currently 60 cents
From La Palma and the Honduran border
Take the Troncal del Norte towards San Salvador. After you cross the Puente Colima start keeping an eye out for the entrance to the site on your left. The trip takes several hours, depending upon current road and weather conditions.
Visit other sites in El Salvador.
Traffic, Salvador style
Dancing the "Moors and Christians"...
...with musical accompaniment
...followed by a rainbow
Candy in the market
San Miguel still hasn't quit smoking
El Salvador is on the Pacific
Photos by Karen Bruhns and Paul Amaroli