Central America's hotspot

Head off the beaten path in El Salvador to find Jewish heritage among the surf and dramatic scenery


The sun is just coming up as I watch the first surfers making their way to the Pacific Ocean. Morning is a good time for waves, so they’re out to make the most of it. La Libertad, a busy fishing port on the Pacific, has been rebranded as Surf City and international competitions for all levels are now held year round.

The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is sandwiched between Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — but there’s plenty to discover. A similar size to Wales, you could easily pack in city, coast and countryside in a day: locals say it’s only the traffic around the capital, San Salvador, that might hold you up.

Like others in the region, the country endured a long civil war from the late 1970s to the 1990s, followed by an epidemic of gang violence that made most of the towns and cities unsafe. But with thousands of gang members now behind bars, happily, those times seem now to be over and there’s a new sense of freedom.

That means that everywhere you go, you receive a fantastic welcome — no sellers pester you and the locals seem genuinely surprised that you might want to visit their country. In January, after the rainy season, all is green, with blossom everywhere, and the days are warm and sunny.

It’s not only the country’s politics that has often been turbulent either. The Pacific Ring of Fire runs through El Salvador, resulting in frequent earthquakes and damaging volcanic activity over the centuries.

Surrounded by imposing volcanoes, the capital San Salvador, is particularly susceptible, and it was badly damaged in 1854, 1873 and 1917, before another major earthquake in 1986 finished off any remaining colonial buildings.

Today, most of the churches have been rebuilt and there are still a handful of surviving early-20th- century buildings to see, while just outside the city sits the Monument to Memory and Truth. The black wall, with the names of 30,000 people murdered or “disappeared” etched into the stone, is still an important place of pilgrimage, a sombre memorial to those killed in the civil war.

But it’s an earlier conflict that has most resonance for Jews visiting the country. Despite the country officially supporting Hitler and Mussolini during the Second World War, El Salvador’s Consul in Geneva, José Arturo Castellanos Contreras, and his first secretary, György Mandl, a Romanian Jew, managed to save thousands of Central European Jews.

In 1942, they started issuing certificates identifying them as citizens of El Salvador, and despatched these to almost every country in occupied Europe, even smuggling them into the camps at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

After the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, the production of certificates accelerated and it’s thought that in total up to 40,000 Jews were saved. After the war, El Salvador was an early recogniser of the State of Israel on September 11, 1948.

Throughout the civil unrest of the late 1970s, most Salvadoran Jews planned to stay in the country. However, with the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of community leader and honorary consul to Israel Ernesto Liebes in 1979, much of the community left.

Today the population numbers around 150 but the 20th-century synagogue in San Salvador, which also acts as a community centre, has also been joined by a newer site.

Outside the capital, the biggest attractions are linked to the country’s volcanoes. El Salvador has more than 20 and the Cerro Verde National Park, just 40 miles west from the capital, is home to three of them — Izalco, Santa Ana and Cerro Verde.

The last is long extinct and you can take a trail through the forest around the crater, which takes about an hour. You’ll need more time and a guide to climb the other two.

Santa Ana is the highest volcano in the country, standing at 2,381 metres, and it takes around two hours to get to the top. Deep below is a steaming crater lake and there are tremendous views across to the Pacific.

Opposite is the active Izalco, formed in 1770, and in continuous eruption until 1966. It’s nicknamed the “Lighthouse of the Pacific” as its glowing crater was a handy night-time beacon for shipping.

If you’re coming to El Salvador to see Maya ruins, they can’t really compare to the sites in neighbouring Guatemala and Honduras, but what is unique is Joya de Cerén, called the Pompeii of Mesoamerica. This was a small Maya farming village, nestling in a fertile valley, until the nearby volcano of Loma Caldera erupted in 590CE. The inhabitants fled, leaving their houses and fields to be buried under as much as eight metres of volcanic ash.

A total of 18 structures have been identified and ten have been excavated. They include living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, and a communal sauna. The volcanic eruption was so sudden that everyday life was frozen in time. Maya artefacts used for cooking, for storage, even for drinking chocolate, were found where they were left. Several cultivated fields containing maize plants and fruit trees have also been uncovered.

Continuing beyond Joya de Cerén and the Cerro Verde National Park, the Ruta de las Flores winds through the hills in the north-west of the country, near the Guatemalan border.

Named for the abundant colourful wild flowers lining the road, it runs for around 20 miles, connecting a number of small villages set amid coffee plantations. It’s here that you’ll find some of El Salvador’s colonial past, with a whitewashed church dominating each village square, and red-tiled roofs on the houses along the cobbled streets.

Highlights include Nahuizalco with its market and wicker crafts, the pretty mountain town of Juayua, which is a venue for weekend food festivals, and the colonial gem of Ataco, with its unexpected display of brightly painted murals covering almost every wall.

The story goes that a hippie couple, after serving time in prison for drug offences, came here to start an art gallery and painted the outside of their shop. The locals liked it so much that soon the whole town was covered.

But perhaps the most beautiful of all villages is Suchitoto, 30 miles north-east of the capital, despite this area seeing some of the bitterest fighting of the war as the army battled the guerrillas who made their base here.

The wreckage of a helicopter tail fin, incongruously sticking out of a hedgerow, is the only reminder though, and surprisingly the buildings were remarkably untouched.

The village is now making its name as a cultural centre, with a weekend artisan market and an annual festival of art and culture every February. There are boat excursions on nearby Lago Suchitlán and it’s one of the most laid-back spots in the whole of El Salvador, along with the chilled-out coast.

The first tourists to make it back into the country after the war were surfers, determined to take advantage of the phenomenal breaks. With a warm sea year-round plus black volcanic sand lending a stark beauty to the coastline, a visit is just as tempting if you don’t surf though.

I’m staying in the tiny coastal village of El Tunco, just outside La Libertad, which is moving gradually upmarket, replacing its hippy shacks with boutique hotels, while restaurants for all tastes cram the streets.

Surfing lessons take place every day on the beach but the sea is too daunting for me. Far better to sip a cocktail on the veranda and watch the adventurous souls battling the waves as the sun slips gently below the horizon.

Getting There

Return flights from London cost from around £500. There are no direct flight routes from the UK, but you can fly via Madrid with Iberia as well as with a variety of airlines travelling via the US, stopping in cities including Washington DC, Dallas and Miami.

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