El Salvador
Credit: Stacey Leasca

The first thing you notice about Rafael Hernandez is his smile. Bright, youthful, and beaming, it’s a toothy grin you’d think belonged to a child. But now in his late 40s, Hernandez is anything but a babe in the woods.

El Salvador, Cinquera Forest Guide, Rafael Hernandez
Credit: Stacey Leasca

As the head park ranger at the Cinquera Forest, located in the Northeast corner of El Salvador, Hernandez takes his job seriously. And really, you can’t blame him. He spent the better part of a decade protecting the rugged landscape and the people hiding in it from total destruction during the country’s gruesome civil war.

In Cinquera, on a day with air so thick you could cut it with a knife, Hernandez walked our small group through the national park. Along the way, he named nearly every bug, plant, and animal, and even warmly greeted the stray puppy who apparently frequents the trail. He was so connected to each leaf you’d swear they were saying “hello” back.

At the top of the trail, Hernandez stopped to tell us his life story. In deliberate and frank terms he explained how he and a few dozen other guerilla fighters lived in this very forest during the war. Here, they shot down helicopters, fought off government-led insurgents, and ensured the safety of the people. He even lifted a pant leg to show off the shrapnel scars to prove it.

After a decade of fighting, the war ended. But Hernandez knew the fight for his nation’s wellbeing had only just begun. So, it was then that he transitioned from fighter to lover in an attempt to care for the rich landscape we stood on as — of all things — an official government worker.

“Then, I’d die for the people,” Hernandez said of his time as a guerilla in the civil war. “Now, I’d die for the land.”

Hernandez is just one man, but he’s the perfect representation of why you should be visiting El Salvador right now too.

Nestled under Guatemala, sandwiched by Honduras and the Pacific Ocean, the tiny nation might just be Central America's best-kept secret.

With just 8,124 square miles of space and a mere 6 million citizens, El Salvador is surely tiny, which is how it got its nickname of El Pulgarcito de Centroamérica or "The Thumbelina of Central America." It’s a nation rich with history, experiences, and beauty. Of course, it’s also one also brimming with controversy and a whole lot of misunderstanding.

Right now, El Salvador comes with a level 3 travel warning by the U.S. government that reads: "Reconsider travel to El Salvador due to crime. Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread."

The U.S. Department of State didn't give El Salvador a 4, which means don't go. Instead, it warned travelers to be aware of their surroundings, which is sage advice for traveling to just about anywhere. It is important, however, to find the right people to guide you.

If you can work up the gumption to see a new place, want to engage with a population of people like Hernandez who are more than ready to show you a side of a country that doesn’t make it into the headlines, and are willing to take safety precautions, El Salvador is for you. Here’s where to go, what to see, and how you can take a hike with Hernandez too.

Invest in a guide.

This point cannot be stressed enough: Get a guide, get a guide, get a guide. (Did I mention you should get a guide?) Though beautiful, there are still plenty of places visitors should avoid. And that’s where a trusty local comes into play.

On our trip through the nation, we happened to have one of the best guides on the market: Benjamin Rivera, a tour guide with Salvadorean Tours. On the tour, Rivera arranged our every move from hotel to hotel, lunch place to dinner, and helped translate every word we couldn’t. Hire him, or someone like him, to do the same for you.

Get ready to buy a lot of art.

El Salvador
Credit: Stacey Leasca

Like the other Central American countries surrounding it, El Salvador has long been home to artistic talent.

For a prime example, pay a visit to Arbol de Dios, the gallery and art shop of the renowned Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort. Llort, who died in August of 2018, is perhaps one of the nation's most important and prolific artists. In 1985, he founded his art house as a way to showcase the culture of his beloved El Salvador. Inside, visitors can learn and pay homage to the man and even take part in a small tile painting workshop.

Try all the delicious food.

El Salvador
Credit: Stacey Leasca

If you’ve ever tasted Latin food, then you have a sense of what you’re in for. But, El Salvador is also home one culinary treat so divine you could (and probably will) eat it for every meal: pupusas.

Pupusas, considered the national dish of El Salvador, are thick corn tortillas stuffed with smashed beans, cheese, or pork, or some combination thereof. They are then served alongside a tomato sauce and cabbage and vinegar garnish.

While you can get your hands on pupusas on just about every corner, there’s perhaps no better place to indulge than Casa 1800, a boutique hotel and restaurant located in Suchitoto, the “Cradle of History and Culture," in El Salvador.

Also known as the "Place of the Bird Flower,” Suchitoto offers visitors the ideal view of the country’s history thanks to its landscapes, architecture, and, of course, through its meals. Take a quick detour off the cobblestone streets, through the large wooden doors of Casa 1800, and you’ll be smacked with a view so vast you’ll think it never ends. There, you can cook alongside the hotel’s chef, who will attempt (with a great deal of patience) to teach you how to perfect the pupusa too.

Get ready to adore tie-dye once more.

El Salvador happens to be one of the biggest — and best — producers of indigo in the world. And, because tie-dye is having such a major fashion moment, your 2019 trip to the country wouldn’t be complete without taking part in an indigo workshop to make a piece for yourself. Head to Suchitoto, where you can create a piece alongside master indigo creator Irma Guadron at her shop for just $25 per person.

Be prepared to fall in love with the landscape.

Palo Verde Hotel El Salvador
Credit: Courtesy of Palo Verde Hotel

The best part about visiting such a small nation is the fact that you can literally see it all. On our trip, we spent time in the forest, hiked a volcano (located at the El Boquerón National Park, which comes with an entrance fee of just $2) and hit the beach, in a span of just a few days.

To hike with Hernandez, head to the Northeast section of San Salvador to the town of Cinquera. There, you may get lucky enough to see Hernandez, the head park ranger at the Cinquera Forest (otherwise known as Parque Ecologico Bosque de Cinquera) and have him hike beside you. Don’t worry, if Hernandez isn’t personally available there are still plenty of staffers to help you.

Though the forest is beautiful, there was perhaps nothing like looking out onto the Pacific Ocean in the coastal town of El Zonte and realizing it had one of the most perfect right waves on Earth. In El Zonte, we cozied up at the Palo Verde hotel ($129/night), an eco-friendly surf retreat where the owner will personally help guests sign up for surf lessons and ensure their every need is tended to.

El Salvador
Credit: Stacey Leasca

Now, all you need to do is book your flight (several non-stops are available from both New York City and Los Angeles). Soon, you will be singing the praises of travel to El Salvador to anyone who will listen, too.