This wasn’t the way I wanted to start my post with, but it did happen whilst I was writing it and I feel that as a travel blogger, I have the duty to speak up. In a recent statement, the president of the United States of America has categorised quite a big number of nations as “shithole countries”. I have travelled to over 40 countries during the past 10 years, but I never went to America. Because I come from a “shithole country”, even if it’s not on the list, I am not granted to right to apply for a visa without an interview and without paying the amount a city break would cost me in Europe to schedule it. And I told myself that if they don’t want me, I don’t want them either. There are plenty of other countries that are welcoming me with open arms, and one of them was El Salvador!
It’s been a few years since I have been going to Latin America to spend three weeks of my winter in the sun. I fell in love with the colourful colonial cities, with the friendly people, with the food, with the simple way of life. This year I was fortunate to travel to El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico and when I heard the above comments, I got angry. How can someone who has no clue about what he is talking about, besides the fact that he probably never visited any of the countries he mentioned, categorize and call a nation a “shithole”? Any nation. And what’s even more sad is that there are so many people who will believe those awful statements.
So, I decided to change the angle of my article about El Salvador and tell you my reasons of why you should visit this wonderful and extraordinary country that received me so warmly! Because you won’t only visit El Salvador but also experience it, together with the kindness of its people!
El Salvador is small
El Salvador is so small that is sometimes called the country of the 40 minutes, as that’s how much it would take to reach all the major sites from the capital (not taking in consideration the traffic). However, even if it the smallest country in the entire Latin America, if has plenty of places to explore and lots of stories to let you discover.
Because El Salvador is small and it has a great public transport network, it is easy to move around.
The climate of the country is mild, with an average of 28 degrees year-round, which makes it perfect to visit anytime really. There are only two seasons, with great weather even in the rainy season, as usually rainfall occurs mostly in the afternoon in the form of thunderstorms, with the rest of the day sunny. I also need to mention that the sunsets in El Salvador are spectacular, in every season!
El Salvador’s nature is of an outstanding beauty
El Salvador is a country that has 25 volcanoes out of which 23 are active, 300 km of beaches at the Pacific Ocean, 10 lakes out of which 6 are inside volcanic calderas. Most of the volcanoes in El Salvador can be hiked all the way up to the crater.
Have you read “Little Prince” by Antoine Saint-Exupéry? This is probably a rhetorical question as who hasn’t, it’s probably the most famous teen’s book of the 20th century. Do you remember the Little Prince’s home planet, the tiny asteroid with three minuscules volcanoes on it, two active and one dormant? These three volcanoes were Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde. The entire book is inspired by the author’s wife, Consuelo Saint-Exupéry, who is portrayed in it as “The Rose” whilst the asteroid is a metaphor representing her home town in El Salvador, from where she could see the volcano complex.
The Cerro Verde complex, one of the largest National Parks from the country can be easily reached by car and it is the gateway to three volcanoes: Cerro Verde, Santa Ana and Izalco, also known as the “Lighthouse of the Pacific” due to its frequent eruptions from the 17th century until the late 1950s. Izalco last erupted in 1966 and at the moment it is still sleeping. Every day at 11 am there is an organised guided hike which goes up to the crater. The hike is quite steep and it can last from 3 to 6 hours, depending on the physical strength of each person.
At the base of the Volcano Complex you will find one of the largest lakes in El Salvador, Coatepeque. Formed on the crater of a dormant volcano, Coatepeque has an area of 26 square km and a beautiful shade of intense blue which sometimes changes into aqua.
Because of so many volcanoes in such a small area, 23% of El Salvador’s energy is provided by a geothermal power plant which transforms the steam coming from inside the earth into electricity. Another benefit of the volcanoes are the relaxing hot springs from Santa Teresa, near Ahuachapan. Here you can spend a relaxing night surrounded by nothing than the sounds of nature, in your own cabin with your own private thermal pool and terrace, enjoying the local cuisine and the locally grown Pacamara coffee.
In the South of the country you will find beautiful beaches with small coves, volcanic black sand in the western parts, great nightlife, surf and fishing in the east. Because the tourism in El Salvador is not so developed, you will be able to enjoy many of these beaches just for yourself and experience boat rides with the local fishermen communities through the mangrove canals.
The beaches of El Salvador are the preferred nesting spot of 4 out of the 7 sea turtles species and this is why there are many conservation projects around. If you visit in winter, when the turtle babies hatch, you can experience the magic of releasing them into the ocean. The Salvadorians say that when you release a baby turtle into the ocean you have to do it with an open heart and a lot of positive energy, to help it succeed and reach adulthood.
El Salvador is a surfing paradise
If you never heard about El Salvador being a world top destination for surf, let me tell you that in 2011 the World Master Surfing Championship was held in Punta Roca, one of the two best rated waves point in the country.
Not only that in El Salvador you can go surfing all year round without a wet suit because of the warm water but you can also enjoy the unique length of the waves, which go for 100-200 meters before closing out.
If you are a beginner, there are plenty of surfing schools around, especially in El Tunco, the most popular beach town in El Salvador. A surfing lesson with an experienced instructor costs around 25 dollars and includes the board rental. If you plan on staying for longer, you can always buy a second hand board from one of the surf shops in town. El Tunco is a perfect place to learn how to surf even if you are over 30s and not a young adult anymore.
Other great surfing spots, for people who already know how to tame the waves, are El Sunzal, Las Flores or Punta Mango. In Las Flores you can combine luxury with learning how to surf by booking an all-inclusive surfing package from Hotel Mira Flores.
El Salvador is an inspiring country
The first thing that might make you think that El Salvador is a country or arts is the name that the touristic routes have: Ruta de las Flores (The Flower Route), Ruta Paraiso Artisanal (The Artisanal Paradise Route), Ruta de la Paz (The Peace Route), or the Route of a Thousand Peaks.
The most popular one is Ruta de las Flores, a 20 miles mountain windy road starting in Ahuachapan, in the west of the country, and passing through five colonial villages. The road is called Ruta de la Flores because each November the flowers on each side are in full bloom, transforming it into a tunnel of yellow. The five villages, Salcoatitán, Nahuizalco, Juayúa, Apaneca and Concepción de Ataco, are charming and colourful, each with its own personality and murals decorating the houses. Juayúa is best known for its food festival, Ataco is famous for its coffee while in Apaneca you will find a lot of handicrafts.
The route is not only known for the villages but also for the beautiful nature surrounding them, where you can always go for a hike to the waterfalls or do a mountain bike trail through the pine forests.
Another inspiring town that looks like it has been taken out of a fairy tale is Suchitoto, a white colonial town with cobbled streets and views over Lake Suchitlan. The church of Santa Lucia, which stands in the main square of the town, has an original interior with beam, columns and the altar made entirely out of wood. Suchitoto is also called the cultural capital of El Salvador, with a weekly art and food festival and the entire month of February dedicated to the local artists.
The people of El Salvador are the friendliest in Central America
Coming from England, where people don’t usually interact with each other unless they know one another, it was a bit of a transition to get used to how friendly the Salvadorians are. They are warm, kind and welcoming and they do try to start a conversation with you or help you, just because. It is truly amazing how loving this country is!
I don’t even know where to start telling you about the kindness I have experienced in El Salvador, which started with a big hug as soon as I stepped out of the airport. Every single person whom I’ve met smiled at me, talked to me, made me feel special. I can’t express my gratitude of being taken care of when I got altitude sickness on top of a volcano and I wasn’t able to stand up because of it, or when I’ve been given some candies for my cold, just because. I got invited to a homecooked dinner, which made me feel as I was part of the family.
When I boarded the bus to leave El Salvador I felt my heart heavy… because I didn’t want to go! And that was because of the wonderful people I was leaving behind and who were waving at me, from the outside.
El Salvador is safe
So, I did venture into what media calls “the most dangerous country in Central America” and I am still alive! Leaving the bit of humour aside, I can’t tell you how welcomed I felt in El Salvador and how kind and nice people I’ve met here have been with me. And I mean to the point that random people I was passing by the street would smile at me and say hello or invite me to their homes for dinner. As I said before, the Salvadorians are the friendliest people I have met during my trip to Central America.
Maybe I should have started this article with this reason first, because of all the bad press El Salvador gets. As I was crossing the border from Guatemala to El Salvador, I have noticed that the number of guns I could see from the car’s window has started to increase. The guns however would belong to security guards in front of hotels, gas stations, institutions and big shops. Coming from Europe, I have never seen guns outside the airport, and I didn’t really feel comfortable. However, after I’ve asked what’s with all the guns, the answer made me feel safe. El Salvador has a recent troubled history, with the civil war ending in the early ‘90s and the guns I kept seeing are for protection only, as there are still gangs who fight each other. But, as a comparison, the crime level in El Salvador is lower than in many cities of the US! If we look at the Global Peace Index, El Salvador is only one point under the US whilst on the Global Terrorism Index it ranks on the 134 positions out of 163 (the higher rank is the most peaceful), with 0 terror related incidents. On the same Index, the US ranks on 32 whilst the UK ranks on 35.
Did you know that in the entire history of El Salvador no tourist has ever been harmed? I am not saying that you should venture everywhere without caution, as you would do in every country as a tourist, but you shouldn’t believe what you see in the news either.
El Salvador has delicious and cheap food
If it’s Sunday, all Salvadorians are eating pupusas, their national dish! But not only, as you will find pupuserias pretty much at every corner of every street, at every hour at the day. A pupusa is a corn tortilla usually filled with cheese, refried beans and pork. There are plenty of other fillings, but these are the traditional ones. They cost about 65 cents each and they are served with a slightly spicy cabbage slaw called curtido and with tomato sauce.
The Salvadorian cuisine is based on corn, which has been used as an important part of the meal since the Mayan times. Corn is at the base of many dishes like the pupusas, tortillas, tamales, soups or sauces.
A typical Salvadorian breakfast would not miss eggs, refried beans, tortillas (and toast sometimes), fried plantains and sour cream. And a cup of coffee, of course.
As a typical drink I must mention the horchata, a beverage made out of seeds and rice with added spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa and vanilla. The horchata exists in different countries of Central America but everywhere it tastes different. My favourite was in El Salvador due to the strong cinnamon flavour.
The best way to try the typical food in El Salvador is on the street, where the locals eat. Usually there will be a food market in the main square of a city, where people will gather to hang out in the evenings and enjoy the delicious homemade treats.
El Salvador has high quality coffee
El Salvador produces some of the best gourmet arabica coffees in the world, which are grown at altitudes of over 1200 meters, on volcanic soil. One of these coffees is Pacamara, a unique variety that wins prizes every year at the international competitions. Pacamara is a hybrid that produces large sized fruits and has a distinct intense aroma, with a creamy texture. In terms of flavour, you will discover an amalgam of complex floral notes, with a citrusy acidity and hints of chocolate and cinnamon.
Even if El Salvador exports over 100 million pounds of coffee each year I wasn’t sure if I have ever tasted any, so I went to visit the Cooperativa Los Ausoles, one of the biggest coffee bean processors from the west of the country, situated just outside Ahuachapan. I wanted to learn about the journey a coffee bean takes from the tree in El Salvador all the way into my cup from the United Kingdom.
Almost all the coffee in El Salvador is grown in shade coffee plantations and this is why when you glance over towards a mountain, you will see it divided, resembling a Belgian waffle. High quality coffee, Arabica mostly, is a small shrub and to protect it from the strong sun, it is grown under higher trees that provide shade.
The coffee harvest season starts in November and finishes in March, with the high-quality coffee being picked up towards the end. At Cooperativa Los Ausoles the coffee is sorted into bays, depending on the quality and then processed separately. Once the coffee is ready for export, unless it is Pacamara or another recognised awarded variety, it loses its name because the buyers are using their own branding. I did however spot a couple of names on some of the empty sacks waiting to be filled it with beans, in the warehouse. Starbucks, anyone?
El Salvador has history
What makes El Salvador a fantastic cultural destination is the fact that you will not only find over 2,000 archaeological sites dating from the Maya and Olmec times but also recent reminders of the civil war that ended in 1992.
The most important archaeological site in El Salvador is Joya de Ceren, a Mayan village that has been covered by the ashes of Loma Caldera volcano eruption, burring it under 14 layers of lava. Joya de Ceren it is often called the “Pompeii of Americas” but in this case the locals had time to flee their homes before the lava hit the village, as no bodies have been found. The site has been underground for over 1400 years, before a bulldozer discovered it during some agricultural work.
The archaeologists have managed to uncover over 70 different buildings and they believe in the past the village was connected with another site nearby through the river passing near both of them. Because the ashes had quite a low temperature and came very fast, the buildings and the crops have been preserved extremely well. The site has been declared a Unesco World Heritage in 1993.
Another interesting archaeological site are the Mayan ruins from Tazumal (“place where souls are consumed” in Quiché language), dating from 250-900AD. The structures have influences from both Copan, in Honduras, and Teotihuacan in central Mexico. It is believed that the locals were living here together with the native Pipil people. The main pyramid at Tazumal is mostly intact, and whilst it is forbidden to climb you can imagine easily how it used to look like when the Mayan city was still in full bloom. In the north-west of the site it is believed to be a Mesoamerican ballcourt where the locals would play a sport with ritual associations. However, nobody seems to know the rules of this game.
If we talk about the recent history, the best way to learn about what happened during the civil war is by talking to people who were involved in it. Visiting The Bosque de Cinquera with Rafael, the head ranger of the park, who fought for the guerrillas and called the forest his home for 12 years, is a chilling experience. Rafael’s war stories are painful to listen to, imagining what he went though, petrified of the sound of planes whilst calculating where the bomb would drop and run the opposite direction in time.
The community in Cinquera, formed by many ex-guerrilla fighters, has developed a series of social projects, with cabanas to stay overnight and a local restaurant where you can taste the homemade simple but full of flavour food. The now peaceful village has a central park dedicated to the remembering the horrors of war, with the tail of a helicopter as the centrepiece and a mural showing the history of the village, how it used to be before, during and after the war. The forest actually grew with the war as before, the entire area was covered with crops.
Did I convince you? Are you going to add El Salvador on your travel list?
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