For our very first story about our recent trip to El Salvador, I will start at the end and then, logically, will go backward. It was our last day in the country, and we had our backpacks ready with tourist trinkets, dirty clothes, and at least five bags of coffee packed in tightly for our return trip. Outside, our Airbnb owners’ cats were sunbathing on and around our rental car, completely unbothered by our unsuccessful attempts to open the trunk. Luis, the owner of the Airbnb and the cats, came outside to bid us goodbye.
“You guys are the best guests we ever had!” he said, shaking Victor’s hand.
He was not talking about Airbnb. He was talking about the podcast we recorded the night before. The night before (I warned you this story is going backward), was a strange turnaround for us. We are used to quizzing locals about their customs and culture and history and never anticipated that one day we would be the ones answering a barrage of questions about our travels and lives. Tourists are not common in El Salvador and Luis tries to interview every international tourist who booked his room, in an attempt to learn what brought them to his country and what their experience was like.
We were in our room, resting after a day of exploring San Salvador downtown and Lake Ilopango when Luis came in with three professional-looking microphones and a clutter of audio equipment. We warmed up with a few stories – who we were and how long we’ve been traveling, our best and worst travel experiences, an impressive list of already visited destinations, and an even longer dream list.
“Why did you decide to come to El Salvador?” Luis finally asked. We’ve heard this question so many times before. Everyone who learned of our travel plans wanted to know the exact same thing.
“Because… Albania!” Victor said. Luis and I glanced at each other, caught completely off guard.
Victor went on to explain that due to the political environment, family circumstances, and COVID restrictions, we ended up spending two weeks in Albania six months ago, a country we neither planned on visiting nor on spending so much time there. We fell in love with it, of course, with the mountains, the beaches, the food, and the people. But beyond the country itself, Victor became obsessed with the essence of what made that trip so memorable.
In the end, Victor decided it boiled down to two things. First of all, if we are traveling for two weeks, there is something magical in being able to explore the entire country. We could explore one region of Columbia or the entire country of El Salvador. He wanted to pick a smaller country and discover all of it, as we did with Albania. But most importantly, he wanted a non-touristy destination. We can be shuffling between “must-see” sights with crowds of tourists on identical itineraries or have the complete freedom to discover the unexpected beauty of a low-key destination at our pace, with no pressure of tourist traps.
Luis beamed at his answer.
For the next hour, we answered question after question. Did we feel safe in El Salvador? Yes. We heard of gang violence that has been prevalent in this country in years past but know that it has dramatically decreased under the new president. We never felt unsafe in any part of the country by taking common-sense precautions we usually do.
What did we think of El Salvador? We loved it. Even though we explored the entire country in two weeks, all we wanted to do was come back for another visit.
What advice did we have for other tourists looking to come to El Salvador? Simple – come to El Salvador. And just El Salvador. Don’t make this a one-day stop to eat pupusas on your multi-destination Latin America tour. Come to El Salvador and explore Ruta de las Flores, a scenic route through the rolling hills, coffee plantations, and flowering trees, and highland towns such as Nahuizalco, Juayúa, Apaneca, and Ataco de la Concepcion with their colonial buildings, colorful murals, craft fairs, and abundant food markets. Come and hike the volcanoes, climb above clouds, and watch the sunrise and set over El Salvador and the surrounding ocean. Come and discover how coffee is grown, picked, processed, from the coffee trees with bright red berries lining the sides of roads to jungles of coffee plantations growing in the volcanic soil, to acres of coffee beans drying in the hot sun, all the way to that delicious cup of Salvadorean coffee, espresso or drip or coffee olla style. Come and trek through waterfalls, zipline through the jungle, swim in the lakes and hot springs, and brave the ocean waves in lancha boats while island hopping. Come and surf on some of the best surfing beaches in the world, where the waves are ideal, and the water is gorgeous and warm. Come and eat pupusas like a local – almost every night, meat and cheese and vegetable and even flower fillings, oozing out as you rip the hot tortilla and pinch a bit of cabbage curtido before throwing the entire thing into your mouth.
Come to El Salvador. Oh, and learn some basic Spanish beforehand. It will certainly come in handy.