The Search for the Ultimate Pupusa

2009 January 28
by Levi

First up in El Salvador, we went in search of a bank, which gave us a chance to explore the border town, Metapan. With most border towns being pretty lousy, we were pleasantly surprised when Metapan revealed a pleasant old-style downtown, and friendly people. When we finally found a bank with an ATM, I realized I had no idea what currency they used in El Salvador. The prompt came up asking how much I wanted, and only offered 3 options: $20, $50, and $100. I decided to get the biggest listed value, and the screen displayed “Please take your cash” with an image of a stack of American $20 bills. I was surprised by their choice of icons, but was in complete shock when a beat up stack of US $5, $10, and $20’s popped out of the machine. They used US Dollars!

We found a decently cheap hotel where we could keep our bikes inside a garage, and even had laundry done for us for $1.50 (not including drying the clothes, which I got to hang up on the lines outside – no big deal). It was dinner time, and I’ve had a thing for pupusas – a Salvadorean dish – ever since I first tasted one in SF, and had really high hopes. I asked the “receptionist” (aka the owner’s daughter) at the hotel where I should head for the best in the city, and she, seemingly confused by the silly question, informed me there was a street vendor hawking pupusas just across the street.

We went across the street, but had somehow come in too late for the “best,” and were pointed to the next pupusaria street vendor… not even a block down the road. Another short jaunt in the warm Salvadorean night, and we were sitting at a community table at an incredibly jumping street vendor. We ordered a mess of pupusas, I had 4 to my Dad’s 2, and a couple cokes. For me at least, it was a feast. Piping hot pupusas, dripping with cheese, and stuffed with beans and vegetables. All told for the meal with the cokes totaled $2.20, and I was home. Cheap, delicious, and no converting currencies in my head? It’s hard to beat that… though I still have to say, San Francisco pupusas win for taste.

Plus everyone at the pupusaria seemed enthralled with us. I was joking around with them in no time. I can’t imagine El Salvador street pupusarias get too many gringo clients, at least not at 9:30pm on a Sunday night. When we finished our meal, I asked the guy who seemed to be the owner where I could go to get a beer, and he pointed across the street. I stood up and started walking where he’d pointed, and he started walking with me. I smiled and asked if he was coming with, and he said yeah. Silly ignorant American that I am, I had no idea why, but when I showed up at the store and asked for beer, they said they couldn’t sell it to me because of the election. Huh? But the street vendor argued with him, and convinced him to sell me some regardless. I asked for 3 of each of the two local brews, and the shop keeper went up to a closed garage door next to the store, unlocked it, and went in, closing it behind himself. He came back with my beer in a black plastic bag, and made sure I understood that I had to go to the hotel to drink it, and to now show anyone.

As it turned out, we’d entered El Salvador on the 2nd(?) day of their elections, during which, for three days, the entire country is dry. Amazed I’d managed to, without trying, score booze in a foreign country that speaks another language, I carried my bag back to our hotel room, and the country seemed to show their enthusiasm for my success by treating us to a spectacular election fireworks show, with everything from roman candles to giant professional-style mortars going off in the air for hours. Viva whoever won!

The next morning, we headed to the capital, San Salvador. Exiting Metapan, we were quickly awoken to the sad truth that garbage was just as much trouble here as in previous Central American countries. El Salvador has 3 states, a Western state, and Eastern state, and the capital. The dump for the Western state we were in was just outside of town, and trash was everywhere. There was a line of dozens of dump trucks backed up along the highway leading to the dump, and heavy machinery pushing it from place to place, with much of it, as usual, on fire. There were cement structures near the dump that had been stuffed with garbage and abandoned, not necessarily in that order, even if it looked that way. For several miles of our trip to San Salvador we were behind a dump truck that constantly sprayed plastic garbage onto the freeway, contributing to the neverending pile of old plastic littering the roadway.

Entering the capital proper, the city seemed to go on forever. Tons of traffic, scorching heat, and endless, new-looking city. It doesn’t seem like a stretch that El Salvador is the densest country in Central America. The first Hotel we stop at is fancy, has guarded parking and wifi, and appears to be right downtown (to our untrained eyes), and though it was near the highest price we’d payed, it was still pretty reasonable, so we took it. Faaaancy! We parked inside and a bell hop helped us carry our luggage… to the working elevator! The wifi didn’t work in our room, but I managed to finally catch up on uploading my pictures by hanging out in the Lobby. Next to the lobby was a nice looking bar that refused to serve alcohol. Another day of elections!

Across the street, my Dad found a place that could get him replacement glasses by the next morning, and I found it to be a pretty cruel joke the universe was playing on me for staying centrally in a huge jumping city on the final day of prohibition. I stuck around working on blog catch up, personal email, and relaxing while I built up hunger. We went just down the street, no Pupusarias in sight, before spotting an American-style diner right on the main drag, and decided to try it… Oh well, I guess it’s good to get the worst meal out of the way early, right? I ordered a club sandwich, which curiously is on the menu of 90% of the restaurants we’ve been to regardless of the country, and had some sort of horrible, dripping concoction with a fried egg and some sort of sweet mayonnaised beets in it. While enjoying our meal, various beggars tried to approach us, only to be expressly escorted out of the restaurant by shotgun-toting policemen who apparantly weren’t keen on the tourists being bothered. Hoping there was at least something going on on a Monday night, booze or not, we continued a little ways up the main drag, only to realize the bustling neighborhood our hotel was in during the day had turned into a busy bus stop surrounded by streets lined with strung out homeless and not a lot of streetlights. Finally, something to rival the Tenderloin! Needless to say, we were back before too long.

The next morning, we went to the little cafe in the hotel for some decent brewed coffee, and a small breakfast. When we asked for the bill, the waiter dismissed us and said “Nada.” I guess breakfast was included? We planned on staying one more night in El Salvador, just heading to the next (and last) decent sized city, San Miguel, and so we took our time getting out of our swank place, which included finally having a legal beer at the Hotel bar. Then it was back on CA-1 for a ride out of the city.

Well, it became pretty clear this place wasn’t the tenderloin by day. Traffic was insane, and only about 3 blocks from our Hotel, the road we were on, which we thought was the primary East-bound road through the city, became a full on street market. The 4-5 lanes of one-way traffic – primarily large buses – quickly was taken over by shops, people hawking trinkets from carts and wheelbarrels, bicycles, and simply massive crowds of foot traffic. The traffic worked it’s way down to one lane as buses narrowly avoided death and massive property destruction by seemingly luck alone. We passed through the landmarks you’d expect of the downtown of a large capital city: big open plazas with massive statues and flanked by large stone and concrete government buildings, big impressive churches, and swarms of people dressed in business formal. The gridlock slowly backed off and we were presently back on a main highway out of town, watching the shining city of San Salvador slowly fading in our rearview and being replaced again by impressive mountain vistas overlooking volcanos towering over vast fertile plains.

Volcano East of San Salvador

Volcano East of San Salvador

We were on our way down the mountain when I decided to search once again for a pupusa to rival those back home, but struck out again, finding only day old excuses. At least they were cheap? We arrived in San Miguel early in the day after a pretty short ride, and once again ended up in a classy hotel, complete with an armed guard, walled plaza lined with barbed wire and containing a pool (with the filter turned off, leaving an understandable layer off scum and debris along the top), and enough lush potted vegetation to give it a distinctly Miami feel.

We walked the town and picked up oil for a morning oil change, and treated ourselves to some cheap licuados. It still feels good to be spoiled by all the fresh tropical fruit floating around down here! We rounded up our day with a dip in the pool and a great dinner of cheap carne asada. Somehow, now that it was legal, I didn’t feel like going out on the town and had another relaxing night.

In the morning, we did our oil changes, under the watchful eye of the heavily armed guard, who practiced his dirty look library as we made a mess in his parking lot, but never said anything. We walked the warm dirty liquid down around a mile through the pressing heat to an auto shop willing to accept used motor oil, cleaned up as best as we could, and hit the road. It was a short ride in the oppressive sun to the Honduran border, for the fun described here.

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