One of the most underadvertised museums that you'll miss
This weekend, we decided to go see the sites. Not the sites that you find in tourist pamphlets, but sites that render information relevant to a new novel I'm writing. So our sites were off the wall places that you rarely hear about or see mentioned as a normal tourist venue.
Our focus revolved around places that offered an insight into the 1980's. And what better way to understand that period of time than to visit the National Air Force Museum in Illopango, located off the Pan American highway just after you pass the base. This is a fascinating museum, demonstrating first hand, the spoils from 1.5 million dollars a day the U.S. piped into El Salvador under the guise of protecting America from any possible communist advances. It's an incredible place, where they have recorded much of the civil war; displaying weapons and aircraft used; photography taken; and providing an interesting military view of the Hundred Hour War between El Salvador and Honduras, the Salvadoran Civil War in the 80s, and a scattering of photos from El Salvador's participation, helping the U.S. in the Iraq war.
We drove through Soyapango, a gang infested area, where the 18th Street gang occupies one side and MS 13 the other. They have placed military throughout Soyapango, entering places the police refuse to go and trying to bring back a sense of justice to the residents. As you drive past, you see soldiers dressed in camaflouge uniforms, strolling in groups, rifles slung over their shoulders doing their best to maintain order in a place where order has become a foreign concept. Lining the Pan American highway, various commercial plazas with assorted fast food places have replaced some of the painted corrugated aluminum shacks and shanties that once held Salvadoran businesses, Americanizing commercialism in Soyapango, so that the maras and their families can feel a sense of American pride as they take over. The general look of Soyapango could best be described as squalor. Between the modernized commercial plazas you have those same painted corrugated lean-to shacks that you would see in blighted areas all over Latin America and the Caribbean, and up on the hills overlooking the highway, you have neighborhoods that reflect that old familiar Los Angeles feel of the late 80s and 90s, when those same maras were bringing words to America like "car jacking," and "drive by."
Then you hit Illopango and things change a bit. It's a bit more modernistic with revisionist styles from fifty years ago: long, low lines in buildings that experiment with obtuse angles circles, and odd shaped structures, using crushed rock and other materials for sideing that dates these buildings as much as crushed white rock and a garden gnome does in a trailer park. Illopango looks slightly cleaner, with mowed lawns on the side of the highway and median, squat palms and those 1950's looking trees with white painted trunks. The buildings could be a set for a 1950's movie. The design harkens back to a time when its obvious most economies, social systems and anything of merit that determined growth came to a screeching halt with the U.S. fear of communism.
When we arrived at the Air Force base, it was closed and the soldier inquiring about our reason for being there was about as welcoming as a glass of Muriatic acid. He informed us that the Museum didn't open until 1:30 and we would have to leave. We decided it might be pleasant to pass the time at Lake Illopango. It was a good decision. The lake is as green as the lush leaves of the landscape of El Salvador, and the water is tepid. An old man offered us a boat ride to tour the lake. There's a series of painted canopied, fiberglass boats that offer to motor you around the lake and they are well worth the price to see how beautiful this lush green lake is, with it's islas in the middle, lavish estates with rolling lawns and docks, and to observe the men who fish snorkling off of Isla de Patos, where I'm told the fish are abundant. Our guide brought a bucket of Salvadoran Pilsner for the ride. I was in heaven, eyeballing the palatial homes along the banks, sipping my beers, listening to his stories of the civil war and his contributions He had been a sympathizer for the guerillas, something he couldn't reveal for years, or risk being disappeared. Especially with the proximity to the Air Force base.
The look around Lago Illopango is a blend of resort, tropical outdoor eateries, thick grained dirt that resembles sand somewhat; and President Funes has started building a Malecon or flagstone walk along the lake. Clearly, El Salvador has an eye on showing Lake Illopango as a nice place to visit. Overall, it was a scenic and interesting way to pass some time and well worth the trip
We left there returned to the Air Force museum. I admit, they seemed shocked to have anyone visit. Almost as if they haven't been visited in years and we were the only ones in the museum at all that day. But the photos of the civil war, the U.S. arms shipped here, uniforms, lists of soldiers who died, and the opportunity to actually climb inside the helicopters and aircraft to sit in the pilot's seat..marvelous! It gave me a real sense of that time. The museum is quiet, and you can stand on the open balcony and look over the run ways, where planes once landed when Illopango was the airport for El Salvador. We learned through speaking to one of the officers there, that they also offer flights that take you to the various volcanoes.
The building is dated (which for me gave it that much more appeal) and the paintings could merit some Illuminati interpretation, with a huge triangle painted on the wall across from the entry doors that certainly could be Satanic for those inspired to believe all military are satanists anyway......even the ceiling, painted with the astrological signs sort of adds to that theme, and I will confess that there is an odor in this building that might challenge those Americans seeking that zenlike Museum experience; but I was surprised this isn't a Museum that is mentioned more in tourist magazines. It is well worth the trip at a dollar a person. It's economical, informative, and once you gain entry, past the soldiers with serious faces who suspect anyone asking to enter, the staff is nice.