El Salvador Holidays
Flashes of green, red and blue: the verdant, volcanic, Pacific Ocean-hugging country of El Salvador is a leafy, colourful and colonial gem. This Central American hub has earned itself some bad press over the years, thanks to its infamously chequered, war-torn past. Luckily the scars of the civil war are now beginning to fade and an authentic, characterful destination, alive with natural beauty, has been left in their wake.
These days it has the potential to be an economic powerhouse, big on hard work and boasting a strong infrastructure. It’s not all about business though: leisure tourism is picking up with a little help from the country’s mountain hiking and surfing offering, not to mention its thrillingly volatile peaks; El Salvador has one of the highest concentrations of active volcanoes in the world.
El Salvador packs an almighty punch despite its pocket-size. Start in the vibrant capital of San Salvador, home to the historic Palacio Nacional, Teatro Nacional – the oldest theatre in Central America – and the rainbow-roofed Iglesia El Rosario; if you only see one church in the country, let it be this one. Then there’s Suchitoto. This pretty colonial town is El Salvador in microcosm, full of churches, cobblestones and enigmatic waterfalls, like the mighty Los Tercios.
Water is a pretty big deal throughout the country too, from Las Flores and El Sunzal, where the surf is always up, to white-water rafting on the Lempa and Paz rivers. Rivers meander through dense wildernesses, like El Imposible National Park, and then there’s the volcanoes – 23 active ones to be exact.
Head for the highest in the country, Santa Ana, for a terrifyingly close-up snapshot of how volatile Mother Nature truly is. For an intense flavour of the country’s heritage, spare some time to explore Mayan sites like San Andres, Tazumal, Joya de Cerén.
Eat and Drink
Salvadoran cuisine is chock-full of Spanish and Pipil flavours, especially when it comes to the nation’s favourite dish, pupusa, a corn or rice flour tortilla packed with cheese, chicharron and refried beans. You can pick up these lip-smacking patties pretty much anywhere, but no-frills café Comedor Pupusería La Ceiba in San Salvador undoubtedly makes some of the best.
Wash it all down with a thick glass of Atol de Elote, a traditional Salvadoran drink made from corn, water, sugar and cinnamon and rooted in Mayan culture. The perfect meal isn’t all about the food though; a strong setting helps to. Pampa El Volcán can’t be beaten on location – it clings to the side of Boqueron, an extinct volcano that towers above the capital. The food here isn’t the most traditional (steaks and sausages), but with views like that, who cares?
Where to Stay
Holidays in El Salvador offer the perfect blend of history, culture and nature. Stay in San Salvador and you’ll get a healthy dose of each. Accommodation varies from budget hostels to high-end luxury here – the best hotels are in the more touristy districts of Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalón, but for an authentic foodie experience they’re best avoided: expect supergiant chains like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. You’ll find all the independent shops and eateries along Blvd de los Héroes, home to a cluster of mid-range hotels and close to the bustling Universidad Tecnológica.
Not many know this, but El Salvador has some of the best surfing in the world. Move over Australia, South Africa, and all the rest, this is where you should be riding the waves. And with dozens of point breaks along the cost, there’s plenty of competition for the top zone. To the west there’s La Libertad, home to Punta Roca, La Paz, Fisherman’s Point and Sunzal – to name a few.
The crowds here are laidback and welcoming to beginners and pros alike. Head eastward and you’ll be met by Las Flores, a haven for the more serious boarders and blessed with frequent waves that roll to a mighty eight feet before gravity takes hold. For really big surf, visit between March and October. In November to February the waves are smaller, but perfect for all-day beginner surfing and body-boarding.
El Salvador Like a Local
See El Salvador like the locals do – not by admiring the colonial architecture and hitting the waves, but by delving into its rich past. Visit Panchimalco where the country’s indigenous people reside. Here, the residents stick to ancient traditions, culture and dress, often partaking in fascinating Pagan and Christian rituals or festivals.
This tiny town is one of the last bastions of native peoples in the country, so it’s definitely worth a trip, especially for The Flower & Fronds Fair, held on the first Sunday of May. The event pays homage to the Catholic saints, as well as marking the start of the rainy season.