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Features

27 Mar 2018

BY TTG Staff

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Belize and El Salvador: The alternative Central American twin centre

They might be diminutive in size, but Belize and El Salvador pack a punch with culture, history, wildlife and adventure, as Debbie Ward discovers on a twin-centre trip

Xunantunich archaeological site, Belize
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Belize and El Salvador pack a punch with culture, history, wildlife and adventure, as Debbie Ward discovers on a twin-centre trip

For two hours we drive towards a spectacular electric storm creating monochrome fireworks on the velvety horizon.

 

It’s so far away we don’t so much as flip the windscreen wipers as we pass through villages called Blackman Eddy and Boom.

 

The evocative names tell stories from a logging past when timber and gum were Belize’s most important industries. Now, this Central American country draws tourists to its Caribbean-facing coast for diving on part of the world’s second largest barrier reef system.

 

Not that it’s all about the sea. On our first morning my tour group is hand-cranked on a floating bridge across a river to Xunantunich archaeological site.

 

I climb to knee- weakening height up a terraced pyramid and cling to stones set like teeth along the top for a jungle view.

 

The Mayan site was laid out to resemble the cosmos with carvings of a jaguar in the underworld zone and a sun god in a stucco frieze to the west.

 

Overpopulation and infrequent rain prompted ancient leaders here to desperately increase their sacrificial rituals.

 

They tried bloodletting from their genitals, setting their gory offerings on fire so serpent-like twists of smoke might hiss their pleas to the gods.

 

At Bocawina national park I’m involuntarily involved in bloodletting myself as bugs find the gaps in my repellent.

 

I’m distracted from their feasting as, heart in my mouth, I watch a braver member of our party try slippery rappelling down a high waterfall. The park also offers tubing, zip lining and kayaking.

 

Our base is the laid back strip of Hopkins Village. In the beachfront Love on the Rocks restaurant at Parrot Cove Lodge we turn kebabs of fresh seafood on lava slabs heated to 370C.

 

Next morning we depart from the jetty for a snorkelling adventure at Silk Caye. Conch shells litter the ocean floor under the turquoise waters here and our guide lifts one to reveal a lobster’s hiding place.

 

It’s at a deeper site that I meet the big boys vying for discarded scraps from the fishing boats’ catch. My breathing makes rapid rasps through my snorkel as I’ m passed by numerous nurse sharks, then a turtle the size of a cow.

 

Alternative pairing

Alternative pairing

Belize, which requires a flight via the US, is most often linked with neighbouring Mexico and Guatemala. For adventurous tourists however, lesser-travelled El Salvador, a short flight away and smaller than the UK, is a rewarding discovery.

 

During the 1980s El Salvador was ravaged by civil war. Factionalism was complex, and neighbourly suspicions rife. “So, we don’t talk about it, we talk about beer and girls,” our guide smiles grimly.

 

In the capital San Salvador, beside building work to rejuvenate the centre, we stand inside El Rosario church where gunned-down street protestors were once laid. Outside it looks like a grubby concrete cave.

 

The inside, however, designed by sculptor Ruben Martinez, is jaw-dropping, with arched walls of stained glass arranged as rainbows. Like a metaphor for the country, the beauty within needs to be discovered; something President Trump, who recently rudely rubbished El Salvador, would do well to heed

 

Later, I find myself arms deep in the country’s most well-preserved colonial town. I dunk a cotton scarf I’ve twisted into tie-dye shapes into a reeking vat of vibrant inky blue. This natural indigo was once the country’s gold.

 

Suchitoto has characterful boutique hotels and is one of the best places to catch Easter celebrations, from floral carpets to chicken sacrifices in the hand-painted Iglesia Santa Lucia.

 

Across the cobbled street we watch locals grinding maize on the public mincing machine.

Wild guerrillas

Wild guerrillas

Sleepy Suchitoto was once guerrilla territory. Elsewhere in El Salvador armed patrols still roam the streets but we’re reassured they are police protection from the new mafia.

 

Such troubles are, conversely, a trade selling point; travellers need reliable DMCs who know the safe regions from the gang strongholds.

 

Belying its struggles, on El Salvador’s roads we pass colourful houses, cheery folk art and stores with ceilings strung with superhero pinatas.

 

A hummingbird dive- bombs my floral dress at La Posada de Suchitlan where I breakfast overlooking a fabulous lake and mountain view.

 

We rejoin the so-called Las Flores route and climb into volcano country, stopping to take wobbly steps on a lumpy lava field.

 

El Salvador is the second most seismic country in the world and coffee thrives in its volcanic soil. At a factory we see contraptions connected by bike chains awaiting orders from some of the world’s biggest coffee companies.

 

We lunch at Coatepeque Lake in the huge caldera of an extinct volcano, then visit seismic casualty Joya de Ceren.

 

Not since 600AD has there been a community here, yet we know the contents of the stew they were poised to eat when they fled from an eruption.

 

Known as the Salvadorian Pompeii, this is now an impressive Unesco–listed archaeological site.

The removal of layers of ash has revealed eerily complete structures such as a fortune-teller’s house with a confession-style grill, and a store of maracas, whistles and recorders that were used for ceremonies.

 

My own last meal as I leave the volcanoes behind is a delicious pre-flight snack of pupusas – mini corn tortillas flipped on a roadside grill and oozing cheese. As with El Salvador itself, it seems the best things come in small packages.

 

Book it: Intrepid has an eight-day Land of Belize tour (including Guatemala) from £695pp and an eight-day Best of El Salvador tour from £778pp excluding flights. Its Central American Adventure (32 days from £1,818pp) is among itineraries featuring both countries. It can also tailor-make twin-centres. intrepid.com/uk

What’s new

El Salvador has launched a stopover promotion allowing visitors to exit within 48 hours without paying airport tax. Commissionable tours are available and there’s no fare increase for stopovers on Avianca flights. elsalvadorstopover.com

 

More than 3,000 hotel rooms are planned for El Salvador over the next two years. It hopes to extend the average stay from 2.3 to 3.5 days.


Itz’ana Resort and Residences is under construction and set to open Q4 2018 at Placencia in Belize. The resort boasts luxury cottages and villas, a spa and rum room and offers wildlife night hikes. itzanabelize.com

 

Titan is researching a grand Central America tour for launch this year, which may include Belize and El Salvador. “El Salvador is definitely for young adventurers with surfing and the like,” says product marketing manager Tariq Riadat.

 

“All I knew before was its recent history but the Unesco Mayan site is amazing and there are colourful houses and a great atmosphere. It’s such a small country, one minute it’s really hot, the next you’re up with the volcanoes.” titantravel.co.uk

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