El Salvador, the small Central American country sandwiched between Guatemala and Honduras, is playing catch-up with the rest of the region when it comes to welcoming tourists to its beautiful Pacific shores. Wracked by a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, the country has spent the last two decades rebuilding and protecting its natural beauty and incredible biodiversity. This has all encouraged tourists to come and see those things for themselves. So if a deep love of the planet helps drive your travel plans, take heed of these four reasons to book an eco-vacation to El Salvador:
To help sea turtles
The warm Pacific Ocean that marks the western coastline of El Salvador has always been a place that sea turtles adore. Four sea turtle species -- the leatherback, the hawksbill, the green, and the olive ridley -- live along the Salvadoran coast. A trip to the Biosphere Reserve in Jiquilisco Bay (about a 1.5-hour drive from San Salvador, the capital city) brings visitors up close to these majestic creatures. With a research program in place to tag and monitor the turtles that constantly pass through this lovely mangrove-lined bay, scientists and ecologists welcome ecologically minded visitors to experience the capturing, weighing, tagging, and release of these gems of the sea.
In the past, it wasn't all that uncommon for locals to collect sea turtle eggs and eat them as a delicacy -- but nowadays, the growing awareness of the delicate eco-system has caused a huge change. Volunteers from ecology groups follow the turtles onto shore and once the eggs are lain, the locals harvest them and protect them from predators in areas all along the coastline. In La Libertad, for example, non-profit group Zoological Foundation of El Salvador manages turtle hatcheries, incubates the eggs, and eventually releases the baby sea turtles into the ocean. Happily for tourists, you're welcome to join in and send off the tiny reptiles to ocean life. Good to know: the organizers usually ask for a donation of around $10 to participate, and El Salvador uses the American dollar as its currency.
To experience La Ruta de Las Flores
Inland from the beaches, El Salvador is a mountainous, volcanic land where quaint villages along the Ruta de Las Flores (Route of the Flowers) offer spectacular vistas all year round that make for perfect photo opps. Between October and February, this 23-mile route in the north explodes with color as flowers all along the roadside come into bloom. Conception de Ataco -- one of the pretty little colonial towns along the route -- is home to one of the tastiest restaurants in the country, El Jardin de Celeste. Stop in for a leisurely lunch, then wander the grounds to see how orchids, flowers, and other plants create an otherworldly atmosphere. Want to stay overnight? There are even rustic cabins (from $45 per night) set high on the hillside above the restaurant.
To go bird watching.
Nearly 600 species of birds make El Salvador their home, and bird watchers will find them in both the cities and the countryside. To really get a close look at these feathered friends, visit one of the four national parks: El Imposible, the tropical rainforest near the Guatemala border; Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, which has three volcanoes; El Boqueron, with its huge volcanic crater; and Walter Thilo Deininger National Park, close to the ocean in the south. Each park teems with bird life -- so keep your eyes peeled for parrots, owls, woodpeckers, cuckoos, kingfishers, parakeets, and hummingbirds, among others.
To take a dip in a mineral hot spring.
With nearly two dozen active volcanoes dotting the landscape of El Salvador, it’s not surprising that there are mineral hot springs bubbling up in many places around the country. Most are protected and remain inviting places to take a dip into clean, hot water. At Lake Coatepeque on the eastern slope of the Santa Ana volcano, for instance, mineral hot springs pepper the coastline of that pristine caldera. Take a restorative soak there or check out the famed Termales de Santa Teresa in the mountains near Ahuachapan on the Ruta de Las Flores, where 30 different hot pools make it one of the largest thermal spas in the country.