El Salvador, an Adventurer's Hidden Gem
By Lin Low

ElSalvadorNov13-3.jpgThough perhaps not as well-known as its neighboring countries of Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America.  Surrounded by ocean (with world class surfing beaches), mountain forests, active volcanoes, and dotted with quaint cobble stoned streets in colonial towns, it is truly a hidden adventurer's gem.  

Having recently had the opportunity visit El Salvador, I discovered it not only has lot to offer in the form of tourism, but also in friendliness -  the Salvadorians are a personal and caring people.  They certainly welcomed me with open arms.

Despite all the bad publicity in the past because of its relatively recent civil war, El Salvador is now growing in economically as well as becoming a tourist destination.    With twice daily, 5.5 hour-long nonstop flights from San Francisco, El Salvador is an easy travel destination.  

ElSalvadorNov13-2.jpgSponsored by Corsatur and El Salvador Tourism. my trip touched on many highlights of the country.  First, I and my fellow travel agents visited La Libertad Port on the Pacific Coast.  Here, we enjoyed quietly strolling around the fisherman’s pier. Being the risk taker that I am, I also chose to get a major adrenaline rush by taking a surf lesson.  Professional and celebrity surfers from around the world come to El Salvador to enjoy the warm and challenging waters.  Many of the top-10 break points in the world are located here, with top breaks including Punta Roca, El Sunzal and El Tunco.  Some of the world’s most important surf competitions have been held in La Libertad, including Copa Quicksilver, and just this past July, the port hosted the 6-star Reef Pro El Salvador competition.  During my lesson, I found the waves were a bit too rough for me, but I managed to get half way up on the board and to do several flips before it was time to get back to the beach.  I recommend this for everyone, it is so much fun!

I also enjoyed the lunch by the beach at the Restaurante Acajutla.  Here you can find all types of dishes on the menu, like seafood, cerviche, fish and chips, and langoustes (crawfish).  I could sit there all day enjoying the music, watching the surfers catching the waves, and relaxing.

Want to learn about turtles?
ElSalvadorNov13-1.jpgA visit to the turtle sanctuary located at San Diego Beach, gives visitors an overview on native turtles that swim along the Salvador's coast, including the Green Sea Turtle (Verde Marina), the leatherback (La Baula), and the most common, the Olive Ridley (La Golfina).  I learned that the Salvadoreans are becoming more aware of the plight of sea turtles, and they are now learning to protect them.

One of the conservation strategies implemented by FUNZEL (Fundacion Zoologic de El Salvador), a non-profit, non-governmental organization, is to buy back the sea turtle eggs that have been harvested and sold in the markets.  They take these sea turtle eggs to a sanctuary and then put them back in sea turtle nests. When the sea turtle eggs hatch, the baby turtles are returned back to the ocean. 

I learned that only a small handful of baby turtles survive after they hatch, and that sea turtles return to their place of birth to lay their eggs.   So it was with mixed emotions that I had the privilege of participating in the release of a baby turtle back to sea.  As it crawled toward the open ocean,  I worried if it would survive or not.  I wished it a good safe journey and long life, and rejoiced that it had a chance to survive a crawl to the sea.  

Walter Deininger National Park
Next, we went to Walter Deininger National Park, located south of La Libertad.  It is an 1,800 acre forest with a wide variety of endangered trees, and a large assortment of wildlife, and medicinal plants. This park is home to 70+ species of birds, over 20 species of amphibians and small mammals such as raccoons, deer and armadillos. 

There is much more to this place than viewing birds.  I enjoyed strolling along the park’s pathways, breathing fresh air before repelling down a 180-foot cliff.  Yes, I said repelling.  First, I caught a deep breath, and then I stepped off the cliff.  I must admit I was scared in the middle of my repelling.  My hands and feet were shaking so badly that I needed to take a break.  I took a deep breath then continued repelling down.  It didn't take long though, before I was safely on firm ground.  What an achievement for me!

El Boqueron Park
From repelling down a cliff, I went hiking up a volcano. The National Park of El Boqueron is 20- 30 minutes from San Salvador, and if you have never seen a volcano up close and personal this is a must see attraction. After a light trek up the dormant volcano, through fresh air and beautiful landscape, I was delighted with the view of the impressive 1-mile wide crater. On the way back, we enjoyed the Las Brumas and the Pampda Argentina restaurants to try typical Salvadorian dishes.  

A Cobblestone Town
ElSalvadorNov13-6.jpgConcepción de Ataco was next on the itinerary, and it  is a lovely cobblestoned town surrounded by coffee plantations.  It has many colorful handicraft shops and several beautiful boutiques which sell native indigo outfits which I found very hard to resist from buying.  If shopping is not for you, how about mingling with the locals?  Food vendors love showing all the types of foods they sell, and even show you how they prepare it.  Many even love to take photos with you! This truly is a delightful and lovely town to tour, and it offers a refreshing climate!

El Carmen Estates Coffee Plantation
Meanwhile, coffee lovers will have to hunt down the plantation,  El Carmen Estates, to take a tour of a the working coffee mill and learn about the process of how a simple bean becomes an excellent cup of java. A guide led us through the different areas and described each stage of coffee production.  He explained how the "cherry" coffee bean is transformed into a "green" coffee bean for export to companies like Starbucks, American Airlines and the Holiday Inn, among many others.  And best of all, a delicious cup of coffee was waiting for us after the tour.

El Tunco
ElSalvadorNov13-4.jpgWhere to go to sleep and relax? The Hotel Tekuani Kal in El Playa Tunco, La Libertad.  This hotel is run by a local family, and each room has its unique design.  When we wanted to go food exploring, we went together with Javier Melendez, a local tour guide.  We enjoyed breakfast overlooking the surfers in the morning.  Lunch at the local restaurants, and eating local seafood prepared in sinfully rich cream sauces.  One afternoon we walked to town and enjoyed a fresh smoothie.  Then later we sat by the beach and enjoyed the sunset while having a glass of wine and mingling with the locals.  For a late night dinner, we enjoyed seafood immediately caught from the ocean. That was my first time trying conchas (raw clams).  They were the best clams on a half shell that I ever ate, well........until I saw them moving.  I practically freaked out but my friends reassured me that that means this meant they were fresh.  Though I panicked, I must say my stomach was just fine afterwards.

ElSalvadorNov13-5.jpgThat night, we joined in during the local open mike and watched talented musicians.  We were never alone as the friendly local people always joined us either in conversation or in activities during our stay.  If we had stayed longer, I am sure we would have gotten to know everyone in town. As I sit here writing, I admit I can hardly wait to go back.  Maybe I'll even sign up for more surfing lessons!

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WHEN YOU GO

Worthy Notes:  El Salvador uses only US DOLLARS
Sept- March: Best time to surf
Visas: None required
Taca Airline: National airline

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Editor's Note: Do visit www.travel.state.gov to check on the safety warnings regarding El Salvador.  

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