El Salvador in depth

El Salvador is the smallest, most densely populated country in Central America, but it is bypassed by most group tour companies. In April ’05, I was lucky enough to find the “golden ticket” that got me not just into the country but entry into homes, social programs and even the American Embassy.

Global Awareness Through Experience, or GATE (phone 608/791-5283, fax 608/782-6301, e-mail gate@fspa.org or visit www.gate-travel.org), has been offering cultural-immersion programs in El Salvador since 1992. The company offers similar programs in Guatemala, Mexico and Eastern Europe.

Three sisters, Marie Des Jarlais, Cecilia Corcoran and Jan Gregor­cich, served as our guides, translators and interpreters and made sure it was a good experience for each of us. Let me say here that these nuns break every stereotype. They are bright, energetic, enthusiastic and street-smart, and they have worked extensively in Central America and/or El Salvador.

Though the program is run by a religious group, it is nonsectarian. The 25 participants came from various faiths: Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Old (Dutch) Catholic, Fundamentalist, Wiccan, United Church of Canada, Methodist and Presbyterian. And there was a good mix of ages and backgrounds, from a teen who came with her mother to an 80-year-old former pastor. For several people, it was their second time in El Salvador on this program.

The goal of the GATE program is to make us cognizant of the history and social problems of El Salvador and the steps they are taking to improve.

Though we did some sightseeing, it was more of an educational exploration. We visited cooperatives and talked with people who live and work in various fields and many who had been through the war. We visited with “Mothers of the Disappeared,” a doctor who works at a hospital providing health care to the poor, officials at a fair-trade garment factory and people who work with AIDS patients. We toured water programs and housing projects. One highlight was a 2-hour visit at the U.S. Embassy with Jennifer Purla, Cultural Affairs Officer.

Visitors could never make these arrangements on their own. GATE’s contacts are extensive and crisscross all strata of society.

Our base, Hotel Villa Real (Col. Miramonte, Av. Sisimiles No. 2944, San Salvador, El Salvador; tel. 503-260-1579, fax 503-260-1665 or e-mail villarealsv@netscape.net), was well located in the shadow of the InterContinental Hotel and a 5-minute walk from Metrocentro, El Salvador’s largest indoor mall. The Villa Real has a gated entrance and is very secure.

This is a well-maintained and -managed, family-owned hotel with 17 rooms, all air-conditioned and with facilities en suite. I recommend the rooms that have windows facing the courtyard, as these have more light.

Their “restaurant” is only for residents and provides breakfast each morning. You can arrange for other meals if you let them know ahead of time, though this is not really necessary as there are lots of good restaurants in the area, even a pupusa (tortilla/cheese snack) stand next door.

The land cost for GATE’s 10-day program was $1,100, with a $150 registration fee. I had a single room, which added $100. The price included all meals (except for one dinner), all transportation and days packed with information. The only extra expenses were for alcoholic drinks (soft drinks were provided) and personal souvenirs.

GATE’s El Salvador program goes one step beyond mainstream touring. This in-depth, realistic look at a developing country was enlightening, enriching and worthwhile.

I stayed four days extra after the program to do more sightseeing and to visit archaeological sites. El Salvador was at the edge of the Mayan empire and the sites are worth visiting.

I was fortunate to come upon Amor Tours (Alameda Manuel Enrique Araujo y C. La Mascota, C.C. La Mascota, Local No. 4, 3a. Planta, San Salvador, El Salvador; tel. [503] 223-5130, fax. [503] 279-0363 or visit www. amortours.com.sv), a wholesaler and tour operator based in the capital. Contact Ana Maria Chavez, who handles incoming tours/transportation for the company; e-mail amchavez@integra.com.sv.

The following are all private tours for one person, and the price for each includes a bilingual guide and air-conditioned transportation.

1. The handicraft towns of San Sebastián, Ilobasco and Suchitoto ($65).

2. San Salvador city tour, including two museums: Museo Nacional de Antropologia David J. Guzmán and the Modern Art Museum ($55).

3. An archaeological tour of Joya de Cerén (A UNESCO World Heritage Site), San Andrés, Tazumel and Santa Ana City ($80).

4. The coffee route, including the colonial towns Nahuizalco, Finca Santa Leticia and Apaneca ($70).

I couldn’t have picked a better tour company to book with. Anna Maria Chavez answered my e-mails promptly and provided the information I needed. Amor Tours is also the American Express representative in El Salvador, an added plus.

The combination of the GATE program and the independent touring gave me a comprehensive view of El Salvador yesterday and today.

Arlington, Heights, IL