Despite El Salvador’s reputation as an unsafe travel destination, the country features gorgeous scenery, mouth-watering cuisine, and curious, friendly locals. If you do take the time to explore both the coastline and countryside of El Salvador (I encourage both), you will encounter white beaches, mountain vistas, flora and fauna galore, and a deeper understanding and love for the brilliant and lovely Salvadorian people.

suchitotostreetsBGetting to know the locals: Nowhere have I traveled where the locals are just so darn friendly. Everyone in El Salvador wants to chat. Whether I’m relaxing in a Parque Central, squeezing into an already over-crowded chicken bus, or standing on a street corner looking lost, there is always a smiling local nearby that is open to conversation and eager to offer help. The gracious Salvadorians have chased down buses for me, waved down friends for directions when they didn’t know the answer themselves, and even called their mom’s to ask which bus I should take (yes, that happened). I once had a couple lead me clear across town to my hostel, and they stopped to buy me coffee and pastries on the way. Who would do that in Chicago? I actually haven’t even had an opportunity to sit alone on a park bench because someone immediately plops down right beside me to “investigate the gringo.” At first, it was difficult to let my guard down and be completely open to these random conversations. Too often I tell myself that if a stranger is overly friendly, then the conversation will eventually lead to requests for money or a chance to flirt with me. Not one time did this happen in El Salvador. They are truly beautiful, genuine, wonderful people.

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Iglesia Santa Lucia cathedral

Colonial Suchitoto: After crossing the border into El Salvador, I ventured into the highlands to spend a few days in one of the country’s most picturesque villages. Suchitoto is a colonial town with cobblestone streets, a large, well-manicured central square, quaint, tile-roofed houses, and a delicious array of pupuserias and cafes. The stunning Iglesia Santa Lucia cathedral stands near Suchitoto’s Parque Central, a relaxing, shaded spot to enjoy a coffee or ice cream (or two).

North of town stretches the beautiful Lake Suchitatlan, a popular weekend destination for locals and tourists alike. One morning, I walked to the lake shore by following the long, cobblestone 3 Avenida Sur all the way out of town. It’s an enjoyable hike, especially in the cooler hours of early morning. I recommend stopping into the Spanish School for a quick hello as their patio offers the best lake vistas.

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Lake Suchitatlan

Another short hike took me to the Los Tercios waterfall. I was warned that visitors should not hike to Los Tercios by themselves, but the visitor’s center kindly offers guides and police escorts for free. I had two policemen accompany me on this particular hike!

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My security guides to Los Tercios

Our afternoon jaunt led us through a rather dodgy area to the far edge of town. Though the climb down to the bottom is rather treacherous and slippery, the falls are well worth the walk.

losterciosBThe entire wall behind the falls is composed of large hexagonal columns of rock, a unique geological phenomenon. Off to the either side of the waterfall, the columns lie stacked horizontally on top of one another. Just odd…but rather cool I think. There are only a few other places in the world where this has occurred. losterciosCRuta de Las Flores: After leaving Suchitoto, I headed west to Juayua, one of the popular villages along the iconic Ruta de Las Flores. This 40km stretch of highway got its name from the plentiful wildflowers that bloom between October and December. While the crimson, gold, and tangerine blossoms are indeed beautiful, the charming, colonial towns lining the route are also intriguing.

The Ruta de Las Flores officially begins in the hot, dusty metropolis of Sonsonate. However, I quickly got out of Sonsanate for the cooler elevation of Juayua, about 40 minutes away by chicken bus. Juayua is famous for its weekly food fair. On Saturdays and Sundays, food vendors of all shapes and sizes line the streets surrounding the central square and offer a cornucopia of regional dishes. Live music, karaoke machines, and horse-drawn carriages complete the festival atmosphere.

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Spying on the locals during lunchtime.

Aside from the laid back charm and slow pace of Juayua, I loved, loved, loved my accommodation at Hotel Anahuac. It is by far the best hostel I have visited in Central America. I had a hot shower for the first time in over a month (and yes, I needed a hot shower in Juayua’s cooler temps). There was also a great kitchen, fast wifi, a huge DVD collection, charming staff, a comfortable mattress, fluffy pillows, and a nice garden with plenty of hammocks. Since I was so gosh-darn comfortable, I used Juayua as my base and then explored the rest of the Ruta de Las Flores by bus (#249 bus travels directly to each of the towns.)

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One of my favorite doorways in Apaneca.

Apaneca: The next little town on the Ruta de Las Flores is Apaneca, and it is indeed a tiny “one-horse village.” Come to think of it, I didn’t actually even a horse or donkey there. While there isn’t much to see in Apaneca, the village does feature cobble-stoned streets, a beautiful church, and some brightly painted buildings. There are also two scenic crater lakes outside of town, Laguna Verde and Laguna de las Ninfas, both of which make for nice day hikes.

Ataco: Another ten minutes up the road is Ataco where many of the houses, cafes, and street corners feature large, beautiful murals. Local artists make their claim and go to town with their talents on the building facades. The result gives a rather festive and happy feeling to the village, even on an overcast day. atacomuralsBAnd another cute mural in Ataco.atacomuralsCAhuachapan: The last stop along the Ruta de Las Flores is Ahuachapan, a town that is considerably more populated than the other villages. I left Ahuchapan out of my trip along the Ruta, but if you have time, take #249 up from Ataco to complete the Ruta de Las Flores adventure.

pupusasCA love affair with Pupusas: Besides the gorgeous nature and kindness of the locals, another thing that I am loving in El Salvador are the delicious pupusas, a popular street food found almost anywhere. Pupusas are a bit like a thick corn tortilla stuffed with warm, savory fillings – almost like a pancake. The typical pupusa fillings are meat, beans, and cheese, but I’ve even eaten some gourmet pupusas stuffed with avocado, tomatoes, and other vegetables. The great thing about pupusas? I can always get vegetarian versions!

Pupusas are generally served with a brilliant accompaniment called curtido. Like a sauerkraut or kimchi, this zippy cabbage relish balances the heaviness of the pupusa and makes it a very simple yet satisfying meal for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. These tasty delights are usually eaten with one’s hands by tearing off pieces of the pupusa and scooping the curtido on top.

…and the best part:  One pupusa usually costs about .50 cents! So, yes, I can eat well for about $1 per meal. How’s that for sticking to a budget!