Moon El Salvador (Moon Handbooks) - Jaime Jacques (2014)
Northern and Eastern El Salvador
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Río Palancapa Waterfall Trek: This trek in Suchitoto provides lots of slippery aerial adventure for those who like a little adrenaline with their hiking (click here).
S Cerro El Pital: Follow the cool cloud forest of towering pines and wildflowers to the highest point in El Salvador, where the temperature dips low enough for you to enjoy hot chocolate by a fire (click here).
S Museo de la Revolución Salvado-reña: Learn about El Salvador’s civil war from ex-guerrillas who run this museum housing old FMLN radio equipment, solidarity posters, weapons, newspaper articles, photographs, and testimonials from survivors of the armed conflict (click here).
S El Mozote Memorial: The tiny town of El Mozote is the site of the largest known massacre in Central America, made all the more poignant because of the testimonial of sole survivor Rufina Amaya Mírquez, who witnessed it all. This is a must-see for those who want to pay their respects to the civilians who lost their lives during the civil war (click here).
S Cueva del Espíritu Santo: It may be a bit off the beaten track, but the journey is a small price to pay for the opportunity to take in some of Mesoamerica’s oldest known prehistoric rock art on the walls of this mysterious cave in the town of Corinto (click here).
Northern and eastern El Salvador remain largely untrodden, especially the eastern parts of the country, where heavy fighting took place during the civil war. These remote areas may take a little more effort to get to, but they are the gateway to authentic Salvadoran culture, uncorrupted by tourism and relatively unfazed by American influence.
Just 45 kilometers northeast of San Salvador, the cobblestone streets of Suchitoto offer a quiet, quaint getaway where time seems to stand still. Set against the backdrop of spectacular Lago Suchitlán, this balmy colonial town offers boutique hotels, bird-watching, world-class art, and waterfalls. Nearby Volcán Guazapa and Cinquera are your first stops for civil war tourism, with hikes and horseback riding through former guerrilla camps, and firsthand accounts of what life was like for people in these communities during the armed conflict. The archaeological site of Cihuatán is the largest pre-Hispanic ruins in El Salvador, with new discoveries about its inhabitants continually being made.
Just north of Suchitoto is the whimsical La Palma, with brightly painted murals all over town. La Palma makes a wonderful day trip and is also the gateway to the cool cloud forests of El Salvador’s highlands, where cozy cabins are nestled between expansive fields of fruits, flowers, and vegetables.
Continue east to Alegría, where the fresh air and friendly locals make for a relaxing retreat. More adventurous travelers can keep going into the “Wild East,” where hiking trails, waterfalls, rivers, and mountains are as abundant as the stories that were created around them. The green pine forests of Morazán (the department where Perquín and El Mozote are located) were known as the guerrilla red zone during the civil war, and it was here that the rebels constantly escaped army attacks by hiding in the mountains and thick forests throughout the region. Today, these same outdoor hideaways serve as uncharted territory for adventurous history buffs and nature lovers alike. The Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña in Perquín and the El Mozote Memorial officially document the brutal history of the region, while conversations with local people reveal more personal and painful memories.
Eastern El Salvador’s ancient history is often overshadowed by this recent past, but it is no less arresting in its own right. East of San Miguel in the towns of Corinto and Cacaopera, numerous caves with prehistoric rock art and petroglyphs reveal a fascinating glimpse into the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. Cueva del Espíritu Santo is one of the most important archaeological sites in Central America, where 8,000-year-old cave paintings await the intrepid traveler—and the best part is that it is just far enough off the beaten path that you will likely have this archaeological marvel all to yourself.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
This part of the country should be split into two parts. A few days is a good amount of time to explore Northern El Salvador, using Suchitoto as a base. Give yourself two days for Suchitoto and the vicinity: one day in the town and one day outside in Cinquera or the archaeological site of Cihuatán. Suchitoto is the center of this region, and to reach most other nearby destinations, it is necessary to backtrack a little to the town of Aguilares. A fast and frequent bus leaves Suchitoto daily. Alternatively, you can take the ferry across Lago Suchitlán to the town of San Francisco Lempa, where frequent buses leave for the business and transportation hub of Chalatenango. However you get here, two days is enough time to leisurely enjoy the highlands and La Palma.
Eastern El Salvador takes a bit more time and planning. In the east, the transportation hub is San Miguel, with several buses running directly to Perquín daily, where there are the best options for accommodations. A few days should be set aside to explore this area. From Perquín it is easy to make day trips to El Mozote and Río Sapo. The indigenous town of Cacaopera and the rock art in Corinto are a bit more of a long haul. If you get an early start, it is possible to visit them both in one day, stopping in Cacaopera first and then continuing on to Corinto. Most people then end up spending the night in Corinto. It all depends on the buses and how long you want to stay at the sights. If you are staying in Perquín, you can catch buses going to both towns from the small town of San Francisco de Gotera, which is about a 45-minute bus ride from Perquín. Otherwise, you can catch buses from the terminal in San Miguel.
Alegría can be done as a trip on its own, preferably on the weekend, when vendors set up in the parque central. One day is enough time to hike to the lake and enjoy strolling around the small town. The trip from San Salvador to Alegría is straightforward, with buses leaving frequently from Terminal Oriente. Alegría could also be a stopover on your way to or back from Perquín.
Sprinkled with boutique hotels, NGOs and art galleries inside charming old colonial homes, Suchitoto is El Salvador’s burgeoning cultural touchstone. Despite the predictions from trailblazing travelers looking for the next hot spot, Suchitoto has yet to be overrun by tourists, and the relative lack of travelers only adds to its charm. Pretty and progressive, full of cute cafés and terra-cotta roofs, Suchitoto draws people mostly for a few days of relaxation; some take on volunteer projects and stay for a few months. One of the few towns in the region that was able to avoid total destruction during the war, Suchitoto’s cobblestone streets and crumbling homes present the El Salvador of yesteryear, and the people who live here share a peaceful warmth of character that makes it easy to pass a few languid days hanging around the town square, chatting with locals.
Set against the beautiful backdrop of Lago Suchitlán, the largest artificial lake in the country, Suchitoto also offers excellent bird-watching opportunities and boat tours. The surrounding area provides great day trips, including the archaeological site of Cihuatán, the largest ruins in El Salvador; Volcán Guazapa, where you can hike through former guerrilla camps; and Cinquera, the tiny ex-FMLN stronghold that now has a wonderful eco-park run by ex-guerrillas who provide guided hikes through the subtropical rainforest.
Iglesia Santa Lucia
Constructed in 1857, Iglesia Santa Lucia (1 Av. Norte, on the east side of parque central, tel. 2335-1049, 7am-7pm daily) is impossible to miss. Standing where one of El Salvador’s first religious sites was built around AD 1000, when Suchitoto was a Mayan town, Santa Lucia’s whitewashed neoclassical facade has six towering columns and two bell towers that are put to good use. The interior of the church is lined with hollow wooden pillars and an arched ceiling, showing a baroque style with rococo influence. Today, the church is the iconic image that is most associated with colonial El Salvador. Throughout the day, the bells can be heard chiming, and at any given time you are likely to find at least a few people sitting inside. A well-attended mass takes place at 6pm every evening.
Casa Museo de los Recuerdos Alejandro Cotto
Suchitoto’s most famous patron of the arts, filmmaker Alejandro Cotto was also one of the leading forces behind saving the town of Suchitoto from total destruction during the civil war. Legend has it that one time, Cotto was warned by a friend in San Salvador that the military was coming to attack the town. Cotto was advised to get out as soon as possible, but instead he cleverly called in all the international ambassadors he could find for a dinner party at his home, averting the attack and single-handedly preserving the town. The truth is, according to the aging Cotto (now in his 90s), it wasn’t one specific phone call or dinner party but rather a sequence of strategic moves that saved Suchitoto.
Today, his home doubles as a museum. A visit to Casa Museo de los Recuerdos Alejandro Cotto (Final Av. 15 Septiembre, beside the turnoff to Puerto San Juan, no phone, hours vary, donation) shows just how well-connected and respected he was, and the idea that he could have so much influence over a country begins to look plausible. On display are a lifetime of collectibles from around the world, including incredible art created by famous Mexican artist Ignacio Barrios, antique furniture (including former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s sofa), a collection of photos (including personally autographed photos from King Carlos of Spain as well as Pope John Paul II), a small chapel full of statues of saints, and an entire room dedicated to his diplomatic awards. The grounds are beautiful, with a large garden that leads out to a top-notch view of the lake. Whether or not the museum is open is unpredictable; just knock on the door and try your luck.
Centro Arte para la Paz
Centro Arte para la Paz (2 Calle Poniente 5, tel. 2335-1080, www.capsuchitoto.org, 9am-6pm daily, free) is located in an old Dominican convent, which operated from 1917 until 1980, when the civil war forced the nuns to abandon their posts. The convent is now open again and functions as a nonprofit community center and museum where local kids come to learn art, music, dancing, and more. The old building has a huge courtyard surrounded by beautiful high-ceilinged rooms where you might hear the sounds of children giggling and learning how to play the piano, or the gentle voice of a yoga teacher leading a class. The museum has a very good film that covers civil war history in the area (about one hour long, ask for a screening), and the center also often has art exhibits or film screenings. If you are interested in volunteer opportunities in the area, a good contact is Peggy O’Neil, who works at the center and has been in Suchitoto since 1987. She can coordinate volunteer opportunities and is very well connected with nonprofit organizations in the area.
This 135-square-kilometer lake—the largest artificial lake in the country—is a bird-watchers’ haven and a spectacular backdrop to Suchitoto. Embalse Cerrón Grande, as the lake is formally called, was built in 1973, on top of what was once known as Valley of the Almonds; it now provides electricity to nearly 500,000 people in El Salvador.
Located on the edge of Lago Suchitlán is Puerto Turístico San Juan (tel. 2335-1782, firstname.lastname@example.org, $0.50), a collection of vendors and eateries. It is about half an hour’s walk north of the center of Suchitoto, offering spectacular views on the way. The souvenirs and food available are nothing special, but the view is lovely, and it is a great spot to have a cold drink and pass an hour or two.
Lago Suchitlán is popular for boat tours, which can be arranged at the port. A 45-minute tour including a visit to the lovely Isla de Ermitaño, which offers silence, solitude, and gorgeous views of the lake, costs $25. An hour-long tour with a visit to La Isla de las Pájaros, which, as the name suggests, is teeming with waterbirds, costs $30. There is also a ferry that crosses the lake several times throughout the day to the neighboring town San Francisco Lempa ($4). From there it is possible to catch a bus to the transportation hub of Chalatenango, where it is possible to take a bus to the highlands.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
Cascada Los Tercios
Cascada Los Tercios is a 1.5-kilometer walk south of town and easy to do on your own. This unique 10-meter-tall wall of hexagonal-shaped basalt rock was formed by volcanic activity. Basalt, also found on the surface of the moon, is packed with tiny quartz crystals that sparkle in the sun, creating a rather otherworldly effect. This is an excellent spot to relax for a while and cool off under the rushing waterfall, which is active June to November, but even when the waterfall is dry, it’s worth a visit to admire the distinctive geometric rocks.
Cascada Los Tercios
To get to Los Tercios, walk south on the road in front of Iglesia Santa Lucia until it intersects with the main road at the entrance of town. Turn left and follow the dirt road for about half an hour until you see a sign on the left side. Enter through the gate and continue down the hill to the waterfall. Usually there are no safety concerns doing the walk on your own, but things can change within a matter of weeks, so ask around beforehand. If you do not want to walk alone, the local tourist police will take travelers, usually only once a day, and the service must be requested the day before. They will wait for you at the waterfall and escort you back to town.
S Río Palancapa Waterfall Trek
The Río Palancapa Waterfall Trek is the most exciting excursion you can take in Suchitoto. Join adventure tour guide René Barbón of Suchitoto Adventure Outfitters (Calle San Martín 4B, Plaza Central, tel. 7921-4216, www.suchitotoadventureoutfitters.com) on a three-hour hike ($15 pp, minimum 3 people) along the Río Palancapa, trekking through cornfields, forest, and finally zigzagging across the river, jumping from rock to rock, until you reach a beautiful 25-meter waterfall in a remote location. Take some time to swim and relax under the rushing water before moving on to the really fun part. The next two waterfalls are jumpable, one at 7 meters (called the “baby jump”) and one at 11 meters (the jump-at-your-own-risk one). Don’t worry, if suddenly fear gets the better of you, there is a walking route that will take you down instead. Either way, it’s a great trek, and the expert tour guides know the terrain like the backs of their hands, pointing out birds, flora, and fauna on the way. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen, a hat, a bathing suit, and a change of clothes.
Eleven kilometers southeast of Suchitoto is the peaceful inactive volcano with the silhouette of a reclining woman, Volcán Guazapa. This was a guerrilla stronghold during the war—in no small part as a result of the construction of Lago Suchitlán. When the dam was built in 1973, the fertile valley that the lake submerged put many farmers out of work. Frustrated and disenfranchised, many of them joined the FMLN and moved to Guazapa, an extremely strategic location, as it was very close to San Salvador. This is where many attacks on the capital were planned and then carried out, with the guerrillas quickly retreating back to the safety of Guazapa. They knew the volcano well, giving them a crucial advantage over the military, who frequently bombed the area.
Today, ex-guerrillas give guided hikes up the volcano passing by bomb craters, tatús (underground bomb shelters), and guerrilla camps. Tours include a history of the volcano, the people who lived on it, and how the civil war affected them. Tours of Guazapa can be done on horseback or walking and take 3-4 hours. The trail is not difficult but can get hot, so bring sunscreen, water, and a hat. Tours (in Spanish only) can be arranged through EcoTurismo La Mora (tel. 2323-6874 or 2335-1782, www.ecoturismolamora.es.tl, $15 for 1-3 people) or Guazapa Tours (tel. 2352-5363 or 2313-4388, www.guazapatours.com, $25 for 1-3 people).
Suchitoto is gaining popularity as a birders paradise. Lago Suchitlán is a stopover for migratory birds of all colors, shapes, and sizes. A small sampling of some the birds you can expect to see here include the cinnamon hummingbird, orange-fronted parakeet, streak-backed oriole, and great egret. Bird-watching is good year-round, but the very best months are September to April. In October and November the southern hawk migration happens, and also in November there is a weekend-long birding marathon organized by local NGO SalvaNatura.
Birding tours are common here because of the knowledgeable local guides, wide variety of birds, and great hotels and restaurants. A boat tour will guarantee some great bird spotting, especially around Isla de las Pájaros, but it is also possible to spot some birds on guided walking tours around the lake, or even from the terrace of your hotel. Robert Broz of El Gringo Tours (Calle Francisco Morazán 27, tel. 2327-2351, www.elgringosuchitoto.com) offers excellent bird-watching tours around Suchitoto, including a two-hour boat birding tour on the lake ($35 pp, minimum 3 people) and 5- to 10-hour birding tours to Volcán Guazapa and Cinquera (half-day $125 pp, minimum 3 people; full-day $200 pp, minimum 3 people).
Spanish Language School
Want to escape the throngs of travelers learning Spanish in neighboring Guatemala? Pajaro Flor Spanish School (4 Calle Poniente 22, tel. 2327-2366 or 7230-7812, www.pajaroflor.com, $8 per hour) is the perfect alternative. This beautiful 200-year-old mansion has an outdoor classroom that looks over the lake, along with great teachers and homestay options.
Casa de la Abuela (1 Av. Norte and 2 Calle Oriente, tel. 2335-1227, 7:30am-7:30pm daily) sits on the corner of the north side of Iglesia Santa Lucia. This beautiful century-old home was converted into a shop in 2005 and now has an excellent selection of Salvadoran handicrafts, including artwork from La Palma, textiles from San Sebastián, pottery from Guatajiagua, locally crafted jewelry, indigo-dyed clothing, local honey, and other knickknacks as well as a small selection of Spanish books. The house also has a café serving food and drinks, with excellent coffee and average food. Casa de la Abuela also offers tours around the area; the price depends on the tour and the number of people.
Galería de Pascal (4 Calle Poniente, across from the police station, tel. 2335-1200, 10am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 10am-7pm Sat., 9am-6pm Sun.) is an art gallery and gift shop located in a beautiful old home with soft-blue walls, large breezy rooms, and a garden out back. The gallery, which displays domestic and international art, also has a gift shop with high end Salvadoran crafts, including textiles from San Sebastián, art from La Palma, clothing, natural soaps and shampoos, and jewelry.
Suchitoto is not known for its nightlife. The town pretty much shuts down after 9pm, but if you feel like having a nightcap with some revolutionaries, Bar El Necio (Calle 5 Noviembre 2A, 10 meters from parque central, tel. 7452-3059, email@example.com, 4pm-2am Wed.-Sun.) is where you want to go. This inconspicuous century-old home is run by ex-combatants and is a long-running institution in Suchitoto. Inside, the walls are covered in old FMLN solidarity posters, photos of Che Guevara, and other collectible socialist propaganda. This is a simple, quiet place that almost always has at least a couple of ex-guerrillas hanging out at the bar, drinking rum and shooting the breeze. It’s the perfect way to cap a day of civil war history, by having a few drinks and hearing some personal stories. These guys may not warm up to you right away, but if you buy them a round or two and politely ask some questions, you just might find yourself talking politics all night.
The Permanent International Festival of Arts and Culture is held in Suchitoto every year throughout the entire month of February. The festival includes theater, art exhibits, and dance performances by Salvadoran and international artists. The performances take place in various venues throughout the town. The Guazapa Mountain Festival is held every January 12-16 and celebrates the Chapultepec Peace Accords. Ex-guerrillas and community members gather in Guazapa to share music and memories. The party on the 16th is said to go all night. The Festival of Corn is celebrated either the first or second Sunday of August. It is held in honor of the annual corn harvest and Suchitoto celebrates with a parade and plenty of corn-based snacks and drinks.
Semana Santa is celebrated the week before Easter and is marked by a silent procession, a dramatic reenactment of the Stations of the Cross, and alfombras, murals made out of colored sand that cover the streets. Día de los Muertos is celebrated on November 2 and is a good time to visit Suchitoto’s cemeteries, where you will find candlelit vigils, beautiful flower arrangements, and families paying homage to their deceased loved ones. Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Suchitoto, is celebrated with a week of activities that end on her birthday, December 13. The week is full of food, music, masses, and processions.
Hotel Blanca Luna (Calle Poniente and 5 Av. Sur 7, tel. 2335-1661, $7 pp) is a longtime basic Bohemian favorite. Private rooms, each with two beds, a fan, and a small TV, are a bit rough around the edges, but for the price, you can’t go wrong. Tile floors, peeling wall paint, colorful mismatched bedsheets, and a private bath with a makeshift door made out of a shower curtain create backpacker ambience. There is a very cute common area, eclectically decorated with whimsical dolls, statues, and paintings as well as lots of plants; it has a tiny kitchen space. The rooms on the second level open up to a lovely little terrace, and the location is great, close to the town center.
Simple, clean, and quiet, Hostal El Rinconcito El Gringo (Calle Francisco Morazán 27, 1.5 blocks west of the alcaldía, tel. 2327-2351, www.elgringosuchitoto.com, $7 pp dorm, $12 private room for 1 person, $18 for 2) is a great budget option, especially for backpackers who do not speak Spanish. Transplanted Californian Robert Broz (nicknamed “El Gringo”) offers lodging and advice for those seeking some guidance in and around Suchitoto. There are two basic private rooms with fans and double beds with new mattresses, and one dormitory with fans. All rooms have shared baths, one for the two private rooms and one for the dorm. The private rooms also share a common area with cool tile floors, a hammock, a rocking chair, and a computer area. There is Wi-Fi, a small but sufficient kitchen available for guests to use, and a great restaurant upstairs serving Tex-Mex food.
The best thing about the budget Hostal Vista Al Lago (Calle 6 Poniente and Final Av. 2, 18B, tel. 2335-1357 or 7889-3076, $10 pp dorm, $25 d private room) is, as the name suggests, the view. Six small rooms with fans are inside what used to be an art school, with residual student murals cheering up the walls. The hostel has a summer-camp kind of feel, complete with dim lighting and an open ceiling design, which means you can hear what is going on in the next room. There is one shared outdoor bath best described as rustic. The highlight is the outdoor sitting area, with one of the best views in town, where there is a wooden table with board games and books, and hammocks to lounge in. The hostel now also offers nicer private rooms with private baths that sit right on the edge of the property, offering incredible, affordable views.
Hostal Sánchez (4 Calle Poniente, 7, tel. 7120-6841, $10 s, $15 d) is the newest budget option in town, and quite a good one. Two large, clean rooms are on the second floor of this family home. One has a large double bed and the other has two single beds. They are both spacious and clean, with tile floors, big windows, colorful bedspreads, large windows, fans, private baths, and a terrace.
Located at the bottom of a quiet hill and with a great view of the lake, Hostal Villa Barranca (on the north side of Parque San Martín, tel. 2335-1408 or 2269-3687, www.villabalanza.com, $20 d with fan, $25 d with a/c) offers the best mid-range deal to be found in Suchitoto. This lovely house has a common area and kitchen on the first floor, including Wi-Fi and a flat-screen TV. Freshly painted yellow walls, local art, lounging furniture, and clean tile floors create a very comfortable atmosphere. Follow the stairs to the second floor, where there are two private rooms with fans, private baths with hot water, charming murals of birds and vines, and spotless tile floors. The rooms open up to a wraparound terrace with hammocks, offering a spectacular view of the lake. Behind the house are three more rooms with private baths and air-conditioning that face a cute courtyard with wrought-iron tables and chairs, a coconut tree, and a meditation room. Villa Balanza Restaurante is on-site and will serve you food in the courtyard if you ask. This is a quiet refuge and a great deal; the only potential drawback is the short but steep hill that must be climbed to get into the center of Suchitoto.
El Corte del Chef (2 Av. Norte 29, tel. 2335-1276, $35 d) offers two simple rooms in the back of the restaurant around a cute, colorful courtyard with an artsy vibe. Each room has a double bed, a fan, and a private bath. There is a small rooftop terrace with tables and plants and a great view of the lake; it’s perfect for decompressing with a glass of wine and a custom-made meal after a day of touring or hiking.
The simple colonial-style hotel Posada Alta Vista (Av. 15 de Septiembre 8, tel. 2335-1645, www.posadaaltavista.com, $29 s, $35 d) has eight rooms on the second floor that open up to a wraparound terrace that looks out onto one of the main streets in Suchitoto (but don’t worry about traffic noise—there isn’t any). Each room has air-conditioning, a private bath with hot water, and a TV. The style is simple, with clean tile floors, a bedside table, and two double beds. There is a parking lot and a large rooftop terrace that offers great views of the church and the mountains of Guazapa, but unfortunately it has no shade or furniture.
Modern comfort and Old World style meet at Hotel Las Puertas (2 Av. Norte and Av. 15 de Septiembre, facing parque central, tel. 2393-9200, www.laspuertassuchitoto.com, $85 d). The definition of colonial, this striking white hotel, with its perfect arcaded facade, faces Iglesia Santa Lucia. Past the cozy restaurant and bar, a staircase leads to the second floor, where wicker furniture and plenty of plants create a lovely lounge area outside the guest rooms. The large, breezy rooms are simple and elegant, each with two double beds on dark wooden frames with towering bedposts from which crisp white mosquito nets hang. Large windows let the sunlight filter in, and white and mint-green sheets create a simple, clean look. The rooms have air-conditioning, and cool tile floors lead out to a terrace that overlooks the park and the church, a perfect place to watch the sun go down.
S Los Almendros de San Lorenzo (4 Calle Poniente, beside the police station, tel. 2335-1200, www.hotelsalvador.com, $89 d, $115 suite, $141 suite with 2 floors and jetted tub) is considered one of the top hotels in the country, and it is easy to see why. This beautiful 200-year-old mansion was converted into a boutique hotel with panache by French owner Pascal Lebailly, and every little detail lends itself to a classy getaway. Upon entering the hotel, you find a courtyard full of lush green plants, beautiful antiques from around the world, and a terrace adorned with incredible high-end Salvadoran art on the walls. A gorgeous little library with large windows lets the sunlight stream in to show off the antique furniture, ornate rugs, and book collection. A second courtyard boasts a swimming pool, lounge chairs, and a restaurant enclosed in glass, with icy-cool air-conditioning to keep you comfortable while you dine on some of the best food in town. There are various guest rooms to choose from, including the regular colonial-style rooms that boast ornate ceilings and antique furniture with air-conditioning, private baths, and flat-screen TVs. There are also two beautiful suites, also with air-conditioning, private baths, and flat-screen TVs, one of which has a jetted tub and two floors; both are extremely spacious, with large windows, dramatic drapery, local touches such as furniture upholstered with indigo dyed fabric, and international flair, such as a faux zebra-skin rug.
The beautiful rooms of La Posada Suchitlan (Final 4 Calle Poniente, tel. 2335-1064, www.laposada.com.sv, $100 d) are hidden away in a quiet corner of town, ensconced in colorful gardens surrounded by grand Salvadoran antiques and famously gorgeous views of the lake. Rich yellow adobe cabins with terra-cotta roofs open up into big, breezy rooms with two double beds accented by simple neutral colors, air-conditioning, TVs (enclosed in a tall, heavy wooden cabinet), and individual terraces with unrivaled views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
El Tejado Restaurant and Hotel (3 Av. Norte 58, tel. 2335-1769, www.eltejadosuchitoto.com, $60 s, $75 d) is a popular choice, not only for the beautiful grounds and rooms but also for the excellent service. A large swimming pool overlooks the lake, creating the perfect place to escape the Suchitoto heat and still feel like you are appreciating the sights. Light orange and yellow cabañas are simple, accentuated with wooden ceilings, pretty tile floors, wrought-iron light fixtures, art, and colorful Salvadoran textiles covering the beds. All cabañas have fans and private baths, and the double rooms have amazing views of the lake.
Serving up tasty, generous portions of Tex-Mex fare, El Rinconcito del Gringo (Calle Francisco Morazán 27, 1.5 blocks west of the alcaldía, tel. 2327-2351 or 2335-1371, www.elgringosuchitoto.com, 8am-8pm daily, $3-7) is a Suchitoto favorite. Delicious tacos, tortilla soup, quesadillas, and super burritos big enough for two all come with freshly made chirmol (salsa) and tortilla chips. The smoothies are massive and frosty, the perfect intervention for the intense Suchitoto heat. An added bonus is that if you want some advice about what to do around Suchitoto, there’s no better dinner conversation than El Gringo’s tips about the region.
Located right in front of the main square, S La Lupita del Portal (parque central, tel. 2335-1429, 7:30am-9:30pm Thurs.-Tues., $4-10) is the perfect place to enjoy evening drinks as you watch the sun go down and the people go by. Lupita’s serves delicious sandwiches with homemade baguette bread and a proper salad with greens, seasonal vegetables, and homemade dressing. If you are in the mood for something traditional, go for the famous pupusas, or the delicious gallo en chicha (rooster marinated in moonshine with panela and spices), the house specialty. If you are interested in the local moonshine, just ask and the owners will provide a shot on the house. Lupita’s is open early and is also a lovely breakfast option, serving desayuno típico (typical breakfast, consisting of eggs, beans, tortillas, plantain, and fresh cheese) as well as fruit, yogurt, and granola, along with the best coffee in town. The service is great too.
Restaurante El Harlequín (3 Av. Norte 26, tel. 2335-1009 or 2325-5890, firstname.lastname@example.org, 10am-10pm daily, $4-15) is definitely the cutest restaurant in town, hidden in a courtyard with a flourishing garden, wrought-iron tables with wine bottle candleholders, and exposed brick walls with beautiful local paintings. Harlequín is the only place in Suchitoto that is open until 10pm, with live trova music on the weekends, drawing crowds from San Salvador. They serve excellent pastas, seafood, and smoked rabbit dishes. The pasta de hierbas is the pièce de résistance, a delicious, incredibly rich cream pasta with fresh cheese and savory herbs. They make good mojitos too, also served up with a barrage of fresh herbs in your glass.
On the road to Lago Suchitlán, La Fonda El Mirador (Av. 15 Septiembre 85, tel. 2335-1126, 11am-7pm daily, $5-10), with its simple white and black facade, has been around since 1995. This fern-laden open-air restaurant, with dining tables made out of old wooden doors and windows, offers popular seafood plates alongside perfect views of the lake. Top choices include the red snapper, which comes with your choice of homemade salsas made with local fruits such as tamarind and mamey (think a cross between a mango and a papaya), and unexpectedly, a delicious deep-fried ice cream. Tables are arranged on a beautiful patio beside a shady garden. The restaurant gets busy on the weekends.
El Corte de Chef (2 Av. Norte 9, tel. 2335-1276, 11am-7pm Mon.-Sat., $3-7) is a sweet new addition to Suchitoto, not only because of the colorful courtyard with cheerful melon-painted walls, local art, and flowers, but also the daily lunch specials for $3. Plates include a meat of the day (usually chicken, fried fish, or beef) alongside a bed of rice, fresh salad, and a refresco.
Villa Balanza Restaurante Hotel (next to Parque San Martín, tel. 2335-1408, noon-9pm daily, $5-15) is famously known for the interesting sculpture above the entrance, la balanza (the scale), weighing a bomb against a thick stack of tortillas. Inside, a large restaurant has picnic-style tables covered in colorful Salvadoran tablecloths. The restaurant serves very good comida típica (typical Salvadoran food), including sopa de gallina, grilled meats, and, of course, pupusas. Every day they offer a lunch special and are well-known for the traditional dulces, mostly candied fruits and nuts.
S Los Almendros de San Lorenzo (4 Calle Poniente, beside the police station, tel. 2335-1200, www.hotelsalvador.com, 7am-8:30pm daily, $7-20) is easily the best restaurant in Suchitoto. Enclosed in glass with views of the gardens and the hotel pool, this tastefully designed space boasts polished wooden floors and ceiling, neutral brown and orange table settings, and wonderfully cool air-conditioning. The menu is unique in El Salvador, using local ingredients to prepare delicious meals with French inspiration. The most popular dish is pollo San Lorenzo, grilled chicken with bacon, onions, and pesto sauce, served with potatoes au gratin and steamed vegetables. Los Almendros also serves excellent pasta such as cheese lasagna, ravioli, and linguini with your choice of sauces, including a divine carbonara, lemon and butter, or homemade pesto. They also have a good selection of wine, as well as large creamy and cold smoothies, made with avocadoes and local fruits.
Reservations must be made in advance to dine at La Casa de Escultor (6 Calle Oriente and 3 Av. Norte, tel. 2335-1711, www.miguelmartino.com, $17), where transplanted Argentine artist and asado aficionado Miguel Martino runs his art gallery, showcasing amazing wood sculpture made out of fallen trees and destroyed trunks. When requested, Martino cleans up the clutter and gets out the cutlery, welcoming groups of eight or more for dinner, which involves succulent imported meat slow-cooked over a wood fire, roasted vegetables and potatoes, and, of course, being hosted by an Argentine, a fine selection of red wine.
Guazapa Café (Km. 43.3, Carretera San Martín-Suchitoto, near the Texaco station, tel. 2335-1823, 10am-8pm Tues.-Sun., $5-10) is located two kilometers south of the center of Suchitoto but is worth the journey, especially since you are likely to spend a couple of hours relaxing in the beautiful garden and chatting with the charming owner, former guerrilla Kenia Ramírez. This outdoor café has makeshift wooden tables and tree-trunk chairs, and a small civil war museum to browse while you wait for your food. Guazapa’s specialty is grilled meats, and you can expect large portions served in the traditional style with sides of corn on the cob, potatoes or rice, and tortillas served with a delicious spicy salsa. Guazapa Café also serves some vegetarian dishes, including quesadillas and salads. Finish off with a strong espresso, or alternatively, a nap in one of the comfortable hammocks strewn in the shade of terra-cotta roofs and surrounded by large leafy plants and flowers.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
Centro Amigos Turísticos (CAT, southwest side of parque central, tel. 2335-1835, email@example.com, 9am-5pm daily) should be your first stop for visitor information in Suchitoto. Extremely friendly staff (who speak Spanish only) will provide you with brochures, maps, tour guides, and more. It’s also one of the only places in town with icy cool air-conditioning blasting, making it easy to stay and chat for a while.
There are no banks in Suchitoto, however there is a Scotiabank ATM on the south side of parque central.
For any health issues, take advantage of the excellent Clinica Orden de Malta (4 Calle Poniente 8, no phone, 7am-noon and 12:30pm-3pm Mon.-Fri.), where there are good consultations for $2 and medication is free. Hospital Nacional Suchitoto (Av. José María Peña Fernández, tel. 2335-1062, 24 hours, daily) is located just a few minutes by car outside town and has a 24-hour emergency room.
From San Salvador, take bus 129 ($0.80, 1.75 hours, every 15 minutes) from Terminal de Oriente. Buses stop within walking distance of parque central.
If you’re driving from San Salvador, follow Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy.) past Lago Ilopango until you see the sign for San Martín. Take the San Martín exit and follow it to parque central, where you will find signs directing you to Suchitoto. The drive takes about one hour.
An 18-kilometer rocky road heading southwest of Suchitoto leads to Cinquera, a tiny town nestled in a lush valley surrounded by forested hills. Historically, the town of Cinquera was very left-leaning, and as a result was completely decimated and abandoned during the war. Many people joined the guerrilla movement and ended up living in what is now known as Área Natural Protegida Montaña de Cinquera (Montaña de Cinquera Ecological Park), a mountain thriving with beautiful subtropical forest, administered by the Asociación de Reconstrucción y Desarrollo Municipal (ARDM) (Municipal Association for Reconstruction and Development). Today, ex-guerrillas guide hikes in Spanish through the forest, most of which is now replanted, that take you past bomb shelters, graves, and a makeshift hospital and kitchen, explaining what daily life was like hiding on the mountain during the war. The park is one of the few forests in El Salvador that is fiercely protected by the people who administer it. They are mostly ex-guerrillas, and they stand firmly by their mandate of protecting the land that protected them. The hike takes about 1.5 hours, is not very difficult, and the majority of it is in the shade. It ends with a swim in a small pool underneath a waterfall.
The town of Cinquera is also worth exploring to see the parque central, which is a peaceful, shady square with a monument made from the tail of a downed military helicopter surrounded by machine guns, a stark reminder of the war. Nearby, the monument is the Memorial to the Fallen of Cinquera, displaying the names of those killed during the war. There is also a very small museum that traces the history of the town (all signage is in Spanish).
Unexploded bombs stand guard in front of a tiny church in Cinquera.
Most people here are very open to talking about the war, and one person in particular who is worth seeking out is Pablo Alvarenga, a former guerrilla and flawless public speaker. He can be tracked down through ARDM (tel. 2389-5732, firstname.lastname@example.org), which has an office across the street from the parque central. You can also get directions to the Montaña de Cinquera park here.
If you need a translator for the trek through the park, a tour of the town, or a chat with Pablo Alvarenga, both El Gringo Tours (Calle Francisco Morazán 27, Suchitoto, 1.5 blocks west of the alcaldía, tel. 2327-2351, www.elgringosuchitoto.com) and Suchitoto Adventure Outfitters (Calle San Martín 4B, Suchitoto, tel. 7921-4216) in Suchitoto offer very good tour guides and translators.
If you are unable to make the afternoon bus back to Suchitoto, there is an excellent option for spending the night in Cinquera: Hostal y Restaurante El Bosque (tel. 2389-5765, email@example.com, $10 pp) is located three blocks uphill from the parque central, where you will find newly constructed brick rooms with tile floors, fans, brand-new beds, hot water, and a terrace that meets the edge of the forest, providing a wonderful view and an orchestra of cicadas. This is a truly peaceful place and definitely recommended for anyone looking to disconnect for a night or two. There is also a restaurant (8am-7pm daily, $3-5) in the hostel, serving very economical comida típica breakfasts and set lunches and dinners, usually chicken, rice, and salad.
Bus 482 leaves Suchitoto twice daily, at 9am and 1:30pm ($0.70, 45 minutes). The same bus returns to Suchitoto at 12:30pm and 5am daily.
If you are driving from Suchitoto, the turnoff for Cinquera is at the south end of town and is clearly marked. A 4WD vehicle is recommended, especially during the rainy season.
After the Mayan civilization mysteriously collapsed in the western part of El Salvador sometime between AD 900 and 1200, a new city—most likely built by descendants of the Aztec and Toltec people from the central region of Mexico—was founded. The archaeological site of Cihuatán (4 kilometers north of Aguilares, Carreterra Troncal del Norte, tel. 2235-9453, 9am-4pm Tues.-Sun., $3) was the first and the largest pre-Hispanic settlement found in the country. Archaeologist Antonio Sol began excavation in 1929 and found the main pyramid, a small temple, and a temezcal (sauna). The news immediately made its way around the world, attracting attention to the site. Archaeologists continue to work on unearthing the mystery around both the day-to-day life of its inhabitants (who numbered up to 25,000 during its peak) as well as its eventual destruction and collapse sometime between 1150 and 1200.
It is believed that Cihuatán was the capital of a realm that most likely controlled the western half of what is now El Salvador. For 150 years, Cihuatán operated as a bustling commercial center. This is the only site in El Salvador where the jiquilite plant has been found, indicating that the people of Cihuatán were involved in the production and trade of indigo. Sometime between 1150 and 1200, Cihuatán was destroyed by unknown enemy invaders; the city was burned to the ground. Found among its charred debris were obsidian points of arrows and lances, indicating that there was a battle between the residents and the invaders. Because the city was burned and never reoccupied, all the remnants of the site are buried under the burned debris, preserving evidence about daily life in this ancient city.
Today, the site is still being discovered, and is full of grassy mounds and stone rubble, exposing several partially excavated pyramids (one of which you can climb), a defensive wall, two ball courts, and a lookout point with a perfect view of Guazapa. There is a small museum with some artifacts and information in English.
From Suchitoto, take bus 163 ($0.60, 45 minutes, runs every 40 minutes) to Aguilares. From Aguilares, you can transfer to buses 119, 124, 125, or 141 (one of these buses arrives about every 5 minutes, takes about 5 minutes, and all should cost $0.25). Ask the bus driver to drop you off at las ruinas. From where the bus drops you off, you then must walk about one kilometer to get to the entrance to the site. From San Salvador, take bus 119, 124, 125, or 141 ($0.60, about 1 hour, runs every 30 minutes) from Terminal de Oriente. Ask to be dropped off at las ruinas.
If you are driving from Suchitoto, take the road to Aguilares heading north for 20 kilometers, then take the Carretera Troncal del Norte toward San Salvador and continue about two kilometers until you reach the entrance to the site, which is well marked on both sides of the road. Continue one kilometer down the tree-lined unpaved road to the parking lot. If you are driving from San Salvador, take the Carretera Troncal del Norte toward Aguilares and continue for about 36 kilometers until you see the entrance to the site just past Aguilares.
ILOBASCO AND SAN SEBASTIÁN
A scenic drive through the Cinquera mountains 61 kilometers southeast of Suchitoto will take you to one of the oldest ceramic craft centers in Central America: the artisanal towns of Ilobasco and San Sebastián. Production in the village of Ilobasco is said to have started in the 18th century after the discovery of high-quality clay in the area, and it continues today. The main street in this bustling town is full of small shops selling ceramics of all kinds. The most popular ones are called miniaturas, tiny detailed figurines that are hidden inside sorpresas, ceramic vessels that are usually shaped like an egg or fruit. These quirky little crafts are unique to El Salvador, and the miniature figures usually depict scenes from rural life, such as a woman making pottery or men planting corn. You can also find the adult versions of sorpresas, called picaros, which are scenes of couples locked in erotic embrace. Be sure to check out MOJE Casa Artesanal (4 Av. Norte, Pasaje El Campo 11, tel. 2384-4770 or 2332-0659, www.mojecasaartesanal.com, 10am-5pm daily), where you will find the absolute best selection of traditional ceramics, made by local youth.
South of Ilobasco is San Sebastián, another artisanal town where old men spend their days weaving traditional textiles on antique wooden looms. It’s fascinating to watch, and it is a great place to buy colorful hammocks, tablecloths, and bedspreads that are made right before your eyes. The markup between here and San Salvador is quite high, and if you buy here, you cut out the intermediary, providing direct income to the men who remain dedicated to this dying art.
From Suchitoto, take bus 129 to San Salvador and ask to be let off in San Martín. From there, you need to transfer to bus 111 for Ilobasco ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every hour), and bus 110 for San Sebastián ($1, 1.25 hours, runs every hour). Alternatively, if you want to go to Ilobasco, you can catch bus 482 ($1.50, 2 hours) that leaves Suchitoto at 9am and 1:30pm daily in front of the central market. It continues on to Ilobasco after stopping in Cinquera.
It is much easier and worthwhile to take a guided tour of the villages, as your tour guide will know the best workshops and stores to check out. El Gringo Tours (Calle Francisco Morazán 27, Suchitoto, tel. 2327-2351 or 7860-9435, www.elgringosuchitoto.com) does excellent English-language tours through the artisanal route, connecting well with the locals and offering a fun, casual, and very informative trip. Tours generally take a few hours, and the cost varies depending on how many stops you would like to make.
La Palma and Vicinity
The tiny mountain town of La Palma is famed for its distinctive art, popularized by Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort. Llort, along with a group of other young artists, moved to La Palma, 84 kilometers north of San Salvador, during the social turmoil of the 1970s. They liked the relative tranquility of the cool mountain town and made it home. Llort opened an art school and taught many of the local campesinos struggling to make ends meet how to create in his unique style. There are murals all over town painted in cheerful primary colors, giving the town a light-hearted, whimsical feel. The art of La Palma has become a trademark of Salvadoran culture, depicting rural life, social struggle, and religious symbolism. La Palma is a peaceful town, with little traffic, sunny days, and crisp nights. Wander around the town and admire the storefront murals, stop for coffee, and buy some art. Whatever you do, La Palma is a perfect destination for a day trip or to use as a base for exploring the nearby highlands of Miramundo and El Pital.
The tiny Museo de Fernando Llort (Barrio San Antonio, no phone, 8am-4pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-noon Sun., free) is worth a visit if you are interested in learning more about the life and work of Fernando Llort. The small one-room display showcases his art as well as the work of some of his students, alongside placards (in Spanish only) that describe the meaning and origin of his style and give a biography of his life.
A colorful doorfront in La Palma is designed in the classic Fernando Llort style.
Right around the corner from the museum is Cooperativa Semilla de Dios (3 Calle Poniente and 5 Av. Norte, no phone, 9am-5pm daily, free), La Palma’s first art gallery, founded by Fernando Llort. Here you will find high-quality painted woodcrafts for purchase and also be able to go back to the craft shops to see the men and women working.
There are shops selling art in the Fernando Llort style throughout La Palma, but the best place to browse is the Placita de Artesanías (2 Av. Norte, no phone, 9am-5pm daily), which is located right next door to the visitor information office and has a collection of vendors selling a wide selection of La Palma’s art and crafts.
Casa Hotel (Km. 84, Carretera Troncal del Norte, on the left side of the entrance to La Palma, tel. 2373-2334, $7 pp) is the only budget option in La Palma, and it’s a good one. Inside a family home, this adorable space offers a few private rooms located at the bottom of a plant-laden staircase that also opens up to a common area. La Palma style art decorates the doorways and the rooms are simple but pretty, with colorful bedspreads and white brick walls. Rooms have two beds, fans, private bath, and hot water. There is no restaurant or kitchen here, but the lodging is right next door to a pupusería. The only downside is that there is no Wi-Fi.
Right across the street from Casa Hotel is Hotel La Palma (Km. 84, Carretera Troncal del Norte, on the right side of the entrance to La Palma, tel. 2335-9012 or 2305-8483, www.hotellapalma.com.sv, $20 s, 35 d), the oldest hotel in town; in fact, it is the second-oldest hotel in the country. La Palma opened its doors in 1941, and owner Salvador Zepeda Carrillo kept his hotel open through the civil war. During that time, his only clients were guerrillas and military officers, and the hotel was often taken over by one group or the other, leaving Carrillo to simply keep the rooms clean and the kitchen running. “There was a lot of fighting that took place within these walls,” he says. “But it is also the place where the peace talks finally started.” Today, the hotel is very peaceful, offering spacious, air-conditioned rooms with terraces facing the lovely grounds. The rooms are nice enough, with windows letting in fresh air, pretty views of the river, and trademark La Palma murals on nearly all the walls. However, the mattresses feel like they might be the same ones the warring factions slept on many years ago, and many of the rooms have the residual scent of fumigation. The novelty of staying here might be worth more than the actual experience. The restaurant serves up good comida típica, and owner Carrillo provides a side of great conversation.
Paso del Pital (Km. 84, Carretera Troncal del Norte, tel. 2305-9344, $20 s, $30 d) may have less character than the other La Palma hotels, but it is clean and comfortable, offering simple, spacious rooms with large windows, fans, private baths, hot water, Wi-Fi, and cable TV.
Dining options in La Palma are limited, but there are a few decent comedors in town. The best is Parrillada Sochi y Comida a la Vista (Calle Barrios and Calle San Antonio 79, tel. 2305-9006, 11:30am-2pm and 5:30pm-10pm daily, $1-4), an excellent little comedor with a great variety of meat, vegetables, and salads. This is a no-frills family-run business with a few tables and a TV in the corner.
If you are looking for something with a little (not much) more atmosphere, Restaurante la Teja (tel. 7681-1223, 8am-9pm daily, $3-7) is a glorified food court right beside the alcaldía in the center of town, offering a shaded seating area with wooden tables and a collection of small restaurants selling options such as pupusas, burritos, grilled meat, soups, and pizza. This is the only place in town that sometimes has live music at night.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
Centro de Amigos del Turista (2 Av. Norte, in front of parque central, tel. 2335-9076, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-12:30pm and 1:10pm-5pm daily) is an excellent resource for information about the area. There is a Banco Cuscatlán (Calle Barrios and 1 Calle Poniente), and an Internet café, Ciber Pinto (Calle de Espina 83, no phone, 8am-8pm daily).
From San Salvador, bus 119 ($1.70, 3 hours) runs every half hour from Terminal de Oriente to El Poy, stopping in La Palma. If you are coming from Suchitoto, wait outside the central market for bus 163 to Aguilares ($0.60, 45 minutes, runs every 40 minutes), and from there you can transfer to bus 119, which passes by every half hour and should cost $1. Alternatively, you can take the ferry across the lake ($4, 1 hour, ferry leaves when full) to San Francisco de Lempa, where you can take bus 542 ($0.75, 45 minutes, 6am, 7:30am, noon, and 2:45pm daily) to Chalatenango, where you can take bus 125 ($0.50, 20 minutes, runs every hour) to the intersection called El Amayo and then transfer to bus 119 ($1, 1 hour, runs every hour) to La Palma. This second route is very time-consuming and not worth the effort unless you have your heart set on taking the ferry.
If you are driving from San Salvador, drive north along the Troncal del Norte (4N) toward Apopa and Aguilares. The route is 85 kilometers and takes about two hours, the last part of which is uphill and winding.
Highlands Around La Palma
If you have made it to La Palma, why not continue north for some hiking through the cool cloud forests of El Salvador’s highlands? Cerro El Pital and Miramundo are close enough to hike during the day and be back in La Palma for the night.
The trailheads for the hikes in the highlands are in Río Chiquito, a tiny town 11 kilometers northeast of La Palma.
S Cerro El Pital
The hike to Cerro El Pital is one of the best hikes in the country, and it is easy to do on your own. The trailhead starts in Río Chiquito, and from there it’s a four-kilometer hike through gorgeous cloud forest bursting with wildflowers, ferns, and birds. The trail takes about 1.5 hours and is not difficult. It’s a steady but manageable climb, with just a small section of steeper inclination. The trail ends at a gate where you pay $2 to get into Cerro El Pital, the highest point in El Salvador at 2,730 meters; it is privately owned by four brothers. Once inside, follow the dirt road for about five minutes until you see the wide expanse of rolling green lawn peppered with benches and trees. This is the summit. Located around the lawn are three restaurants, each owned by one of the brothers, and each with its own accompanying rustic cabins. The cabins ($10-20) are very basic, with beds and nothing more, outdoor baths and no hot water. The restaurants do not have names, are all good, and all serve the same type of food—sopa de gallina, pupusas, grilled meat and fish, coffee, and hot chocolate.
towering pines in the cool cloud forest on the way to Cerro El Pital, the highest point in El Salvador
For those who seek a bit more hiking and adventure, ask someone in one of the restaurants to guide you to Piedra Rajada, about a 30-minute round-trip walk through lush forest that leads to a massive split rock. There is a makeshift bridge made out of a fallen tree and suspended over a steep 20-meter drop that leads to the rock, where you can sit and enjoy the view of El Salvador and neighboring Honduras. If you decide to cross the tree bridge, be careful if it has rained recently, as it can get quite slippery.
For extreme hikers, there are trails that start in San Ignacio, a small town just outside La Palma, and go all the way to El Pital, which involves a full day of hiking or more (there are campsites at the top). Experienced guides who can arrange this are Tomás Vázquez (tel. 7264-3234 or 2305-8421) or Arnoldo Días (tel. 7551-5526, email@example.com).
The hike to Miramundo starts in Río Chiquito. It’s about an hour’s walk along a dirt road lined with towering pine forest on either side. This hike is easier than the hike to El Pital, as it is a slow, gradual climb with no steep inclines at any point on the trail.
Once you arrive, you will enjoy a cool cloud forest area with dramatic views of just about all of El Salvador. Here, between the expansive fields of cabbage and the tall pine forests, are hiking trails peppered with cozy mountain lodges obsessed with karaoke and fireplaces.
Most of the hotels in the highlands are located in Miramundo, but one of the top hotels in the area is on the way to Cerro El Pital.
On the Way to Cerro El Pital
El Pital Highland Cabañas y Restaurant (12 kilometers from San Ignacio, on the way to Cerro El Pital, tel. 2259-0602 or 7739-0123, www.elpital.com.sv, $86 s, $125 d, includes breakfast) is set in the pine forest, where temperatures can sometimes drop to freezing. Luckily all of the rooms here are equipped with fireplaces. The rooms are quite simple, but the cabañas, which sleep up to eight, are beautifully designed with a simple but modern open-concept design inside, with a fully equipped kitchen, fans, baths with hot water, and massive windows that look out to the forest. The grounds are tastefully designed with attention to detail, including gorgeous fresh flowers in the restaurant, antiques scattered around the hotel, and a collection of boots with flowers planted in them, giving the place a unique boutique feel.
Once you reach Miramundo, the first place on the right side is the Hostal Miramundo (tel. 2219-6251, www.hostalmiramundo.com, $56 d), with large grassy grounds amid the towering pines, with picnic tables and hammocks. Log cabins are clean and simple, with large windows as well as terraces, fans, TVs, private baths, and hot water.
Right next door to Hostal Miramundo is La Posada del Cielo (tel. 2289-2843 or 7598-4102, www.hotelaposadadelcielo.com, $60 d), with lots of lovely common space, including a great little mirador, a log cabin restaurant with karaoke on the weekends, and lots of hammocks among the pines. The rooms, however, are a bit dark and damp, with dark wood, carpeted floors, fans, and old sofas; it’s not as good a value as other accommodations in town.
About one kilometer down the road is Hotel de Montaña Buena Vista (tel. 2301-6513, 7013-1377, or 7347-7743, $30 s, $50 d), where, as the name suggests, there is a phenomenal view of most of El Salvador. There are short trails on the grounds, a small restaurant, and a few rooms, each with a fireplace, double bed, fan, and private bath (no hot water).
On the opposite side of the road from Hotel de Montaña Buena Vista is the pathway that leads to S Cabañas y Restaurante Allá Arriba (tel. 7925-6154, www.alla-arriba.com, $50 cabin for 2 people), the newest and nicest place in the area, where sprawling grounds are nestled behind the cabbage fields and pine forest. Allá Arriba has 10 lovely bungalows surrounded by pines, flowers, and fruit trees. They are newly constructed with rustic style and modern comfort, including terraces, furniture for lounging, big windows, fans, hot water, and excellent service. The restaurant here serves local food, including organic fruits and vegetables and free-range chicken and eggs. There are wooden platforms built onto the sloping hill beside the hotel, with views of the farmland. These platforms are for tents, and it costs $4 to camp. There is a kitchen and shared baths (no hot water) available for those who choose to camp.
Hotel Posada del Reyes (tel. 2335-9318 or 7553-1865, $15 d) is a good option if you plan on sleeping in San Ignacio. Clean rooms with tile floors, two double beds, large windows letting in lots of light, fans, TVs, and hot water are a great deal. There is a large common space outside full of plants and flowers. There’s no restaurant, but you’ll find a good pupusería right next door.
It is also possible to sleep in Río Chiquito and have easy access to the trailheads. Lecho de Flores (50 meters from the turnoff to El Pital, tel. 2313-5470 or 2359-0782, www.elpitallechodeflores.com, $30 s, $60 d) is a lovely hostel in Río Chiquito, set in a beautiful flower garden and right beside the little river that this small town is named after. Cozy wooden A-frame cabañas have pretty touches like fresh flowers in antique milk cans, two beds with colorful blankets, and a terrace with views of the cabbage fields. Lecho de Flores includes a tour of your choice in the cost of the room, and if you do not want to stay in the area, they also offer great day-trip packages, which include transportation to and from the highlands, a hike, a meal, and afternoon coffee and quesadillas. Check the website for details.
To get to Río Chiquito, first you need to get to San Ignacio, a small town just outside of La Palma. Buses leave from La Palma for San Ignacio regularly, starting at 6:30am ($0.25, 30 minutes, run every hour). From San Ignacio, bus 509 ($0.90, 1 hour) runs to Río Chiquito at 7am, 9:30am, 12:30pm, 2:30pm, and 4:30pm daily, and returns at the same times.
The aptly named Alegría (which translates as “happiness”) is a welcome respite from the heat, especially if you have been traveling the more sweltering eastern parts of the country. Set in the highlands and sitting on the side of Volcán Tecapa, Alegría is the flower capital of the country, with hundreds of viveros (plant nurseries) emitting the sweet smell of roses, sunflowers, orchids, and various other tropical blossoms. This quaint little town with a cool climate and friendly locals is surrounded by coffee plantations and is home to Laguna de Alegría, a beautiful emerald-green sulfurous lake about two kilometers southwest of town, said to have medicinal properties. There is not much else to do in Alegría, but you just might find that the fresh local food, clean mountain air, and equally clean streets may draw you in for a few days. Don’t miss the weekend market, when vendors set up around Parque Alegría, selling local food, drinks, plants, and flowers.
Just seven kilometers southwest of Alegría is Berlín, a slightly more developed town known for its colorful old aluminum houses that were built with materials brought from Belgium at the beginning of the 20th century. Berlín was colonized in the 19th century by German and Italian immigrants, entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the coffee boom. It’s a pretty town to walk around, if only to admire the grand old homes, one of which is the very popular Casa Mía Hotel, a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee even if you’re not staying there.
The hike to Laguna de Alegría is an easy walk along a slightly inclined dirt road. The walk is very easy to do on your own, takes you past some small communities and coffee plantations, and takes about an hour each way. The strikingly green sulfurous lake sits in a crater and is especially beautiful on a very sunny day, when the deep emerald-green water sparkles in the light. On weekdays you are likely to have the lake to yourself, but it becomes a popular destination on the weekend. Most locals will tell you not to swim in the lake, as it is not deep and the bottom consists of thick, slippery mud. They recommend instead that you wade in deep enough to gather some of the clay, which is said to have healing properties for skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. If you do decide to swim, the only deep part is in the very center of the lake, and the water is very cold, but there are plenty of big warm rocks to lie on and dry off in the sun. It costs $0.25 to enter, and once you’re inside there are no restaurants, so bring a snack.
The Weekend Market (parque central, Alegría, 9am-5pm Sat.-Sun.) takes place in the parque central every weekend. Local vendors set up with local goodies such as nuegados (deep fried yuca covered in either honey or panela), chicha, hot chocolate, coffee, quesadillas, and pupusas. Many people also bring in flowers and plants from their viveros to sell.
The most economical choice in town is at Casa de Misioneros Paulinos (Calle Enrique Araujo, Alegría, tel. 7491-5934 or 2628-1180, www.padrespaulinosca.com, $6 pp dorm), where a large courtyard is flanked by very basic dormitories with shared baths. There is no restaurant, but across the street you will find a few vendors selling sandwiches and hamburgers.
The charming Casa de Huespedes La Palma (in front of parque central, Alegría, tel. 2628-1012, $10 pp) is a great budget choice. Steps away from the plaza, the front door of this pretty home opens up into a courtyard that is bursting with greenery, flowers, old photos, and knickknacks. Each room has two single beds, fan, private bath, Wi-Fi, hot water, and a little common space with a hammock. This is a very comfortable stay, and you can’t beat the location.
Entre Piedras Guesthouse and Café (across the street from parque central, Alegría, no phone, www.hostalentrepiedra.com, $20 d) is an old family home turned hostel that offers cozy rooms with wooden panel walls, comfy double beds with cute little side tables with lamps for reading, fans, TVs, hot water, and private baths. The best part of Entre Piedras is the sleek little coffee bar where you can enjoy local coffee, artisanal chocolate, wine, and beer, with a bird’s-eye view of the central plaza. There is also a restaurant out back serving sandwiches, salads, soups, and other casual fare ($4-10).
Casa Mía Hotel in Berlín serves some of the best coffee in the country inside a beautiful old home.
S Casa Mía Hotel (2 Av. Norte 10, Berlín, tel. 2643-0608 or 2663-2027, www.berlincasamia.com, $20 pp) is another old family home, converted into one of the loveliest hotels in El Salvador. The high ceilings, beautiful tile floors, and various antiques, including old telephones, record players, and typewriters, make the common areas fascinating to relax in, and the rooms, though simple, are tastefully designed with comfortable beds, colorful wooden panel walls, large windows, fans, and private baths with very hot water. Casa Mía is also home to a cute little café that serves some of the best coffee in the country, complete with coffee art on top of your latte, delicious pastries, and traditional dishes. This is a great place to stay or just to visit to learn more about the history of the area and enjoy a cup of coffee in a gorgeous mansion.
An orange stone wall covered in plaques with the names of famous Alegrians on them surrounds Cabañas la Estancia de Daniel (Calle Manuel Enrique Aruayo and 2 Av. Sur, Alegría, tel. 2628-1030, $30 d), a hidden garden property just a block west of the parque central. Five cabañas sit inside a small garden with flowers, hammocks, and picnic tables. Each room is decorated with colorful Salvadoran art and bedspreads and has a private bath, hot water, fan, Wi-Fi, and a TV. There is no formal restaurant, but breakfast can be requested.
Far from the town center, Vivero y Restaurante La Cartagena (Final Barrio El Calavario, 3 blocks downhill from parque central, Alegría, tel. 2628-1131 or 7886-2362, firstname.lastname@example.org, $60 cabaña, maximum 4 people) is definitely the most peaceful place to stay in town. Wooden cabañas are hidden among the trees and flowers on this sprawling property with a vivero and an excellent restaurant with spectacular views. Each cabaña has four beds, fans, and a private bath with hot water, and is simply decorated with neutral colors and colorful bedspreads. The restaurant serves comida típica, and attached is a lovely shop with local crafts, including jewelry, ceramics from Guatajiagua, and locally grown gourmet coffee.
Enjoy fresh home-cooked food at La Fonda (Av. Golgota, in front of the church, Alegría, tel. 2606-5309, 9am-9pm daily, $4-10), where delicious comida típica, including excellent sopa de gallina, seafood soup, grilled meat, and amazing coffee and refrescos, is served up in an idyllic garden. Stop by for coffee or enjoy a meal—either way, you can’t go wrong.
Merendero Mi Pueblito (Calle Alberto Masterro, Alegría, tel. 2628-1038, 7am-7pm daily, $3-10) is an eclectic space, with sprawling plants, children’s toys and books peppered across the floor, and frequent performances by local musicians. The inside seating area is a bit dark, but the tables on the outside deck make a sweet spot to enjoy a delicious early-morning breakfast, with fresh eggs, cheese, and coffee straight from the campo. Dinner does not disappoint either, with generous portions of beef, chicken, or pork drawing locals on a regular basis.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
There is a visitor information office (1 Av. Norte and 1 Calle Poniente, Alegría, tel. 2628-1087, hours vary) in parque central where you can arrange guided hikes to and around the lake. Alegría does not have any ATMs, but there is a Scotiabank beside parque central in Berlín.
From San Miguel, catch any bus toward San Salvador and tell the driver to let you off in Triunfo ($1.50, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes). From there, take the microbus to the city of Santiago de María ($0.30, 15 minutes, runs frequently until 5pm), where you can take one of the frequent buses to Alegría ($0.60, 45 minutes, runs every 30 minutes). Bus 348 runs daily between the central parks of Alegría, Berlín, and nearby Santiago de María ($0.35, runs every 30 minutes).
From the Terminal de Oriente in San Salvador, bus 303 (1.5 hours, $1.50) goes directly to Berlín at 2pm daily. From Berlín you can take bus 348 to Alegría ($0.35, 15 minutes, runs every 15 minutes). If you miss the direct bus or simply want to get moving earlier, you can take any bus going to San Miguel (bus 301) or La Unión (bus 304) and ask to be let off at Mercedes Umaña, where you can take bus 354 ($0.50, 30 minutes, runs every 30 minutes) to Berlín, and from Berlín take bus 348 to Alegría ($0.35, 15 minutes, runs every 15 minutes).
Driving from San Salvador in the west or San Miguel in the east, follow Carretera Panamericana and follow the sign for Santiago de María. From there, follow the signs to Alegría and Berlín. From Santiago de María, Alegría is three kilometers and Berlín is eight kilometers.
Sitting at the bottom of the imposing Volcán Chaparrastique (San Miguel), 136 kilometers east of the capital, there is a tropical intensity to San Miguel that sets it apart from the rest of El Salvador. The third-largest city in the country can be a bit overwhelming, with its narrow streets, glaring sun, and blaring music, but it’s worth exploring for those who appreciate a little urban grit. The sidewalks are crowded with old men selling horse saddles and robust women wiping sweat from their brow as they furiously work their corn masa for tortillas. The sprawling central market takes up a few blocks, and a string of neon-lit strip clubs and discotheques create a provocative nightlife, making San Miguel a fitting pit stop to prepare you for passage into the wild east. Most people, however, don’t see anything more than the bus terminal. Tourism still has not taken off in the east, and although San Miguel may not be a top destination itself, it can be a comfortable base for exploring the surrounding areas.
Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Paz
Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Paz (4 Av. Norte and 4 Calle Poniente, tel. 2661-1979, 7am-7pm daily, free) sits across the street from parque central (otherwise known as Parque Guzmán) and is considered the largest Roman Catholic church in El Salvador. According to legend, in 1682 merchants found a sealed wooden box on the shores of Golfo de Fonseca. They put the box on the back of their donkey and continued on to San Miguel. Once in the town, the donkey mysteriously stopped in front of the town chapel and refused to move. They opened the box to find an image of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus in her hands. Nobody knew the name of the idol, but they called her Our Lady of Peace because after her arrival, the violence that had been escalating among different ethnic groups miraculously abated. The chapel was rebuilt in 1903 into a bigger church in honor of the saint. In 1787, when Volcán Chaparrastique erupted, the river of lava threatened to reach San Miguel. Locals decided to remove the image of the Virgin Mary from the altar and place it at the main entrance of the church. Legend has it that the lava changed its course, saving the town. The clean white facade and brick-red bell towers make the church the centerpiece of the bustling parque central. Inside, the eight-meter-tall altar, chandeliers, and stained glass windows create a grandiose and peaceful refuge.
Teatro Nacional Gavidia Francisco
Built in 1909 as part of a campaign to beautify the city, Teatro Nacional Gavidia Francisco (6 Av. Norte and 2 Calle Poniente, 1 block behind the cathedral, tel. 2660-7480, 8am-4pm Thurs.-Sat., free, performances $3) lacks the art and pomp of the theaters in San Salvador and Santa Ana but is worth checking out to see if there are any performances scheduled. The style of this theater, which seats up to 450 people, is neoclassic, with details modeled after Paris’s opera house. The theater hosts dramas, contemporary dance, folk dance, and symphony performances.
Capilla Medalla Milagrosa
The small white neo-Gothic Capilla Medalla Milagrosa (7 Av. Norte and 4 Calle Poniente, no phone, 8am-noon and 2pm-4pm daily) was built in 1904 and was originally a hospital run by a group of French nuns. Today, the church is a peaceful place to visit, perfect for getting away from the bustle of this intense city. Set amid tall trees, a long walkway leads inside, where you will find high arched ceilings, stained glass windows, and an altar cloaked in the glow of bright lighting that shows off a statue of the Virgin Mary.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
Volcán Chaparrastique (San Miguel) is located 15 kilometers east of San Miguel and provides the stunning backdrop to the not-so-stunning city. Most people prefer to enjoy admiring it rather than climbing it, but for the hard-core hikers who are interested, it is possible to tackle this behemoth. The third-tallest volcano in the country at 2,130 meters, Chaparrastique provides an unforgiving 10-hour round-trip hike. The trail is a series of zigzags through coffee fields that eventually turn into thick grass, stunted trees, and scrub, and finally becomes surreal rocky terrain. It is steep and sweltering, with no shade and lots of scrambling, but you will be rewarded with spectacular views of eastern El Salvador, including the Golfo de Fonseca and Bahía de Jiquilisco. At the top there is a plunging crater more than 300 meters deep with a massive pile of boulders at the bottom.
This hike is too complicated to do on your own, and can technically be done with a police escort for free; however, you will need to organize it weeks in advance and have access to your own vehicle. You are better off paying a tour guide. Many national tour companies can arrange the hike, but they usually just hire an independent guide. You can cut out the intermediary and extra cost by contacting the intrepid independent adventure tour guide Joaquín Aragón (tel. 7165-2882), who guides the hike for $35 pp. You should contact him a few days in advance, as he is based in La Libertad.
Laguna Jocotál is popular with locals but still relatively undiscovered by travelers. This popular weekend retreat is about 15 kilometers southwest of San Miguel and is home to a wide range of birds, including pelicans, emerald toucanets, and blue-and-white mockingbirds. The lake gets busy on the weekend with throngs of locals escaping the hectic city, but if you come during the week, you will likely have the place to yourself. This glimmering lake is covered in water lilies and offers unrivaled views of Volcán Chaparrastique and its perfect reflection in the clear water. You can take a ride around the lagoon in a canoe for $8 per hour, or just hang out by the shore and chat with locals or eat some fried fish from one of the small stands that are often set up around the lake.
To get here, take bus 373 to Usulután ($1, 15 minutes, runs every 15 minutes) and tell the driver you are going to Laguna Jocotál. He can let you off about one kilometer from the shore.
San Miguel’s Central Market (west of Parque Gerardo Barrios, 6am-6pm daily) is a massive, loosely organized collection of indoor and outdoor stalls with vendors selling everything from machetes and whole chickens to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. There are also innumerable food stalls serving comida típica if you are looking for some cheap local fare.
For a quieter, cooler, and significantly more costly experience, check out Metrocentro (Av. Roosevelt Sur 704, tel. 2640-1836 or 2640-1837, www.metrocentro.com, 7am-9pm daily), a shopping mall with lots of banks, restaurants, clothing shops, pharmacies, electronics, and more.
By far the best budget option is town is Hotel Claire’s (Av. José Simeón Cañas 504, tel. 2660-4503, www.hotelclairess.com, $20 d). This cheerful yellow building is attended by equally cheerful staff and conveniently located just a few blocks from the center. Claire’s offers simple, very clean rooms with tile floors, private baths, air-conditioning, cable TV, and phones. All of the rooms are located along a long walkway with plants and sitting areas, facing a small courtyard and parking lot.
All of the other budget hotels in San Miguel are near the bus terminal, a smog-laced area that is crowded and chaotic during the day and potentially unsafe at night; it is not recommended that you stay in this area. However, if you must, a relatively decent budget choice is Guanaco Inn (8 Av. Norte 1, Pasaje Madrid, tel. 2661-8026 or 2660-6403, $10 s or d). The large rooms with tile floors, double beds, private baths, and not much else are at least clean, and there is a restaurant downstairs.
Although a bit of a misnomer, Hotel King Palace (6 Calle Oriente, directly in front of the bus terminal, tel. 2660-8800, 2661-1086, or 2660-6358, www.hotelkingpalace.com, $30 s or d) is still the best bet around the bus terminal. This large security-conscious hotel offers enough amenities to be comfortable for a night or two. With a large outdoor courtyard, a swimming pool, a business center, a comedor, and a parking lot, it is comfortable for a short stay. Rooms are small but clean, with two double beds, air-conditioning, tile floors, private baths, and TVs.
Hotel Floresta (Av. Roosevelt Sur 704, tel. 2640-1549, $30 s, $40 d) is a much nicer option in this price range. This simple, bright hotel has a lovely open-air space with a swimming pool surrounded by shade-providing plants and trees. The rooms are simple, with tile floors, private baths, cable TV, and air-conditioning. Breakfast is included and can be eaten in the sitting area by the pool. The friendly, attentive staff is a bonus.
Comfort Inn Real San Miguel (Final Alameda Roosevelt, tel. 2600-0200, www.comfortinn.com, $65 d) is an excellent option, and cheaper if you stay on the weekend. Spotless white hallways open to modern rooms with king beds covered in crisp white sheets on light wooden bed frames. All of the rooms have a clean, modern style with immaculate white curtains and tile floors, air-conditioning, TVs, desks, and windows letting in plenty of natural light. There is a great little business center with Internet access, a small gym, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and even a cute little bar called Tequilas beside the swimming pool. No request is too onerous for the efficient staff, and the hotel is conveniently located next to the Metrocentro, where there are plenty of shops, restaurants, cafés, and a grocery store. If you stay on the weekend, the rates are discounted to $45 d.
Hotel Villa San Miguel (Av. Roosevelt Norte, 407, tel. 2669-6969, www.hotelvillasanmiguel.com, $45 s, $57 d) is one of the newest hotels on the strip with spotless modern rooms boasting queen beds with crisp white sheets and big fluffy pillows. This is a perfect place to relax and indulge after battling the traffic and heat of San Miguel. Check out the gym and swimming pool on the second floor before hitting your room to blast the air-conditioning and turn on the large flat-screen TV. The staff is very friendly and helpful, and there is an excellent Salvadoran breakfast buffet included in the rates. Hotel Villa San Miguel is also located right next door to some of the best cafés and restaurants in the city.
Hotel Trópico Inn (Av. Roosevelt Sur 303, tel. 2661-1800, $45 s, $65 d) is as close to Miami’s South Beach as it gets in El Salvador, complete with a rooftop bar and its glittery following. This massive, modern three-story hotel is conspicuously located on the main street and has a distinctly tropical feel, with a massive airy lobby with small souvenir shops, and a swimming pool surrounded by palms and lounge chairs where attentive staff bring you cold umbrella cocktails. The rooms are large and airy, with air-conditioning, wicker furniture, and decks that look out over the courtyard and swimming pool.
At the very entrance of San Miguel, Hotel Plaza Florencia (Km. 135, Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2665-5500, www.hflorencia.com, $40 s, $60 d) seems out of place beside the neon lights of the neighboring strip clubs, but don’t let that deter you. This neocolonial facade opens up to a large parking lot that is surrounded by rooms and palm trees. The rooms are a bit crowded and eclectic, with tropical-print bedspreads, antique furniture, and kitschy art on the walls, but they all have air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and TVs. There is a swimming pool, and an excellent breakfast buffet is included, served in the formal restaurant where servers take their jobs very seriously, attending to you in dress suits and bow ties. There is also a small bar and efficient room service.
Paraíso Comida a la Vista y Pupusería (2 Av. Norte, west side of parque central, tel. 2660-1852, 6am-4pm daily, $2-5) is an excellent budget option in the city center. This cheerful, brightly lit comedor has a great selection of salads, steamed vegetables, meat, fresh soups, and other rotating comida típica.
What La Pradera (Av. Roosevelt Sur 70, tel. 2661-4915, 11:30am-9:30pm daily, $8-17) lacks in ambience it makes up for in food. This simple steak house has been serving some of the best food in San Miguel for years and remains one of the local favorites. The specialty here is the punta jalapeña, a steak smothered in jalapeño salsa served with all the trimmings, including mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables.
The small, modern La Tartaleta (Av. Roosevelt Sur and 11 Calle Poniente, Plaza Jardín, tel. 2660-4983, 6am-10pm daily, $5-10) is an icy-cool refuge from the mean heat of San Miguel’s streets. It’s a perfect pit stop for a coffee, smoothie, or a bite to eat. This small café is the only place in town to find some decent vegetarian options, including soups, salads, sandwiches, and pizza, and it boasts an extensive selection of coffees and desserts.
It’s a bit of a trek to get to La Pema (Km. 142.5, Carretera El Cuco, tel. 2661-4915, www.lapema.com, 10am-5pm Sun.-Thurs., Fri.-Sat. 10am-5pm and 7pm-midnight or later, $7-16) but worth it if you are craving seafood. On the road to El Cuco, just five kilometers south of town, this large open-air restaurant gets packed on the weekend with loyal customers. La Pema brings in only the freshest fish straight from the coast and is famous for its mariscada, a large creamy seafood soup with crab, shrimp, and lobster served with cheese-stuffed tortillas. There is live music every Friday night after 9pm, and there is usually dancing.
San Miguel’s Sunday Food Fair (parque central, 9am-6pm Sun.) is a little-known treasure. Every Sunday morning, vendors from the surrounding pueblos set up shop in parque central and serve up comida típica from their villages. You will find traditional fare like atol (a warm, sweet corn-based drink), chuco (atol made with blue corn), sopa de gallina, riguas (small sweet corn pancakes), and tamales. It’s a very laid-back and friendly vibe, and it is a great way to get to know some of the locals and their traditions.
Papagallo Bar and Grill (Av. Roosevelt Sur, Mall 5, tel. 2661-0400, noon-8pm Sun.-Thurs., noon-2am Fri.-Sat.) serves up tasty Mexican fare, and when there is live music, some of the best nightlife in town. The dimly lit front area has a small bar and a few tables, creating an intimate space that is great for casual dinner and a beer. The back door of this space opens to a large room with a stage, where there is either live music or a DJ on the weekend. There is no cover charge.
Puerta Viejo (Av. Roosevelt, in front of Parqueo Municipal, tel. 2660-0263, 9pm-2am daily) is a popular bar that has three sections to suit your mood. In the front of the bar is a tiny dance floor that gets crowded with locals dancing to salsa or reggaeton. The center of the bar has tables where you can eat and watch the action on the dance floor. The backroom is definitely the most entertaining and a real slice of Salvadoran culture. Beer and karaoke are what this room is all about—usually involving a lot of sorrowful songs about broken hearts and unrequited love belted out with no inhibition. There is no cover charge.
Melodia (Av. Roosevelt 503, no phone, 9pm-2am Fri.-Sat.) is the local discotheque where you are “promised to be fulfilled.” If flashing lights, thumping dance music, and uninhibited dancers is what you are looking for, this may prove true. The action doesn’t start until at least 10pm. There is a cover charge for men that varies by the night and the entertainment; women always get in free.
El Trópico (Av. Roosevelt Sur 303, tel. 2682-1000, 6pm-2am daily) has a rooftop bar with a small indoor dance floor that gets packed with locals dancing to reggaeton and salsa. The large wraparound deck that overlooks Avenida Roosevelt, friendly staff, and a laid-back vibe make this the best spot in San Miguel for some evening cocktails. There is no cover charge.
The biggest festival in El Salvador takes place in San Miguel the last weekend of November. Carnaval de San Miguel (www.carnavaldesanmiguel.net) is the country’s biggest party, held in honor of Nuestra Señora De La Paz (Our Lady of Peace). The carnival began in 1959 and has been growing in size ever since. It is now considered one of the biggest festivals in Central America. Festivities include lots of live music, dancing, parades, fireworks, and general debauchery. Depending on how you feel about rowdy crowds, public drinking, and parties, you may want to plan to attend or to avoid the carnival accordingly. If you do decide to go, make sure you make reservations for hotels well in advance.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
There are various banks located around Parque Guzmán, including a Scotiabank (2 Av. Norte and 4 Calle Oriente, tel. 2204-5904, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.).
For medical issues, Hospital San Francisco (Av. Roosevelt Norte 408, tel. 2645-2900, for emergencies tel. 2645-2955) is the first choice. As of yet, there is no tourism office in San Miguel, but for any tourism related questions, the alcaldía, located right in front of Parque Guzmán, may be of assistance.
From San Salvador, take bus 301 from Terminal de Oriente. There are three options: regular ($2.10, 3-4 hours), especial ($3, 2.5 hours), and super ($5, 2 hours). Buses leave every 15 minutes.
If driving from San Salvador, take Carretera Panamericana and head east for 138 kilometers. The drive takes about two hours.
Perquín and Vicinity
The tiny town of Perquín has gained leftist fame as the former FMLN guerrilla stronghold in the country. Today it is a modest agriculture-driven community where people get up at dawn to work the land and retire at dusk to prepare to do it again the next day. The town is marked by colorful murals promoting civil rights, a few simple comedors and tiendas where women sell heirloom beans and vegetables, and a shady central plaza where old men sit and quietly watch the hours go by.
Most people come here to see the revolution museum and the nearby El Mozote memorial and then move on, but those who take the time to balance out the somber history with some outdoor adventure are rewarded with unmapped hiking trails that most travelers have yet to discover. In and around the thick pine forests of Perquín, brilliant blue skies and lush green hills are punctuated with waterfalls and crystal-clear rivers. This is where the guerrillas hid during the war. Their intimate knowledge of the terrain was their greatest advantage in constantly avoiding military attacks during the ongoing cat-and-mouse games of the 1980s. Today, they use their unrivaled familiarity with the land to guide curious visitors off the beaten track, past bomb craters, former guerrilla camps, and cave hideouts, and offering firsthand accounts of what life was like for the guerrillas during the civil war.
Today, the town of Perquín is quiet and stable. As one elderly woman happily put it when asked what there is to do on the weekend: “Nothing. Every day is the same here.” After the region’s terror-filled past, the people of Perquín appreciate today’s tranquility. There are no Che Guevera T-shirts or lefty bars here, just a peaceful mountain town full of ex-combatants and quiet campesinos with stories to tell, if you would like to listen.
S Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña
The main attraction in Perquín is the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña (Calle Los Héroes, tel. 2610-6737, 8am-4:30pm daily, $1.20). Just a few blocks west of parque central, this museum has various displays depicting the circumstances that led to the civil war, including photos, newspaper clippings, and solidarity posters, along with artifacts such as weapons, homemade bombs, and finally a room showcasing the former underground Radio Venceremos mobile radio equipment. The radio station was famous for broadcasting caustic commentary that often ridiculed the government, and it was particularly offensive to Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, leader of the notorious Atlacatl Battalion and orchestrator of the El Mozote massacre. Monterrosa was constantly trying to shut the radio operation down, without any success, until 1984, when he found the FMLN radio transmitter lying on the ground. Unable to believe his luck, Monterossa grabbed the transmitter, boarded his helicopter, and took off, only to plunge to his death halfway through the flight. The transmitter turned out to be a bomb, a booby trap cleverly set by the rebels. The remnants of the helicopter are now on display in front of the museum, alongside testimonies from survivors of massacres that took place throughout Morazán during the war. This museum receives no funding from the government and is run by volunteers and ex-guerrillas who are committed to educating the public about the history of the armed conflict in El Salvador. If you don’t speak Spanish, it is recommended to go with an English-speaking guide, which can be arranged through Perkin Tours (Final Calle Principal, tel. 2680-4086, email@example.com, approx. 2 hours, $30). If you do speak Spanish, there are always ex-guerrillas at the museum who will take you on a guided tour for significantly less. They can also arrange hiking tours around the area.
remnants of Monterrosa’s helicopter at the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña
Beside the museum is the Campamiento Guerrilla (tel. 2680-4303, 7am-6pm daily, $0.50), a reenacted guerrilla camp where owner Ángel Recino has created a somehow lighthearted and fun way to learn about the war. The FMLN anthem plays from an ancient radio as you walk around and check out this coffee plantation turned park, with displays of old machine guns and bombs as well as rope bridges and tatús, the multipurpose underground hideouts.
Directly across from the museum is Cerro de Perquín, where you can take a short 10-minute walk up to the mirador to enjoy the peaceful quiet and a view of the surrounding mountains of northern Morazán and neighboring Honduras.
Memories of War
The peace talks started at a restaurant table in La Palma and ended under a mango tree in Perquín. Everywhere you go in between, somebody has a story. The way the story unfolds depends on who you are talking to, but the way it ends is always the same—the scars still run deep from El Salvador’s civil war. This region was seriously affected by military massacres during the war. Many poor campesinos were already frustrated from land issues that dated back to the 19th century. Disgruntled with the government, and with the gap between rich and poor ever widening, many young people decided to join the FMLN—perhaps it was not an easy decision, but many felt there was no other viable alternative. As many people who lived through the war in this region say today, “We were tired of not being able to afford to eat.”
The mountains made perfect hiding spots, and the local population’s intimate knowledge of the terrain was a great advantage. Despite the army’s determined efforts to gain control of the region, the red zone remained impenetrable. Well-organized guerrillas hid in the forest, huddling in tatús under the ground, transmitting famous underground radio broadcasts from caves and dugouts and washing in the rivers and waterfalls. The land protected them and was instrumental in keeping the movement alive. As the military’s frustration with the elusive guerrillas increased, so did the gunfire, and not long after the war began, civilians began to get caught in the crossfire. In the early 1980s thousands of civilians in eastern El Salvador were killed in a military strategy coined Quitarle el agua al pez (Take the water away from the fish), the premise being that the rebels would not to be able to survive without the help of the people.
It was true; many villages actively supported the guerrillas, primarily by providing food. As more and more massacres took place, fear drove more villages to adopt a neutral stand, but at the height of the operation, it didn’t matter whether you were truly a rebel sympathizer or not. El Salvador’s war had entered the realm of senseless killing. The most tragic example of a massacre of villagers who did not support the guerrillas took place in El Mozote in 1981, when 800 people, including women and children, were brutally murdered by military troops, who unknowingly left one traumatized witness behind—Rufina Amaya Mírquez. This was the largest known massacre in Central America.
Traveling in this part of the country today, there are reminders of the war everywhere: bomb craters, bullet-pocked buildings, destroyed churches and abandoned houses with wild grass growing up and around the crumbling walls. Salvadorans are split on how to deal with the grief. Some believe it is better to let the grass keep growing until there are no more vestiges of the painful past. Others believe remembrance is essential to the healing of the nation. Many of the tours in this part of the country are not only a source of income for people who lived through 12 years of war and have few other options for employment, but also as a source of comfort, knowing that they are keeping the memory of El Salvador’s past alive.
S El Mozote Memorial
El Mozote Memorial is dedicated to the hundreds of innocent civilians who were killed in one of Latin America’s most brutal massacres. It all began toward the end of 1981 when stories started circulating that military troops were making their way through northern Morazán, and that guerrilla supporters were being tortured and killed.
El Mozote was an evangelical Christian town, with no ties to the guerrillas, and word had spread that those who sought refuge there would be spared. In a matter of days the peaceful town of El Mozote received an influx of people from neighboring villages seeking safe haven.
On December 10, 1981, the battalion arrived, ostensibly to reassure everyone there that they would be protected; but instead of having their fears put to rest, villagers watched in disbelief as their worst nightmare began to unfold. The soldiers violently interrogated everyone, and then ordered them to stay inside their houses, warning that anyone who tried to leave would be shot. Every home was full of locals as well as the visitors who had recently sought refuge in El Mozote. After several grueling hours trapped inside with crying children being comforted by terrified adults, dawn broke and everybody was ordered outside, where they were lined up to be interrogated again. What happened next was one of the most notorious massacres in Latin American history, not only because of the size and brutality, but also because there was a sole survivor, left to tell the tale. Rufina Amaya Mírquez had escaped the line of women and hid behind a tree, where she laid for hours, motionless and terrified as she watched the whole town murdered and burned, including her husband and children. When she was sure the soldiers had left, she frantically made her way through the forest out to the main road where somebody found the traumatized 35-year-old woman, disheveled and in shock. She went to the international media with her story, and shortly after the massacre took place, American journalist Raymond Bonner showed up in El Mozote. He published an article in the New York Times in January 1982 describing his interview with Rufina Amaya, backed up by his personal account of seeing the skulls and bones of dozens of bodies “buried under burned-out roofs, beams, and shattered tiles.” The article was refuted by both the Salvadoran and U.S. governments. The Reagan administration, which was at that time focused on obliterating communism in Latin America, continued funding the war despite the widespread accounts of human rights violations. After the peace accords were signed, the Spanish government sent in an Argentine forensics team to excavate the remains of El Mozote. They unearthed the charred remains of hundreds of people, including children, corroborating Rufina Amaya’s testimony. Today the church in El Mozote has been rebuilt and is covered in murals of children happily playing.
Behind the church, the Garden of Innocents has flowers placed above the graves of the children who were killed, as well as another mural with the names and ages of the victims. In the center of town is a memorial that lists the names of many of the adults who were killed. There is a small women’s cooperative that sells crafts and books beside the memorial. You can ask them to arrange a local guide for you, provided you give a small donation. There should be at least one guide who speaks English.
You have to leave Perquín early in the morning to catch the El Mozote bus. From Perquín, take a pickup truck ($0.25, 5 minutes) in front of parque central heading to the desvío de Arambala (“Arambala fork in the road”). Here you need to catch the Joateca-bound bus ($0.50, 20 minutes), which stops in El Mozote. The bus leaves the desvío de Arambala at 7:45am. This is the last bus heading to El Mozote, so make sure you don’t miss it. The same bus returns from the center of El Mozote at 12:45pm.
If you are driving, El Mozote is about 10 kilometers southeast of Perquín. Head north toward Ruta de Paz, continue straight on Ruta de Paz for about six kilometers, and then take a left onto MOR 15 WB and continue for two kilometers until you see the sign for El Mozote.
RECREATION AND TOURS
Hiking and Swimming
The cool, turquoise water of Río Sapo is not only pretty to look at but also a pleasure to swim in, as it is also one of the cleanest rivers in El Salvador thanks to the continued efforts of the surrounding communities and the guidance of local environmental organization PRODETUR. Together they have rallied to make Río Sapo and its surrounding land a protected area that covers about 6,000 hectares. The river boasts a series of small waterfalls that rush over huge stones, creating dozens of deep, clear green pools that are perfect for swimming, even during the dry season. There are two trails around the river, but they are not marked. Each trail takes about 1.5 hours and you need a guide. Guides can be arranged through Perkin Tours (Final Calle Principal, tel. 2680-4086 or 7901-9328, firstname.lastname@example.org), which also runs an excellent campsite beside the river. They run package tours that include transportation to the campsite, food, a tent, an hour-long hike to a nearby waterfall, and an evening fire on the rocks for $40 pp.
If you would just like to take a swim in the river, it is best combined with a trip to El Mozote. It’s about a 45-minute walk from the town to the river. Ask for a local guide once you are in El Mozote.
La Cascada el Chorreron
About four kilometers east of Perquín in the small town of San Fernando is La Cascada el Chorreron, a rushing waterfall and swimming pool hidden at the end of a beautiful hike past lush green cattle fields and spotless blue skies. This completely isolated gem has a palpable fairy-tale feel, complete with butterflies and lots of shade provided by the large leafy trees. The walk takes about 1.5 hours and can easily be done on your own. It can get hot, so bring water, sunscreen, and a hat.
La Cascada el Chorreron
To get to El Chorreron, take bus 332 ($0.50, 20 minutes) from Perquín to San Fernando; buses pass by the center of Perquín at 8:40am, 10am, and noon. Once you arrive to San Fernando, look for the road that leads to the cemetery, and then walk straight for three kilometers on this road. You will see a sign for El Chorreron on the right side, pointing toward a house. Enter the gate to the house and walk straight ahead. Ask whoever is around to point you in the right direction. From there, it is a 10-minute climb down a path to the waterfall. The same bus returns from the center of San Fernando to Perquín at noon and at 3:30pm.
Llano el Muerto and Bailadero del Diablo
On the road toward the Marcala border with Honduras, the environment transforms into a dreamlike landscape displaying an immense expanse of flat granite rocks sprinkled with trees, shrubs, and creeks. This is the area called Llano el Muerto (Dead Man’s Plains) and Bailadero del Diablo (Dance Floor of the Devil), marked by tall pine forest, wide-open prairies, and strange rock formations. There are walking trails that take you to the rushing Río Negro and waterfalls that create lovely swimming pools during the rainy season. There are no real difficult hiking trails here, but it’s worth a visit to enjoy walking around the surreal scenery, relaxing by a waterfall, and cooling off with a swim.
It is possible to do the trip as a day trip, but there are cabañas in Llano el Muerto, if you feel like spending the night. About seven kilometers from where the bus leaves town, Centro Turistico Llano El Muerto (tel. 2660-3184, email@example.com, $30 d) has cabañas scattered on a large grassy property with a swimming pool, restaurant, and just a short walk to a waterfall and swimming hole. Each cabaña has three beds, a private bath, and a small porch with a hammock.
Llano el Muerto is about five kilometers northeast of Perquín and Bailadero del Diablo about two kilometers farther in the same direction. Bus 486, also known as the Marcala bus ($0.50, 20 minutes), passes by the center of Perquín at 6:50am daily and goes first to Llano el Muerto and in another 10 minutes stops at Bailadero del Diablo.
Hotel Perkín Real (entrance to Perquín, tel. 7209-3042, $10 pp) is a good budget choice, located right at the entrance of Perquín, across from comedors and tiendas, and within walking distance of parque central and the museum. A long corridor is lined with simple dorm rooms, each with four single beds with very clean, brand-new shared baths. The mattresses have plastic coverings on them, which can take a little getting used to, and the rooms do not have ceilings, which means you are fair game for mosquitoes (and privy to your neighbors’ conversations), but overall it’s a comfortable stay for the price.
The more open-minded traveler might check out La Casita de la Abuela (Calle Los Héroes, on the way to Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña, tel. 2680-4237, $10 d), where la abuela Alba Gladis rents out one room (her room) in the back of her eclectic shop, where you will find everything from locally collected crystals, books, and old solidarity posters to a small café with Salvadoran poetry adorning the walls. The rustic room out back has a well-worn plush double bed, cable TV, fan, and private bath. The roosters are up at the crack of dawn right outside the window, and la abuela is not far behind; the good news, however, is that by the time you are up, she will have a huge pot of coffee brewing.
The most popular hotel in the area is Perkín Lenca Hotel de la Montaña (Km. 205.5, Carretera a Perquín, tel. 2680-4046, www.perkinlenca.com, $20 d, includes breakfast), and with good reason. Not only are the rooms lovely; a portion of the proceeds goes toward running a local school for children in the area (ask owner Ron Brenneman if you are interested in volunteer opportunities). Cabañas are set high up on a hill and scattered among pine trees and hammocks. Each room has tile floors, two beds, fan, private bath with very hot water, and swinging saloon-style doors, which look nice but may hijack privacy. In front of each room is a porch with a hammock, and free drinking water is provided. Farther down from the rooms is a large restaurant that serves very good home-cooked food and which has Wi-Fi. The hotel is located about a 15-minute walk before the entrance of Perquín, so if you are planning on staying here, make sure you ask the bus driver to let you off at the hotel.
Even farther away from the entrance of town than Perkín Lenca Hotel de la Montaña is El Ocotal Hotel de Montaña (Km. 201, Carretera a Perquín, tel. 2634-4083, www.hotelocotal.com, $25 d, includes breakfast), about a 25-minute walk from the entrance of town. This hotel offers a peaceful vibe among the tall pines that are interspersed with short walking trails, a swimming pool, and a restaurant. Cabañas are set high up and away from the main road, with a lovely view of green hills and forests. Each cabaña has a small porch with a hammock, and the inside is simply decorated with two beds, fan, and private bath with hot water. This is a nice option if you are looking to get away from it all and commune with the sounds of nature.
Antojitos Marisol (main road, no phone, 7am-5pm daily, $2-5) serves tasty comida típica at very economical prices. This small, simple comedor has a few tables, a TV, and a set lunch and dinner menu that usually involves some kind of meat, rice, and salad. If you come at an odd time, just ask what is available and something (simple as it may be) can always be prepared.
If you are catching an early pickup to El Mozote, the only comedor open for breakfast before 7am is the tiny Comedor Teresa (in front of parque central, no phone, 6am-9am and 11am-1pm daily, $2-3), where you will find locals filling up on fast, cheap breakfast before starting their workdays. Portions are generous and items on offer include the usual eggs, beans, plantains, cheese, and tortillas.
Perkin Lenca Hotel de la Montaña (Km. 205, Carretera a Perquín, tel. 2680-4046, www.perkinlenca.com, 7am-8pm daily, $4-10) offers the best view in Perquín, alongside excellent, home cooked food, including freshly baked bread, cookies, cakes, and pies. The restaurant is large and built out of pinewood, giving it an authentic mountain-lodge feel. They serve up traditional meat dishes, tacos, soups, and salads, and the outdoor seating area is a great place to watch the moon rise in the evening.
El Ocotal Hotel de la Montaña and Restaurante (Km. 201, Carretera a Perquín, tel. 2634-4083, www.hotelocotal.com, 9am-9pm daily, $5-12) has a cute open-air restaurant near the swimming pool, with beautiful mountain views. The menu specializes in comida típica and is very popular with Salvadorans coming from San Miguel on the weekend especially for sopa de gallina.
La Cocina de mi Abuela (entrance to town, on the right side, tel. 2502-2630, 8am-5pm Sat.-Sun., $3-6) is open on the weekend only and serves up economical generous portions of comida típica. If you are lucky, you might catch la abuela’s grandson playing the piano while you dine.
INFORMATION AND SERVICES
There is no visitor information office in Perquín, but the Centro de Amigos del Turista (CAT) (tel. 2656-6521, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-5pm daily) is an excellent resource with English-speaking staff who can help you arrange guided tours anywhere in the area. The office is located just outside of Jocoaitique, a small town two kilometers north of Perquín. There are no banks in Perquín, so make sure to bring enough cash to carry you through your time here.
From the San Miguel bus station, bus 332 ($1.35, 3 hours) leaves daily at 6am, 7:20am, 8:30am, 10:50am, noon, 12:30pm, 1:40pm, and 4:15pm. If you miss the last bus, you can take bus 328 ($0.75, 1 hour, every 15 minutes) to San Francisco de Gotera, and from there transfer to a crowded pickup truck to Perquín ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes).
If you are coming from San Salvador, you have to take bus 301 (ordinario $3, 3-4 hours, every 15 minutes; especial $5, 2 hours, runs every 30 minutes) from the Terminal de Oriente to San Miguel and then take bus 332 ($1.35, 3 hours, 6am, 7:20am, 8:30am, 10:50am, noon, 12:30pm, 1:40pm, and 4:15pm daily) from the San Miguel bus station to Perquín.
If you are driving from San Salvador, take the Carretera Panamericana. If you’re driving from San Miguel, take highway CA7 heading north for 53 kilometers to Perquín.
Historic Sites near Perquín
The towns of Guatajiagua and Cacaopera and the archaeological site Cueva del Espíritu Santo can each be visited as a day trip from Perquín or San Miguel. Cacaopera and Cueva del Espíritu Santo are located in the same direction and can be visited in one day, but it will likely require an overnight in Corinto.
The small town of Guatajiagua is known for its black pottery, which has been crafted by hand by the women of this town since the indigenous Lenca people populated this region as long as 3,000 years ago. Most of the women in the town make a meager living through makeshift workshops in their homes, and it is not uncommon to see three generations of women working away molding the clay into shape or setting it out to dry. The men then tend to the clay while it cooks in the wood-fired dome-shaped kiln. Once the clay hits the right temperature in the kiln, it’s taken out and dyed black with the seeds of the nacascol tree.
If you are interested in learning about how the pottery is made, or participating in production, or if you would like to buy some directly from the source, a trip to Guatajiagua is easy enough to do if you have a few free hours. If you would like a tour, it can be arranged through the Centro de Amigos del Turista (CAT) (tel. 2656-6521, email@example.com, 9am-5pm daily) just outside of Jocoaitique, two kilometers north of Perquín.
To get to Guatajiagua from Perquín, take a pickup truck ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes) to San Francisco de Gotera. Ask where Banco Agricola is and wait in front of it for bus 410 ($1, 30 minutes, runs every hour) to Guatajiagua. From San Miguel, take bus 328 ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes) to San Francisco de Gotera, and from there bus 410 to Guatajiagua.
If you are driving, Guatajiagua is 44 kilometers southwest of Perquín and 25 kilometers north of San Miguel. Driving from Perquín, follow the Ruta de Paz south 29 kilometers to San Francisco de Gotera and then head east on the Carretera San Francisco Gotera, which will turn into to Carretera Guatajiagua until you see the signs for Guatajiagua.
Anyone interested in the indigenous history and culture in El Salvador should not miss a visit to Cacaopera, an area believed to be the sole surviving example of an otherwise vanished ethnic group referred to as Kakawira or Ulúa. It is thought that they arrived from northern Nicaragua sometime around 3000 BC. Invited by the Maya to come to what is now El Salvador and begin to cultivate cacao, the Kakawira settled beside the Río Torola and named their community Cacaopera, which roughly translates as “cultivate cacao by the river.”
Cacaopera has been better able to preserve its indigenous culture than other parts of the country because of its relative isolation in the middle of the mountains of Morazán, and important archaeological sites have been discovered in the area. Some sites are former Ulúa communities that date roughly from 3000 BC; others, including caves with petroglyphs, date as far back as the Archaic period (8000-2000 BC).
If you are interested in visiting some of these lesser-known sites, you can contact Tata Miguel Ángel at Museo Winakirika (tel. 2651-0251, after 6pm tel. 7857-2036, 8am-4pm daily, donation), about one kilometer outside of town (take a motorcycle taxi, $1-2). Tata Miguel runs not only the museum but a community center where he leads different activities aimed at preserving and cultivating indigenous culture. The museum showcases indigenous artifacts, photos, traditional costumes and masks, grinding stones, and more. Tata Miguel is an incredible source of information and can arrange tours (in Spanish only) to surrounding communities that still live traditionally; he also offers permaculture courses and courses about plants indigenous to El Salvador. There are also simple adobe rooms if you are interested in sleeping here ($5 pp). This is intended to mimic traditional living, and as such there is no water or electricity. For bathing, the river is about a three-minute walk, and food can be prepared by local women if requested. Tata Miguel also leads Mayan ceremonies honoring the earth, water, corn, and, of course, cacao. Visitors are welcome to participate.
From Perquín, take a pickup to San Francisco de Gotera ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes), but ask to be dropped off at desvío a Cacaopera also known as desvío el Amante. From there, take bus 337A ($1, 1 hour, runs every hour) to Cacaopera. From San Miguel, take bus 328 ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes) to San Francisco de Gotera, and then transfer to bus 337A ($1, 1 hour, runs every hour).
Cacaopera is 23 kilometers south of Perquín, and the road is extremely bad. It is not recommended to drive.
S CUEVA DEL ESPÍRITU SANTO
From San Miguel, a 3.5-hour ride along a paved but neglected road will eventually bring you to the town of Corinto, a cute, clean town with not much to do other than visit one of the most important rock-art sites in Central America, estimated to be up to 8,000 years old. Cueva del Espíritu Santo (8am-4pm daily, free) is El Salvador’s most ancient archaeological site and has roughly 200 pictographs, including multicolored symbols, animals, human figures wearing feather headdresses, and various hand stencils. The cave is 60 meters wide, 30 meters high, and 20 meters deep, creating a natural gallery with the art grouped according to the varying styles (animals, humans, symbols). There are a couple of other caves within walking distance; one has more pictographs, and the other has a pretty waterfall. The guides in the park can show you how to get there; their services are free.
prehistoric rock art inside the Cueva del Espíritu Santo in Corinto
Because of the amount of time it takes to travel between Corinto and San Miguel, you might have to spend the night in Corinto. Hotel Corinto (Barrio la Cruz, tel. 7543-7520) offers basic, clean rooms ($10) with cable TV, a fan, and a private bath. There is a restaurant serving up simple, cheap food.
From San Miguel, bus 327 ($1.75, 1.75 hours, runs every 30 minutes) runs directly to Corinto. The last one leaves at 3:30pm.
Traveling from Perquín, take bus 332 ($1.50, 2.5 hours, 5am, 5:45am, 6:30am, 7:50am, 8:30am, and 11am daily) to San Miguel, but ask to be dropped off at Kilómetro 18. On the opposite side of the street from where the bus drops you off, wait for bus 327 ($1.75, 1.75, runs every hour), which will take you to Corinto.
The road to Corinto from San Miguel is long and in extremely poor condition, and it is not suitable for driving.
Visiting Cacaopera and Corinto in a Single Day
Cacaopera and Corinto can both be done as a day trip if you get an early start. From Perquín, take a pickup to San Francisco de Gotera ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes), but ask to be dropped off at desvío a Cacaopera, also known as desvío el Amante. From there, take bus 337A ($1, 1 hour, runs every hour) to Cacaopera. After you are finished in Cacaopera, you can take bus 782 ($1, 2 hours, runs every hour) to Corinto.
From San Miguel, take bus 328 ($0.75, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes) to San Francisco de Gotera, and then transfer to bus 337A ($1, 1 hour, runs every hour).