Lava at first sight

Daralyn Danns was one of the first to visit the newly accessible El Salvador - and no eruptions.

By Daralyn Danns, August 18, 2011
Lago de Coatepeque, which means Hill of Snakes in Nahuati - an ancient Central American language, fills the crater of a volcano

Lago de Coatepeque, which means Hill of Snakes in Nahuati - an ancient Central American language, fills the crater of a volcano

I was enjoying lunch on top of a volcano. In the distance were the Bálsamo mountains, the Pacific Ocean and the city of San Salvador, glistening in the sun.

There are 23 volcanoes in San Salvador. Santa Ana, which last erupted in 2005, is the highest in the Pacific volcanic chain. Happily, my volcano is no longer active.

All was at peace as I took in the views at Las Brumas Grill & Café surrounded by flowers, butterflies and birds. The Parque Nacional El Boquerón, which is inside the crater of the San Salvador volcano is spectacular.

El Salvador may seem an unusual destination for a holiday as tourism is not highly developed here, but this small, yet densely populated country on Central America's Pacific coast captivates with its natural beauty.

Volcanoes, mountains, forests, lakes and beaches are all within easy reach of San Salvador, the capital. It takes around seven hours to drive east to west, so you can take in most of El Salvador in a short space of time.

Just when you think El Salvador can't surprise you any more it does. Lago de Coatepeque (Coatepeque in Nahuatl translates as Hill of Snakes), which fills the crater of an extinct volcano, is one of the most beautiful lakes I have seen.

A civil war in the 1980s (there are still signs of it, such as houses hidden behind walls) and natural disasters have taken their toll on the country and its people. But now El Salvador is more stable and is in the throes of rebuilding itself. As the US dollar is the currency there are many American influences trickling through and they can be seen in La Gran Via, a smart shopping mall and entertainment area in San Salvador.

Getting there

Flights:: Iberia fly from London, Heathrow, via Madrid to San Salvador.Fares start from £673 return. Flights are scheduled monday, tuesdays, thursdays and Saturdays
Where to stay: Hotel Árbol de Fuego: double rooms from US$55 (£35 approx) per night.
More info:

The capital is relatively modern with a blend of colonial architecture. Although it has been rebuilt several times due to earthquakes and fire, the historic centre, has some lovely buildings such as the National Theatre and the National Palace.

Make San Salvador your base. There are the usual hotel chains here, which tend to be geared towards conferences, but do have pools. A stay in a smaller hotel such as the pretty Árbol de Fuego, proud of its green credentials, is a far more rewarding experience as it gives you a real flavour of the country.

As well as El Salvador's exquisite scenery, its other important asset is the people, who are warm and welcoming and go out of their way to help you. Perhaps this is because they don't see too many tourists.

The country will also wow you with its food. The flavours of the tropical fruit and vegetables tantalised my taste buds. The natural fruit juices served with ice (good restaurants use purified water, so having ice is fine), known as frescos, are so delicious it is easy to become addicted. My favourites were the mango and watermelon.

There is also plenty of fresh fish. Corvina - similar to sea bass - and sole are popular. Corn is the main staple of the diet.

You can't visit the country without trying a pupusa, a traditional dish. It is a type of corn tortilla that can be stuffed with anything. I tried the cheese and beans. I also got hooked on the deep fried plantains (similar to bananas). Not great for the waistline but really tasty.

El Salvador prides itself on its good roads and it takes less than an hour to drive from the capital to embark on the archaeological route to see the main sites of the Mayan World.

At Joya de Cerén, often called the Pompeii of the Maya World, I learned about the culture of the Central American people who inhabited the land circa AD 600. A sudden eruption of the Loma Caldera volcano was completely covered this Mayan village in volcanic ash and it was rediscovered by accident in 1976 revealing homes and lifestyles of this ancient people. The site is mainly an archaeological dig with a small museum, but well worth seeing. Close by is San Andrés, which has remains of pyramids and an indigo processing plant destroyed by the eruption of El Playón in 1658 and flooded by the Rio Sucio.

The most impressive pyramid, in Tazumal, is 24 metres high. There is also an interesting museum there. Cihuatán, which means "Place of Women" is the largest archaeological park in El Salvador. If you are not tired of Mayan ruins, go and see it.

One of the highlights of the tour was Santa Ana City with a neo-Gothic cathedral and 100-year-old theatre.

Also nearby is the Parque Nacional El Imposible. A remnant of one of the world's most threatened ecosystems, this tropical mountain forest is home to several endangered animal and plant species.

On the so-called Ruta de las Flores, the only flowers to be seen were in gardens of hotels and restaurants. There are wild flowers, I was told, carpeting the route from November to February, hence the name. The road takes you through some lovely places including the charming town of Ataco, snuggled amongst coffee plantations.

A tour around one of the plantations such as El Carmen Estate to see how beans become coffee is fascinating. And you get to taste some good stuff. La Palma, known for its handicrafts, is a pleasant place to stroll and take in the mountain air while getting a feel for what life is like for its inhabitants.

One of the jewels in El Salvador's crown is Suchitoto, a small colonial city with cobblestone streets, colourful houses and good bars and cafés.

The main attraction is Lago de Suchitlán, a favourite with bird watchers. We stopped at the colonial-styled, La Posada de Suchitlán. The views of the lake provided an idyllic setting for Sunday lunch.

The Salvadorian Coast offers an opportunity to relax. The lively Puerto de La Libertad, approximately 30-minutes' drive from the capital, is one of the country's most popular beach resorts. From the pier you can watch the local fishermen selling their catch.

Along the coast there are several secluded, tranquil beaches with sands in shades ranging from black to white. All you expect a tropical beach to be.

El Zonte, which has a bohemian feel, is reputed to be among the best in the world for surfing. The coastline is dotted with a few small hotels. So, if you are looking to escape the rat race and want to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, this is for you.

Last updated: 10:18am, August 18 2011