February 7, 2014 6:25 pm

El Salvador: what tourists are missing

Santa Lucía Church in the centre of Suchitoto©Philip Scalia/Alamy

Santa Lucía Church in the centre of Suchitoto

I was short on time. We had the wrong kind of car. The keys to the four-wheel drive were misplaced. I was hungry, thirsty and hot. The guide had forgotten his torch. And it was getting late.

The climax of my five-day trip through El Salvador – a visit to the El Imposible National Park – was beginning to look like an existential pun. Benjamín Rivera, 40, the guide-cum-driver, was desperate for me to see the bird life and hike through the tropical forest – one of the few areas of true wilderness left in this densely populated, intensively farmed country.

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When we finally had all the tools for the trip, Rivera asked me if I wanted the scenic route or the fast road.

“The most direct route,” I said.

He took the scenic route. Guides always know best, or so he had reminded me during our road trip through Central America’s smallest country. It had started 320km away in the east, with a motorboat ride from Nicaragua to the port of La Unión.

After welcoming us on board, Mario Meléndez, 37, our captain, had run through the wildlife we passengers – myself and three Swiss tourists – might see: manta rays, ospreys, frigatebirds, dolphins. He showed us pictures of tree species and mangroves, a diagram of an oyster-farming project we would pass, and named the volcanoes we could see on every horizon.

He turned a border crossing into a lovely half-day tour. We saw several of the promised species, and got a quick introduction to Salvador’s turbulent recent history. Meléndez was a child when civil war broke out in 1979. He later escaped conscription – his father was an army recruiter – and was able to work as a fisherman and outboard motor mechanic.

He sailed us past a string of wooded islands, some with white sand beaches, potential “paradises” you could imagine being of interest to resort developers from the north.

Meléndez told me that half the islands’ populations had emigrated to the US and those remaining lived off remesas – money wired from relatives. El Salvador’s main sources of income are these remesas and foreign aid, though as Central America’s most industrialised country it also generates revenue from maquilas (clothing factories), coffee and sugar cane. The question now is: can tourism play a part?

Many people were not as lucky as Meléndez during the conflict, in which an estimated 75,000 lost their lives. The Oriente region’s hilltop town of Perquín, where I spent my first night, was a centre of resistance. Over coffee I spoke to Serafin Gómez Lima, 43, a former child soldier who now spearheads tourism projects.

“After the peace accord of 1992, we realised the war story could appeal to visitors,” he said. “We organised a festival for Salvadoreans and then opened the Museo de la Revolución.”

The museum is a rich if roughly assembled collection of war memorabilia, weapons and photographs of heroic-looking guerrillas. Stylish agitprop posters from the 1980s are a reminder of the support that the rebel movement received from leftwing populations in Europe and the US.

I got my fill of dark tourism in Perquín and its environs – Rivera and Gómez Lima insisted on taking me to the interment of some victims’ remains in nearby El Mozote – but the experience was engaging. Being a traveller in a recent war zone isn’t voyeurism but, for Salvadoreans, an act of witness.

Suchitoto is El Salvador’s poster city. It is cobbled, quaint and at weekends fills with visitors from the capital 50km away. The word “colonial” is thrown around loosely in Latin America but some of the buildings here are the real thing – including the former mansion where I stayed, Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, built in 1805 for Spanish landowners.

Opened in 2005 after 17 months of restoration work, the hotel’s six rooms (and separate honeymoon villa), pool, restaurant and palm-tree-filled patio cover a city block. Owned by Pascal Lebailly, 53, a French former fashion events organiser, and his Salvadorean partner Joaquín Rodezno, 60 – who used to be the country’s ambassador to Paris, Rome and Brussels – it is decorated with Salvadorean artworks and high-value craft pieces. The men are now ambassadors for a country they regard as safe, unspoilt by tourism and misrepresented by the media.

“A lot of people are interested in El Salvador now that Panama and Costa Rica have become expensive, especially for visiting Americans,” said Lebailly. “Here they find everything they want at affordable rates.

“It’s time to correct the country’s image. Local media only report crime statistics and violence and that’s what foreign media pick up. But the data are never analysed. None of the crimes affect tourists and none of the reports reflect the friendliness of the people.”

Over the past nine years, Lebailly and Rodezno have seen a “slow but steady” increase in visitors, including independent travellers from the US, Canada, Colombia and Brazil and small tour groups from western Europe. Russians and Polish travellers are also beginning to arrive.

“As the country opens up to travellers, service gets better,” said Lebailly. “But there’s no mass-market tourism here.”

Locals on the main plaza at Suchitoto©Chris Moss

Locals on the main plaza at Suchitoto

Suchitoto deserves more visitors. It has half a dozen cool little bars and restaurants, stalls selling delicious filled tortillas called pupusas, pastel-walled backstreets, and the Centro Arte para la Paz, an art and photography gallery. Nuns and cowboys stroll around slowly and it pays to do the same. It is a hot and humid city. In the afternoons, when the temperature hits the mid-thirties, even the salsa-blasting sound systems take a siesta.

Travelling across El Salvador is great fun. The pan-American highway winds through a chain of volcanoes – some huge, a few active – and lakes that were once craters. The roadside throngs with walkers, workers, tuk-tuks, bicycles and old cars that don’t have the horsepower for the main traffic lanes. Salvadorean men carry machetes the way metropolitan men carry iPhones – there is status as well as functionality in the look.

On the last leg of the drive, in the west, I thought we were in montane forest. But Rivera pointed out that this was sol y sombra (sun and shade) coffee-growing, the mainstay of the local economy. We climbed up through the clouds and down again and then, suddenly, the Pacific Ocean was shimmering below.

El Salvador is known as the país de la media hora – the half-an-hour country – because everything is close. You could spend a morning with the wheeling vultures in the peaks and have a shrimp ceviche on the beach for lunch. We also saw a Mayan pyramid, met some traditional weavers and managed to fit in a mini-tour of San Salvador, a rather green and pleasant city. The “scenic route” had delivered.

Just before dusk we made a right turn off the coast road and climbed an unpaved road for 13.5km. We had made it to El Imposible. On a late outing with local guide Rosa Chinchilla, 37, we saw a blue-crowned motmot, a nine-banded armadillo, a couple of tinamous and a strange little crab – and we heard, among other wild things, a laughing falcon. As darkness fell we followed a hissing screech echoing around the canopy and spotted a beautiful mottled owl, perched in a tall tree alive with bats – soon to become the owl’s tasty supper.

The park’s name alludes to a nasty pass at the summit where mules carrying coffee beans had to be led across a precarious bridge, often blindfolded. Sadly, man and beast occasionally plummeted into the abyss.

In the early 20th century, the cultivation of coffee almost wiped out El Imposible’s native flora. A few wild coffee plants remain but the forest has recovered immensely since 9,000 acres were granted national park status in 1989. The vegetation is mainly dry tropical forest – a threatened biome – and as well as 500 bird species there are paca and agouti (both large rodents), ocelot, ring-tailed cat and kinkajou, and countless butterfly and insect species. On a dawn hike, we climbed to a high point to take in the views. Rivera and Chinchilla assiduously noted down everything we saw, including a rare white hawk, diving at great speed in a perfect diagonal on some fatal mission.

My own mission had reached its conclusion, on a mountaintop with views over Guatemala, Honduras and the ocean. I was happily surprised by the national park. The footpaths were long, thoughtfully graded and well marked. The biodiversity was tangible if not teeming. At the entrance there was a decent eco-lodge – deserving of that name – where the cook prepared delicious pupusas. Yet El Imposible gets just 8,000 visitors a year, and only 1,000 of these are foreign nationals. The park is far more accessible and enjoyable than its name suggests – just as El Salvador is far more beautiful, wonderful and welcoming than its reputation would have us believe.

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Chris Moss was a guest of Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk). A 10-day trip to El Imposible National Park, Suchitoto and Copán in Honduras starts from £1,322. Return flights with Iberia (iberia.com) from Madrid to El Salvador start at €793

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