Vol­ca­noes, wa­ter­falls, but­ter­flies and lush cof­fee plan­ta­tions – El Sal­vador wel­comes the ad­ven­turer.

Good - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy Carolyn Ent­ing

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.

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