Our minibus pulled into Suchitoto in the darkness of late evening. The sun had set hours prior, on the drive to El Salvador from Honduras, where we’d spent the morning exploring the Maya ruins of Copan.
Our 17-day-long Central American Journey began in Antigua, Guatemala just two days earlier, and we were already visiting our third country on day three.
It would have been exhausting if Central America – and especially El Salvador – weren’t so captivating.
Set among the Cuscatlán mountains of El Salvador, Suchitoto is a small town with charming cobblestone streets and vibrant colonial buildings. During the day, local shop owners chatter among each other outside their stores while stray dogs seek shelter from the midday heat and snooze under the trees. Just a short walk from town lies a large man-made lake known as Lago Suchitlán, home to many species of migrating birds and fish.
Laid-back, friendly and beautiful, it’s no surprise that this delightful little town is often considered the cultural capital of the country, and is a must-see destination for anyone going to El Salvador.
Here are the highlights from my visit with Intrepid Travel:
Seeing the area from a local’s perspective
With Suchitoto’s compact size, one full day to explore the highlights was the perfect amount of time. And to make sure we made the most of the day, our group joined a city tour led by a knowledgeable local guide named René Barbón. René is a Suchitoto native who showed us around the main features of the town and dipped our feet into the history, politics and wildlife of his home country.
Our first stop on the city tour was to Los Tercios Waterfall, where a short hike led us toward a wall built from hexagonal-shaped rocks – each its own puzzle piece once created by ancient lava flow. The wall stands behind a flowing stream of water during the wet season. While we admired the formations, we learnt about the significance of the area, as well as the rise and fall of Suchitoto’s indigo industry where rare natural indigo traditions are still practiced today.
On our way back up from the fall, we detoured via a lookout that gave us panoramic vistas over the lake and the area’s surrounding mountains.
Meeting and interacting with the locals
One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting local people and getting a little insight into their daily lives, and on this occasion, we had the pleasure of meeting the incredible Victoria Acosta. Victoria is a 98-year-old (!) Salvadorian woman living and working in Suchitoto. One of the last five cigar rollers in the area, she sells each cigar for 10 cents. Since pre-Columbian times, hand rolled cigars (known as puros) have been smoked for personal, medicinal and ceremonial uses however today, due to the low profit margin, the tradition of hand rolling is diminishing.
Victoria welcomed us into her home where she shared with us a little bit about her life and family, and even taught a few of us travelers the cigar-rolling process. When asked for her secrets to longevity, she credited it to never smoking and also never being married!
Trying local delicacies
As we left Victoria’s house, we continued to wander through the picturesque streets and eventually found ourselves at the Peace Arts Center, a community space for reconciling and rebuilding the cultural identity of the former war zone. It is here that we learnt about the Salvadorian civil war, the agricultural landscape and the community’s art work.
Before René bid us farewell for the day, we were offered to try a couple of local delicacies. First, we made a toast with our travelers-turned-friends and sampled some chicha, an alcoholic drink made from corn found across Latin America, before trying some pupusas for lunch. Pupusas are a traditional Salvadorian dish made of a thick corn tortilla stuffed with savory fillings such as meat, cheese and beans and is served with a coleslaw-like salad on the side.
Experiencing the biodiversity and natural surroundings
It was an early start the following morning – 5am to be exact – as I stumbled out of bed and into the hotel lobby to make myself a coffee. Our local guide René would be back to take a group of us on a kayaking and bird watching tour on Lago Suchitlán.
Our small group jumped into two pick-up trucks packed with kayaks and paddles, and joined René and a couple of members of his team. We bumped along a narrow dirt road where we encountered horseback ranchers herding their cattle and caught glimpses of the moon’s watery reflection.
We arrived at our starting point, and slipped on our life jackets as the midnight blue sky was gradually transitioning into a revolution of violet and orange. We shoved off as the sun rose above the canopy.
On our paddle we caught glimpses of egrets foraging through the shallow waters, great kiskadees (a type of birds) sitting high atop tree branches overlooking the lake, and passed local fisherman who were out to collect their catch of the day. Gliding along the water and listening to bird song in the dawn light was a meditative experience and the perfect way to start the day, making every bit of that 5am wake up call well worth it.
At first glance, Suchitoto might seem like just a quaint little town, but with its laid-back locals, colonial architecture and natural biodiversity, it sure packs a punch.
It’ll leave you with memories you’ll be reminiscing over again and again.
Ready to explore dreamy Suchitoto? Check out Intrepid range of small group tours in El Salvador.
(All images c/o April Wong for Intrepid Travel.)