I`m glad I gave El Salvador`s peace a chance

Best-selling author Amanda Foreman visits the Central American jewel hit by a hurricane and war – but now poised for a tourist boom.

My happiest memories from my graduate-student days are of spending time with Marisol, my Salvadorian flat-mate. We used to waste hours just chatting about this and that.

She had a way of talking about her war-ravaged country that made it sound heartbreakingly beautiful. The real El Salvador, she assured me, was a magical paradise of tropical forests, ancient volcanoes and empty beaches. I promised her when she left that one day I would see the country for myself.

It was eight years before I redeemed the promise. During that time, El Salvador cemented the peace agreement with the Left-wing FMLN guerrillas and became a fully-fledged democracy.

Free elections, a free Press and a free economy on a par with Chile’s have transformed this tiny country, the size of Wales, into the fastest growing region in Central America.

It has the accoutrements of a modernising nation: mobile phones sushi restaurants and Perry Ellis. But, remarkably, there are precious few tourists.

Throughout my stay I met plenty of business travellers and foreign engineers, but not a single European or American holidaymaker. El Salvador’s tourism is almost entirely homegrown. The civil war trapped people in their houses and many are now exploring their country for the first time. The chief consequence of this boom is that Salvadorian-owned hotels, as opposed to the international chains, all follow the custom of separate beds.

In general, a double room has two full-size beds, allowing luxurious room for one person or a romantic proximity for two. I suspect this will change as foreign tourism increases.

I was picked up from San Salvador’s smart new airport by Jorge, a guide with the country’s national tourist agency, Corsaturs.

Just like Los Angeles, the private car is king here and there is very little public transport that a tourist should or could use. There are no trains at all. Rural workers depend on ex-American schoolbuses painted in fantastically psychedelic designs. When you drive through El Salvador it seems as though the entire country is on a massive road trip to see the Grateful Dead in concert.

Like all developing countries, the road from the airport to San Salvador does little to render El Salvador more attractive. Hoardings, shanties and government housing projects line most of the route. Yet the hotel manager of the Princess, where I stayed, told me that the recent lighting of the motorway had been one of the government’s biggest achievements. It’s funny how you can take these things for granted. I did not know that El Salvador, like the rest of the region, had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch three years ago. It certainly looks and feels undamaged now.

The Princess not only has the best hotel gym I have ever seen, it exudes a cheerful confidence and sophistication. I slept in comfort, watched my favourite US shows on cable TV and dined extremely well there on a mix of local and international cuisine.

There are at least five or six first-rate hotels in Sal Salvador, including the Marriott, which has a resort-size pool and gardens to match. As you go down the scale the rooms get smaller and the swimming pools greener. Although the international chains are more expensive, with the average double room costing £100 a night, they offer the best value. The big hotels can arrange day-trips and adventure tours and can provide an English-speaking guide. Even though El Salvador is relatively safe, its high unemployment rate and little experience of tourists make having a guide common sense. I had never travelled with a guide before, but Jorge was so knowledgeable and such fun to be with that his company never felt awkward or superfluous.

Jorge asked me what I wanted to do, and I gold him “be a good tourist”, so he took me to San Miguel, the local farmers’ market of San Salvador. It is a huge covered market in the heart of the old city. The route into it passes many of the old colonial houses once inhabited by members of the “Fourteen Families”, the oligarchs who used to run and effectively own the country.

Most of them left during a series of earthquakes in the Seventies. The rest moved into walled compounds in the suburbs during the war. As a result of the flight, inner San Salvador has a raw, working class vitality to it.

The pavements are jammed with street-sellers, the buildings are generally low-built with tangled wires hanging precariously from overhead power cables and, of course, there are cars nose-to-tail everywhere.

By contrast to the noisy jostling outside, San Miguel market feels open and airy. It has everything, from a vast array of edible flowers to wild fowl and freshly caught fish.

El Salvador has many kinds of fruits and vegetables utterly unknown in Britain. I sampled several, including a giant broad bean pod-like thing called a paternas. Its delicacy is the sweet white pulp that surrounds the beans. Raw, the beans are not edible, but the Salvadorians boil and eat them with chilli sauce and pumpkin seed spice.

They make a similar, delicious side dish with crunchy green mangoes. I ate and picked my way through the market and then tried lunch in one of the many market commodores – restaurant kitchenettes that serve local cuisine.

Salvadorians are like the British and tend to rate their national cuisine rather poorly in comparison to French or Italian. Yet their food is varied and delicious. It bears little resemblance to Mexican or South American cuisine, being lightly spiced but also heartier.

The most popular food in the country resembles a very thick tortilla pancake, called a pupusa, which usually contains cheese, edible flower or pork stuffing.

The best place to try local cuisine in San Salvador is at the commodores in the market, a working-class chain called Comapronto, and another more upmarket version called Typicos Margot.

Otherwise there are very good international restaurants serving European, Chinese and Mexican food. I had a wonderful dinner at a Spanish restaurant called Tasca Ole, which served very fresh, spicy sausages.

Jorge drove me on a sausage trip to the hillside town of Cojutepeque, which is nationally famous for its earthy, slightly spicy mixtures.

Every window and doorway of this one-road town had strings of fat little sausages hanging from it. People were stopping in their cars to buy them. I tried a few for lunch at a charming country hotel called La Posada de Suchitlan, in northern El Salvador. They were not unlike chorizos, only bigger and courser. However, I was too busy admiring the view to really notice them.

La Posada resembles a colonial hacienda, with ochre walls and copper-coloured windows and doors. The hotel would be charming anywhere, but it becomes an unexpected showcase when combined with panoramic views across a valley of forests and lakes.

The owner showed me the new guest cottages, which are sparse but comfortable and private. The only thing I could hear were the cries of exotic birds. Not surprisingly, the hotel is a popular honeymoon destination.

La Posada is conveniently located between the colonial town of Suchitoto, with its cobbled streets and 18th century church and San Sebastian and Ilobasco.

The latter makes brightly coloured pottery, the former, San Sebastian, is famous for its weaving. Here, instead of sausages, it is thick, freshly-dyed skeins of wool which hang from every door and lintel. Nearly every house contains an artisan workshop or dye works.

As far as I could tell, the process has not changed since a Spanish priest first introduced handloom weaving in the 17th century. In one house an old woman sat at a Sleeping Beauty-style spinning wheel, making cotton reels. At lunchtime everything stopped; I followed the workers into the local covered market, where women were cooking fresh tortillas. Each tortilla was hand-made and then thrown on to a clay platter which was wedged over a hot fire. I tried one, still warm, wrapped around some local cheese. It was the best I had in El Salvador.

The striking thing about San Sebastian and almost all the towns I visited is that, except for the churches, the buildings are squat and brightly coloured.

Salvadorians disguise the size of their houses. What appears to be a small and narrow dwelling from the street often stretches back inside to include several rooms and a courtyard with trees and flowers.

The most beautiful city in the country is Santa Ana. It not only contains the greatest remnants of El Salvador’s colonial history, it also has the magnificent Teatro and the country’s largest Gothic cathedral. The 1900s theatre is being restored to its former ravishing state. The frescoes and ornate carvings have come back to life, the Edwardian staircases have been polished. Yet the feeling of a theatre suspended in time remains, with its wooden seats and tiers that are still supported by narrow columns. Santa Ana would be the perfect place to hold a music festival. It also happens to be only an hour and a half from San Salvador.

I soon realised that nothing is very far from the capital. El Salvador can be crossed from one end to the other in several hours. Great extremes in climate and sea level exist in unlikely proximity. A short 40-minute drive south from Santa Ana took us to the hillside coffee plantations of Apaneca.

The cool, mountainous air was thick with the scent of coffee flowers. The smell is a heady cross between jasmine and lily of the valley. Coffee plants like to grow under large trees, protected from the wind and harsh sun.

The plantations are beautiful places just to experience, which is why there are several very good scenic hotels in the area. I had lunch in one, Las Cabanas, that offered simple food and accommodation but unrivaled views of mountain plantations. I was told that the higher the cultivation the better the quality of coffee. Sadly, Salvadorian coffee has few export markets, even though it is just as good as its South American rivals.

I drove through a plantation on my way to visit Los Andes National Park on the Santa Ana volcano. There were few signs of activity as this was the off-season, and the workers had either migrated to the sugar fields or were planting new trees.

Higher up the volcano, the plantations suddenly disappeared and lush grassy slopes emerged. There were even cows grazing amid the wild flowers. Higher up still, the grass gave way to a lush, primary forest with hanging Tarzan-like fronds and giant orchids growing off tree-stumps.

This was Los Andes. Hikers can camp here in preparation for the climb up to the top of the volcano. It takes several hours, but the sight from the top is worth the effort.

At the mouth of the volcano there is nothing to see but rock and black lava and it feels as though a piece of Mars landscape has dropped on the tropics.

El Salvador is blessed with a great number of inactive volcanoes, most of which offer outstanding nature trails. However, one of the best ways to see them is from the air. The army offers helicopter rides over the whole of the country.

For “war-tourists” and other adventure-types, it’s possible to visit the FMLN former military campsite in the jungle forests of Perkin – now a nature reserve with a hotel run by an ex-guerrilla – and then fly over Perkin in an army helicopter, mimicking its former reconnaissance missions.

I chose to explore the country’s beaches and archaeological sites instead. It was a day I shall never forget; waterfalls, lava fields, Mayan ruins, hidden marinas, lush mangroves – I saw things I could never have imagined. All the time I wished that my fiancé was with me so that he, too, could enjoy these things.

We stopped for lunch at a seaside hotel called Suites Jaltepeque that occupied a huge, empty streth of beach. The fish was so fresh that one of Jorge’s clams flinched on contact with lemon juice. My grilled shrimps were enormous with meaty, almost like lobster.

The manager gave me a tour of the hotel, which is especially geared towards families and provides self-catering facilities. It was, like so many that I saw, clean and unpretentious, and very good value.

Before I left, I tried to meet different Salvadorians, including a journalist and a civil servant. They all talked about their hope for the country. It is something even a tourist can pick up, a sense of bustling activity and growing awareness among the people of the country’s potential. Everybody works hard. Yet, El Salvador is a breathtaking place that inspires peace in a visitor’s heart. It is a tiny natural oasis, far from the madding crowd, unknown and unspoiled.

Copyright© 2000 The Mail on Sunday