Northern and eastern El Salvador remain largely untrodden, especially the eastern parts of the country, where heavy fighting took place during the civil war. These remote areas may take a little more effort to get to, but they are the gateway to authentic Salvadoran culture, uncorrupted by tourism and relatively unfazed by American influence.

Just 45 kilometers northeast of San Salvador, the cobblestone streets of Suchitoto offer a quiet, quaint getaway where time seems to stand still. Set against the backdrop of spectacular Lago Suchitlán, this balmy colonial town offers boutique hotels, bird-watching, world-class art, and waterfalls. Nearby Volcán Guazapa and Cinquera are your first stops for civil war tourism, with hikes and horseback riding through former guerrilla camps, and firsthand accounts of what life was like for people in these communities during the armed conflict. The archaeological site of Cihuatán is the largest pre-Hispanic ruins in El Salvador, with new discoveries about its inhabitants continually being made.

Experience the colonial charm of Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Experience the colonial charm of Suchitoto, El Salvador. Photo © Pablo Hidalgo/123rf.

Just north of Suchitoto is the whimsical La Palma, with brightly painted murals all over town. La Palma makes a wonderful day trip and is also the gateway to the cool cloud forests of El Salvador’s highlands, where cozy cabins are nestled between expansive fields of fruits, flowers, and vegetables.

Continue east to Alegría, where the fresh air and friendly locals make for a relaxing retreat. More adventurous travelers can keep going into the “Wild East,” where hiking trails, waterfalls, rivers, and mountains are as abundant as the stories that were created around them. The green pine forests of Morazán (the department where Perquín and El Mozote are located) were known as the guerrilla red zone during the civil war, and it was here that the rebels constantly escaped army attacks by hiding in the mountains and thick forests throughout the region. Today, these same outdoor hideaways serve as uncharted territory for adventurous history buffs and nature lovers alike. The Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña in Perquín and the El Mozote Memorial officially document the brutal history of the region, while conversations with local people reveal more personal and painful memories.

Eastern El Salvador’s ancient history is often overshadowed by this recent past, but it is no less arresting in its own right. East of San Miguel in the towns of Corinto and Cacaopera, numerous caves with prehistoric rock art and petroglyphs reveal a fascinating glimpse into the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. Cueva del Espíritu Santo is one of the most important archaeological sites in Central America, where 8,000-year-old cave paintings await the intrepid traveler—and the best part is that it is just far enough off the beaten path that you will likely have this archaeological marvel all to yourself.

Travel map of Northern and Eastern El Salvador

Northern and Eastern El Salvador

Planning Your Time

This part of the country should be split into two parts. A few days is a good amount of time to explore Northern El Salvador, using Suchitoto as a base. Give yourself two days for Suchitoto and the vicinity: one day in the town and one day outside in Cinquera or the archaeological site of Cihuatán. Suchitoto is the center of this region, and to reach most other nearby destinations, it is necessary to backtrack a little to the town of Aguilares. A fast and frequent bus leaves Suchitoto daily. Alternatively, you can take the ferry across Lago Suchitlán to the town of San Francisco Lempa, where frequent buses leave for the business and transportation hub of Chalatenango. However you get here, two days is enough time to leisurely enjoy the highlands and La Palma.

Eastern El Salvador takes a bit more time and planning. In the east, the transportation hub is San Miguel, with several buses running directly to Perquín daily, where there are the best options for accommodations. A few days should be set aside to explore this area. From Perquín it is easy to make day trips to El Mozote and Río Sapo. The indigenous town of Cacaopera and the rock art in Corinto are a bit more of a long haul. If you get an early start, it is possible to visit them both in one day, stopping in Cacaopera first and then continuing on to Corinto. Most people then end up spending the night in Corinto. It all depends on the buses and how long you want to stay at the sights. If you are staying in Perquín, you can catch buses going to both towns from the small town of San Francisco de Gotera, which is about a 45-minute bus ride from Perquín. Otherwise, you can catch buses from the terminal in San Miguel.

A sulphur lake lies in the crater of a Tecapa Volcano near Alegria, El Salvador. Photo © lanabyko/123rf.

A sulphur lake lies in the crater of a Tecapa Volcano near Alegria, El Salvador. Photo © lanabyko/123rf.

Alegría can be done as a trip on its own, preferably on the weekend, when vendors set up in the parque central. One day is enough time to hike to the lake and enjoy strolling around the small town. The trip from San Salvador to Alegría is straightforward, with buses leaving frequently from Terminal Oriente. Alegría could also be a stopover on your way to or back from Perquín.

Excerpted from the first edition of Moon El Salvador.