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Lake Coatepeque

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Editor's note: Bill Wiatrak goes a lot places many people would consider inadvisable to visit. To see what we mean, read his personal essay on his quest to visit every single country in the world. El Salvador is a beautiful country with much to offer but violence here is a persistent problem. For more on that, see this recent Time magazine article

When many Americans think of El Salvador, their first thought is of the civil war that ended 23 years ago, maybe, or an earthquake they heard about on the news. This Central American country is often forgotten as a vacation destination because of the popularity of Cancun and Costa Rica. But if you’re looking to try someplace a little off the tourist grid, El Salvador might fit the bill.

As soon as you arrive in the airport, you will notice the greenery of the rich soil and the volcanoes dotting the horizon.  The capital is a little chaotic, with never-ending traffic and confusing streets, but once you're out of the city, the country doesn’t disappoint. Less than an hour drive away from San Salvador, you can reach the country’s double volcano—a volcano inside a volcano, which sounds  a little more exciting than it really is. Once you’re at the rim of the main crater, the baby volcano resembles a sand dune with a hole in the middle. But the hike isn't long, and the flora is beautiful. The higher altitude feels like someone set the air-conditioning at the perfect setting. The  park, full of wandering trails and picnic spots, is a great stop to unwind after battling traffic in San Salvador.

El Salvador only has one UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s called Joya de Ceren. Billed as the Pompeii of the Americas, it’s definitely worth a look. In reality, the only similarity between Pompeii and its American counterpart is the fact that it was covered by a volcano in 600 AD and essentially frozen in time. Because the city was covered in ash, it was preserved to the point that archaeologists can determine exactly what the natives were eating and doing at the moment of the disaster. There’s no giant pyramids or impressive buildings, but the wealth of historical information uncovered at this site has had a great influence over our knowledge of the people of this era. Nearby San Andres and Tazumal have more of the Mayan city look that you might be expecting.

Not far away, Lake Coatepeque is a little gem tucked away in the volcanic crater of Santa Ana. It’s a great stop along the Panoramic Highway on the way to the  Ruta de Flores, considered to be two of Salvador’s most scenic drives. Every restaurant along the rim of the crater has an amazing view of the lake and the picturesque town surrounding it. It’s no wonder that this is where locals escape to come weekends or summertime. You can rent a boat or a lake house if you’d like to stay for a few days.

One of El Salvador’s biggest draws is the surfing area near La Libertad. There are a dozen small villages that offer surfing lessons, accommodations and fun restaurants on the beach. It’s easy to spot Punta Roca, which translates as “rock point,” so named for the giant boulder jutting out of the ocean. The waves next to this natural surfing landmark are considered to be some of the best in the country. If you’re not a surfer, you can still enjoy the vibe of this sleepy little non-touristy town. There’s great seafood here, including the Salvadoran favorite, black clams or conchas.  Served immediately after prying them open, they’re so fresh that they wriggle when you squeeze lemon on them. If you can get past that, you’re in for an interesting treat. Every menu also includes pupusas, the most popular dish in the country. These thick corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans or other fillings are inexpensive, filling and quite yummy.

This underrated country packs a lot in a small amount of space, and the Salvadorans couldn’t be more friendly or hospitable. Want to learn how to surf? This might be the perfect place to cross that off your bucket list.

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