The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is big on natural wonders. The word is out among more intrepid travellers that this is the region’s up-and-coming destination. Newcomers are bowled over by the stunning landscape, with smoking volcanoes, surf-pounded beaches, pristine cloud forests and crystalline lagoons. And those in the know are drawn back time and again by its warm-hearted and dynamic people.
This tiny tropical land, about the size of Wales or Massachusetts, is packed with highlights. Magnificent, crowd-free national parks include Cerro Verde, Montecristo and the irresistibly named El Imposible. You can shoot the rapids on whitewater rafts, or take a lazy boat ride across volcanic crater lakes Ilopango and Coatepeque. Surfers flock to the world-class Pacific breakers at Sonsonate, El Zonte and La Unión, only a short drive from the capital. The archaeological remains at Tazumal mark the furthest outpost of the Maya empire; the Ruta de Las Flores features colourful, flower-filled villages, with volcanic hot springs and indigenous craft markets; and Morazán province offers tours of civil war trenches led by former guerrillas turned guides.
El Salvador still has a bad reputation for violent crime, but the truth is that the locals have always suffered much more than tourists at the hands of criminals, most of whom are more concerned with the feuding of rival drug gangs.
The tourism industry is responding rapidly to the country’s rising popularity. Coffee plantations are inviting guests to visit, to eat and drink, to stay, to work. Beach resorts are becoming more boutique, spa hotels are multiplying and the eastern Gulf of Fonseca is being developed, with boat-and-bus routes connecting with neighbouring Nicaragua. El Salvador may not yet be the most comfortable place to visit in the region, but for the increasing number of people who are making the effort, the rewards are plentiful.