August 1st is always a joyous day for Salvadoran children, as it marks a week of vacation from school! We tried to keep the Love & Hope kids entertained for the week planning a variety of activities like going to the park, seeing a movie and had a day at the beach. We also did something quite original and off the beaten path: we visited an indigo hacienda that dates back to the late 1500’s.
Most of us who visited Indigo Hacienda San Juan Buena Vista were unfamiliar with indigo and its history in El Salvador. The indigo plant, or añil in Spanish, is grown in El Salvador and other countries with a similar climate, which form an indigo-growing belt around the world. It grows into a small bush, the leaves being the part of the plant that bare the blue color it is famous for. Indigo used to be one of El Salvador’s biggest exports until a synthetic dye entered the market in the late 1800’s. When authentic indigo lost its appeal, coffee took over as El Salvador’s major export.
Grace, the owner of San Juan Buena Vista and our tour guide, took us through the whole process of harvesting indigo and extracting the brilliant blue color that is hidden inside its leaves. On our way to see the indigo plants we enjoyed taking a look at the farm’s donkeys, cows and a giant ceiba tree.
Grace led us to a pavilion where she taught us about the indigo plant and then had us guess which plant it was. She encouraged everyone to pick a few leaves and showed us how to extract some of the color. We hammered indigo leaves into fabric to see the jade green stain it displays before being processed. Some of us were excited about the pretty design and others were excited about the hammers.
Next, Grace showed us two gigantic cement tubs that hold what she described as an indigo “tea.” Once the leaves are harvested, they are mixed into one of the tubs with water. After “steeping” for a while, the brightly colored “tea” is drained into a separate tub where a fine, deep blue power can be collected from the bottom.
After a short hike around the farm, which featured distant views of the San Salvador Volcano in one direction and the Pacific Ocean in the other (hence the name of the farm – Buena Vista), Grace led us into the dyeing room.
The walls of the dyeing room held beautiful examples of indigo-dyed fabric as well as all the supplies we needed to make our own t-shirts. The most important elements in the the room though, were five vats brimming with dark blue water. When asked how much dye was put into each vat, Grace said she didn’t know. Every time a group visits, she adds more dye and more water; she has been doing this for 10 years!
After learning a few techniques for tie-dyeing, we put our marbles and rubber bands to work. Once the design was set on each shirt, everyone had to soak their shirt for one minute. While the water appears blue, the shirts came out of the vats looking jade green. The green only needs a little oxygen to turn blue, so after one minute soaking in dye, the shirt had to spend one minute in the open air. We repeated this process at least six times, depending on the hue of blue we wanted: one minute in, one minute out.
When the color was right, we allowed the shirts to dry off a bit in the sun. Finally we took the rubber bands off, and had some great, very blue designs to show off. Opening every shirt was a surprise, but everyone seemed happy with the end result.
Visiting San Juan Buena Vista and learning about such a rich part of El Salvador’s history was a wonderful opportunity for our children, thanks to the generous donation of a visitor. Living so close to San Salvador makes trips to the campo (country) even better. The quiet, the animals, the indigo, the trees and the great view all combined to make it a memorable and fun day!