Day of the Dead in El Salvador

Most Latin American countries celebrate El Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead.  Each country has its own traditions. Day of the Dead in El Salvador, also known as the Day of the Faithful Departed (Día de los Fieles Difuntos), has an especially painful difference from the celebration in other parts of Latin America.

Day of the Dead in El Salvador

In 1980s, much of Central America was embroiled in civil war, and El Salvador was no exception. During the revolution, some 75,000 people were killed or disappeared. Of those whose bodies were found, many are in mass graves.

Others have been located but are still to be reburied. As such, November 2 has a much more somber meaning in El Salvador. For a culture that honors its dead, it brings great sorrow to be unable to visit them in their final resting place on this important day.

Honoring Those Lost in the Civil War

Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad, a common gathering place on the Day of the Dead in El Salvador.

Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad, a common gathering place on the Day of the Dead in El Salvador.

In honor of those lost and unrecovered in the war, there are monuments to the dead that attempt to give families a place to go on Day of the Dead in El Salvador. The most prominent example is the Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad (Monument to Memory and Truth) in San Salvador.

Much like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Monumento lists the name of known victims of the violence, and it is heavily visited on the Day of the Dead by families who leave flowers and candles at its base.

The date has also become an important one for organizations working on behalf for victims of the civil war. By commemorating those lost through vigils and religious ceremonies, they continue to advocate for reparations and legislation, as well for more information about the whereabouts of victims.

La Calabuiza

A more joyful aspect of Day of the Dead in El Salvador dates to much before the 1980s – in fact, it was celebrated even before the arrival of the Spanish in Latin America. It’s called La Calabiuza, and in El Salvador, it is one of the reasons that Halloween has yet to make as big of impact on its culture as it has in other parts of the world.

La Calabiuza is Held in Tonacetepeque, north of San Salvador where this festival turns November 1 into a celebration of the popular culture of El Salvador.

From the word “skull” in the language of the local indigenous people, the La Calabiuza festival was able to hold its own for centuries, even with the pressure from Spanish colonists to convert to their own traditions.

Revelers, mostly young people, dress as characters from Salvadoran legends and myths, as well as skeletons and other painted characters.

Examples of characters include La Siguanaba, a beautiful woman who abandons her son and is then cursed, and El Cipitío, her son, who wears a pointy hat. You’ll also see La Llorona, the crying woman common throughout Latin American legends, and the frightening Central American mythical creature El Cadejo.

With the upheavals of the civil war, people abandoned the tradition of La Calabiuza. But after its end, community leaders did their best to bring it back, in part to pre-empt the import of Halloween.

Nowadays, the festival has modern touches such as a costume contest, food stalls, and a dance.

Both the vibrant La Calabiuza and more emotional Day of the Dead traditions are part of El Salvador’s culture of respect for those that came before them and fit squarely into the Hispanic tradition of Day of the Dead.

Want to know more? Hispanic Culture Online is one of the Web’s best resources on the Day of the Dead. Check out our archives here.

Does your family celebrate Day of the Dead? Tell us in the comments.

Lake Arenal Hot Springs in Costa Rica

At Lake Arenal Hot Springs in Costa Rica, my husband and I soaked our troubles away in an amazing variety of naturally heated pools, some of which are attached to luxury resorts and offer amenities like swim-up bars or spa treatments.

Before starting our trip to Costa Rica we thought this amazing country was simply another touristy place, and to our surprise it was completely different. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a visit to Lake Arenal in Costa Rica can’t be exciting.

The region around the lake and hot springs features dramatic vistas of volcanic peaks, abundant wildlife, and plenty of opportunities for adventures on the water or in the forest.

I come from South America where we have plenty of wild and green, and I can say the Arenal area took my breath away.

Tips for Travelers

How to Get There: If you fly into Costa Rica’s capital, San José a short 3-hour drive or bus ride will bring you into the heart of the Arenal region, 100km away.

My Gringo and I rented a truck for a reasonable price and it was the right decision. It allowed us to explore the region way deeper than if we would’ve taken the bus. You can rent the car right at the airport and simply drive away.

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

When to Go: The rainy season in Costa Rica extends from May to November, so most people prefer to visit between December and April. After all, it would be kind of an odd sensation to sit in a hot spring with cool rain falling on your face.

During the rainy season rains a lot and the rivers grow tremendously making it very hard for busses, trucks or any kind of vehicle to mobilize around the “off the beaten path” areas.

We saw several people on the side of the road unable to cross because of the increased water level of the rivers. That is why we recommend you to rent a truck.

Costa Rica Volcanoes & SurfCosta Rica Volcanoes & Surf
Mountain bike along Lake Arenal with breathtaking volcanic views and catch a wave on this action-packed 9-day tour of Costa Rica.

Get your adrenaline pumping with optional extreme sports like whitewater rafting, rappelling and ziplining through the lush jungle canopy. Learn to surf the famous Pacific breaks at Playa Santa Teresa and enjoy plenty of time to relax on tropical beaches. Throw in the opportunity to see incredible rainforest wildlife and you’ve got a unique adventure you’ll be talking about for years.

Where to Stay: In order to make the most of your time at Arenal Hot Springs, plan to stay in one of the many local hotels that have their own hot springs pools. With so many quality hotels to choose from, it’s hard to say which one is best.

TIP for Lodging at Lake Arenal and Hot Springs in Costa Rica

If you want to save a bit of money, you can also try finding accommodations in the town of Fortuna. You will be close to all the attractions the area has to offer, and you can still visit the hot springs pools at select resorts like Titoku Hot Springs even if you are not a guest.

There are also locals who have something called “Cabinas” and they are tiny rooms with a comfortable bed and no luxuries. My husband is a big guy so we only rented a cabina once and from there on we rented hotel rooms. But if you are on a budget by all means this is a good way to wing it.

3 Must-Do Activities

Cool Off in a Hot Spring: It sounds absurd, but taking a dip in the steamy waters of Arenal Hot Springs can actually make you feel cooler, even on a humid summer day in Costa Rica.

Not only will you get to wash away the dust and dirt of your day, you will also get to soak in waters so hot that the afternoon air will seem cool by comparison when you emerge.

Go Birdwatching in the Rainforest Canopy: The rainforests around Lake Arenal in Costa Rica abound with wildlife, from nosy coatis that tried to beg snacks from us -tourists to loud howler monkeys and hundreds of species of birds.

I must be honest, we are not birdwatchers however, one of the best ways to see the birds is on an early-morning canopy tour at Arenal Hanging Bridges.  We thoroughly enjoyed this adventure.

Arenal Hanging Bridges is an eco-reserve featuring a 3-kilometer nature trail with a twist: bridges on the trail to let you ascend across ravines and high into the forest canopy, for a birds-eye view of the rainforest. That was amazing! As a bonus, you’ll get a nice view of the volcano at the end of your birdwatching tour.

See Arenal Volcano: In the past, Arenal volcano erupted quite regularly, and you could often spot red-hot rocks tumbling down the volcano’s slopes at night.

Because the volcano hasn’t put on a show since 2010 and is now considered to be in a resting phase (we visited when it was considered to be active), don’t be crushed if you don’t get to see any lava or magma.

Instead, you can hike over old lava flows that have turned to rock on the slopes of Arenal or view the picture-perfect lagoon that has formed in the crater of nearby Chato Volcano.

Have you visited Lake Arenal?  Share your experience and leave a comment!


Why Visit Lake Atitlán in Guatemala

I used to dream of relaxing beside the waters of famous Lake Cuomo in Italy, but that was before I discovered Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. In my opinion, Lake Atitlan is America’s answer to Lake Cuomo—a relaxing destination that is superior to its European counterpart in almost every way.  It is more peaceful, more dramatically beautiful, and best of all, more affordable.

I can spend almost a whole week at one of the mid-range Lake Atitlán hotels for what it would cost to stay just one night on Lake Cuomo. Needless to say I will be going back. Hope to see you there!

Exploring Lake Atitlán in Guatemala: 3 Must-Do Activities

Lake Atitlán in Guatemala

Lake Atitlán in Guatemala

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala really does feel like a little corner of paradise. The huge, brilliant blue lake sits nearly a mile high up in the mountains, in the ancient crater of an extinct volcano. Lush green hills and the peaks of three volcanoes form a dramatic backdrop for the play of light over the lake at sunrise and sunset. As you explore Lake Atitlán and the many villages that dot its shores, be sure to fit in these 3 must-do activities.

Experience Mayan Culture

Lake Atitlán and the surrounding countryside is home mostly to indigenous Mayan people. During your Lake Atitlán vacation, you will have plenty of opportunities to interact with them, sample local foods, and learn about Mayan culture.

The best way to really immerse yourself in the local culture is to make a point of visiting some of the local villages, like Santa Catarina Palopo or San Antonio Palopo. Both of these villages are home to Kaquichel Mayan people, and they are easily reached by paved roads from Panajachel. You can even walk to San Antonio Palopo in about two hours.

Kayak on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala

Atitlán a perfect place to kayak

Atitlán a perfect place to kayak

Lago Atitlán Guatemala takes its name from a Nahuatl word meaning “at the water.” When visiting Lake Atitlán, you absolutely have to experience the lake up close and personal. While swimming provides welcome relief from the warm sunny weather, and you can always hop a ride on one of the many water taxis that serve the villages in lieu of roads, the best way to explore is by kayak.

You can rent a kayak at La Casa Del Mundo, which, incidentally, is also a great hotel to stay at. Be sure to set off early in the morning so you can enjoy your kayaking before the afternoon winds start up.

Climb a Volcano

Lake Atitlán has lush vegetation because of the volcanic soil

Lake Atitlán has lush vegetation because of the volcanic soil

Climbing one of the volcanos that rise above the south side of the lake gives you a whole new perspective on Lake Atitlan. San Pedro is the most popular volcano to climb, and guided tours start from the village of San Pedro.

My recommendation? Wait until you arrive to hire your guide, and you will avoid paying huge fees to a middleman. Your guide will likely be an indigenous Quiche who can tell you a lot about the region.

How to Get to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala

Getting to Lake Atitlan is pretty easy. All you have to do is hop on a bus in Guatemala City, and about three hours later you will arrive in Panajachel, the largest and most popular city on the lake.

From Panajachel you can take a shuttle bus or a water taxi to other villages around the lake. If you don’t want the typical, crowded Latin American “chicken bus” experience, there is a first class bus every day at 7:30 am.

Where to Stay on Lake Atitlán

There are almost too many hotels and hostels around Lake Atitlán to count.  If you want to stay outside of any town, La Casa Del Mundo is a beautiful boutique hotel with a stunning cliffside location and its own restaurant. This hotel is widely regarded as one of the best values for your money in Lake Atitlán.