Sonsonate (65km/40 miles west of San Salvador) is mentioned here only because it is the largest city before the Ruta de las Flores, and you'll likely either bus through or catch a connecting bus from here in order to reach the Ruta de las Flores. Sonsonate is not a city you should visit for fun. It's crowded and just not that attractive. But it can be a good place to stock up on cash at the HSBC Bank or groceries at the large La Dispensa de Don Juan grocery store, both right on the main square.
If you find yourself with a few hours here while you're waiting for a bus, Sonsonate does have one redeeming quality -- Parque Acuatico Atecozol. This is a huge water park located about 10 minutes (about a $5 taxi ride) out of the city with lots of shady gardenlike places to relax, a pool-side restaurant, a kids' pool, and the biggest public pool with a water slide I've seen in El Salvador. The park is open daily from 8am to 4pm and admission is 80¢.
Nahuizalco is the first stop on the Ruta de las Flores and offers one of the country's best furniture and wood-craft markets. Unlike most El Salvadoran markets, which sell Fernando Llort-inspired arts and crafts, Nahuizalco's market, situated along the town's main road every weekend, is known for its unique wicker and wood furniture creations. Many of the wares sold at the weekend market can be found during the week in the shops also lining the main road. One of the best of those shops is Arte y Mueble, or Art and Furniture (tel. 503/2453-0125). The shop's furniture is handcrafted by owner José Luis, whose creations are a mix of spare, modern lines and sturdier, dark-wood, nature-inspired designs. The store, which can arrange shipping around the world, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Another shop worth checking out is Artesanías Cassal (tel. 503/2453-0939; www.artecassal.com; daily 8am-6pm), which offers interesting wooden masks, jewelry, and art. Finally, about half a block before Nahuizalco's church and square, on the right, is a building with a large, open door, allowing passersby to watch artisans handcraft furniture.
Nahuizalco is 72km (45 miles) west of San Salvador and is well marked off the main highway. A single main road leads into town and terminates at Nahuizalco's small cathedral and square. The square offers a fountain, a few shady seating spots, and an English-language plaque that lists a short town history. Note that one of Nahuizalco's well-known attractions, the "candlelight market," no longer exists, at least, in its old form. Vendors added electric light bulbs to this market a few years ago and now sell mostly family necessities, so it's been rendered unworthy of a visit.
The second town along the Ruta de las Flores is also the route's smallest village. Though Salcoatitán is pleasant enough, there's no compelling reason to stop here; it takes about 30 seconds to drive through town, and Nahuizalco and Juayúa's weekend markets are larger and more interesting. About 2 blocks before Salcoatitán, however, is one of the route's more interesting restaurants, Los Patios.
Los Patios (Calle Principal, 2 blocks east of Salcoatitán; tel. 503/2401-8590) is an upscale, modern, hacienda-style eatery. The restaurant's mountain-view patio overlooks thousands of coffee beans laid out to dry and the machinery used to process them. Los Patios is a bit pricier than other area eateries at roughly $12 an entree, but the food and ambience are worth the price. International dishes are given a modern Salvadoran twist. Try the milky horchata drink, made with ground morro seeds, cinnamon, and sesame seeds. The restaurant's owner is also a local abstract sculptor who displays and sells her work in a space beside the restaurant.
Next up is the Ruta de las Flores' largest, most bustling town, offering the region's longest-running weekend food and artisan festival, as well as mountain and coffee plantation tours. Juayúa is a good place to base your Ruta de las Flores stay, as it is roughly in the middle of the route and has hotels, restaurants, and a bank machine in addition to its attractions.
Each Saturday and Sunday, the large main plaza fills with locals and travelers enjoying daylong live music, dozens of artisan vendors, and a dozen or so food vendors who, for more than a decade, have been frying everything from pupusas to chicken tenders. It's a fun, family-friendly atmosphere worth planning your Ruta de las Flores trip around.
Juayúa is perhaps best known for its "Black Christ" statue, which sits above the altar of the Iglesia de Cristo Negro cathedral on the main square. Visually, the black Christ looks just like a regular Christ statue painted black. But the concept of the black Christ dates back hundreds of years and is revered throughout Central America via annual black Christ celebrations, including a Juayúa festival each January 6 to January 15. La Iglesia is open daily from 6am to noon and 2 to 6pm, and admission is free.
Guided tours based out of Juayúa take hikers through coffee plantations, past towering waterfalls -- including the well-known Los Chorros de la Calera -- and up to natural hot springs and geysers. Bring a bathing suit and prepare to get muddy (the mud at the hot springs is supposed to be good for the skin). Tours usually leave early in the morning, range from 5 to 7 hours, and cost $7 to $20. For tour information, visit Hotel Anáhuac (1a Calle Poniente and 5a Av. Norte; tel. 503/2469-2401; www.hotelanahuac.com).
The picturesque landscape of the Ruta de las Flores belies a horrific past and one of the most tragic episodes in El Salvadoran history -- a peasant rebellion and its brutal repression known as La Matanza or the Slaughter.
In 1932, the indigenous Pipil tribe had much to be unhappy about. They had been robbed of their ancestral lands and indentured onto coffee farms as de facto slaves. A military coup by Maximiliano Hernández Martínez and the blatant electoral fraud that followed meant their voices would not be heard by legitimate means. The country was ruled by 30 powerful families who regarded the local tribes with suspicion and outright racism. The collapse of the price in coffee and the mass unemployment that followed only exacerbated the problem, and the situation was ripe for both indigenous and communist agitation. On the night of January 22, 1932, peasant groups took over several towns in the area, including Sonsonate, where the mayor was killed. Initially successful, the rebellion soon petered out, and Martínez sent in heavily armed troops to stamp out the uprising. What followed was a systematic manhunt that can only be described as genocide. Thirty thousand locals were slaughtered, including the Indian leader Feliciano Ama, who was publicly hanged from an olive tree in the town plaza of Izalco, and the communist leader Agustín Farabundo Martí was executed in prison. In some villages, all males over the age of 12 were killed. Neighbors turned on neighbors, and local Catholic priests singled out communist sympathizers to be arrested and killed.
Such horrific events were buried in the nation's official history for nearly 50 years. The trauma and fear the event created virtually wiped out the Pipil as a people, and survivors abandoned their style of dress, customs, and rituals so as not to attract attention from the authorities. La Matanza silenced political dissent for 50 years, until it exploded once again in the late 1970s in the form of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, a rebel alliance inspired by the slain leader of the Matanza.
Continuing down CA-8 to Km 91, you'll find the small village of Apaneca, which is surrounded by hills of flowering coffee plants and has become best known in the last couple of years for its high-wire, zip-line canopy tour. Information about Apaneca can be found at the local Casa de la Cultura (Av. 15 de Abril Sur and Calle Francisco Manendez Oriente, Barrio San Pedro; tel. 503/2433-0163).
Apaneca Canopy Tours (Av. 15 de Abril and Calle Central; tel. 503/2433-0554;), which has an office in the center of town, offers 1-hour and 1 1/2-hour zip-line tours, where you zip on steel cables hundreds of feet off the ground, over lush forests and a nearby coffee plantation. The company offers 13 cables that are roughly 1,800m (5,906 ft.) above sea level; its longest cable stretches 280m (919 ft.), and the highest is 125m (410 ft.) off the ground. During April and May, coffee flowering season, thousands of white coffee flowers cover the fields below the tour; and in January and February, or harvest season, the flowers are replaced by bright, red berries. All year round, tour participants can see all the way to Guatemala's active Pacaya Volcano from the highest perch. Also included in the tour is a half-hour walk through a local coffee plantation, during which an English-speaking guide explains the elements of the coffee plant and the growing process. The canopy tour even includes some locally grown brew to cap off your experience.
Tours are $30 and leave from the tour office Tuesday through Sunday at 9:30 and 11:30am, and 3 and 7pm from June through October and are offered daily from November through May. It's best to make a reservation in advance, but you can also just show up at the times stated above to see if you can get a spot. Off-road motorcycle and bicycling tours can also be arranged through Apaneca Canopy Tours.
A Garden of Earthly Delights
Just 4km (2 1/2 miles) before Ataco as you drive north from Apaneca, you will come across a little slice of Eden known as Entre Nubes (Km 94; tel. 503/2452-9643; www.entrenubescafe.com). This garden restaurant (the name means "amidst the clouds") makes for the perfect coffee stop as you immerse yourself in the glories of Salvadoran nature. The owner's son, Daniel, is a trained agronomist, speaks perfect English, and is happy to give a 20-minute walking tour of the 1.6-hectare (4-acre) hillside property. Paths covered with freshly cut cypress leaves lead you through lines of tall hardwood trees known as gravileo that shade coffee plants and big blue explosions of hortensia. You can pick fruit from the orange, lemon, and mandarin trees; see where avocados and plantains come from; and emulate hummingbirds as you sip nectar from a yellow bell-like flower known as thumbergia, all the while listening to Daniel's enthusiastic and enlightening explanation of the lifecycle of each plant, animal, and insect around you. At the end of the tour is a homegrown coffee tasting and demonstration. Entre Nubes is open every day from 8am to 6:30pm. Meals cost between $3.50 and $8, and all credit cards are accepted. Tours are free, but call ahead if you are in a large group. The roadside restaurant is located on the right-hand side just after the Autogas station as you go north towards Ataco.
Ataco is my favorite stop along the Ruta de las Flores -- it has an artistic style and vibe you really won't find elsewhere in the country.
The first thing you may notice about Ataco is the unique, fantastical murals of surreal animals with big eyes and wild hair painted on some of the town's buildings. These whimsical murals set the tone for the town and are the work of young married artists Cristina Pineda and Alvaro Orellana. Their designs, also available on wood, ceramic, and traditional canvas in Ataco's shops, are unlike artwork you'll see anywhere else in El Salvador. The couple's main gallery is called Axul (1a Calle Poniente and 1a Av. Norte #5; tel. 503/2450-5030) and is just off the main square. The shop is marked by a fanciful mural on the outside and offers the couple's signature surreal style in various formats. You can chat with Pineda and Orellana, and watch other artists at work in the back of the shop daily from 9am to 6pm.
Another of Ataco's attractions is the Diconte artisans' shop (2 Av. Norte and Calle Central Oriente #8; tel. 503/2450-5030; ring the doorbell to enter the shop on weekdays), which is part art shop, part textile mill, and part dessert bistro. Diconte offers five rooms of whimsical woodcarvings, paintings, and other crafts in the unique Ataco style, as well as a room of colorful textiles made on-site by artisans working five old-style looms. Visitors can watch the textile artisans at work from Diconte's garden-style dessert and coffee shop.
If you want to take a break from art shopping, hike up to the town's Mirador de la Cruz. The Mirador is a mountain overlook located a 15-minute hike from the main square. To get there, walk 5 blocks south from the church along 2a Avenida Norte, which becomes 2a Avenida Sur after crossing Calle Central. Continue walking until the road bends to the right. At the bend is a Catholic church, behind which are steps to the overlook. At the end of the steps, turn right, walk through an opening in the fence, and follow the trail to the cross that marks the top of the hill. The hike up to the top is steep but paved, and you'll be rewarded with a great view, some benches to relax on, and a small plaque with information (in English) about Ataco.
Like Sonsonate, Ahuachapán (44km/27 miles west of Sonsonate and 16km/10 miles off the route's main CA-8 highway) is technically part of the Ruta de las Flores, but as the busy capital of this department, it is more a place to grab some cash or check your e-mail before heading elsewhere, rather than a destination in its own right. Ahuachapán is, however, known for its high level of geothermal activity, and visitors here can tour nearby Los Ausoles, a multi-acre gathering of gurgling, steaming pits of superheated mud and water, as well as check out the inside of a nearby power plant that transforms that subterranean heat into electricity. Eco Mayan Tours (Paseo General Escalón 3658, Colonia Escalón, San Salvador; tel. 503/2298-2844; www.ecomayantours.com) provides tours to the pits -- including a chance to roast corn on the cob over them -- and a tour of the plant. Tours are $30 from Ahuachapán or $75 to and from San Salvador.
Unlike Sonsonate, there are also some sights to see right in town. Plaza Concordia (3a Calle Poniente, btw. Av. Menéndez and 4a Norte) is the more pleasant of the city's two plazas, which are just 5 blocks apart on the main street, Avenida Menéndez. Concordia Plaza is home to Ahuachapán's plain, main cathedral, Nuestra Señora La Asunción, which is known for its interesting stained-glass windows (I don't think they're that spectacular, though). The other main church in town, Iglesia El Calvario, is 5 blocks down from the Plaza Concordia on Avenida Menéndez and sports a similarly spartan exterior to the Nuestra Señora.
Most buses arrive and depart town from a crowded section of 10a Calle Oriente, a few minutes' moto-taxi ride from Plaza Concordia. A Scotiabank is at Avenida Menéndez and 4 Calle Poniente, and there's Internet access at Ciber Café Cetcomp (2a Av. Sur, at 1a Calle Poniente; tel. 503/2413-3753).