Over Thanksgiving 2021, I traveled to El Salvador in Central America. El Salvador is the least visited of all the Central American countries and was the last one that I had yet to visit. It has become one of the favorites.
The country has had a turbulent past to say the least. Having come out of a civil war that ended but not 30 years ago, followed by years of unrest/ violence/ and drug wars/trafficking. Some of the gang violence and drug problems persist but the country is far safer now than it ever was a few years ago. It even became the first country to adopt cyrptocurrency as the official currency, which I am still mostly confused about. I can say that it is a safe place to visit if you stick to certain places. If you do want to visit the capital San Salvador, then best find a guide or local as I was advised to not explore the city alone. But the coastal beaches known for their surfing and eco-resorts as well as the stunning mountain ranges known for the coffee plantations and lakes and rivers are well worth visiting. It is also affordable, far less overrun by tourists and fully of friendly people. Oh and who can forget the food, coffee and Pupusas, what more do you need in life?
I did not know much about El Salvador prior to this trip. I knew about the civil war, and its unsafe reputation in the U.S., I was also aware that it produced coffee. But again, it is often overshadowed by its many neighbors. But I discovered a beautiful country, rich in history, culture and natural wonders. Once that I hope can continue its path towards stepping away from its past of unrest and violence. I also only knew about a few eco-lodges and resorts along the coast, and was about to plan to go for that. But my research would take me into the mountains of El Salvador, and I was glad it did.
In initial research, I looked for boutique hotels in El Salvador, and stumbled across Casa DeGraciela. That is how I first learned about Concepcion de Ataco, a 2-3 hour drive from the airport, and my research lead me to discovering that this area near the Imposible National Park, is the coffee producing capital of El Salvador and is home to lots of coffee farms and estates. It is also known for its many murals, which was part of the government’s efforts to turn this town into a crucial tourist hub, that make the small valley town vibrantly colorful. It is a town full of coffee shops helmed by fantastic baristas who are passionate about their craft and proud of El Salvadoran coffee. The food here is also truly local and authentic and delicious.
I spent 3 nights in El Salvador, all in Concepcion de Ataco. My first day was arriving in the afternoon followed by a long 3 hour drive to arrive in town in the early evening. Day 2 was a full day food and coffee tour of the region. Day 3 was a full day Waterfall Adventure tour with El Salvatours. Day 4 was a long drive back to the airport for an early afternoon departure. I think 3 nights is the perfect amount of time in Concepcion to explore the area and all it has to offer. You could easily add another 2-3 nights on the coast for a different side of El Salvador.
Arriving and Getting Around
Arrival process is easy. U.S. citizens do not require any visas, and there are flights to major U.S. cities from all major U.S. carriers to San Salvador Airport, the only international airport in the tiny country. The airport itself is also rather nice. From there you can rent a car, and I was surprised at how well paved most of the roads are in the country, and they continue to work on improving the conditions and infrastructure as I saw many projects at work. Otherwise, I do recommend arranging for transfers through a tour company or hotel or transfer company. Once you go off the main roads it can get dicey and confusing. Further, there are no real public transit systems here, there are “chicken buses” and public buses that run in San Salvador and between various towns/villages, but it is not so advisable for tourists to utilize and they run on their own time.
In doing my research for what to do besides eat and roam the streets of town, I stumbled across a relatively new tour company, started in 2019, called El Salvatours, https://www.elsalvatours.com/, run by William, a Salvadoran-Australian. I highly recommend using El Salvatours. The company is absolutely fantastic from start to finish. Will is super responsive, clear, and really wants to ensure you will enjoy yourself and that you have the right expectations. He will also gladly help with connecting you to other folks around town if needed, as in my case. Will, despite being in Australia at the time due to COVID restrictions, helped me arrange a roundtrip airport transfer, although he had not done that before. He also connected me with Julio, owner of Los Portones de Ataco hotel where I stayed a night, to help me organize a food and coffee day tour around the region.
El Salvatours offers a variety of tours, mostly outdoors and nature focused as Concepcion de Ataco is surrounded by national parks and stunning scenery. They cater to all levels of fitness, adventure, risk takers and more. Will ensures to set expectations and to understand your desires as well as limits. I think The Waterfall Tour (USD$120)is a must do. It is super fun, adventurous (up to your own desires), beautiful, calming, and enriching. So glad I came across El Salvatours, a must in Ataco.
Through El Salvatours, my roundtrip airport transfer was $200, with the driver, we communicated through WhatsApp, he only spoke Spanish, but it was fine as I have needed to practice my Spanish for some time. The journey is around a 2-3 hour drive each way depending on traffic. For both the transfer and tours, Will can also organize a translator for you if you require one.
To confirm the transfer and tour, I paid a $50 deposit to confirm my Waterfall Tour guide, and a $50 deposit to confirm the driver. Deposits paid through Western Union wire transfer directly to El Salvatours and the driver, respectively. The remaining balances for each were all USD cash paid direct to driver and guide, tips not included.
The full day food and coffee tour booked through Julio was $125, tip not included and also paid for in USD cash. No deposits required and he too has WhatsApp and knows some English. Julio himself is a coffee expert and the coffee brewed at is hotel is some of the best in town.
El Salvatours Waterfall Tour
On my second morning, My guide, William (not the same William as the owner of El Salvatours, but a happy coincidence that they are both named William), and our driver met me at La Casa Degraciela hotel to pick me up for our full day tour. In true adventure fashion, Will and I stood up in the back of the pick up truck as we whisked through the mountains of El Salvador for the hour or so drive to our starting point for the day of hiking, canyoning, and cliff jumping.
Will is fantastic. He is super knowledgable and really knows the land, its flora and fauna and is really excited to get to share it all with visitors. He does not speak much English, so if you dont speak Spanish, advisable to ask the other Will to arrange a translator if no English guide is available. Shortly after we started hiking through unmarked and unchartered trails, Will stopped and cut some bark from a tree and had me try it (you suck on it), this is used to treat diarrhea.
I basically lost track of time throughout our tour, but after a long downhill hike, we arrived at our first waterfall of the day inside Parque Nacional Imposible, a massive national park in El Salvador. Cascada El Perol Tacuba, is accessible by road as well from another side, and is the fall that other groups and visitors will visit. This is where you can do 3, 5, 10, or 12 meter cliff jumps into the water below. The other falls we visited on the journey were all inaccessible and El Salvatours is basically the only group that will take you there. I went for the 5 meter jump.
After our stop here, we continued our upwards hike to visit another waterfall where we stopped for a simple but nice lunch prepared by Will. Some fresh homemade guacamole, pupusas and fruits. We also took a break and I just sat atop the falls, napped a bit and enjoyed the solitude, it was just myself and Will and El Salvadoran nature. It was very peaceful to sit atop the falls, listening to the sounds of the rushing and falling waters, with occasional breeze rustling the trees and the various animals and insects making noises. Perfect spot to contemplate many thoughts, or to just draw a blank and meditate.
After that we continued onwards. A stop at a smaller fall where a section was wide and smooth enough for a nature’s waterslide fun! We then arrived at the first portion where canyoning is required. After gearing me up, Will left me to swim then walk into a enclave where the massive waterfall was. Shortly after he showed up atop, threw down the rope and I hooked it to me and climbed up the waterfall as Will pulled the rope up. It was a lot of fun.
Throughout the hikes, Will would stop to point out various flora and fauna and we would also just chat. It was just so relaxing and fun.
We then arrived at the final waterfall. Where again, Will left to go up, while I walked through a narrower valley/passage to the final waterfall, which was smaller than the earlier one but still needed to be climbed up. Same process with the rope and I climbed up. I was informed that they also do this hike in the opposite direction wherein you jump into from the top of the falls rather than canyon up.
Then, we hiked upwards back to our starting point and awaited the pick up truck to whisk us back down to Concepcion de Ataco.
Full Day Food and Coffee Cultural Tour
On my first morning, after a breakfast at Los Portones de Ataco, I met my guide, Massimo, a 5th generation Salvadoran-Italian, whose great grandfather came to El Salvador and introduced Meteorology to the region, it was the first country in Central America to have that, then it spread. His family is mentioned in history books in El Salvador! Julio was unavailable to do the tour himself, but Massimo was awesome and I had a wonderful day with him and his 10 year old son. Massimo speaks English, Spanish, and Italian so you have lots of choices here. He also owns a restaurant, a 2 bedroom guesthouse and a nationally certified Toy Museum at his home in Apaneca, we’ll get to that later.
First stop of the morning was El Carmen Estate coffee plantation, processing plant and now hotel as well, just outside of central Concepcion de Ataco, you can actually walk here from town. They are open to the public and offer tours in English and Spanish, you can book tickets online too. Or stay here overnight if you want.
It was my first time visiting a coffee estate and seeing the entire process from delivery of beans to washing, separating, drying, roasting, and packaging. It was very educational for me. And fascinating to see certain similarities to wine and whisky making processes. I also happened to come at the beginning of harvest season so lots of action in the estate.
Beans are either washed (to get rid of the natural coating of honey or the honey is left on (its like a membrane that is honey like) and then after processing, they are dried. either on the floor or on these mesh things, mesh is faster drying cuz of the all around air flow
Floor drying. November to April is the harvest season.
In El Salvador, coffee making is still mostly a manual process. After drying, the farmers hand carry these sacks of beans to the store house. After storing, they are further processed by a machine that filters by size, larger = stronger/ higher quality, smaller= less strong and mainly for those packaged ground coffee
The hand printing/ painting
Following the full tour of the processing facilities, it was time to head to the estate’s beautiful gardens for a Coffee tasting using traditional brewing method, traditional “chemex”
Following the coffee education and tour, it was time for a journey through La Routa de Flores, a route that goes between various towns in the Ahuachapan (where Concepcion de Ataco is) and Sonsonate municipalities. It is a famous and popular route with tourists for the many colonial towns, the history and the natural wonders that dot the route.
First up was the town of Nahuizalco. Nahui means 4 in the indigenous language, the town was founded by 4 famillies from Zalco, another Salvadoran city. The city has a sad history. In the 1930s, the government massacred and persecuted the native population here and nearly wiped out the entire population and its traditions/ cultures. All because a handful refused to sell their land/ give up their land to the white settlers. Some survival tactics utilized for example was that men ended up dressing up as women to avert persecution. We visited a small but informative museum off the main square, that is sadly not on Google Maps, here I learned about the town’s history and that aforementioned massacre from descendants of survivors. Nahuizalco was not spared from the El Salvador Civil War from 1980-1992, which largely impacted the rural areas.
We then walked past the Nahuizalco weekend market. And past the original 18th Centruy church, whose interiors have not changed since its construction.
After another drive we arrived in the town of Salcoatitan, primarily to visit the Salcoatitan Food Plaza. Of course, what we did was eat and Massimo introduced me to many local El Salvadoran comfort foods.
Fried Yuca with Chicharron, chile and slaw, and a tamarind and fruit milkshake
Panes P’Koros, a comfort snack of bread, mayo, ketchup, vegetarian chicken and a house sauce made by owner’s son who is a chef in the U.S.
Next up was Juayua, another town on the Routa de Flores.
We then made a stop atMassimo’s home, hotel, restaurant and The Toy Museum, Dove Massimo – Thematic Hostel and Restaurant, follow him on Instagram! The Toy Museum is filled with over 2000 collectibles from his own personal collection, and now partly joint with his young 10 year son’s collection. It is a very cool and nerdy museum, and sort of random that its in this mountain town in the heart of El Salvador, but that adds to the charm. Massimo is so passionate about his family’s history, his hobby of comics/pop culture and of El Salvador and its food.
While here, Massimo served me his version of Sopa de Indios, a hearty Salvadoran chicken soup with lemon and chilied shallots, delicious and hearty.
Afterwards we headed into downtown Apaneca to visit the newly constructed Apaneca Food Hall to end the tour and day with desserts.
Torreja, a cinnamon and brown sugar french toast that is better than actual french toast. Sugar/cinnamon soaked plantains, and Canoa: a fried plantain filled with this light rice/sugar based condensed milk paired and Horchata of Rice, no sugar.
Afterward, Massimo dropped me off back in Concepcion de Ataco and so came an end to a very informative, delicious and enjoyable tour.
Concepcion de Ataco Food and Coffee Baristas
The national dish and in my opinion treasure of El Salvador is Pupusa. There many Pupuserias in town and my guides and hotel staff recommended two of them. My favorite was Pupuseria Cielito Linda.
One is Pupuseria Primavera Ataco. Here I ordered Revueltas (beans, cheese and Chicharrones), beans, jalapeno, onion, chorizo pupusas paired with Tamarind juice slushy, and Horchata de Mani. Menus in English and Spanish.
The other is Pupuseria Cielito Linda, a super friendly family run spot, menus in English and Spanish.
They sell a unique kind of pupusa called Tinquique, a seasonal Mushroom and Cheese pupusa, which was sensational. During the trip I heard many locals order hot chocolate as part of their meals. So I ordered hot chocolate and Horchata de Mani here.
In addition to Tinquique, I also ordered Revueltas, garlic, jalapeno, tenquique, squash pupusas. All were delicious.
Many cafes and artisanal coffee shops to choose from in this town. They all showcase the various coffees of the country and region and have a multitude of brew methods you can choose and order from. It is a town dotted with coffee shops selling truly single origin coffee, with unpretentious yet passionate and proud baristas. These are not your hipster American coffee shops.
My favorite one was Gecko Coffee. The owner was super friendly. Super passionate and knowledgable about coffee. He even won an award use the air pressure brewing method.
Baristas Cafe, is another great spot.
At both places my favorite bean was the Salvadoran Geisha. Aromatic, light, nice acidity and balanced.
Street Food / Weekend Market
On the weekends around the main town square is a weekend food market selling lots of street food. At one corner is Atoles Mama “Lita”, selling corn on the cob as well as Atoles de Elote, a corn, sugar and milk warm beverage. On my first night, they ran out of Atoles de Elote but the nice owner let me try the cashew and milk hot beverage, very good. Semilla de Maranon. On my second night, I was able to get a cup of Atoles de Elote, and it was so so good, warm, creamy, and that sweet corn taste and aroma was perfect.
Traditional Salvadoran breakfast consists of eggs, beans, bread, plantain, cheese. Paired with Coffee, fresh juice or a fruit slushy.
Where to Stay
Los Portones de Ataco. A Wonderful located, family run hotel in Ataco. Staff here are very friendly and make a great effort to provide top service but its for sure warm and genuine. The coffee here is delicious. I loved the rooftop porch that offer great views of Ataco, perfect for breakfast in the mornings, coffee in the afternoon, and a beer or cocktail in the evenings. Owner Julio can also help arrange tours to see local culture/ food/ coffee plantations and shops. Rooms are comfortable but basic. Hot water is a bit of a challenge, would recommend trying for later afternoon showers for best hot water, definitely try and avoid mornings. Free and decent wifi available as well. Rate was around $70/night, breakfast included.
Casa De Graciela. A magical, secluded hideaway in the heart of Ataco. It has a history, I believe owned by a lady called Dona Graciela, and then her sons or grandsons returned to Ataco to turn the family estate into a boutique hotel. I picked this place based on reviews and it did not disappoint. The place truly is special. Full of history and artifacts. The rooms are super cozy, comfortable, well appointed. The breakfast is delicious. The grounds are beautiful and relaxing, I relaxed around the ground with my wine/cocktail every evening/night. Staff are well intentioned and very nice, they try to provide the top notch proactive service, but occasionally do not quite get there. Nonetheless, I was thoroughly impressed and not a request too grand or much, and if they were not proactive, just find them/ call them and you’ll receive immediate service. I was sad the rooftop patio was under renovation while I was there. However, enjoyed spending my evenings in various parts of the small courtyard and gardens enjoying my drinks and the beautiful starry Ataco sky. It is hard to describe the beauty, serenity, and magic of the place, one just has to visit to experience it for yourself. Rates were around $125/night, breakfast included.
I hope you get to discover El Salvador, and specifically the beautiful wonders and gastronomic delights of Concepcion de Ataco, for yourself as well one day. Hope this has helped!