Las Pilas is not where someone would typically spend Christmas. Yet, stepping foot into the rural mountain village sparks up familiar feelings of what every holiday season should feel like. The odd Christmas tree perks up each household. Hot chocolate is served with cornbread and cheese-filled pastries, freshly baked from an outdoor stone oven. Christmas Eve is the most important day of the season for Salvadorans, and even amidst a pandemic, families bustle about preparing for dinners and gatherings.
It’s an unconventional place for foreigners to visit. The primarily agriculture-driven area is not known for tourism; though, according to villagers, the odd tourist has passed through since 2000. In the end, it’s a possible escape route from a lockdown someplace somewhere, or wherever home might be for the odd traveller. Even though the pandemic has shut down most of the world, and continues to do so with each day, travel is still a lifeline for many. Knowing that places like Las Pilas exist, for refuge, creates hope.
And so, in a year of the pandemic, and lockdowns disjointing families everywhere, Las Pilas becomes this perfect place; a small cultural haven for travellers longing for both quiet moments and enough human interaction to miss and appreciate home. Lush, green rainforest and panoramic views of mountains and valleys provide sanctuary. Adding to this are interactions with vibrant village communities in the rainforest, and opportunities to witness togetherness, unity and acceptance after a year of chaos.
El Salvador did not escape COVID-19. To date, the government has reported nearly 50 thousand cases. But, necessary restrictions have been in place to ensure that cases do not spread further. A 72-hour negative PCR test is required to enter the country, and masks are mandatory in most public places. Las Pilas has been lucky. There have been no confirmed cases until now, and the village hopes to keep that trend going. A careful traveller helps to protect Las Pilas by following every precautionary measure.
Las Pilas is located in a remote north-western corner of El Salvador near Cerro El Pital. It sits at an altitude of 2,400 metres above sea level right near the border with Honduras. Unlike San Salvador, which is chaotic, gritty and hot, the village is serene and quiet. It is found in the coldest part of the country with an average temperature of 13 degrees. Where there are just trees and forest with no defined border crossing, it is difficult to distinguish what is El Salvador or Honduras.
The village has a population of 8,611 and is part of the larger municipality of San Ignacio, located in the department of Chalatenango. While remote, it is still accessible by road. At a certain point, the smooth, paved highway leading up from San Salvador turns into nothing but uneven, dusty forest roads. A truck is essential for navigating the winding hairpins, and it takes several minutes just to move a couple of hundred metres.
Christmas is a widely celebrated tradition for Salvadorans. Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez International Airport annually sees its most traffic on Christmas Eve, notably, from Salvadoran Americans returning from the States to reunite with their families. Christmas Eve is the day for eating and celebrating. Christmas Day is for relaxing.
Public celebrations, especially in the larger cities like San Salvador, were subdued this year with midnight mass and firework spectacles cancelled. But, in rural villages, families carried on with living. The pandemic is not their primary and only problem. On Christmas Eve afternoon, the energy in the town was intense. Everyone was excited – for family members to come home, to set off firecrackers in the street, and for this particular village, to burn tires at midnight. This is a tradition unique to Las Pilas.
Each house has an open-door policy where anyone can walk in. Asking to warm up by the kitchen stove can mean access to panes con pavo, or tomato-sauce covered turkey sandwiches, laughs and conversation. That’s how well the community knows each other. All the families have pretty much grown up with each other.
The women in the community are tight-knit. Whether they are directly blood-related or not, women talk and joke around like they are sisters. Their children are curious, friendly and not the slightest bit timid.
The Cornejo-Vasquez family is incredibly welcoming and curious of visitors. The matriarch or abeula of this family is loving, kind and mainly concerned with ensuring everyone is fed. Her house is a bit small and dark. The feeling of being inside though is warm from her stove fire, and portraits of family and community covering all corners of her walls.
Down in the main village area, parishioners prepare for church. Church activities will start at seven or perhaps eight. Timing is flexible, and everyone just comes and goes as they please. Similar to the rest of El Salvador, the villagers here are primarily Christians. Sunset arrives, bringing wispy clouds and orange-pinkish hues. The view overlooking the rainforest is indescribable.
Shortly after, power goes out in the village. This occurrence is nothing irregular as power outages sometimes happen in these rural areas. The immediate community flocks around storefronts with back-up energy sources. One storefront dishes out homemade pupusas, a thick corn griddle cake and El Salvador’s national food, and Pilsener, the local beer. The pupusa is savoury, sweet, warm and crisp, and immediately warms the stomach.
Walking down the main village path leading to the church, it feels like alternate realities working in synchronicity. There’s debauchery to the left. People are drinking beer and liquor around trucks while setting off firecrackers. To the right and only a few metres away, there are families headed to or already gathered around a massive bonfire at the church. Teenagers play miming games to Samson and Delilah's story, while a gospel musician leads everyone in verse. The unison of melody and chorus drowns out the craziness just a few metres away.
It’s getting late. It’s not quite midnight, but there’s one last thing to do to end the night. Villagers start gathering tires for burning. According to community citizen and tourism fixer, Roberto Marroquin, “there’s no real explanation for the ritual except that it exists and has been embraced by the families.”
So, on the hillside, villagers set the tires on fire. The scene is mesmerizing. It would be an odd thing if this tradition carried through the rest of the country; imagine the pollution and chaos. But, this is notable and special for the community of Las Pilas. This is their ritual. In some ways, it feels like death and rebirth and a beautiful way to end and start a new year.
The tires whittle away into thick, black smoke and only wire remains. It’s still cold outside. After all, it is the mountainside. So, the night ends with warming up by the fireplace and conversations about everything El Salvador – this village, Salvadoran culture, the pandemic, gang dynamics and the effects of the long civil war.
It’s an odd Christmas, but it’s also been a strange year. And maybe that’s what’s most important where perspective in life is needed; to experience something odd, new and completely different at the most vulnerable time of any one person’s year.