If you’re looking for beautiful beaches, world class surfing, an abundance of outdoor activities, and a place that fits your budget, then keep reading. El Salvador may very well be one of the best kept travel secrets. For now. Keep reading as I answer the question: Is El Salvador a good place for travelers?
Where in the world is El Salvador?
El Salvador is part of the North American continent but it’s also known as the smallest country in the Central American region. Central America consists of just 7 countries and is the area between Mexico & South America.
Is El Salvador a good place for travelers?
I’m going to list all the reasons you should visit El Salvador but let’s get the answer to this question out of the way first. YES! El Salvador is a GREAT place to visit. You wouldn’t think that a small country would have that much to do but it really does. And the fact that it’s still kind of a big secret is the best reason to go as soon as possible. Get there and enjoy all it has to offer before it gets too touristy. You will not regret it.
Why should you visit El Salvador?
In the past, El Salvador was considered a very
unsafe dangerous place to go. It just wasn’t a place anyone would consider vacationing. El Salvador had a serious gang problem and homicide and theft were at the top of the list of issues. In 2019 a new president was elected and he vowed to clean up the country starting with the gang problem. He did and now El Salvador is one of the safer countries in Central America.
Read about Safety in El Salvador for tips to stay safe and things you need to think about when going there.
While other popular Central American countries like Costa Rica and Belize are overrun with tourists, El Salvador doesn’t have that issue. You won’t experience sites overrun with tourists. You might even have some places all to yourself. Of course the more people that visit El Salvador, the more popular it will become and there will be a day when it’s full of tourists. But for now it’s not like that and that alone is the best reason El Salvador is a good place for travelers.
Best things to do in El Salvador
If you’re ready to start planning a trip to El Salvador in 2023, then this is the list for you. With everything from ancient Mayan sites to lakes, waterfalls, and spectacular hiking to incredible beaches, you will not be disappointed. Keep reading all my reasons why El Salvador is a good place for travelers to visit.
El Salvador Archeological Sites
There is no shortage of pre-Colombian sites in Central America. Before Spain began its conquest of Mesoamerica, El Salvador was made up of several indigenous peoples: the Nahuas, the Lencas, and a Mayan group called the Chortis. While some of El Salvador’s neighbors like Guatemala have more well-known archeological sites, El Salvador has it’s own that are worth exploring.
There are five Mayan archeological sites in El Salvador that you can visit. They are 1. San Andrés, 2. Casa Blanca, 3. Tazumal, 4. Cihuatan, and 5. Joya de Cerén. Some of the sites have the pyramids that we’re all familiar with but also ball courts, and ancient artifacts. The Joya de Cerén site is referred to as the “Pompeii of the Americas’ due to its preservation from a volcanic eruption that left the site covered in ash. Joya de Cerén is the only UNESCO site in all of El Salvador.
El Salvador Volcanoes
El Salvador is known as the “Land of Volcanoes”. There are 20 volcanoes in El Salvador, and at least 2 are still active. The San Miguel Volcano which sits about 140 km south of the capital of San Salvador last had some activity in May 2023. The other active volcano is the Santa Ana Volcano which last erupted in 2005.
The Santa Ana Volcano hike is one of the most popular things to do in El Salvador. Yes, you can actually hike this active volcano all the way to the top where you can view the turquoise colored sulfur crater lake. Even though it wasn’t easy (it wasn’t super hard either), this was my favorite thing I did in El Salvador and is one of the top reasons El Salvador is a good place for travelers to go.
The hike is about 4.5 miles roundtrip and takes around 3-4 hours to complete and is totally worth it. And while it might look beautiful, you cannot hike down to the lake or swim in it. The Santa Ana Volcano is about 75 km west of San Salvador.
Read about the Santa Ana Volcano Hike, how to get there, what it costs, and what it’s like to hike up an active volcano.
The Izalco Volcano is the youngest volcano in the world and is another El Salvador volcano you can climb. Known as the “Lighthouse of the Pacific” because it had continuous eruption for nearly 200 years. It’s considered a medium-high difficulty (6/10) so you need to be prepared with good shoes and lots of water. You can hike the Izalco Volcano between 8am – 4pm and you can expect it to take about 4 hours roundtrip for the hike.
El Salvador Beaches | Surfing
One thing El Salvador has is great beaches. Particularly, it’s the surfing at these beaches that it’s mostly known for. Surfers from around the world flock to El Salvador to experience the surf. It’s supposed to have some of the best.
There are around 307 km or 190 miles of coastline in El Salvador. If you want to surf in El Salvador, March through October is the best time to experience big waves. However, it is also the rainy season. Late March and early April is still outside of the rainy season so that is the absolute best time for surfing in El Salvador.
El Tunco Beach
The most popular beach town in El Salvador is El Tunco in La Libertad. This area is known as “surf city”. While most of El Salvador is fairly quiet, El Tunco was one of the busiest places we came across while in El Salvador. There are plenty of places to stay, although they will cost a little more than the rest of El Salvador.
A few other beaches that you might want to check out while in the area are El Zonte, La Libertad, El Zunzal, La Paz, and Punta Roca. Punta Roca has big waves so if you aren’t an expert then you might just want to watch. You can also take surf lessons at El Salvador Surf Camps in El Tunco and El Zonte.
Other beach activities
If you aren’t a surfer or you want something else to do, El Tunco is loaded with stores, restaurants, and other fun activities. There are yoga classes for $12 a class at Balance, some are geared towards surfers. There are also some caves at El Tunco that are accessible at low tide. We unfortunately did not get to do that because we missed low tide! Given that this is a beach town, it’s no surprise that there is no shortage of bars and restaurants where you can listen to live music.
El Salvador National Parks | Ecotourism
It may be a small country, but El Salvador has a lot of National Parks. There are over a dozen national parks you can visit with plenty of ecotourism activities. From hiking volcanoes, birdwatching, hiking the park trails, or swimming in lakes and waterfalls, there is no shortage of outdoor activites.
The most popular National Park is the Cerro Verde National Park. This park is very lush with big trees, flowers, and other plants. It also happens to have three volcanoes: Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Santa Ana. You can hike the Izalco and Santa Ana volcanoes. But if you don’t want to hike a volcano there are other trails at Cerro Verde that you can hike.
Cerro Verde will be busiest on the weekends and if it’s raining, you might not be able to hike the Santa Ana Volcano so you’ll want to plan around those things. You’ll also need to hire a guide for the trails (around $5) but you’ll find plenty of guides hanging out at the main entrance.
Located right outside the capital of San Salvador is El Boqueron National Park which sits right on top of the San Salvador Volcano. This national park is just 20 minutes from San Salvador. At the top is a large crater that is about 1.5 kilometers wide and inside the large crater is another smaller crater. There was once a lake inside the crater but with the 1917 eruption it disappeared. You can actually hike down inside the crater and even camp inside the crater! That’s not something you can do every day so that makes El Salvador a good place for travelers looking for unique experiences. Just check the activity of the area before doing so. 🙂
If you’re going to be in Santa Ana, read my article 19 things to do in Santa Ana El Salvador.
El Salvador Hot Springs
With all the volcanoes in El Salvador it should be no surprise that El Salvador has a few natural hot springs. After a hike up a volcano, a hot spring might be exactly what you need to sooth sore muscles.
Salto de Malacatiupan: a hot spring waterfall
Located in the Northwest of El Salvador is a hot springs river and waterfall. It looks cool and refreshing but the water is very warm. Temperatures reach about 97°F or 36°C and you can swim, jump off the top, or just sit in one of the pools and relax. The cost to get in? Completely free.
Salto de Malacatiupan is about a 45 minute drive from the town of Santa Ana. If you haven’t rented a vehicle you can Uber there for around $10 and the driver will wait for you if you ask them to. It will also cost $10 to get back to Santa Ana. You can take a bus from Santa Ana but it will likely take longer to get there. Looking at the photos below you would never guess that water is very warm. Like a nice gigantic hot tub!
Remember to bring towels, bug spray, water, and good walking shoes. The rocks at Salto de Malacatiupan are very slippery.
Santa Teresa Hot Spring
For $10 you can visit the Santa Teresa Hot Spring also located in the Northwest of El Salvador near the town of Ahuachapan. There are hot pools and cold pools, spa treatments, and a sauna. It’s about a 55 minute drive from Santa Ana and they have rooms available to rent if you prefer to stay the night at the resort. They have a bar and restaurant and rooms have a small kitchenette. They are open from 8am – 10pm seven days a week.
Ruta de las Flores | Colonial Towns
Near the Cerro Verde National Park is the Ruta de las Flores or “flower route”. Along the route are five small towns that you can stop at and visit their historical churches, walk through markets, and visit shops that make traditional handicrafts. The route is around 20 miles long and it will take you through the towns of Juayua, Nahuizalco, Salcoatitan, Apaneca, and Concepcion de Ataco.
El Salvador Lakes and Waterfalls
Coatepeque Lake is one of the best lakes in El Salvador. It has turquoise waters that change colors from green to blue and back to green again from time to time. You can swim, kayak, jet ski, or rent a boat at Coatepeque Lake. There’s also plenty of bars and restaurants at the lake and there’s even cabins that you can rent for the night.
If you like to hike then head over to the Tamanique Waterfalls. Located about 10 miles from El Tunco, you can drive there if you’ve rented a car, take an Uber, or take a bus. Bus #187 leaves from El Tunco to Tamanique and costs just 50 cents a person.
The hike isn’t easy and having a guide is necessary. You will stop at the Tamanique office to register your visit to the falls, pay your fees, and get a guide. A guide costs $20 for the group so if you have just two people in your group it will end up costing more per person than a group of six people. The hike will take you to four different waterfalls where you can swim and some you can cliff jump into the water. Or, not. I’m in the NO camp but will gladly watch someone else do it.
Plan to spend 2-3 hours hiking and swimming in the waterfalls and pools.
El Salvador Budget
The budget you need to travel in El Salvador may very well be the BEST reason why you El Salvador is a good place for travelers. El Salvador is a poor country and your money will go very far. From hotels to food to transportation, a trip to El Salvador will not cost a lot of money.
Hotels in El Salvador
You can find nice rooms, either hotels or hostals, for between $8 and 40 a night. We stayed at Hostal Las Puertas in Santa Ana for $32 a night. Of course the lower the price the less amenities. You might have to share a dorm style room and have shared bathrooms. We had our own nice large room and bathoom in Santa Ana.
You can also find really nice rooms at hotels for $100 or more. The point is, you can find something for every budget and every travel style. If you stay at a resort or a very popular place like on the lake, expect to pay more than $8.
You have four options for traveling in El Salvador: rent a car, take a taxi or uber, take local transportation, or hitchhike.
Rent a Car
You can rent a car in El Salvador starting at around $18 a day. Make sure you have car insurance on your rental because a lot of roads you travel down might be dirt roads with a lot of rocks and potholes. The main roads are in very good condition but when you start to go to a site the roads that lead to those places aren’t always maintained.
Uber or Taxi
An uber or taxi will cost you between $5 – $35 depending on how far you’re traveling. We took an hour taxi ride from San Salvador to Santa Ana for $35. But we split that between two couples so it wasn’t too bad. We also took several Uber rides to get to different sites and that was between $5 – $20. Our uber driver even showed up on Easter to drive us from Santa Ana to La Libertad. It was almost 2 hours and it was $40 and that was split between two couples. We did give a little extra since it was Easter.
El Salvador has good local transportation called the Chicken Bus. These are colorful buses that cost very little. Expect to pay between 50 cents to a few dollars. You might have to take several buses to get to where you want to go and with all the stops it will take a little longer. But if you are on a tight budget then this will be your best option.
And finally, you can always hitchhike. It is common in El Salvador to flag a truck down or for vehicles to stop if they see someone walking. I would not do this if you’re traveling alone but in a group, maybe. If you decide to do this then use good judgement and trust your instincts.
Cost of food in El Salvador
You can eat for as little as $1 a meal in El Salvador. There are street vendors selling food and the most popular and the national dish of El Salvador are pupusas. A pupusa is a fluffy grilled corn tortilla with beans and cheese or meats. You can get several of them for just $1. Eating in a restaurant will cost more but will be less than you’d pay at a restaurant in another country.
El Salvador Info
|AIRPORT||Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (SAL)|
|PASSPORT & VISA REQUIREMENTS||Passport valid for 6 months & tourist card obtained on arrival ($12)|
|CURRENCY||U.S. Dollar & Bitcoin|
|VOLTAGE||115 V – U.S. items will work fine|
|WEATHER – BEST TIME TO GO||November – April is warm and dry and the best time to visit. May – September is the rainy season. Late March to early April is the best time for surfing.|
Is El Salvador a good place for travelers? Absolutely! The cultural and outdoor experiences you’ll have there will be so rewarding. Just remember that El Salvador is a poorer country so it’s not a resort style vacation. El Salvador is a great destination for nature lovers, adventurers, and for anyone looking to connect with other cultures. You will not be disappointed.