REBEL TOURISM. JUNE 2000
Come to El Salvador
By Kimberly Lisagor COMMENTIING FROM EL SALVADOR
Any self-respecting yuppie adventurer knows that the ultimate travel goal is to discover the Next Great Destination several years before it becomes an official stop on every American backpacker's world tour. In the early 1980s, it was Thailand and Costa Rica. In the mid-1990s, Vietnam and Cambodia. And for this decade ... well, if I knew where it might be, I certainly wouldn't tell you until I'd been.
Last year I thought El Salvador seemed a very likely candidate. Emerging from twelve years of war and decades of instability, the country seemed to be on the verge of an economic rebirth. Its natural offerings compare with those of Belize and Costa Rica: biologically diverse rainforests, world-class surfing beaches, navigable jungles-an eco-traveler's dream. At least, that's what the Salvadoran government's tourism brochures said.
Going in, I had my suspicions. I'd read that El Salvador's environmental problems rival those of any country in Latin America: air pollution, water pollution, out-of-control deforestation. And its crime rates top the charts, in some studies even outdoing Haiti and Colombia. So I wasn't completely surprised when the president of the government's foreign tourism agency advised that I explore the wilderness only on a tour and to stick with the group at all times.
My tour group consisted of one person-me. I paid $80 for a guide to drive me through Cerro Verde National Park in an air-conditioned minivan. It took some coaxing to get the guide out of the car and onto some trails; she said she never really liked the mountains. I'd hoped she would be able to teach me about some of the local plant life, but the only identification she could make was a "helicopter tree"-a shrub at the park entrance that had been cut to resemble a helicopter. Needless to say, this was not the eco-experience I had hoped for.
It's entirely possible that I just went about it the wrong way. It's always more rewarding to explore a new place by bushwhacking solo, but I didn't feel comfortable doing so in a place where the coffee plantations on the forest's perimeter are guarded by grim-faced men with sawed-off shotguns. I asked one government official if there was any place I could visit that was safe enough and clean enough for me to wander without worrying. His response: "The government is working on that." Apparently, it's got quite a task ahead.
-Kimberly Lisagor is an adventure-travel writer for San Francisco-based Outside Online.
© 2000 The WorldPaper (US). All Rights reserved
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