El Camino Does El Salvador

With the winter doldrums upon us in November, we sent El Camino photographer Kate Warren south to explore El Salvador and connect with local communities. Here's her visual dispatch from her travels. 


Five days, nine travel journalists, one bus. From dawn until well past dusk we tore around the country for a whirlwind week of seeing AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE of El Salvador. I'd been before, but the country has changed quite a bit since then and our itinerary was aggressive - I took notes frantically. I was the only photographer on the trip and two decades younger than the other guests, except for a whip-smart writer from New York named Tyler with whom I made fast friends. With our matching haircuts and equally curious, immersive attitudes toward travel we jumped into experiencing El Salvador head first. New lady boss partner in crime? Boo yeah.  

There were major adventures; we fed spider monkeys, kayaked through mangroves, released baby sea turtles, took surfing lessons, and saw incredible ancient ruins. Each evening I edited like a maniac to process the pictures in real time before falling into bed. It was wild, it was fun, and exhausting in the way only a totally immersive new experience can be - full sensory overload, in all the best ways. 

Check out the photos from my adventures below - I put all the info in the captions. Big thanks to the Salvadorean Ministry of Tourism for having me, my hosts JC and Dana from Cotidiana Collective for all their attention and planning, our fearless guide Raul, and the other guests for keeping things interesting. 

DAY ONE: PUERTO PARADA, JIQUILISCO BAY, ISLA LA PIRRAYA, PUERTO BARILLAS

In Puerto Parada, workers unload coconuts from a boat into a truck for distribution. The coconuts are grown throughout a string of small islands, where they are picked by hand and placed in the boats. 

In Puerto Parada, workers unload coconuts from a boat into a truck for distribution. The coconuts are grown throughout a string of small islands, where they are picked by hand and placed in the boats. 

Freshly-picked coconuts in a truck in Puerto Parada, El Salvador. 

Freshly-picked coconuts in a truck in Puerto Parada, El Salvador. 

While men harvest coconuts from the islands surrounding Puerto Parada, the women make fresh grilled sandwiches to feed them upon their return. Plantains stacked high are a tasty snack and common culinary ingredient in El Salvador. 

While men harvest coconuts from the islands surrounding Puerto Parada, the women make fresh grilled sandwiches to feed them upon their return. Plantains stacked high are a tasty snack and common culinary ingredient in El Salvador. 

We boarded a boat and headed out into the Jiquilisco Bay, which includes a delta of mangrove forests. Small fisherman's homes like this one dot the coastline. 

We boarded a boat and headed out into the Jiquilisco Bay, which includes a delta of mangrove forests. Small fisherman's homes like this one dot the coastline. 

Our guide Raul chats with a young marine biologist who works for ICAPO, the Eastern Pacific Hawsbill Initiative, a nonprofit who gather, tag, and record data on the endangered hawksbill turtle to aid conservation efforts.  

Our guide Raul chats with a young marine biologist who works for ICAPO, the Eastern Pacific Hawsbill Initiative, a nonprofit who gather, tag, and record data on the endangered hawksbill turtle to aid conservation efforts.  

Small fishing villages like these can be found through Jiquilisco Bay, which is known for its rich marine biodiversity because of the mangrove habitat. 

Small fishing villages like these can be found through Jiquilisco Bay, which is known for its rich marine biodiversity because of the mangrove habitat. 

We helped the ICAPO team catch, measure, and tag two hawksbill turtles. These big girls were estimated to be 30 and 50 years old - middle aged and geriatric, with the size to show it. 

We helped the ICAPO team catch, measure, and tag two hawksbill turtles. These big girls were estimated to be 30 and 50 years old - middle aged and geriatric, with the size to show it. 

The ICAPO team placed the hawksbill turtle on a burlap sack and suspended it on a wooden dowel to measure her weight. It wasn't a fancy technique, but it got the job done! 

The ICAPO team placed the hawksbill turtle on a burlap sack and suspended it on a wooden dowel to measure her weight. It wasn't a fancy technique, but it got the job done! 

After recording their measurements and tagging them, the marine biologists release the turtles back into the Bay. 

After recording their measurements and tagging them, the marine biologists release the turtles back into the Bay. 

We'd worked up quite an appetite, so we headed to Isla la Pirraya, a small fishing village with a community-run restaurant on the water. 

We'd worked up quite an appetite, so we headed to Isla la Pirraya, a small fishing village with a community-run restaurant on the water. 

Isla la Pirraya residents catch many different kinds of fish for commercial and personal use. Here, they pick sardines out of a drag net by hand. 

Isla la Pirraya residents catch many different kinds of fish for commercial and personal use. Here, they pick sardines out of a drag net by hand. 

Laundry hangs drying as pigs roam looking for food in the town center of Isla la Pirraya. The community has a school for local children and a small medical clinic. 

Laundry hangs drying as pigs roam looking for food in the town center of Isla la Pirraya. The community has a school for local children and a small medical clinic. 

I asked to watch this local woman prepare our lunch of fried fresh-caught fish, rice, and salad. It was a simple set up and utterly delicious. 

I asked to watch this local woman prepare our lunch of fried fresh-caught fish, rice, and salad. It was a simple set up and utterly delicious. 

A local Isla la Pirraya man and two friends work on building a new house on pylons over the water. 

A local Isla la Pirraya man and two friends work on building a new house on pylons over the water. 

Once caught, local fishermen dry sardines on a raised platform about six feet in the air. 

Once caught, local fishermen dry sardines on a raised platform about six feet in the air. 

the We had lunch at the end of this open air dock, cool breeze stirring our cheeks as we ate. To the far right, you can see a volcano in the distance across the bay.  

the We had lunch at the end of this open air dock, cool breeze stirring our cheeks as we ate. To the far right, you can see a volcano in the distance across the bay.  

Our group boarded our boat after lunch, ready to take on more adventures. 

Our group boarded our boat after lunch, ready to take on more adventures. 

Next, we went to Puerto Barillas, a marina and lodge with extensive cacao and plantain farms and a spider monkey reserve. And amazing light, as you can see. 

Next, we went to Puerto Barillas, a marina and lodge with extensive cacao and plantain farms and a spider monkey reserve. And amazing light, as you can see. 

My new friend Tyler, utterly delighted to be sipping fresh coconut milk in the late afternoon sun. What's not to love? 

My new friend Tyler, utterly delighted to be sipping fresh coconut milk in the late afternoon sun. What's not to love? 

Our friendly policia turismo escorts took a time out from their job to take a few photos of these spider monkeys. The monkeys are rescues who now live on the reserve full time, with the freedom to move around as they please. 

Our friendly policia turismo escorts took a time out from their job to take a few photos of these spider monkeys. The monkeys are rescues who now live on the reserve full time, with the freedom to move around as they please. 

This friendly gentleman cares for the spider monkeys in the reserve. They are such good friends that they come when he calls them by name - especially when he has a bag full of plantains for them! 

This friendly gentleman cares for the spider monkeys in the reserve. They are such good friends that they come when he calls them by name - especially when he has a bag full of plantains for them! 

Spider monkey with treats. PUMPED. 

Spider monkey with treats. PUMPED. 

You know, just hanging out having a casual snack. 

You know, just hanging out having a casual snack. 

Our turismo policia friends taking a break and chatting with other officers as spider monkey swing overhead. 

Our turismo policia friends taking a break and chatting with other officers as spider monkey swing overhead. 

We stayed in these jungle casitas at Puerto Barillas, and it felt like a verdant, emerald-hued dream to wake up in the middle of all that lush greenery. 

We stayed in these jungle casitas at Puerto Barillas, and it felt like a verdant, emerald-hued dream to wake up in the middle of all that lush greenery. 

Tyler enjoys a quick rest in a hammock. 

Tyler enjoys a quick rest in a hammock. 

Nature fights back.

Nature fights back.

There's nothing a quick dip in a pool like this can't cure...especially a few hours on a bus. 

There's nothing a quick dip in a pool like this can't cure...especially a few hours on a bus. 

Fishing boats docked at Puerto Barillas at sunset, taken from my perch in a kayak. 

Fishing boats docked at Puerto Barillas at sunset, taken from my perch in a kayak. 

We took a sunset tour of the mangrove forest, an eery, magical experience full of new sounds, smells, and a sense of romantic foreboding. 

We took a sunset tour of the mangrove forest, an eery, magical experience full of new sounds, smells, and a sense of romantic foreboding. 

OK sunset, stop showing off. Great end to a busy day. 

OK sunset, stop showing off. Great end to a busy day. 

DAY TWO: PUERTO BARRILAS, PLAYA CANGREJERA, EL TUNCO

Mecca! We toured a cacao farm at San Jose del Real de la Carrera, and my love for chocolate was taken right to the source. This is chocolate. Amazing.

Mecca! We toured a cacao farm at San Jose del Real de la Carrera, and my love for chocolate was taken right to the source. This is chocolate. Amazing.

I asked to split from the group to meet some of the cacao farmers, so we sped off on an ATV into the cacao groves to photograph them at work. 

I asked to split from the group to meet some of the cacao farmers, so we sped off on an ATV into the cacao groves to photograph them at work. 

The mananera knife is used to harvest the cacao fruit - it is a long pole with a small curved blade at the end. 

The mananera knife is used to harvest the cacao fruit - it is a long pole with a small curved blade at the end. 

Baby cacao trees growing big and strong. Trees take 3.5 years to start producing fruit, becoming fully productive at five years. At peak productivity, each tree produces 100+ fruits annually.  

Baby cacao trees growing big and strong. Trees take 3.5 years to start producing fruit, becoming fully productive at five years. At peak productivity, each tree produces 100+ fruits annually.  

The fleshy seeds of the cacao fruit are removed, cleaned, and dried.  

The fleshy seeds of the cacao fruit are removed, cleaned, and dried.  

Cacao is placed in these drying racks for the final stage of drying in their processing. 

Cacao is placed in these drying racks for the final stage of drying in their processing. 

Cacao, processing and ready to be made into hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and lots of other delicious items. 

Cacao, processing and ready to be made into hot chocolate, chocolate bars, and lots of other delicious items. 

After learning the in's and out's of cacao farming we hopped on the bus and headed to Playa Cangrejera, a small beach outpost where sea turtles come to lay their eggs. Like other struggling coastal Central American countries, there is a history of people stealing sea turtle eggs here. We met with a local non-profit who buys some of the nests back from thieves 4 nights each month. They then incubate the eggs and release them into the wild. We helped them release some while we were visiting, and it was an incredible experience I'll never forget. There's nothing like an adorable baby turtle to make you hope that the little things in life can hang in there. 

We arrived at the famous El Tunco beach, known for its amazing surf, just in time for sunset.  

We arrived at the famous El Tunco beach, known for its amazing surf, just in time for sunset.  

Tyler took a surfing lesson with an AWESOME instructor at El Tunco. He said, "OK, so you must surf the way you make love - nice and slow, no rushing." Hilarious, and very sound advice. 

Tyler took a surfing lesson with an AWESOME instructor at El Tunco. He said, "OK, so you must surf the way you make love - nice and slow, no rushing." Hilarious, and very sound advice. 

I made fast friends with these surfers from Australia, who have been at El Tunco for 6 weeks and plan to travel to Nicaragua on the next leg of their surfing tour. 

I made fast friends with these surfers from Australia, who have been at El Tunco for 6 weeks and plan to travel to Nicaragua on the next leg of their surfing tour. 

After Tyler's surf lesson her instructor offered to let her rinse off the salt before we got back on the bus. I came along because BUDDY SYSTEM, and he led us down a dark alley behind a mechanic shop, past a man dragging a machete. We looked at each other like, "Well, here we go! Trusting strangers!" and it was totally fine. 

After Tyler's surf lesson her instructor offered to let her rinse off the salt before we got back on the bus. I came along because BUDDY SYSTEM, and he led us down a dark alley behind a mechanic shop, past a man dragging a machete. We looked at each other like, "Well, here we go! Trusting strangers!" and it was totally fine. 

DAY THREE: NAHUIZALCO, JARDIN DE CELESTE, LAGUNA VERDE, CONCEPCION DE ATACO

Because we are little ladies with enormous appetites, Tyler shopping for local produce at the market in Nahuizalco. 

Because we are little ladies with enormous appetites, Tyler shopping for local produce at the market in Nahuizalco. 

Meat in the local market in Nahuizalco. 

Meat in the local market in Nahuizalco. 

Woodworker Miguel Cortez in his shop in Nahuizalco. 

Woodworker Miguel Cortez in his shop in Nahuizalco. 

We stopped for lunch at Jardin de Celeste, and I had what was most certainly in my top five meals of ALL TIME. Grilled steak, local cheese, rice, refried beans that SERIOUSLY WERE LIFE ALTERING, fresh salsa, and aioli. I died and went to heaven while eating this, and then I wandered around the gardens.  

We stopped for lunch at Jardin de Celeste, and I had what was most certainly in my top five meals of ALL TIME. Grilled steak, local cheese, rice, refried beans that SERIOUSLY WERE LIFE ALTERING, fresh salsa, and aioli. I died and went to heaven while eating this, and then I wandered around the gardens.  

After digesting our incredible lunch, it was time for adventure! A handful of us took these souped up go carts up the side of a volcano. Tyler hadn't driven a car in five years, so obviously I made her drive first. She did great, and we were shrieking with laughter the whole ride. 

After digesting our incredible lunch, it was time for adventure! A handful of us took these souped up go carts up the side of a volcano. Tyler hadn't driven a car in five years, so obviously I made her drive first. She did great, and we were shrieking with laughter the whole ride. 

At the top, there was a stunning volcanic lagoon, the Laguna Verde. 

At the top, there was a stunning volcanic lagoon, the Laguna Verde. 

Matching haircuts, matching goggles, and a need for speed. Tyler and I at the Laguna Verde after our wild go cart ride. 

Matching haircuts, matching goggles, and a need for speed. Tyler and I at the Laguna Verde after our wild go cart ride. 

Then we learned how to make coffee, which is pretty much just like cacao, except coffee. All of it was really fascinating, since I love both things. 

Coffee beans, drying au naturale. 

Coffee beans, drying au naturale. 

After coffee, we toured a breathtaking family owned ranchero that was converted into a boutique hotel. The family was delightful, the space dreamy, and the atmosphere unforgettable. As it poured rain, local high school students performed a traditional Salvadorean dance for us. I got soaked shooting this, but was so, so happy. We ended the evening dancing hand in hand with them, grinning like Cheshire cats. 

After coffee, we toured a breathtaking family owned ranchero that was converted into a boutique hotel. The family was delightful, the space dreamy, and the atmosphere unforgettable. As it poured rain, local high school students performed a traditional Salvadorean dance for us. I got soaked shooting this, but was so, so happy. We ended the evening dancing hand in hand with them, grinning like Cheshire cats. 

DAY FOUR: TAZUMAL, SANTA ANA, COATEPEQUE, JOYA DE CEREN

Mayan ruins at Tazumal were fascinating. That's a guy with a weed wacker on top. You know, for scale. 

Mayan ruins at Tazumal were fascinating. That's a guy with a weed wacker on top. You know, for scale. 

We toured the theater and casino in the historic city of Santa Ana. I snuck away from the group and wandered around the City Hall as well. 

We toured the theater and casino in the historic city of Santa Ana. I snuck away from the group and wandered around the City Hall as well. 

Santa Ana City Hall. 

Santa Ana City Hall. 

I love the file work and colors used in the Santa Ana theater. Stunning. 

I love the file work and colors used in the Santa Ana theater. Stunning. 

We made a stop at Lake Coatepeque, a volcanic crater lake that offers gorgeous views. I could get used to seeing this every day. 

We made a stop at Lake Coatepeque, a volcanic crater lake that offers gorgeous views. I could get used to seeing this every day. 

Sunset from the side of the road, en route back to San Salvador and excited to sleep in the same bed for more than one night. 

Sunset from the side of the road, en route back to San Salvador and excited to sleep in the same bed for more than one night. 

DAY FIVE: SAN SALVADOR

For our final day we stayed in San Salvador. We had a beautiful lunch at the modern art museum, visited the central Plaza Libertad downtown, the Cathedral, Saint Romero's burial site, and famous Salvadorean artist Fernando Llort's gallery. We also stopped at the Iglesia El Rosario, a contemporary cathedral unlike any I've visited...and that's really saying something, because I've lived and traveled in Europe. As you can see below, the cathedral appears broken down on the outside, but when you enter it's a stunning array of rainbow broken glass. It's a truly moving space. 

Thanks for following along. I had a blast and can't wait to go back. I'll be traveling to Colombia with El Camino next month, so stay tuned. You can follow El Camino on Instagram @elcaminotravel and me @gokateshoot. Adios!

Kate Warren3 Comments