El Salvador

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El Salvador

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 and sun-worshippers – El Salvador is a perfect one-stop destination. Most people have a love-hate relationship with the capital, San Salvador, but recent rejuvenation projects are drawing more visitors in. And beyond the city there are many compelling reasons for a visit.

The northern hills around El Poy and Perquín are a haven for trekkers; Cerro Verde National Park offers dramatic, horizon-filling landscapes filled with hot springs and countless waterfalls; a challenging scramble across the smoking cinder cone of Izalco volcano is rewarded by beautiful views over Lago de Coatepeque; and who could resist the draw of a national park called El Imposible? Oft overlooked Mayan ruins abound. Among the most spectacular is Joya de Cerén. Dubbed the "Pompeii of the Americas", the site boasts a Mayan village once buried under layers of  volcanic ash from a nearby eruption. The perfectly preserved wattle and daub houses, complete with a Mayan steam room, or temazcal, and the ceremonial headquarters of a shaman, secure Joya de Cerén a place among the continent's most intriguing archaeological sites.

To the south, long, sandy beaches prized by surfers for decades stretch along the Costa del Sol to the Gulf of Fonseca, dotted with islets and bays to explore. In the west, wander through coffee plantations, soak up the beauty of the Ruta de las Flores or simply laze around, watching the daily display of Pacific sunsets.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Visit the haunting Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña in Perquín
  2. Gallop off into the sunset on a horseriding trip in the rolling hills near Juayúa
  3. Try to resist the intricately carved wooden chests at craft village La Palma near the Honduran border
  4. Potter around the colonial town of Suchitoto
  5. Hike around the wonderfully named El Imposible – a mountain forest in the west that’s great for bird-watching
  6. Shop for souvenirs in the Mercado Cuartel in San Salvador
  7. Learn to surf on the black sand beaches of Playa El Tunco
  8. Step back in time: visit the the Tazumal ruins for a glimpse into Mayan life
  9. Save room for some pupusas, delicious maize-flour tortillas filled with shredded pork or cheese and black beans; the national dish of El Salvador

Wanderlust tips

Women should try to avoid cat-calls; if you ignore them, the men usually lose interest.

If you’re interested in a longer stay, you can volunteer to teach English or learn Spanish at Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad.

City centres can be dangerous places to be at night, especially the capital San Salvador. Exercise caution and seek local advice.

I wish I'd known...

Wanderlust web intern Thomas Rees on the thing he wished he'd known before he arrived:

"Watch out for some of the fiendishly similar place-names. A slip of the tongue and a mistake by a bus-driver saw my planned trip to La Palma end in a three-hour round trip between Las Palmas and San Salvador. Not to be recommended!” 

Further Reading

Travel in El Salvador: vital stats

  • Capital of El Salvador: San Salvador
  • Population of El Salvador: 6 million
  • Languages in El Salvador: Spanish, Náhua
  • Time in El Salvador: GMT-6
  • International dialing code in El Salvador: + 503
  • Voltage in El Salvador: 115V 60Hz AC
  • Visas for El Salvador: El Salvador visas
  • Money in El Salvador: US dollar ($). Tipping is not expected in cheaper restaurants. Free guides will expect a tip. ATMs are found in almost all cities and towns (try to check ahead for specific destinations, to avoid getting caught out). Credit cards are accepted in malls and higher-end hotels and shops. Haggling is less common than in other Central American countries.
  • El Salvador travel advice: Foreign & Commonwealth Office
  • El Salvador tourist board: Corsatur

When to go to El Salvador

El Salvador’s temperature is a consistent and comfortable 28°C throughout the year. The rainy season lasts from May to October, although light rain is possible year round. The coast and lowland areas can feel hot and humid, especially between March and May.

International airport

Comalapa International Airport (SAL), 50 km from San Salvador.

Getting around in El Salvador

‘Chicken’ buses are cheap, reasonably efficient and a great way to get around this small country. Comfier coaches ply the route between San Miguel, Santa Rosa de Lima and La Unión. You can rent a car in San Salvador; local garages charge considerably less than the main rental companies. Cycling in El Salvador is recommended but you’ll need to bring your own bike and safety equipment.

El Salvador accommodation

Accommodation options in El Salvador are increasing but there are still only a limited number of hostels. Budget travellers will need to rely on cheap hotels. The majority of budget hotels are located in popular surf spots along the coast. Campsites are available at most lakes, parks and beaches. Book well ahead for Easter, Christmas and during local festivals.

El Salvador food & drink

What El Salvador lacks in refined dining it makes up for in the quality of quantity of its fresh ingredients. Look for lunch deals in local restaurants. Try pupusas (small tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans or shredded pork), mariscada (seafood served in a creamy soup) or sopa de frijoles (bean soup). Oysters (ostras) in El Salvador are very special indeed, as is the fresh coffee. Vegetarians won’t starve.

Health & safety in El Salvador

El Salvador isn’t nearly as dangerous as its reputation suggests. However, street crime does occur so avoid carrying valuables and do your best to blend in. At night, take taxis rather than walk, especially in the larger cities and be wary of taking out large amounts of
cash from ATMs. Speak to your doctor or travel clinic about vaccinations and protection against malaria. Drink bottled water.

Further Reading on travel in El Salvador

  • Witness to War: An American Doctor in El Salvador (HarperCollins, 1985) by Charles Clements. A classic story that was made into a film
  • Still Love in Strange Places (WW Norton & Co, 2003) by Beth Kephart. True story about marrying a man from El Salvador
  • Footprint guide to El Salvador (Lonely Planet, 2011)

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