Western El Salvador
El Salvador’s coffee stronghold offers a heady blend of adventure and old money, gastronomy and lush national parks. It’s here that the Ruta de las Flores winds its charms through cobblestone villages, where stumbling across running waterfalls and bubbling hot springs is as easy as finding a good espresso and a thriving marketplace.
Eastern El Salvador
Eastern El Salvador may not possess the star attractions of elsewhere in the country, but with timeless mountain villages such as Alegría, the visceral war history around Morazán, and the long, deserted beaches near El Cuco, even the most worldly traveler will find reason to explore. Prior to the war, subsistence farming was long the primary means of survival here.
San Miguel is an intense working-class city, its sticky heat rising up from calamitous streets. It’s also a brashly confident place with a commercial energy to rival the capital and its locals relish the seedy, sexy nightlife. San Miguel was founded in 1530, and organised crime has long been at loggerheads with the law here.
Hints of a wealthy yesteryear linger in the colonial backstreets of Santa Ana, a socially conservative major city, and long home to the country’s largest coffee plantations. Santa Ana is also the closest thing to a university town outside San Salvador, reflected in the lively nightlife and proud entrepreneurial spirit.
Ruta de Las Flores
The wildflower of Salvadoran tourism is a 36km-long winding trip through brightly colored colonial towns famed for lazy weekends of gastronomy and gallery-hopping, as well as more adventurous pursuits like mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking to hidden waterfalls scattered throughout the glorious Cordillera Apaneca.
The rugged northeastern Morazán Department is a predominantly poor farming region that is generating a quiet buzz for its sustainable, community-based nature and war tourism. The museum in Perquín and a memorial in El Mozote are powerful displays of reconciliation and remembrance.
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.
El Salvador’s most infamous port still sports an uneasy mix of drugs, crime and surfing, but there is change in the salty air. From the fabulous, sticky fish market on the pier to the sunset barrels on famed Punta Roca point, local authorities have poured money into gentrifying an otherwise sketchy patch of prime coastal real estate.
A collective exercise in street art en masse, La Palma must have more public murals per capita than anywhere else on earth. This cool mountain village 84km north of San Salvador is literally splashed with loud, tutti-frutti tones. Everything from street signs to market stalls gives off an inner-child vibe, á la Sesame Street in the ‘70s.
There’s a slight chill in the air in this unearthly, quiet mountain town – at 1450m, Apaneca is the second-highest town in El Salvador, which largely explains why its coffee is so highly sought after. Cruising the cobblestone streets and the odd nursery aside, there’s not much happening in town.
Regardless of how you tackle the Ruta de Las Flores, you’ll probably pass through Ahuachapán, an elevated regional center 16km short of Guatemala. As a commercial hub for coffee, you’d expect a bit more, well, perk, but the real action in Ahuachapán bubbles deep underground – its geothermal energy supplies over 15% of the country’s electrical power.