Latin America on a budget: Suchitoto, El Salvador

We launched Gadling’s Latin America on a budget series last week with a post on Antigua, Guatemala. This week, we check out the impressive budget-friendly credentials of Suchitoto, El Salvador. Suchitoto is a well-preserved colonial town overlooking a scenic reservoir, situated about thirty miles from San Salvador. Suchitoto is a peaceful town that moves at its own quiet pace. It’s beautiful, charming, friendly, and absolutely picturesque, and should have a much higher profile as a tourist destination. The fact that it isn’t well known can be ascribed to El Salvador’s unfortunately poor reputation as a country for tourism.

Several tour operators in Suchitoto ply tourists with brochures hawking volcano hikes, kayaking expeditions, beach trips, and archaeological adventures across El Salvador. Though the town itself does not come with a long checklist of activities and specific attractions, there are several places and points of interest that shouldn’t escape the attention of visitors. And happily for our purposes here, just about every activity in Suchitoto can be sampled for $5, tops.Admission to Suchitoto’s one church, the blindingly white Iglesia Santa Lucía, on the town’s central plaza, is free.

A smattering of galleries in Suchitoto justifies the town’s reputation as a place receptive to artists. Galeria de Pascal, which has a deep inventory of art objects, home décor items, books, and honey–mostly from El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America–is likely the best of the crop.

Galeria de Pascal is owned by Pascal Lebailly, who is also the co-owner of Los Almendros, the fanciest hotel in Suchitoto. Even for visitors on a budget, Los Almendros is a great place to stop by for a cappuccino ($2.70). The lush courtyard is welcoming and the price of your cappuccino, while about as expensive as a filling meal elsewhere in town, is still pretty reasonable.

A donation of $2 gets you into Centro Arte de la Paz, with exhibits on Suchitoto’s cultural and physical history. The center hosts a number of programs and activities designed to promote nonviolence and also build skills and competencies among locals. The center operates an exhibit devoted to El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992), and is a very useful resource for visitors interested in the war’s history and significance.

Another top attraction is the Museo Alejandro Cotto (admission $4), a museum with lots of photographs chronicling the life of Cotto, a film director who took the lead in working to preserve the colonial nature of Suchitoto. Views of the reservoir from Cotto’s museum are quite possibly the best in town.

There are physical activities as well, none particularly demanding. Los Tercios waterfalls, dry for much of the year, can be visited with a tourist police accompaniment. (Suchitoto is very safe and the presence of the tourist police is gratuitous, but the tourist policemen often enjoy having the opportunity to converse.) There are also some waterfalls on the other side of town, which should only be visited with a local during dry weather. The path is steep and not marked terribly well. My guide led me down to the waterfalls, swam with me, and walked back with me along narrow trails, charging me $5 for his time.

And if you’d like to laze about by a pool, stop by El Tejado hotel and restaurant, where use of the pool costs $3.25 for the day. The views from El Tejado are outstanding as well.

Beds and grub are remarkably cheap in Suchitoto.

I stayed at El Gringo, a tiny hostel run by Robert Broz and his wife Tita. Robert, an American man of Salvadorean descent resident in El Salvador for many years now, is an expert on all things Suchitoto. Robert and Tita’s rooms run just $10 per person per night. The rooms are very simple and somewhat cavernous but comfortable. The toilet and shower are shared, and water from the shower is cold.

Food in Suchitoto is extremely inexpensive and in many cases delicious. Outstanding pupusas begin at 60 cents at El Gringo’s restaurant; they can be purchased for much less from street vendors. A full meal at El Gringo, including a beer, can be had for under $3.50. And while El Gringo is inexpensive, it is not vastly cheaper than many other restaurants in town. I strayed from El Gringo for a few meals; the most expensive of these topped out around $10.

One nighttime highlight is El Necio. a leftist bar filled with language students, volunteers, and locals. Shots of rum begin at $1.25. And for snacks, there is Pan Lilian, where an alfajor is yours for 25 cents.

Amazingly, a comfortable day on a budget of $20 is completely doable in Suchitoto. The only expense of note is transportation to and from the airport. It’s possible to take buses all the way to Suchitoto, with a change in San Salvador. But for anyone on a tight schedule, it makes more sense to negotiate a shuttle with your hotel. Mine cost $30 per person, and the journey took around an hour and 45 minutes. This cost seriously ate into my $75/day allotment, although costs are otherwise so low that I was able to meet my budget.

Who should visit Suchitoto on $75 a day? Couples, relaxation-minded travelers, and adventurous retirees.