Forget their troubled past – these countries offer volcanoes, beaches and fine colonial architecture... without the crowds
Nicaragua is a friendly and peaceful country that has nonetheless received some negative press over the years. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing – it has managed to preserve its authenticity and character without being swamped by tourists. The largest country in Central America, Nicaragua offers both natural and cultural gems, a testament to a turbulent but fascinating history.
El Salvador, too, has had a chequered past, put has emerged as Central America's best one-stop destination. It's lively and incredibly friendly; packed with volcanoes, rich forests and craggy mountains; fringed by golden beaches and first-class waves which would satisfy the most adventurous surfers. Even the put-upon capital, San Salvador, is being rejuvenated.
No matter which of these countries you choose (hey, why not visit both?) you'll encounter everything the region is famous for – without any crowds.
Colourful houses in San Salvador (Shutterstock)
Both Nicaragua and El Salvador have been peaceful for decades, but both are still fighting the effects of mala fama, bad press, from the 80s. Sarah Gilbert travelled to Nicaragua to see if the country's reputation was justified and instead found a country that was poor but friendly, difficult to travel in but safe. What's more, she was able to enjoy 76 protected areas, acres of virgin rainforest, over 50 volcanoes, countless beaches and perfectly preserved colonial towns without the crowds of tourists that flock to other countries in the region.
Max Woolridge visited Nicaragua too, but headed to the Caribbean Coast and the legendary Corn Islands instead. The impact of the revolution was barely felt here, with the locals living pretty much as they always have.
Eleanor Sanderson went hiking in El Salvador and found a country emerging from its troubled past a little more warily. The scars of the civil war are still visible – indeed, 'war tourism' is a growing sector – but locals are reluctant to talk about it. They'd rather you concentrate on the 300km of Pacific coastline, the highest number of active volcanoes in the region, spectacular mountain hiking, sleepy colonial towns and some of the best surfing in the world.
Or the ruins in Joya de Cerén. Known as the 'Pompeii of the Americas', it's the most complete Mayan village ever to be discovered on the continent, immaculately preserved beneath layers of volcanic ash. If you want an idea of the lives people lived under the Mayans, it's a must-visit, says Thomas Rees.
Still need convincing? Peter Hutchison lays out the reasons you should visit El Salvador now.
Revolutionary trails in Nicaragua – Sarah Gilbert
Sun, sea and sandinistas in Nicaragua – Max Woolridge
Digging deep in Joya de Cerén, El Salvador – Thomas Rees
Back on the radar: El Salvador – Peter Hutchison
History, hiking & hope – El Salvador is back on the map – Eleanor Sanderson
Pupusa in San Salvador (Shutterstock)
The people of Nicaragua and El Salvador are incredibly friendly and hospitable. And chances are they'll be the subject of many of your photographs from the region. The key is shooting with respect, says Steve Davey. Form a bond, have a conversation before you even lift up your camera, and you'll be surprised by the results.
Photography tips: respecting locals – Steve Davey
Streets of Grenada from above (Shutterstock)
Ready to start planning your trip? Our Nicaragua and El Salvador travel guides are the place to start. Make sure you drop by the Nicaragua and El Salvador essential info pages as well, for more everyday (but equally vital) information. And we’ve rounded up the latest travel news from Nicaragua and El Salvador too.
If you have a particular question about Nicaragua or El Salvador, pop over to the myWanderlust Forum where our knowledgeable community is ready to spring into action and share all that they know. Or check out the questions that have already been asked about Nicaragua or El Salvador. The answer to yours might already be there.
Nicaragua Travel Guide – Wanderlust team
El Salvador Travel Guide – Wanderlust team
Nicaragua Essential Info – Wanderlust team
El Salvador Essential Info – Wanderlust team
Playa in El Zonte (Shutterstock)
Here’s a selection of fantastic tours offered by our partners. From trekking tours in Nicaragua's Fire Mountains and cycling tours in El Salvador through to more specialised tours that focus on the local wildlife, architecture or recent history, there’s something to suit every taste and budget.
Main image: Granada cathedral (Shutterstock)