Travels in the West of El Salvador
Nahuizalco's night market, Sonsonate & La Ruta de las Flores
This is the first of a series of stories from El Salvador, the Central American country that is in the midst of major change.
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Food stalls at Nahuizalco’s Mercado Nocturno. Photo: Nicholas Gill.
The night market in Nahuizalco began a little less than a decade ago. The Nahua village on La Ruta de las Flores, a few kilometers north of Sonsonate, not far from El Salvador’s border with Guatemala, set up a few stalls around the colonial plazas during the weekend evenings, then more followed. Now it’s every night and on the weekends, it spills out into side streets and on to adjacent plazas, and on Sunday mornings an indigenous produce market appears. Thousands visit from neighboring cities like Sonsonate, Santa Ana and San Salvador and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Around the central plaza there’s a puposódromo, a string of pupuserías with a few tables. The pupuserías are so close to one another that it’s hard to tell where one begins, and the others end. Scattered within them are small windows selling chicharrón, atoles and dulces tipicos, most of them made of fruits preserved in sugar. The offerings are more interesting on the side streets, where makeshift kitchens have been set up beneath folding canopies. You can hear the pounding of cleavers against a wood block as it chops roasted pork into small bits that are set with curtido over boiled yuca that sits on a banana leaf. There’s the smell of hot oil as patties of shredded yuca that resemble giant McDonald’s hash browns are fried. People elbow their way to get see the cafeteria-style trays full of stewed chicken feet; jutes en alguashte, stewed river snails stewed sprinkled with a seasoning made of ground pumpkin seeds; and the turkey sandwiches called pan con chumpe.
There’s a lot to eat, but more than that, there’s a lot of life. Nahuizalco’s night market, it’s mercado nocturno, is the clearest symbol I’ve seen that El Salvador is different.
For 36 kilometers in the rugged west of the country, La Ruta de las Flores, the route of the flowers, a touristic itinerary since the mid-1990s, passes through a string of colonial villages with strong Nahua heritage, from Sonsonate to Nahuizalco, Salcoatitán, Juayua, Apaneca and Ataco. The first time I was there, probably 15 ago, was while working with an NGO that was sending medical equipment to parts of the country most devastated by gang violence and the lingering effects of decades of war. The coffee farms and hot springs were there then, and the route was just as scenic, but few visited.
Nahuizalco’s central park, where I ate pupusas chased with horchata made with morro seeds, was a battleground for three rival gangs for years. But even long before the gangs moved in, there were other problems here. In 1932, as many as 40,000 Nahua people were estimated to have been killed during an uprising known as La Matanza. Even though the civil war wasn’t as devastating here as elsewhere in the country, there have been countless destabilizing events: collapses in coffee prices, natural disasters, corruption, mass migrations out of the country and forced migrations back in.
After a pact with gangs like Mara Salvatrucha-13 fell apart, current president Nayib Bukele has wiped out all gang activity in the country in just a year, though there are considerable human rights concerns that will eventually need to be reckoned with or this momentary peace could all fall apart as I’ve seen happen so many times before in the region. Yet this moment of peace does feel different. Everyone I spoke with is hopeful.
Along with Gracia Navarro and Alexander Herrera from the restaurant El Xolo in San Salvador, we drive deeper into the hills to Tayua, a restaurant and coffee roaster that opened in its current location beneath a canopy of tall pines near Ataco in 2018. There, Luis Armando Figueroa, a former architect, is encouraging farmers to focus on better coffee. There are lots of coffee around, but not enough specialty coffee. We tasted a Pacamara that he just roasted from a local farmer. It’s the most Salvadoran of coffee varietals.
“The more I drink pacamara, the more expressions of it I discover,” he told me.
There is a standing base on other side of roaster and the Robert Glasper Experience was playing overhead. We tasted another. A hybrid from local growers called Cuscatleco. It was very balanced and there’s nutmeg and cinnamon on nose.
His wife, Vero, who trained in England, runs the restaurant, which has one of El Salvador’s best bakeries, and they produce their own honeys and jams. A spread was laid out with cheeses and charcuterie and croissants. It could have been the French countryside, but the view woudln’t have been as nice.
In Sonsonate, where Navarro and Herrera grew up, the food is just as it has always been. Unlike San Salvador, where fast food restaurants are everywhere and are the size of fortresses, cooking traditions continue to be passed down, from one generation to the next. There’s a beat, a rhythm to eating in the town.
In the morning, you go to Pupusería Norma in the corner of the market (Mega Plaza, passillo #10). For many in El Salvador, no other pupusa compares. They’re made with beans, chicharron, loroco or ayote. They are perfectly formed patties, a little smaller and thicker than elsewhere, with a crisp outer layer and perfectly moist interior.
Around lunchtime, the panza de vaca comes out, along with the other recoldos and sopas. In the afternoon, for a snack, the frituras, the pastelitos and yuca fritters called nuegados, along with atoles, including the fermented atole chuco, made with purple corn. Then there are the dulces and torrejas, most notably from Chilateria Nahulingo, a no-frills workshop that has been around forever, and with the line out the door it seems like it will probably stay that way.
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