Sunday, September 12, 2021

A Day in the Life of Three Salvadoran Towns: An Afternoon in Panchimalco

Some places attract visitors due to their historic significance, some for natural beauty, others for cultural preservation or a dedication to the arts. And some keep you coming back simply for their vibe, a tangible, self-perpetuating positive energy that differentiates them from other places.  Panchimalco is all of the above, but primarily the latter.

We found the little town in the way we often do - we stumbled upon it. Tucked into a deep valley only 30 minutes' drive from our house, it sits just 7 kilometers downhill from popular Planes de Renderos, a ridgetop town with panoramic views and restaurants with big patios to take advantage of those views.  The kind of place where families gather on Saturdays for lunch and fresh air.  Just a few minutes from Planes de Renderos, Panchimalco is also overlooked by a spot often visited by folks just before they settle down to stacks of pupusas: La Puerta del Diablo. With a distinctly ominous history as first a Mayan Pipil sacrificial site, a practice sadly modernized during the Salvadoran civil war as an execution and body dump site, the two rocky peaks of La Puerta del Diablo tower high above the valley and serve as both visual and historic backdrop to the town. 

View of Lake Ilopango from Planes de Renderos

Volcano of San Salvador

Nahuat-speaking man of Pipil heritage met at La Puerta del Diablo

Nov 2020 - This family said this was their first time out of their house since March lockdowns started.  Puerta del Diablo peak. 

High above even the ever-present soaring vultures. 

Even today, as many Salvadoran towns experience, in the hills and hamlets nearby, MS-13 lets its presence be known. 

Lest we forget...

It was just about lunchtime when we pulled into Panchimalco the first time.  We found the main street blocked off by canopies shading rows and rows of tables and a gathering of (mostly) men in red vests.  The crowd and their animated conversation kept us at bay for a bit, but we soon figured out from the initials on caps, vests and banners (FMLN) that we'd come upon a political party assembly and the stump speeches and negotiations we were witnessing were to select the party's candidates in upcoming elections.  Our presence went completely unnoticed given their focus to the task at hand and we easily slipped around the tents and into the heart of downtown.  

Political party gathering

The main street was lined with pastel-colored storefronts, bakeries, a few tiny restaurants, and stands selling home goods and clothing. The town center was marked by a small shady plaza with occupied benches, the Mayor's office (Alcaldia), and the entrance to the market building, full of stalls. And just around the curve, we could see the backside of the imposing colonial church.  Even beyond the political activities, the main and side streets were humming with people just going about their days: selling, buying, gossiping, carrying loads, doing street repairs - the pleasant buzz of day-to-day life. Not the stresful or frenetic activity of a city, just life moving along and minding its own business. I was tempted to order a cone of tamarind sorbet from the guy with the push cart and take a spot on a bench to simply watch it all go by. But instead, we saw the sign indicating an outdoor sculpture garden just off the hillside from the plaza. 

City hall with the rocky peaks of La Puerta del Diablo in the backdrop

Sporting a sign of the times

Never miss an opportunity to be colorful. 

Necessity is the mother of invention.

And the grandmother.

Let me step back and give an excruciatingly brief bit of Panchimalco history, which will explain some of what we saw and felt there.  First, the town is known for maintaining and celebrating its native heritage in a country with surprisingly few remaining pockets of indigenous populations. Originally occupied in pre-Columbian times by the Toltec, it has been considered a place of refuge. An example of this occurred during the 16th century when the indigenous Pipil fled there during the Spanish takeover of the city of San Salvador.  

The Spanish soon caught up and settled the town, building the central church, "Iglesia de la Santa Cruz de Roma" sometime in either the 1600s or early 1700s, depending on which iteration one considers the original as it faced many an earthquake and flood over the centuries.  It's now the oldest colonial structure still standing in El Salvador.  This mixed indigenous and Catholic history is the background for Panchimalco's festival each May, La Feria Cultural de las Flores y Palmas in which the women show off their colorful woven headscarves and the patron saint parade full of flowers and worshippers fill the streets. 

In more modern times, I've read some about the town being a hideout for guerilleros during the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), some remnants of which could account for the current popularity of the leftist FMLN (Farabunco Marti National Liberatin Front) party we saw upon arriving.  

The side of the Mercado Municipal building was painted with a two-story mural featuring Saint Oscar Romero, the archibishop of San Salvador who was assasinated during the civil war in 1980 and canonized in 2018.  The text to the left reads, "Even if the assasin's bullet kills me, I will be resurrected in the people" and given his overwhelming popularity, it seems he has fulfilled his promise.  However, seeing said assasin's bullet painted blue, white and red, my husband and I paused, and began anxiously whispering to each other. "Why are they blaming the French for Romero's assasination? Were the French involved in the civil war? Oh dear - are they blaming the U.S.? But wouldn't that would be red, white and blue? Who are they blaming?" Flushed with a sudden caught-behind-enemy-lines feel, I started considering other nationalities we might pull off, say Canadian or Australian, should we be surrounded by the folks at the political rally. But those fears were never realized and what we wouldn't learn until days later is that the colors being blamed in this mural for Romero's death represented the flag of ARENA, the right wing political party and opposition to FMLN, not the French and not the U.S. 

Political message not so hidden. 

Politics aside, Panchimalco's dedication to preserving its heritage is seen today in the town's advocacy for arts.  By this, I don't mean they have one or two nice galleries to visit, but I mean a whole-town support for the value of the arts. 

Which brings me back to us finding the sculpture garden...

Set down off the central plaza under a shading canopy of trees, the sculpture garden with its murals depicting the town's history, pathways curving through the sculpture installations and the gentle splash of a small waterfall provided refuge from the day's busy-ness.  A secluded spot for romance, too, it seems, as evidenced by a few couples nestled together on benches and a sign warning people not to engage in amoral behavior in the park.  At the back of the park we found a small cafe with a wide balcony overlooking the mountains and rooftops and stopped for a lemonade and a bite. 

Revisionist history of indigenous warrior?

History of the country in relief mural. 

The large tree to the left is still standing and is as impressive a structure as the church itself. 

Sculptural sense of humor.

Cafe balcony off the sculpture garden.  I recommend the pollo encebollado

Leaving the cafe and scultpure garden, we walked back up to the main street and continued down a few blocks to the church. Finding it unfortunately locked up, I stuck my head into a tiny bar/cafe next door where two men were seated with a pot of coffee and conversation between them. I asked if they knew when the church might be open to visit.  Perhaps it was the novelty of talking to foreigners or perhaps just the coffee, but 20 minutes and centuries of condensed colonial history later, we parted company on the sidewalk with promises to continue the conversation another time.  

Funky cafe with chatty and informative owner on the left. 

Although we were out of luck that day, in later trips to Panchilmalco we have been able to explore the church and take in the delicately carved wooden ceiling beams, the meter-thick walls, and despite the soaring ceiling and unobstructed, airy interior the building has kept its musty smell - like finding a wooden trunk in the attic that hasn't been opened for decades. 

Iglesia de la Santa Cruz de Roma

Directly across from the church, set down off the street level, is La Casa del Artista with its banner boasting the municipality's connection with Xi'an, China.  Local press reported the town mayor's desire to establish a sister-city relationship with the Chinese city famous for its terracotta warriors given their shared dedication to preserving their cultural patrimony.  We found a group of teens in modern t-shirts and jeans practicing traditional dances in a small plaza surrounded by walls of murals, their bright colors blurred by the encroaching moss. 

Headed back through town, we came upon the Casa de la Cultura. With it's tie-dyed exterior paint job, it's impossible to miss. It houses a gallery of local art, a small museum of dusty artifacts and historic photographs of artisans alongside the current day artisans themselves, weaving vividly-striped cloth on looms in a large interior courtyard.  We bought some woven face masks from an elderly weaver which were just as colorful and musty as the Casa itself.  

Woman waiting outside the Casa de la Cultura.

Artifact on display at the Casa de la Cultura. 

And finally, if all this weren't enough, directly across from the Casa de la Cultura on the high side of the road we made one final stop at the Fundacion Miguel Angel Ramirez, an art institute and gallery occupying an equisitely renovated old stucco house. The property expands up the hillside in a series of patios, gardens with water features, decks, lookout perches and hidden rooms- each area dedicated to a different art medium.  We arrived as a group of local kids was finishing their day-long art class, gathering their pencils and sketchbooks and tidying up their little stools and benches.  The director stopped to chat with us and give us a tour, explaining the foundation's purpose: an apolitical, non-religious NGO dedicated to promoting and recognizing the potential in young people through art and culture. Their slogan is "Colors for Humanity," which after multiple afternoons spent in Panchimalco, I believe doesn't stop at the foundation's doors, but is embraced throughout the entire town.  

Arbors framing the view from one of many patios and balconies at Fundacion Miguel Angel Ramirez.

Wrapping up the day's class. 

We've now visited this little town tucked into a valley many times and I have yet to change my mind about it. There are places that just have a good vibe: welcome, warm, bright, and positive despite the violence of their past or even their present. It's evident that Panchimalco hasn't let its daisy be stepped on and continues to bloom with each generation. 

Next: A Day in the Life of Three Salvadoran Towns: Nightfall in Suchitoto

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

A Day in the Life of Three Salvadoran Towns: Morning in Ataco

Dawn breaks by 6:00 a.m. year-round here at 13 degrees north latitude, just about the time I'm getting up for work.  It's rung in with a cacaphony of birdsong as the roosters are already a few hours into their work day, the zanates squawk and shriek amongst each other, and the passing loros catch up on the news while commuting from their nests to the trees where they spend their days. The loros, officially called pericos verdes, make me smile, and not just because their name sounds like "green beans" in French, but because they're just such noisy little busybodies as they cruise overhead with their life-partners. This isn't only the dawn soundtrack, but one that plays on an endless loop for all daylight hours in El Salvador. 

Today I'm not getting up to head to the office; instead, I swing my camera over my shoulder, pull on my tennies and slip out of the hotel room as quietly as I can to not wake my husband, locking the door behind me with the old-fashioned iron key.  I pause before stepping off the curb to pick a direction, hopefully somewhere lit by the rising sun, and turn left to the east. 

Country alarm clock

I can smell what I've come to call the scent of El Salvador: the combination of thick corn tortillas being slapped together by hand and the smoke from the charcoal fire over which they're grilled.  Already a steady stream of people are walking away from the center of town towards a bus stop just out of sight.  They're equal numbers of women as men, many are carrying large, flat baskets - the tools of the coffee pickers' trade - and no doubt they're headed to one of the many coffee plantations these towns on the steep volcanic slopes are known for.  Specifically, I'm in Concepcion de Ataco (called simply "Ataco") for a few days to see the coffee estates, the art and handicrafts and simply to be up at a bit of altitude (4,068 feet) for fresh air, pine trees and quiet.  
Quiet except for the dang roosters, that is. 

As the parade of coffee pickers and other workers hustle to grab a spot on a bus or the back of a pick-up, there is also a flow of kids in school uniforms making their way to class in the opposite direction.  Those old enough walk in groups, jostling and joking with each other on the way to class, while the little ones are hand-held by a parent or older sibling. 

Early sun lights up the faces of Ataco

Starting the morning wash

Dogs trot by, sniffing out greasy spots on the sidewalk for a bit of something tasty from last night's garbage, or find sunny spots to warm their bones in the still-coolness of the morning. 

Dogs and laundry warm up in the first rays of the day. 

Finishing my rounds, I turn back over the cobbled street to our little hotel and find my husband and our visiting friend already up and sipping coffee in the interior courtyard, ready to start the day themselves.

Ataco is a gem of a town, but I'd be lying to call it a hidden gem.  A popular stop along the tourist route "Ruta de las Flores" that winds up into coffee-plantation mountains in El Salvador's far western edge, Ataco also attracts visitors for its art, indigo-dyed clothing and typically colorful Salvadoran murals.  Our first day in Ataco was spent popping into one doorway or another, watching artists and craftspeople at work or just wading through touristy souvenir shops.  

Volcanic panarama on the Ruta de las Flores

Typical mural style that often features three cats.  Won't find me complaining. 

After breakfast, we take a short drive to the El Carmen Estate, a coffee plantation just a minute from the center of Ataco. We've arranged a tour of the estate and the coffee processing factory, including lunch and a tasting.  The family estate, known as La Casona, is over 100 years old and has been perserved as it always was with thick adobe walls hanging original art, (now antique) furniture, high ceilings, original tiles on the floors and arched windows that look into gardens and cool interior patios.  While I was charmed by our tiny, cozy hotel - next time I won't be able to resist packing a long, cotton nightdress and staying here in the 1920s instead. 

Bedroom at La Casona, El Carmen Estate. 

Many a cigar was puffed here over the decades.

Coffee pots or tea pots?

We chose a Monday to visit El Carmen Estate and were rewarded by being the only three on the tour.  It started not in the steep, shady hillsides where the bushes grow, but later when the beans arrive at the plantation to be processed in what seemed to me a factory of Rube Goldberg complexity.  I continually asked myself, my friend, my husband and likely a few too many times, the guide, "But how'd they figure out to do THAT step, too?" as he explained the sorting, roasting, and washing, then showed us the machinery that shook off this bit but left on that bit. Geez oh Pete! As a life-long tea drinker (pick leaves, dry leaves, add hot water, enjoy), it amazed me that they persisted to perfect the process.  But they did.... and still do.  From the drying patios, to the bean sorting conveyor belts, to the guys stacking the 100 lb sacks in the warehouse, the amount of physical labor, not to mention painstaking record keeping to track and monitor the batches, just to create a tasty morning beverage was astounding.  And the gut punch for me - these workers are making $1 per hour.  Yup, $45 weekly salary for 5.5 work days.  

Coffee drying patios separated by variety, process and producer. 

More like Superman.

Oh yeah, that ramp is totally up to code. And as the stack grows, so does the angle of the ramp. 

The sorting belt. 

End result. 

The tour ended with sampling of the varieties, from "honey" to "bourbon" and "gourmet," but we only got to see a bag of the super-flowery "geisha" - too rare a variety for the day tour, it seems. Finally we sat down to a roasted chicken lunch on the patio accompanied by yet more roosters and a flock of guinea fowl. 

By now the afternoon was upon us and it was time to move down the road.  A gorgeous morning in Ataco, just one part of a day in the life of a Salvadoran town. 

Next: Afternoon in Panchimalco