Central America: Roads Less Traveled

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el salvador A Trio of Roads Less Traveled

Every surfer knows that the most perfect point-break in Central America is Punta Roca outside La Libertad where El Salvador plays host this year (Oct. 16-23) to the 2011 ISA World Masters Surfing Championship. But any time of year, non-surfers have a dozen or more choices for their own adventures.

For example, from San Salvador, the Pan American Highway to Guatemala leads all the way west to the 9,300-acre Parque Nacional El Imposible, one of El Salvador’s most bio-diverse and largest parks, rich in bird and wildlife, dotted with streams, waterfalls and natural swimming holes. Hikers—mostly following three main trails—who reach the highest lookout points, are able to see Guatemala in the distance. Located near the border of Guatemala at the northern park boundary and fringed by coffee plantations, the mountain hamlet of Tacuba serves as a lovely base for exploring different corners of the 8,100-acre park. Local tour companies have guides (obligatory) to take visitors hiking, biking and birdwatching. Everyone says that the place to stay in Tacuba is at theHostal de Mama y Papa. The mission that manages El Imposible Park is SalvaNatura, located at the southern park entrance at San Benitol. The top accommodation choice here is the El Imposible Eco-Lodge, which also serves as a research center. For visitors coming for the day from San Salvador, during the dry season (May 16-Nov. 1), the park hike is approximately five hours; in the rainy season (May 16-Nov. 15) hikes are shortened to two hours.

Take a day’s drive east to several fascinating towns, at their most lively on Friday market days. About 90 minutes away is Ilobasco, famous for its miniature clay figures portraying scenes of daily life. In San Sebastian, one finds colorful hammocks, bedspreads and tablecloths being woven on wooden looms. Head farther east and jump into more recent history along the Ruta de la Paz, a touring experience that follows the “path of peace” to explore the history and tragedy of the towns of Perquin and Mozote, located in the ruggedly beautiful northeastern area. In this prime birding area, Perquin is a small town tucked into the high mountains, which formed the base of the people’s FMLN organization during the civil war. The essential Museo de la Revolucion Salvadoreña tells the story of the revolutionary guerrilla movement’s efforts during the country’s civil war. On this tour, travelers also drive or hike to the nearby village of Mozote, site of one of the 1981 Mazote massacre. In the square and church gardens are monuments honoring the martyrs of one of Latin America’s worst wartime atrocities.

Along the lovely Route of the Flowers west of San Salvador, remember the two towns that begin with the letter A. Sitting beautifully in coffee country, Apaneca offers a 2-hour canopy tour that takes visitors ziplining through the mountainside treetops, viewing up close the beautiful array of flowers and birds such as toucans and perhaps an eagle overhead and at the highest point on the 13-cable line, the Pacaya Volcano in the distance. The ride continues over high-altitude coffee plantations which, during April and May, are abloom with thousands of white coffee flowers. The canopy tour adds a walk through a local plantation with an English-speaking guide. And down the road is Ataco, a special small town with fantastical murals portraying surreal animals painted on some of the buildings. These are the creations of a local couple whose designs on wood, ceramic and canvas are available in their local gallery called Axul. At the Disconte artisans’ shop, you find a room full of colorful textiles made on site by artisans working on traditional looms. And for spending a night along the Route of the Flowers, the Hotel Alicante Apaneca (alicanteapaneca.com), a mountain inn on the outskirts of Ataco, might be one hotel choice.

guatemala Time Out for Lake Atitlan

Aldous Huxley called Lake Atitlan the most beautiful lake in the world. Located deep in Guatemala’s western highlands, its crystal blue waters are flanked by three spectacular volcanoes—Toliman, San Pedro and Atitlan—and its shorelines are dotted with 12 small Indian villages named after the apostles and home to various Mayan groups, each with its own traditions and dress. While not exactly off the tourist trail, this majestic corner of Guatemala is worth exploring and should be particularly appealing to clients for whom happiness is a gorgeous, exotic location offering a five-star adventure and cultural experiences to suit both skill and spirit.