Volcanoes are, obviously, destructive. But like most forces of nature, they create as well…and create some things of magnificent beauty.
Such is the case in El Salvador, a tiny country the size of Massachusetts with 20 active or potentially active volcanoes. And the rich soil that results is highly conducive to both wildflowers and very, very good coffee. The Ruta de las Flores is a 36-kilometer winding path through the heart of coffee country, from Sonsonate to Ahuachapán. While there are many national parks, coffee farms, quaint artisan towns and stunning crater lakes in this region, it is named for the explosion of wildflowers that happens between October and February.
Here, you can wander the colonial-style villages where friendly locals are quick to smile and chat (brush up on your Spanish!), and visit coffee farms for a tour that shows you just how that delicious cup ended up in your hands. I adored El Carmen Estate, set in a cool and pleasant forest and home to Cafe Ataco, one of the country’s best coffees.
I visited the estate (owned by the Alfaro family for more than four generations) and toured the entire operation, led by Remberto Mendoza. Founded in 1930, this delicious coffee has been enjoyed by Salvadoreans for decades, and is also exported throughout the world. In fact, the Italian brand Illy buys their coffee from Ataco.
The coffee bean plants are grown at an elevation of 4,000 feet, in the volcanic soil that gives the depth of flavor. Once picked, the beans are soaked for 6-24 hours and then rinsed, before being sent through the machines that wash and prepare them for production. Then they will be set out to dry for up to 14 days, in an area where they are painstakingly pushed into rows and redistributed for maximum drying effect.
After being put in the dehumidifier for 48 hours and stored for 60 days, the beans are ready to go into quality control. They are put on a conveyer belt around which a group of women sit, ready to hand-select any bad beans out of the mix.
Every five minutes, the conveyer belt moves and a new batch of beans comes out. The women immediately spring to work, intently rifling through to pull out anything that doesn’t pass muster.
That’s not the only quality check, though. There is another person whose entire job it is to put the coffee beans through the most rigorous examination. His name is Douglas Antonio Salinas, and he picks through a random selection of beans that pass through the women’s hands like a jeweler eyeing the most prized diamond.
Finally, it’s ready for sale. What stays in El Salvador is roasted; the exported beans are packaged green, for the wholesale buyer to roast.
On a completely different side note, did you know that coffee was pretty much responsible for starting a war in El Salvador? Basically, in the late 1800s the country had a president, Rafael Zaldivar. After burning the National Palace, Zaldivar took the richest coffee-growing land in the nation away from the indigenous people, and gave it to the wealthiest. And kicked the locals off the land they had lived on, and from, for generations.
This action smoldered for decades, all the way through the 20th century, as the divide—and the battle—between the rich and poor grew worse in El Salvador. The 1980 assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero, a major advocate for the poor especially concerning land and workers rights, was the lit match dropped on the pile of gasoline-soaked kindling that had been piling up all those years. Igniting El Salvador’s Civil War.
So coffee may have started a war, but today people are content to drink—and share—the stuff. At El Carmen Estate, there is also a 5-room B&B area where you can stay. The home is beautiful, set in lush rolling gardens. Prices range from $65-83 per night. They also offer many other activities such as zip lining and horseback riding.
There is plenty nearby that I also loved, and would highly recommend adding to your itinerary:
- The sleepy little town of Ataco, where El Carmen is located, is a really cool place where murals are painted on almost every square inch of concrete walls along its narrow streets.
- Ahuachapán is another wonderful colonial town, with a nice central square and requisite church. This is the capital city of this department (or state), and there is a lot of fantastic architecture here. Stay at La Casa Mamapan, a small and lovely family-run inn that was fully restored after a 2005 earthquake, with painstaking attention to the original architectural integrity. The five rooms ($45-65) are cozy and comfortable, and I found it interesting to wander through the common areas and perusing the folk art throughout. Also be sure and visit Pupuseria Olguita for an authentic taste of El Salvador’s beloved national comfort food, the pupusa. The place is owned by Lupita, whose grandmother started it and whose recipes are still used today.
- Lake Coatepeque is an unbelievably blue, gorgeous crater lake formed by the area’s volcanic eruptions some 50-70,000 years ago. You arrive by road high above it, and the sudden views of it are stunning. Don’t miss Rancho Alegra, down on its bank. This restaurant is a lot of fun, and a major destination for locals who not only eat there, but swim and fish from its docks and enjoy boat tours, jet ski rentals or being pulled along on a tube. There’s also live music; the best house specialty is a fresh lake fish, served whole and grilled and stuffed with shrimp. Paired with a margarita on a sunny afternoon, it’s pretty much bliss.
To book tours and travel, I highly recommend Salvadorean Tours. They not only provided us with some excellent activities such as the coffee farm tour and sea turtle release, but they run a program called EcoExperiencias which focuses on sustainable tourism and community initiatives.