Brian Major | September 17, 2013 11:45 PM ET
Discovering El Salvador’s Many Tourism Charms
I returned recently from El Salvador, the Central American country whose name translates as “The Republic of the Savior.” After a few days spent in the capital of San Salvador and traveling about the countryside, I began to understand the El Salvador tourism ministry’s plan to overcome the years between 1979 and 1992, when the country’s violent civil war deterred travelers and robbed them of access to a multitude of attractions.
El Salvador is clearly looking to grow tourism from North America and beyond big time. The country attracted 443,000 travelers from the U.S. and Canada in 2012, representing 40 percent of all visitors. Indeed, international tourism to the country has increased each year since 2009, according to tourism ministry statistics.
No doubt visitors are increasingly drawn by the country’s diverse experiences. For example, El Salvador’s southwestern shore is home to La Libertad, a world-class surfing region with rugged and beautiful black-sand beaches. The town includes offers small hotels and restaurants, but is not overcrowded or expensive. Surfing classes here range from $5 to $10.
The surf district is one of a variety of activities the country offers adventure-seeking travelers, who also can hike the Parque El Boqueron’s trails up to volcanoes located 20 minutes outside of San Salvador. Devil’s Gate is an adventure park offering zip-lines, a treetop canopy, rappelling and hiking paths.
There’s more: El Salvador’s colonial towns are home to its indigenous indigo craft industry, supported mainly by the country’s women, as well as a fascinating original art scene characterized by colorful wall murals. Some of the towns are framed by lush, flower-laden mountains, while others are located aside large and languid lakes.
Visitors also can explore El Salvador’s ancient Mayan heritage at numerous archaeological sites, such as Tazumal, Joya De Ceren and San Andres. In addition, they can travel the “Coffee Route” to explore the local history, traditions, folklore and culture behind the cultivation and processing of coffee, which for generations has been El Salvador’s chief export.
El Salvador is an easy country to get to for North American travelers, with strong transportation links, including a superior road network. Indeed, the relatively short distances between its diverse regions have led locals to refer to El Salvador as “the 45-minute country.” Comalapa International Airport is a regional hub offering direct flights to a number of North American cities, and the country’s official currency in the U.S. dollar.
I traveled with a small group of travel journalists to attend the country’s first-ever tourism conference, El Salvador Travel Market 2013, sponsored by Corsatur and El Salvador’s tourism ministry. Most of us found ourselves repeating the words “genuine” and “authentic” in describing our experiences in the country.
In Suchitoto, one of El Salvador’s fascinating colonial towns, I strolled about the leafy plaza, struggling (and failing somehow) to capture a representative photo of the imposing bleached-white Santa Lucia church, framed that day by towering white clouds fixed in the blue skies.
Like many El Salvadoran colonial towns, Suchitoto features cobblestone streets, colonial houses with generous balconies and a bustling local art scene. Several galleries and shops displayed magnificent paintings, sculpture and other creations by talented local and regional artists. I strolled in and out of a few shops, impressed by original works of art unlike any I’ve seen in Latin America.
Later I joined my fellow journalists at a small indigo garment manufacturing facility, where the workers taught us to color garments using indigo, the rich blue dye made from a local plant. The processing of Indigo dates back to El Salvador’s original Mayan inhabitants and was a staple of economic trade in the colonial era.
Here the ancient art was practiced by a women’s cooperative, a group that highlights the strong role women have played in this country during and following the civil war, when most men (and many women) were engaged in combat. The women left behind out of necessity assumed control of local industries.
Suchitoto also offers a handful of small, upscale boutique hotels set in rustic colonial villas, including Las Puertas Suchitoto and La Posada de Suchitlan. Following brief tours of these properties, our little group walked over to La Memoria Vive museum in the town’s Centro de Arte para la Paz (Art Center for Peace). Here we gazed solemnly at exhibits, displays, art and artifacts from the country’s searing civil war, a notoriously violent conflict that saw much of the population, including men, women and children, take up arms in defense of their lives and beliefs.
The displays include weapons used in the conflict and archival photographs, letters and other materials documenting the bloody fight and its impact on everyday people. Nearby museum officials conducted “conflict resolution” classes that we learned are designed to provide citizens with peaceful strategies to be applied domestically and in the context of the larger society.
Our day ended at Lake Suchitlán, a broad and peaceful body of water ringed by lush green mountains at the foot of the town. At the water’s edge rests a small dock where motorized boats offer inexpensive transportation to nearby towns. A small restaurant and local park overlook the lake, a gathering spot for locals as well as tourists. By then I’d seen only a fraction of what this country has to offer. But it was more than enough to ensure my return.
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