El Salvador

Feb 15th - 22nd, 2020

The second country on my tour through Central America was El Salvador. Largely because of safety concerns, I had decided to join a group trip here. The one week "Best of El Salvador" tour with Intrepid Travel, an Australian based tour company, I had heard good things about but had not traveled with previously, seemed like the perfect choice for me to see El Salvador.

The flight from Guatemala City took less than 30 minutes. El Salvador International Airport is a fairly large and modern airport. It serves as a hub for Avianca Airlines and has a lot of transit passenger to other destinations in Central America passing through. Citizens of the EU, US and many other nations can enter El Salvador without a visa. The airport is located about 40 km south of San Salvador - a 30-minute drive into the city. Our hotel in San Salvador was the very nice Hotel Mirador Plaza, which is located in an upscale district about 5 km from the city center. I met our guide, Fernando, and the other 7 people in the group that evening. We all went out for dinner in a suburb of San Salvador, and experienced our first taste of pupusas (more on those later). We drove there using Uber, which is widely available in and around the capital, and it is very cheap. I paid $3 for the 20 minute ride. (El Salvador does not have its own currency. The government decided in 2001 to adopt the US Dollar as the country's official currency.)

The next morning we started the official part of the tour with a walk through the city. San Salvador, is the capital and largest city of El Salvador. With a metro area population of 2.2 million, it is home to one third of the country's total population. The city center is quite picturesque, with lots of pedestrian areas and open spaces, like the Plaza Civica, which is flanked by the main cathedral and the National Palace.

Fernando, our guide, told us that the city has improved significantly in the last few years in terms of safety. These days, he could take us to areas, he would not have dared to go by himself five years ago. A particularly interesting sight we visited nearby was the Rosary Church, completed in 1971, which is a rather ugly concrete building from the outside, but absolutely beautiful on the inside with its huge central room lit by these rainbow colored stained glass windows.

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. When Central America gained its independence from Spain in 1821, El Salvador became part of the Federal Republic of Central America, which lasted until 1841. The country has remained independent ever since. El Salvador today is a presidential representative democratic republic with a multi-party system. The economy has been growing only very slowly in the last decades, and with a GDP of $4,000 per capita, the country is among the 40% poorest nations in the world. Inequality remains a significant problem. The main exports are coffee, cotton, corn and sugar cane, and a significant source of foreign income is driven by remittances of El Salvadorians working abroad, chiefly in the US. In recent years call centers for US companies have become a major new service industry. These are often staffed by El Salvadorians returning (or being deported) from the US, who have acquired perfect English language skills.

After getting back to the hotel on a public bus, we gathered our luggage and left San Salvador in a small van for the Ruta de las Flores, which is a winding road that passes through several small villages and towns, each with its own character and colonial architecture. Our first stop was the town of Juayua, which is famous for its food festival. Every weekend, lots of people mainly from San Salvador flock to this small town for the Feria Gastronomica, where an array of market stalls prepare a large variety of grilled local foods. The main town square was packed with people, and there was a great atmosphere with live music and amazing food.

After lunch the route took us along a string of volcanoes, of which El Salvador has an abundance, some of them very active. The third from the right is Santa Ana, which we planned to climb the next day.

The town of Concepcion de Ataco is famous for its wall paintings. Almost all the houses and shops decorate their outside walls in these very colorful murals.

The Rutas de las Flores ends in Ahuachapan, a small town in the north-east near the border to Guatemala, where we would spend the next two nights. After checking into our hotel, we met for dinner at the main square, which also hosted a big festival with food stalls everywhere and a large stage with a full-sized symphonic orchestra. The celebrations went on all evening and ended with big fireworks.

We left after breakfast the following day for the drive to Santa Ana volcano. This was an optional activity in the itinerary, but everyone in the group decided to join. The drive took about 1.5 hours and passed the beautiful Lago de Coatepeque, a crater lake surrounded by little villages.

Santa Ana is the highest volcano in El Salvador with 2,381 meters (or 7,812 feet). It is an active stratovolcano, that has experienced several significant eruptions since the 16th century, the last of which occurred in 2005. The hike itself starts fairly high up the mountain, and only takes about 1.5 hours. It is not a particularly steep or hard hike, but fairly strenuous largely due to the heat. Halfway up we had these great views of the two adjacent volcanoes, Cerro Verde and Izalco.

On top of the crater rim we were greeted by this astounding sight of the inside of the crater. I did not enhance or saturate the colors in these pictures in any way, the water in the crater lake really had this incredible deep turquoise color. And you could smell the sulfur from the fumes emanating from it.

We left Ahuachapan the following morning to make our way to Suchitoto. Along the way we stopped to see the Mayan Ruins of Tazumel. Tazumel's central structure is an impressive pyramid - the tallest Mayan structure in El Salvador. The earliest construction activity at Tazumel dates back to the pre-classical period at around 300 AD but was interrupted by the 5th century eruption of Llopango volcano, which likely made large swaths of Central America uninhabitable for at least a 100 years. Most of the structures are from the middle to late classical period starting around 600 AD. The site was excavated in the 1940s and 50s. Unfortunately, it was restored rather heavy-handedly with the use of a lot of concrete.

The drive continued for another 2 hours before we reached the town of Suchitoto, which is located in the central northern part towards the border with Honduras. Suchitoto is a beautiful small market town with cobbled streets and well-preserved colonial architecture.

After lunch we met our local guide, René, who drove us down to the lake for an afternoon bird watching boat trip. Lago Suchitlan is a large man-made lake that was formed in the 1970s, when the Rio Lempa was dammed for the Cerro Grande hydroelectric power station. Unfortunately, the lake flooded several archaeological sites as well as a significant amount of prime farmland and displaced a large number of farming communities. The lack of adequate compensation for the displaced people, caused a lot of anger and likely was a major contributor to the overall disenchantment, which eventually lead to the civil war a few years later.

On the other hand, the hydro power station still to this day provides a significant portion of the country's electricity needs, and the lake has become an amazing bird sanctuary. We saw many different bird species, including several large herons and thousands of cormorants, who all seemed to gather on the trees on just one small island. It looked like the trees were growing birds.

We finished our boat tour at a little bar on the other side of the lake to watch a beautiful sunset.

On a civil war walking tour the following day, we learned a lot about El Salvador's recent and violent history. We started our tour at the small town of Cinquera, which was one of the early rebel strongholds. They are clearly still very proud of this fact, which is demonstrated by the wing of a shot-down government helicopter displayed prominently at the main town square.

Our tour was led by Don Rafael, a former guerrilla fighter, who had spent the entire 12 years of the war living in hidden jungle camps and leading attacks on government troops and military bases. Listening to him and getting a first-hand account of what life was like as a guerrilla fighter, was absolutely fascinating. Don Rafael's tour took us on a walk through the mountains, where we saw guerrilla defensive trenches, a Vietnamese style field kitchen and a former camp including a rather basic field hospital.

El Salvador's civil war, fought between the Cuban supported rebel army and the US supported military government, lasted from 1980 to 1992. The conflict claimed an estimated 75,000 lives, but probably many more people disappeared and were killed by government death squads, who also assassinated several prominent catholic clergy. Among them was Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot in 1980 while conducting mass. After the fighting reached a stalemate, UN led peace negotiations eventually ended the war when both sides signed a peace accord in January 1992.

In the afternoon René led us on a tour in and around Suchitoto. We started at the Los Tercios waterfall, which is only an actual waterfall in the wet season. But it is a fascinating geological phenomenon made up of five-sided basalt columns, similar to the famous Giants' Causeway in Ireland.

Back in town we visited the Suchitoto women's collective, where we learned how Indigo dye is made. Indigo was the main export product of El Salvador until the early 1900s, when synthetic blue dyes were first commercialized. We then met the last cigar lady in Suchitoto. Hand-rolling cigars used to be a big business here, but 72-year-old Donna Lucia is now the last one practicing this art.

In the evening we learned how to make our own pupusas. Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador, and are eaten pretty much every day for breakfast and for dinner. They are a type of flatbread made of corn flower, stuffed with various meats, cheese or beans and fried on a hot griddle. We also took a group photo at the restaurant overlooking Lake Suchitoto. If you were wondering, what type of people decide to travel to El Salvador, the answer seems to be 'people who've been everywhere else'. This was a really fun group of some extraordinarily well traveled people.

Our last two days in El Salvador were spent at the beach. The small surf village of El Tunco is located 35 km from San Salvador. It was about a 3-hour drive from Suchitoto, and we arrived there in the early afternoon. We spent the rest of the day at the huge beach, which is made up of volcanic black sand. I went swimming in the fairly rough ocean, the water was beautifully clear and warm, but the waves and currents were quite strong. In the evening we watched the surfers riding the waves. El Salvador and Tunco in particular are trying to turn themselves into a world-class surfing destination. And they certainly have the waves for it.

The following day some of our group did a hike to a waterfall in the nearby town of Tamanique, which was about a 20-minute drive into the mountains. The hike was not very long, but fairly steep leading us down into a narrow canyon. At the bottom was this beautiful water fall with a swimming hole underneath. The water was very nice and refreshing in the heat.

That night we finished our wonderful and fascinating tour through El Salvador with a very nice seafood dinner right by the beach overlooking the sunset.

El Salvador has a terrible reputation in terms of safety, and the crime statistics are truly appalling. El Salvador has the highest murder rate of any country in the world. But it is important to bare in mind that the vast majority of murders are inter-gang related. Tourists are rarely targeted. Under its young and very popular new president, El Salvador is making a strong push to develop the tourist industry and change the country's reputation not only among foreigners, but also among its own people. Many El Salvadorians have a very negative view of their own country, following a 12-year civil war, gang related crimes, murders and corruption. I, personally, never felt in any way unsafe during my entire time there. People were incredibly friendly and welcoming, whereever we went.

If you want to experience a beautiful authentic Central American country, before it gets overrun by tourists and becomes expensive, go and visit El Salvador now. It will be a different place in 10 years' time. El Salvador has a lot to offer, from amazing landscapes with huge volcanoes and beautiful lakes, to several interesting Mayan ruins and stunning beaches. You can visit El Salvador all year round, but the best time is probably around December to March. It gets very hot in April, and it rains a bit more during the wet season between May and October. Temperatures depend very much on the altitude. Ahuachapan, which lies at an elevation on 800m, was fairly cool and pleasant, compared to the heat and humidity in El Tunco at sea level. At this stage it would probably be a challenging country to visit by yourself, but there are number of foreign and many local tour operators offering great guided tours through the country.

The Intrepid tour I did certainly exceeded my expectations. Our guide Fernando was great. He went out of his way to make this tour fun, interesting and safe for everyone. The tour was structured to have lots of optional activities, which allowed everyone to choose whether they wanted to join a particular hiking tour for instance, or whether they'd rather spend the afternoon relaxing. The drives between the cities we visited were not very long, the longest was 3 hours, and the hotels we stayed at were very nice and always centrally located. I would recommend this tour highly to everyone, who wants to experience and discover what El Salvador has to offer.

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