SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- Guatamala has its Antigua, Honduras has Copan Ruinas, and Nicaragua boasts of Granada. The capital cities of the upper stretches of Central America often have sister cities that act as their nicer, more comfortable, colonial antitheses. Where the capital cities of these countries can perhaps be called world disaster zones, their colonial counterparts are often proclaimed world heritage sites. These colonial cities often serve as the centers of tourism for the CA-4 countries, and offer an easy escape route from Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, and Managua.
El Salvador has one of these colonial cities too, and it is by far the most obscure, and, in my opinion, the best of them all. It is called Suchitoto.
“Suchitoto is like Antigua without all of the tourists,” my wife Chaya described the place. Upon my arrival at the beginning of this week, I had to confirm her observations as being correct: Suchitoto is a city of cobblestone streets that give rise to strings of colorfully painted mud brick houses, there is a large central park, big old churches, people strolling the streets admiring their town — sort of like Antigua.
The difference is that this city is all El Salvador, there is no visible trace of the Maya here — the indigenous population was wiped out in the 1930’s, and there are also very few tourists as well. The few white faces that I have seen parading around on Suchitoto’s cobblestone streets were stuck upon the bodies of save the world volunteers and Spanish language students.
But even still, tourism is on the rise here. The floodgates are almost set to be opened.
“When I was here just two years ago, you would not see a foreigner who you did not know the name of,” Chaya explained.
She went on to tell me how the streets are now being stripped of pavement to reveal again the cobblestones beneath, how the large colonial church in the park is being fixed up for picture takers, and how there are now many fold more hotels and hostels here than even two years before. The place is changing.
We all know well where it is going.
Now there are a patchwork of foreigners walking in groups through the streets of Suchitoto — over here, over there — not yet enough to declare an invasion, but enough to firmly state that the advance units have been sent in. Troop reinforcements are inevitably on the way.
We are part of the flag corps, setting the stage for the invasion. I am going to tell you how nice Suchi is, I am going to tell you to come here. This place is good. The tourists will come, and the town will prosper.
Tourism is a bloated parasite that eats the life out of whatever place it finds, leaving only an exoskeleton in its wake. The exoskeleton that remains looks as perfect as an image, it appears to be what it looks like, but the insides are hollow, often devoid of any real substance — the living organism flew the coup a long time ago. Tourist fairy tale lands are only real because I can touch them, see them, spend money in them, sleep in them — though I frolic on the face of a mask. Tourist towns are props, shows — exoskeletons. I know this, and it is not that bad. I don’t expect anything more.
I don’t travel through the view finder of a camera, I care little for the exotic looking. I want the dirty feet, corner drunks, garbage heaps, and sewage overspills of life off the stage. The shows and performances of the world are good to watch, but I want to go home with a taste in my mouth that is not all plastic, sterilized, and cleaned.
Antigua is now so expensive that Guatemalans can hardly afford to live there. Foreigner investors willing to pay any amount for rent and fancy tourists with quick draw fingers ever close to their loosely holstered pocketbook have driven the costs of the city through the roof. Many Guatemalans have become rich in Antigua, many of the old rich became richer, but many more have been driven out by the shear costs of rent and living.
It is common to hear Antiguan business owners complain of the ever upward spiraling rents. It is like watching one of those saucer shaped spinning fire works shoot up into the sky. The rent rises, so the prices rise, which in turn causes the rent to be raised again, and the prices rise again. The top will continue spinning like this until the bottom drops out — until the upward thrust has spent its inertia, and gravity pulls the spent fire work back to earth. Or maybe it will just keep spinning, rising, keep getting ever more expensive.
But I know that the price of a meal in a regular restaurant in Antigua is just about the same as in the USA. The tourists don’t care — they are here to spend money — but the residual effects are that they drive up the costs for everyone.
The old Antiguans say that they want their city back, that they want things how they were twenty years ago. But, apparently, they like the high rents they receive and the tourist dollars far better. It is my impression that people would rather have the opportunity to make lots of money than have a town where they can pay a dollar for a hamburger at a restaurant on the main square, sit at a table outside and eat it while watching people strolling by, kids on bicycles riding around, and watching the orange glow from the setting sun frolic upon the white walls of the grandiose colonial church across the park.
Tourism effects everybody in a town, when prices go up they go up for everybody. Tourism creates a domino effect: one section of town becomes expensive, then another, then another, soon the entire place is too expensive for the people who live there to go out and eat a simple meal at a simple restaurant. But some people in the town will get rich, while others find they cannot pay their rent, go broke trying, or they move away. Gentrification is an all or nothing exchange — if you build it they will come, but your town will never be the same.
Tourism is the industry of the people, but economics is a food chain — the bigger fish will eat their fill of the little ones no matter how hard they try to grow. It is said that tourism is good for the economy of a town. Apparently, this is true. But the residual effects run deep. It is true that tourism is the industry of the people — most of the hotels, hostels, restaurants, tour companies that you will give your money to while traveling are run locally — but when one person begins making money all others will want their cut. If you begin charging $10 for a meal in your restaurant, the landlord will raise the rent, then the next landlord will find out about it and raise the rent of their properties, then those business who were renting will need to begin charging their customers more, and on and on. Soon enough, you cannot afford to live in your own town.
This is a vastly over simplified model, but it is my impression that the point can be sifted out of the analogies: Suchitoto feels like a good place to live, it is far away from the crowds and tourist mongering of Antigua, but has a similar charm. But Suchi seems to be trying hard to catch up. As soon as the lake area is developed, direct transport from the San Salvador airport established, and little forest lodges, restaurants, and bars set up all through the mountains, tourism in El Salvador will explode.
Be careful what you wish for, Suchitoto, you could easily find yourself decked out for upper class tourism, three hotels on every block, and restaurants that charge $10 for a plate of food. Your city and lake area is a hidden gem about to be uncovered.
The next swing of tourism in Central America will more than likely be towards Suchitoto.
I am now in Suchitoto now. I pay $80 a month to rent out a newer apartment. Breakfasts costs 75 cents, lunch one dollar, and dinner maybe two dollars for a huge meal with a drink. The town is a colonial paradise, the streets are wonderful to walk, the buildings beautiful, the people smile friendly and say “Buenos” as you pass. People are in the streets, sitting outside in front of homes they can afford to pay for — apparently living pretty well in a town that is relatively inexpensive by global standards. There are few abandoned buildings in Suchitoto, the place is alive, thriving, happening. The people seem comfortable here, happy. Even the corner drunks seem to have enough resources to steadily drunk throughout the day without stretching out open palms for nickels. This is a town on its way up, though I must fear what this means.
It is difficult to stop the wheels of progress, the human animal seems to crave change. Everywhere in the world is changing all the time. To pull in the reigns on such a place as Suchi would be unnatural. The city will be developed for foreign tourism, the lake will front soon be full of bars, hotels, and souvenir shops. Outside investors will come in, pirates will dock their ships in port, and the families who live here will be replaced by those from other places.
Suchitoto is a place at the end of the traveler’s rainbow. A tourist stage show will soon be worked up here, the town will rediscover its colonial roots, and the money will come. People will get rich. Suchitoto and Lago Suchilan will become the diamond in the rough of El Salvador, and we all will see pictures of its cobblestone streets and old mud brick buildings in the tourists brochures of travel agents, travel blogs, and on the travel channel.
As it should. The town deserves the money, the industry, the invasion — from what I can tell, El Salvador deserves it too.
I will tell you to come to Suchitoto with a solid heart — I mean it — come here and enjoy it, meet these people, go for it: invade.