Two of my friends have been assigned to the US Embassy in San Salvador and invited me to visit them. They seemed to enjoy their assignment and had many positive things to say about El Salvador, its people, the land and the food, the climate, so I decided to pay them a visit.
El Salvador is slightly smaller that the State of Delaware, and the nationals refer to their country as “El Pulgarcito de las Americas” or the Thom Thumb of the Americas. Given its small size, a 5-6 days visit allowed me to see most of the major highlights, but definitely more time was needed to visit various little colonial towns, such as Ilobasco, La Palma, and other natural attractions like El Imposible forest, Izalco volcano, Montecristo National Park, etc! Believe me, there’s a lot to see in five days!
In preparation for my trip, I browsed through critical information websites, such as the U.S. Department of State’s Consular Sheet and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for health concerns. There is no malaria risk in El Salvador, except in three departments: Santa Ana, Ahuachapán, and La Union.
If you take the warnings on the Consular Sheet too seriously, then, you’ll probably never go to El Salvador; however, the information can be useful in making intelligent decisions about how you will move about the country, etc. For example, one warning that’s been around for a few years is to be aware of the frequent “robberies and assaults on buses”, as these appear to be commonplace.” To verify this information, I visited the websites of two of the country’s newspapers “El Diario de Hoy” and “La Prensa Grafica,” available in Spanish and English; much to my chagrin, both publications had several recent articles about bus robberies. So, to be on the safe side and to my friends’ delight, I told them I would not ride the public buses!
With much anticipation, I boarded Continental’s flight 828, originating in Houston and less than three hours later; we landed in the “land of the smiling people.” I collected my bags and continued to Passport Control where my passport was perused and a few pleasantries exchanged. Then it was time to go through Customs, and press the famous “traffic light button” (I got the “green light” for do not open your bags) and was out in the lobby looking for my friends. “Bienvenida a El Salvador,” said my friends, or Welcome to El Salvador!
Already past 8 in the evening, outside the airport the temperature was very pleasant, with a steady, strong cool breeze; the moon was shining and the stars were very bright. This was February or dry season, when the humidity is low and the breezes are steady! The passenger loading area was nearly empty except for those few people picking up arriving passengers, some policemen, and a line of taxis. I had missed the excitement of arriving on an earlier flight when entire households come to greet arriving passengers and the hustle and bustle of the many vendors outside. Oh, well, perhaps another trip!
San Salvador, the capital city
Our car trip to San Salvador was around 40 minutes, as the distance from the Comalapa International Airport to San Salvador is less than 40 kms. The road appeared to be in good condition, but was dark for the first 20 kms or so, but more lights appeared as we approached the city. Police road blocks are common at night, and my friends explained that the Government is trying to crackdown on road crime, and that these blocks have indeed reduced the number of incidents.
We arrived at my friend’s house, located in a “colonia” or housing complex, in the west end of the city. This particular colonia is gated, and manned by two security guards (with rifles), to deter burglars from entering.
The sun rose around 06:15 or so, and the noises of the city were very noticeable much earlier than that. I was surprised to hear so many birds and I swore a huge flock of parrots flew over the house (later on I found out that this area of town is indeed on the flight path of parrots flying from one mountain to another, every single morning and evening, as generations have done for hundreds of years!).
My bedroom window faced the San Salvador volcano, and once the sun had fully risen, the volcano’s top was clearly visible, thanks to the low-humidity conditions. The sky was a brilliant blue, there was not one cloud in the sky, and the strong breezes promised mild temperatures for the day, in the low-to mid 80’s.
As an introduction to the neighborhood, we took a ten-minute walk from the house to a neighborhood restaurant located in the Paseo General Escalon. The Paseo is one of the city’s main streets in a residential section of town, featuring many restaurants, boutiques, banks, hotels, small shops and a couple of shopping centers called “El Paseo and Las Galerias.”
On our way to the Paseo, we walked through a residential street with very large houses, all invariably behind a tall concrete fence adorned with a beautiful climbing plants, such bougainvillea, etc. In San Salvador, having a house behind a concrete fence is normal, for reasons of safety and privacy. The people we encountered on the sidewalks were quick to smile and said “Buenos Dias.”
Once at the Restaurante Los Cebollines, we ordered a typical Salvadorian breakfast consisting of eggs (any style), refried beans, and fried ripe plantain, served with a side order of some type of firm cottage cheese (called “cuajada”), and two warm French buns. Of course, Salvadorian coffee was served which was quite good. My introduction to Salvadorian cuisine was successful as I found the food quite delicious!
On the way back home, we stopped at a local supermarket and I noticed the shelves had just about every product one finds in a U.S. supermarket, same brands; just the labels were in Spanish. Our little walk was pleasant and perfectly safe!
For the second event of the day, we drove to el “Jardin Botanico La Laguna”. The garden is located in the middle of a large industrial complex, but once inside the park, one is surrounded by beautiful flowers, ancient and huge banyans trees, a small bamboo forest, and a large bird community. The garden contains a substantial sample of Salvadorian flora, and that of neighboring Central American countries. In the center of the park is a beautiful lagoon with the biggest water lilies I’ve seen!
The goal of the Jardin Botanico is to educate the public about preservation of the local flora and the environment. The garden is entirely supported by private donations, entrance fee was $1.00 per person, and patrons can purchase plants and other useful gardening items. The park is not very large but is a very pleasant oasis away from the noise of the city.
After the Jardin Botanico, we drove to the historic downtown, or “El Centro,” and area that encompass the national cathedral, a couple of plazas and buildings dating back to the middle of the 19th century, such as the Teatro Nacional built in 1911 (currently under renovation) and the Palacio Nacional. The National Palace now serves as the National Archives and Museum.
A few blocks from the National Palace is the handcrafts market, called “Mercado ex-Cuartel.” Here the visitor will find quite a selection of native clothing, footwear and local crafts; the prices are not fixed, and the vendors expect you to bargain. This section of town is old and deteriorated, as the buildings have been ravaged by the many earthquakes in the last 35 years. Some of the original buildings were demolished due to earthquake damage, but a few are still standing, and some are being renovated.
The area is very congested with people, buses, cars and it is polluted and noisy. There are many vendors sitting on the sidewalks displaying their goods and some spill-over onto the street, contributing to a massive gridlock of cars and human beings! While it was interesting to see this section of historic San Salvador, it was good to leave the chaos behind!
If you want to purchase quality Salvadorian handcrafts, there are various shops located in the shopping malls, such as Nahanche, Latin Crafts and Mayan Artesanias, for example. In my opinion, they have an excellent variety and the prices appear reasonable, but prices are fixed.
La Zona Rosa and Planes de Renderos
La Zona Rosa is the “in” place in San Salvador, with many art galleries, boutiques and upscale bars and restaurants. Along the main boulevard, you’ll see many of the same fast food restaurants found in the U.S.
For a typical outing and meal, we drove to the city outskirts, specifically up a hilly road to “Los Planes de Renderos.” We went to the most popular restaurant in Los Planes, “Pupuseria Paty.” A salient feature of this restaurant, other than good pupusas, is that it sits on the hill’s highest point, allowing guests to enjoy a view of San Salvador’s vast expanse and evening lights. The evening temperatures in this hilly are in the low-60-65’s, so a light jacket may be needed. The main attraction at Los Planes, other than Parque Balboa, is the making and eating of “pupusas,” a national food-item that can be found in most restaurants or street food stands. A pupusa is pancake-like in shape and is made of corn or rice flour and stuffed with either cheese (de queso), or minced, seasoned pork rinds (de chicharron), a bean paste (de frijoles), and/or a combination of any of the mentioned items (revueltas). The pupusa may be accompanied by a type of spicy coleslaw (called “curtido”) and spicy tomato sauce. Of course, pupusas go quite well with one of the local beers, a Pilsener. This little side trip is highly recommended, but make sure you bring an ample supply of antacid, as the combination of pupusas, platano frito (fried bananas) and cerveza (beer) can create havoc in your tummy!
The village of Suchitoto
On a Saturday, we visited the colonial town of Suchitoto, located the province of Cuscatlan, the central part of El Salvador. Typically, the drive from San Salvador to Suchitoto (47 kms) on the Pan-American Highway is slightly over one hour, but as luck would have it, we encountered a lot of traffic. Nevertheless, about 2.5 hours later, we reached our destination, safe and sound! The highway was newly paved, offering a smooth ride.
“Suchi” as the locals call it, has become quite popular with the tourists and national artists; it is one of the few remaining colonial towns with cobblestone streets and large adobe houses with huge wrought-iron balconies. The climate is quite pleasant with temperatures in the low 80’s F in the daytime and low 60’s F in the evening.
Suchitoto was declared a national monument in 1975 because it was the first Spanish settlement built in 1528. One of the main attractions in town is Iglesia de Santa Lucia, and the exact construction date is questionable, but there are some written records dating back to the 18th century. This church is quite beautiful and it’s the pride and joy of the local residents. Church is closed to tourists on Sundays, as the locals wish to worship without interruptions.
The church faces the central plaza where you’ll find vendors selling handcrafts, as well as the local residents sitting around. Walk around the plaza, and you’ll find a collection of bars, restaurants, shops and art galleries, and a Tourism office (can book local tours, here). The locals are very friendly and are eager to start a conversation, especially if you’re a foreigner. We were followed several times by children who wanted their photos taken and they’d squealed with delight when I’d show them their photos on the LCD! Also, once these kids spot you parking the car, they’ll ask if they can “watch” it while you walk around town. When we returned, we tipped each of the four boys $0.50, and they were thrilled!
After walking around the main square and visiting the church, we continued on foot to the home/museum of “Alejandro Coto.” Mr. Coto is a native of Suchitoto who went on to become a film-maker and artist. His home houses a large number of artworks, rare and ancient books, and interesting photographs. His home is now open to the public and upon his death, it will become part of Suchi’s patrimony (a cultural inheritance). The house is beautiful and has expansive gardens with a stunning view of Lake Suchitlan. Admission: $1.00 per person. Hours: 10:00 – 16:00. A very relaxing tour!
After the Coto museum, we took a short drive to the shores of Lake Suchitlan. This lake was created in 1973 when the Cerron Grande Dam on the Lempa River (the largest river in ES) was built, and it represents the largest inland body of water which generates most of the country’s electrical power. The lake is home to an impressive number of birds, both locals and migratory, and a good variety of fish.
During the months of November through March, one may see huge number of birds on the lowlands and marshy areas of the lake. There is a car/passenger ferry service between Suchi (Puerto San Juan) and two other towns. You can buy a round-trip ticket and sightsee and enjoy the lake breezes. There is restaurant in the port, as well as restrooms and rest/picnic area.
Hotel and Restaurante El Tejado – Suchitoto
Los Tejados is a hacienda-turned- into a hotel and restaurant. This pleasant little hotel has about 6-8 rooms with en-suite bathrooms and air-conditioning. The rooms are attractive, beds are comfortable, and the bathrooms are very clean. The hotel has a lovely, kidney-shape swimming pool, complete with waterfall.
The restaurant has a spectacular view of Lake Suchitlan. There is also a nice backyard with large trees and many hammocks beckoning you to join them for a siesta! Lunch was delicious, inexpensive and consisted mostly of typical Salvadorian dishes. This hotel is considered a 3-star category with a nightly rate of $45.00 for a double room, including a delicious typical breakfast for two. The hotel is located in a great area close to restaurants and about four blocks to the main plaza.
For dinner in Suchi we went to Los Almendros de San Lorenzo which is also a hote; this is one gorgeous facility! Los Almendros is a very old hacienda that has been lovingly restored by the owner, a Frenchman, Pascal Lebailly, and his deliberately preserved the original construction while adding, modern amenities, such as hot water, air conditioning and a beautiful swimming pool.
Los Almendros has four bedrooms and two suites, which can be booked through reservations, at any time. The food was t excellent, prepared in the Mediterranean style, using local ingredients and prepared by Cordon Bleu Chef Herve Laurent. The price of dinner was a bit high, but worth it! This is definitely a 5-star facility as Mr. Laurent is dedicated to provide the ultimate comfort and service to his guests. A double room with breakfast costs approximately $120.00.
Mayan Ruins at San Andres
We left Suchi after a delicious typical breakfast and a few cups of tasty, local coffee; then we drove to the province of La Libertad to visit the Mayan ruins at San Andres. We traveled via the Pan American highway, passing many little towns and noticing how the landscape looked parched and dusty; it was the height of the dry season!
San Andres is one of the largest pre-hispanic centers in El Salvador. The site is well-maintained by a private organization that also runs the small, but informative museum on-site. One may walk around the pyramids, but access is restricted. The largest structure is a pyramid in the shape of a bell, measuring 15 meters high. A visit to the museum and a very pleasant, slow stroll around the pyramids and grounds requires no more than 2.5 hours, but know that the climate is very hot and humid.
Fees: Nationals $0.91, Foreigners $2.86 and car $1.14. Hours of operation: 09:00 to 16:00
We returned to San Salvador and on the way, we stopped in Santa Tecla, a little city in the outskirts of San Salvador. Santa Tecla is also known for delicious pupusas and we feasted at Restaurante Margoth.
Day at the beach
On the way to the beach, we stopped for breakfast at a little beach hotel called “Roca Sunzal.” Apparently, this beach is quite popular with national and international surfers as they rate the quality of the waves as one of the best in the world. The breakfast was the usual Salvadoran breakfast, and the setting was quite beautiful, with an ocean view. The hotel has a swimming pool, making it attractive for a short stay. However, what caught my attention about Roca Sunzal was their lunch and dinner menu, as it listed an amazing selection of seafood, at very reasonable prices.
The hot tropical sun and heat emanating from the black sand is not conducive to throwing a blanket on the beach and have a picnic; as a result, when nationals go to the beach, they either go to their beach chalet or they rent a room/cabana for the day at one of the beach hotels that has a swimming pool, use the facilities all day, all for under $40.00. “Roca Sunzal” and “Punta Roca” are two hotels that can be found on the internet.
There are many American-style malls in the city, all very modern and selling many of the same brands found in the U.S. and Europe. Obviously all these items have been imported and as a result, are quite pricey. Most of these malls have boutiques selling locally made products, such as I mentioned earlier, and the prices are quite reasonable.
Currency: U.S. Dollar
Language: Speaking some Spanish is helpful when visiting the small towns and if you arm yourself with a good phrase book and try to communicate with the locals, they’ll be amused by your efforts! You’ll find many people speak some English in San Salvador. The staff at major hotels has English-speaking staff.
When to go: Nationals travel to El Salvador for Easter and Christmas/New Years and this period is not recommended for tourist travel. Best time to travel is at the beginning of the dry season as everything is still green (October, November) and then January through late March. Rainy season begins in April.
Climate: El Salvador enjoys a variety of climates, from the hot/humid of the beaches, to coolness of the mountains, exceeding 5,000 ft.
Private tours: With advance notice, many of the hotels and hostales (B&B) will gladly arrange private tours, where you’ll have access to a car with driver. You’ll pay for the car, driver, fuel, and incidentals, such as driver’s meals and tips, and attractions fees. Most drivers do not want to take their meals with you and are happy to receive a small sum ($4/5.00).
How to get there: Very easy!
From any city in the U.S: Any airline to Houston, then connect with Continental Airlines to San Salvador. American Airlines from Miami, and TACA, the national airlines flies non-stop from many major US cities. From Los Angeles, fly Mexicana or United, and from Chicago, fly Delta. The combinations are endless!
From Europe: Iberia flies non-stop to Guatemala City and then connect with TACA to San Salvador. Other European carriers fly non-stop to Miami or Houston and then take a connecting flight on TACA, American Airlines or Continental.
Entry Visa: On arrival. $10
Exit Tax: the amount varies from $27.00 to $35.00. In my case, I had a reward ticket on Continental, and paid only $4.87.
A Civil War in the 1980’s and early 1990’s devastated the country, leaving many of its citizens scarred, but not beaten, as Salvadorenos are quite the resilient and optimistic bunch. Much has changed since and ES now enjoys political stability, social peace, and some economic growth.
While El Salvador isn’t the first place one thinks about when planning a trip to Central America, it certainly merits a visit, but I’d recommend planning your stay in advance. I was pleasantly surprised with the beauty of this little country and amazed at how much there is to see and do, without spending a lot of money! There are beautiful, deserted Pacific Ocean (black sand) beaches, and the surfing is outstanding at some of these beaches… ask any dedicated surfer. There are majestic volcanoes, a few remaining, small tropical rain forests, which the government is desperately trying to preserve, and a few Mayan ruins, although not as grand as those in Mexico or Tikal (Guatemala), and quaint little towns where the people are truly happy to see you!
Regarding safety: it is a safe place to visit. You need to practice common sense, such as you would when visiting any major city of the world. Dress conservatively, do not wear expensive jewelry, do not flash your money, and do not travel alone at night into unknown areas. If you must take a taxi, either call a radio dispatched taxi or one parked at one of the major hotels in the city. And, do not ride the buses alone, unless you like to live dangerously!
Recommended? Absolutely! Good for couples, families with older children and small groups of friends.
Some useful websites:
www.corsatur.gob.sv – official website of the Ministry of Tourism. Great photos- Spanish language site.
www.suchitoto-el-salvador.com – good website, English available.
www.gaesuchitoto.com has great photographs and information about Suchi accommodations, restaurants, although it is entirely in Spanish.
www.southtravels.com/america/elsalvador/traveltips International travel agency providing tours in El Salvador and excellent country information.
www.coffee.com.sv – Santa Leticia Coffee Plantation has a small hotel and offers various tours..
www.hotelvillaserena.com.sv – These 3-star hotels and they are inexpensive, safe, clean, and offer private tours.