From vast caldera to Maya ruins, El Salvador sums up all that’s good about Central America but without the crowds. Is it finally time for a sleeping giant to wake?
From the peak of Cerro el Pital, El Salvador’s highest point, I could see most of the country. A curtain of cloud had lifted over tangled forests, olive green hills, lakes of deep blue and villages shimmying in heat haze. Rising out of this landscape were countless volcanoes – some just pimples, others huge. Westwards, the perfectly sculpted cinder cone of Volcán Chingo was still scarfed with morning mist.
While we surveyed the dizzying scene from our 2,730m vantage point, my guide, Marbel Membreño, and I exchanged knowing glances. “A. Shithole. Country,” we drawled practically in unison. This precise term had been Donald Trump’s reported assessment of El Salvador a few days before my arrival. Mimicking the President had become a national joke that I quickly cottoned on to. However, I can also testify that beyond the ironic humour, Trump’s remark unified Salvadorans – a fun-loving and open-hearted people – in a blend of scorn and affront.
A truer summary of this tiny Central American country is that it is blessed with geographic marvels but has been tormented in recent decades by natural disasters (earthquakes, eruptions) and the horror of the civil war. The latter ended over 25 years ago, yet as a tourist stop it remains something of a Cinderella nation, constantly playing catch-up with its neighbours.
But might El Salvador be the perfect way to scratch a Central American itch? Out among its smoking volcano craters, Maya ruins, empty sands and coffee plantations dripping down steep mountainsides, it offers a rawer vision than that found on the well-trod trails of, say, Costa Rica. In an area little more than the size of Wales, it seemed to be a distillation of all the wild allure that this region wields. And so off I set, to see whether this tiny nation could live up to its big promise.
From a sprawling outskirt of the chaotic capital San Salvador, a road reared up in a series of steep bends to the rim of San Salvador volcano and a first taste of the geological drama that was to unfold during my journey.
I peered down to the lunar-looking crater-within-a-crater, formed during a 1917 eruption that swallowed a whole 400m-wide lake.
The next stop was Joya de Cerén, a Maya village engulfed in volcanic ash 1,400 years ago. Brick houses, workshops and a bath house, all perfectly preserved, have since been excavated. The site reminded me of Pompeii, except that it was eerily empty and shaded by the branches of the huge, alien-seeming ceiba trees.
“Everything in El Salvador comes back to volcanoes in some way,” said Marbel as we wound westwards through highland towns connected by the Ruta de las Flores byway.
Coffee is at the heart of these hills, just as wine is to Burgundy. The glossy-green shrubs flourish on lava-enriched hillsides enfolded with fincas (farms) that compete to grow the finest beans. We stopped at Finca El Carmen for a tour of the processing plant where the depulping of beans from coffee cherries, as well as their milling and roasting, is still done with chunky 1930s machinery. There was no slick visitor centre or PR exercise, and it felt as fresh as the earthy flavours of café tinto (straight black, never too strong) that I savoured in the finca’s flowery garden.
With a bit of concentration, I could picture the bygone era when Salvadoran coffee sold at premium prices in salons from Paris to New York, and coffee barons ruled the roost, commandeering the landless campesinos. The darkest side of these times are remembered in agitprop murals around the main square of Juayúa, a town where rebelling coffee workers were killed in their hundreds by the army in a 1932 uprising.
I was mesmerised by more murals splashed in eye-bursting colours across quaint, cobbled Ataco, which fills with visitors from the capital at the weekend and was also where I stayed a couple of nights. Along lanes and squares, naive paintings resurrect stories from pre-Spanish legend. More recent street artists have splashed giant portraits of revolutionaries and peace activists, ranging from Che Guevara to Mother Teresa, to Archbishop Oscar Romero. The latter was a hero to the people here; he championed the rights of the poor but was shot through the heart by a death squad while saying mass in 1980.
“We were little more than children when we lost our innocence to the civil war. Families were split on both sides of the conflict, with brothers killing brothers. There was no neutral. Either you were conscripted into the regular army or you joined the guerrillas,” said Orlando Barrera when we met at the foot of Volcán Guazapa. He should know. Orlando spent 12 years with the Marxist FMLN rebels fighting against the US-backed military, before the 1992 peace accord. Now he leads tourists on hikes through the forests where the comrades hid and fought.
“The trees provided cover for our camps,” explained Orlando while we puffed up steep tracks under a dark canopy. Lean and softly spoken, yet wearing combat boots and a camouflage hat, the former guerrilla led me around a web of trails connecting volcano-side camps and the remains of a ‘field hospital’, now overgrown and identifiable only by stone tracery on the ground, like an archaeological site. From the wooden tower built to check for incoming helicopter gunships, we had commanding views over the now-bijou little town of Suchitoto and of the expansive Lake Suchitlán.
Orlando showed me some photos of heroic-looking fighters, including a shot of his guerrilla-camp marriage ceremony to fellow former combatant Margarita. The rifle-toting newlyweds were draped with a belt of bullets. Later, while we sat under a carob tree next to their forest-edge home, Margarita doled out a lunch of barbecued beef with casamiento (rice and black beans).
The couple insisted that bygones were bygones in today’s peaceful times. “After the peace accord, we discovered that tourists wanted to come to Guazapa as acts of witness to the war story,” Orlando said. However, I was still surprised when they told me that their tour guides’ cooperative includes former enemies. Are you friends now, I asked. “¿Como No?” – Why not?
It was a whipping wind that shattered the peace on the day I planned to climb to Santa Ana, a smouldering, active volcano in the Cerro Verde National Park. The rangers had curtailed a planned hike to the rim on the grounds that we might get blown into the gurgling abyss.
“You would not be the first to die that way,” pronounced ranger Ignacio, gravely. It was disappointing, but a substitute trek around the volcano’s lower reaches turned into something of an unexpected safari.
Coffee cultivation in the early 20th century took over swathes of habitat and wiped out a lot of El Salvador’s native flora and wildlife. But protected Cerro Verde is a pocket of tropical forest home to creatures such as the nine-banded armadillo, which quickly scuttled from our path as we rounded a bend. We spotted a cortuza and a paca (both cat-sized rodents), as well as a road runner (no, it didn’t go ‘meep meep’). I also spied my first tporogoz (aka the turquoise-browed motmot), the national bird of El Salvador, its long tail an iridescent marker above the steamy canopy.
The next day’s climb through damp cloud forest, to the peak of El Pital, was much more vigorous and felt anything but tropical. Overnight temperatures plummeted to near freezing in El Pital village, to the excitement of some young first-time visitors from San Salvador who had never seen frost before. From here we set off for the summit, which also marks the border with Honduras. I strayed over, for the record, before rays of sunshine shot through the mist and Marbel and I had our Trumpian epiphany.
No two places in El Salvador are more than half a day’s drive apart, so I opted for a scenic route to the beaches of the country’s far east. We wove a landscape of volcanoes and lakes that were once craters, their glassy surfaces reflecting the ubiquitous vultures (black and turkey varieties) that circle Salvadoran skies.
The journey became more Graham Greene-ish as we snaked languidly through small towns. Some were distinctly Spanish colonial in flavour, with dazzling white churches and men under sombreros swaggering about with machetes. Others were hot and dusty settlements of low-slung adobe dwellings that seemed more sombrely indigenous. I felt a strange pang of displaced nostalgia to find red auto rickshaws imported from India and buzzing around like oversized insects.
In one town we were held up by a parade of strutting soldiers draped in camouflage vegetation; they looked like lads on their way to a stag-do paintball session. On another road we were behind a funeral procession; the hearse was a white Kia pickup truck with a coffin riding high on its back while jazzy hymns blared from the speakers and a cortège of cars honked a chorus. Salvadoran cemeteries, I kept noticing, are no less kitschy, with streamers and colourful pompoms decorating graves. Marbel explained this practice had its roots in pre-Christian cultures, when death was celebrated like a carnival.
The beaches of El Salvador’s far east, and in particular my destination of the cliff-cradled Playa las Flores, are home to world-class rip curls and barrels, attracting surfers from afar.
“Welcome to the best surf beach in Central America, bar none. Why? Because of the mix of southern swell – we face due south – and the way the beach shelves, it’s unmatched,” said Ricardo Rivas, owner of the clifftop Miraflores Hotel, my last base.
It was not the season for big waves, so I contented myself with pondering the Pacific rather than attempting to stand on it. Pelicans flew by in formation while the sun sank over this idyll of golden sand and I gazed down the coast towards the dark green, twin-coned outline of Volcán Conchagua, my next target.
I promised myself one more volcano climb. This one went through Bosque Conchagua, an area renowned for its birds, and I was to be guided by local ornithologist Eduardo Ariaza, who led me up a hot and humid trail hung barrels with loops of liana. We paused every now and then to spy, through binoculars, a scissor-tailed flycatcher or western kingbird. Eduardo knew the way to a hidden glade buzzing with hummingbirds,. Among the species dipping in and out of the wildflowers were numerous cinnamon hummingbirds, their heads a vivid green and their breasts a rich caramel.
One more volcano also meant one more sensational panorama, and this one was the most breathtaking of all. From Conchagua’s horseshoe-shaped crater rim, I feasted my eyes on the Gulf of Fonseca, a vast Pacific inlet sprinkled with wooded islands and fringed by the beaches and coastal forests of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The only sounds up here were the breeze and the cries of birds overhead – apart, that is, from a 1967 hit by The Who which I could not get out of my head: “I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles…”
On my last day I hitched a ride in a fisherman’s boat from the jetty at La Unión and puttered into the gulf, passing isles draped with vegetation and necklaced by white sand. If these were in the Caribbean they would be billionaires’ playgrounds, I mused.
Reaching Isla Zacatillo, the boat grated onto a beach surrounded by mangroves. There is a ramshackle settlement on this deep green and densely forested island, comprising fisherfolk’s homes and basic shops, some staggered over the water on wooden stilts. There is no tourist accommodation, only a beach shack where I ate a freshly landed corvina, which had been grilled on charcoal, and downed a chilled Suprema beer.
This was a sublime spot to reflect on my journey through an outlandish little country that remains, at most, a blip on travellers’ radars, despite being packed to the gunnels with the best of Central America. One day, El Salvador may follow its neighbours in offering larger scale tourism. For the moment, it feels raw, genuine and mercifully free of any Trumpery.
The author travelled with KE Adventure (017687 73966), which offers an El Salvador’s Eight 14-day tour including climbing eight volcanos, plus stays in Ataco, Suchitoto and El Cuco on the Pacific. Various group departures to Central America also include visits to El Salvador.
Hotel Arbol de Fuego (San Salvador) is a small, family-run hotel with outstanding green credentials and is situated in a quiet, though fairly central, district of San Salvador.
Hotel Fleur de Lis (Ataco) is a delightful little two-storey hotel near the centre of Ataco. It is set around a courtyard tangled with plants, while the rooftop terrace has mountain views.
Hostel Alla Arriba (Miramundo) has individual wooden cabins scattered around a lush hillside of cloud forest gardens. It’s a popular starting point for hikers climbing El Pital mountain, but it should be noted that it has no heating. The chill is part of the thrill, though, so wrap up warm.
El Tejado (Suchitoto) is a rather quirkily decorated hotel in the laidback colonial town of Suchitoto, with a pool and views out over the lake.
Hotel Miraflores (Playa las Flores) is an eight-room surfer hotel with a pool. It is spectacularly set on a headland above Las Flores beach, near El Cuco.
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