Experience Authentic El Salvador on the Flowers Route

With a rich baritone voice and worn cowboy hat, the sun-weathered singer glides between picnic tables tightly packed with chatty families. The music builds. Grills sizzle with Salvadoran cuisine. The mouthwatering scent of it all drifts through the crowd, carried by cool mountain air that sweeps down in waves from the coffee-carpeted volcanoes above.

This is a typical day in Juayúa, a small town with a whitewashed church and waterfall-strewn outskirts—the most popular destination along a beautifully paved, 40-mile (63-km) road through western El Salvador’s coffee-growing highlands. It’s called Ruta las Flores, or the Flowers Route, so named for the colorful orchids and other tropical blossoms that line the road. And traversing it is one of the best ways to experience the unique qualities of El Salvador.

Experience Authentic El Salvador on the Flowers Route

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With a rich baritone voice and worn cowboy hat, the sun-weathered singer glides between picnic tables tightly packed with chatty families. The music builds. Grills sizzle with Salvadoran cuisine. The mouthwatering scent of it all drifts through the crowd, carried by cool mountain air that sweeps down in waves from the coffee-carpeted volcanoes above.

This is a typical day in Juayúa, a small town with a whitewashed church and waterfall-strewn outskirts—the most popular destination along a beautifully paved, 40-mile (63-km) road through western El Salvador’s coffee-growing highlands. It’s called Ruta las Flores, or the Flowers Route, so named for the colorful orchids and other tropical blossoms that line the road. And traversing it is one of the best ways to experience the unique qualities of El Salvador.

The route winds past six small Spanish Colonial towns with deep indigenous roots, built around beautiful churches and shady central squares. The towns’ adobe walls are painted with murals, and the surrounding countryside filled with natural treasures: hot springs, waterfalls, crater lakes, coffee fincas, and beautiful views. Nearby, travelers can enjoy a dozen less-traveled towns that are just as lovely, as well as Los Volcanes and El Imposible national parks.

Ruta las Flores officially begins in the busy city of Sonsonate, 40 miles (64 km) due west of San Salvador and 16 miles (25 km) from the beautiful beach of Los Cóbanos. You can drive it in an hour, but take your time—spend at least a day, preferably with an overnight along the way. Dozens of operators offer tours along the Flowers Route, but public buses are inexpensive, relatively easy to navigate, frequent, and flashy (you can’t miss the paint jobs). And any hotel can help you hire taxis to less-accessible destinations.

The region has some of the best-developed tourist infrastructure in El Salvador, and even folks with limited Spanish skills will be able to get around without too much trouble. It’s a great place to begin your inland exploration of El Salvador. Here’s what you’ll see.

Nahuizalco

The first official stop on the Ruta las Flores is the small, proudly indigenous village of Nahuizalco—an artsy, unassuming pueblo best known for its traditional baskets and woven tule reed handicrafts. Local guides can take you on hikes around the countryside and to Golondrinera Waterfall. It’s a fine place to stop during the day, but no matter where you stay along the route, try to make it back for their night market. Lit with candles and lamps, it’s a romantic spot for an inexpensive dinner.

Salcoatitán

A few minutes down the road, Salcoatitán is a tiny, picturesque roadside town built around a lovely 1824 church and adorable park decked out in mosaic tiles. Shopping and dining could keep you here for a couple hours.

Juayúa

This gleaming, whitewashed Spanish Colonial town, surrounded by enormous volcanoes, is the star attraction on the Ruta las Flores for several reasons. First, its weekend Fería Gastronomica (Food Festival) features live music, handicrafts, a tourist train, and lots of stands serving the best Salvadoran cuisine. Plus, Juayúa’s cobblestone streets are lined with amazing murals, excellent hotels and delightful restaurants. It’s even an ecotourism center, offering hiking, swimming, waterfalls, and hot springs.

All of this makes Juayúa the perfect base for travelers eager to explore western El Salvador’s ancient towns, epic national parks, and other destinations. English is widely spoken and people from all over the world are waiting to join you on the next adventure.

If you’re headed to Volcanoes National Park, ask your guide to stop in Los Naranjos. It’s not officially on the Flowers Route, but its spectacular views and exceptional cuisine are worth your time.

Apaneca

Quaint and colorfully detailed, some of the old adobe homes in this coffee-growing town date to 1524, when the Spanish first began building up the ancient Mayan Pipil town of Apaneca. The name means “River of Winds,” and sure enough, cool breezes sweep down from a patchwork quilt of coffee and cacao just above this, the route’s highest village (4,823 ft/1,470 m).

Most travelers visit for the rush of adrenaline provided by zip-line canopy tours or the quiet trails to Laguna Verde, Laguna las Ninfas, or Cascadas Don Juan in nearby Jujutla. But be sure to spend some time exploring Apaneca itself—it’s one of the prettiest towns in El Salvador.

Ataco

Come here for the murals, arguably the finest collection in Central America. Many were painted by the proprietors of the famous Diconte & Axul, a handicrafts store featuring traditional treadle looms.

Ataco isn’t as heavily touristed as Juayúa, but stunning views, Colonial architecture, and beautifully decorated restaurants and hotels make it a great place to stay along the Flowers Route. While here, climb to the Mirador de la Cruz del Cielito Lindo for views across the city and countryside, take hikes and coffee tours, or just simply wander.

Ahuachapán

Your final stop on the Ruta las Flores is the prosperous department capital of Ahuachapán, just 6 miles (10 km) from the Las Chinamas border crossing to Guatemala and convenient to Guatemala City and Antigua. This bustling little city makes its living with coffee and geothermal energy, not tourism, but the friendly Spanish Colonial city center, replete with plazas and fountains, features several places to stay.

Ahuachapán is a jumping-off point for the tiny town of Tacuba, El Imposible National Park, the restaurants lining Laguna de las Espinas, and the best hot springs resort in El Salvador. It’s a perfect finish to your trip.

Six Salvadoran Festivals You’ll Want to Celebrate

Incense swirls amid a riot of vibrant colors and majestic music. Red, white, purple, and yellow flowers are carried high, forming a canopy over the hundreds of faithful who march in an annual tribute to Catholic and indigenous traditions.

This celebration, the Festival of Palms and Flowers in Panchimalco, is just one of El Salvador’s unique spectacles. Each event brings together food, music, artwork, religion, and history—and all offer insight into this nation’s beauty and diversity.

Six Salvadoran Festivals You’ll Want to Celebrate

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Incense swirls amid a riot of vibrant colors and majestic music. Red, white, purple, and yellow flowers are carried high, forming a canopy over the hundreds of faithful who march in an annual tribute to Catholic and indigenous traditions.

This celebration, the Festival of Palms and Flowers in Panchimalco, is just one of El Salvador’s unique spectacles. Each event brings together food, music, artwork, religion, and history—and all offer insight into this nation’s beauty and diversity.

While larger festivals provide the most colorful backdrops, even smaller events—like the food festival in Juayúa and the artisan market in Suchitoto, both held every weekend—are authentic expressions of this country’s unique culture. Plus, many other cities hold weekend culinary and handicraft fairs, and every town celebrates its patron saints with a big annual party, called a fiesta patronal. But if you can time your visit to coincide with one of these bigger festivals, you’re in for a real treat.

Semana Santa

Where: Itzalco
When: Week before Easter

The biggest holiday on the Central American calendar is Semana Santa, or Holy Week, and several cities hold elaborate religious processions, often re-creating the Stations of the Cross. The most extravagant of these, in Izalco, begins amid the baroque beauty of the 16th-century Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Church, where religious icons are lifted, in a cloud of incense, onto the shoulders of the faithful. Indigenous and Catholic traditions mix, with flowers and harvest-themed religious symbols joining the purple-clad priests, who make their way across the colorful sawdust carpets created for the occasion.

Festival of Palms and Flowers

Where: Panchimalco
When: First Weekend in May

This ancient celebration of rainy season’s arrival takes place in the Pipil Mayan town of Panchimalco, just south of San Salvador. Its origins date to the era of Spanish conquistadors; when they began consolidating power in the 1500s, many Mayans pulled back into mountain strongholds like this and survived. Today, Panchimalco honors its indigenous traditions and Catholic upbringing by weaving colorful tropical flowers into palm fronds and arranging them into altars, which are carried by costumed revelers to honor the Holy Virgin.

Festival of El Salvador

Where: San Salvador
When: August 1

Almost every town in Latin America celebrates its Patron Saint, and San Salvador is no exception. The Divino Salvador del Mundo (the Divine Savior of the World) is celebrated nationwide, but you’ll want to be in the capital as it erupts into live music, parades, dancing, and religious ceremonies. The event kicks off “Fiestas Agostinas,” a month of sporting events, major concerts, and parties around the country. Make travel plans in advance, as many Salvadorans are on holiday the first week in August.

Perquín Winter Festival

Where: Perquín
When: First Week in August

This pine-forested mountain town was once the de facto rebel capital during the civil war, and today brings in tourists with its unique museums, attractions, and ecotourism. But the best time to visit is the Festival de Invierno, or “Winter Festival.” (Perhaps better translated as the Rainy Season Festival.) It has deep Lenca Indian roots, and you’ll see remnants of indigenous and Spanish Colonial culture in the traditional dances, wild costumes, and huge puppets. There are also parades, beauty queens, live music and more.

Las Bolas del Fuego

Where: Nejapa
When: August 31

Just north of San Salvador, the small town of Nejapa celebrates the historic 1658 eruption of Volcán El Playon with one of the wildest parties you’ll ever be brave enough to attend. Legend has it that when the volcano began raining lava onto the town, Nejapa’s patron saint, San Jeronimo, fought back just long enough for locals to evacuate. The miraculous event is still celebrated by mostly young men hurling flaming, kerosene-soaked balls of rag and wire at one another in the street. It may not be for everyone, but you’ll never find another fiesta like this one. Anywhere.

Carnival

Where: San Miguel
When: Second Half of November

El Salvador’s third-largest city hosts the country’s biggest party—a two-week explosion of sequins and fireworks that culminates on the last Saturday of November with the Carnival Parade. It has everything: beauty queens, floats, horse parades, rides, traditional dance, religious processions for Our Lady of Peace, and a world-class lineup of internationally known musicians. It brings in visitors from all over Central America and beyond, so plan ahead!

Why El Salvador Needs to Be on Your Travel Bucket List

Wander into El Salvador’s cool, coffee-growing highlands and you’ll come across a scenic road that threads its misty way through charming, whitewashed Spanish Colonial towns. Along the way, you’ll pass gargantuan volcanoes, mirror-like lakes, and all-natural hot springs, with quiet cafes tempting you to relax and take in the view.

This road—the Ruta de las Flores, or “Flowers Route”—offers a great overview of some of El Salvador’s highlights, and some insight into why this gem of a country is piquing the interest of more and more travelers. But it’s just the beginning. El Salvador’s friendly people, delicious cuisine, Pacific Ocean beaches, and enticing culture offer an allure all their own.

Why El Salvador Needs to Be on Your Travel Bucket List

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Wander into El Salvador’s cool, coffee-growing highlands and you’ll come across a scenic road that threads its misty way through charming, whitewashed Spanish Colonial towns. Along the way, you’ll pass gargantuan volcanoes, mirror-like lakes, and all-natural hot springs, with quiet cafes tempting you to relax and take in the view.

This road—the Ruta de las Flores, or “Flowers Route”—offers a great overview of some of El Salvador’s highlights, and some insight into why this gem of a country is piquing the interest of more and more travelers. But it’s just the beginning. El Salvador’s friendly people, delicious cuisine, Pacific Ocean beaches, and enticing culture offer an allure all their own.

For now, El Salvador is primarily the province of adventurers who are drawn to a small but storied land. But the secret is getting out. Budget backpackers and sophisticated luxury lovers alike are falling in love and spreading the word about the unique experience they’ve discovered here.

Here are just some of the reasons why you should visit as well.

Nature

The fame of El Salvador’s beaches has made them a seductive starting point for many travelers. It’s easy to see why. Some are crescents of deep gray volcanic sand, framed with rocky points and swaying palms; others, endless and golden, stretch for miles along an untamed sea. Surf, swim, fish, and dive, then relax in a hammock rocked by the salt-infused breeze, enjoying a cold beer with a side of ceviche.

Move on to the country’s 23 active volcanoes, covered with cool cloud forest and picturesque plantations, all just waiting to be explored. They’re the perfect places to spot some of El Salvador’s 600+ bird species, spider monkeys, and tapirs.

The Sierra Madre Mountains, draped in lush tropical cloud forest, rise to even greater heights along the Guatemalan and Honduran borders. And it’s among these hills that El Salvador’s coffee plantations blossom white and fragrant in April, with the beans beginning to ripen by October. Book a tour or simply enjoy a cup of the famed coffee; refreshed, hike into the hills to find hot springs and waterfalls flowing through all of this rare beauty.

People, Architecture, and Artistry

Scattered among the volcanoes and coffee plantations are photogenic Spanish Colonial towns and bustling cities—hubs of beauty and energy where El Salvador’s welcoming locals work, dream, and create. Shop for their artisanías (handicrafts), enjoy their amazing cuisine, or simply stroll through their cities. They’ll let you know they appreciate your visit—often in flawless English—and offer to tell you about the hot spots your guidebook might have missed.

They might direct you to the pine-forested village of La Palma, where El Salvador’s most famous artist, Fernando Llort, pioneered brilliant handicrafts that have become the nation’s signature art form. Or you may end up in the graceful Spanish Colonial town of Suchitoto, where centuries-old oversized doorways guard cool, quiet courtyard gardens, which play host to fine hotels, restaurants, and shops.

The Cuisine

When it’s time to eat, start with El Salvador’s national dish, the pupusa—a thick corn or rice tortilla stuffed with beans, cheeses, meats, or vegetables, and served with curtido, a spicy, pickled slaw. And be sure to sample a frozen natural (fruit shake) or parillada (plate of grilled meats and vegetables).

But to experience a range of Salvadoran cuisine—some of it quite gourmet, such as camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp) and lomo relleno (steak stuffed with sausage)—along with great art, music, and shopping—the town of Juayúa beckons. Its weekend gastronomic festival is a highlight of any visit, and travelers can find amazing restaurants here and in the surrounding towns. 



Past & Present

To see where pupusas originated, you’ll need to explore El Salvador’s archaeological parks. The ancient stone pyramids of San Andrés and Cihuatán are the most impressive, having once each boasted a population of perhaps 25,000. Connect with the past, too, by visiting the 8,000-year-old petroglyphs at La Gruta del Espíritu Santo, which adorn the country’s oldest pre-Columbian site.

And it’s the humble, working-class Mayan village preserved at Joya de Cerén where the oldest pupusa-making utensils were found, buried beneath a mountain of ash after a volcanic explosion in 590 AD.

But your first impression of El Salvador will likely be rooted in the present, your journey beginning in the capital, San Salvador. Its wonderful neighborhoods, like Escalón and San Benito, are perfect for strolling, shopping, dining, and clubbing. Museums, churches, and other sites await in Nuevo Cuscatlán, downtown. From there, thanks to El Salvador’s compact size and excellent roads, you’re within four hours of almost any destination.

Still, words and photos can only do so much justice to the magic that is El Salvador. Come and experience it for yourself.