El Salvador is like that hot new nightclub no one in town knows about. Yet. It has hundreds of miles of gorgeous Pacific coast to explore, lush national parks to hike, volcanoes to climb, and unique villages to visit. It also offers a population that is among the friendliest and most welcoming you will meet in Central America. And all of this is packed into a country that takes less than a few hours to drive end to end.
What's kept the country such a big secret is that it's been best known in recent times for a bloody civil war that raged from 1980 to 1992 between the nation's working farmers and the government representatives who sought to maintain a power grip on the country. It was an unusually bloody war, often employing tactics of terrorism and torture that left few people unaffected. El Salvador also has a reputation as home to one of the world's most violent street gangs.
Though the war ended 15 years ago and El Salvador has since been among Latin America's more peaceful nations, its history of war and reputation for violence have for years kept many travelers from stopping here. That's changing, however, as the last decade has seen El Salvador quietly reemerge from its turbulent past to become Central America's fastest growing economy. The last 5 years have also seen an explosion in the number and quality of the country's hotels and restaurants.
Don't let the outdated reputation fool you -- El Salvador is a great place to explore. Its beaches offer miles of deserted shores and friendly fishing villages, along with some of Central America's best surf spots. Two national parks offer lush semitropical jungle, high cloud forests, waterfalls, rivers, and a plethora of birds and plant life. The capital city of San Salvador offers high-end hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs that would be at home in any of the world's major cities. And the country's small villages offer tiny town squares filled with people whose renowned kindness to one another and visitors is in sharp contrast to the nation's violent but ancient history.
El Salvador hasn't had much luck over the last decade when it comes to natural disasters. Perhaps its most well-known such disaster is Hurricane Mitch, which stalled over Central America in October and early November 1998. The hurricane's historic rainfalls caused flooding in El Salvador that killed 374 people and rendered more than 55,000 homeless. The hurricane was also a huge economic setback since it caused major losses to agricultural harvests and road damage due to mudslides, and almost completely destroyed El Salvador's entire eastern region.
Mitch was followed 3 years later by two massive earthquakes on January 13 and February 13, 2001, which measured 7.6 and 6.6 on the Richter scale. The earthquakes and their accompanying landslides damaged thousands of buildings, killed more than 1,000 people, and injured approximately 8,000. Thousands more were left homeless. The country is still recovering from these disasters; for instance, at press time El Salvador's National Theater remained closed due to earthquake damage. Finally, in October 2005, the Volcán de Santa Ana erupted, killing two people and closing the mountain to the public until March 2008.
Many believe the effects of these natural disasters were made worse by El Salvador's severe deforestation, which is the result of years of exploitive coffee and sugar growing practices and has claimed up to 92% of the country's primary forests. The county's leading environmental groups, SalvaNatura (33 Av. Sur 640, Colonia Flor Blanca, San Salvador; tel. 503/2279-1515; www.salvanatura.org) and Ministerio de Medio Ambiente and Recursos Naturales, Km 5.5 Carretera to Santa Tecla, Calle and Colonia Las Mercedes, Building MARN No. 2, San Salvador; tel. 503/2267-6276; www.marn.gob.sv), are now working to implement sustainable agricultural methods. Contact either organization for info on how you can help out.
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