As the sun settled into the hills behind the twin bell towers of the broad, white Iglesia Santa Lucia, the town came alive.
Candles, encased by glass lanterns in all shades of color, alit the adjacent park and town square, casting golden highlights on strolling silhouettes, on a child’s bouncing coif as she frolicked, on the underbelly of the almond tree branches.
It was Día de los Farolitos — that is, day of the lanterns — and I was not where I was supposed to be. Actually, nothing about the weekend had gone as planned.
The annual festival — which is believed to mark the advent of an earthquake over 100 years ago — is native to the Ahuachapán department of El Salvador, and best experienced in the town of Concepción de Ataco.
Weeks in advance, I excitedly planned for this, calling dozens of hostels and searching for hours before finally finding a listing for a room in someone’s home on Airbnb. I felt lucky because I was already discovering what I’d heard — that the whole area sells out for the Farolitos weekend.
One day before the festival, I journeyed to Ahuachapán, paying a friend to drive me the more than two hours there, rolling away from the coast’s humidity and into the fresh air of the mountains.
Then, upon arrival, I came to two unfortunate realizations: 1) The place I had booked didn’t exist (long story that involves a host leaving a listing active after the room was not). And 2) I had somehow lost my ATM card and I was almost out of cash.
My friend was kind enough to truck me around, looking for an available room during the busiest weekend of the year. Finally I found one — in Juayúa, about 30 miles away. It was a little converted shed with an outdoor bathroom behind a guest house garden, and it was only available because the lady of the house wasn’t planning to rent it out. (She called it strange when telling me about it, but I actually adore it.) Ultimately, she let me pay via PayPal, and after trying seven different ATMs, I found one that would allow a cash advance from one of my credit cards.
The plan then became to transport to Ataco on Saturday for the festivities. I met a group of travelers who were staying at the guesthouse and agreed to bus there with them (my friends have made me promise not to bus alone due to gang complications, but in a big group, it’s generally OK). But after delaying our trek a couple of times, the group ultimately decided not to go, leaving me stranded. I couldn’t take the bus alone. It was too late to arrange car transportation.
I made a last-ditch effort, pacing around town to look for a taxi that didn’t exist; finally, I realized I was stuck in Juayúa for the night, unable to trek to the event that marked the reason I even came to this part of the country.
Luckily for me, the Sonsonate department, where Juayúa is, also celebrates los Farolitos due to proximity.
I have no idea what it would have been like in Ataco. I only know that what awakened in the center of Juayúa was pure magic.
Hanging from every branch, roof and window were lanterns, brilliant and gleaming.
The dangled from trellises arching over the park’s convergent sidewalks. They suspended from strings extending from the church like flickering sun rays. They floated among wooden chandeliers affixed to the trees, spinning slowly in the night air like tiny blazing carousels.
The town was aflame. It was radiant.
Vendors sold trinkets and gifts. Bands played: jazz in some corners, Latin reggae in others; young women in short skirts and tall boots, a look that is almost exclusively reserved for parades and celebrations, danced to the beat.
Blocks and blocks of tented corridors, draped with evergreen boughs holding more lanterns, hosted an overwhelming array of food and beer vendors. Hunks of beef and rabbit and fat, sizzling quarter chickens hole grilled next to blistering chilies and scallions. There were bowls of crispy prawns, plump whole fishes, string after string of sausage links, bowls filled rice and beans and limes, overflowing baskets of tortillas. The smoke mixed with the gilded light creating a dreamlike haze.
It felt like Christmas — at once exciting and peaceful.
Then, the moment came: someone cut the electricity, and everyone let out a wondrous gasp.
Between the spaces of darkness, the lanterns shone pure, the blue-white light of the street lamps no longer taking away from the lambent amber glow. Beads of red and green and blue bounced off each other in the trees.
Moments later, the supporting cast of lights were back on, but the feeling remained.
As I started to leave, I heard the zip of fireworks being shot. They exploded brightly over Santa Lucia while the bell towers worked in tandem, providing an enchanting soundtrack for the most enchanting night.
From where I stood, it was perfect — no matter where I was.