El Salvador's Indigenous Culture on Parade in Perquín

Take the Narco Road to Perquín

Crossing the Gulf of Fonseca is a swift and scenic jaunt with Ruta del Golfo, offering dramatic views of towering volcanoes and lush islands on a boat journey from El Salvador to Nicaragua and back.

street performer in perquin el salvador

In El Salvador, August falls in "winter," the rain-soaked season when life-giving corn crops are celebrated -- most notably in the tiny town of Perquín. The narrow rural road that winds to the hamlet by the Honduran border is crowded on both sides by humble dwellings with corrugated steel roofs. On the outskirts of town, a series of “remesas" homes rise. Named after their financing that flows from Salvadorans in the U.S., what these top-heavy mini-mansions lack in architectural style they make up for with blocky volume. Imposing cement walls and towering metal gates are spiraled with razor wire to envelop the owner-designed monstrosities, rich with unnecessary tile work, tinted-window overload and incongruous ironwork ornamentation. These blemishes are not to be confused with neighboring castles that are constructed by narcos. The latter compounds, bankrolled by drug money, mix Spanish and Persian styles in the gaudiest mélange a sane mind might conjure, complete with Romanesque columns and statues of power-pride animals like fierce lions and lunge-ready canines.

rperformers at festival in perquin el salvador

El Salvador Traditions Survive

But Perquín bears little resemblance to the cash-flashing neighbors on its hilly periphery, which are also flush with sprawling coffee plantations, pine-dotted slopes and rugged rock formations. Perquin's steep, meandering streets give a sense of European strolling as one wanders a good selection of second-hand clothing stores and inviting "comedors" (locals pack into the Perka Linda restaurant for its hen soup). The picturesque village was a stronghold of guerrilla resistance during El Salvador's long civil war, in an area that saw casualties in the tens of thousands. Today, it enjoys a level of tranquility not easily found in the overpopulated and often chaotic country. 

Reflections. Perquin's multi-day winter festival began with a parade, assembled in a pitched field on the edge of town. The reigning Lenka Queen, bedecked in indigenous finery and clutching a small crown, led the procession. She was flanked by young women in similar costume who were in contention for the title. Local dignitaries, including former guerillas who have become community leaders, followed, just ahead of the performers. The first half of the paraders donned native wear specific to the region, with jutting headdresses of color-streaked plumage and a multitude of monster masks to represent the demons of yore. A band strummed guitars and sang out traditional tunes. Imported from the capital, more-professional paraders brought up the rear, including a team of stilt walkers, a papier-mâché giant and a raucous troupe of men in bawdy drag. Fireworks launched from long bamboo sticks prompted the pack to march up the main road and into town.

parade in perquin el salvador

Corn Festival Prays for Rain

A canopy of shade was formed by the tarps of vendors hawking hot food, clothing and artisan pieces along the route to the central plaza, where a small mural-fronted church served as a colorful backdrop to the day's festivities. The commencement from an amphitheater stage included incantations to the forces of nature from a gringo priest. It was revealed that Jesus, affectionately dubbed “Colochito” for his wavy hair, had closed the tap for the rain -- an attempt to add some levity to a somewhat dire situation. This time-honored festival that celebrates the rain was taking place in the middle of a drought that threatened the livelihood of local farmers. Patches of bone-dry cornfields along the road into town served as a sober reminder.

dancers at winter festival in perquin El Salvador

El Salvador Traditional Dance on Display

The gathering's first official dance was an homage to the indigenous, with performers in feather headdresses and simple white clothing cinched by strips of brightly colored silk. The natives were soon circled by invading Spaniards, conquistadors represented by a motley group wearing grotesque masks, toting the cow that the intruders brought to the New World. Mock bullfighting followed, with the feisty beast representing rebellion against Spain. Another dance routine saw settlers trading mirrors for gold. Live music was later emceed by Sebastián Torogoz, a surviving member of the guerrilla musical group Los Torogoces de Morazán, who still performs the songs that inspired his fellow fighters during the war. A band of kids captivated the audience, five niños who were barely big enough to hold their guitars belted out popular pueblo tunes.

rain at winter festival in perquin el salvador

As the music played, the sunny day was suddenly consumed by dark clouds. The rain had finally arrived. A few drops gave little notice of the torrential downpour that collapsed the wide shade covering on to the audience. Hail struck the ground in a deafening clatter as revelers ran for cover, which was barely found beneath tarps that sagged under the weight of rapidly pooling water. The big day appeared all but ruined, but the spirit of the crowd actually rose in communal celebration. The prayer for rain had been answered. Vendors who would see dents in their business greeted the merciless rain with wide smiles. Young men laughed as they shivered and wrang out t-shirts. All were soaked and quivering with cold, but there was still not a frown to be found. The rain departed as quickly as it had arrived. The band was back on stage and the celebration in the small iconic town played on.