A Trip to El Salvador

Playwright Brian Quijada’s parents immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in the 1970s during a tumultuous period that eventually led to the country’s 13-year civil war (1979-1992).

When I first visited the country in 1995, you could still see the aftereffects of war. Large buildings with blown out windows. Police officers and military personnel armed with machine guns at your average supermarket. Barbed wire atop high walls that protected homes on every residential street.

And resilient people who, despite more than a dozen years of conflict, welcomed me into their homes with the recurring phrase: My house is your house.

I was a naïve college student who wasn’t really attuned to the national (let along international) news of the day, so I was a bit unprepared to see the lasting devastation of war. But at the same time, I was curious about the people and their customs.

As the smallest but most densely populated country in Central America, El Salvador boasts beaches, volcanoes and a rain forest — all within driving distance of the city. Favorite destinations included:


Located in a region that borders the Trifinio biosphere reserve in Guatemala and the El Trifinio National Park in Honduras is the Parque Nacional Monte Cristo Trifinio in El Salvador. Popular activities are hiking to the summit where the three countries meet; hiking through the lush flora, fauna and waterfalls, or visiting the Garden of 100 years, which includes 70 species of orchids and the “Kissing Tree” where it appears that two trees are connected by a single common branch. Just make sure your car is in good working order so that…I dunno…the stick shift doesn’t come out in your hands on the way back down to the village. Yep. That happened.


The Izalco Volcano, otherwise known as The Lighthouse of the Pacific, is an active stratovolcano that today only emits steam. Over its history, it has attracted many visitors especially in times of eruption. In fact, investors chose to build the Mountain Hotel in the nearby Cerro Verde National Park so that tourists could safely observe Volcán Izalco. Ironically, the lava flow ceased just as the hotel was set to open. Now, visitors come for day trips to see the Izalco and Santa Ana volcanoes, Lake Coateque and the lush flora indicative of the high humidity and constant mist.


While driving from Colonia Escalon to the beach at La Libertad we stopped at Restaurante La Dolce Vita where the ceviche was so fresh that something was still moving. We washed down incredible seafood stew with dollar-a-bottle Pilsner beer while mariachi strolled through the beachside restaurants entertaining diners. We then headed down the coastline to La Libertad where volcanic rock makes for black beaches at El Salvador’s surf capital.


Artist Fernando Llort (1949-2018) has been called “El Salvador’s National Artist.” A deeply religious man, Llort studied philosophy and religion in France and Belgium respectively before pursuing art at Louisiana State University. In the early 1970s, he settled in La Palma, El Salvador, a poor, crime-ridden town that was sheltered from the political tumult of the country. There, the natural environment and village life influenced his art. He shared his skills with the community, teaching them to be artists in their own right and, ultimately, leading La Palma to be the center of folk art in El Salvador. In 1981, he established El Arbol De Dios (Fernando Llort Gallery of Art an Handicrafts) in San Salvador, where I was lucky enough to purchase several small pieces. It became a must-see destination on each trip.


While I was delighted to visit El Arbol De Dios and even meet Fernando Llort once, I was equally delighted to visit the adjacent pupuseria. Known as a quintessential El Salvadorian dish, I like to describe pupusas as a thick corn tortilla filled with cheese, beans or meat and topped with a vinegar-based slaw and tomato sauce. Now, those talented (and very fast) cooks who make them might not agree with my description, but the only thing you really need to know is that they are gooood. Now, in my humble opinion, cheese-filled pupusas are the only way to go…especially if that cheese is slightly burned. You can try to make them yourself, but why? There are plenty of pupuserias in the metro Denver area.

While there are many other sights to see (did I mention the naked man?), hair salons to visit (it’s a HUGE industry there), elaborate weddings to attend (a two-hour mass in Spanish for an English-only speaker is very long), and shopping malls galore (one is built with a former mansion inside!), a few words of caution — take care drinking the water, be aware of your surroundings, and let your local hosts take you where they know it’s safe.

And, finally, embrace the people because they most assuredly will embrace you with their warmth and hospitality.