El Salvador rises from the ashes

Despite its violent past, a new era is dawning in Central America’s secret garden, with doors re-opening to travellers and heartfelt welcomes from the locals standing behind them.

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 Saviour”).

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, Exodus or Explore – 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 keeps watch.

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 the community.

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.