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.|
|Lest we forget...|
|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.
|Political message not so hidden.|
|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.|
|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.
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