Well over two decades have passed since El Salvador’s brutal civil war. And while the country still bears the scars of its past, El Salvador is looking to the future. Freya Godfrey reports from a nation on the rise.
“Every time we talk about El Salvador, we are talking about the civil war.”
Benjamin, a bird-watching enthusiast and our guide for the next few days, is driving us along El Salvador’s Ruta de Las Flores.
This "Flower Route" is a picturesque journey that takes in dramatic volcanic scenery, coffee fincas and a series of the country’s prettiest colonial towns. Here, in such seemingly peaceful surroundings, it’s easy to forget that the 1980–92 Salvadoran Civil War ever happened, but Benjamin tells us it pervades Salvadoran life.
The civil war left behind a country crippled by poverty and stunted economic growth, as well as a tourist industry in tatters. But tourism is once again on the rise, and it’s easy to see why.
What started as a left-wing uprising against a military-dominated, repressive regime became – to simplify things – another proxy cold war for the US. The Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), fought US-backed Salvadoran government over twelve bloody years, during which more than 75,000 people lost their lives, many of them civilians, and a million more people found themselves displaced.
Twenty-six years ago, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed, but this left behind a country crippled by poverty and stunted economic growth, as well as a tourist industry in tatters.
But tourism is once again on the rise, and it’s easy to see why. The country boasts a rich mix of colonial and traditional culture, while the line of volcanoes that runs east to west have created some awe-inspiring natural features, from the Boquerón crater – a favourite spot for hiking and birdwatching – to the black-sand beaches of La Libertad. There’s also a number of top surfing spots – and, of course, a wealth of Mayan sites to explore.
Perhaps the most interesting of these ancient sites, because it offers something totally different to Guatemala and Costa Rica’s Mayan ruins, is Joya de Cerén, which we visit at the end of our trip. A volcanic eruption perfectly preserved a Mayan settlement here – complete with a female shaman’s divinations hut – leaving behind something of a small-scale Salvadoran Pompeii. We explore the place with hardly another tourist in sight, the sparse information boards a sign of the untapped potential that El Salvador has to offer.
Outside, a man in a tracksuit asks us where we’re from, our sunburned faces giving us away as western tourists. The son of Salvadoran parents, he lived in America from the age of seven but moved back here a decade ago. We ask him why; “I like it here” is his simple reply.
I lose my way but not once do I feel unsafe in – to give its unfortunate misnomer – the world’s most dangerous peacetime country.
And I have to echo his sentiments. While there are occasional reminders of the war and the ongoing gang issues that El Salvador struggles with – it’s not uncommon to see armed guards outside banks and car parks – during my time here the overwhelming impression is one of a relaxed, friendly country.
Indeed, one of the charms of El Salvador is its atmosphere. That evening we arrive in Ataco and take a walk around town. At dusk we find the streets filled with children playing football, families heading out for the evening, music bursting from shops and the central square busy with young couples paired shyly on benches.
As dark sets in, I lose my way but not once do I feel unsafe in – to give its unfortunate misnomer – the world’s most dangerous peacetime country.
The next day, we take a tour of Ataco’s murals. The town is a veritable collage of colour. Everywhere you look there’s something painted in a different artistic style, from artworks by international artists to the murals covering people’s homes – the latter are often completed with children’s handprints below, signing off their artwork.
Our guide for the day, Joseph, tells us that the paintings were originally commissioned to make the town look more appealing – to literally paint over the scars of the civil war. Now, they cover almost every building, and are often a way of exploring social and political issues. While the government fights to suppress and forget the voices of the past, these murals allow for artistic expression of the divides the country is still working to bridge.
El Salvador is not looking backwards – there's a feeling of excitement, of bright and prosperous years to come.
Many of the murals depict traditional Mayan activities or agricultural scenes – half of the population still lives in the countryside – while others are simply religious quotes.
One of the most intriguing is of The Little Prince. It surprises me to see a scene from the French novella in Central America, but Joseph tells us that the Rose in Saint-Exupéry's story was based on his Salvadoran wife, Consuelo.
A young boy in flowered shorts traces the words “El Principito” as we walk by, the eponymous prince, with sun-like yellow hair, depicted standing on top of the world. A quote alongside reads, "Me pregunto si las estrellas se iluminan con el fin de que algún día, cada uno pueda encontrar la suya." Or: "I wonder whether the stars are set alight in heaven so that one day each one of us may find his own again." It seems an apt quote for a country that needs to find its place in the world again, to rise from the ashes of its all-too-recent past.
In fact, what has held El Salvador back in recent years may make it even more appealing to travellers. Having largely rejected modernisation, the countryside is wonderfully untouched and towns are unscathed by development. Supermarkets have been shunned and people still sell their wares on the doorstep, from boys cycling with baskets filled with baguettes, ringing their bells to attract customers, to women, laden with pastries, calling door to door.
This distinctly local feel and traditional way of life is treasured but it's clear, too, that El Salvador is not looking backwards – there's a feeling of excitement, of bright and prosperous years to come.
I ask Joseph what he thinks about the future. “I’m not worried”, he says.