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El Salvador on the Cheap..Here’s How to do it in 5 Days

Article Summary:

Most tourist dollars going to Central America end up in Costa Rica, but many of its neighbors offer some of the same experiences – on the Cheap! Lilit Marcus takes five days to explore El Salvador…on the cheap.

Photo Credit: La Mataman

Original Article Text From Peter Greenburg:

El Salvador: Five Days in ‘The 30-Minute Country’

Most of the American tourist dollars going to Central America often end up in Costa Rica, where coffee junkies and surfing students like to hang out. But many of Costa Rica’s neighbors offer some of the same experiences for a fraction of the price – and it’s also more likely that you’ll be the only tourist in sight. Contributor Lilit Marcus takes five days to do just that, follow along on her adventures in El Salvador.

El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, is one of these places tourists often overlook. After a brutal civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s, El Salvador has rebuilt itself and is now starting to actively court visitors. The good news is that there are plenty of wonderful things to see and do, from museums and shops to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here’s how you should spend five days in Central America’s smallest, but scrappiest, country.

Day One: San Salvador City Center
El Salvador’s capital is the best place to start your journey, purely because of convenience – it’s where the airport is. But it’s also an emerging city and worth checking out because of its eclectic mix of Old World traditions and New World Internet cafes. Several years ago, El Salvador switched its currency to the U.S. dollar, which is great news for people who don’t want to have to switch their money at the airport. However, stuff is definitely less expensive here, so those dollars will go a long way.

Begin in the heart of the city – literally. You might have looked at the address of your hotel and thought it sounded a little strange, and that’s because all addresses in San Salvador are numbered from their distance from a red tile circle in the center of the city. It’s almost impossible to get anywhere in town without driving or walking over this circle, but the constant flow of traffic will make it a challenge to snap a good photograph.

The main attractions downtown are the Palacio Nacional, a gorgeous old mansion that used to house all three branches of the country’s government, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, where local hero Archbishop Romero is interred. It’s worth checking out the Palacio just from a design perspective, and don’t forget to look down – every room has a different cool tile pattern on the floor. From the outside, the nearby Iglesia El Rosario (Church of the Rosary) doesn’t seem that impressive, but once you walk in you’ll be stunned by the gorgeous architecture, which plays with light and color. It’s almost like walking inside a kaleidoscope.

Day Two: Elsewhere in San Salvador
Many museums and tourist sites in El Salvador take a lunch/siesta break from noon – 2 pm, so you’ll need to do your research and plan accordingly. The best museum for starting your El Salvador experience is El Museo de la Palabra Y Los Imagen, aka The Museum of Words and Images. The name might not sound terribly specific, but the concept is well-executed. The museum features rotating exhibits that use everything from newspaper clippings to old photographs to kids’ books to show the history of El Salvador. Exhibits are designed to give an overview on some of the country’s most enduring stories, including the life of Archbishop Romero and the Civil War, which ended in 1992. There’s also a wonderful permanent exhibit about Radio Venceremos, an independent underground radio station that served the leftists during the Civil War – and whose founder just so happens to be the founder of the Museum. His name is Santiago, and he’s almost always in the building saying hello to guests. Also on the museum front, check out the National Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Modern Art – they’re down the street from each other, and they’re also painfully cheap – tickets will run you a dollar or two at each.

If you want to eat where the locals eat, or maybe enjoy a couple of drinks on a night out, head to La Ventana on Plaza Palestina in the upscale Colonia Escalon neighborhood. The chill restaurant plays American and European pop music, mostly from the 1990s (expect a lot of U2). The menu is a mix of pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches, with a surprisingly good percentage of vegetarian options. Finish off with local beers or some Pisco sours.

Day Three: Joya de Ceren and Tazumal
El Salvador’s only UNESCO World Heritage site is Joya de Ceren, aka “The Pompeii of the Americas.” What makes Joya de Ceren unique is its lack of uniqueness. While other Mayan ruins showcase the temples and palaces of the elite, Joya de Ceren was a normal village. Like normal Mayan villages, it was made mostly of mud and wood and wouldn’t have survived this long if not for the eruption of a nearby volcano (El Salvador has a lot of nearby volcanoes) that preserved most of the structures. The discovery of Joya de Ceren changed existing beliefs about how Mayan society worked and provided insight into how the people lived their daily lives. If you want to go there, you’re best off hiring a car/driver to get you there and back. There is a small museum about the site with some supplemental material about Mayan history, but the materials there are all in Spanish.

If you want to fit all your history into one day, hit Tazumal, a ruin in the town of Santa Ana. It looks more like a traditional Mayan ruin, with a large temple and several smaller surrounding structures. It’s much smaller than Joya de Ceren, and you can cover the ground in a lot less time. It’s worth either renting a car or hiring a driver, since the public bus system is hard to figure out and not always the most convenient option.

Day Four: La Ruta de las Flores
If you want to get a sense of non-city life in El Salvador, the beautiful Ruta de las Flores takes you through some of the country’s picturesque villages. Each of the villages along the way is known for a specific skill. You’ll want to start in Ataco, which is known for its beautiful murals. Though it’s technically at the end of the route, it’s worth going there simply for the lovely inn there, Casa de Mamapan, which features big, sunny rooms and art books on bedside tables. The famous murals in Ataco began, like almost everything these days, with some paintings of cats.
Luckily, most of the murals are in a small area of several blocks, meaning you can see almost everything in a short amount of time. From there, you can continue on to the rest of the Flower Route. Highlights include Nahuizalco, which is known for its handicrafts (you can get everything from toys to wicker furniture to handmade blankets at shops along the side of the road and in the main square), El Carmen Estates (home to a coffee plantation and a beautiful old guest house), and Apaneca (the highest town in El Salvador, it’s great for outdoor activities like camping, hiking, biking, and even paragliding).

Day Five Anigo Cuscatlan and Santa Tecla
Though the village of Antiguo Cuzcatlan is technically part of El Salvador, the village has retained its history and personality after being swallowed up by the capitol. It retains a small-town feel, with a woman on the corner hacking into coconuts to make juice and local kids in school uniforms running past on their lunch breaks. The highlight of Antiguo Cuzcatlan is its beautiful main square and church, known simply as the Parish Church, but it’s also home to the pretty Botanical Gardens, which are a good place to spend a hot Salvadorean afternoon. The eco-hotel Arbol de Fuego (Tree of Fire) is centrally located within walking distance of everything in Antiguo Cuscatlan, and it also boasts gorgeous greenery, the ability to make its own power, and female ownership (which is extremely rare in Central America).

For a lunch like the locals do it, head to Pupuseria La Unica. It’s almost impossible to visit El Salvador without sampling the national dish, the pupusa. The thick, doughy tortillas are filled with everything from cheese to beans to mashed garlic and pork, and any pupuseria worth visiting will make your meal to order. The neighborhood of Antiguo Cuzcatlan used to be a village but was swallowed by the ever-expanding capital. Besides a beautiful church and bustling local square, it’s also home to a stretch of road overflowing with pupuserias. La Unica is the one to beat, though. You’ll see everyone from infants to grandmas plopping down at one of the orange tables and chowing down here, and once you try a pupusa or five you’ll understand why. Get a local Pilsener beer to finish off the meal.

If you want to see what true Salvadorean nightlife is like, take a 20-minute drive out to Santa Tecla. Thanks to a new mayor who wants to revitalize the town, Santa Tecla is now the coolest place in the country. The main drag is Paseo de Carmen, a long strip of pedestrian-only walkway that features chic cafes, bars, and shops. A quick walk around the center of town will pretty accurately sum up all of El Salvador and its approach to tourism: the bones are there, but the exterior needs a little bit of freshening up. If you love places off the beaten path, where you’re likely to be the only turista in sight, go now before El Salvador becomes the next cool destination.

Link to Original Article:

From Peter Greenberg

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