El Salvador

Northern El Salvador

The route from San Salvador to western Honduras heads north, skirting the vast arm of the Cerrón Grande reservoir with volcanoes in the distance. Small villages are interspersed with brand new settlements tucked amongst the fields and hills as the road winds through mountainous landscape - a snapshot of the old way of life, and the emergence of the new. Currently enjoying a cultural revival, the charming colonial town of Suchitoto on the southern shore of the reservoir is definitely worth a visit.

North from San Salvador

The old highway, Troncal del Norte (CA 4) used to be the only acess to the north from the capital, but has been replaced with a modern highway. This can be accessed from Boulevard de la Constitución, in the northeastern part of San Salvador, and swirls west around the Volcán de San Salvador towards the Pan-American Highway and branches out to Nejapa, Quezaltepeque and Apopa to the north. Another advance in the northern road system is the newly improved road that connects Aguilares with Suchitoto.

Apopa and Tonacatepeque

Apopa is a friendly town with a good market and a new shopping centre. It is the junction with a road to Quezaltepeque (12 km). A paved road runs east from Apopa to Tonacatepeque, an attractive small town on a high plateau. It has a small textile industry and is in an agricultural setting - check out the charming park and the colonial church. There has been some archaeological exploration of the town's original site, 5 km away. A paved road from Tonacatepeque runs 13 km south to the Pan-American Highway, some 5 km from the capital. In the other direction, a dry-weather road runs north to Suchitoto. Three kilometres beyond Apopa, on CA 4 Km 17, is
Finca Orgánica Las Termópilas
where
Lisa's Guest House
is located . There is also a Spanish-language school and they arrange volunteers for the 'Working Farm' project at Termópilas organic farm. Tours are available to the archaeological site Cihuatán as well as on horseback to Suchitoto and to Volcán Guazapa, which played a prominent part in the civil war. The panoramic views are amazing and you can visit the old guerrilla hide outs.

Aguilares

From Apopa, it's 21 km to Aguilares, 4 km beyond which are the ruins of
Cihuatán
, www.fundar.org.sv.
The name means 'place of women' and was presided over by female royalty. This was the largest city in Mesoamerica during the Toltec period, when the city was surrounded by extended fortification measuring more than 10 sq km. The biggest archaeological site in the country has several tall pyramids, ball courts and
temazcales
(ritual saunas).

An improved road goes from Aguilares heading west to Suchitoto. If heading north .

Suchitoto

www.gaesuchitoto.com and www.suchitoto-el- salvador.com.

Suchitoto, meaning 'the place of birds and flowers' in Nahuatl, was founded by the Pipil more than 1000 years ago. In 1528 the capital was moved to Suchitoto for 15 years as the villa of San Salvador suffered attacks from local tribes. In 1853 an earthquake destroyed much of San Salvador and many affluent families moved to Suchitoto leaving a lasting impression on the town. Today it is a small, very attractive colonial town with cobbled streets, balconied houses and an interesting church. It is one of the favourite tourist spots in the country, with cultural traditions kept alive by the many artists living and working in the town. Several hotels and restaurants offer fantastic views towards Suchitlán and Volcán Guazapa. More than 200 species of bird have been identified in the area, and white-tailed deer inhabit the local woods.

The town was almost completely deserted in the early 1990s after 12 years of civil war which severely affected the region - 90% of the population left, leaving Suchitoto a virtual ghost town. However, a cultural revival has stimulated a range of activities and events, and the town is now considered the cultural capital of the country. Life centres on the main plaza which every evening becomes a bustle of people wandering the streets. Suchitoto's telegraph poles have been decorated by artist Paulo Rusconi, and Parque San Martín, to the west of town, is dotted with modern sculptures, some made using materials left over from the war. Arts and cultural festivals with internationally renowned artists take place every February. Another local festivity is the
Palo Encebado
, a competition involving attempts to clamber to the top of long greasy poles, and the
cerdo encebado
where a pig smeared with lard is chased through town and is kept by the first person who manages to grab it.

The
Teatro de Las Ruinas
is almost fully restored and hosts concerts and events. 
Iglesia de Santa Lucía
, built in 1858 with wooden and hollow columns, has also been restored with a lot of stencil work inside. There is a splendid view from the church tower.
Casa Museo de Alejandro Cotto
, home of movie director Alejandro Cotto, is an interesting museum with more than 132 paintings of El Salvador's most renowned artists, collections of books and music instruments.

The
tourist office
, www.suchitoto-el-salvador.com
, offers daily tours of the city centre, to Los Tercios waterfall and to Lake Suchitlán.

Around Suchitoto

A 30-minute walk north of town leads to the
Embalse Cerrón Grande
(also known as
Lago de Suchitlán
).
Proyecto Turístico Pesquero Puerto San Juan
is the newly opened harbour with boat shuttle services and, soon to open, restaurants and cafés on the lake shore. There is an area for events, parking, and arts, crafts and souvenir sales. This is the departure point for boat excursions across to remote areas in neighbouring Chalatenango, ask around and negotiate prices. Trips are available to five islands including
Isla de Los Pájaros
, which makes an interesting trip (1-1½ hours).

Ferries cross the Embalse Cerrón Grande for San Luis del Carmen (25 minutes to San Luis, frequent departures all day), where there is
Comedor Carmen
, and buses to Chalatenango. The ferry also makes a stop at the small village of
San Francisco Lempa
.

Los Tercios
, a waterfall with striking, gigantic, black, hexagonal-shaped basaltic columns, can be reached by car, foot and by
lancha
. It is at its most impressive in the wet season when the full force of nature is on show.

La Ciudad Vieja
, one-time site of the capital, is 10 km from Suchitoto. An original Pipil town, it was taken over by the Spanish who made it their central base for 17 years before electrical storms, lack of water, and cholera forced them to flee. It is a private site but can be visited. There are plans for a museum and a café.

Boat trips go to lakeside villages associated with the FMLN in the civil war. Twelve kilometres away, on the road to Aguilares, a
Bosque de la Reconciliación
is being developed at the foot of Cerro de Guazapa. Contact
CESTA
,
www.cesta-foe.org.

Chalatenango

­Highway 4 continues north from
Aguilares
, passing the western extremity of the
Cerrón Grande
reservoir. A branch to the east skirts the northern side of the reservoir to Chalatenango, capital of the department of the same name. Rural Chalatenango is mainly agricultural and has many remote villages, there are a
number of non-governmental organizations working in the area. Chalatenango is a delightful little town with annual fairs and fiestas on 24 June and 1-2 November. It is the centre of an important region of traditional livestock farms. It has a good market and several craft shops, for example
Artesanías Chalateca
, for bags and hammocks. The weekly horse fairs, where horses, saddles and other equipment are for sale, are very popular.

La Palma and around

The main road continues north through Tejutla to La Palma, a charming village set in pine-clad mountains, and well worth a visit. It is famous for its local crafts, particularly brightly painted wood carvings and hand-embroidered tapestries. Also produced are handicrafts made from clay, metal, cane and seeds. There are a number of workshops in La Palma where the craftsmen can be seen at work and purchases made . The
Fiesta del Dulce Nombre de María
takes place mid- or late February.

The picturesque village of
San Ignacio
, 6 km north of La Palma, has two or three small
talleres
producing handicrafts.

San Ignacio is the departure point for buses ascending a new, safe but steep road leading up to the highest mountain of El Salvador, El Pital (2730 m). As you reach the pass below the mountain top, the road branches to
Las Pilas
to the left and
Miramundo
to the right. Both Miramundo and Las Pilas have small agricultural communities, specializing in organic crops. The extensive cabbage fields combined with the pine-clad mountains make for beautiful vistas.

If you take the road from the summit to the right, you end up in Miramundo which gives a view of pretty much all El Salvador. On clear days you can see almost all the volcanoes in the country, including Volcán Pacaya and Volcán Agua in Guatemala. No doubt the best view in the country.

Border with Western Honduras

The road continues north to the border at
El Poy
, for Western Honduras. From Citalá, there is a small town with a colonial church and a potent war history (you still see bullet holes in the walls of the houses on street corners). 1 km west off the highway just before El Poy, an adventurous road leads to Metapán. Two buses daily take three hours to travel the 40 km, a rough but beautiful journey.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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