Rear View Mirror: El Salvador Travel Tips 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 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)?

Cows on the beach El Salvador

El Salvador travel tips

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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Our Latest Work: Diving with Sharks around Cocos Island & (more) Amazing Central American Hotels

We first heard about Cocos Island, a verdant dot in the ocean 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, more than a decade ago. Between the pirate treasure still buried on the island to the shark-rich waters around it we’ve been dreaming of the place ever since. It was worth the wait, as we explain in our feature about new marine protections and the thrill of diving with hammerheads off Cocos Island for the Minneapolis Star Tribune travel section.

Cocos Island

 

We made different kinds of dreams come true during stays at some of Central America’s best boutique hotels including Jicaro Island Ecolodge and Los Patios in Nicaragua, Las Flores Resort & Surf Club in El Salvador and Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge & Gallery and El Silencio Lodge & Spa in Costa Rica.

We even ventured back to the United States just to check out the newly opened Eilan Hotel Resort & Spa which made us love San Antonio even more.

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On the Road to Peace – Perquin & El Mozote, Ruta de la Paz, El Salvador

Perquin and El Mozote lie at the heart of El Salvador’s Ruta de la Paz (Peace Route). This is where some of the worst atrocities and massacres of the 12 year Salvadoran Civil War happened and that’s saying something. These are haunted places, hard to visit, hard to forget.

Inside the Holy Spirit Grotto

As a prelude to our time along the Ruta de la Paz we visited the ancient pictograph-filled Holy Spirit Grotto (La Gruta del Espíritu Santo in Spanish). Be warned: the road that cuts off from the Pan American Highway and heads up to the town of Corinto is a festival of pot holes over pavement that was clearly laid by blind ferrets then attacked by dinosaurs wielding jack hammers and bad attitudes. Luckily, the grotto was worth it.

A two minute stroll took us to an enormous rock overhang which is covered in pre-historic paintings.

petroglyphs Espiritu Santo grotto - Corinto, El Salvador

It was worth braving an evil road to get to the Holy Spirit Grotto (La Gruta del Espíritu Santo in Spanish), a huge rock overhang covered in ancient pictographs in El Salvador.

 

Though some of the pictographs are said to be more than 10,000 years old, many still clearly depict hawks and humans. An on-site guide accompanied us and pointed his machete at dozens of images we might have missed otherwise.

rock paintings Espiritu Santo cave - Corinto, El Salvador

This hand is just one of the hundreds of ancient pictographs you can still see at the Holy Spirit Grotto (La Gruta del Espíritu Santo in Spanish) in El Salvador.

Even better than ancient rock art? Brand new paving on the road from Cortino to Perquin.

 

Preserving the painful past in Perquin

The Salvadoran civil war was fought between various guerrilla factions cobbled together into a movement called the FMLN vs. the Salvadoran government’s US-backed military. It was the second longest civil war in Central American history and it didn’t end until 1992. Some of the earliest fighting happened in Suchitoto. Horrible things happened in Suchitoto and around El Slavador, but some of the most notorious atrocities happened along what is now called the Ruta de la Paz.

FMLN Che Guevera El Salvador

Che Guevera, FMLN hero, immortalized in a town along the Ruta de la Paz in El Salvador.

During the war guerrilla fighters emerged from all over the country to rise up against the army but Perquin emerged as the spot where FMLN headquarters were set up, in part because of its guerrillas and in part because of its forested, mountain terrain–perfect cover for a guerrilla war.

The region is still staunchly FMLN (which became a political party and is currently in power in El Salvador) and many of the people you’ll meet were guerrillas, including the staff of the excellent Museum of the Revolution (US$1.25 per person).

Museum of the Revolution - Perquin, El Salvador

Deadly weapons in front of a backdrop of art depicting local children’s dreams of peace at the Museum of the Revolution in Perquin, El Salvador.

When we arrived at the humble, low-slung museum we met Carlos who told us he was a guerrilla fighter and now works at the museum. After giving us a thorough history of the war (we were really proud of ourselves for following it in Spanish) Carlos shadowed us as we slowly toured the simple but moving exhibits, pointing out anything important that he felt we might have missed. And there was a lot of important stuff.

A series of adjoining rooms, each with a theme, housed everything from weapons to pictures of FMLN leaders killed during fighting and a few who survived attack and torture. A handful are still alive today. One room displayed equipment used to transmit crucial messages on the FMLN’s ingenious radio network, called Radio Venceremos. 

Radio Venceremos.FMLN - Perquin, El Salvador

Some of the rudimentary studio equipment used by the FMLN to broadcast crucial messages on Radio Venceremos during El Salvador’s civil war.

Under a roof out back we saw the remains of the helicopter used in one of the most daring and famous FMLN assassinations of the war. To get at government military leader Lt. Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios the guerrillas allowed Monterrosa to find a FMLN transmitter which he confiscated, believing it to be a crucial FMLN tool. It was. The FMLN had booby-trapped the transmitter and guerrillas exploded it remotely once the helicopter–and Monterrosa–were airborne. All aboard were killed in what Carlos described as “tacticos del caballo a trojan.”

Helicopter ruins, Museum of the Revolution - Perquin, El Salvador

What remains of the helicopter which the FMLN shot down using a booby-trapped radio transmitter in order to assassinate Lt. Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios during El Salvador’s civil war.

Guerrilla life, sort of

One of the strengths of a guerrilla army is its ability to hide in and move around rugged terrain. FMLN fighters lived and battled in deep jungle for years and we got a somewhat wacky sense of what FMLN guerrilla camp life might have been like.

A former guerrilla camp is located just down the road from the museum. It’s now on property occupied by a family and they’ve re-created some rudimentary structures, put more bombs and bullets on display (who knew spent bullet casings could be strung together into a pretty cool curtain?) and uncovered a network of tunnels which guerrillas used to move around undetected. You can walk through them if you like (US$1 per person).

El Salvador Revolution war tunnels  - Perquin, El Salvador

Tunnels, like this one, allowed guerrilla fighters to elude army forces during El Salvador’s civil war.

Unprepared for the massacre at El Mozote

The museum and the abandoned camp gave us a sense of what the war was like for guerrilla fighters but it wasn’t until we visited the nearby town of El Mozote that we started to understand the realities for their families, everyday farmers and villagers and anyone else not firmly in lock-step with the Salvadoran government. Frankly, we were unprepared.

On December 11, 1981 Salvadoran army troops, now widely believed to have been trained and armed by the US, arrived in El Mozote, which is still just a dusty collection of simple homes. Rumors of an impending attack had inspired villagers from around the area to converge in El Mozote which they believed would be spared because of its religious and political ties. They were wrong.

Over the next two days soldiers interrogated and killed every grown man they could find. Then they began raping and torturing the women and stabbing and clubbing the children. Those who’d gone into the church to hide were locked in and machine-gunned through the windows before the church was burned.

Reflection Garden of the Innocents, El Mozote, El Salvador.

A memorial garden has been created beside the church in El Mozote where women and children were gunned down by US-backed military forces during one of the most shocking massacres of El Salvador’s civil war.

 

An estimated 700-1,200 villagers were killed, half of them children. Despite scientific surveys an exact number of victims has never been calculated. Too many bodies were too mutilated during what became known as the El Mozote massacre.

El Mozote massacre memorial - El Salvador

This wall lists the names of the hundreds of known victims of the El Mozote massacre.

Saved by her disability

The church has been rebuilt and is still the center of El Mozote. A memorial wall commemorating the attack has been built out front and after contemplating it we headed for the church. At a small table out front we were assigned a guide and she proceeded to calmly and coolly recount the events of those two terrible days.

El Mozote massacre church - El Salvador

Murals and color lend the beginning of hope and peace in the memorial garden to women and children killed in this church during the El Mozote massacre.

 

The church was locked when we were there and we were secretly grateful. Who knows what ghosts might lurk inside. However, a garden has been planted on the side of the church and an entire wall now bears the names and ages of the people who were killed inside the church. Most were women and children. One victim was only three days old.

names El Mozote massacre church wall  - El Salvador

The names and ages of victims killed inside this church the El Mozote massacre are now listed on a memorial wall. One victim was only three days old.

Our guide tells us that she was alive in the area during the attack. How did she survive? Because a congenital leg deformity prevented her from walking from her village to El Mozote with the others.

The memorials in El Mozote left us even more heavy-hearted than the Monument to Memory and Truth (Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad in Spanish) in Cuscatlán Park  in San Salvador. That moving memorial contains the names of tens of thousands of victims along with a shockingly long list of towns where other massacres occurred. It is powerful because of its almost incomprehensible scale. In comparison, the El Mozote memorials are chillingly intimate.

names El Mozote massacre memorial wall - El Salvador

Names of known victims of the El Mozote massacre are listed on this memorial wall in front of the town church. We will never know the names of all of the victims since many bodies were too mutilated to ever identify or count.

 

We’re not so naive as to think that war is a black and white affair involving All Right vs. All Wrong. Both sides in the Salvadoran civil war were guilty of kidnapping and murder and worse. The difference is that one side had a super power secretly advising, funding and supplying it fueled by President Ronald Reagan’s cold-war-era fears that El Salvador would go commie, as Nicaragua had recently done, if he didn’t prop up the Salvadoran government. That’s a pretty big difference.

In December of 2011, 30 years after the slaughter, El Salvador’s government officially apologized for its role in the massacre at El Mozote. The US government has still said nothing. A number of foreign journalists covered the massacre including Mark Danner whose book and New Yorker magazine expose paint a more complete picture than we can here.

A host with history

We stayed at the Perkin Lenca Hotel in Perquin where owner Ron Brenneman kindly hosted us in one of his hillside split log cabins. Yes, Ron’s hotel is a super-clean, fully-appointed bargain with rooms starting at US$20 including a great breakfast featuring homemade bread and bottomless coffee. But another great reason to stay here is Ron himself.

Born in the US, Ron first came to El Salvador in 1986 to help rebuild infrastructure after that year’s earthquake. The civil war was very much still on and Ron remembers that the Perquin area was essentially uninhabited as residents fled the war or dug into the jungle to fight it. When the aid group Ron was working with pulled out of the region Ron stayed, determined to help rebuild.

He started a construction company with ex-fighters as employees and began putting up buildings all over El Salvador. When the owner of a project in Perquin couldn’t afford to buy the whole parcel of land he wanted, Ron agreed to buy the steepest section. When the worst of the area’s construction needs were addressed, Ron decided to build a hotel on his land. He wanted to stay in El Salvador and running a hotel seemed like as good a way to do it as any.

This is the condensed version of Ron’s story–for the full, amazing saga check out his book, Perquin Musings, which is full of his extraordinary experiences in El Salvador.

Going forward

Our first stop in El Salvador was Suchitoto where the seeds of the civil war were planted early and sprouted high. Our last stop in El Salvador was Perquin and El Mozote where reminders of why war is hell (but we can never seem to remember that fact when it counts) were all around us. We have loved all of our stops in El Salvador and all the Salvadorans we’ve met along the way and we hope they (and everyone else) keep their feet firmly planted on the Ruta de la Paz.

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Beach Bummin’ – Las Flores and Maculis Beaches, El Salvador

The thing about Las Flores Resort on Las Flores Beach near El Cuco, El Salvador is that it manages to satisfy surfers and non-surfers with a perfect learner’s break, nearby point breaks, a gorgeous, bluff-top, open air spa and laid back style.

Las Flores Surf beach El Salvador

Blissful Las Flores Beach in El Salvador.

 

Las Flores Surf Resort - El Salvador

The lounge in the bluff top, open air spa at Las Flores Resort in El Salvador.

 

Las Flores, El Salvador

Las Flores Beach, El Salvador.

It’s a toss up, but we think non-surfers get the better end of the deal at Las Flores, which hosted us for a few days of beach bummin’ so we could write this full review of the resort. Why? Because us non-surfers get to watch the show going on in the sea from the comfort of our private patio, the pool deck or the breezy bar.

Surfing, Las Flores Surf Resort - El Salvador

Taking advantage of the reliable waves at Las Flores Beach, El Salvador.

 

Beach house bliss

Less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) along the coast east of El Cuco is a beach so off-the-radar that it’s not on most maps of El Salvador. This is Maculis Beach, home of Los Caracoles beach house.

Las Caracoles - El Salvador

Shaded hammocks with a view are all yours at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach in El Salvador.

Created and owned by Pascal Libaily and Joaquín Rodezno, the same duo behind Los Almendros Hotel in Suchitoto, Los Caracoles is utterly charming with a fully-equipped, open-air kitchen (bring groceries with you) and living room with a concrete floor inlaid with shells. A round, blue-tiled plunge pool is set into a wooden deck just off the living room. A thatch roof shades a bank of inviting hammocks, gorgeous wood loungers and an outdoor dining table.

Caracoles beach house - Playa Maculis, EL Salvador

The plunge pool at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach, El Salvador.

 

Caracoles beach house - Playa Maculis, EL Salvador

The open air living room and kitchen at Los Caracoles beach house on Maculis Beach in El Salvador.

There are two bedrooms with a shared bathroom off the living room and a separate master bedroom, with a palm tree growing in its private bathroom, in “The Annex” a few steps away. Guests are left to fight over who gets to use the outdoor shower with a conch shell for a shower head.

Caracoles Beach House -  Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Beach house bliss.

Maculis, the beach maps forgot

All of this just a few steps from a wide, flat, clean beach you will pretty much have to yourself since, as we already mentioned, Maculis isn’t on anyone’s radar. Another plus? You get to see sunrise and sunset over Maculis beach.

Sunset  Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Sunset over Maculis Beach in El Salvador. The beach is positioned in such a way that it gets sunrise too.

We walked the beach for hours every morning and encountered no one before returning to our hideaway to cook or read (no WiFi!) or cool off in the pool.

We lived in our swimsuits and did precious little for three of the most relaxing days of the entire Trans-Americas Journey, content to be entertained by watching swooping pelicans (instead of surfers) and relaxed by the spa-like effect of the stylish, simple ease of Los Caracoles.

Playa Maculis Beach, EL Salvador

Enjoying the last of the light on Maculis Beach, El Salvador.

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