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Experiencing El Salvador with Los Almendros Page 2

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Overlooking it all is the glass-enclosed restaurant, roundly lauded as one of El Salvador’s finest. The menu—a mix of traditional Salvadoran and continental recipes, prepared with a distinct Mediterranean flair—was originally composed by French chef Hervé Laurent of the Cordon Bleu. In addition to breakfast (consider taking it by the pool), have Pascal pack a picnic lunch for one of your excursions. Served, perhaps, with cloth napkins and long-stemmed wine glasses atop active Santa Ana volcano, with views over the bubbling crater lake to the Pacific.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

Chef René Giron shines at Paso de Alaska, on the Ruta de las Flores

It’s worth noting that compact El Salvador is connected by the best road system in Central America, which means you can see many of its important sites over a long weekend. You can actually roll through El Salvador in about five hours. In that time you can pass Mayan ruins, colorful handcrafts towns, relaxing hot springs, coffee plantations, beautiful beaches, incredible dive sites, and excellent art museums.

Suchitoto is at the center of it all, which allows Pascal to offer several excellent day trips with his comfortable hotel as a base. Popular treks include boating to Isla de los Pájaros, the aptly named “Bird Island,” in Lago Suchitlán, or kayaking down the Lempa River, 21 scenic kilometers of forest and gorges. Tour “America’s Pompeii,” a modest Mayan village now known as Joya de Cerén, completely preserved by a massive ash eruption in 250 AD. Or visit mountainous Morazán, with its wealth of natural wonders and historical tours, in what was once a guerrilla stronghold, during the 1980–1992 civil war.

Which brings up a challenge faced by every tourism professional in El Salvador: the nation’s bruised reputation, largely underserved. Despite Cuscutlán’s wealth of precious things, it remains relatively untouristed because most foreigners hear the name “El Salvador,” and immediately think of war and organized crime, rather than surf competitions and art galleries. It’s sort of sweet watching first-time visitors relax into the mellow, beautiful reality of the country after having been fed so many negative media images.

The Civil War ended in 1992 (four years earlier than Guatemala’s), and the bustling, business-friendly nation has enjoyed peace, democracy, and a rapidly growing economy ever since. And, while gangs are certainly a problem, particularly in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, it is extremely rare that travelers even see them, much less be affected by their activities. Statistically, El Salvador is safer for tourists than Miami, Rio de Janiero, or Guatemala City. And honestly, while you know there are gangs in Los Angeles, would you be afraid to visit Beverly Hills, or Disneyland?

El Salvador's signature dish, a thick, stuffed tortilla called a pupusa

Regardless, Los Almendros takes every precaution, including the use of “Tourism Police,” which are provided free by the government to accompany visitors in national parks and on other hikes, horseback rides and ecotourism excursions. Multi-day excursions also involve overnights at El Salvador’s most beautiful properties, including Pascal’s private beachfront villa, Los Caracoles.

Right on the pale, pearl gray sands of Playa Maculis, this eight-person lodge isn’t quite luxurious, but it is beautifully constructed and elegantly decorated, with all the comforts you’ll need: air conditioning, television, full kitchen with maid service, and a gorgeous little pool set into the wooden deck that caressed by the waves at high tide. A 36’ Hunter sailboat will pick you up right at your hammock-hung front porch, for a tour of the Gulf of Fonseca and its impossibly beautiful volcanic islands.

Pascal can also arrange accommodation at any of El Salvador’s other luxury properties as part of his customizable one- and two-week tours. And there are, perhaps surprisingly, several. One positive aftereffect of the Civil War exodus to the United States and Europe, by business owners and wealthy families is that many of these moneyed expatriates have high expectations for vacations when returning home to visit family. Several fine hotels have risen to meet that challenge.

Thus, there is quite the collection of luxury properties, from lovely oceanfront eco-resorts such as Cocotera, on the softly marbled sands of Barra de Santiago, to the plush international chains rising above posh Barrio Escalón in San Salvador, presiding over this quite cosmopolitan city’s best upscale shops, restaurants and nightlife.

Though El Salvador certainly can’t cater to luxury tourists with the same level of infrastructure as, say, coastal Mexico or Panama, a marvelous experience awaits more adventurous upscale travelers. “My last clients, a very wealthy French couple who had been everywhere—their agency contacted me asking about a private tour. We did the two-week tour and saw almost the entire country,” remembers Pascal with a smile. “They said it was the best trip of their lives.”

Mine too.

By Paige R. Penland. Photos by Paige R. Penland and Pascal Lebailly.

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