The Highlights of a Day in Suchitoto, El Salvador

Eleanor Hughes


Suchitoto is a colonial town in northern El Salvador, 50km northeast of the capital San Salvador. You’ll spot men wearing cowboy hats riding horses along the cobbled streets of a town of mainly one-level, white and brightly-painted buildings with orangey, red roof tiles built in the sixteenth century. Early fighting in the civil war, which occurred from 1979 to 1992, began in this area but today this town is peaceful, with its historic centre designated a national cultural heritage site. Spend at least a day wandering the town, enjoying the local surroundings and learning a little history.

Be Amazed at these Rock Formations

One and a half kilometres out of Suchitoto, and a short, steep, rocky walk down from the carpark at Cascadas Los Tercios, you’ll reach a waterfall. It can sometimes lack water but just the rock formations are worth the trip. Formed by rivers of lava from an eruption around sixty thousand years ago, vertical hexagonal pillars around 30 centimetres wide and of varying heights, like giant sticks of quartz, form the backdrop of this 9 metre waterfall. During May to December, water tumbles over the spires forming a multitude of mini-waterfalls. It looks like a man-made sculpture but this is all natural. Other pillars lie vertically stacked on top of each other. They too once used to stand but have fallen due to the soggy ground beneath.

Another short walk from here leads to a look-out over peaceful Lake Suchitlán. The man-made lake, providing hydro-electricity, is covered in hyacinths much of the time apparently making it difficult to go boating on. However, boat trips can be taken and it’s a birdwatcher’s paradise. Spot local fishermen trying their luck. The lake is within walking distance of town.

Cascadas Los Tercios can be reached by foot (ask around about safety though – robberies have been reported over the years), the tourist office in town offers free guided tours daily, or take an organised tour which includes other sights. 

Roll Your Own Cigar

Making cigars was big business in Suchitoto from the early 1900s to around the 1980s – before it was considered a health hazard to smoke. A job which women did, after the decline in the indigo industry, today there’s only a few remaining cigar ladies and buyers of the cigars are predominantly the local community. The youngest cigar lady is in her 80s, the oldest in her late 90s and on a tour, you’ll drop in to one of their homes. The cigar lady will make a cigar, spreading the tobacco leaf out, placing smaller pieces of leaves on it then rolling it all tightly up in the best-looking leaf she can find. With a mixture of starch and water, the end to be smoked is glued. Try your hand at making your own and then smoke it! Or purchase a bundle, around 25 for US$5.

Visit the Community Mill

Molino Boika, the community mill, is situated in the centre of town just across the road from the white Santa Lucia Church which lies on Parque Central. Here, townspeople bring their produce, such as rice, corn, beans and cardamom in baskets and bowls to be ground. The clanking machinery, where earmuffs or earplugs should be used but aren’t, looks ancient with belts and pulleys but still does the job from 5a.m. to 5p.m. with an hour’s break between 8 and 9a.m. and 12 and 2pm. Watch corn with water added turn into a dough-like substance for making into tortillas. 

Get Creative with Indigo Dye

Since Mayan times the indigo plant has been used as a dye after indigenous people tried to make a tea from the leaves and ended up with blue teeth. Suchitoto was a rich town up until the mid-1800s, the capital of the indigo trade with Spanish colonialists exporting the powder to Europe. Synthetic dye then took over and the industry declined. Indigo dying is still done using traditional methods here. Try your hand at an indigo dying workshop, there are options to dye just a piece of material, scarves or, if pre-booked, a shirt can be made to measure which can then be dyed. If you’re not feeling creative just visit a shop selling clothing already beautifully indigo-coloured, such as Arte Añil diagonally opposite Parque Central. With a guide you’ll learn all about the process of turning the leaves into powder and the dying process. Beware – the smell from the vats of indigo dye are stomach-turning.

Learn about El Salvador’s Civil War

Cinquera Ecological Park is around three-quarters of an hour drive from Suchitoto. This peaceful rainforest was once occupied by guerrillas during the 1980s civil war. Tours can be taken from Suchitoto and include a talk by an ex-guerilla. Although it’s in Spanish the guide will interpret and you’ll learn why the civil war occurred and what went on in this area. Afterwards you’ll hike into the park and see trenches, remains of the guerrilla camp and makeshift ‘hospital’ – an open area with felled branches fashioned into operating tables. Visit the lookout, where guerrillas watched for signs of military approaching, getting a view over a lake and tree-covered rolling hills for miles. There are also pools here where indigo was processed. It’s an incredibly interesting place to learn the history of El Salvador. It’s hot and sweaty walking in the humid climate but you can cool down at the end in a small, waterfall-fed, man-made pool. 

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