The northeastern Morazán Department is a small agricultural region interspersed with rugged mountain forest. The cooler climate attracts visitors from San Miguel, as does the country’s cleanest river, the Río Sapo, and the opportunity for countless hikes to waterfalls and old hideaways from the civil war.
A visit to the former FMLN headquarters in the mountain town of Perquín is paramount to understanding El Salvador’s brutal civil war. It was in these hills that the opposition garnered its most loyal support, and despite vigorous bombing campaigns, the military was unable to dislodge the guerrilla forces.
While some pockets retain a salt-crusted colonial charm, La Unión is the kind of town even the saltiest sea dogs are keen to avoid. It’s hot and downright dirty, with little to keep you here but an overdue boat headed for Nicaragua. The heat can be brutal too; even dogs whimper at noon. Playa Las Tunas and Playa Jaguey are good beaches on the coast west of La Unión.
San Vicente is dwarfed by pointy Volcán Chichontepec in the Jiboa Valley. Look out for the equally dramatic behemoth of Torre Kiosko, an otherworldly clock tower that juts from the farmland like some Disneyland ride gone haywire. Home to many musicians, San Vicente is also very gay-friendly – come July, the annual Miss Gay San Vicente draws quite the crowd (and contestants!).
The eponymous capital of Usulután Department is a noisy market town at the foot of 1450m Volcán de Usulután. For travelers Usulután will probably serve as a way station to Bahía de Jiquilisco and the lovely Playa El Espino. You can also easily reach the mountain hamlet of Alegría from here.
Happiness is an elusive state, but at least towns like Alegría exist to remind us to stop and smell the rose bushes in the town square. Arriving via a slow mountain pass, visitors are struck by the tranquillity of the place, that a mirador so grand could be seen from a family's kitchen table.
Isla San Sebastian
Isla San Sebastian is the largest island on the Bahía de Jiquilisco. The empty beaches, particularly Playa Hermosa, may convince you to stay in the pretty little archipelago, where friendly locals will no doubt approach out of curiosity. Racoon and yellow-naped parrots are the most prevalent non-seafaring wildlife.
Bahía de Jiquilisco
With kilometer after kilometer of white sand pounded by surf, and inland mangroves facing the volcanoes, the Península San Juan del Gozo beckons. The inland sector is a habitat for gray egrets, pelicans and other waterbirds. Fishing towns include Corral de Mulas and Isla Méndez. Other less accessible beaches are at Punta San Juan on the peninsula’s east end and Isla Madre Sal.
A steamy, pristine sanctuary for hundreds of pelicans and egrets, this island and estuary sit where the Río Lempa meets the Pacific Ocean. During the war, the island and its cashew plantation were abandoned and taken over by the FMLN. After 1992 it was resettled by local farmers taking advantage of the postwar land transfer program.
Corral de Mulas & Isla Méndez
Passenger boats to Corral de Mulas (US$2) leave in the early morning from the dock at Puerto El Triunfo. El Icaco is a better option than Corral II. Once there, cut through town on sandy – sometimes flooded – roads to the beach (30 minutes). The last boat back is at 4pm; if you miss it, ask for a lodging recommendation at the alcaldía (mayor's office).
Beaches near La Unión
Southwest of the unspoiled coastal forest of Bosque Conchagua sits a long, sweeping stretch of sandy beach once the sole preserve of surfers, San Miguelites and sea turtles. Playa Esteron is the pick, partly due to its accessible, clean surf and coconut trees. It's also home to the most talked about retreat in Central America.