El Salvador sneaks up on you: in lefty lounge bars in San Salvador, at sobering museums and war memorials, and along lush cloud-forest trails; it's a place of remarkable warmth and intelligence, made all the more appealing for being so unexpected. Travellers tend to skip El Salvador, wooed by marquee destinations such as Guatemala and Costa Rica, and unnerved by stories of civil war and gang violence. But the war ended almost 20 years ago, and crime, while serious, is almost exclusively played out between rival gangs; tourists are virtually never involved. And though El Salvador has fewer protected areas than its neighbors, you get them practically to yourself – including pristine forests, active volcanoes and sparkling lakes.
The only place you might find a crowd is on Punta Roca, El Salvador’s most famous surfing spot – it happens to be one of the best right point breaks in the world, yet is a ghost town compared to lesser swells in Costa Rica and elsewhere.
And when it comes to cities, none in Central America is smarter or cooler than San Salvador, with first-rate universities, museums and galleries, a vibrant bar and live-music scene, and an array of progressive NGOs, both local and international.
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