El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua

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Anyone have experience with a tour company who does these three countries. Or experience doing them on your own?<br />Thanks for whatever you can recommend

Wow! Esther, thank you SO MUCH !!!!!

I spent two weeks in El Salvador and Nicaragua in early 2007. When I returned, I wrote an article for ITN which I don't believe was ever published. Here it is, for what it's worth. You'll find that my experiences overlap considerably with Esther's because I had the benefit of her experience and advice when planning my trip. ----"Most of us probably associate El Salvador and Nicaragua primarily with civil wars and natural disasters, but I was charmed by the week I spent in each country during February 2007. I confidently expect that tourism will boom there in the coming years. Now it’s probably fair to compare both countries with what their neighbors, Guatemala and Costa Rica, must have been like before they were “discovered.”It’s true that neither capital city, Managua or San Salvador, has very much to hold a visitor’s interest for more than a day or two. The heart of Managua was crushed by a massive earthquake in 1972, leaving the shell of the old cathedral to stand as a reminder of what was lost. A reminder of Nicaragua’s turbulent political history is the huge silhouette of Sandino that overlooks the city from the Loma de Tiscapa. San Salvador has become a sprawling city of rich neighborhoods and poor; visitors are not encouraged to wander by themselves in what remains of its old colonial heart. Old San Salvador is represented by the National Palace which is now being refurbished as a history museum. Sharing the same central square is the cathedral faced with designs of Fernando Llort, El Salvador’s most famous painter. Other Salvadoran artists’ work is shown at the art museum located next to the Sheraton Hotel. A few minutes away is the David J. Guzman National Museum of Anthropology, which should not be missed. Another 15 minute walk will take you to the National Handicraft Market, a convenient place for one-stop shopping.For visitors interested in El Salvador’s recent bloody history, the Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad (the Monument to Memory and Truth) is reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, and the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (the Museum of Word and Image) has a small but powerful collection of photographs that both captivate and appall. El Salvador is small enough to make it possible to explore much of the country by day trips from the capital. On one day, we traveled northeast to San Sebastian, a weaving center, then to Ilobasco, a ceramic center, and finally to Suchitoto, a picturesque town overlooking the large artificial Lake Suchitlan. La Posada de Suchitlan is a charming place for lunch. Like almost every city and town, Suchitoto has a central plaza with a white church along one side and government buildings along one or more of the others. On a second day, we headed west through Sonsonate to Apeneca in the heart of El Salvador’s coffee-growing region, and then to the small town of Ataco along what is known as the Ruta de Las Flores (the Route of the Flowers). In Ataco, we were able to view several stone jaguar heads that had recently been excavated and were stored in the town hall while a museum next door was being completed.Our third day trip took us to Santa Ana, the second-largest city and one that retains a strong colonial flavor with its striking neo-Gothic cathedral, unusual for Central America, and a century-old theater that now is being restored. The true purpose of the day, however, was to visit three archaeological sites. The pyramids at San Andres and Tazumal won’t greatly impress visitors who have been to Guatemala, Mexico, or Belize. However, the third site, Joya de Ceren, is unique and important because it reveals the remains of a small Mayan village. The grander Mayan ruins here and elsewhere are more impressive to the eye, but they tell us very little about how ordinary people lived; Joya de Ceren is opening a window into their lives.I chose to stay at the Hotel Real Intercontinental in San Salvador, which has the advantage of being connected by a pedestrian overpass with Metrocentro, which is reputed to be the largest shopping center in the region. In addition to a variety of restaurants, its shops offer most anything you may have lost, damaged, or left at home. It also has a branch of Nahanche, an excellent shop for handicrafts. There are several other hotels of equal quality in the city, but none seem to have a location as convenient as the Intercontinental. There are no top-end hotels in the historic center of the city. It is roughly a thirty minute flight on TACA from San Salvador to Managua, but we immediately drove out of the capital and returned there only for the night before my flight home. Instead, I divided my time among the cities of Leon and Granada and the Pacific beach resort of Montelimar.Leon and Granada are historic competitors, but Granada is undoubtedly the center of Nicaraguan tourism. Both cities retain much of their colonial architecture. In Leon, much of it remains untouched; in Granada, renovation and restoration are further advanced. In Leon, I saw very few restaurants that expected tourists and not a single souvenir or handicraft shop. In Granada, restaurants and coffee houses are plentiful (I particularly recommend El Zaguan behind the cathedral), and a store facing the main square is an excellent place to shop. In Leon, the cathedral shows its age, and so it retains an authenticity that is lacking in the freshly painted and restored façade of the more eye-catching Granada cathedral. In ten years, Leon probably will resemble Granada today, and Granada probably will resemble Antigua in Guatemala.Historically, Leon is associated more with the world of intellect and Granada more with the world of business. Leon is officially nicknamed the “University City.” Its collection of colonial churches shares the streets with murals and statues of Nicaragua’s revolutionary heroes, including adjoining murals of Sandino with his foot on the heads of Somoza and Uncle Sam. That, after all, is part of Nicaragua’s past, just as the billboards depicting the Sandinista’s President Daniel Ortega are part of Nicaragua’s present. Granada by contrast conveys a sense that it is too busy becoming prosperous to dwell too much on the nation’s past. (There’s a Coldwell Banker real estate office on the plaza to assist visitors who are interested in investing or relocating there.)Between Managua and Granada are the “white towns” of San Juan de Oriente and Masaya. San Juan is the production center of Nicaragua’s ceramics, which are remarkably lovely and inexpensive. It’s possible to visit a workshop there and learn the process from a skilled artisan. To satisfy every shopper’s needs, however, the place to go is Masaya which has the country’s largest and best handicraft market. Bring a big carry-on bag and some bubble wrap with you.In Granada, I recommend La Gran Francia hotel which occupies the former home of William Walker, an American adventurer who was Nicaragua’s president for a brief time in the 1850s. It is located at the corner of the main plaza; several other hotels, all in restored colonial buildings, also face the plaza. I enjoyed even more the Hotel El Convento in Leon, located just a short walk from the plaza. As its name suggests, the hotel occupies a restored convent with spacious but simple rooms surrounding a beautiful courtyard. The hotel is decorated with an impressive collection of colonial religious art, and its large common room is a delightful place to retreat from the mid-day heat.My final destination in Nicaragua was the enormous beach resort of Montelimar, which had been Somoza’s summer home and now is a small city of 200 semi-detached bungalows and the main hotel building. Right on the ocean, the resort has the largest swimming pool I’ve encountered. It evidently receives few English-speaking visitors; when I was checking in, it took a minute to figure out that the receptionist was asking me if I had brought my maid with me. It wasn’t a question I’ve often been asked! Montelimar offers an array of resort activities, but it is so large that it is easy to find an isolated and restful hammock on the beach.Both El Salvador and Nicaragua are lands of volcanoes. In the eastern part of each country, we never seemed to be out of sight of a volcano’s peak or a crater lake. For a close-up experience, it’s possible to drive right up to the lip of the Volcan Masaya. Other volcanic peaks are much better suited for hiking and trekking, which could easily occupy a second week in each country. My week in El Salvador was arranged by Mercedes Duque of Servi-Viajes (http://www.viajes.com.sv; email: ventas@viajes.com.sv; fax: 503-2528-9090), a charming woman whom I recommend unreservedly. She came to my hotel twice to discuss my plans and to make sure that I was satisfied with the arrangements she had made. In several other ways, she went far out of her way to be certain that I experienced the best that San Salvador has to offer. In Nicaragua, my arrangements were made by Pierre Gedeon of Nicaragua Adventures in Granada (http://www.nica-adventures.com; email: info@nica-adventures.com or travelnicacr@yahoo.com; fax: 505-552-8461), whom I also recommend. My touring and airport transfers in El Salvador cost $445 for one person. The cost of touring and hotels in Nicaragua (including all meals at Montelimar and breakfast only elsewhere) was $1469. The first edition of Lonely Planet’s Nicaragua & El Salvador was published in 2006."

You are visiting some wonderful little-visited places in Central America and I hope these notes are of some assistance. My apologies for the long email, but these are some very interesting countries.El SalvadorEl Salvador is an very up-and-coming destination. I went with a "reality-type" tour company called GATE (Global Awareness Through Experience) http://www.gate-travel.org . This is not a general sightseeing trip though you do get around the country quite a bit. Their emphasis is to become aware of the history/problems/solutions in the country. It was an excellent experience. I stayed four days extra to do some sightseeing. These are some of the day tours I did with a company called Amor Tours -- they are no longer in business, but these are pretty standard tours and I think most companies would offer them.1. Handicraft Towns -- San Sebastian, Ilobasco and Suchitoto2. City tour with two museums: Museo Nacional de Antropologia David J. Guzman and Modern Art Museum3. Archaeological tour: Joya de Ceren, San Andres, Tazumel and Santa Ana City4. Coffee Route: colonial towns, Nahuizalco, Finca Santa Leticia and ApanecaWhat to see in El Salvador:• colonial style villages• Museums - Museo Nacional de Antropologia David J. Guzman (sometimes called the Guzman Museum)- signage is in Spanish, guides are freeAvenida La RevolucionColonia San BenitoSan Salvador $1.50 admission for foreigners• has a great collection of Mayan art found in El Salvador• has a garden with Petroglyphs - which look like the Nazca lines. Museum stuff have sought to be helpful by putting red powder in the indentations so the designs stand out. There are stone altars set about• very modern and well lit -- plan on 1 - 1/2 hours.• Archaeological sites: they have identified 13 pre-classic sites. Only Joya de Ceren (a World Heritage Site), Tazumel, San Andres, are excavated. They are all located pretty close together.Tazumel: • El Salvador’s only Stelae was found here. It is not as well sculpted as those in Copan or Quirigua consisting of mostly geometric designs. It is from the classic period is now in the Museo Guzman• just across the street are shops that sell clay plates and bowls decorated with anthropomorphic figures (like you see in the museum) for $4 - $6. They also sell small jade pieces in the $40 - $75. rangeSan Andres -- 30 min. from San Salvador• archaeologists found 8th century flint “eccentrics” here• has a good museum - Museo Arqueologico San Andres of items found on site• if you are interested in politics and their civil war, you can visit Msgr. Oscar Romero’s church and home, which is not far from the MetroCentro Shopping Center , and memorials to their war in Parque Cuscatlan and the memorial at the Univeristy of San Salvador. This is where the Jesuit Priests were murdered. Visit the chapel and take special note of the Stations of the Cross.Shopping:• Mercado de Artesenia in San Salvador. This is a great place with about 30 booths selling local items. Look at labels as every once in a while they sneak in things from Guatemala!• Arbol de Dios - Fernando Llort’s gallery and store - he is one of El Salvador’s most beloved artists. http://www.elarboldedois.com(I probably liked this place the best)• CIS -- Centro de Intercambio and Solidaridad Colonia El Roble, Universitario, Casa #4 San Salvador http://www.cis-elsalvador.orgThis is store in a house that serves as an education center. They have a small gift shop with great things, all locally made and at fair prices• MetroCentro - supposidly the largest shopping mall in Central America. There are lots of stores you will recognize as well as some souvenir shops.Its a good place to spend a few hoursYou can skip:• Mercado ExCuartel - by the Cathedral as it is just a lot of booths with clothes made in the US; and CD/DVD sellers.Food• There are lots of restaurants near the Metrocentro• of special mention, there are tons of pupusa places at “Los Planes” which is in the hills up a winding road. Mariachis go from restaurant to restaurantPlaces outside of San Salvador:Finca Leticia - • located in Apaneca and is a gourmet coffee farm• has an excellent restaurant• has its own archaeological site with pre-Columbian zoomorphic rocks or as the locals call them, Los Gordos (the fat ones). http://www.coffee.com.svemail: santaleticia@coffee.com.svJuayua -- is considered the gourmet capital of El Salvador. They have a food festival every weekend from 10-4 around the main square. Specialties are rabbit, typical foods, bar-b-que and tacos. It is 1 1/2 hours from San Salvador and 2 hr 15 minutes from Suchitoto. It is in the shadow of Izalco volcano on what is called “The Coffee Route”. Suchitoto • Believe me when I say this -- it is like Antigua, Guatemala 50 years ago. • there is an art festival every weekend in Februaryhotels and good places for lunch:•La Posada de Suchitlan - over looks a large man-made lake. It is built around a hacienda and is owned by a Swedish man and his Salvadorian wife. http://www.laposada.com.sv• Los Almendros de San Lorenzo is another really nice hotel that opened a few years ago. It has about 10 rooms set around a courtyard, a nice restaurant and a good-looking pool. Nahuizalco • town is known for its baskets and wood furniture. San Sebastian• known for looms worked by hand - they make hammocks, tablecloths, napkins and blanketsIlobasco• known for its clay work, especially miniature scenes called “surpresas” (surprises)Volcanoes There are 25 volcanoes in El Salvador. Izalco is the classic shape and apparently difficult to climb. But Santa Ana Volcano and Cerro Verde are climbable. You can go up most of Cerro Verde by carHondurasRutahsa Adventures (http://www.rutahsa.com) a professor-run company (and one of my favorites) runs a Nicaragua/Honduras trip every few years. I did it a few years back. Some notes:Copan Archaeological site (the big event in Honduras):1. Hotel Marina Copan in the small town of Copan Ruinas-- this is the best spot in town, not only for its rooms but for its location. It has 1/2 block away from the main square and the Copan Museum (admission $2.). It has a good restaurant, but there are several other good restaurants in the area.The best/newest rooms are in the 200’s and 300’s. There is a group in the 100’s that are original -- more than 50 years old and I don’t think they’ve been redecorated since! The receptionist told me these are due to be remodeled into junior suites by the end of this year.You can walk to the Copan ruins from here -- about 20 minutes or take a tuk-tuk. There are two stele to see along the way.2. Las Sepulturas Site (think of archaeological “suburbs”) I visited this site on my third visit to Copan as the main site is so huge. Local guides (most of them workers who dug with the archaeologists) will be at the entrance to take you around. Some speak a little English. They work for tips4. Hacienda San Lucas --- This is a private Hacienda about a 15 minute ride (across the river and up a hill) from the town of Ruinas Copan. It has an auxiliary Mayan site on it called “Los Sapos” (the frogs) that are rocks Mayans carved to resemble frogs. There are also some rock carvings. There is a legend that the wife of the 10th Mayan king gave birth to a frog here; and afterwards it became the birthing site for Mayan women. It is a 15 minutes scenic walk from the Hacienda. There is a longer trail that takes several hours. And.... the Hacienda itself is beautiful. They serve drinks and light meals on the terrace .The person who handled most of the arrangements for Honduras was: José Manuel Rico -- Arrecife Tours. Phone number for Arrecife tours: 011-504-207-4081 FAX for Arrecife Tours: 011-504-236-7587 E-mail for José Manuel: josemanuel_rico@yahoo.comI think the email is travel_service@multivisinhn.netNicaraguaFor Nicaragua- local agent was:The local operator who handled our Nicaragua arrangements: is Pierre Gedeon, and owner/operator of Nicaragua Adventures. Phone number for Nicaragua Adventures: 011-505- 883-7161 FAX for Nicaragua Adventures: 011-505- 552-8461 E-mail for Pierre: info@nica-adventures.com or travelnicacr@yahoo.com Website for Nicaragua Adventures: http://www.nica-adventures.comOur guide was Roberto Darce, who was really good. These are some better hotels we stayed at in Nicaragua:Nicaragua1. Granada, Nicaragua --- Hotel Alhambra This is right on the main square and is one of the better places to stay. Their restaurant is on the front porch which is great for people-watching. http://www.hotelalhambrani@com email: hotalam@tmx.com.niAlong the same lines as this hotel is La Gran Francia, which has just been restored. It is smaller than the Hotel Alhambra, and it looks a bit newer. It is across the square from the Hotel Alhambra http://www.lagranfrancia.com2. Montelimar Beach, Nicaragua This all-inclusive resort is built on Somoza’s (the former dictator’s) beach property. It is run by the Barcelo group. It would be best to visit during the week as it is crowded on the weekends and you would want to stay at least two nights. All meals are buffet style and there is something for everyone as far as entertainment and activities. All drinks are included, including national drinks (mostly rum drinks). We were in bungalows, which seemed nicer and probably roomier than the 4 story hotel. It is a beautiful property, right on the beach.3. Hotel Villa Paraiso on Ometepe Island, NicaraguaYou’re really lost if you get here. But if you find yourself on these islands, this has got to be the best place to stay. My room had a/c, direct TV, a porch with a hammock and table and chairs. The thing to see on the island are the petroglyphs. We were there mostly for hiking and our transportation was on a old school bus. It is a ferry ride to get there.4. Hotel El Convento --- Leon, Nicaraguathis is one of the prettier places we stayed in. It is a converted Convent next to the Iglesia San Francisco (still a church). The rooms are all set around a large, pretty courtyard. Their restaurant is lovely and has good food.At Montilimar, I met a tour operator who had a large group there. She was really nice and even helped me out with a problem:Veronica Wayman CastilloWayman tours http://www.waymantours.ccmanagua.com email: waymantours@ibw.com.niThis is a 50 year old family-owned travel company based in Managua.Thanks for reading thru these notes and I hope they are helpful to you.

Stan, thank you soooooooooo much. Wonderful information. I assume you drove yourself or did you have a car and driver?

I had a car and driver, and that's what I'd recommend. The roads aren't always well-marked, I don't have much Spanish, and it was a lot safer. Besides, I doubt that it cost much more than just renting a car. It's often that way in developing countries.

Esther covered this topic quite thoroughly, but I want to add a couple of bits. I was on the same Nic-Hon trip as Esther and one place that stands out in my memory in Honduras is The Lodge at Pico Bonito, an ecolodge and a bit of a splurge for a budget trip, but wonderful! <www.picobonito.com> We also enjoyed the Lost Paradise on the beach at Roatan. But my all-time favorite place in Honduras is Copan. I was just there last month, and they are indeed remodeling the Marina Copan. Nevertheless, it's running smoothly. If you go there, be sure to order a caiperinha from Helder in the bar. (And tell him Sheila says hello.)Nicaragua was memorable simply for the sweetness of its people. And its volcanoes. The country has never fully recovered from the earthquake that destroyed much of Managua and from Hurricane Mitch, but the Nicaraguan spirit is intact.

I just got back from a week's trip to all three. It was pretty brutal travel though, at least the route we took.It's certainly easy and cheap to travel on your own, buses go to most any destination you could wish for a few $.There are also shuttles between some of the common tourist spots.I flew into San Pedro Sula and spent the night. The next morning I caught a 3hr bus to Copan Ruins where I was meetinga friend. The bus station in San Pedro is brand new, it only opened earlier this year. Copan is the site of Mayanruins, there are alot of heiroglyphic writings here that I don't remember seeing at other Mayan cities like ChitzenItza. After Copan Ruins, we took buses (4hr) to the town of Gracias, this was the capital of Central America in theearly 1500s. The Ruta Lenca stretches from Santa Rosa de Copan to the town of Marcala in southeastern Honduras,including the town of Gracias. There are lots of Lenca villages, national parks for hiking, etc. along this route.There is a nice hot springs located a few kms outside of town, very relaxing after a long day on the bus or hiking.Also checkout the restaurant Rincon Graciano while there, very delicious. The next day, we took a bus/taxi combo from Gracias to the town of Perquin in El Salvador. In retrospect it wouldbe better to split this trip up over a couple of days. The only daily bus from Gracias to La Esperanza leaves at5-5:30AM. From there we had to hire a taxi to the next town of Marcala in order to catch the bus to Perquin at noon.The road from Gracias to La Esperanza is good, but from there via Marcala to Perquin was a very dusty, bumpy road.Perquin is home to the museum of the Salvadoran Revolution. The guides there were former guerrillas during thecivil war. Pretty fascinating and sobering. There is still evidence of the war around town, with bombed out jeepsand foxholes.Our next stop was Leon in Nicaragua. This also turned out to be a long travel day, again best split up as it involvedseveral changes of buses/minibuses. We had to re-enter southern Honduras and repay the entry tax. There wereminivans here at the border that went directly to the Nicaraguan border in a couple of hours. From the Nicaraguanborder there are direct buses to Leon or Chinandega. Leon was the old capital of Nicaragua until the mid-1800's.Granada and Leon were competing for power, the captial was then moved to Managua as a compromise. Leonsaw some street-to-street fighting during the wars and still is a bit run down. Several good churches and someinteresting revolutionary murals are around town.Managua and Granada were our last stops. Not much interesting to see in Managua; it's pretty spread out. The mainsights are in the Area Monumental which is the old core of downtown. It was mostly abandoned after an earthquake in the 70's. The old (closed) Cathedral is here, and the National Palace. Most of the neighborhood outside of here issupposedly dangerous to walk around. Granada was well worth a visit. It's been restored quite well, lots of colorful colonial style buildings, restaurants, cafes,etc. It's a quick hour bus ride from Managua.