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Birth of a destination

The Baltimore Sun

The flight attendant was skeptical.

"You're getting off in El Salvador?" he asked. I nodded. "You don't need arrival forms if you are traveling on to Costa Rica," he said. "We're going to El Salvador," I told him. With some hesitation he handed me paperwork to enter the country.

Our family of five, including three boys ages 4 to 7, was traveling to this Central American nation of 7 million, encouraged by a nonstop flight and the online discovery of a colonial town called Suchitoto.

Blogs called it the next Antigua, Guatemala, or Granada, Nicaragua. The town of less than 25,000 people was hailed for its International Arts Festival every February and its year-round good weather. Folks raved about the views of Lake Suchitlan, shimmering in a valley below hillside cafes.

But there was more that drew me in. Something in my travel psyche sensed this was a place to see before it was filled with tourists - like Dubrovnik before the rest of Europe crashed into Croatia or San Miguel de Allende before Americans saw the value in colonial Mexican architecture.

A few weeks after researching the town, my family and I disembarked at Comalapa International Airport, El Salvador's main terminal. Thirty minutes into the journey to Suchitoto, we were stopping for refrescos at a local bodega; within an hour we were dropped off in Suchitoto, "land of birds and flowers" in the native Nuhuatl language.

What we discovered was a beguiling town on the cusp of a major revival.

Founded 1,000 years ago by the indigenous Pipil tribe, Suchitoto was the capital of El Salvador for 15 years beginning in 1528. In the 19th century, it was home to many wealthy Salvadorans who had fled the town of San Salvador after a devastating earthquake. Fortunes changed, and El Salvador is probably still best remembered for its civil war from 1980 to 1992, when guerrilla fighters rose up against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. During this tumultuous decade, 75,000 citizens were killed as the insurgents fought to end a brutal dictatorship.

Suchitoto was the site of some of the earliest fighting, but because 90 percent of its inhabitants fled during the war, the ghost town was saved from mass demolishment. Its cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and balconied homes still stand, though some have not been inhabited since the war began. Their beautiful, faded facades only add to the town's sense of possibility.

After the war, the village was declared a national cultural site, granted government protection against unchecked development, and its citizens slowly began to return and rebuild their lives. One of the main parks, San Martin, has sculpture crafted from artillery left behind, and the Villa Balanza, a restaurant and small guesthouse, is easily identified by the artwork above its entrance: a huge iron scale weighing a stack of tortillas against a bomb.

An arts revival

Tiny, oceanfront El Salvador, sandwiched between Guatemala to the north and Honduras to the east and south, is creeping back into global consciousness. Its beaches are the newest hot spot for surfers who have discovered "the perfect break" along its 200-mile Pacific coastline.

Sonsonate, a colonial town in the west, has one of the largest Holy Week festivals outside of Seville, Spain. Yet Suchitoto, in the center of the country, and less than an hour from the capital city of San Salvador, is the jewel in the burgeoning tourist crown. Many visitors come for the handicrafts and culture, as well as the town's restaurants and beautiful views of Lake Suchitlan.

The Santa Lucia church, blindingly white in the central plaza, is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in the nation. On three sides of the plaza are covered porticos with cafes, a large hotel, a trendy bar and an Internet coffee shop - the town's first - as well as a daily artisans' market set up under colorful orange tents.

Suchitoto's nascent arts movement is picking up steam. The flat, cobblestone streets are home to small boutiques, galleries and craft stores staffed by entrepreneurs who have come home to capitalize on what could be the area's salvation: tourism.

Casa de la Abuela, run by the charming and English-speaking Jose Rene Melara, is a home-decor shop and art gallery. It's housed in Rene Melara's grandmother's airy residence - two walls of doors and shuttered windows flung open wide.

Rene Melara lived in Canada during the war and received an MBA in Spain, but he decided that his heart was in his homeland. His wife, Maria Anjondra, makes handbags, using linen, colorful textiles, rope and lengths of gorgeous bead as adornment. One could easily see them turning up on the arms of fashionistas - yet they're just $18. Hand-carved bookshelves and tables are less than $100.

At restaurants, the art on the walls is often for sale. The Harlequin Cafe has lovely watercolors of local scenes - women carrying baskets on their heads through the market or singers in an ersatz nightclub, barefoot. Unfortunately for me, my two favorites were marked vendido, or "sold."

When I asked about the artist, the restaurant's owner said, "He's right there," pointing to a young man sitting at a table enjoying lunch. A conversation was struck, and like everyone else we met in town, he told a tale of leaving during the war, then returning to give back to Suchitoto. "If you can wait a couple of days," he told me, "I am happy to paint you another one."

Luxury lodging

As uncharted as Suchitoto may be, there's no need to rough it. Three years ago, a stylish Frenchman, Pascal Lebailly, launched the country's most exquisite small hotel, Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. After 18 months and the labor of 30 craftsmen, the doors opened to whomever was adventurous enough to make the trip.

Where once stood a crumbling house with an overgrown sloped backyard is now a dazzling display of light and flowers, patios and secret places. A hipster bar and white-tablecloth restaurant overlook the cool, clear figure-eight swimming pool, carved into a garden of bougainvillea, birds of paradise and banana palms.

On the street level, six handsome rooms surround a stone patio, where guests are serenaded by the sounds of many fountains and small waterfalls.

Modern art (which can be purchased from the owner's Galeria de Pascal across the street), local handicrafts, curios unearthed during the restoration and furniture shipped from Thailand add to the intimacy and luxury of this boutique inn.

Not content to provide lodging only, Los Almendros boasts the most upscale dining room in town. Thanks to Lebailly and his staff, guests will hear lobster carpaccio and El Salvador in the same breath.

In fact, Los Almendros defies all manner of Third World stereotypes. Much of the wine on the extensive list is imported from France. Breakfast includes a tropical fruit salad laced with honey, mint and cloves. Fresh fish on the dinner menu arrives daily from a beach town two hours east. And if you take a day trip with Lebailly to the peak of El Pital, the highest mountain in the country, a picnic lunch will be set with napkins, china, wineglasses, shrimp cocktail with coriander and other gourmet fare.

Tourists welcome

Despite reports of random violent crime throughout El Salvador, we never worried about safety during our week in Suchitoto. In fact, what we encountered consistently were unexpected acts of gentleness: Old men would rub the blond hair of my 4-year-old, mesmerized by his paleness. A local matriarch named Reina, whom we came to know from our daily trips to the market for doughnuts, would remind us to keep hats on our boys.

In our favorite ice cream store, Helado y Caliente, the two young women behind the counter, Sara and Sara, would ask where our children were if we came alone. If we had just two of them, they'd ask about the third.

Walking to dinner one evening, I peered into the open door of a home, whose owner was sitting on the curb enjoying the evening air. Seeing my curiosity, he gestured for us to come in, saying something about the beautiful lake views - the vista del lago.

Though our Spanish is limited, we understood that he lived in the house with his two sons and that he was one of the town's few inhabitants to stay on during the war. The view was spectacular, and even more wonderful was the invitation.

There are so few places, so easy to get to, where tourists are still seen as something out of the ordinary. Where the locals seem genuinely happy to have you there. Suchitoto is one of these places. In the ranks of colonial Latin American destinations, this gem of a town sits at the back of the pack, politely waiting its turn to be "discovered." But go now, so you can say, "You should have seen it 25 years ago."

if you go

GETTING THERE

Taca, the national airline of El Salvador (taca.com), offers nonstop flights from Washington (Dulles International Airport) to San Salvador. Roundtrip tickets start at about $550. Suchitoto is 90 minutes from the airport; transfers are $50 each way by private vehicle. Taca, unlike some U.S. carriers, still offers in-flight amenities, such as free headphones, drinks and a full meal.

LODGING

Note: The country code for El Salvador is 503; when you're dialing from the U.S., all numbers below are preceded by 011-503.

Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, 4a Calle Poniente, #2b, Suchitoto, El Salvador; telephone 2335-1200. Rooms: $85-$150, including full breakfast and taxes; hotelsalvador.com; e-mail: plebailly@hotelsalvador.com

La Pasada del Sol, 2a Av. Sur, #39, Barrio El Calvario, Suchitoto; telephone. 2335-1546. Rooms: $40-$60. An affordable hotel with a restaurant and two pools. lapasadadelsol.com; e-mail: info@lapasadadelsol.com.

DINING

2 Gardenias, 3a Calle Poniente, #14 and Av. 5 de Noviembre, Suchitoto; telephone 2335-1868 or 7855-6764; www.gaesuchitoto.com. Our favorite spot in town for its cheerful bartenders, great mojitos, quesadillas and lomito (marinaded slices of pork). Also doubles as an art gallery.

Posada de Suchitlan, end of 4a Calle Poniente; telephone 2335-1645. Undoubtedly the best views of the lake in town. Atmospheric restaurant with a children's playground. Also has rooms from $60-$80.

Information

Tourism Ministry of El Salvador, telephone 2243-7845

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