Archaeologists explore “Pompeiis” in Bulgaria and El Salvador

Pompeii is an archaeological wonder, an entire Roman town preserved by a volcanic eruption. Now archaeologists are investigating two other “Pompeiis” to learn more about the past.

In El Salvador, a team has discovered a village dating to c. 630 AD that was covered in volcanic ash. Joya de Ceren was sealed up so well that archaeologists have been able to examine corn cobs, the logs used to build homes, and even the paths leading through the village and how crops were planted.

Archaeology is generally biased towards big sites, both because they’re easier to find and because it’s easier to get funding to excavate them. Finding a small village that was inhabited by only 100-200 commoners helps us understand how the other half lived. The village has been declared a World Heritage Site.

At the Roman city of Nikopolis ad Istrum in Bulgaria, an archaeological team is working on another “Pompeii”. This Roman city was never buried in a volcanic eruption but it’s so well preserved, scientists make the comparison anyway. An archaeological team is exploring a temple to Cybele, a mother goddess.

I’ve been to Nikopolis ad Istrum and was very impressed. The city was founded by the Emperor Trajan around 101-106 AD. It was a major center of trade and culture until Attila the Hun trashed it in 447 AD. So it goes. Attila wasn’t very thorough and the town soon flourished again under the Byzantines. Today you can walk the streets, see the foundations of many buildings and even spot some of their decoration. You can even trace the sewers, which are a lot less stinky than they used to be.

[Photo courtesy Klearchos Kapoutsis]

Latin America on a budget: Suchitoto, El Salvador

We launched Gadling’s Latin America on a budget series last week with a post on Antigua, Guatemala. This week, we check out the impressive budget-friendly credentials of Suchitoto, El Salvador. Suchitoto is a well-preserved colonial town overlooking a scenic reservoir, situated about thirty miles from San Salvador. Suchitoto is a peaceful town that moves at its own quiet pace. It’s beautiful, charming, friendly, and absolutely picturesque, and should have a much higher profile as a tourist destination. The fact that it isn’t well known can be ascribed to El Salvador’s unfortunately poor reputation as a country for tourism.

Several tour operators in Suchitoto ply tourists with brochures hawking volcano hikes, kayaking expeditions, beach trips, and archaeological adventures across El Salvador. Though the town itself does not come with a long checklist of activities and specific attractions, there are several places and points of interest that shouldn’t escape the attention of visitors. And happily for our purposes here, just about every activity in Suchitoto can be sampled for $5, tops.Admission to Suchitoto’s one church, the blindingly white Iglesia Santa Lucía, on the town’s central plaza, is free.

A smattering of galleries in Suchitoto justifies the town’s reputation as a place receptive to artists. Galeria de Pascal, which has a deep inventory of art objects, home décor items, books, and honey–mostly from El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America–is likely the best of the crop.

Galeria de Pascal is owned by Pascal Lebailly, who is also the co-owner of Los Almendros, the fanciest hotel in Suchitoto. Even for visitors on a budget, Los Almendros is a great place to stop by for a cappuccino ($2.70). The lush courtyard is welcoming and the price of your cappuccino, while about as expensive as a filling meal elsewhere in town, is still pretty reasonable.

A donation of $2 gets you into Centro Arte de la Paz, with exhibits on Suchitoto’s cultural and physical history. The center hosts a number of programs and activities designed to promote nonviolence and also build skills and competencies among locals. The center operates an exhibit devoted to El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992), and is a very useful resource for visitors interested in the war’s history and significance.

Another top attraction is the Museo Alejandro Cotto (admission $4), a museum with lots of photographs chronicling the life of Cotto, a film director who took the lead in working to preserve the colonial nature of Suchitoto. Views of the reservoir from Cotto’s museum are quite possibly the best in town.

There are physical activities as well, none particularly demanding. Los Tercios waterfalls, dry for much of the year, can be visited with a tourist police accompaniment. (Suchitoto is very safe and the presence of the tourist police is gratuitous, but the tourist policemen often enjoy having the opportunity to converse.) There are also some waterfalls on the other side of town, which should only be visited with a local during dry weather. The path is steep and not marked terribly well. My guide led me down to the waterfalls, swam with me, and walked back with me along narrow trails, charging me $5 for his time.

And if you’d like to laze about by a pool, stop by El Tejado hotel and restaurant, where use of the pool costs $3.25 for the day. The views from El Tejado are outstanding as well.

Beds and grub are remarkably cheap in Suchitoto.

I stayed at El Gringo, a tiny hostel run by Robert Broz and his wife Tita. Robert, an American man of Salvadorean descent resident in El Salvador for many years now, is an expert on all things Suchitoto. Robert and Tita’s rooms run just $10 per person per night. The rooms are very simple and somewhat cavernous but comfortable. The toilet and shower are shared, and water from the shower is cold.

Food in Suchitoto is extremely inexpensive and in many cases delicious. Outstanding pupusas begin at 60 cents at El Gringo’s restaurant; they can be purchased for much less from street vendors. A full meal at El Gringo, including a beer, can be had for under $3.50. And while El Gringo is inexpensive, it is not vastly cheaper than many other restaurants in town. I strayed from El Gringo for a few meals; the most expensive of these topped out around $10.

One nighttime highlight is El Necio. a leftist bar filled with language students, volunteers, and locals. Shots of rum begin at $1.25. And for snacks, there is Pan Lilian, where an alfajor is yours for 25 cents.

Amazingly, a comfortable day on a budget of $20 is completely doable in Suchitoto. The only expense of note is transportation to and from the airport. It’s possible to take buses all the way to Suchitoto, with a change in San Salvador. But for anyone on a tight schedule, it makes more sense to negotiate a shuttle with your hotel. Mine cost $30 per person, and the journey took around an hour and 45 minutes. This cost seriously ate into my $75/day allotment, although costs are otherwise so low that I was able to meet my budget.

Who should visit Suchitoto on $75 a day? Couples, relaxation-minded travelers, and adventurous retirees.

Latin America on a budget: How to plan a budget-friendly adventure

Latin America is one of the world’s most budget-friendly regions for visitors. There are very cheap places to stay across the region–most notably across Central America–where a few dollars will get you a bed for the night and dinner.

But in a budget-friendly region like Latin America there are also huge divides in terms of quality. How do you do your research to make sure that you come up with decent accommodations and an itinerary that delivers the best value for your money?

There’s a big difference between a guesthouse that’s cheap, clean, and cheerful and one that’s filthy and barely fit for a hedgehog. There’s a big difference between good cheap restaurants and bad cheap grub, too. How do you make the right planning decisions to make sure that you end up pinching pennies in a manner that’s both high-value and high-quality?

In the video below I discuss how I planned my budget-friendly adventure to Antigua, Guatemala.

Check back tomorrow for my story and video on Antigua, Guatemala. On April 12 I’ll extend the same treatment to Suchitoto, El Salvador. All my videos were shot by Gadling’s own Stephen Greenwood. On April 19 Jeremy Kressmann will apply the Latin American budget magic to Bogotá, Colombia.

Latin America on a Budget is proudly sponsored by Delta Air Lines.

El Salvador: No visa required

Last week, on assignment in Guatemala and El Salvador, I took a luxury bus between Guatemala City and San Salvador. The bus company in question, Pullmantur, operates a fantastic service.

$35 got me transportation in a comfortable seat, along with breakfast (eggs, refried beans, and delicious, sweet fried plantains, as well as juice) and coffee later in the morning. There is a wi-fi connection on board as well, although during my trip this particular feature was not functioning. (Pullmantur also operates a more luxurious class of travel between Guatemala City and San Salvador for $52 per person, with a more extensive meal service.)

Yet one question remained unanswered as the bus lumbered toward the border. What precisely were the entrance requirements for US citizens entering El Salvador?

On the subject of entry and exit requirements, the US Department of State’s Travel.State.Gov site has the following to say:

To enter the country, U.S. citizens must present a current U.S. passport and either a Salvadoran visa or a one-entry tourist card. The tourist card may be obtained from immigration officials for a ten-dollar fee upon arrival in country.

Later in the description, we learn about the existence, since 2006, of the Central America Border Control Agreement, which covers El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This agreement allows citizens of these four countries to cross borders within the region without having to complete “entry and exit formalities at immigration checkpoints” and goes on to state:

In isolated cases, the lack of clarity in the implementing details of the CA-4 Border Control Agreement has caused temporary inconvenience to some travelers and has resulted in others being fined more than one hundred dollars or detained in custody for 72 hours or longer.

Reading through the State Department’s materials, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that I’d have to purchase a $10 tourist card to enter El Salvador. As the bus waited on the Guatemalan side of the Valle Nuevo border crossing, I asked a bus attendant where I should purchase my tarjeta de turista. Her perplexed response: There is no such thing as a tourist card. I at first wondered if my question confused the attendant because Americans were infrequent passengers on Pullmantur buses. This theory was dashed a few minutes later, when I saw a number of US passports among the stack being collected for exit processing from Guatemala.

A half-hour later our passports were returned to us with an exit stamp and we were on to the Salvadorean side. A young Salvadorean border guard boarded the bus, greeted each passenger individually, glanced at our passports, and logged each of us by citizenship on a clipboard-attached document. He didn’t demand that we purchase a tourist card, and the bus left in short order. It appeared that there were no tourist cards to be purchased at all.

The upshot: in El Salvador, no visa is required for American citizens, and, in fact, no tourist card is needed either–for land entry from a neighboring country, at least. Unless my experience was an isolated incident, the State Department’s information is misleading. Travel.State.Gov is an undeniably key resource for travelers offering all sorts of important information for tourists. In this instance, however, its information needs to be revised.

El Salvador has gotten a little attention in the travel media over the last few decades. Be on the lookout this spring for some new El Salvador coverage here at Gadling.

[Photo: Flickr | bryansblog]

Gadlinks for Friday 9.25.09

Talk about good luck! I arrived home on Wednesday and promptly hit the water for a surf with my buddies. Then yesterday a decent southern swell came through and, more importantly, the first significant swell of the season also made its way to the North Shore. My excitement alone has me thinking and dreaming of waves. In honor of the great sport of surfing, here are some pretty sweet surf travel reads for you this Friday.

‘Til Monday, have a great weekend!

More Gadlinks HERE.