El Salvador: The Everything Guide

Sunset at El Cuco, El Salavador
Come follow us at:
RSS
EMAIL
Facebook
GOOGLE
PINTEREST
Instagram

El Salvador, where do I begin? As most of my followers are already aware, I have fallen madly and deeply in love with this Central American gem. It’s got everything a backpacker wants and needs – from surfing some of the best surf in the world, exploring tropical beaches, stuffing your face with amazing food and getting lost in conversation with the friendliest locals we have ever met. Honestly, there’s nothing I dislike about El Salvador.

We started this leg of our trip in Mexico, from there we visited Guatemala and we came in to El Salvador from Lake Atitlan arriving in El Tunco about 5 hours later. Over the course of 3 weeks we worked our way through 5 destinations, ending the trip in Juayua on the Ruta de los Flores.

If you’ve already done a bit of backpacking and are looking for something a bit ‘tougher’ than the typical tourist route of South East Asia, then, I hugely recommend El Salvador. Sure, backpacking El Salvador can be a challenge – pretty much the only way to get from one town to the next is the local ‘chicken bus’, it’s very difficult to book any accommodation in advance because there’s no such thing as an online booking system and WiFi is a rarity. But you know what, it’s been our most rewarding trip to date. Do you want a unique travelling experience in a tiny tropical gem of a country. Yes? Then read on to find out how we packed 5 destinations into 3 weeks.

El Tunco, El Salvador (6 nights)

A tiny beach-side town about an hours drive from the capital San Salvador, and predominantly inhabited by surfers or yoga instructors. Most of the towns hostels and restaurants line its black sandy beach, the main pathway through the town is a sandy trail, nobody wears shoes – in fact the town is so laid-back it’s horizontal. My kinda place! And obviously if you want to surf, this is the place for you. There are lots of surf schools for you to choose from, but the surf is so intense you have to be careful not to break your board. This disaster happened to a guy we met and he had to pay quite a lot of money to the surf school as a result. You’ve been warned.

El Tunco, el salvador
Sunset at El Tunco beach

We spent our days here pretty much lazing around, either sunbathing or surfing, then before dinner we would watch the sunset with a beer in hand, and finally ended our day, eating at one of the really cheap but amazingly yummy little food huts. During the week El Tunco is very chilled out, in fact most of the surfers we met went teetotal during the week. How very professional! But at the weekend, El Tunco comes alive – San Salvador’s richest come to town to party and boy do they know how to party. You are likely to come across couples salsa dancing in the street. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay – our hostel had a pretty cool crowd and a great pool!

Kids enjoying a sunset surf in El Tunco

How we got there: A bus from San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala (via Antigua) to El Tunco with Gekko Tours costing $40

Where we stayed: La Sombra Hostel

Restaurant recommendations: Take a Wok; Taco Guanaco

Overall rating: 8/10

El Cuco, El Salvador (5 nights)

El Cuco is simply a beach, no town, no shops (actually the little restaurant at the top of the beach had a stall selling cold drinks), there’s also a Pupusa stall, and well, that’s pretty much it. We stayed at perhaps the most unique accommodation of our entire trip – La Tortuga Verde, a hostel/ turtle sanctuary consistently ranked as one of the best hostels in the world by Lonely Planet. It has its own restaurant, a yoga studio, a vegetarian cafe, a swimming pool and you can rent surfboards for a minimal fee. La Tortuga Verde is right on the beach, and our private double room complete with patio area and two hammocks was $25 a night. It was super-comfortable, spotlessly clean, with a very strong shower and in any other country this room would be worth 4 times that.

The beach at El Cuco, El Salvador
The beach at El Cuco

El Cuco is simply a beach, no town, no shops (actually the little restaurant at the top of the beach had a stall selling cold drinks), there’s also a Pupusa stall, and well, that’s pretty much it. We stayed at perhaps the most unique accommodation of our entire trip – La Tortuga Verde, a hostel/ turtle sanctuary consistently ranked as one of the best hostels in the world by Lonely Planet. It has its own restaurant, a yoga studio, a vegetarian cafe, a swimming pool and you can rent surfboards for a minimal fee. La Tortuga Verde is right on the beach, and our private double room complete with patio area and two hammocks was $25 a night. It was super-comfortable, spotlessly clean, with a very strong shower and in any other country this room would be worth 4 times that.

The most insane sunset at El Cuco
The most insane sunset at El Cuco

We surfed, sunbathed, swam in the pool, read a lot of books, ate a lot of tacos and drank a lot of fresh coconut juice. Basically, we recharged our batteries for 5 full days. Absolute bliss. And did I mention, the sunsets here are the best in the world! It’s worth visiting El Cuco simply to see this marvel.

Happy with his surfboard in El Cuco
Happy with his surfboard in El Cuco

How we got there: We got a minibus with Gecko Tours from El Tunco to El Cuco, which took about 2 hours and cost $20 .

Where we stayed: La Tortuga Verde

Restaurant recommendations: There aren’t any restaurants per se in El Cuco, so we ate at La Tortuga Verde every night and it was more than satisfying

Overall rating: 7.5/10

San Salvador, El Salvador (6 nights)

Consistently labelled as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but for us, we felt nothing but safe the entire time. However, I don’t recommend spending too much time in downtown San Salvador, there’s really nothing there plus it has an inherently ‘sketchy’ vibe. In fact I felt so uncomfortable there, that we never even got off the bus, we just continued on to the bus station and got on another bus back to our hostel. BUT, the area we stayed in was a very safe residential neighbourhood about a 15 minute bus ride from downtown and next to the World Trade Center. About a 20 minute walk away is El Paseo a massive shopping centre filled with every ‘western’ store & restaurant you could imagine and the most comfortable and well-equipped cinema I’ve ever been to. The weird thing about San Salvador is that literally every store or restaurant has an armed guard standing outside, it’s quite frightening witnessing the sheer amount of firearms – but it made me feel safer, I guess.

As you may already know, we completed a night bike ride in San Salvador. This was one of the best things we did in Central America. Sure, a night bike ride through the streets of one of the most notoriously dangerous cities in the world sounds life-defying. The little local organisation who runs it –  Ciclistas Urbanos has been doing this for years, it’s more of a cycling group for locals than a tour, in fact I think we were the only tourists that night but they welcomed us with open arms regardless. They meet every Thursday night, to cycle a different route through the city, and some rides can be as long as 30km. There was also a police presence for the whole ride, so you’re in safe hands. To join in this one-in-a-lifetime activity, message them on their Facebook page (link above) and let them know you will be coming along and if you need to rent a bike. The group meets at Parque Cuscatlan at dusk, you collect your bike here.

Enjoying the night-time bike ride through San Salvador
Enjoying the night-time bike ride through San Salvador

How we got there: A local bus from outside La Tortuga Verde brought us to San Miguel, from there we got a direct bus to San Salvador. The whole trip took 5 hours (it should take approx. 2 hours but two of our buses broke down). The total cost per person was $4.

Where we stayed: Hostal Cumbres del Volcan

Restaurant recommendations: Caminito Chocos; Rustico Bistro; Las Fajitas

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Santa Ana, El Salvador (4 nights)

Santa Ana is a rustic town in North Western El Salvador, used by most backpackers as a base to explore the nearby volcanoes of Santa Ana & Izalco and Lago Coatepeque. To be completely honest, there’s not a whole lot to do in the town of Santa Ana itself, there’s a bustling local market selling everything from beauty products to traditional Salvadoran clothing and some great restaurants including Expresion Cultural.

Just outside of town (and an hours bus-ride away) you will find three active volcanoes – Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde which together make up Cerro Verde National Park. Hiking up these trails is still considered dangerous due to a spate of robberies on the climb and so, all hikes are undertaken with a big group and an armed guard. We climbed Volcan Izalco and it’s pretty tough – first you climb down 1,300 steps to get to the bottom of the volcano then it’s a tiring hour long hike up an almost vertical slope. But it’s all worth it once you get to the top. On the south-side of the summit you can still see lava flowing down into the Pacific Ocean and steam vents are still active up top (you have to be careful where you sit as some rocks are still deadly hot).

Paul at the summit of the Volcano
Paul at the summit of the Volcano

We also ventured to Lago Coatepeque which lies just beneath Cerro Verde National Park. This lake is labelled as an up and coming Lake Atitlan by Lonely Planet and by many locals, but for me, it needs a lot of development before it can be considered in the same league as Lake Atitlan. A handful of cheap hotels dot the lake’s edge, but most accommodation is for the preserve of San Salvador’s elite. For around US$5 you can relax and enjoy lake access at one of the hotels on the northeast shore. For US$20 you can rent a boat for a couple of hours. One thing Coatepeque does have on Atitlan however, is that it’s safe to swim in its waters!

Enjoying dinner at R&R Restaurant
Enjoying dinner at R&R Restaurant

How we got there: A local bus direct from San Salvador to Santa Ana costing $2.

Where we stayed: Hostal Casa Verde

Restaurant recommendations: Expresion Cultural; Buffalo Wings

Overall rating: 7/10

Juayua, El Salvador (4 nights)

A picturesque little town on the famed Ruta de Los Flores, full of cobbled streets, white-washed churches and Spanish-colonial looking buildings. Don’t be fooled by it’s size, Juayua is a bustling town during the day, filled with day-tripping tourists and visiting rural locals. Every Sunday, a unique and crowd-pleasing Food Festival is held in the town’s Parque Central serving everything from fried Iguana & Guinea Pig to the more traditional Pupusa’s. Live music fills the streets and the locals dance until the sun goes down. We used Juayua as a base to visit the other villages on the Ruta de Los Flores including Ataco and Apaneca. Ataco in particular is worth a visit or even a night or two’s stay – excellent coffee shops (serving only local coffee beans) surround the towns square and everywhere you look provides an epic panorama of the surrounding coffee fields. A local ‘chicken’ bus serves all the villages on the Ruta de Los Flores and a one-way trip costs as little as 50c.

The church in Juayua
The church in Juayua

How we got there: A local bus from San Salvador to Sonsonate, then a direct bus from Sonsonate to Juayua. All-in approx. $2

Where we stayed: Hotel Anahuac

Restaurant recommendations: Restaurante R&R

Overall rating: 7/10

Not to be Missed in El Salavador:


The best local beer: Pilsener (50c to $1.50 a bottle in a bar)

The best food: Pupusas (obviously)

The best thing to do: Night bike ride through San Salvador

The best place to stay: La Tortuga Verde at El Cuco or Casa Verde at Santa Ana

The best restaurant: Restaurante R&R in Juayua


What to bring with you:


  • Lonely Planet’s guide ‘Central America on a shoestring’

  • Good walking shoes – I had the Skechers GoWalk walkers (here) and they were so comfortable

  • A GoPro or decent adventure camera – we had the Sony Cybershot DSC-HX50

  • A lock for your backpack because you will be getting a lot of local buses

  • A Spanish dictionary


I’ll leave you with a quote (as always)-

“I urge you to travel, as far and as much as possible. Work ridiculous shifts to save your money. Go without the latest iPhone. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Find out how other people live and realize that the world is a much bigger place than the town you live in. And when you come home, home may still be the same, but something in your mind will have shifted. And trust me, that changes everything.”

Surfing in El Cuco
Surfing in El Cuco

Whew that was a long one but I think I’ve covered everything. If there’s anything else you would like to know please post in the comments below and I will get back to you. P.S you can read more about our adventures in El Salvador here

 

 

29 Thoughts to “El Salvador: The Everything Guide”

  1. This is an awesome post and it really made me want to visit El Salvador. Never really considered it or know much about it either. It’s fab what new things you can find by reading blogs =)

  2. I have to admit El Salvador also makes me think ‘unsafe’ but I know that often it is all about where you go and what you do. So it’s great to have your tips and know you felt safe. There’s a lot of beach time and I’m not a surfer, so I’m a little worried I’d get bored. Are there other activties to do by the beaches?

  3. Very beautifully written post! I spent one weekend in El Salvador in 2012 and I NEEEED to get back! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. I’ve had El Salvador on my bucket list for a long time and this post makes me realize it’s totally doable. Thank you!

  5. Mayuri

    I am planning to visit Guatemala soon and also was considering El Salvador 🇸🇻 but I am worried for safety!

    But your article did put mt worries to rest. Thank you for sharing hope to visit this beautiful place soon

  6. El Salvador sounds like a great adventure! I looked into it a bit when planning a trip through to Nicaragua, but we didn’t end up going so I abandoned my plans. Looks beautiful though, I’ll have to put more time into it when we decided to resume planning!

  7. I have heard of El Salvador but never really thought to travel there but it has now piqued my interest. The sunset pictures are awesome. Isn’t it great when you can uplug fro your phones, It was great to not have access to my phone in Cuba:-)

  8. Ashley

    What a super thorough guide to El Salvador! I love your detail and how you broke out how you got to each place, where you stayed, restaurants, and rating – it’s very easy to read!

  9. Central America is high up on my bucket list and this post has made me want to visit El Salvador so bad 😊 it sounds so beautiful!

  10. I’ve not really considered El Salvador before. I never excluded it, it just hadn’t made it onto the wishlist. I’m not into beaches so much but the historic cities and towns appeal, and I know I’d enjoy San Salvador too.

  11. Reading the part about your experience in San Salvador brought back memories of my first trip to Valenzuela, Philippines (about 20 years ago). In Valenzuela every store was pretty much gaureded by an armed man. Even fast food restaurants!

  12. Mateja

    Such a great guide on El Salvador, you covered quite a lot! I would especially be interested in hiking the volcanoes. And they are still active! Sunset at one of the beach towns is a definite must do it seems, I just love all the images. Would love to explore the country sometime in the future, I think you got me hooked 🙂

  13. sue

    Great post. I loved the accounting of the night time bike ride. You made something many people would be scared of, sound doable and safe. And the surfing story–told of the guy that broke his board–importnat to share that warning. Thanks for the post.

  14. Shareen

    Great post + beautiful pictures. I have not been to El Salvador but everyone raves about it!

    http://www.pearlsandparis.com

  15. Sounds amazing! I’d love to go someday!

  16. Andres Goens MD

    just saw your blog and left me astonished, indeed beauty rests in the eye of the beholder : I am so used to see all the things the lass in the blog found awesome that just take them for granted. Anyhow It was gratifying to find a paper NOT describing my neck of the woods as a hell with killers lurking on every corner.
    Seeing you are Irish made me remember your poteen shared with good friends in Dublin. THANKS AIMEE

  17. Very helpful post. I am saving it for future reference. Loved the photos too.

  18. I completely agree with what Vicki said! Great itinerary, you were able to cover a lot but also enjoy your time there. Haven’t been to El Salvador myself yet, great guide!

  19. What a great way to spend 3 weeks in El Salvador! Central America is still on my list and I’ve bookmarked Tortuga Verde – double room with 2 hammocks on the private patio outside your room for $25 – it sounds amazing!!
    I’d heard that San Salvador wasn’t the safest place – but good to hear there are nice areas where you felt at ease.
    Great itinerary – not rushed but quick enough to pack a lot into 3 weeks – good job!

    Happy Travels
    -Vicki
    http://www.maketimetoseetheworld.com

  20. Great post and great tips! Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I don’t know much about El Salvador so thank you for opening my eyes on this country. It seems to be a great place to explore!

  21. Nice guide to El Salvador! I spent about 2 weeks traveling through El Salvador along the coast. I lazed around in El Zonte for a few days and then ended up staying at La Tortuga Verde for a week (we only planned to stay a few days!). I loved La Tortuga so much that I know I will return soon. They have a special “pay for 2 weeks, stay for 2 weeks” deal that I want to take advantage of. Also, those pupusa ladies were incredible and I loved the fresh fish down the other end of the beach!

  22. This is an awesome outline to what sounds like a wonderful country. I hope to get here someday

  23. What a great guide! Looks absolutely stunning – definitely on the list for when I’m back on that side of the pond :p

  24. Very informative post! Thank you for sharing!

  25. Wow, you were able to do a little bit of everything! How fun! Cant wait to experience El Salvador for myself one day. Thanks for sharing!

  26. Awesome post! This was super informative and got me thinking about visiting places I’d never previously considered.

  27. Sierra@TMWY

    Great suggestions! thanks four sharing 🙂

  28. Gorgeous beaches! Looks like you had a great time surfing.

  29. Thank you for this insightful post, will surely come in handy when I’ll be going to El Salvador 🙂

Leave a Comment