Don't write off El Salvador as a country of crime, civl war and tattooed gangs. Here are ten things we loved from our visit.
Cornmeal dough is probably one of our least favourite foodstuffs so far, but stuff it full of lots of ooey-gooey cheese, and we've found a winner.
Pupusas in El Salvador, are what fish'n'chips are to the UK. Traditionally filled with cheese and frijoles, and served along a pickled slaw and hot sauce, a number of progressive pupuserias are experimenting with new flavours - our favourite being a garlic-cheese version that tasted something like the best garlic-cheese bread you've ever eaten! Surprisingly, we ate only a handful of mediocre attempts, and were most impressed by a little ma and pa stand in El Tunco that were more than worth the few extra pence per pupusa!
#2 ruta de las flores
In our haste to reach the coast, we almost missed out on this spectacular part of El Salvador. Set amongst sky-high coffee plantations, lush green landscapes and picturesque and peaceful villages - only a couple of hours away from manic San Salvador, but it feels like a million miles.
El Salvador is THE place to surf in Central America, or so it seems given the number of wave-starved Ozzies traversing the continent to hit-up El Tunco or El Cuco's hidden breaks. Whilst we were very unimpressed with El Tunco's less than pristine black-sand beaches, one need only see the number of surf shops, sun-bleached hair and sun-kissed bodies to appreciate that a town doesn't have to be pretty to have some killer waves!
#4 people and preconceptions
As a mainstay in 'Most Dangerous places in the world' lists and with countless youtube documentaries and news articles depicting the brutal gang-warfare that plagues this once peaceful country, many travellers decide to skip El Salvador altogether.
We are intrinsically suspicious people, constantly sneaking glances at our bags at the back of the bus and taking every piece of advice with a grain of salt. Our nerves were even more frayed after reading so many horror stories, but the people of El Salvador surpassed every other Central American country for their kindness. On three separate occasions we were helped off buses and shown to suitable accommodation (not just to those owned by uncles, cousins or the man that repairs his trousers, before you ask!), whilst people would helpfully point out where and where not to go. Of course, the sceptical and wary Brit within has each time wondered whether this was the beginning of a scam, but their concern and hospitality was 100% genuine.
Before El Salvador became synonymous with gang violence, it was excellent coffee which made this small country famous - in its 1980s hay-day it accounted for 50% of the GDP. Whilst this industry has since experienced a small decline, it is still home to a number of large fincas and smaller co-operatives. Unfortunately most of the good stuff gets exported out of the country so try and join a tour to get a taste of the best the country has to offer!
Parades are a big deal all over Latin America - no celebration seems to be complete without a few brightly coloured costumes and a brass band marching down the street, but the Independence Day celebrations in El Salvador were second to none. Even in the pouring rain, the sense of community and overwhelming joy was palpable. For a glimpse through our lens, check this out.
#7 tortuga verde
A budget backpacker's idea of luxury often only extends to include showers not requiring flip-flops and free filtered water but at this little retreat in the small beach town of El Cuco you get that plus so much more! Reminiscent of some of the fancier holidays we took with parents when money was less of an object (because it wasn't ours!), Tortuga Verde provides the sort of luxury you'd expect from a fancy resort, but with a price and atmosphere for us scruffy travellers. (with free yoga thrown in to boot!)
No itinerary in El Salvador would be complete without a couple of days spent in this little gem.
As self-professed lovers of slow-travel, we are in the fortunate position that we can usually take as long as we need to really see and appreciate a new country, but we understand that not everyone is so lucky. So many countries could take years to properly cover, which is more time than even we have.
For those with only a couple of weeks, El Salvador is a really great option. In only a handful of days even the most time-stressed backpacker can enjoy highland vistas, chase a few waves, glimpse into a country's past and sample city life without having to board a flight or take too epic a bus journey.
#9 everything costs $1
Want a bottle of water? That'll be $1. Bus journey to ummm, anywhere? A dollar. Three pupusas for dinner? You guessed it, $1. The price for a wandering gringo in El Salvador sometimes makes you feel like it is a 'Everything for $1' shop masquerading as a country.
#10 street art
As is true across the world, political conflict breeds artistic expression, and no less so here. Brightly coloured murals adorn the walls of almost every town we visited, silently pleading with following generations not to forget what went before and to remember the reasons for the struggles.