SUCHITOTO, El Salvador – This quaint colonial city of quiet cobblestone streets, hidden courtyards filled with dazzling flowers, and majestic panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains, has a gentle peacefulness about it that belies its tumultuous past.
El Salvador’s original and short-lived capital city from 1528 to 1545, Suchitoto – aNahuatl word that means “bird flower” – has survived political upheavals, earthquakes, flooding and war. It has been depopulated and pushed to the brink of economic ruin on several occasions, yet has always managed to reinvent itself and survive.
Indeed, Suchitoto has been reincarnated more times than actress Shirley MacLaine. Today, less than two decades after El Salvador’s brutal civil war rendered Suchitoto a virtual ghost town in the mid 1990s, the city is again showing signs of life. And this time around, Suchitoto is reinventing itself as a funky and artsy tourist destination – Central America’s “next great colonial city” after Antigua, Guatemala and Granada, Nicaragua.
“We are starting from zero … actually less than zero,” says Salvadoran filmmaker and Suchitoto native Alejandro Cotto, who recently turned his 1930s childhood home into a museum.
Cotto, who plays the unofficial role of town elder and tourism ambassador, says he was one of the few people who stayed in town during El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war (1980-1992), which claimed the lives of some 15,000 of Suchitoto’s residents.
“More than 80 percent of the population left. I stayed behind to bury the dead,” Cotto said, squinting between sips of rum; his walking cane leaning against the table. “The town was empty for more than 10 years.”
“The repopulation of the town is still happening today; it’s not over,” Cotto said. “When tourists come to town and ask me where all the people are, I just laugh and tell them, ‘In Sweden, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Venezuela and the United States’.”
Despite the recent trauma of war, Suchitoto now has a very laidback, inviting feel. It’s the safest town in El Salvador, and everyone seems to be on a first-name basis – even with the foreign students who stay for a few weeks to study Spanish at the language school.
On weekdays, the entire town shuts down around 9 p.m. Walking home after a late dinner, one can hear only the echo of one’s boots on the cobblestones, and be unlikely to pass anyone else on the street.
Unlike other colonial-city destinations in Central America, Suchitoto is still relatively unknown among foreigners.
In fact, there are so few extranjeros here that California transplant Roberto Broz still has the singular distinction of being known (fondly) as “El Gringo.” If you ask anyone in Suchitoto where the “gringo” lives, people will point you toward Broz’s house. On the other hand, if you try asking people in Antigua or Granada where the gringo lives, they’ll just point at the nearest one.
Broz has embraced his gringo distinction – and in fact marketed it in the form of a like-named hostel and restaurant, and his famous “Gringo Tours” service.
Other foreigners have played an equally important role in Suchitoto’s gradual and natural transition to a tourism town.
After working 20 years in Paris’ fashion industry, Pascal Lebailly moved to Suchitoto in 2003 and bought an historic old home that he’s since turned into the elegant boutique hotel and restaurant Los Almendros de San Lorenzo.
Sitting in his cozy courtyard patio, Lebailly describes Suchitoto as “slow tourism” – a place where visitors can change the rhythm of their daily lives, and enjoy simpler pleasures, such as a stroll through town, a coffee in the park, or a relaxing dinner overlooking the lake.
“Suchitoto and Los Almendros are still unknown places, but when tourists come here and see it, they say: ‘This is just what we were looking for’,” Lebailly said.
Where to Stay
Hotel La Posada de Suchitlán (www.laposada.com.sv)
Los Alemdros de San Lorenzo (www.hotelsalvador.com)
Hotel Las Puertas (www.laspuertassuchitoto.com)
El Rinconcito del Gringo (www.elgringosuchitoto.com)