With time, I have compiled a list called “My Happy Places.”
They are a mix of places I visited during my childhood, places I discovered while going to college, places in my adopted home (California) and places I fell in love with during my travels.
Ataco, a drop of color among a sea of green, it one of those places that make me happy.
I have the feeling you have not heard about Ataco before. Well, you have come to the right spot because I am here to tell you all about this town!
Concepcion de Ataco is a town situated in the western mountain ranges of El Salvador. It is located in the department of Ahuachapan along the popular Flowers Route (Ruta de la Flores).
You don’t have to use the “official” name. Everybody knows the place by Ataco. To me, this is the most beautiful town in El Salvador. Not that I have seen all the towns in El Salvador but we human beings love to make bold statements like that.
Ataco was founded by the Pipiles (a pre-Columbian Indian group) in the Apaneca Mountain Range. The name comes from a Nahuatl word that means “place of elevated water springs”.
The town started to gain popularity around 2004 when it entered a government-sponsored competition (Pueblos Vivos or Towns Full of Life). The residents gave a total makeover to the city by adding colorful murals all around.
That idea paid off and Ataco is known today for those beautiful pieces of arts adorning the streets. Not only that, artisans, chefs, and artists started to open craft stores, galleries, restaurants, and looms. All of this magic resurgence has taken place under the vigilance of the coffee growing in the nearby mountains.
Ataco – Things to Do in Town
Ataco has 18,000 inhabitants but take into consideration, not all those reside in the center. As a result, the town is very quiet during the week. Activity rises during the weekends when people from San Salvador, the capital, escape the urban jungle in search of a more relaxed pace.
I believe Ataco has enough attractions to keep you busy for a day or two. Here are some fun things to do in town.
- Stroll the Central Park (Fray Rafael Hernandez Park) and take a look at the church, city hall, cafes and antique shops
- Stop by the arts and crafts shops. Things such as sculptures, ornaments, clothes, antiques, and candles are sold in different establishments.
My favorite craft store in town is Axul Artesanias. Artists Cristina and Alvaro operate their store from a big corner house. They sell crafts from all over El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries as well as their products in their characteristic style (the famous gatos or cats).
This is a store you don’t want to miss. Everything in there is awesome. They even sell fabrics made in their in-house looms (you may see them at work). Don’t forget to have a snack (or meal) at their café. Their desserts are to die for.
There are other spaces selling or showcasing the work of the locals (Casa Comunal, Kali, and others)
- Buy exotic fruits at the Central Market
- Visit the weekend gastronomic and crafts fair (weekends at the Central Park)
- Watch the entire town from above from the Mirador de la Cruz (Cross Viewpoint)
- Swim in one of Atzumpa’s pools
- Since you are in a coffee country, it makes sense to visit a coffee farm. Beneficio San Pedro, Villa Santa Teresita and Finca Buena Vista are located nearby and they are open for tours and tastings
- If you cannot make it to a coffee farm, at least, you need to try a cup of coffee from the area. Options include Café La Casona, The House of Coffee, Café del Sitio and Kafekali
- Eat a delicious national or international dish at one of the many restaurants in town. I am going to discuss the gastronomic side of the town in more detail but, want to let you know Ataco has some of the best culinary attractions in the area
Ataco – Murals
I have discussed several things to do in Ataco but I felt compelled to dedicate an entire section of this article to the murals of this town.
Murals, adorning shops and houses, are what started to give a new life to Concepcion de Ataco. The most touching thing is that these murals perfectly describe how life is lived in a typical rural town of El Salvador. Locals traditions are highlighted in the paintings too. Therefore, you get a heavy dose of culture while walking around and admiring the murals.
As an example, the mural below showcases the tradition of preparing carpets for Holy Week (Semana Santa). This is a tradition most associated with Antigua, Guatemala. However, other Central American countries create intricate carpets too.
This next mural depicts a scene of the Salvadoran countryside. Take a look at the girl balancing a large water pitcher over her head. A lot of Salvadoran women are experts in carrying heavy loads over their heads. They carry everything from fruit baskets to bags full of firewood. Usually, they place a rolled piece of cloth over their head before putting the load. The girl in the mural has a blue piece of cloth between her head and the pitcher.
In the one below, you can see ladies separating coffee seeds. The area where Ataco is located is famous for producing the country’s best coffee. If you visit, make sure to stop by one of the cafes. This is a must!!
I love this next mural because it shows some ladies getting a bath (or shower) in the river. It is common to see this practice in rural areas (or ladies washing clothes topless).
Below, we have one of the most beloved festivities in the area, the Torito Pinto. This is a folkloric song and dance invented in the country. It is kind of an imitation (some say a mock) of the Spanish bullfight. Dancers dress in bright colors and wear hats adorned with paper flowers. A man, wearing a bull-head cap, dances inside a circle created by the dance group. All carry a red handkerchief and the “bull” showcases its bravery when disturbed.
Even the store selling chocolate covered bananas is painted in a unique way.
Here are other examples:
Ataco – Things to Do Near Town
The main advantage of Ataco is that it can be used as a base to explore the western mountain ranges of El Salvador and the other towns in the Ruta de las Flores. You can do this while staying at a town full of character where restaurants and cafes abound.
If you are staying in Ataco, here are some ideas of what you can do in the surroundings.
- El Jardin de Celeste – this is an excellent place to have breakfast or lunch. Many agree this place has the best food in the Ruta de las Flores (and I go there every time I am in El Salvador)
- Entre Nubes – another great place to eat and relax. Not only the food is good but the place serves as a garden too
- Cascadas de Don Juan – scenic área featuring twin waterfalls
- Apaneca Canopy Tour – zip line and aerial adventures
- Apaneca Aventura Buggie Tours – 4WD, ATV, and off-road tours
- Laguna Verde – lake located on a volcanic crater
- Portezuelo Mountain Park – place to camp, glamp and ride horse or bikes
- Las Cabañas de Apaneca – mountain hotel and restaurant
- Hotel Santa Leticia – mountain resort and coffee farm. An archeological site known as “Los Gordinflones” or the Potbellies is located at the property
- This small town is known for the yuca (cassava) and chicharron (pork rinds) sold at the central park
- Juayua is home to the largest gastronomic fair in the country. Every Saturday and Sunday the town fills with stalls selling dishes from every department of El Salvador. It is an excellent place to try dishes from all over the country (international dishes too). Also, the fair is known for its exotic “proteins.” I have seen snake, armadillo, and iguana on sale.
- Los Chorros de la Calera – 7 waterfalls located closet to town (it is better to visit with a local guide and with a group)
- Parque Nacional Cerro Verde – this park is home to the Santa Ana and Izalco volcanoes. This is one of the gems of the country and I want to encourage you to visit. The Santa Ana Volcano can be climbed but I suggest finding exact details since this is not necessarily an easy feat.
- Lago de Coatepque – If you are visiting the volcanoes, make sure to stop by Coatepeque, a large crater lake that was nominated as one of the “natural wonders” of the world
- Parque Nacional El Imposible (Impossible National Park) – this is the most diverse area of El Salvador but as the name implies, the access to the park is limited to 4WD vehicles. It is a place full of mountain views, waterfalls, rivers, and petroglyphs. However, I suggest visiting with a tour company
The municipal head is the biggest town in the area.
- Termales de Santa Teresa – thermal pools
- Los Ausoles – small geysers and mud pools
- Parque La Concordia – the historic center of town surrounds this park
- Cultural Center
- La Casa de Mamapan – boutique hotel and restaurant. The hotel has a coffee forest with trails designated to be in contact with nature
- Laguna El Espino – eat all sort of dishes while enjoying a lake view
- Eat a pupusa loca (crazy pupusa) – these pupusas have the size of a personal pizza. They can be found in food halls stationed around the central park or at Pupuseria La Choza
Restaurants in Ataco
If food is your thing, get prepared to have a good time in Ataco.
For Salvadoran food, you can stop by Pupuseria Primavera or Pupuseria Cielito Lindo.
International food can be enjoyed at the following restaurants:
- Piccolo Giardino (Mediterranean)
- Sibaritas (Mediterranean, Spanish)
- La Pampa (Argentinean)
- Vitto’s Pizza
- Xochikalko (meat, fish, sándwiches)
- Portland Grill
- Acordes Café
- El Brasero
Since Ataco is located in a mountainous region, a light jacket or sweater may be needed during the cool mornings and nights. Expect hot and humid weather in lower elevations.
How to move around?
The best way to move around is with a car. You can make reservations and pick one at the airport. El Salvador has excellent infrastructure. Once you exit the capital area, it is easy to drive around. What is more, the Ruta de las Flores consists of the main road connecting towns and attractions.
Chances are you will be arriving from Guatemala if you are following one of Central America’s backpacking trails. The towns of Sonsonate and Ahuachapan, the transportation hubs in this part of El Salvador, are about 4 hours from Antigua Guatemala. A bus will connect you to Ataco from those cities.
Safety in Ataco
The area surrounding Ataco is one of the safest in the country. Common sense will go a long way. As in other places, I would avoid driving at night in unknown areas, walking alone in trails and not checking tour guide credentials.
More About El Salvador
- 27 Interesting Facts about El Salvador
- Flavors of El Salvador
- El Imposible National Park
- Exotic Fruits Discovered in El Salvador
- For more information about the country, visit the official tourism website.
Have you been to Ataco? What beautiful off the beaten path towns have you visited?
Ready to pin? Let’s do this!