The size of Massachusetts, El Salvador lies along the Pacific Ocean, nestled between Guatemala and Honduras, along the isthmus of Central America. It is a land of great beauty, with expansive coffee plantations surrounded by volcanoes, awesome hikes among waterfalls, epic waves for surfing, and of course, a fair share of street art.
So I had to wonder...why weren't there any American tourists?
Apparently, El Salvador has a pretty bad reputation here in the States.
When I had told people I was planning a trip to El Salvador, the responses I received were "Be very careful", or "You should really reconsider that", or even..."Why?".
According to the U.S. Department of State, El Salvador is designated a Level 3 country, meaning that travelers are advised to "reconsider visiting". It goes on to say that "violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread."
Well, after doing a little research of my own on travel blogs and hearing from people from Australia, Germany and France who had actually been there (and survived), I went to El Salvador. Because that's how I roll.
And I am so happy I did. The people were the friendliest I have come across in any country in Central America (and I've been to them all), and I was rewarded with some really amazing experiences that fear and ignorance just wouldn't have afforded me.
View of Lake Suchitlan in Suchitoto
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GANGS?
I'm quite aware that the 18th Street and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) gangs have a presence in pockets of the country; in fact, 25,000 strong, causing havoc and unrest in certain neighborhoods, specifically within the capital; but my experience, and that of every traveler I met, was quite the opposite.
My advice is that as long as you go with eyes wide open, there should be nothing to fear. Don't venture off alone at night into the shady areas of the city. Be friendly with those you meet on the street. Don't be flashy about expensive items you may have with you. These are all things you should be doing anyway. Common sense should always trump fear. With that said, enjoy all the beauty that El Salvador has to offer. I certainly did.
ACCLIMATING IN THE CAPITAL
San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, was our starting point for our adventures. As we arrived very early in the morning at the international airport just outside the city, we decided to spend a couple days getting our bearings before moving onto the tourist trail. (See our route at the end of the story)
Close to our hotel in the La Cuchilla neighborhood, we ventured to La Craftería, part of the Sivar Brewing Company, for some craft beers, tasty treats and great art by the likes of Birdcap, TNT and Darwin Flores, curated by Journey of An Artstigator. Together with a few games of Cornhole and Beer Pong, while music played at this outdoor venue, it made for a nice afternoon and a great beginning to our time in El Salvador.
La Craftería with work by Birdcap, TNT and Darwin Flores curated by Journey of An Artstigator
Since we were there during the holidays, the central plaza was filled with people celebrating, but the star of the show was Pupuseria Amparito, a local joint along the edge of Parque de Antiguo Cuscatlán. As we were the only gringos there, we knew it was going to be good. Serving up freshly-made pupusas in a variety of flavors such as our favorite revueltas (a mixture of cheese, refried beans and chicharrones), loroco y queso (a type of vine flower mixed with cheese) and ayote (a variety of squash), they were thin and not overly-heavy tasting. Washed down with a spicy michelada (national beer with a mixture of seasoning, similar to a Bloody Mary) and a side of pickled cabbage, we were happy campers. And at about 70 cents a pop (their currency is the U.S. Dollar), we didn't break the bank!
A selection of pupusas, with micheladas and pickled cabbage
SUCHITOTO: A ROOM WITH A VIEW
Our next stop took us out of the capital and into the surrounding hills to the municipality of Suchitoto, overlooking Lake Suchitlán, the largest body of fresh water in El Salvador.
Spending a couple nights at Posada de Suchitlán was a wonderful experience. Waking up to the sound of birds and the colors reflecting off the lake started each day out right. I would highly recommend spending a few days here. The level of service and the natural beauty are top-notch.
If you have been to any country in Central America, you are aware that the church and its nearby park take center stage. It is where people congregate on the weekends and where many of the festivals take place. And Suchitoto has one of the prettier churches in the region. There is even a makeshift racetrack in the park for children to show off their driving skills! And if you are a keen observer, you may even stumble upon a mural or two.
Iglesia Santa Lucía Suchitoto
FINDING ART ON THE RUTA DE LAS FLORES
The Ruta de Las Flores, or "The Flower Route", is a beautiful winding road named after the wildflowers growing alongside it, dotted by some pretty little villages, all amid fields of coffee beans. During our time in the region, we visited three of the principal towns: Concepción de Ataco (Ataco for short), Apaneca, and Juayúa, where we based ourselves.
CONCEPCIÓN DE ATACO: MURAL CENTRAL
Of these three, Ataco held the most charm, with cobble-stoned streets and colorfully-painted buildings. Walking around town, you will see vivid murals around every corner. Here is just a sampling.
The church on the Main Street with a tuk-tuk cruising around
Since we visited Ataco on Christmas Day, there were many celebrations happening with people dancing in the street, food vendors and artisans selling their wares, and a sense of merriment shared by all. It is definitely a nice time to explore the Ruta de las Flores. And the temperature couldn't be beat, hovering just around mid-70s.
APANECA: THE MAZE
The nearby town of Apaneca has a lot to offer as well. Although not as colorful as Ataco, it does have a few murals and also a labyrinth on a hillside that will leave you entertained (or crazed) for hours. Frankly, it was a bit exhausting (who builds a maze on a hillside?), but I am happy to report, we successfully made our way through and rang the illustrious bell!
Some of the walls in Apaneca
The Albania Labyrith
JUAYÚA: HOME TO THE SEVEN WATERFALLS
While in the mountains along the Ruta de las Flores, we stayed in the village of Juayúa. It was a pleasant area which would serve as our base for hiking the Siete Cascadas (Seven Waterfalls) Trail, a 4-6 hour guided hike for about 20 dollars, including lunch, that takes you through dense fields of coffee and lush forests, ultimately ending at a series of beautiful waterfalls, one of which you rappel down, which is both exhilarating and fear-inducing at the same time, since you have no harness. But boy does the beer taste good at the end of that hike!
THE PACIFIC COAST
For the last few days of the trip, we stayed in the quiet coastal town of El Sunzal, a short walk on the beach to nearby El Tunco, the more chaotic and partying big brother. Although we enjoyed a bit of excitement, not to mention the amazing sunsets, it was nice to return to the peace and quiet of our room at the beautiful Kayu Resort. I would highly recommend it for its thoughtful staff, incredible pool and amazing service.
A nice surprise in El Tunco was coming across work by Brooklyn's own Sara Erenthal along the beach. Elsewhere in this tiny village, there were a few other works of art to be discovered, making it a nice stop at the end of our journey.
The work of Sara Erenthal, as well as other murals in town
El Salvador has a bounty of experiences just waiting to be discovered. From beautiful beaches to gorgeous waterfalls to epic sunsets. There is definitely something for everyone. You won't be disappointed.
So, what are you waiting for? El Salvador is calling!
Here is the route we took, making our way through the many villages and towns of El Salvador. For a list of recommended hotels/guesthouses, see below.