El Salvador ('The Saviour') might be the smallest country in Central America, but it is well worth exploring. Newcomers are frequently bowled over by this stunning volcanic landscape, and quickly warm to the openness of its people.
This tiny tropical land, about the size of Wales or the US state of Massachusetts, is bursting with natural attractions. Highlights include the Cerro Verdeand El Imposible national parks, together with the volcanic crater lakes of Ilopango and Coatepeque. The Pacific coast is blessed with impressive beaches; the breakers rolling in from the Pacific Ocean make the coastal province of Sonsonate and La Unión a major draw for surfers, while the resorts of the Costa del Sol are a 90-minute drive from the capital. El Salvador also offers interesting archaeological sites from Maya civilisation, and the Ruta de Las Flores takes visitors to some of the prettiest villages and market towns.
Although civil war (1980–1992) and a succession of natural disasters left El Salvador physically devastated and psychologically traumatised, the country was quick to recover. Tourism was made a government priority: new initiatives included a golf and fishing complex in Usulutan, an adventure resort in the mountains of Chalatenango, and a marina at La Libertad. El Salvador still has a reputation as a violent country, but the truth is that the people of El Salvador have always suffered much more than tourists at the hands of criminals. In 2012, a truce between El Salvador’s violent gangs recently passed the 100-day landmark, resulting in an almost 60% reduction in violent crime. While crime remains a problem, the National Civilian Police (PNC) generally have a good reputation, and security for tourists has improved greatly with the introduction of a specially trained tourist police force, Politur, which operates at destinations throughout the country.
The global recession has taken its toll on El Salvador, but recent social reforms have gone some way to alleviating the difficulties of its people, and El Salvador’s tourism industry is rapidly adapting to today’s global economic and climatic situation. Coffee plantations hit by a decline in profits are inviting guests to visit, to eat and drink, to stay, to work. Beach resorts are becoming more boutique, offering better service with a personalised touch for the same money, and with less environmental impact.
Building on the fact that the country remains among the most advanced in the region in terms of infrastructure and living standards, entrepreneurs and official bodies are waking up to the true value of El Salvador’s natural wonders with eco-tours into national parks growing in popularity. Spa hotels are multiplying too, many taking advantage of the country’s volcanic hot springs, while La Libertad has put El Salvador on the global surfing map. Even the Civil War is proving to be a tourist draw, with many visitors keen to find out more about the conflict that divided this nation for so long. El Salvador may have a way to go, but the signs are certainly there of a blossoming renaissance.