Deciding whether to head north or south from tourism heavyweight Guatemala
is not a dilemma that has generally plagued travellers. Most hotfoot it up to bustling
Mexico or take an overnight bus down to the natural beauty of Costa Rica,
perhaps stopping en route in emerging star Nicaragua. But head due south, and you
will find yourself in Central America’s secret garden, El Salvador (“the
Despite its reputation for gang-driven feudal battles that continue despite
the actual war – El Salvador’s Civil War – ending in 1992, a new era is
dawning, with doors re-opening to travellers and heartfelt welcomes from the locals
standing behind them.
A country in evolution
The compact country, about the size of Massachusetts, is home to 6.8
million people. It houses two vast national parks – El
Impossible and Parque
Nacional Los Volcanes – containing about 500 species of birds and mammals; its
rich volcanic soils have given rise to many a coffee plantation; and along its Pacific
coast, surfers claim some of the best surf breaks in the world. If your travel
buds are not tingling yet, perhaps they will at the prospect of helping El
Salvador build its tourist infrastructure from the ground up.
El Salvador is at a critical point in the evolution of its tourism
industry, and it is only a matter of time before the bigger tour operators
catch on. At present, no major Western operator – the likes of Intrepid,
– include a dedicated trip to El Salvador in their programmes. This omission
has created space for locals to start building their own fledgling industry, creating
a reciprocal, authentic tourist trail – where money from travellers’ pockets goes
directly to local people.
Meeting El Gringo
Start your journey in Suchitoto, a picturesque hill town located just 47km
north of capital San Salvador, where cobbled streets zigzag back and forth,
dipping down in the direction of majestic Lake Suchitoto, over which the town
People are scarce on the streets until the early evening, when street
vendors gather in clutches, setting up tables and unpacking boxes that will
duly transform into hustling and bustling stalls. This is a town of artisans
and artists, where travellers can browse established galleries and buy
reproduction tiles showcasing the works of El Salvadorian muralist Fernando
Llort. (To see the originals, you will need to venture 77km north to the small
town of La Palma, where he once lived).
Suchitoto is also home to Robert Broz Moran, known to all as El Gringo.
A mountain of a man with a loud Californian accent and an El Salvadorian mother
and wife, El Gringo is a long-time resident of the town. He is, in many ways,
as local as they come, and he is as passionate about providing traveller assistance
and information as he is about giving back to his community. Building on the
work of his mother, Carmen Broz, El Gringo runs an important educational programme that helps
the poorest local children progress their schooling.
Holding court from his eight-bed hostel,
El Gringo is full of information about El Salvadorian history, politics,
culture and wildlife. A passionate amateur ornithologist, with son-in-law
Marvin Quintanilla, he runs wonderful birding
tours out on the lake, where visitors can expect to see many species
of resident and migratory birds, such as blue herons, great egrets and grey hawks.
His half-day civil war tours (on
horseback if you need help with the climb) lead into the heartland of battle
territory in the surrounding Cerro Guazapa mountains, offering a fascinating
glimpse into the recent past. Run in conjunction with local ex-militia–turned-tour
guides, the walks (or trots) explore what it was like for the many young men
and women who participated in fighting this terrible war on their own soil,
often against friends and relatives.
Exploring the impossible
Due to the lack of tourist infrastructure, travelling by word-of-mouth
is the way to go in El Salvador, and the words that come out of El Gringo’s
mouth are as good a guide as any. Through him, we discovered Benjamin Rivera who
is also passionate about developing programmes for tourists that give back to
Through his San Salvador-based company GreenTours
El Salvador, Rivera specialises in adventurous tours that employ and support
local women. Itineraries can be tailor-made to suit all levels and interests,
but he goes where the guidebooks fear to tread – most dismiss Park El Impossible, for example, with a
throwaway paragraph or two.
The wild and rugged park, 120km west of San Salvador near the Guatemalan
border, is named after a mountain pass that has claimed the life of many a
coffee-farmer and mule. Getting there involves a heady mix of chicken buses and
trucks (all under the watchful companionship of Rivera), but as the ridges of
the mountains start to emerge from behind the clouds of dust, and then emerge
some more, it is clear this is a special place.
More than 5,000 hectares of national park sit in virtual silence, trees
arcing back and forth up and down the valleys, which stretch into mountain
peaks. Rivera employs a local woman, Rosa Chinchilla, as guide to the park. She
knows these mountains like old friends, leading groups on the 9km trip from the
park’s entrance up to its highest point, 1,113m-high Cerro Leon, from where the
views are panoramic. In the afternoon, those fit enough to tackle another 6km
round trip will be rewarded by a series of swimming holes at the base of the
valley. In any other country, these pools would be highlighted, bullet-pointed
and asterisked in the guidebook. Here, they are a mere footnote.
Guests can chose to stay in the home of a local woman or in an eco-cabin
on the fringes of the park. We chose the former option, staying at the simple home
of Dona Hilda and her young son. Recently widowed, Hilda is embracing the unique
opportunity to help support herself and her son. In return, travellers can
expect to eat beautiful food cooked with ingredients harvested that day from
the forest and to spend time with Hilda in her
kitchen learning to cook the El Salvadorian specialty, pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans and pork).
After dark, Rivera takes willing participants back into the forest to
look for owls, which if not seen, are always heard with their distinctive call
cutting a haunting sound through the night air.