Thanks to poor publicity, which has until now focused on the country’s past political problems and domestic violence, El Salvador (Central America’s smallest country) remains hugely under-visited. It is a great shame, especially when one considers the wealth of terrific travel opportunities available within its 21,041 km2 area.
Stunning volcanos, tropical jungle, pumping-surf beaches, Conquistador colonial towns, breath-taking national parks, warm, friendly people and some of the tastiest coffee plantation produce – all these have been over-shadowed by reports on the country’s enduring political and economic instabilities. This was particularly the case during the distressing Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), when the struggle between the military government and a combination of left-wing revolutionary groups had such a devastating effect on society.
Although today’s joint party constitutional Republic (between FMLN and ARENA) was negotiated as part of the peace settlement twenty-five years ago, life in El Salvador continues to be an economic struggle. The legacy of past politics seeps deep into society, both in the traditional rural subsistence farming communities, and in the cities, where folk often rely on economic remittances from family abroad. Their struggle is expressed in the country’s art, which has historically danced to a political tune.
Modern art in El Salvador is dominated by representations of civil unrest, revolts, military coups and revolutionary warfare. In the pre-digital age, sign writers, artists and illustrators were forced to style their work around the politics of the day. And while political propaganda painting and portraits continue to have their place in society, there has been a recent shift by artists towards the more joyful aspects of life.
Nowhere more so than in the lush 1240m high, coffee mountain town of Concepción de Ataco.
An explosion in multi-coloured murals has transformed the town into a kaleidoscope of street art. Whole streets, previously under pressure to promote weary political messages, have kicked back with an extensive and endearing collection of fun and funky external wall paintings. The enjoyable result is that a stroll through Ataco’s streets today is like walking between the pages of a monster art portfolio.
Fun and funky, the whole town appears to be smiling. I loved it and highly recommend adding Ataco to your El Salvador bucket list of travel highlights.
As my photographs show, the enormous diversity of external-wall frescos have moved away from the traditional guerrilla-protection posters and now favour a more diverse and uplifting set of murals.
While continuing to reference the region’s traditional coffee-plantation heritage, the murals go further in vividly celebrating many other aspects of modern day life.