It was already warm as I followed our guide, Douglas through Juayua’s cobbled streets to the path where the hike began. A few local street dogs bounced alongside us, ever hopeful of pats or even better, food.
After only a day in El Salvador I was already recognising the selfish benefits of visiting a country that most avoid: Our group of seven had the trail to ourselves. Not for an hour or two, but the whole day. It was only after arriving at our final pitstop of the hike – and the most popular bathing spot in the area – that we saw anyone at all.
Coffee and life
Mercifully, our walk begun under the shade of dense forest, cutting across the side of a valley where coffee plantations filled the slopes. Douglas explained that it still looked wild because taller trees had been planted among the coffee to protect the harvest. In the vicinity of not one, but three dormant volcanos, absolutely anything could grow in the fertile soil.
At times greenery even blocked our path. I held back branches for the person behind while trying to decipher the many bird calls overhead. The verdant slopes were home to a lot of wildlife. According to Douglas, the most common were birds such as woodpeckers, creepers and the giant cicadas whose chirp almost drowned out anything else. He also pointed out a peppercorn plant, sometimes used in the dough of tasty pupusas or in a type of tea that’s good for a cold. We passed by izote plants which produce the country’s national white flower and underneath the neat dangling nests of what locals call the birds of fire.
The paths that we negotiated for pleasure provided for the people of Juayúa. In addition to coffee and medicinal plants, yuca (a starchy dietary staple) was also collected from the ground we trod. All manner of fruit, sold in town in small bags with a squirt of spicy sauce, was also abundant. We tried green mangos straight from the tree as we walked, but I found them too sharp so I was shown how to extract the seed instead. “For every mango we eat we can plant a new mango tree. That is nature at its best”.
In fact, there was so much to see, smell and taste as we ducked and weaved across the valley that I forgot about the waterfalls entirely.
The only way is down
Multiple cascadas (waterfalls) that splash into the valley floor were the main reason that this trail had become popular among a privileged group of backpackers. I was only reminded of this as we approached our first fall. A dull roar suddenly cut across the birdsong and chatter of our group. Our path became wet underfoot and to my left, slender columns of water dropped through thick foliage, creating tiny splashes that cooled my face. The gushing water was a signal that the ‘adrenaline-filled’ part of the hike was about to start.
Douglas and another guide who seemed to appear out of nowhere expertly secured ropes to trees that lunged over the sheer drops of the falls. Slowly but surely they helped each of us downwards, free rappelling within the full flow of a forty-foot high waterfall. Douglas didn’t need to hold any rope, he sprung forwards down the rock face, more nimbly than any mountain goat, with an innate knowledge of where best to place his feet.
At the other end of the spectrum, my soaked trousers and boots felt heavy as I struggled to find a foothold in the slippery stone. It was the scariest, but altogether easiest way of reaching the beautiful valley floor.
The seven waterfalls
Of course, the seven waterfalls hike is clever (and very recent) advertising. Even at the end of dry season, there were countless waterfalls scattered throughout the valley. As we passed each one, they differed in height, geology and volume. Occasionally, it was even possible to see the strata caused by millennia of tectonic activity.
At a particularly high falls where we stopped to take photos, Douglas explained that local cattle used to come down to drink. For that reason, locals still call it el vivero (the life-giver). I was reminded once again that tourism to this area is still a relatively new concept. Native peoples were walking and harvesting these mountains long before they became recreational trails.
With waterfalls a constant over our right shoulders, we continued along the valley’s river towards lunch and a swim. It felt almost comical to eat branded ham and cheese sandwiches in such a pristine environment but after all the exercise, I almost choked them down. I dangled my legs into the cooling water while I munched, shaded from the afternoon sun by the forest canopy. The dogs had miraculously caught up with us, obviously smelling the chance of some picnic scraps.
The final stop of our hike was a falls with the most picturesque views and also the best place to enjoy a swim. Rocks formed natural seats opposite the patchwork of trees on the other side of the valley. Douglas joined us in the water and for the first time that day we encountered other people – a few locals who were escaping the heat of the day.
As the freezing but welcome white water rushed down the mountainside and hit my shoulders, I felt like one of the lucky. Lucky to be exploring El Salvador.