Having considered myself something of an experienced world traveler, I was unprepared for El Salvador. I went to El Salvador as part of a university research fellowship and to take some Spanish classes at a small San Salvador college. I hadn’t thought of it as a perfect vacation destination. To discover such a gem so close to the United States that hasn’t been overrun by U.S. tourists and cheesy resorts is rare. Tourism in much of Central America came to a quick halt as many countries in the region became embroiled in civil wars in the late 1970’s. But those wars are long over. El Salvador’s came to a halt in 1992 with the signing of peace accords.
It’s been nearly twenty years, but U.S. tourists haven’t come back for the most part. With its world-class surfing and near empty black sand beaches to the great examples of early colonial Spanish architecture in high mountain towns like Suchitoto, this small Central American country packs more variety into a smaller area than I’ve ever seen. Add the rich indigenous foods found throughout El Salvador and you’ve got a recipe for a great vacation.
The pupusa is ubiquitous in El Salvador. For me, the simple but delicious puposa is closely tied to the Salvadorian spirit. Found literally everywhere in El Salvador, the pupusa is served in fine restaurants and street stalls alike. Likely a descendant of ancient Mayan cuisine, the pupusa is composed of simple ingredients. Corn—ground by hand with stone mortar and pestle—beans and cheese come together to create a food that’s so much more than the sum of its parts.
Salvadoran women roll corn masa into a ball and deftly create an opening with two fingers to place the cheese and beans into the center of the ball. The sound I associate most with El Salvador—the sound indelibly etched in my mind—is the clapping sound made by women slapping the moist corn masa ball into a thick tortilla and the hiss of the frying as they’re flopped onto a wood-fired griddle. Street vendors sell pupusas nearly everywhere. You’ll never be more than a block or two away from a quick delicious snack. And if you want more than the basic beans and cheese filling, pork and indigenous herbs are offered as well.
One of the meals I enjoyed most in El Salvador were the huge breakfasts I ate on the beach every morning when I was in El Zonte for a week. As I watched the early morning surfers paddling out to the breaks off the black sandy coasts, I would eat a typical Salvadoran breakfast—un desayuno tipico—while having the beach mostly to myself. Local eggs scrambled with vegetables are served in big portions alongside crispy fried plantains, refried beans and a stack of fluffy tortillas. Local fruit makes a great breakfast dessert, and if you want they’ll even prepare a whole fried fish for you.
One thing I noticed during my three months in El Salvador is that the majority of tourists I met—especially at the beach—tended to have one thing in common; they were nearly all from northern Europe. Scandinavians made up the bulk of the tourists I talked to, with most coming from Sweden and some from Denmark. It is odd to me that with El Salvador only a 2 ½ hour plane ride from Miami that more Americans aren’t making the trip. The next time you’re considering options for going abroad on vacation, think about a destination closer to home and give our tiny Central American neighbor a try.