Rear View Mirror: El Salvador Travel Tips & Observations After 66 Days in the Country

El Salvador definitely gets the award for Biggest Pleasant Surprise of any country we’ve traveled through so far on our Trans-Americas Journey, delivering great food, the warmest people since Mexico and one of the best boutique hotel finds in the region. Here are some El Salvador travel tips, facts and tid-bits which we picked up during our travels throughout El Salvador including volcanoes, beaches (for surfing or not), coffee plantations, hot springs, and more. Did we mention that El Salvador has a national park named El Imposible? Oh, and a growing craft beer scene (thanks Brew Revolution)?

This should keep you entertained while you pack. Seriously. You should go.

Cows on the beach El Salvador

 

Unlike every other country we’ve visited (so far) on our Trans-Americas Journey, there are no entry fees, not even any vehicle importation fees, when entering El Salvador. Yep, totally free.

You do have to be careful about the tricky CA-4 visa regulations to which El Salvador adheres. We got tripped up by the rules and were denied entry into El Salvador the first time we tried to cross the border.

A division of the Salvadoran police force, creepily called Politur (short for Policia de Turismo), provides free escort services to tourists. It reminds us of the ProAtur (formerly Asistur) program that the tourism department of Guatemala offers. After being warned more than once not to visit the Los Tercios waterfall near Suchitoto on our own, we got a lift with the local officers. One of them hiked down to the falls with us and then they drove us back to town. For free. With smiles on their faces. Yes, it would be better to be able to ensure that all locations are completely free of thieves, but if you know you can’t accomplish that this is a great way to keep destinations open to tourists. A free Politur escort is also mandatory when you hike up the Santa Ana Volcano.

Police escort hike Santa Ana Volcano Itzalco, El Salvador

Karen enjoying her free Politur police escort up to the top of Santa Ana Volcano.

 

Christy Turlington is part Salvadoran. Yes, that Christy Turlington…

We were very surprised by the number of really good hotels in El Salvador, lead by Casa ILB in San Salvador.

Since 2001 the official currency of El Salvador is the US dollar. It is slightly weird making purchases in Spanish but paying in US money. The Salvadoran colón is allegedly still in circulation but we never saw it.

El Salvador is the only country we know of in which the people eat their national flower, the izote which blooms out of a yucca plant.

Motmot national bird of El SalvadorThe national bird of El Salvador is the long-tailed mot mot also called a torogoz. They don’t eat it.

Wi Fi is spotty in most of the country. Sigh.

The 2011 winner of the World Barista Championship, Alejandro Mendez, is from El Salvador. Last we heard he was plying his craft at Viva Espresso in San Salvador.

El Salvador is the first place we ate loroco, a flower that’s harvested before it blooms. The green buds taste like asparagus and are delicious along with fresh cheese in pupusas, the scrumptious national dish of El Salvador.

In El Salvador a quesadilla is a dense white cake with grated dry cheese mixed into the batter (delicious)—NOT tortillas folded over with melted cheese inside.

October is usually the coolest month with the clearest skies thanks to the something everyone calls “October winds.” Though October brought Tropical Storm 12E when we were in El Salvador, dumping up to five feet (1,500mm) of rain over nine days, just one foot (300mm) shy of the country’s average annual rainfall. The President of El Salvador called it the worst storm in the country’s history (even worse than Hurricane Mitch) but you’ve probably never heard of it. Because the storm was never classified as a hurricane it never made it on international TV or on aid organization radar.

Salvadorans really, really like Worcheshire sauce which is called Salsa Inglesa and is found on nearly every table.

Salvadorans also love cream soda. Who knew they still made that stuff?

Most ATMs don’t charge a withdrawal fee and they dispense reasonably sized bills ($10s and $20s mostly).

El Salvador is, generally speaking, about 30% more expensive than Guatemala but far cheaper than Costa Rica.

El Salvador volcanoes lakes and boats

 

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, roughly the size of Massachusetts. This, coupled with the fact that it has one of the best road networks in the region, makes it very easy to explore the whole place.

Lonely Planet no longer publishes a guide book for El Salvador. El Sal info is now just crammed into their Central America on a Shoestring guide. Pity.

Eating at beloved regional chicken chain Pollo Campero in El Salvador is about 50% more expensive than it is in Guatemala and they do NOT refill your soda. You have been warned.

For a cheap thrill, take the bus in San Salvador. The drivers are insane and the fare is only $0.25.

El Salvador is home to the only falconer licensed to take tourists along on his hikes with hunting birds of prey. His name is Roy Beers and he runs Cadejo Adventures. Eric’s stop-action photos of us enjoying an afternoon of falconry with Roy and his harris hawk are really cool.

El Salvador beach sunset

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Brand New Brews on the Beach – El Tunco, El Salvador

Of the string of beach towns and villages along El Salvador’s Pacific, El Tunco, a long-time surf mecca, is the most developed. Now, beach development comes in two forms. Bad beach development includes roving Hawaiian Tropic Girls and fly-overs by planes pulling advertising banners for Axe body spray. Good beach development includes hand crafted beer sipped with sand between your toes as you watch the surfers do their epic thing. El Tunco just got the good kind of beach development with brand new brews on the beach.

Welcome to El Tunco surf beach, El Salvador

El Tunco, on El Salvador’s Pacific coast, has been a surf mecca for years and now it’s got micro brews as well as waves.

 

El Tunco, El Salvador sunset

Sunset surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Welcome to a brew revolution

Even before we tasted his beer we thought Andy Newbom was pretty cool. The former coffee importer and roaster (he owned Barefoot Coffee in California) moved to San Salvador with his wife and daughter after falling in love with El Salvador during coffee sourcing trips. But coffee isn’t the only thing Andy drinks. Oh no.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution, El Tunco, El Salvador - Brewing Beer

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy likes beer too and while El Salvador’s Pilsner or Suprema are (barely) passable, he wanted a better brew so he decided to make it himself. A section of the family’s backyard was turned into a beer making area and when we dropped by the house/craft brewery Andy was working on an experimental batch of beer spiked with dried hibiscus flowers. His helpers were three local guys whom he was hoping to turn into home brewers as well.

Andy Newbom - Brew Revolution Beer Tasting, El Tunco, El Salvador - Barefoot Coffee

Craft beer maker Andy Newbom, leader of a Brew Revolution in El Salvador.

Andy calls it a Brew Revolution and since we first met him he’s taken his revolution to the people. In June of 2012 he opened a micro cerveceria on the beach in front of Hotel Mopelia in El Tunco. Here he offers six different beers at a time. Three of them are constant including Mercurio IPA, an El Slavador IPA with “all american citrus hops and salvadoran panela,”  Venus Wit, a Belgian tropical wheat beer with local passionfruit and pineapple and Nyx Black Ale, an American Black Pale Ale with a good amount of hops and coffee. Three seasonal beers rotate in and out.

Prices range from US$4 for a 333ml bottle or draft to US$5 for a 500ml bottle or draft. He’ll also be offering special barley wines for US$6 to US$7. Not bad for what certainly appears to be El Salvador’s first craft brew. But hopefully not its last!

If you’re interested in helping Brew Revolution get even bigger and better by the time you get your butt to El Salvador, consider supporting the brand new Brew Revolution Kickstarter Campaign.

Unfortunately, Brew Revolution wasn’t open when we were in El Tunco but we still managed to have a good time. Here are the nuts and bolts of budget travel in El Tunco.

EL Tunco Travel Tips

We weren’t originally headed to El Tunco at all. We had our hearts set on checking out the smaller fishing village of Playa Los Cóbanos but the hostal there, Kalindo, was full. Then we checked out the town of El Zonte and Playa Sunzal which both seemed best suited to surfers on a tight budget, plus none of the accommodations offered WiFi.

Surfer Crossing sign El Salvador

“Slow down surfers in the road.”

We must have looked at 90% of the guesthouses and hotels in El Tunco, many of which were priced beyond our budget. If we’d had a little more to spend (rooms start at US$40) we would have checked into the Hotel Eco del Mar with its chic style, large sleek rooms and little plunge pool. It’s not on the beach but it is appealing.

Instead, we spent our first night in El Tunco in Tortuga Surf Club where we got a decent airy room right on the beach with a shared bath and very, very clean pool for US$30. Still a splurge, but the sound of the pounding surf made up for it.

El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surf report, El Tunco style.

 

Best budget bed in El Tunco

The next morning we discovered the best bargain bed in El Tunco at a place called Papaya Guesthouse. Now, there are two places in El Tunco with the word papaya in the name. You want the place directly across the street from La Guitara. Look for the enormous wooden gate.

This place is spotless, has a nice little pool and sitting areas with hammocks and offers rooms with A/C and large, stylish rooms with fans and private baths for US$25 plus perfectly acceptable smaller rooms with shared bath. We chose the latter for US$14 a night. Toss in WiFi, parking, a great staff and a shared kitchen and you can’t beat it.

El Tunco beach sunset, El Salvador

Another day ends in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Swimmers be advised

Like so many great surf beaches, the beach at El Tunco is not good for swimming because of strong rip currents. The beach is also rocky and covered in uninviting, hot, nearly black sand. Then again, you’ll be too busy enjoying a few craft brewed beers while watching the surfers do their thing to mind!

Surfing El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

Surfing wipeout El Tunco beach, El Salvador

Sort of surfing in El Tunco, El Salvador.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

El Tunco sunset surf, El Salvador

Going for one last wave before the sun disappears.

 

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Beyond the Break – La Libertad, El Salvador

Our guidebook warned that “this isn’t an area you want to wander around past dark” and “the overall atmosphere is that of a grimy port town.” That all may have been true in the recent past, but today’s La Libertad offers a revitalized malecon (Spanish for seaside promenade), great cheap eats and even a new surfer-chic hotel.

We almost didn’t stop in La Libertad at all when we traveled from San Salvador to El Tunco. But an ISA World Masters Surf Championship had just been held there and we were curious to see what all the hang-ten hoopla was about.

Surfers are early adopters

In their almost maniacal search for the perfect wave surfers often pioneer awesome beach destinations. Surfers from all over the world have been coming to La Libertad since the 1970s to surf the famous right break at Punta Roca (Rock Point) at the far western end of Playa La Paz. We don’t surf but we take it on good authority that La Punta (as surfers call it) is one of the best right breaks in all of Central America. La Libertad is still on surfer’s bucket lists.

Surf Punta Roca La Libertad El Salvador

Evening beach soccer on the beach and surfers in the water in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Like many beaches that have great breaks, the beach near Punta Roca is not great for sunning or swimming. The sand is mostly strewn with melon-sized rocks and while surfers appreciate the powerful waves they’re too much for enjoyable (or safe) swimming.

But the “new” La Libertad offers something beyond the beach and beyond the break.

 

Investing in tourism

If you’ve got 15 seconds and an internet connection you can find legit travelers’ horror stories about robbery and even assault in La Libertad, mostly fueled by a local drug problem that’s still being battled. But in recent years the government has invested a lot to revitalize the city’s infrastructure, bring back business and take back the streets, waterfront and beaches.

Malecon Ice Cream La Libertad El Salvador

Sweet refreshment on the revitalized malecon in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

A main focus of these efforts is the malecon stretching right to Playa La Paz from an enormous pier. This area is now a paved, painted and pleasant place to stroll and relax. There are benches and vistas and landscaping and open-air restaurants and ice cream shops and families and couples from San Salvador (just 30 minutes away) taking full advantage of it all.

Malecon  La Libertad El Salvador

Looking back at the shops, restaurants and bars on the malecon in El Salvador from the town’s lively pier.

 

A fish market for photographers

The long, partly enclosed pier in La Libertad is a massive fish market with vendors packed in shoulder to shoulder selling fresh and dried fruits of the sea, all of which are unloaded and cleaned on the far end of the pier every morning. At the very end of the pier are two massive cranes which transport the long, wooden fishing boats from the pier into the water and vice versa because the surf is too rough for the boast to enter and exit the water from the beach.

Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Incredibly fresh offerings on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Langostin Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fresh lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling seafood market.

Crab Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

Crabs for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Lobster Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

That’s one huge lobster for sale on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador which doubles as a bustling sea food market.

Dried Fish pier La Libertad El Salvador

It’s not just fresh fish that’s for sale on the pier in La Libertad. Dried fish makes up a good portion of the goods on offer in this photogenic, open air market.

 

Returning boats register their catch with a local cooperative, then go about cleaning and selling it. We saw all kinds of fish large and small being prepped for market. Sadly, we also saw one fisherman with a haul of more than 10 baby hammerhead sharks.

Hammerhead sharks La Libertad El Salvador

We’re pretty sure it should be illegal to bring in these baby hammerhead sharks.

Boat winch La Libertad El Salvador

A boat being winched back onto the pier in La Liberad, El Salvador after a day of fishing.

Fish seller La Libertad El Salvador

He just caught ’em and now he’s selling them on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fresh Fish La Libertad El Salvador

Haggling over the price of fish on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Fish cleaner La Libertad El Salvador

This guy made cleaning a fresh catch look easy.

Fishing Pier La Libertad El Salvador

Fishing boats on the pier in La Libertad.

Drying Fish  La Libertad El Salvador

High-tech fish drying methods in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

We spent hours each morning photographing the action and trying to stay out of the way as hauls were unloaded, boats were lifted up and down and fish were gutted and sold all around us. It was truly one of the most active, pleasant and photogenic fish markets we’ve visited.

Fish La Libertad El Salvador

It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Pier  La Libertad El Salvador

Cleaning a ray on the pier in La Libertad.

Smiling child La Libertad El Salvador

A smile at sunset in La Libertad, El Salvador.

 

From cheap eats to city style

Some of the day’s catch ends up in the hands of La Libertad’s talented ceviche makers. For US$3 we got about a pound (half kilo) of absolutely fresh, sweet and delicious ceviche which we scarfed down on a bench on the maelcon.

Ceviche Baldizon La Libertad El Salvador

All the fresh fixin’s for great ceviche on the pier in La Libertad, El Salvador.

If you want an actual restaurant, there are those too. Large, basic comedors with plastic chairs and blaring televisions are located to the left of the pier (away from Punta Roca). They’re nothing fancy but the fish is fresh (and displayed out front for your approval) and prices are low. Pick your place and enjoy ceviche or cooked dishes and ice-cold beer with the locals.

Ceviche La Libertad El Salvador

Lunch is served.

Ceviche Restaurants La Libertad El Salvador

Seafood restaurants rub shoulders in La Libertad.

Open-air restaurants with style, skilled waiters and higher prices are strung out to the right of the pier. This is where we found Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant which was recommended to us by Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours. Owned by chef Danilo Ortega, the place is tiny and bright with eager staff and great smells coming out of a kitchen the size of a closet. Danilo’s is famous for his powerful but refreshing Muñeco Sour (US$3), a twist on the Pisco Sour made with local Muñeco liquor (think of it as Salvadoran white lightning).

Muneco Sour Libertad El Salvador

The signature cocktail at Danilo’s Bar and Restaurant on the oceanfront boardwalk in La Libertad.

Chef Ortega, who ran a successful bar in San Salvador for years, operates his beach eatery like a city joint, offering things his city clientele look for like hard to find Bucanero Cuban beer, fresh sashimi (US$6), classically prepared fish and signature dishes like shrimp in bacon with bbq sauce and baby back ribs (US$16 for 1.5 pounds).

Sleep here

It’s true that most of the accommodations in La Libertad are still geared toward surfers, ie, they’re cheap above all else. However, a company called Adventure Sports Tours (AST) had opened a surprisingly stylish new option right on the malecon. La Terraza AST Surf Hotel  was designed, rather than slapped together, which you can see before you even walk through the door thanks to landscaping and a waterfall wall at the entrance. Inside, La Terraza features chic earth tones, big bathrooms, A/C, an open-air rooftop restaurant and bar (with surprisingly good food), hammocks and, of course, plenty of room to store your board.

 La Terraza AST Surf Hotel LA Libertad El Salvador

The surprisingly stylish La Terraza AST Surf Hotel in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Opened in 2011, La Terraza is clearly meant for surfers willing to spend a bit more for substantially more comfort and style and for non-surfers who appreciate the hotel’s million dollar view of Punta Roca. The hotel is built so close to the beach that the crashing waves literally reverberate through the building. And since La Libertad has also invested in enormous, powerful flood lights which illuminate Punta Roca at night the break is dramatically visible 24 hours a day.

Local tourism authorities told us the city has plans to add lifeguards, night surfing, extend the malecon even further, renovate and upgrade the comedors and attract more cultural events to the small amphitheater on the malecon.

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Cruising into a Town Worth Your Time – Metapán, El Salvador

It’s the little things that can make a trip. Like cruise control. Since leaving the bitumen bliss of US and Canadian highways behind back in 2008 we’ve been rumbling, bumping and pot-hole surfing our way south over roads that often put the GM test track to shame (and we’ve driven the GM test track so we know what we’re talking about). However, throughout  El Salvador we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the comparatively good condition of most of the roads we’ve traveled down but we were still stunned by the heavenly smoothness of the new Northern Highway to Metapán, a nearly US$300 million project which was funded in part by the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This stretch of road is so good that Salvadorans recently held a skateboarding competition on it. We used our cruise control for the first time in years on this highway as we rolled smoothly into Metapán. It was nice to know it still works.

Metapán is the birthplace of Isidro Menéndez, a key figure in El Salvador’s independence movement and sometimes credited with drafting the country’s first constitution. This helps explain why El Salvador’s Constitution Square is in Metapán, not San Salvador.

Flags of Central America, Constitution Square - Metapan, El Salvador

The flags of five Central American countries fly in Constitution Square in Metapán, El Salvador.

Gun barrel fence in front of Metapan, El Salvador Municipalidad

Yes, the outside of Metapán’s city hall looks a bit like a casino. The fence around that big cat is made from defunct gun barrels by the way.

 

Chemistry is cool

These days Metapán is known more for its lucrative deposits of limestone than homegrown revolutionaries, which explains why the town’s nickname is “the white city.” Some full-size factories have set up shop in Metapán where they process limestone rocks into quicklime (mostly for use in concrete) on a grand scale. However, there are still about 30 lime kilns around Metapán which cook rocks down to this fine, white powder the old-fashioned way. And when we say “old-fashioned” we mean practically prehistoric.

Lime kiln - Metapan, El Salvador

Firing up one of about 30 traditional lime kilns around Metapán in El Salvador where limestone rocks are cooked down to quicklime powder the (very) old-fashioned way.

Los Caleros - Metapan, El Salvador

A calero, or traditional lime kiln worker, in Metapán, El Salvador.

Called las caleras, these kilns are constructed by workers called caleros who meticulously stack quarried limestone into an igloo shape. The stones must fit tightly and the finished igloos are gorgeous–like something sculptor Andy Goldsworthy might make and every bit as temporary. Next, a massive amount of wood is stacked inside the igloo and then it’s lit on fire. Over the next 12 days the fire reaches epic temperatures and cooks the rocks until they quite literally change form–going from dark to pure white.

cooking limestone making quicklime for cement - Metapan, El Salvador

A fired and steaming traditional lime kiln smokes in the sunset near Metapán, El Salvador.

Lime kiln fire - Metapan, El Salvador

Wood fires are stoked to incredible temperatures as limestone rocks are turned into limestone powder in traditional kilns which are still used in Metapán, El Salvador.

Take a look inside the fiery, ancient world of a traditional lime kiln in our video from Metapán, below.

 

It takes three days to cool the rocks to a temperature at which they can be handled. At
that point water is poured on them causing a chemical reaction marked by bubbling,
cracking and fizzing until the rock turns into white lime powder (called quicklime) right before your very
eyes.

Watch this amazing process in our video of the transformation from limestone rock to quicklime powder, below. If you don’t think chemistry is cool after you watch this then there’s no hope for you.

 

Time to cool off with some river rafting

An adventure of a different kind takes place on the nearby Guajoyo River where Raul Sanabria has created an aquatic park called Apuzunga where you can cool off in naturally fed swimming pools (US$3 per adult), zip line (US$10 per person), camp and go rafting with some of the best equipment and most professional river guides we’ve seen in Central America (US$40 per person and each raft always has three guides).

whitewater river rafting Apuzunga - Metapan, El Salvador

Heading out for a white water adventure on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River - Metapan, El Salvador

A raging section of the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

whitewater river rafting Guajoyo River Apuzunga  - Metapan, El Salvador

Rafting guides paddling out on the Guajoyo River in Metapán, El Salvador.

Raul also has a tilapia farm which supplies the freshest of fish to his open air restaurant and bar overlooking the river. Our post-rafting lunch was huge and delicious. Followed by cold beer and a nap in a hammock, it’s a perfect day.

 

The prince of pupusas

Forty years ago a teenaged Amadeo Gonzalez fled Metapán to escape the vicious civil war in El Salvador leaving behind a coveted spot on the national soccer team—a team that went all the way to the World Cup the following year during which the so-called “Soccer War” with Honduras began (though people in both countries are quick to point out that this short but passionate altercation was caused by much more than a soccer match).

By that time Amadeo was in San Francisco working at the Levi’s factory (back when the iconic American jeans were still made in the USA). An invitation to play soccer with a local team in SF turned into a paying gig which allowed Amadeo to quit the factory job he hated and eventually open a restaurant.

Twenty five years ago Amadeo opened Balompie Café in the Mission district long before gentrification made this neighborhood safe and stylish (balompie is a combination of the Spanish words for “ball” and “foot” which used to be used instead of “futbol”). It’s still there and about to be re-located around the corner to chic new digs designed by Amadeo.

A second Balompie restaurant followed, this time in Amadeo’s hometown of Metapán. Then Amadeo opened a second Balompie in San Francisco, solidifying his standing as the source for Salvadoran favorites to a growing Latin population in the city who craved dishes like yucca and chicharron and the most iconic Salvadorean dish of all: the pupusa. This gooey, rich, steaming disc of grilled massa (rice or corn) is traditionally filled with beans, cheese and chicharron, though Amadeo has expanded the offerings to include ingredients like basil and mozzarella.

 Amadeo Gonzalez Balompie - Metapan, El Salvador

Amadeo Gonzalez: Metapán native, soccer lover, owner of Balompie Cafe and the Prince of Pupusas.

The pupusas at Balompie have been voted Best Pupusa by SF Weekly and 7X7 magazine (which put a luscious picture of a plateful of Amadeo’s pupusas on their food issue cover).
Balompie has also been named one of the top 100 Budget Bites by the San Francisco
Chronicle.

We haven’t been to Amadeo’s SF restaurants but we have eaten at Balompie in Metapán with Amadeo and his wife Evelyn and their gregarious son Ama and we can tell you that it’s impossible to beat the open air balcony with views of Constitution Park and the San
Pedro church which some say is the most beautiful colonial church in El Salvador. The food was delicious and Amadeo’s very personal wall of soccer memorabilia and the fact that the back of his restaurant opens up right into the soccer stadium make Balompie a very smart upscale sports bar too.

 

TIP

Odds are your guide book will recommend that you stay at either Hotel San Jose, Hotel Cristina or (God forbid) the trucker-filled Hotel California while in Metapán. That’s because they don’t know about Hostal de Metapán. Opened in June of 2011, owners Rafael and Estrella have created a spotless, centrally located newcomer with eight rooms including private double rooms with A/C, WiFi, parking, bathroom, free coffee and daily breakfast for US$20. Contact Rafael directly at rafael.imortaga@hotmail (dot) com or call + 503 2402 2382.

We liked Metapán so much that we’re doing two posts about it. Check out our adventures
with an amateur paleontologist, a closed national park and fried cow udders in our next post from Around Metapán.

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We’re Welcome (and you will be too) – Ahuachapán, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

Our suspicions were confirmed in Ahuachapán: El Salvadorans really are as friendly, proud and hospitable as Mexicans. And that’s saying something since the amazing energy and generosity of the Mexican people was a big reason why we ended up spending 18 months in Mexico and would return for more at the drop of a sombrero.

Ahuachapán is the largest town along the 23 mile route through volcano-ringed coffee plantations known as the Ruta de las Flores. It’s also the birthplace of lauded Salvadoran poet Alfredo Espino and the source of a distinctive style of painting.

Bruno mural Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Artists Leo and Fabio Bruno created their distincitively whimsical mural style in Ahuachapán, El Salvador.

When brothers Leo and Fabio Bruno couldn’t find work (one is a lawyer and the other is an
architect) Claudia Gazzolo de Munguia took matters into her own hands. A proud Ahuachapán native, owner of La Casa de Mamapan guesthouse (more on that in a moment) and head of the local tourism commission, Claudia put the brothers to work painting the outside of her hotel right on the town’s main square. Their bright, always smiling characters were soon in high demand and today Ahuachapán is full of their playful, uplifting work. They’ve even painted some of the street signs in town.

street sign - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

The Bruno brothers have even painted some of the street signs in Ahuachapán, El Salvador.

Nuestra Senora de Ascuncion church - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

Nuestra Senora de Asunción church anchors the center of Ahuachapán, El Salvador.

There’s no one better equipped to bring Ahuachapán’s bohemian best to life than Claudia–
and not just because she runs the greatest guesthouse in town. Built in 1823, La Casa de
Mamapan was Claudia’s mother’s home. When Claudia brought her children up from the capital to visit their grandmother in Ahuachapán the kids would say they were going to see “Mamapan.” The nickname stuck.

To grandmother’s house we go

In 2005, after years of neglect and a series of natural disasters which caused further
damage to the house, Claudia decided it was time to restore the place and turn it into a
guesthouse where other people could enjoy at least a little bit of the homey joy of those
visits to grandma’s house. Very few typical hotel concessions were made, much of the
original furniture and the quirks of the building remains and, therefore, staying in one of the five rooms at La Casa de Mamapan feels like being in someone’s house not in someone’s hotel. The only thing missing was grandma.

Casa de Mamapan hotel - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

The owner of La Casa de Mamapan hotel in Ahuachapán, El Salvador commissioned local brothers to paint this wall of the business–and a style was born.

La Casa de Mamapan has a prime location across from bustling, tree-filled Plaza Concordia. The hotel’s small cafe opens onto a pedestrian mall that runs along one side of the blue and white Nuestra Senora de Asunción church.

Taking the insiders’ tour

Claudia and her husband, Roberto, greeted us as soon as we arrived in Ahuachapán and for two days they were generous, enthusiastic and gracious with their time, information and hospitality giving us an insiders’ tour and sharing sights and experiences in and around their beloved town which we would not have had on our own.

Yucca y Chicharon vendor mural - Ahuachapn, El Salvador

The Bruno brothers’ version of the women in Ahuachapán who sell delicious yucca and chicharon on the street.

We started our Ahuachapán adventure with a snack called yucca and chicharon which consists of boiled yucca (like a cross between a sweet potato and a parsnip) topped with diced tomatoes and onions in a vinegary sauce and hunks of rich, crispy, meaty, lightly fried pork skin called chicharon. it’s a lot like the carnitas we loved so much in Mexico. Of course Claudia and Roberto knew just which street vendor would have the best yucca and chicharon and we enjoyed our freshly-prepared treats on park benches surrounded by more murals by Leo and Fabio.

Yuca y Chicharon

Delicious yucca and chicharon.

That evening we paid a visit to the town’s cemetery which was unusually well-kept and full
of ornate tombs and headstones–especially picturesque at dusk.Then our devoted guides
took us to La Original for what they swore were the best pupusas in town. These filled
griddle-grilled ground corn patties are the national dish of El Salvador and everyone has
strong opinions about where the best pupusas can be found. We’d come to trust Claudia and Roberto’s expertise and the pupusas did not disappoint.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador cemetary angel

Ahuachapán’s cemetery gets even more photogenic at dusk.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador cemetary angel

Ahuachapán’s cemetery gets even more photogenic at dusk.

 

Just when we thought they couldn’t get any hostier…

The next day we piled into the couple’s car to check out some of the area’s famous
geothermal activity. After passing a massive geothermal energy plant Roberto pulled over
in front of a small house and the woman inside waved us through her fence. Soon we were carefully crossing a landscape of bubbling pools of hot mud and steaming vents in the ground in search of therapeutic, mineral-rich mud.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador Geo-thermal energy plant

Ahuachapán is a geothermal hot bed and we went hunting for therapeutic, mineral-rich mud not far from a huge geothermal energy plant (in the background). 

After gathering a few small bags of mud we re-traced our steps back to the car. A few
minutes later we arrived at hot springs heaven.

Ahuachapan, El Salvador Geo-thermal mud pit

Boiling mud pits mark areas in Ahuachapán where the geothermal activity is literally bubbling to the surface. 

We’ve been to some tremendous hot springs in our time. However, Santa Teresa Hot Springs (Termales Santa Teresa), just a few miles outside of Ahuachapán, blew us away with the beauty and size of the tiled pools and the relaxing, yet accessible, setting. At just US$10 to soak all day long we couldn’t figure out why the three pools weren’t packed. Instead, we had the place to ourselves.

Santa Teresa Hot Springs - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

One of the beautiful, roomy, natural hot-spring fed pools at Santa Teresa Hot Springs.

termales Santa Teresa Hot Springs - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

One of the beautiful, roomy, natural hot-spring fed pools at Santa Teresa Hot Springs.

As we soaked and covered our faces with the mud we’d just collected Claudia explained that the adjacent organic coffee plantation and processing facility (called a beneficio) is run on geothermal energy and naturally heated water is used during the processing of the coffee beans.

When we were at the hot springs the only accommodation was in one of three multi-bedroom bungalows with kitchens and patios arranged around the pools. There was a small restaurant on site and owner Marco Batres was in the process of adding a small hotel and some dorm rooms.

termales Santa Teresa Hot Springs at night - Ahuachapan, El Salvador

One of the beautiful, roomy, natural hot-spring fed pools at Santa Teresa Hot Springs.

Just when we thought our hosts couldn’t possibly get any hostier Claudia excitedly announced that she had arranged for the four of us to spend the night in one of the bungalows.

In case  you were wondering, it does NOT suck to wake up in the morning and stumble into your own private hot spring.

Our thanks to Claudia and Roberto for sharing their love of Ahuachapán and making us feel so welcome there.

 

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Food for the Body, Food for the Soul – Juayúa, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

Sunday is fun day in Juayúa (pronounced why-YOU-ah) along El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores and it’s got nothing to do with church. Every Sunday the streets around the main plaza in the center of town are closed to traffic and become packed with vendors selling all manner of tasty treats.

Juauyua, El Salvador with Santa Ana volcano, Itzalco volcano and Apaneca volcano

The town of Juayúa in the valley with Apaneca, Santa Ana and Itzalco volcanoes (left to right) in the distance.

 

Food for the body

Local residents, weekenders from San Salvador and travelers pack together to wander past the offerings at this well-known Gastronomic Fair (Feria Gastronomica)  where everything from paella to grilled meat to shrimp on skewers to freshly baked cakes are available. Ask the right person and you can still get iguana along with even more exotic (and illegal) foods.

Town Plaza fountain Juayua, El Salvador

The main plaza in the town of Juayúa on El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores. A famous food fair happens here every Sunday.

Juayua, El Salvador - Ruta de las Flores

Volcano views from a rooftop in downtown Juayúa along El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores.

In Juayúa we stayed at Casa Mazeta Hostal where we got a private room (US$20 double) with a shared bathroom, use of a big kitchen, WiFi, parking and a lovely back garden. One afternoon we headed out from the hostel and walked to Chorros de la Calera, a rocky gorge with a waterfall that spills out of a rock wall and a swimming hole.

Sadly, the mile or so walk to the swimming area wanders along an increasingly bad dirt road increasingly strewn with garbage and lined with open drainage from the shacks along the way. The walk was not pleasant.

Chorros de la Calera waterfall - Juayua, El Salvador

It’s worth enduring the litter-strewn trail to get to Chorros de la Calera waterfall near Juayúa, El Salvador.

Eventually the dirt road dead ended at a fence where we ignored the Private Property sign and continued through a gate. This property is owned by a hydroelectric company but Chorros de la Calera has become public property. Chorros de la Calera is essentially a wall of stone which is perfectly dry at the top but sheathed in water from about midway down thanks to springs that erupt right out of the rock.It’s the waterwall which man-made versions in hotel lobbies and expensive spas aspire to be.

A concrete retaining wall has been built below the cascade to create a deep, inviting swimming area. A creepy tunnel diverts water out one side of the pool then down to the power plant below.

Chorros de la Calera waterfall - Juayua, El Salvador

A Salvadoran cools off in the Chorros de la Calera waterfall near Juayúa, El Salvador.

 

Food for the soul

Believe it or not we managed to spend a year and a half in Mexico without ever catching a Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebration. And we still haven’t seen a proper Day of the Dead blow out. However, we did catch All Souls’ Day in El Salvador. This holiday falls on November 2, the day after Day of the Dead, and also celebrates the memory of lost loved ones with a distinctly party-like atmosphere.

Colorful cemetery Juayua, El Salvador - All Souls Day (not Dia de los Muertos) Ruta de las Flores

The cemetery in Juayúa, El Salvador all decked out for All Souls’ Day.

Family visiting the cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

A family visits the grave of a loved one during colorful and festive All Souls’ Day celebrations in Juayúa, El Salvador.

In Juayúa the normally quiet small, wooded cemetery had been freshly painted and decorated with flowers and confetti in every color under the sun. Families had set up chairs, brought containers of food  and established a festive air at the graveside of their dearly departed. Candy cane vendors wandered between gravestones. A mariachi band provided the tunes.

The dead were being remembered in an appropriately festive spirit. Then it started to pour.

Mariachis in the cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

It’s not an All Souls’ Day celebration until the mariachi band shows up.

Cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

The cemetery in Juayúa, El Salvador all decked out for All Souls’ Day.

Cemetery Juayua, El Salvador for  All Souls Day

The cemetery in Juayúa, El Salvador all decked out for All Souls’ Day.

Check out some All Souls’ Day cemetery celebrations in Juayúa, El Salvador in our video, below.

 

The town of Nauizalco, about a 20 minute drive from Juayúa, has a night market at which, we were told, we could find delicious rabbit tacos. We have to say we were a bit disappointed, however. No rabbit tacos in sight and it turns out that a night market is pretty much the same as a day market, only darker.

Coffee on hillside in Apaneca, El Salvador - Ruta de las Flores

The intricate landscaping in this coffee plantation is meant to act as a wind break for the maturing coffee beans.

El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores is famous for towns like Juayúa and for the coffee plantations and volcanoes that surround you every step of the way. Near the town of Apaneca, the crater of a dormant volcano has filled with water creating picturesque Laguna Verde.

Laguna verde (volcanic crater lake) near Apaneca, El Salvador - Ruta de las Flores

Laguna Verde, a volcanic crater lake near Apaneca along the Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador.

 

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