El Salvador is the 13th Spanish-speaking countries that I have had the chance to visit and the 4th in Central America. Considering its infamous reputation of being dangerous, I actually felt very safe there. I was with a local, so obviously he knows the gang and high-crime areas in the San Salvador to avoid. The people is amazingly friendly and helpful, overeager at times in a very positive way. The service is always amicable, though at times slow. Since there are not that many Asian tourists (mostly Taiwanese or American-born Asians), a traveler from Singapore is quite different and drew their curiosity as well. They got to stare at me and asked about my country (some had never heard of Singapore), and in return, I got to chat with them and at times, photograph or film them. They were cool about it and some wanted me to capture the moment with them.
For me, El Salvador has everything (beach, volcano, city/museums, ruins, natural parks, delicious food, and amazing people). It is a great introduction to Central America, especially for those who have not explored the region much. One interesting fact that I noted is that there many auto-hotels in El Salvador. Auto-hotels are hotels where one can park their car inside while committing indiscreet things. Very expensive activity! Overall, being in El Salvador did not give me any sense of novelty or stimulated any grand passion.
I cut my trip by 1.5 days, and still managed to squeeze in an off beaten path excursion to El Pital, the highest mountain in El Salvador on the back of a pick-up truck. By the way, we did not see much up there, but sometimes it is about the journey and not the destination.
When one comes here, you would not expect white sand beach and clear, blue water because of the country faces Pacific Ocean and is volcanic. Though some coasts are excellent for surfing I was told. I visited Playa El Tunco and it was quite serene. Most people were learning to surf there, despite the Earthquake that happened earlier in the day in the sea off Usulutan (East of El Salvador) and the ensuing tsunami warning.
I am not the best judge on this matter. I did go to Parque Nacional El Imposible, but I was feeling so rotten that day that I chose a very short walk to El Mulo (850m above sea level) lookout point, instead of the classic, tough route to Cerro León that is steep and could take 5-6 hours. I regretted this decision because 15-min into my walk I felt a million times better!!! On this walk, I did not see any vegetation or animals that I thought was very unique. The view was nice though.
You would not find the grandest pyramids like Tikal and exquisitely carved stelaes like in Copan. The best highlight in archeology is “Joya de Ceren” (Jewel of Ceren), which highlights how the common Mayan lived, instead of the ceremonial pyramids/buildings in other ruins I have visited. This site is also knows as the “Pompeii of the Americas” as multiple volcanic eruptions (the first one being the eruption of Volcan Laguna Cadera around 1,500 years ago) have preserved the old city. Unlike Pompeii, the residents of this city managed to evacuate in time.
I also visited other ruins, such as San Andres with a tunnel from the Acropolis to the La Campana pyramid nearby; Tazumal pyramids which started from the Olmecs, Mayans, and finished by the Pipils; and Cihuatan for its pyramid and “juego de pelota” (ballgame court). No hieroglyphs were found in any of the ruins in El Salvador, thus far. Not much story is known about these ruins.
Visiting “Ruta de Flores” (The Flower Route) would direct you to two indigenous town: Izalco and Nathuizalco which have interesting Church and Market respectively. Not much traces of the indigenous Indians and their traditions are left in El Salvador. Most of the Salvadorians are “mestizos” (of both white and indigeneous parentage). Most of the indigeneous were killed by diseases brought by the Spaniards or by the greed and cruelty of the very same people.
I am pleased to see that there are movements to preserve the indigenous way of life. I peeked into a class where Nahuatl language was being taught in the Casa Cultura de Nathuizalco. We also observed a Mayan ceremony giving grace and gratitude to Mother Earth.
Suchitoto and Ataco are both worth visiting in El Salvador. I love Casa de Graciela hotel in Ataco. It is decorated to the Colonial period and the owners have owned the house for more than 150 years.
In Suchitoto, I met very interesting women at the Molino Baika (next to the Church) while they come and mill their corn for pupusas and tortilla dough.These women are very strong!
I also met and chatted with a local couple who owns a shop and añil (plant producing blue dye which has been used since the Mayan times) workshop. They are very into their Mayan heritage and they live by these ancient wisdoms. Click here for my time working with añil.
Suchitoto itself is a very charming colonial city and is tied with Nathuizalco to win the award of “Pueblos Magicos” five times each. This competition encourages each town to eliminate domestic abuse and maintain their town to the best they can be in terms of cleanliness and liveliness.
The boat ride in Lake Suchitlan, outside of Suchitoto, is very beautiful, especially with the “ninfas” on the water. This lake is man-made by blocking the water from Lempa River for hydroelectric purposes. There are houses in the bottom of the lake.
I had delicious Salvadorian food. They tend to be “casera” (home-cooked style). My favourite is the “Gallo en Chicha” (Cock cooked in chicha, which is a fermented corn drink). The taste is sweet and sour and it reminds me a lot of “opor ayam” (Indonesian chicken stew).
I also tried “sopa de gallina india” (chicken soup made from free-range female chicken). It is interesting. Once the soup is done, they would take out the quartered chicken pieces and grill them. They would serve these pieces of chicken with rice and salad and tortillas. The soup would come only with vegetables and innards. The broth is tasty.
I also enjoyed the chorizo from Cojutepeque and “pollo encebollado” (chicken cooked with onions). The cooking is very simple and yet the food is tasty. Tortillas in El Salvador is thicker than Mexico, but thinner than those in Guatemala.
The main highlight of Salvadorian food is pupusas. Pupusas are round dough filled with different fillings. The classic fillings are cheese, beans, chicharrón (pork), and loroco (a type of flower). Pupusas can be made from rice flour or corn. The former tends to be lighter. The origin of the rice flour pupusas is from Olocuilta, when the price of corn was very high. Since then however, both versions have taken off and each person has his/her preference. I had pupusas 3-4 times in a week. Each one was different. The most delicious one I had is in Izalco where they used “leña” (firewood) to cook the pupusas. We met a couple from San Salvador who drove to Izalco only to have these pupusas. Pupusas are usually eaten with hot sauce and “curtidos” (pickled vegetables).
The best parts about El Salvador are perhaps the volcanoes. I climbed the easier Santa Ana (Ilamatepeq) and was rewarded with an amazing view of its crater and the Coatepeteque lake. The hike was moderate, but I was a bit anxious because the wind was strong. I was worried I would not be allowed up for being so slow. It worked out at the end. For the fit and brave souls out there, volcan Izalco is calling your name!
What I would remember most from El Salvador is the people. I admire them a lot. Despite their tough recent histories and adversities, they are still friendly, helpful, and optimistic people. There were a few notable massacres against the peasants even as late as 1979 in front of the Church of Rosario. And yet, the country has valiantly moved on and looked into the future. If I ever come back to El Salvador, it would be for the people.