Surfers crossing in El Salvador

| Johan van Rijswijck

You won't generally find El Salvador among the ranks of most popular holiday destinations. Most people don't know it and then the old rule of 'unknown makes unloved' soon applies anyway. Too bad, because El Salvador is a wonderful country.

A forgotten country

You can compare El Salvador with South American Uruguay. Both countries do not have any real highlights, and yet, when people visit these countries, they never really want to leave. There is simply a wonderful atmosphere, the people are friendly, the inland is beautiful with picturesque villages and on the coast, you will find idyllic bays with breathtakingly beautiful beaches. For me El Salvador is a lovely country with a very friendly population. Travellers who have travelled with us in this country have also experienced this.

A promising gateway

I entered a boat in northern Nicaragua and am now sailing through the Gulf of Fonseca to El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America. Swarms of seabirds are looking for fish to take to their nests on one of the many uninhabited islands we pass by boat. Sometimes schools of dolphins are spotted here, but unfortunately this is not the case today. The boat that took me from Nicaragua moored in the small harbour of La Unión. 'Bienvenidos a El Salvador' is on the wooden board above the jetty that gives me access to this promising country. After the local customs officer has stamped my official entry into the country, I eat fresh fish in a restaurant overlooking the bay of La Unión.

Surfers Paradise

The sleepy fishing village of El Cuco is my next destination. This place is becoming more and more known among avid surfers. The many bays on the coast of El Salvador are among the best surf locations in the world. From the harbour it is only an hour's drive to El Cuco. The first part of the route runs inland, overlooking green mountains and volcanic peaks. Then the route takes me along a spectacular coastline with impressive cliffs, interspersed with vast bays where the ocean is separated from the tropical green by dark coloured sandy beaches.

Below, the waves break on mostly deserted beaches. We bump on the road, passing beautiful country houses every now and then. Along the way I see a special road sign with the text: 'Reduzca velocidad surfistas en la vía'.  Freely translated: 'Reduce speed for crossing surfers'. It turns out to be typical for the coastal area of El Salvador and actually there is no better way to characterise the country's characteristic relaxed atmosphere.

Hotel Los Mangos

After one hour driving I arrive at hotel los Mangos, just outside El Cuco. This small-scale hotel overlooking Punta Mangos and the Pacific Ocean is run by the Dutch Esther van Dort and her El Salvadorian husband. It turns out to be a nice place. From the hotel, the swimming pool and the covered but open restaurant annex bar, you can enjoy a phenomenal view and ditto sunset. After a good night's sleep, I set off to explore the surroundings. In El Cuco I get into a kayak to explore a mangrove area. It is an area where many birds come to breed.

Sea turtles

Later this day I will visit the surfing village El Zonte and the conservation and breeding project for sea turtles. The eggs are hatched here after which the young turtles are released on the beach to go to sea. Previously, the eggs were dug up and used for consumption, causing the sea turtles to disappear. With the initiative of FUNZEL, the sea turtle population is maintained. An employee tells me more about the project after which we released some turtles on the beach. A very special experience.

The lunch in Los Mangos consists of Pupusas, the national snack of El Salvador. It looks like tortillas, but the dough is filled and then baked. For lunch I descend via stairs to the small, deserted bay and take a short walk over the black sandy beach. It is warm and I take a refreshing dip in the waves.

On to the inland

The next morning, I leave the coast and head inland. The interior is green, and the landscape is determined by the 23 volcanoes that this country is rich. On the way I pass Puerto Barillas. This is a huge private domain that is situated at the Jiquilisco bay. This vast mangrove area is home to seabirds, some monkey species, caymans and sea turtles. On the estate of Puerto Barillas, you will find a cocoa plantation, a small marina and a guesthouse.

A painful past, a bright future

The journey continues to San Salvador, the capital of the country. From the 1970s until the beginning of the 1990s, El Salvador was the scene of a fierce civil war in which many lost their lives. I am visiting the memorial in San Salvador on which 30 000 names have been written of civilian victims who died in this war. It touches me when I walk along the huge wall and read the names. It strikes me that today's young people want to leave it behind and work in a positive way for a bright future. It is also the atmosphere I feel in this country; pleasant and positive.

Whistling birds on the central square

I decide to leave the capital behind me and travel on to the picturesque village of Suchitoto. This sleepy town looks out over the lake of Suchitlán. In Suchitoto it seems as if time has stood still. The birds whistle in the trees on the central square, while I look out on the picturesque white facade of San Lucia church that is situated on this square. It is wonderful to stroll through the characteristic streets. On the outskirts of the village you have a breathtaking view of Lake Suchitlán and its green surroundings with volcanic peaks.

Stay in Los Almendros de San Lorenzo

My favourite hotel in this village is undoubtedly Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. This atmospheric hotel is located in a historic building dating from 1805 and is situated on the edge of the city centre. In 17 months’ time, the owners Pascal Lebailly and his partner Joaquín Rodezno restored this beautiful building to its former glory. Pascal is originally from France, where he organised events in the fashion industry and Joaquín comes from El Salvador and served his country as ambassador to Paris, Brussels and Rome. The 6 atmospheric rooms are situated on the beautiful patio. Across the street, the hotel also has a luxurious wedding suite. A truly enchanting place, where you will be completely pampered.

The Pompeii of the Mayan culture

Suchitoto is not the only thing the beautiful interior of El Salvador has to offer. So, I visit the archaeological site of Joya de Cerén. Joya de Cerén is the Pompeii of Mayan culture. This farmers village from the time of the Maya was completely buried under the lava in 640 A.D. and is therefore perfectly preserved. While most archaeological sites from the Mayan culture are royal towns, palaces or tombs of the nobility and wealthy families, this was just a farmers village. Through research at Joya de Cerén, more can be learned about rural life during the Mayan civilisation, which makes this place unique.

Ruta de las Flores

After this I drive on to Sonsonate to start at the Ruta de las Flores, a beautiful road between the towns of Sonsonate and Concepción de Ataco. The route owes its name to the many flowers that bloom here, especially in the period from November to February. Flowers and colourful villages alternate with the characteristic landscape of coffee plantations.

I order a delicious Pupusa at a food stall on the lively square in front of the church. The atmosphere here is friendly and relaxed. As I drive on to Concepción de Ataco, popularly called Ataco for short, the weather becomes more and more pleasant. Dark clouds gather together and announce a heavy downpour. This environment is therefore also an attractive holiday destination for El Salvadorians if they want to escape the heat of the coast and the lowlands. Ataco is a special village. In 2004 the community took part in a local competition of the liveliest village of El Salvador. It was decided to give the village a complete makeover with murals and therefore it is now like walking around in a real open-air museum. If you like street art, then Ataco is an absolute must.

The picture is complete

I end my journey through this beautiful, barely discovered Central American country on the coast near La Libertad. I reach this city via a breathtakingly beautiful coastal road. The beaches around this place are a bit busier, especially during the holidays or weekends, because many inhabitants of the capital want to spend their days off in this coastal region. I sit on the terrace by the pool and look out over the sea. In front of me there are three older males. They turn out to be old surf fanatics, watching and judging the youth in the sea. For me this completes the picture.

More about a visit to El Salvador

Would you like to make a trip through El Salvador yourself? That is possible and we are happy to help you. Do you have questions about a unique journey in El Salvador, would you like a tailor-made travel proposal, or would you like to make an appointment at our office? Feel free to contact us. Send an e-mail to or call us on +31 73 610 62 04. We are happy to help.

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