Originally published at Viator.com.
Rugged volcanos dotting the countryside, vibrant cities with a youthful spirit, colonial charm preserved and actively refurbished for future generations to enjoy. This may not be the El Salvador in your mind, but it’s the country that exists beyond the international headlines and doomsday CIA travel warnings.
In a week’s worth of travel, we found what makes El Salvador special. The land itself was diverse, bursting with natural beauty. The food, namely the Salvadoran staple of pupusas, never disappointed. Most of all, the people who eagerly shared their stories are what make El Salvador not only special, but one of the most rewarding travel destinations.
My wife and I launched our weeklong trek across the country in Santa Tecla, a slice of urbanity just outside of the capital, San Salvador. Santa Tecla also goes by “Nueva San Salvador” due to its history of briefly serving as the Salvadoran capital after a devastating earthquake in 1854 prompted a temporary move from San Salvador.
After grabbing our first pupusa — a homemade tortilla usually stuffed with fresh cheese, meat and perhaps a few other goodies — we joined Juan, owner of the Mango Inn where we were staying, for a city tour.
Exploring the walkable streets of Santa Tecla, we admired the openness of the street-side buildings bursting with color. Browns, tans, oranges, yellows, blues, turquoises, magentas — nearly every color I could imagine had a place in Santa Tecla. Juan shared his passion for the history and future of Santa Tecla as we stood in Daniel Hernandez Town Square, a place brimming with local chatter. Park benches were full with kids gladly taking to the pavilion centerpiece. The fresh smell of the local market trickled over from nearby.
Juan continued, noting he had recently returned from Minnesota in order to make a positive contribution to the community. Besides the hotel, he owns a restaurant in the area — hardly the only one in a city dotted with options for every flavor and wallet size. European-style sidewalk seating is not an uncommon sight in Santa Tecla.
Next we joined up with Lillian, a Salvadoran millennial we had met through a language exchange website. Summing up Lillian in a few words is a mountain of a task. Simply put, she’s the friend everyone wants, constantly laughing at your bad jokes and seemingly excited about everything. She treated us to some Salvadoran ice cream at her favorite neighborhood spot, and we returned her generosity in the form of drinks at a local bar. Lillian would go on to thank us (unnecessarily so) several times for visiting, for trying to see something positive in her country that so many have written off. This would turn into a theme for many passersby we met throughout the week.
We parted ways, with Lillian offering us a gift of a small picture book featuring Iglesia El Rosario in San Salvador. She’s not religious, she told us, but the church holds a special place in her heart. By week’s end, it would become clear that she was hardly alone. This is not a country of maras (gangs) or narcotraficantes (drug traffickers); this is a country of heart.
The next day felt like taking a time machine into the past. In a short two-hour drive, we went from the bustling bohemian heart of El Salvador to the country’s colonial past and political center — Suchitoto, “bird flower” in the indigenous Náhuatl language.
Located in northern El Salvadaor, Suchitoto is a small city of brightly colored colonial buildings lining cobblestone streets that lead to a spotless white church at the town square, where locals spend the evening hours as their children play. This, we discovered, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of traveling in El Salvador: Most of the time, you’re the only tourist in sight.
However, it’s true that the country is trying to bolster its fledgling tourism industry. Joaquín and Pascal own the restored hacienda Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, centered around an open patio with no shortage of impressive paintings, furniture and other artistic creations. This felt more like a boutique museum than a hotel; our apartment was offsite around the corner, wedged in between a row of Salvadoran homes on a hilly cobblestone block. We could hear children and music playing endlessly. This was quickly becoming my new image of El Salvador.
Joaquín and Pascal are two key figures in bringing outsiders to their charming corner of the country. Pascal, a Frenchman who met his Salvadoran partner, Joaquín, while he served as El Salvador’s ambassador to Europe, shared over dinner at the hotel the love he has for his adopted country. The combination of the people and dense diversity, he said, is what keeps him excited about his life in El Salvador. Joaquín later gave us his own mini-tour of the city, sharing that the city used to be completely white until a group of supporters were able to convince locals to paint their homes. The result leaves visitors, such as myself, pausing every so often in admiration — especially for the doors. Tall and narrow with different colors, the wooden doors of Suchitoto are the dream of any homeowner with a taste for Latin flair. Joaquín concluded his tour with a stop at Teatro Alejandro Cotto, one of his charity projects, recently restored to support community theater and the arts.
It should also be noted that Suchitoto was the heart of the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the Salvadoran Civil War between 1980 and 1992, in which 80,000 died and an additional million were displaced as refugees both internally and internationally. Joe Frazier’s “El Salvador Could Be Like That,” a memoir on his time reporting during the war, proved to be an incredible read for context before visiting the country.
Today FMLN serves merely as an opposing party to the right-wing ARENA, which committed all sorts of atrocities throughout the war, financially backed by the Reagan administration. Thankfully, Salvadorans don’t hold Americans themselves accountable for our government’s unfortunate connection to El Salvador’s most tragic chapter of national history. In fact Nicholas, a Suchitoto native who lived during the war, was adamant during our tour of the Centro Arte para la Paz that Salvadorans want more people to visit and see El Salvador for themselves.
Peggy, an American nun working at the center — who has called El Salvador home since before, during and long after the war — shared similar sentiments. As younger travelers continue to shun the bunkered beach resorts for travel with purpose and experience, she remains hopeful that more people will come to know El Salvador.
With a couple of towns under our belt, it was time for something different. Halfway into our week in El Salvador, we were off for Cerro Verde within Parque Nacional Los Volcanes.
Looking for a completely remote experience, we stayed at Los Sueños Verde — an impressive property perched above surrounding towns down a road that turned from pavement to gravel and eventually a dirt trail more suitable for backpackers than vehicles. This also left us eye-level with Volcán de Izalco, a rather young volcano in geological terms, formed in 1770. The once heavily active volcano spewed lava consistently until about 1958, earning it the playful nickname “Lighthouse of the Pacific” even though it buried the town of Matazano in 1928, killing 56 people.
The highlight here was hiking to the crater of the Santa Ana Volcano. Santiago, a caretaker living with his family alongside Los Sueños, guided us on the hike along with a police officer, who felt more like a precaution than a reaction to any serious threat. It’s not hard to imagine why a country like El Salvador would want to take extra precautions to avoid travelers flying home, repeating the same old tired warnings already echoed by many who have never been should something happen that could frankly happen anywhere else worth traveling.
During the hike, Santiago inadvertently shed light on just how far his country has come since the war. In an effort to make small talk, I asked about his experience during the war, realizing almost immediately that this is hardly a topic of small talk. Nonetheless, he responded swiftly.
“Yes. I was a soldier.”
“Do you mind if I ask which side?” I replied.
“For the government.”
He paused for a moment before gesturing northeast, back toward Suchitoto.
“FMLN’s on that side of the country.”
I was floored by the nonchalant tone in his voice, as if I had just asked him if he would prefer chicken or pork in his pupusa. There was no sign of lingering hate that clouded the ARENA government’s depiction of the FMLN.
Of course, there’s the possibility he didn’t want to have a heart-to-heart with some gringo he just met.
Hiking up to the crater of Santa Ana proved to be one of the more diverse day-hikes of my life. We began by trekking through dense forest and dirt paths before the vegetation disappeared, leaving nothing but loose rocks and the occasional desert plant. Finally, as we neared the crater, the only signs of life were our fellow hikers. That is, until we peeked in and were treated to a crystal clear view of the bubbling hot crater.
Vale la pena became the phrase of the afternoon. Or in English, “worth it.”
Our week in El Salvador ended in coastal El Tunco, perhaps the only town in all the country with a very visible tourism industry. That’s likely because surfers are indifferent to ongoing conflict when there’s a good wave to catch, and have thus been in El Tunco for decades.
Contrary to Santa Tecla, Suchitoto and especially Cerro Verde, where the temperatures would drop considerably at night, El Tunco is sweltering all day long. This is when even the most rambunctious of travelers discovers the beauty in doing nothing, namely because the sun has sapped all of their energy.
Luckily for us, Boca Olas had just opened up with the new year, offering us the opportunity to meet American transplant Kelly and her Salvadoran husband. The pair live in San Salvador but were visiting the hotel with her in-laws, who were able to offer insight into life during the civil war and how far the country has come since. This, of course, was made all the better with a six-pack of Cadejo Brewing Company beer from San Salvador, which could hold its own against any American craft beer.
In gushing over her love for El Salvador, Kelly shared some of her frustration that the country doesn’t get credit in international media for turning a guerilla party into merely an opposing political party. Usually the guerillas are either crushed mercilessly into extinction or they win and do the same to their opponents. Traveling El Salvador, violence is not around every corner — just signs of smiling politicians during campaign season. Sound familiar?
El Salvador for us ended after a waterfall hike recommended to us by Katherine, a Swiss transplant who — at this point, a familiar story — fell in love with the country and decided to plant roots and now works at Boca Olas. We were connected with her husband’s cousin, Luis, who had been hiking this trail — nothing official, mind you — since he was a kid.
As advertised, the hike ends near a selection of waterfalls. But the question remained: Who was going to jump?
After some friendly peer pressure and a demonstration, Luis convinced us to jump. The experience struck me as an obvious metaphor for El Salvador.
Sure, you might be nervous given what you’ve heard. But once you take the plunge, you’ll be climbing back up, ready to do it all over again.