Our latest El Salvador adventure has been a 3-day trip to the historic town of Suchitoto, giving us a peek into the resilience and national pride of the people of El Salvador.
The Spanish settled this region in the early 1500s, followed by wealthy Salvadorans who added more elegant, traditional structures to the town, which flourished from the indigo trade and agriculture. The modern history of Suchitoto has been more turbulent with earthquakes, a massive hydroelectric project, and the civil war, yet the historical charm and traditional buildings of Suchitoto survived.
In the Náhuatl language Suchitoto means a “place of birds and flowers”, so named for the hundreds of species of birds that live or migrate through the area. The town is set in the mountains 25 miles north of San Salvador, at about 1,000-foot elevation. In the center of town is the Parque Central and the Santa Lucia Church built by the Spanish in 1853. Man-made Lago Suchitlán, is below the town, where the locals take tourists out to see the migratory birds on the various islands in the lake.
Before heading up the mountain to Suchitoto, we stopped at the Fernando Llort Gallery, El Arbos de Dios, in San Salvador. Fernando’s son runs the gallery and talked to us about his father’s life and his art, which is often described as “naive” (i.e. childlike). I would describe it as very colorful, and it reminded me a bit of Picasso. He’s known as El Salvador’s National Artist and for teaching the citizens of the small town of La Palma, how to make a living through art. We couldn’t afford an original, but we now have a lovely tea towel that shows one of his paintings (suitable for framing)!
When we arrived in Suchitoto, we immediately understood why the El Salvadorian people go there to get away from “el estress”, the stress of hectic San Salvador. Suchitoto is peaceful. It’s full of colonial architecture, cobbled streets, art galleries, and restaurants. The shops open when the owners feel like it, the square is surrounded by outdoor cafes, and everyone greets you with a smile.
Our group of 11 stayed in the Los Almendros de San Lorenzo Hotel, one of the best hotels in El Salvador. The hotel has beautiful rooms of all sizes in a meticulously restored 100-year-old house, with an eclectic art collection, a lovely pool in a quiet garden, a great restaurant, and is run by fascinating hosts; Pascal, an ex-French fashion executive, and Joaquin, a former El Salvadorian ambassador to France. After checking into our rooms (plenty of oohs and ahhs…) we went on a walking tour to see the sights, then returned to our hotel for a swim and an evening by the pool with wine and pupusas.
The next day a few of us went to learn the art of “añil”. We spent a few hours in the workshop making a scarf and learning the history of indigo dyeing. Indigo, or añil, is a natural colorant extracted from the Xiquilite plant and was a very important element for the Mayans. When the Spanish arrived in El Salvador in 1524, indigo became the new source of wealth in the region. Then in the 19th century, the indigo economy collapsed due to the discovery of synthetic colors in Europe. Now, indigo is making a comeback and there are organic indigo farms around Suchitoto as well as a number of workshops and art galleries selling beautiful indigo crafts. Being that my favorite color is blue, I was happy to play in a big vat of blue dye! I’ll need a bit more practice before my “art” is famous, but it was fun and was well worth having our noses above a stinky 8-year old brew of añil.
After arts and crafts it was time for lunch. We were looking for a taste of authentic El Salvadorian food, so we walked a few blocks from the central square to a restaurant overlooking the lake, called La Posada de Suchitlán. Marty and I shared a sampler plate, along with a yummy El Salvador version of tortilla soup. We had chorizo, some fried yucca, cheese and spinach stuffed yucca, an El Salvador version of an enchilada (think tostada), red beans, and a fermented cabbage salad. It was all very tasty!
After lunch we walked around town some more, visited the Peace Arts Center, walked through the church, and of course did a little shopping. I bought an indigo blouse made by a cute lady named Ada. She and her husband have a little store on the square and she sews the clothes that they have for sale. When I asked if I could try on the blouse, she directed me into their living area that was separated from the store by a piece of hanging fabric. She said not to worry, there wasn’t anyone home except the dog! I quickly tried on the blouse in their kitchen, avoided the sleeping dog, then stepped back into the store for Marty’s approval. Sold! Ada gave me a hug and we were all smiles.
Dinner that night was provided by Pascal and Juaquin at the hotel, and it was fabulous. El Salvador beef is a whole different world from Mexican beef! We enjoyed a sirloin steak with a rich mushroom gravy, veggies, and rice, followed by passion fruit cheesecake. Yum.
On our last day we took a morning walk down (way down) the hill to the lake. The lake is very low at the moment, but I’d guess that once the rainy season begins it will fill up again. Along the way we enjoyed some great views, and we even saw our first turquoise-browed motmot, the national bird of El Salvador!
When we got to the bottom of the hill we had to go through a gate and were told that there was a dollar per person entry fee. We had no idea what we were paying for but bought a ticket anyway and walked down to Puerto San Juan. In the main tourist building of the port there turned out to be a food court set on the bank of the lake, with six or seven different food and beverage booths to choose from. There is a malecon, and you can walk down to the dock and pick up a tourist boat to go out on the lake. There’s even a ferry to take you to the other side of the reservoir, which is the largest lake in the country. We enjoyed a cold beer, watched the tourists (we’re the only gringos in town), and enjoyed some time by the lake before heading back out to grab a mini-bus back up the steep hill into town.
We thoroughly enjoyed Suchitoto. The relaxed feel of the town is a nice change from busy Zacatecoluca and San Salvador, plus it’s a town with an amazing history. In the late 1980’s the town was on the verge of extinction, mostly because of the civil war which raged all around it. Now the town is a “wonderful miracle”, a tribute to El Salvador and her people.