Vacation Week: Concepción de Ataco

Cobblestones, clay roof tiles, and murals add historic charm to Concepción de Ataco

Our next stop on the vacation week tour is the town of Concepción de Ataco. This lovely colonial town is a convenient place to stay while exploring the Apaneca mountain region in western El Salvador. 

Side note:  if you are just joining me on this little tour, you might wish to catch up by checking out the first two stories in the Vacation Week series:
Coffee Stop above Lake Coatepeque
Experiencing the Energy at Tazumal

I have visited Ataco with several delegations over the years, and we have enjoyed staying in Ataco for a couple of family vacations. A few years ago, I wrote Off the Beaten Path: Concepción de Ataco, which gives a little overview and history of the town, as well as a profile of the boutique hotel where we stayed.  Like many touristic locations in El Salvador, Ataco reveals a little more of its character and history with each successive visit.

Hanging flowers add ambiance at Picolo Giardino restaurant. 

We arrived in Ataco on the first evening of Vacation Week, and after settling in at Casa Degraciela, we walked to the southwest corner of town to Picolo Giardino restaurant, which is really the only restaurant in town which is open on weeknights. We relaxed under the canopy of orchids and enjoyed a savory dinner, adult beverages and delicious desserts. (I have never had a bad meal here and can recommend the pizza, sangria and dessert called pot of chocolate.) After dinner we walked to the park at the center of Ataco (Parque Fray Rafael Fernandez) and then to Hotel Casa Degraciela, which is located at the corner of the park. Casa Degraciela was built in the late 19th century and retains its colonial style and the name of Doña Graciela, who lived there.

Night view of the church from Ataco's central park

Garden courtyard at Casa Degraciela

Morning begins in the center of Ataco with the periodic ringing of church bells, followed by a faint choir of voices celebrating morning mass.  We welcomed the day with a bit of reading in the hotel gardens, followed by a typical breakfast under the gazebo. The morning was cool and gray and perfect for a walk around the town. We started our tour in at the parish church, Immaculate Conception of Mary. We "toured" the interior space from the main entrance, out of respect for those who were singing and praying in the front pews. 

Breakfast in the garden

Interior of Immaculate Conception of Mary Catholic Church

Concepción de Ataco recognizes 1543 CE as the year of its founding as a colonial town, which means the church was founded at about that time. The patron saint festivals are held from December 11th-15th in honor of the immaculate conception of Mary, and since 1850 the town has celebrated the birth of Mary on the night of September 7th with a traditional parade of colorful, lighted lanterns. We wondered about the age of the current church, noting from a plaque that it had undergone restoration following the 2001 earthquakes. Since we couldn't really ask anyone inside the church, I introduced myself to a gentleman who was arranging flowers at an outdoor table near the church entrance. He was so kind, and shared a little bit of his story:

The biggest change I remember to the church happened when I was a little boy. This was in the 1970's. There was a priest that came at that time, and he decided to change the facade of the church and make it white, like you see it now. I don't know why, but he took away the frescos that were there and there (he pointed to the arched insets on either side of the entrance). One was of St. Francis... 

In the earthquake of January 2001, the church was very much destroyed. That happened on a Saturday. On Sunday we already had mass right here in the front, and very quickly the workers with iron and cement put up this galera (a covered space without walls) in front of the church. Everything was really broken. The roof in the front was broken. Thanks to the Franciscans from New York and Friar Rafael, and the people we were able to rebuild it...

Yes, the church is like it was before, but now there is rebar inside the walls. They drilled down and installed rebar so the walls are resistant to earthquakes now. We had mass and all the ministries outside under the gallery until the church was complete in 2003. Now we have taken down part of the gallery, so we just have this little section left.  Oh (he added), that one tower is new. That was added in 2003.

Immaculate Conception of Mary Catholic Church

After learning about the church, we decided to walk to Calvary. Navigating a small town like Ataco is pretty straightforward. The main park is in the center, the parish church is on one side of the park, the mayor's office is on another side, and the streets are laid out in a grid.  Walk from one church to another, and see what you can see. "Walking to Calvary" means "walk to the edge of town" and in Ataco, the church at the edge of town is actually named Calvary. 

Calvary Catholic Church

Ataco is known for its artisan shops, outdoor market and small eateries. Over our couple of days and two nights in Ataco, we did a little shopping, checked out lots of murals, supported a couple of local food places, and walked from one edge of town to the other.

Watch out for the moto-taxis, especially during busy market times

It's hard to capture just how steep this hill is on the opposite side of town from Calvary. 
The coffee grown on the mountains surrounding Ataco is abundant and delicious.

On our last afternoon in Ataco, we stopped by this mural, which appears in many publications promoting tourism in the town. A small group of police officers was hanging out on the opposite corner, and the edge of Parque Fray Rafael Fernandez  - the central park (remember, Friar Rafael was the parish priest who worked with Franciscans from New York to restore Ataco's parish church.) I asked the officers if they knew of a legend related to the big tree at the corner of the park. A long time ago, someone told me that it was called the "tree of the hanged ones." It was a tale about a young women, abandoned by her suitor, and in despair hanging herself from the tree. Now mournful cries can sometimes be heard coming from near the tree, and jilted lovers sometimes come here to be sad.  Well, the officers had never heard anything about this story, which means I will need to return to Ataco to do more research.

Lovely Ataco, captured in a mural

Good night, Casa Degraciela.

Our next stop: Food and Fun in the Apaneca Mountains.

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