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The smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, El Salvador is chiefly remembered for the vicious
of the 1980s, when streams of harrowing news stories brought this tiny country to the attention of the world. For a decade, atrocity followed atrocity in a seemingly unstoppable sequence. Then in 1992, with both sides having fought each other to a standstill,
were signed, and the attention of the world's press moved elsewhere, leaving behind a brutalized country faced with the immense task of rebuilding itself.
Tourism in El Salvador has lagged behind that of its Central American neighbours. Despite its compactness and considerable natural beauty, many would-be visitors are deterred by the half-remembered headlines and the country's reputation for violence, danger and difficulty. Its geographical position doesn't help, either: tucked into the Pacific underbelly of the isthmus, El Salvador is easily bypassed. Those that do make it here, however, are well rewarded by the sheer physical beauty of the place, with lush Pacific lowlands sweeping up through fertile hills and coffee plantations to rugged mountain chains. Almost every journey in El Salvador yields photogenic vistas of the majestic cones of towering
, while some of the secluded pacific
are as fine as any in Central America.
As in Nicaragua, another country pulled apart by a decade of civil war, travelling in El Salvador brings you into contact with some of the most engaging and interesting
in the region. With a well-deserved reputation for hard work and business acumen, the SalvadoreAħos (or
, as they're often affectionately described) - predominantly mestizo - live life with a vigour that's hard to match. That said, however, as the people here slowly find ways to come to terms with their brutal past and uncertain future, some residual hostility to foreigners - particularly Americans - remains, and initial reactions to tourists can be, on occasion, cool. If you persist, however, in the face of what may seem like outright hostility, and make an effort to speak Spanish, you will find that people begin to unbend and bring you into their lives. They may or may not be willing to talk about the civil war. Many aren't. What is important now is the future, and this Salvadoreans approach with sardonic humour, designed to lessen the travails of daily life, the corruption of politics and everything else that seems insurmountable.
is at times sorely lacking. This is not the country for those who like everything on tap, and there's little luxury outside the cities, but for those with a spirit of adventure, El Salvador has plenty to offer. One feature particular to the country is its network of government-run tourist centres, or
. Aimed more at locals than tourists, these provide bathing, eating and recreation facilities in areas of natural beauty. Some, like Los Chorros, just outside San Salvador, offer a convenient way to take advantage of natural facilities safely and comfortably.
Travelling around El Salvador is a lesson in humility. Contrasting with the vibrant colour and sweep of the landscape, the overwhelming evidence of the endemic
and social divisions that sparked the Civil War in the first place hits you right between the eyes. As El Salvador enters its second decade of peace it remains a country painfully divided between haves and have-nots, and the full benefits of redevelopment projects and an improving economy have yet to trickle down to the majority of the population. From the muddy shanty towns of San Salvador to the broken-down shacks in the countryside, many people live in squalor, eking out a living selling fruit, sweets, household goods and sundry odds and ends on the street. In addition, the ever-growing population - at 6.2 million, the densest in Central America - is placing unprecedented pressure on the country's
, with rampant deforestation a particular problem. And while political violence is now a thing of the past,
has grown to alarming proportions. Guns are common, and people use them, while recent years have seen an increased number of kidnappings of prominent businessmen. The casual visitor is unlikely to be directly affected by this, but you can't ignore the underlying sense of tension.
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