First Impressions

Why Now Is the Time to Travel to El Salvador

by Amelia Mularz
Los Los Almendros. All photos by Amelia Mularz.

Tourism means a lot to El Salvador. In 2016, more than seventeen percent of the country’s GDP came from El Salvadorans living abroad and sending money back home. A tight-knit community wants that to change — in part through new, thoughtful modes of tourism.

EL SALVADOR – “Wait, you’re going where?” 

“Are you even allowed to go there?"

I heard a handful of comments like these — as well as one from a friend who simply demanded that I bring them back some coffee — before embarking on my first trip to El Salvador last month.

For such a small country — the smallest in Central America and more compact than Massachusetts — El Salvador has a big reputation, and not always for the best. The country went through a brutal civil war from 1980 to 1992 and has struggled with gang violence since, fueled largely by a depleted economy.

It takes time to change a reputation, and during my trip I was surprised and delighted to discover a destination that’s not only safe to visit, but evolving quicker than the headlines would lead you to believe.

A monkey sanctuary near Jiquilisco Bay.

There's a tight-knit community devoted to creating opportunities through tourism, not only for the rest of the world to learn about their heritage, but also for their fellow countrymen to take pride in their past and present. I met Rhina de Rehmann, a woman who took a financial leap of faith a few years after the civil war ended to start an organic indigo farm so that former militants, some of whom had been fighting since they were teenagers, would have an opportunity to learn farming and textile skills. I also got to know Dionisio Mejia, a guide with tour operator GreenBlueRed, who shared everything from geological fun facts (El Salvador has 25 volcanoes) to coffee recommendations (Café Ataco coffee beans for my friend) to his family’s own painful past during the war.

Tourism means a lot to El Salvador. In 2016, more than seventeen percent of the country’s GDP came from El Salvadorans living abroad and sending money back home. Everyone I spoke to wants that to change. They’re hard at work creating new industries and a more self-sufficient economy to actively court visitors from around the globe. And with 200 miles of beaches, wildlife that includes spider monkeys and four different species of sea turtles, cobblestoned colonial towns, and a burgeoning craft beer scene, who wouldn’t want to visit?

Once you shrug off any dated preconceptions, here’s what you’ll actually find in El Salvador.

Volcanoes National Park.
Pupusa making at a volcano base camp.

Volcano Treks

Volcanos are by far the most commanding of El Salvador’s attractions, if for no other reason than you can spot them all over the country. Get up close to these massive (and notably volatile) mounds at Volcanoes National Park, a protected natural area about 40 miles northwest of San Salvador. The three main peaks at the park are Santa Ana, a two-million-year-old dynamo and the site of a 2005 eruption that reportedly spewed lava rocks the size of cars; Izalco, a young buck that only dates back to 1770 and is known as “the lighthouse of the Pacific” because its continuous, 160-year eruption helps steer ships sailing in the night; and Cerro Verde, a 1.5-million-year-old volcano with a crater covered in forest.

Novice hikers should head to Cerro Verde, which has a twenty-minute walking trail around its woodsy peak. For more of a challenge, Santa Ana has an intermediate trail to the top that takes about four hours and comes with a bonus: At the crater you’ll find a turquoise lagoon as well as views of Coatepeque, a nearby volcanic lake. Izalco, the most advanced trail, takes around five hours to hike. Book a volcano tour with GreenBlueRed and they can arrange lunch at a volcano base camp, a workshop where you’ll learn to make pupusas, griddled cornmeal cakes stuffed with cheese, beans, and meat — a Salvadoran staple.

Sea turtle conservationists at work in Jiquilisco Bay.
A cocoa farm visit near Jiquilisco Bay.

Sea Turtle Adventures

“There’s one! Over there!” one volunteer shouts as his colleague leaps from a boat into the water. He disappears for a few seconds, then suddenly pops up with his arms wrapped around a 100-pound black sea turtle. The volunteer hoists his newfound, half-shelled friend into the boat, and they take off to a nearby island for measurements and tagging. Conservation work, it turns out, is incredibly physical, almost like an environmentalist reptilian rodeo.

The conservation group tracking these turtles and ensuring that they’re thriving in the area is called ProCosta. If you’d like to join them on an expedition — they’ll let you name the turtles if you guess their weight correctly — book an experience through Puerto Barillas. This marina and lodge on Jiquilisco Bay, about two hours from San Salvador, offers a nature lover’s smorgasbord of activities: kayak rentals, deep-sea fishing, cocoa farm visits, and monkey sanctuary tours. Experiences are open to day visitors, but if you’re sticking around for the night, bunk in either a treehouse room or a larger apartment villa and sleep surrounded by cocoa and palm trees.

Los Almendros de San Lorenzo in Suchitoto.
The lobby at Los Almendros.
Homes in Suchitoto stenciled with the phrase: “In this house we want a life free of violence against women.”

A Colonial-Era Mansion Turned Boutique Hotel

“Life is slow here, even history passes slowly — we’re still living in the 19th century!” laughs Pascal Lebailly, co-owner of Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, a twelve-room hotel in the colonial town of Suchitoto that was meticulously restored between 2004 and 2005. Only 50 minutes from San Salvador, Suchitoto truly feels untouched. The roads are paved in cobblestone, locals often go about their business on horseback, and the building façades (in pastel shades, some that have faded near the foundations, creating an ombré effect) date back hundreds of years. But there are signs of progress here, too, written right on the buildings themselves. You’ll find a phrase stenciled on homes all over town: “En esta casa queremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres.” ("In this house we want a life free of violence against women.") The stenciling is part of a growing women’s movement in El Salvador.

Likewise, inside Los Almendros you’ll see flourishes of the new mixed with a genuine feel for what life was like in 19th-century Suchitoto (well, the good life, at least). The inn opens onto a courtyard surrounded by rooms (each one unique and decked out in art), a bar/restaurant, and an antique-filled library with personal mementos from the two owners. Lebailly’s partner, Joaquín Rodezno, previously served as El Salvador’s ambassador to France, and you can see photographic evidence of his time in Europe, as well as artwork (including a modern painting of a wide-eyed subject with a cell phone in hand), and artifacts around the hotel. Beyond the restaurant is a second courtyard with additional rooms and a pool — the ideal place to lounge between pupusa tastings and shopping for handicrafts around town.

Scenes from Hacienda Los Nacimientos.

An Indigo Farm With a Mission

Rhina de Rehmann started her organic indigo farm, Hacienda Los Nacimientos, located just outside Suchitoto, to provide new opportunities for former soldiers and also to revive a longtime El Salvadoran tradition. During colonial times, indigo was so valued it was known as blue gold, and the country’s crop was considered among the best in the world. All that changed in the mid 1800s when Germans created synthetic dye, and the indigo market tanked. However, with renewed international interest in using organic color, indigo is making a comeback, and Rehmann is at the forefront. She says, “When I started the farm and told people what we were going to grow, everyone said, 'Oh indigo! The golden era of El Salvador!'”

Today, Rehmann sells her blue gold to denim manufacturers like Levi’s, Gap, and Benetton. If you’d like to dabble in dye yourself, Hacienda Los Nacimientos offers tours and workshops. See how indigo grows, then get a glimpse of the extraction process. Afterward, staff will show you how to create designs on a scarf using various folding techniques before you plunge your garment into buckets of vibrant blue.

The view from Palo Verde in El Zonte.
Palo Verde (left). Acantilados (right).

A Surfer’s Paradise

If a hotel in Suchitoto and an indigo farm are about reviving El Salvador’s past, the country’s coastal tourism is about creating something new. In El Zonte, a sleepy surf town about an hour from San Salvador, boutique hotel Palo Verde opened in 2017 with ten rooms (there are now two additional suites) and a forward-thinking commitment to sustainability. Straws are banned from the restaurant, bathrooms are stocked with refillable shampoo bottles, and bath towels are limited to one per guest to cut down on unnecessary laundry. An infinity pool overlooks the beach, just steps from a beloved right-breaking surf spot. Palo Verde offers surf lessons and Spanish classes. Here’s a start: “Wipeout” is una caída espectacular, which sounds way more appealing in Español.

About fifteen minutes down the coast, cliffside retreat Acantilados opened in fall 2018. Though the hotel is owned by a local family and has only nineteen rooms, it has more of a resort feel, thanks to its gym, pool, multiple bars, and onsite chapel (for a wedding or a quick prayer to the surf gods). The property’s restaurant, Fausto, has possibly the most eclectic offerings you’ll find in El Salvador, like sushi rolls wrapped in plantain tempura and grilled lobster in espresso sauce. But Acantilados’ most jaw-dropping attraction is the ocean pool that sits at the base of the cliffs and pre-dates the hotel. With the surf crashing over the side, this swimming hole is El Salvador’s answer to Icebergs in Australia.

The seaside pool at Cadejo Brewery.

Creative Craft Beer

There’s something else brewing in El Salvador. Literally: A craft beer scene has taken hold in the country, starting seven years ago with the launch of Cadejo Brewery. Co-founder David Falkenstein was born in El Salvador but spent seventeen years in the U.S., where he researched beer and visited a slew of breweries before returning to San Salvador to make his own. Today, Cadejo (the name is a nod to a mythical dog from Latin American folklore) has three bars and restaurants, including an outpost in La Libertad with an oceanside pool.

More recently, Santo Coraje, which translates to "Holy Courage," launched in 2015. The award-winning brewery, which supplies kegs to more than twenty restaurants around the country, has a flair for incorporating local ingredients, such as oranges in a hefeweizen and flor de izote (El Salvador’s national flower) in a seasonal brew. Santo Coraje’s founder, Cecilia Cruz Palma, studied in Germany for seven years before returning home to launch her company. Though she’s the first and only woman brewmaster in El Salvador, she points out that there are really only three craft breweries in the country (Premio is the third). “Hey, that means one-third of El Salvador’s craft brewmasters are women,” she laughs. “That’s pretty good!”

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