Q & A with Robert Broz Moran, Founder, El Gringo Suchitoto Tours, Suchitoto, El Salvador.
I first visited rural communities near Suchitoto in 1994, and after deciding to change my life and move to El Salvador in 1995, my work in social development brought me back to live here in 1997. I continue working with schools and communities in rural Suchitoto through my work as project Director for the El Salvador Projects. This is an initiative of the Palo Alto Friends Meeting [San Francisco Bay area, USA]. Our focus is on post high school education and personally I promote tourism opportunities.
HOW FAR AWAY IS SUCHITOTO FROM SAN SALVADOR?
[THE CAPITAL CITY]
Suchitoto is only 47 km from San Salvador.
We have been on the map for more than 160 years. Since then, a number of poets and artists as well as three past Salvadoran presidents have made Suchitoto their home. Today we offer more opportunities than ever for locals and visitors to learn about art and culture. We have a theater arts program for youth, and our Art Center for Peace offers free adult classes to local residents in fine arts, music, dance, English, computer skills, yoga, and more.
Our annual Art and Culture festival in February brings performing groups from around the world to put on plays, concerts, and dance recitals. The festival is open to the public; donations go to restoring our historic theater building.
Lake Suchitlan was created back in the mid-1970s; the official name of the lake is the Cerrón Grande Reservoir. This was the result of the first major hydroelectric project in El Salvador, the damming of the Lempa River. The lake is sizeable, measuring 135 square km, and it has become a main attraction of our city. It is also one of my favorite places to go birding.
WHEN IS YOUR BUSY SEASON?
DO YOU OFFER ANY SPECIAL DEALS WITH LOCAL HOTELS?
Generally no. However, I can offer my personal recommendations, check availability, and make reservations in Suchitoto if you contact me in advance. For travelers booking their entire trip with us, we have sometimes in the past negotiated discounted rates at certain hotels we work directly with.
We will head to the western part of El Salvador where you can visit both traditional coffee farms and new eco-friendly coffee farms. What you will see will depend on the time of year, there is an obvious difference in farm activities between the harvest season and the rest of the year.
IS COFFEE PRODUCTION STILL IMPORTANT TO THE NATIONAL ECONOMY?
Yes it is. Coffee is one of our main exports. In the past years there have been huge improvements for the farmers. It used to be that the coffee producers sold their best green coffee beans to the large exporters which meant none of the roasting was done locally and end-profits never came back. Today both large and small coffee producers are getting into selection, blending, and toasting, and many participate in cooperatives so that they can all benefit from modern, eco-friendly methods of growing and processing coffee, and they can take a share in the profits and earn higher wages which enables them to pay their workers more which changes their lives as well. Having worked as an agricultural advisor in the 1990s for both coffee and sugar cane cooperatives, I can attest to the positive changes this brings to poor communities.
In Spanish it is called Parque Ecológico Bosque de Cinquera; it is now the largest protected natural area in El Salvador, actually larger than any of our national parks! This is a very biodiverse forest that lends itself to wonderful hiking and bird watching activities. The same communal association that started the eco forest now supports an Iguana Farm, an eatery, a small hostel, a solar fruit drying project, and a small civil war museum. So we have developed a worthwhile tour to this destination which in all takes about 6 hours to complete.
FROM THE PHOTOS I HAVE SEEN OF CERRO VERDE, I AM SURE I WOULD ENJOY A HIKING AND BIRD WATCHING EXPERIENCE THERE. IS THIS ONE OF YOUR MORE POPULAR TOURS?
Cerro Verde is a very common tour for us. For hard core birders, we try to get to the park by 6 am (before the park opens) meeting one of our local guides en route. We offer both half-day and full-day tours. For the non-birders, we offer a combo tour that includes Cerro Verde and the Joya de Ceren Mayan site, which is nearby, lunch at a small chalet, then off to explore two or three cities on the Flower route. By the end of a long day, we will have covered most of western El Salvador.
I always recommend that travelers first check with their health departments at home for any information updates. Diseases carried by mosquitos like malaria and more recently Zika have happened here, so do bring mosquito repellent and wear appropriate clothing to cover your skin, including socks. Our national hospital system is very good about reporting outbreaks which then triggers preventive mosquito abatement measures.
We can make arrangements for volunteering, but we do need advance notice and you should have at least a working level of Spanish. In the past we have arranged short visits to local day care centers, public schools, communal clinics and the like. In addition, some volunteers have brought items like medicine and school supplies to donate, and in those cases we always arrange for direct contact so the donors can meet the recipients.
If someone wants a longer-term commitment as a volunteer, I can arrange a home stay through the El Salvador Projects, but again you need to have that working level of Spanish and some type of skill to offer.
I think I could write an entire book about so many changes! Some reforms have helped the society as a whole. For example, public buses are better maintained, and the drivers now have to be licensed and renew their driving certificates annually. The major highways and rural roads have been improved following a tax added per gallon on gas and diesel fuels. Public school teachers are now certified, and there are higher accreditation standards for universities and technical schools. Our Ministry of Tourism has represented El Salvador at regional and world tourism fairs, even winning an award for best booth display at a recent travel fair [FITUR] in Madrid! On the downside, our major political parties are constantly in disagreement, and this causes delays in national budget implementation. National government leaders do little to mitigate criminal gang activities, leaving such work to the underfinanced cities, local churches and charitable organizations.
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