Fresh from the dizzy heights of La Paz in the Andes it was nice to be back at sea level in San Salvador, capital of the smallest Central American country, El Salvador. This was my second visit and I have to say a rather uninspiring two days were spent in the city. Like many Central American cities there is a huge contrast between the ‘no-go’ areas and the suburbs frequented by the affluent – which includes expats. Drug-related gang crime is a big problem in some parts of San Salvador and the murder rate is one of the highest in the world. It is, however, very unlikely that a foreigner would be the target of these crimes as life in the leafy neighbourhoods of Zona Rosa and Escalonia is rather sedate and detached from the gang world. The malls, hotels and restaurants of these areas have many a security guard on patrol and it felt very safe walking around the streets. San Salvador is also a lot safer than it was 20 years ago when the 13 year civil war was ending and it was considered by many to be the most dangerous city on the planet.
Similarly, my next port of call, Managua, has serious crime issues throughout the city. The difference for me in Nicaragua’s capital, though, was that even in the areas of the upscale shopping malls it is wise to be cautious when walking around, even in daylight. I read this before I arrived and assumed it was scaremongering but the ever-so-helpful lady at Casa Naranja (my hotel) warned me not to show any signs of wealth, meaning no iPod listening for me and even no photo taking. I countered “surely I can take photos?”. “No, very bad”, she said, so, alas, I have no photos from Managua as she freaked me out. I must say, a rather urchin-like child and his teenage cohort did confront me a few yards from the expat favourite MetroCentro Mall. A brisk turn of pace in my step and a focussed march forward meant I was in the ‘safe zone’ of the security guarded mall soon enough though. Again, I didn’t venture away from the malls and supermarkets and so my time in Managua was fairly mundane!
My final stop on this trip was Veracruz, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Again, this was a ‘mall and supermarket’ affair and I didn’t really experience much outside of this. It is Mexico’s 21st most populated city so I was surprised at the wide choice of goods available, but then Mexico does have 113 million people and so I shouldn’t really have been surprised. Although not the most populated, the city is Mexico’s largest port and as such is a gateway for the large automobile industry of the country. It is also the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement on the mainland of the Americas.
Since leaving Veracruz over a week ago I’ve been on a road trip all the way from Mexico City to Cancun and back, some 4500km of driving! Away from the malls and supermarkets I managed to get a taste of how all Mexicans live and not just those who can afford to shop in the swanky department stores. It was also really fascinating to visit several of the great Mayan archaeological sites including Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Palenque. However, I’ve now arrived in Mexico City – one of the most populated cities on the planet – in the middle of the three-day Día de los Muertos festivities. This occurs at the same time as Halloween and while it’s easy to think of them as the same thing, Halloween is more about fearing the dead, whereas the Day of the Dead celebrations are about remembering friends and family who have died and welcoming their spirits. You can read more here: http://guardianlv.com/2013/10/dia-de-los-muertos-and-halloween/ Increasingly, though, American Halloween customs are creeping in and just as I saw sugar skulls so I saw plenty of pumpkins! One thing is for sure, you can’t help but know it’s that time of year again – the Mexicans love to celebrate in style. Travelling on the metro system earlier was a rather surreal experience as I shared the carriage with an old lady, an amorous young couple, several zombies, Freddy Krueger and a nun.
So my six weeks in the Americas has come to an end but I’m off to Burundi next weekend – a place I know very little about! Before I go, though, to answer the question I posed in my previous post about countries with more than one capital? Well, The Netherlands and Côte d’Ivoire have been mentioned. Whilst Amsterdam is the official capital of The Netherlands, many of the government sectors are in The Hague. In Côte d’Ivoire the capital is Yamoussoukro but the government is based in Abidjan. Similarly Tanzania and Benin have tiny ‘official’ capitals even though the governments are based in the much larger cities of Dar es Salaam and Cotonou respectively. The other country usually mentioned in such debates is South Africa, where Pretoria is considered the ‘official’ capital but Cape Town is the legislative capital and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital. Complicated, isn’t it?!