There is a colonial gem of a town located some 60-70 kilometers north east of El Salvador’s shining capital, San Salvador: the road signs differ in distance but the highway is superb, as are all in this jewel box of a country. In a short hour and a half, after passing between three dormant volcanoes and bright green cane fields, the sign announces the approach to Suchitoto.
The area was colonized at least a thousand years ago by the Pipil, descendants of the Mayans far to the northwest, who found the volcanic soils perfect for cultivation of their corn, beans and squash. When the Spanish arrived in the mid-1500’s, bent on conquest, the Pepil beat them back and one of their archers put an arrow through the knee of Pedro de Alvarado. As one of the famed Cortez’ most trusted and bloodthirsty lieutenants, he’d slashed his way through Gautemala but this was the final blow that ended his career. Suchitoto, now with a population of some 40000, became a center for indigo production until the late 1800’s, when the introduction of synthetic dyes from Europe conquered that industry. When the massive earthquake of 1853 destroyed much of the nearby capital city, Suchitoto became a refuge for the rich and affluent, who brought their money and possessions to the mountain village. It has been said that at least thirteen grand pianos were brought in by horse and cart.
Coffee plantations, the mainstay of El Salvador’s export crops then and now, were introduced and a short period of peace lasted until the civil wars of the 1980’s between the government and the leftist rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). There were some twelve years of fierce fighting in and around Suchitoto, with bullet holes still seen in some walls and bomb craters visible on the sides of the nearby Guazapa volcano, where today tours of the rebel encampments can be scheduled. The military ran rough-shod over the village, following their policy of ‘˜scorched earth’ but the one-time colonial refuge remained largely intact.
Today it is a haven for art and crafts, with weekend festivals of music and food. World-class dance and orchestral groups find their way to the village of red-tiled roofs, white heavy stucco walls and gray cobblestone streets. Students from around the world come to study in the art schools, and can be seen sketching the delicate hardwood columns inside the Iglesia Santa Lucia or the vistas north to the Lago de Suchititlan, which has over 200 species of birds. The large flocks of hawks and falcons serve as nature’s population control and the islands in the lake, El Salvador’s largest body of water, provide refuge for the less combative species.
Enjoy the sun-splashed central plaza, where the fountain provides a cooling spray in the mid-day heat, wander around the square and sample the art, the crafts and watch the women work a pulley-belt corn processor for the tortillas to be cooked later. This is a town where time slows to a stop, a colonial gem set in the mountains of northern El Salvador.
Sources: Lonely Planet Guidebook, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Paige R. Penland