Somewhere between the steep sea cliffs and the mountainous fields of coffee plantations, I found the heart of El Salvador, a country whose culture spans back millennia. Volcanic eruptions had long ago decimated the Mayan inhabitants and Spanish and Parisian architects had seeded the modern cities, but the tropical landscapes and lush views remain.
Soon after arriving, I visited a pupuseria, where locals milled corn on century-old stone slabs, spoke in a slow Spanish dialect and sipped horchata as they made pupusas, molding the corn dough into thick discs, then frying and topping them with cheese sauces, jalapenos, herbs and loroco flowers.
Salvadorean Tours provided a thorough sightseeing adventure across the country, which is smaller than Massachusetts. My guide, Benjamin, shared his wealth of knowledge about local customs, history and art as we navigated a highway shouldered and sometimes canopied by tropical greenery and passed through tunnels, low cloud banks and brief bursts of rain. Salvadorean Tours' packages start at $99 per person, per day.
Soon after the rain stopped, we arrived at El Boqueron, the capital's dormant volcano. After about 20 minutes, a well-maintained trail hedged with fern, trumpet flowers, indigo and purple guaria morada orchids led to a vista of the volcano's crater. Clouds, illuminated by sunlight and blown by swift winds, fractured and dropped into the basin.
Someone had descended hundreds of feet to the small vulcancito crater within the larger depression and spelled out a message in white stones: Dios viene, "God is coming."
Experienced hikers seeking more of a challenge have a few options. There's the highest volcano in the country, Santa Ana Volcano, aka Ilamatepec, which takes about five hours to hike roundtrip; or to the side of the Santa Ana there's the Izalco volcano, where challenging slopes can be as steep as 45 degrees.
Later I toured Joya de Ceren, a Mayan village that had been buried by 16 layers of ash and debris from volcanic eruptions around the year 535. The 20-foot-deep excavation site, which features the ruins of homes and a shaman's hut, is a Unesco World Heritage site.
Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, a mansion repurposed as a boutique hotel, in San Salvador.
Destruction isn't the only thing that has emerged from the country's 26 volcanos. Coves and black-sand beaches, the hallmarks of El Salvador's world-renowned surf spots, also resulted from volcanic activity. I had the fortunate experience of catching waves at a favored local spot, San Blas beach. With ideal conditions, warm water and uncrowded outside breaks, the surf provided an exhilarating change of pace from the peaceful ambience of the countryside.
Like Mayan villages buried by ash and debris, El Salvador's villages, parks and downtowns are best understood by peeling back the layers of history that cover them. Photography and exhibits of the civil war that raged in the country from 1979 to 1992 contrasted with the progressive changes and artistic legacy exercised by today's locals. I took a walk down cobblestone streets to Suchitoto's center, which showcased photos of female freedom fighters in the civil war. Passing colonial architecture, I encountered the remains of a helicopter that was blasted down over a park and reconstituted as a sculpture.
My hotel that night was also steeped in cultural relevance. Rooms at Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, a mansion repurposed as a boutique hotel, start at $112 per night ($102 in the off-season) and are saturated with historical artwork and relics from the owners' museum.
While touring the capital of San Salvador, I had the rare opportunity to visit the country's most unlikely attraction: a castle, apparently inspired by Scotland's Balmoral Castle and decked out with Italian marble by the Guirola family, one of the 14 wealthiest families in El Salvador. After touring the reportedly haunted premises, my driver took me into a vibrant hive of over 40,000 street vendors who engage in commerce daily. This was followed by a trip to Oscar Romero's grave in its catacomb beneath Metropolitan Cathedral and a visit to Iglesia El Rosario, a brutalist-style church exhibiting rebar sculptures and a 40-foot, stained-glass Eye of God.
The Mision de Angeles hotel in the mountains of Ahuachapan.
That night I stayed in Mision de Angeles, a hotel in the mountains of Ahuachapan where rooms start at $85 per night, or $70 during the off-season. Its rooms and panoramic dining area offered expansive views of the flourishing hillsides and some of the 500 local bird species. Like my previous hotel, it featured decor and sculptures that resonated with the peaceful and inspiring surroundings. While I enjoyed breakfast and the view of clouds rolling over the hillside coffee plantations, the staff burned incense down the hall to add a faint, sweet and musky odor to the atmosphere.
The following morning, I explored Concepcion de Ataco, a mountain town with a population of 18,000 and a reputation for bright murals and 13 annual festivals. There I saw local women balancing containers of corn tamales on their heads and selling the banana-leaf‐wrapped meals for 25 cents apiece. Sometimes, such friendly culture and taste seems in short supply, but in El Salvador they overflowed.