El Salvador: Emerging, Unexplored and Welcoming

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With its volcano-peaked landscapes, famous surfing beaches, Mayan ruins, unexplored rainforests, colonial towns, a circuit of colorful handicraft villages, and gracious local people, Central America’s smallest country definitely has tourism appeal and has, indeed, put out the welcome mat for international visitors.

In fact, within the last 10 years, the number of foreign visitors has tripled to nearly 1.6 million, including a large number of business travelers. According to Jose Ruben Rochi, minister of tourism, “El Salvador is rated the second freest economy in Latin America, after Chile, has the second largest banking center in Central America after Panama, and definitely has Central America’s largest and most modern airport. And for the last three years, we have turned our attention to developing serious leisure tourism projects and allocating some $7 million to the promotion of our many attractions and expanding infrastructure.”

Specifically, Minister Rochi notes that El Salvador is now well-endowed with recognizable hotel brands: Hilton, Radisson, InterContinental and Marriott are the international chains with properties in San Salvador. There are also beautifully restored colonial inns in Suchitoto; alpine-style lodges in the coffee highlands; and on the Costa del Sol, the Pacific coast’s largest resort is the all-inclusive Royal Decameron Salinitas, joined by many smaller hotels offering first- to deluxe-class accommodations to surfers, anglers and beach lovers.

According to Minister Rochi, “Travel agents will find that El Salvador will appeal to travelers who want a good beach destination, who are looking for a country offering both unspoiled experiences and great value, and whose interests focus on culture and history.” He points with pride to the Ministry’s development of a series of special interest tourist routes that highlight nature and adventure, archaeology, gastronomy, arts and crafts, and more. Outlined on the tourism website (and available in brochures in the country), these routes are useful for travel planning and make excellent on-the-road guides.

In fact, during a recent visit to El Salvador, this writer followed a few of the new tourism routes (rutas turisticas), many of which crisscross one another, providing a great special-interest road show. Making the tourism routes even more enjoyable is that—as opposed to even as little as eight years ago—there’s an excellent road system that makes every corner of the country easily accessible.

Ruta Arqueologica: Most of El Salvador’s Mayan heritage is on view west of the capital, and while the country has no Mayan monuments to rival the architectural grandeur of Guatemala’s Tikal or Honduras’ Copan, it does have one of the most important finds in Central America: Joya de Ceren, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Occupied 1,400 years ago, the village (like Italy’s Pompeii) was found preserved under 17 ft. of volcanic ash, and today we can see the excellent restoration of many of the ancient houses. The onsite museum displays what the inhabitants left behind as they fled: everyday items from tools to cooking utensils used to prepare the remains found of corn and beans, chilies, tomatoes, squashes and chocolate. The largest pyramid in the country is Tazumal, and the most recently restored ceremonial city is Cihuatan, inhabited until around A.D. 1200. It is a lovely site for walking around, where grazing cattle share the landscape with an impressive Mayan ballcourt, a major pyramid and a good little museum (built with support from the Ford Foundation) at the entrance.

Ruta Artesanal: El Salvador has a rich tradition of handicrafts, on sale in artisan boutiques and at two big markets in the capital, but at their best in the villages where they are made. About 90 minutes away from the capital is Ilobasco, famous for its miniature clay figures portraying scenes of daily life and larger hand-painted ceramics. In San Sebastian, you’ll find colorful hammocks, bedspreads and tablecloths being woven on wooden looms. Going north (50 miles from the capital), the most famous crafts center is La Palma, a mountain town whose low-slung buildings are as decorative as is the town’s handiwork. The country’s most famous painter, Fernando Llort (whose murals adorn the cathedral in the capital), moved here in 1972, and created a cooperative whose “graduates” still turn out his brightly colored, religious and rural motifs and scenes on wall murals, crosses, key rings, ceramics—pretty much, anything and everything.