Some countries seem to sit in the shadow of attention-grabbing neighbours, patiently waiting to be discovered. Nestling between Guatemala to its northwest and Nicaragua to the east, with Honduras embracing its northern border, El Salvador sits off-centre amongst the seven central American countries, facing the Pacific. But El Salvadorans would tell you they aren't especially waiting for anyone – they already know what they have.
A small country, El Salvador suits those who don't want to clock up endless rickety-road kilometres: pick two or three bases, say Santa Ana to the west, San Salvador the capital, and perhaps San Miguel to the east, and you’ll be able to see most of the country with road trips no longer than 1-2 hours.
The largesse of Santa Ana's wealthy coffee families created a major theatre to rival the one in the capital, and a towering gothic cathedral, to outshine the pretty baroque churches one sees in each village. Meanwhile San Miguel as a starting point opens up the historically interesting north-eastern region, home of the Museo de la Revolución in Perquin. Sensitively guided by a former guerrilla of the FMLN (it is now the elected party in power) around their former rainforest hideout and headquarters, I learnt about the civil war that gripped the country twenty years ago. It gave me a context to understand why for some El Salvadorans there is the sense of a residual negative perception persisting for the would-be visitor. It is high time to put that perception to rest: I’ve never felt safer visiting any other country than in El Salvador.
Downtown San Salvador is clearly the throbbing pulse of El Salvador, teeming with people, bustle and energy, its streets lined with market traders of all description. Iglesia El Rosario church in Parque Libertad on one side of its main square is the most unassuming architectural wonder you could hope to find. A nondescript concrete building from the outside, just wait until you get inside. Sublime. Magical. I won’t say any more.
Too good to keep quiet about, however, is Suchitoto. The main square is home to the brilliant-white and majestic Santa Lucia Mártir Church, and opposite are brightly painted adobe houses with their time-worn balconies, handicraft stores, galleries, inviting bars and diners. Suchitoto evokes such a strong sense of the past that you feel yourself slowing down to accommodate its rejuvenating calm: one that seems to summarise what El Salvador is really all about.
In the far west lies the spectacularly located colonial village of Ataco, a key point in the famous Ruta de las Flores (Flower Route) through the western mountains of the country. The name derives not only from the abundance of beautiful, colourful and exotic flowers in the area, but the names of some of the towns on the route refer to flowers in the ancestral Nahuatl language. With names like “the place of the purple orchids”, these towns each have their own character and attractions.
As the time to leave approached, I sat outside on yet another balmy evening eating the national dish of pupusas (a filled tortilla made from corn or rice flour) while drinking pumpkin-seed juice, and reflected on some of the memories I would take home with me. I’d been told to expect very much a “slowed-down type of tourism”, and now I understood why. And I had learned also that this was a country that richly rewards those who take the time to get to know its welcoming and friendly people and participate in its unfolding story.
Written by Paul Markevicius, journalist.