Juayua is a small village on the Ruta de la Flores in El Salvador, a popular tourist route consisting of several small villages in the cool highlands of the Northwestern edge of the country. Aside from the main pull with backpackers of the hikes to surrounding waterfalls in the area, our reason for visiting Juayua was much more specific.
Every weekend, the small town hosts a fabulous food festival, where people from villages all around the country converge either to sell their specialty, or to enjoy sampling from others. Even better is that over the first two weeks of the year, the food festival combines with the annual Festival del Cristo Negro, coming to a climax on the 15th of January. We just happened to be there for that final weekend.
Two main streets around the town square are lined with canopies and the air is thick with the smell of charcoal smoke. Dozens of individual makeshift kitchens fill the canopies, each offering a sampling of three or four traditional Salvadorian dishes. You will find everything from soups, to grilled meat platters, seafood, desserts and cocktails. During our first round through the festivities, we picked up a giant skewer of assorted grilled meats including three massive prawns, beef, chicken and pork; alongside beans, tomato salad, rice, grilled vegetables and tortillas. Almost too much food to be shared by the two of us, it rang it at only six dollars.
Before heading back to the hostel to hide from the mid-afternoon heat, we stopped and picked up a fantastic little cocktail from the side of the road. For a whopping $3, a giant pineapple gutted and the sweet flesh is blended with a little ice and a generous splash of rum, and poured back into the hollow fruit. Before consuming you sprinkle to your personal taste a little bit of salt, lime juice, hot sauce and dried chilies – adding a complex but brilliant twist to your average rum and juice. A brief siesta followed in preparation for the main event and ensuing chaos, which was to begin shortly after dark.
Latin America loves to take celebrations to extremes, often throwing caution to the wind – and Salvadorians are no different. After a fairly standard parade featuring fabulous floats and beauty pageant contestants, the real excitement begins. Men wearing makeshift wooden bulls covered in fireworks run through the streets as people duck for cover, never knowing which way the roman candles and bottle rockets will fly. Once the bulls tired out, the crowd rearranged themselves for the spectacular fireworks display. First it was a towering pyrotechnics display at the end of the main street followed by roughly twenty minutes of colourful overhead explosions, launched from mere feet away from the crowd.
While the full blown bedlam of the Festival del Cristo Negro is only once a year, the quiet village of Juayua comes to life every single weekend of the year to celebrate the fantastic flavours of Salvadorian cuisine. Easily accessible from the popular tourist trail of Central America, the Juayua food festival should be on every itinerary.