El Salvador: Emerging, Unexplored and Welcoming

The place to stay along the route of the artisans is Suchitoto, a picturesque and charming town whose cobblestone streets are bordered by colonial-style buildings, cafes and art galleries. Every weekend, the town hosts an arts festival with live music, food stands, art exhibits and craft stalls, and the nightlife swings gently around a welcoming bevy of cafes. One, by the way, is called El Necio, named after Che Guevara, where a beer costs $1 and the music comes from socialist movements around Latin America. By day, activities include hiking and horseback riding on Guazapa Mountain or a slow boat cruise on Lake Suchitlan to Bird Island, a major aviary on El Salvador’s largest lake (count on storks and pelicans in March).

Ruta de las Flores: You can segue west from Suchitoto onto the route of the flowers, which winds for 20 miles (marked by telephone poles painted with flowers) through mountainous coffee country. One of the most interesting towns along the way is Nahuizalco, inhabited by the Nahuat peoples and a major center for the creation of wicker baskets and furniture. There are handicraft stores on almost every street, but the top shopping (and dining around the food stalls) is during the nocturnal market, held by candlelight and truly something that should not be missed. Along the route of the flowers, there are several eco-lodges offering alpine-style accommodations with all the comforts and a full menu of activities, including coffee plantation tours, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, paragliding and zipline canopy tours (near Apaneca, the second highest town in El Salvador).

Ruta Gastronomia: Recommend clients travel this route on weekends when many towns hold lively and friendly ferias gastronomicas (food festivals). Juayua, with its colonial architecture and historic church, is a treat, as local and invited restaurateurs set up their stalls to cook up all kinds of terrific local food served at tables set up around the central plaza. Here is the place to sample the unofficial national dish, pupusas, small corn tortillas stuffed with sausage, beans, cheese or pork skins and served with pickled cabbage and a tomato-based sauce. Another good bet is the Sunday food market at Salcoatitan—perhaps the food is even better here, and when travelers are stuffed, they can board a little locomotive that makes a slow circuit about town from the food fair and back.

a trio of hotel offerings In Suchitoto: Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, occupying a former sugarcane hacienda, is the super-star accommodation in town, fitted throughout with fine Salvadorean art and antique furnishing. This boutique hotel has four big, comfortable, air-conditioned rooms and two suites, one with its own fountain. In the flowering courtyard is the class restaurant in town—international dishes with a Mediterranean flair. The courtyard bar and patio give access to tropical gardens and a pool, and for shopping, the Galerie de Pascal is right across the street. Rates are $85-$95 twin; suite $120.

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A second excellent choice is La Posada de Suchitlan, with a lovely lake view, comfortable mini-suites, an excellent restaurant serving up truly delicious local specialties, and a great gift shop. Colonial rooms are $62, mini-suites are $75; rates include breakfast.

On the Costa del Sol: A particular gem of a getaway is La Cocotera Resort & Ecolodge, whose land is bordered by a long white Pacific beach on one side and a natural estuary with views of volcanic peaks on the other. Located near the Guatemala border in La Barra de Santiago, the resort takes eco-consciousness seriously with its 2-story, spacious, air-conditioned bungalows built of sustainable teak wood and stone, capped with palm-frond roofs. The property includes gardens, a pool, and an open-air restaurant serving up delicious meals featuring fresh bread, fruit and fish daily. Activities include kayaking amidst the mangroves, deep-sea and shore fishing, waterskiing and surfing, nature tours, hiking in Imposible National Park, volcano and coffee tours. From $133 pp dbl for oceanfront bungalows, from $116 for estuary bungalows; rates include all meals and airport transfers.

tour packages U.S. tour operators are beginning to add value-packed El Salvador vacations to their Central American roster. For example:

Tara Tours mixes City & Beach in its El Salvador program, spending three nights in San Salvador, with a city tour and an excursion to Joya de Ceren, and four nights at the Royal Decameron Salinitas where meals and sporting activities are included with accommodations. Inclusive with air from Miami, the air/land rate is $1,357 for travelers choosing the Holiday Inn in the capital and $1,582 using the Radisson. Tara Tours also combines El Salvador with either neighboring Guatemala or Honduras; good roads make these longer itineraries an interesting way to visit the region.