A Forgotten Gem of Central America

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of El Salvador  ,
Wednesday, April 7, 2004

According to our guidebooks, El Salvador seemed to be of limited interest to the average traveller, still bearing a rather grim reputation based on the violence of the recent civil war. As well, the country is the smallest in Central America - only about 220km by 100km - and has limited infrastructure. Consequently, we calculated that three days would be enough for us to visit a few places of interest, and move on quickly to Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

So, why then are we still here after ten days? Because El Salvador has been a delightful surprise! Yes, the country is small, but it has great charm and many areas of notable natural beauty and the people are friendly and eager to talk to visitors. It is more than a decade since the official end of hostilities and there have been significant efforts at reparation and conciliation. Maybe because of outdated travel books, there are very few other tourists here.....we've hardly seen another 'gringo' since we arrived!

Our first destination was 'El Imposible' National Park - apparently named for a dangerous gorge in the mountains, but as far as we were concerned it could as easily refer to the very rough 20 km approach road climbing from the coast to about 2,500 ft altitude. The park is mostly original forest - somewhat of a rarity in a country plagued by overpopulation and problems of environmental degradation - and is home to an extraordinary range of plant, animal and bird life. Close by (almost everything is close by in such a small country!) is 'Cerro Verde' National Park where we camped at 6,000 ft and were rewarded with commanding views of the coastal lowlands, as well as over the still smouldering cone of Volcán Izalco. From the other side of Volcan Santa Ana (fortunately dormant) we could look right down into Lago de Coatepeque, a clear blue volcanic crater lake about 6 km across, just beckoning us to explore. Unfortunately, it turned out that the lakefront is almost entirely obstructed by the high-walled cottage properties of San Salvador's wealthy elite, but we were able to find a peaceful vacation oasis on the far side of the lake run by a local village cooperative. Three days later.....!!

Intrigued by a section of highway named 'La Ruta de Flores' we headed further into the highlands to Juayúa and Apaneca. These are small mountain villages, nestled on the volcano slopes with a cool, refreshing climate. The surrounding coffee plantations - intricately patterned with the 'copalchín' trees used as windbreaks - account for over 10% of the country's principal export. This is one of the areas that Salvadoreños head to when they get a chance to escape the hot and crowded cities. As a result there are numerous plant nurseries, garden restaurants and small hotels springing up that are not even mentioned in the guidebooks. We were lucky and happened across an exquisite garden restaurant whose owners were enthralled with the idea of our trip and welcomed us to set up the van alongside the flowering coffee bushes under the shade trees. It was like being back at 'the Herb Garden' on a busy weekend. Three days later....!!

Finally, we thought we should head down to the coast and enjoy a little more sun, sand and surf. Unfortunately, during Semana Santa (Easter Week) just about everybody in El Salvador has the same idea! The beaches along both 'La Costa del Bálsamo' and 'La Costa del Sol' were crowded and noisy, and all accommodation seemed to have been booked up weeks in advance. A few places where we might have stayed with the van were rather grimy and not very appealing, and the only alternatives with vacant rooms were exorbitantly expensive. After one night in a family resort - in a room rented out by 12 hour periods (at least there was a/c and a swimming pool) - we decided to head back into the hills!
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