Volcanoes, waterfalls, butterflies and lush coffee plantations – El Salvador welcomes the adventurer.
A trip to enchanting El Salvador
T here’s something magical and joyful about swimming under a waterfall and allowing the water to cascade over your head. You can have this experience at Los Chorros near the colonial El Salvadorian town of Juayua. It’s on the garden route (Ruta de las Floras) and not far from San Salvador city.
Here, the clear water, which flows from a nearby volcano, has created a stunning veil of seven waterfalls that feed a water hole – a favourite swimming spot. The average year-round temperature is 26°C so a swim here is a perfect refresh stop.
The Ruta de Las Flores can be done in a day or over several days at a more leisurely pace. We opted to do a one-day private tour with Edwin Carrillo of EC Tours, San Salvador. Carrillo is English speaking and runs free walking tours in the city – two reasons why we chose to stay at his city guesthouse, Ali’s Downtown (home to Carillo, his mother, aunt and friendly family dog).
Carrillo is incredibly proud and passionate about El Salvador, its natural beauty and people. His enthusiasm was so infectious we ended up spending four days with him, visiting national park Parque Nacional El Boqueron which is home to three volcanic peaks Jabali, Picacho and El Boqueron; Ruta de Las Flores; doing his free walking tour of San Salvador city; and sharing the drive to Playa El Tunco, home to one of the world’s best surf breaks because at the end of our stay it was a public holiday and Carrillo was heading to the beach too!
The first thing that strikes you when you drive from San Salvador airport to the city is the mountains and lush green vegetation. Volcanic peaks pepper the landscape to the point that Salvadorians joke that in America a Starbucks is on every corner, but here you have volcanoes.
The country’s troubled history makes it a route less trodden by tourists, which adds to its charm and sense of discovery. Before we'd got to the beach at El Tunco we’d spotted only eight tourists. Here, the majority speak Spanish so schooling up on words and phrases before you go is advised.
We began our exploration of Ruta de Las Flores at the local fresh produce market in the picturesque village of Nahuizalco, known for its furniture and wood crafts. Because we had Carrillo’s kitchen at our disposal we shopped like locals for that evening’s meal,
buying beautiful sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes and courgettes as well as edible flowers, loroco which are delicious mixed with cheese and stuffed into a pupusa (a traditional Salvadoran dish made of a thick, handmade corn tortilla). Pupusas are a local staple.
Next stop was Juayua for our waterfall swim at Los Chorros falls, then lunch in the busy main square. Each weekend it plays host to the Feria Gastornomica (food festival) where you are able to find the most delicious dishes of the region, and even a pina colada. The colonial city, founded in 1577, is encircled with volcanoes, waterfalls and lush coffee plantations, making it an idyllic as well as gastronomically rewarding experience.
Vibrant murals proliferate the buildings and walls of the villages along the garden route. The colours and scenes depicting local life and history as well as flowers are beautiful and thought provoking. The murals, Carrillo tells us, have been deeply cathartic for the people – an open expression of their feelings and healing following the brutal civil war which gripped the country from 1979 to 1992 and cost the lives of more than 72,000 people.
In Ataco, where we stop for coffee, a government-sponsored competition, Towns Full of Life, in 2004 saw the residents give the city a makeover by painting murals all over town. Artisans and chefs also began to open stores, galleries and restaurants. Today it’s a great place to shop, eat and explore on foot. It’s also surrounded by coffee plantations. The House of Coffee at 13 Barrio El Calvario roasts and grinds the best local beans on site and serves a fabulous cup of coffee, the best I’ve ever had from a French press.
We timed the conclusion of the circuit for sunset and a beer at a local restaurant overlooking Lago Coatepeque (located between Santa Ana and Parque Nacional Los Volcanes). This shimmering emerald green 26km2 crater lake was formed through a series of eruptions thousands of years ago. The view is made even more magnificent with volcanoes Izalco, Santa Ana and Cerro Verde.
The only vexing thing about Lago Coatepeque is that most of the land round the lake is privately owned so access to the lake is difficult. Your best bet is to go to one of the local restaurants and use their pier if you want to swim.
National parks and monuments
El Salvador has many national parks and the closest one to San Salvador is Parque Nacional El Boqueron. A 30-minute drive from the city, it is comprised of three major volcanic peaks – Jabali, Picacho and El Boqueron. The latter means ‘big mouth’ because of its steep-walled crater (170m deep and 5km wide). You can walk around or into the crater but we chose to do the 20-minute short but steep trek to the lookout which offers a spectacular view of San Salvador and into the crater below. The track is lined with lush vegetation and fluttering butterflies which add to the magic.
In the city, church Iglesia El Rosario is a must-see. Conceived in 1962 by Salvadoran sculptor Ruben Martinez it’s famous for its architecture and beautiful rainbow-coloured glass. His idea was to create a space that symbolised equality and solidarity of the Roman Catholic Church with the working class. It’s not much to look at from the outside but its interior can’t help but make the spirit soar. The arched interior is set with more than 100 stained glass windows that create a moving kaleidoscope effect as the sun moves across the sky. The best time to visit is late afternoon.
From here it’s a short walk to other buildings of historic significance in the city’s centre including Teatro Nacional El Salvador, the oldest theatre in Central America built in 1911 and fashioned in French Renaissance style; the Palacio Nacional; and beside that Catedral Metropolitana.
The Palacio Nacional and Catedral Metropolitana are cornerstones of the main plaza and the central fountain is a community gathering point. This is a great spot for people watching and an ice cream. The cathedral, with tall bell towers and yellow and blue dome, has been rebuilt many times in its history due to earthquakes and fire, and its latest incarnation took more than four decades to complete. It was finished in 1999.
The streets surrounding the plaza are jam-packed with shantytown-like stall holders selling street food and cheap wares. Many of the locals would like to see them moved on and streets cleaned up.
The Monument to Memory and Truth in Parque Cuscatlan, where the city walking tour begins and ends, is a roll of the dead and disappeared from the civil war. It is engraved with nearly 30,000 names – an incomplete list that has new names added as they come to light. The monument is a reminder of history none want to see repeated. The day we visit the park there’s a peace-filled joyful fiesta with dancing, music, balloons and people dressed in colourful costumes.
Most tourists who fly into San Salvador head straight for the coast. It’s just a one-hour drive to the beach.
Surfer town El Tunco is a popular holiday destination for Salvadorians and the centre of El Salvador’s international surf scene. People travel here from all over the world to surf the waves that reach up to three metres high, and for surfing lessons. The bustling tourist town is filled with surf shops, good eateries and beachfront bars with live music. It’s a captivating spot to watch the surfers ride the waves in as the sun sets, while eating possibly the best pupusas ever.