El Salvador: The 45 minutes country

Story and photos by Diana Rowe

www.dianarowe.com and www.TravelingInHeels.com

Ask how long it takes to get anywhere in El Salvador and the answer is always “about 45 minutes.” That’s the beauty of El Salvador that I experienced last November in a two-day adventure.

Most Boomers recall its 12-year civil war (1979-1992); yet today nearly two decades later, this country is slowly rebuilding its infrastructure to attract more visitors. Everything else is already in place as Mother Nature blessed this land with a tropical paradise sprinkled with pristine forests, active volcanoes, black sand beaches with some of the world’s best surf, archaeological sites and cultural attractions.

The most densely populated Central American country with a population of more than 7.1 million, El Salvador borders the Pacific Ocean between Guatemala and Honduras. Despite its small size, El Salvador has the third largest economy in Central America, and its main currency (since 2001) is the U.S. dollar.

Sprawling across the Valle de las Hamacas in the shadow of Volcán (the local volcano) is the bustling colonial city of San Salvador, a metropolis going through a rebirth. In the heart of the financial district surrounded by trees, I arrive at my accommodations for the next two nights, Crowne Plaza San Salvador, where I’m greeted with my first photo opportunity while breakfasting at the hotel’s restaurant, El Mirador. The patio overlooks the pool, with a tantalizing view of the volcano.

On our San Salvador city tour, we stop at the Parque de Cuscutlan. It’s a typical urban city park, lush with grass and trees. A couple sits on a park bench holding hands. Another family enjoys a picnic. But the focal point is a sobering memorial lining the park, a granite wall, not unlike the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. The wall is carved with some 30,000 names, divided by year of death and category, either “assassinated” or “disappeared.” Another 50,000 names don’t even appear on the wall, as they have not been identified. One of those names hasn’t been forgotten as I silently bow my head as a mother mourns her lost son.

We move on to the bustling downtown city streets, often strewn with trash, but the colors are vibrant and the mood is always lively. Vendors walk the sometimes crumbling sidewalks, hawking their wares, anything from local handmade crafts such as hammocks, textiles, ceramics and miniatures to fresh fruit carried in hand-woven baskets.

Street vendor serves up Salvadorian cuisine.Others simply park their grills near city landmarks such as Catedral Metropolitana and Teatro Nacional to prepare pupusa and other fresh Salvadorian cuisine. This thick corn tortilla is filled with a blend of fillings such as cooked pork, seasoned beans, a mixture of aged and fresh cheese or other fillings, and then placed on a hot griddle until the crust turns golden. 

As the locals promise, a 45-minute drive brings us to Sunzal Beach, a surfing destination considered among the top 10 best beaches of the world for amateurs. Lunch is at Café Sunzal, an open-air local seafood restaurant located on top of a rocky cliff, where we enjoyed an impressive view of the Pacific Ocean and a handful of surfers testing the waves. Travelers wishing to include more days of surfing might consider accommodations at Casa de Mar Hotel & Villas (http://www.casademarhotel.com/v2/), located a few hundred yards below Café Sunzal.

On our return to our hotel, we passed through Zona Rosa, an area of a square mile where the best hotels, restaurants and nightlife are located. Most tourists gravitate here at night as it is the safest area in the city.

Surf's up at Cafe Sunzal, a seafood restaurant on the beach.

A visit to San Salvador wouldn’t be complete without seeing a volcano, so our second day adventure was a 45-minute drive (as promised) to the crater of El Boquerón. The name means “wide mouth” in Spanish, fitting as it measures 1,476 feet deep and 3 miles in diameter.

To get there, we hiked the El Boquerón National Park, trails totaling some 3 miles.  Hiking along the lookout points, if you’re lucky, will result in sightings of the Torogóz (the national bird), foxes, toucans, tepescuintles, agouti paca (a type of rabbit-sized rodent found from Mexico to Paraguay), countless species of butterflies and an abundance of wild flowers including orchids and other topical species. More active hikers can also hike to the bottom of the Boquerón crater.

Although dormant since 1917, the San Salvador volcano’s breathtaking beauty is almost haunting when considering El Salvador’s nickname, the “Pompeii of the Americas.” The moniker comes from the country’s main archaeological discovery, Joya Ceren, a preserved Mayan Village covered by volcanic ash in 600 AD.

View from the Las Brumas Grill & Café, a restaurant in the volcano.

Lunch is a must at Las Brumas Grill & Café, located in the volcano at a height of just over a mile. The entrance opens into a courtyard lined with flowers, foliage and fresh air. Hummingbirds fly flower to flower and blue magpies sing in the distance. It’s as if you’ve stepped into paradise, but then you walk through the restaurant onto the patio and wow! It hits you, the amazing view of the valley below you. Sure, the food is good, but the glimpse of the beauty of El Salvador is inspiring.

I was told that El Salvador sneaks up on the traveler, and yes, this country of 45 minutes truly does do just that. The warmth of the Salvadorians from the country of endless smiles and the way the city saturates all your senses will sneak up on you and bring you back for more. 

Getting there: Several major airlines, including TACA Airlines, offer nonstop flights to San Salvador from U.S. gateways such as Miami, Houston, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas/Ft. Worth.

Staying there: Among a number of tourist-class hotels in the capital city is the Crowne Plaza San Salvador (www.ichotelsgroup.com).

Crowne Plaza San Salvador in the shadow of Volcán San Salvador.

More info: Visit El Salvador Tourism at www.elsalvador.travel.

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