El Salvador and Honduras
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. It has earthquakes, volcanoes, the fresh memories of a vicious civil war. Who goes there on vacation? But my friend and I saw through these scare points and assessed our risk levels rationally, and decided that this beautiful little country no bigger than the state of Massachusetts was too good to pass up.
Day 1: San Salvador
J and I checked into the Courtyard Marriott San Salvador, a hotel in La Gran Via, the newer and wealthy section of the city. We knew this wasn’t authentic El Salvador, but the area was safe and convenient for our itinerary. We also got to see the modern El Salvador, with gleaming buildings, new shopping malls, and bustling restaurants filled with fashionable Salvadoreans.
We had the afternoon to explore, and didn’t want to spend it at Banana Republic and Bath and Body Works, so we hopped in a cab towards the San Salvador Historic District, the old colonial downtown built by the Spanish in the 1500-1600s. It has several large plazas and some park space, surrounded by beautiful old buildings, just like the other colonial towns that I have written about in this blog–Antigua, Quito, Cuenca, Coyoacan. But San Salvador’s was noticeably run-down and the district just seemed a little rough around the edges. The area is not a tourist draw; we were down there for about two hours and I don’t think we saw any other tourists. We got some quizzical looks, especially when we walked down some of the side streets off Plaza Libertad, the main plaza. This area did have some points of interest though, including The National theater and this weird concrete church, framed with stained glass. It may have be the ugliest building I’ve ever seen in the world.
I don’t mean to bash the area. If you’re looking for the real El Salvador, and not the antiseptic Americanized version of it, then head to the Historic District. But be prepared to see the city in its purest form, a little grimy but nonetheless a cool travel experience.
Day 2: Santa Ana volcano
We booked a tour through a company called Nahuat Tours for a day trip out to Santa Ana Volcano, the highest volcano in the country at at about 7,800 ft. The countryside was really beautiful, with flat lava fields at the base of volcanic mountains skirting the horizon. We stopped briefly in Santa Ana, the country’s second largest city, where we tasted some street food and prayed that we wouldn’t fall victim to Montezuma’s revenge. On a side note, the driver’s stories along the way about his experiences during the country’s brutal civil war were a reality check that this country was once a bloody war zone.
We arrived at a parking lot at the base of the volcano, joined a few other hikers who were about to go up, and began the steep climb up to the top. This hike was nothing compared to the hellish hike I had up Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador, but it wasn’t a walk in the park. At least the scenery was outstanding and the trail up was covered with agave cacti and other cool plants I’d never seen before. At the volcano’s peak, we looked down into the four caldera rings at a deep blue crater lake. From one of its corners we could see smoke rising from the water, a sign of the volcano’s activity.
In the afternoon we visited nearby Coatepeque Caldera, a lake occupying the site of an extinct volcano. The views from the ancient rim down into the caldera were among the best I’ve ever seen in any natural setting in any country. Just as we were enjoying our lunch, the sun’s rays pierced the light cloud cover into the deep blue water below.
On the way home, our tour driver asked if we wanted to visit the Mayan ruins of Copan, in Honduras the next day. I immediately jumped on the opportunity.
Day 3: Copan, Honduras
The three hour ride to the Copan ruins took us through three countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. El Salvador borders Honduras but there are no good roads directly from El Salvador to the ruins. The border crossing between El Salvador and Guatemala was like the Wild West. We parked under a sort of covered truck stop with a two offices with lines out front and waited while our guide did his magic (i.e. bribe, I’m sure) ahead of the gaggle of people. While we waited, an El Salvadorean chicken walked by us, without papers, into Guatemala.
For about $20, we hired an English-speaking tour guide who approached us as we arrived. Huge toucans and red parrots visible in the trees above us loudly heralded our arrival into the ruins area. Stretching for hundreds of yards in this jungle clearing, grey stone structures jutted out from the grassy expanse of the flat valley floor. These were temples and other administrative and religious buildings that had been unearthed from the jungle that enshrouded them in soil and vegetation for centuries.
We saw ancient ball courts, statues of snarling monkey gods, and stones with the Mayans’ original red painting on them. It was easy to see how this site was the center of activity for hundreds of miles. On the perimeter of the excavated and renovated site are big mounds of what look like dirt and vegetation. Hidden within these are other temples that haven’t yet been revealed to the modern world. Copan was spectacular, and our experience was made all the more special because we just about had the place to ourselves. This site deserves its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 4: La Ruta de Flores and La Libertad beach
We spent our last day with the same tour guide, who drove us around western El Salvador along the Ruta de Flores, or “Flowers Route,” so named for the flowers that dot the landscape. Our first stop on the tour was the small village of Concepción de Ataco, which had an outdoor food fair serving all sorts of weird Salvadorean dishes I’d never seen before. I passed up on the chance to eat a roasted frog that looked like a bloated body builder face down on a styrofoam plate, instead choosing a more familiar option of chicken and shrimp.
After lunch we toured a coffee plantation at the El Carmen Estate, which has been harvesting and preparing Ataco coffee beans since the 1930s. I’d never seen the coffee making process from start to finish, so this was an educational opportunity along with the chance to load up my suitcase with beans straight from one of the best coffee regions in the world. It was a little sad to see a dozen or so Salvadorean men out in the open, in the 90 degree heat of the afternoon, raking the drying coffee beans along a basketball court-sized tarp. But who knows, if these people visited me at my work, maybe they would feel bad for me too–sitting at a desk for hours on end, slowly getting carpal tunnel.
Inside one of the buildings on the compound, we saw the female equivalent of the low-wage work on which this plantation depends, as we stepped inside a windowless room to observe 20 women packed tightly against each other at a long table. Their heads were bowed as they silently picked out the bad beans from the good ones. Out on the grounds we had the chance to taste a cup of the coffee and take some pictures of the flowers and the lush landscape around the little hacienda.
We then headed towards the Pacific Ocean, gradually descending from the highlands and getting amazing views of the sea on every turn.
We had dinner at La Libertad beach as the sun began to set. The laid back vibe of this little surfer village worked to lower our blood pressures before our flight home the next day.
Consider El Salvador for amazing beaches, coffee, hiking, and unique food, all within a 4 hour flight from Washington, DC.
Food and Wine
- Los Cebollines: This Chili’s-type restaurant in the El Gran Via shopping mall was our first taste of Salvadorean food, although according to the website it’s a chain. Still really good and worth trying if you’re staying at the mall area
Coffee and Cafes:
- Concepción de Ataco: El Carmen Estate: if you’re at all into coffee and learning about how it’s made, you can’t beat this place. Visit the little gift shop after your tour and load up on coffee beans.
- San Salvador: Courtyard San Salvador: We thought this hotel did the trick, even though we didn’t get the “true” Salvadorean experience that we would have probably gotten if we stayed at a locally-owned hotel. It was in a good location, right next to a shopping mall with an outdoor pedestrian section lined with good restaurants. The hotel buffet breakfast was something I looked forward to each morning. The front desk people were really nice as well, and spoke perfect English, as expected in an international hotel.