Explore El Salvador

For Tourists, By Travellers

An Ox-Cart Ride Through History

By: Shweta Ganesh Kumar
Photos: Sandro Stivella and Joep Koks

A thoroughly assorted group of foreigners face our broadly smiling guide. She is nervous but wants to make sure she conveys as much information as she can about the indiginous people of ancient El Salvador on our tour; however, she only speaks Spanish. A couple of us step up to try and make sure nothing is lost in translation. We start our journey at Joya De Ceren, an archaeological site dating back to 1200 B.C., which El Salvador refers to as “the Pompei of the Americas”. As the only existing window to the life of the common Mesoamerican* man, the site is a farming village frozen in time.

* Due to the controversey in El Salvador as to who created and/or inhabited the ruins, the Maya or the Nahuat/Pipil (or both), WTF has chosen to use the labels used by UNESCO in describing the archeaological sites, which more accurately describes the uncertainty of their origins.

We explore the cozy little museum on the grounds looking at half-eaten food and tools that were left behind as the villagers hurried to evacuate just before their village was buried under a massive volcanic eruption. The guide leads us up a concrete path past a stall selling Mayan masks and trinkets. Here under five permanent coverings are the ruins.

We look down at the adobe structures, the remains of packed mud cottages that were the homes of the farming community that lived here. The guide explains how the raised shelf-like structures were actually their beds and how they stored their food underneath. As we lean on the railings, trying to get as close a look as possible, we can almost see the society that once lived and thrived here. The site is a far cry from the commanding stone structures of Guatemala and Mexico. Yet, they are unique.

We walk out to a little by-road to a colorful wooden ox cart. Harnessed to it are two massive oxen, nonchalantly swishing their tails and nuzzling the ground. We clamber aboard and make ourselves comfortable on the wooden benches. The ox cart man lets out a high-pitched “Hyaa” and the oxen heave forward. The locals selling vegetables on the street look on in amusement as our cart trundles away leaving tiny dust clouds in its wake.

The stretch of tarred road quickly becomes a trail strewn with stones. Rattling and groaning, the cart negotiates its way forward as we grin and smile at the children waving from the roadside.

A welcome patch of trees shelter us from the harsh sunrays poking through the chinks in the woven roof of the cart. We halt at a clearing for a demonstration of how maize is farmed. The genial patriarch of a farming family shows off his tools and techniques.

“We still use the same tools from hundreds of years ago,” he says as he gently maneuvers us to tables laid out with freshly fried snacks made of corn. Crunchy and delicious.

A pack of friendly dogs greet us at the next stop, an organic farm with ponds crowded by overweight Tilapia and fields with assorted crops. Plates of fleshy juicy pineapples are emptied within minutes. We climb back onto to the cart with sticky fingers and full tummies.

The cart rumbles down dirt roads. The ox cart man shouts instructions to his beasts of burden and uses his stick to painfully explain to the oxen how to negotiate the crop of boulders or the ditches along the way.

Parched from the longest stretch of the ride so far, we disembark at a sugarcane farm. Eager volunteers from the municipality of San Juan Opico stumble over their rehearsed demonstration in their enthusiasm to tell us how sugarcane is planted and harvested. They have small-scale models in place. Their smiles and energy are charming and infectious. It doesn't hurt to have a glass of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice as well. Everyone perks up, ready to face the sweltering heat once more.

Our guide has been dutifully pointing out volcanoes throughout the ride. She is an encyclopedia of facts on the region and eager to share trivia and folklore. As we approach a rustic bridge over a river, her tone changes.

“No villager was able to build a bridge over these waters and the community finally had to make a pact with the devil himself. It was he who made this,” she gestures.

We survey the idyllic scene, almost expecting to see a tailed gentleman with horns on his head, lounging by the springy wild grass next to the rapidly flowing waters.

No such luck.

The last stop is what archeologists’ claim is El Salvador's biggest ancient treasure. They say there are palaces and structures of great socio-politico importance waiting to be revealed. To the untrained travelers eye though, all that is visible is great grassy mounds rising up unnaturally in the middle of a clearing.

Hike up to the top of a grassy path and you'll see that the mound is actually a pyramid in disguise. There, ancient steps peek through where the grass has been scraped off.

We walk around the site that dates back to 900 BC trying to imagine its glory days. Fortunately, a man who claims to be the last Mayan entertains audiences with facts and trivia about the Mayan culture and spirituality and answers tourists’ questions.

Adorned with tattoos and a feather in his ear, he sits outside the complex and sells Mayan calendar pendants and stones that he believes carry the energy of the earth within them. If you have the time, he will ask you to sit as he tells you a little about life in San Andres when it was a bustling commercial center. We ask him to pose with us, which he does but refuses to look directly at the camera, playfully saying his ancestors believed it would capture their soul.

As we walk away, back to our car and our modern lives back in San Salvador, it feels like we had been in a different dimension - a time where ox carts were mundane and ancient cultures held sway. 


Tuesday - Sunday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Directions: The two sites are located just miles apart on the road to Santa Ana (also known locally as Los Chorros). Bus # 108 (San Juan Opico) from La Ceiba in San Salvador will pass Joya de Ceren. The bus from San Salvador to Santa Ana (#201) will pass San Andres.

Entrance: Central Americans - $1, Foreigners -$3

Take the Easy Route:

Tours from Joya de Ceren to San Andres, through the cornfields and sugar cane fields can be arranged for groups of 4 or more through Yulu Tur, San Juan Opico. Options of transportation between the to sites include: ox cart, mountain bike, walking or horseback riding.

For groups of 4 or more that don’t need transportation to the ruins, contact:
Yulu Tur – Phone: 2347-2526 (Spanish only)

Prices vary depending on the mode of transportation chosen and size of group, but generally run from $20-50 per person.

Waves Tours Fiestas can organize tours for individual travelers and smaller groups and include transportation from the beaches or San Salvador to the ruins – contact us for more information: info@ wtf-elsalvador.com