Birth of a destination

If visiting places before the crowds come is your thing, get to Suchitoto, a charming colonial town in El Salvador

October 19, 2008|By Ann Schlott Hillers | Ann Schlott Hillers,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The flight attendant was skeptical.

"You're getting off in El Salvador?" he asked. I nodded. "You don't need arrival forms if you are traveling on to Costa Rica," he said. "We're going to El Salvador," I told him. With some hesitation he handed me paperwork to enter the country.

Our family of five, including three boys ages 4 to 7, was traveling to this Central American nation of 7 million, encouraged by a nonstop flight and the online discovery of a colonial town called Suchitoto.

Blogs called it the next Antigua, Guatemala, or Granada, Nicaragua. The town of less than 25,000 people was hailed for its International Arts Festival every February and its year-round good weather. Folks raved about the views of Lake Suchitlan, shimmering in a valley below hillside cafes.

But there was more that drew me in. Something in my travel psyche sensed this was a place to see before it was filled with tourists - like Dubrovnik before the rest of Europe crashed into Croatia or San Miguel de Allende before Americans saw the value in colonial Mexican architecture.

A few weeks after researching the town, my family and I disembarked at Comalapa International Airport, El Salvador's main terminal. Thirty minutes into the journey to Suchitoto, we were stopping for refrescos at a local bodega; within an hour we were dropped off in Suchitoto, "land of birds and flowers" in the native Nuhuatl language.

What we discovered was a beguiling town on the cusp of a major revival.

Founded 1,000 years ago by the indigenous Pipil tribe, Suchitoto was the capital of El Salvador for 15 years beginning in 1528. In the 19th century, it was home to many wealthy Salvadorans who had fled the town of San Salvador after a devastating earthquake. Fortunes changed, and El Salvador is probably still best remembered for its civil war from 1980 to 1992, when guerrilla fighters rose up against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. During this tumultuous decade, 75,000 citizens were killed as the insurgents fought to end a brutal dictatorship.

Suchitoto was the site of some of the earliest fighting, but because 90 percent of its inhabitants fled during the war, the ghost town was saved from mass demolishment. Its cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and balconied homes still stand, though some have not been inhabited since the war began. Their beautiful, faded facades only add to the town's sense of possibility.

After the war, the village was declared a national cultural site, granted government protection against unchecked development, and its citizens slowly began to return and rebuild their lives. One of the main parks, San Martin, has sculpture crafted from artillery left behind, and the Villa Balanza, a restaurant and small guesthouse, is easily identified by the artwork above its entrance: a huge iron scale weighing a stack of tortillas against a bomb.

An arts revival

Tiny, oceanfront El Salvador, sandwiched between Guatemala to the north and Honduras to the east and south, is creeping back into global consciousness. Its beaches are the newest hot spot for surfers who have discovered "the perfect break" along its 200-mile Pacific coastline.

Sonsonate, a colonial town in the west, has one of the largest Holy Week festivals outside of Seville, Spain. Yet Suchitoto, in the center of the country, and less than an hour from the capital city of San Salvador, is the jewel in the burgeoning tourist crown. Many visitors come for the handicrafts and culture, as well as the town's restaurants and beautiful views of Lake Suchitlan.

The Santa Lucia church, blindingly white in the central plaza, is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in the nation. On three sides of the plaza are covered porticos with cafes, a large hotel, a trendy bar and an Internet coffee shop - the town's first - as well as a daily artisans' market set up under colorful orange tents.

Suchitoto's nascent arts movement is picking up steam. The flat, cobblestone streets are home to small boutiques, galleries and craft stores staffed by entrepreneurs who have come home to capitalize on what could be the area's salvation: tourism.

Casa de la Abuela, run by the charming and English-speaking Jose Rene Melara, is a home-decor shop and art gallery. It's housed in Rene Melara's grandmother's airy residence - two walls of doors and shuttered windows flung open wide.

Rene Melara lived in Canada during the war and received an MBA in Spain, but he decided that his heart was in his homeland. His wife, Maria Anjondra, makes handbags, using linen, colorful textiles, rope and lengths of gorgeous bead as adornment. One could easily see them turning up on the arms of fashionistas - yet they're just $18. Hand-carved bookshelves and tables are less than $100.

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