Need a little dose of spring? The flowers are blooming . . . in El Salvador. Western El Salvador’s countryside, already lush and green from the rich volcanic soil after the rainy season, really pops this time of year, when bright magenta, red, and yellow flowers start growing. You’re off to the Ruta de las Flores–the Route of Flowers.
The Ruta de las Flores is a 36-kilometer drive through the heart of coffee country. El Salvador has been exporting coffee since the 1850s. At one point, coffee accounted for nearly 90 percent of the country’s exports. But internal strife in the 1980s lead to a civil war and thousands of deaths. The coffee industry was decimated. Lately though, El Salvador has been experiencing a coffee revival, focusing on small producers and organic beans. The farmers talk about terroir–the climate, the soil, and the altitude–like a sommelier talks about expensive wine. Recently, any serious coffee drinker has probably been consuming a lot of joe from Central America’s smallest country.
But back to that drive. The Ruta de las Flores begins in Sonsonate and ends in Ahuachapán. Neither city is worth much attention, though. It’s the five colonial-style, mountain villages in between that will capture your heart. You can easily drive the entire winding road in one day, but you’ll enjoy it much more if you wander through each village and stop to smell the flowers.
Driving north from Sonsonate, Nahuizalco is your first stop. The village at the foot of Sierra Apaneca-Ilamatepec is known for its tule crafts and handmade wicker and wood furniture. Its small cathedral, the San Juan Bautista Chapel & El Calvario Church, was recently restored after extensive earthquake damage. Nahuizalco comes alive after dark, when the streets are lit by candles and the night market begins. You’ll walk away with both a petate (floor mat) and chilate con nuegados (yucca balls with sweet sauce). Salcoatitán, the smallest village, is next. El Salvador’s first coffee plantation opened here, and the wildflower-filled farms have gorgeous mountain views.
From the smallest village, drive to the largest, Juayúa. The village is known for its Black Christ Church, weekend food festival, and waterfalls. You’ll hear the Latin music and smell grilled meat before you reach the plaza. When you ask a vendor what their strange-looking fruit is, they push one into your hand for you to try. Eat tamales and pupusas, and then walk them off on your way to Los Chorros de la Calera, where you’ll swim through the clear, chilly water under a waterfall.
Your adventurous streak continues in Apaneca, the highest village along the Ruta de las Flores. Get a bird’s-eye view of the region while traveling between 13 cables on a zip-line tour. Jump on a yellow truck–you’ll see how red berries are picked and then turn golden brown in the sun when they dry–at Santa Leticia Coffee Estate. And hike to Laguna Verde, a beautiful crater lake.
And finally, you’ll reach Ataco, a colorful town with cobblestone streets, brightly colored houses, and murals of animals on the buildings. For one last jaw-dropping view, hike to the Mirador de la Cruz, a mountain overlook. From a bench, gaze across the valley, the coffee farms, and all those flowers. All you’re missing is a cup of coffee.