El Salvador Travel Guide – Everything you Need to Know



Introducing our in-depth El Salvador travel guide. With everything you need to know about where to eat, where to stay and what to do!

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. 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. So, without further ado here is our ultimate El Salvador travel guide.

READ NEXT: 10 reasons to visit Guatemala

El Salvador travel guide: Our top tips for backpacking here

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. 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. 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 this El Salvador travel guide to find out how we packed 5 destinations into 3 weeks.

The Ultimate Guide for traveling to El Salvador

What should I know before travelling to El Salvador? 

El Salvador is safe to visit as long as you’re a smart traveller – don’t wear flashy jewellery, don’t walk alone at night and don’t get public transport at night. The biggest danger to tourists is pick-pocketing, which mostly occurs on public transport or in big markets or shopping centers. Violent crime too is prevalent in larger cities like San Salvador and it’s mostly gang-on-gang crime (not targeted at tourists). 

Not once did we feel unsafe in El Salvador and we got public transport everywhere but we were careful and followed the above tips. 

How many days do I need in El Salvador? 

We spent 3 weeks in El Salvador and to be honest we could have spent longer here, specifically relaxing in El Tunco or exploring the Ruta de los Flores, If you’re short on time then, 7 to 10 days will be sufficient to see the main highlights of El Salvador. 

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. In my opinion this is one of the best beaches in Central America. 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.

One of the best tours in this area is this surf tour of El Tunco, El Sunzal and other awesome surf beaches in the area! 

El Tunco, el salvador
Sunset at El Tunco beach

What we did in El Tunco

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. Finally, ending 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. 

Kids enjoying a sunset surf in El Tunco

El Tunco (our El Salvador travel guide):

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. In any other country this room would be worth 4 times that.

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

What did we get up to in 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.

La Tortuga Verde 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

El Cuco (our El Salvador travel guide):

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. If you do wish to explore downtown San Salvador I recommend doing so on this 3-hour guided tour

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 store & restaurant you could imagine. Plus it has 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.

One of the most highly recommended tour from San Salvador, is this Mayan archaeological tour to San Andrès, Tazumal, and Casa Blanca (the best Mayan sites in El Salvador!)

Our night bike ride experience with Ciclistas Urbanos

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. Ciclistas Urbanos is 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 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

San Salvador (our El Salvador travel guide):

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. Santa Ana is 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.

Visiting Cerro Verde National Park

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 volcano hikes are undertaken with a big group and an armed guard. This is the tour we booked and I highly recommend it!

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.

This volcano guided tour departs from Santa Ana and is highly recommended! 

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

A day trip to Lago Coatepeque

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. US$20 and 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!

This tour includes sightseeing around the Lake and also a volcano climb! 

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

Santa Ana (our El Salvador travel guide):

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. 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.

This full day tour brings you to all the best towns and sights on the Ruta de los Flores, it comes highly recommended! 

The church in Juayua
The church in Juayua

Juayua (our El Salvador travel guide):

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 Juayua

Restaurant recommendations: Restaurante R&R

Overall rating: 7/10

Here’s what’s not to be missed in El Salvador:


  • Best local beer: Pilsener (50c to $1.50 a bottle in a bar)
  • 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
  • Our favourite restaurant: Restaurante R&R in Juayua

What to bring with you to El Salvador


#1   Lonely Planet’s guide ‘Central America on a shoestring’

#2   Good walking shoes – I had the Skechers GoWalk walkers and they were so comfortable

#3   A GoPro or decent adventure camera – we had the Sony Cybershot WX-500B

#4   A lock for your backpack because you will be getting a lot of local buses. This is the one we used

#5   A Spanish dictionary


On that note, I’ll leave you with a quote – 

“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, our el salvador travel guide
Surfing in El Cuco

In conclusion, what did you think of our El Salvador travel guide?

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

We also have a blog post on our time in Belize, if you’re interested in reading that! 

PIN IT for later!

Introducing our in-depth El Salvador travel guide. With everything you need to know about where to eat, where to stay and what to do in El Salvador.

10 reasons why you’ll want to visit El Salvador



Find out why El Salvador is one of my favorite destinations ever. Including 10 spectacular reasons to to visit El Salvador.

Have you ever gone somewhere and for some inexplicable reason it just completely captures your heart and for years after you still find yourself thinking of and yearning for that place? Well, that place for me is El Salvador.

The ‘underdog’ of travel in Central America – the tiny country with the massive heart. I will admit that I was nervous to travel to El Salvador. After all, the newspapers and news channels tell us it’s a very dangerous place. And yes, sure, El Salvador has a very real gang problem. It has a very sad and harrowing civil war past.

BUT there’s so much more to this gem of a country than what you have read in a newspaper. Imagine witnessing the best sunset of your life, imagine meeting the friendliest and warmest locals, imagine spending your days surfing some of the best surf in the world. Now imagine yourself in El Salvador. Check out our detailed 3 week itinerary for El Salvador!

PIN IT!

Find out why El Salvador is one of my favourite destinations ever. Including 10 specatacular reasons to to visit El Salvador.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” – Ray Bradbury

What is El Salvador best known for? 

Also known as the “land of volcanoes” because it is home to 20 volcanoes with the most popular being Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde located near Santa Ana. This is the guided volcano tour we booked and I highly recommend it!

El Salvador is also well-known for it’s surfing with El Tunco, El Sunzal and La Libertad having the best waves. In fact, surfers come from all over the world to experience the longest and most perfect waves in all of Central America. The best time to surf in El Salvador is between May to October. 

Why should you visit El Salvador?

For the smallest country in Central America, there sure are a lot of things to do in El Salvador. From surfing in El Tunco, to watching baby turtles hatch on El Cuco beach to climbing an active volcano – there’s an activity for every type of traveler in El Salvador. It’s also more off-the-beaten track than it’s neighboring countries (El Salvador receives about 1.5 million tourists annually) meaning you can have an authentic travel experience here. 

Here’s 10 reasons to visit El Salvador. I’ve honestly spent days thinking about how I should write this blog post because I really want to do this beautiful country justice. It deserves a place on your bucket list more than anywhere I’ve ever been.

So, here we go 10 reasons to visit El Salvador (in no particular order) –

1. To witness the best sunset of your life

Honestly the best sunset you could ever imagine, beyond instagram-worthy. We witnessed this marvel in El Cuco while walking back to our hostel. The whole beach turned this magnificent burnt orange. I didn’t want it to end. Here’s a photo in all it’s unfiltered glory.

el cuco, el salvador, sunset
Sunset at El Cuco beach!

2. El Salvador is a cheap destination

Once you fork out the big bucks for the flights (honestly, from Europe it can be difficult to get a reasonable flight into San Salvador) it’s cheap as chips once you touch ground in El Salvador. A nights accommodation for two people in a small hotel will cost you approximately $20, a meal can be as little as $2 provided you eat where the locals eat and buses from one town to the next can cost less than $1.

el salvador beach, el tunco
Catching the sunset at El Tunco beach!

3. El Salvador has excellent surf

Most tourists come to El Salvador to surf & most base themselves in the little surfing town of El Tunco about an hours drive from San Salvador, with its black sandy beach, quirky little hostels and juice bars. El Tunco has some of the best surfing conditions in the world.

 Check out this surf tour of El Tunco, El Sunzal and other awesome surf beaches in the area! 

We spent hours sitting on the beach, a Pilsener in hand (the local beer) watching some very talented surfers vying for attention. Of course we had a go ourselves but we didn’t fare too well on our own. Luckily, if you’re a beginner like us there are lots of surfing schools along the beach.

surfing el salvador
Surfing in El Cuco!

4. Meet the friendly locals

Salvadorans were our favourite people of our entire 16 country trip and we met some amazingly cool locals so that’s saying a lot. Salvadorans are warm, real and incredibly grateful that tourists are still visiting their home. They’re even friendly enough to let you hold their fully-loaded pistol.

friendly locals, el salvador
An armed guard on our Volcano Climb!

5. To stay at the best hostel we’ve ever stayed at

In the rustic town of Santa Ana in the North of El Salvador is a hostel. A hostel by the name of Casa Verde, run by the super-friendly Carlos. Casa Verde is honestly the best hostel we ever stayed at. Spotlessly clean, with a swimming pool, a rooftop terrace, a big kitchen (with lots of free spices, freshly ground coffee etc.) and an air conditioned TV room loaded with every movie imaginable. And if you can’t be bothered going out to a restaurant, Carlos will order take-out for you and serve it to you while you’re enjoying  a movie on his massive TV.

Book a room at Casa Verde here

This is how it should be done (hosteliers take note). Also, worth a mention is La Tortuga Verde in El Cuco a turtle sanctuary & hostel –  a double room here costs less than $25 and it’s right on the beach, with your own deck area complete with hammocks, an extra-comfy bed and a spacious bathroom with a view of the coconut trees.

la tortuga verde, el salvador
Posing outside La Tortuge Verde in El Cuco!

6. To climb an active volcano

Want to undertake a very difficult hike up a steep volcano with an armed guard? Then, head to the town of Santa Ana and just outside this town you will find three active volcanoes – Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde. This hike 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.

This volcano guided tour departs from Santa Ana and is highly recommended! 

We climbed 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).

volcano, el salvador

volcano, el salvador
Thick cloud at the top of the volcano!

7. Because Pupusas = yum

A traditional Salvadoran dish made of a thick handmade corn tortilla and usually filled with cheese, some meat & refried beans. It is served with curtido (a lightly fermented cabbage relish) – sounds horrible but I promise it isn’t. And it’s so cheap, usually 3oc for one. Our favourite place for pupusas was a little roadside stall in El Tunco that was run by nuns.

pupusas
Yummy pupusas!

8. To night bike ride through the streets of San Salvador

This was one of the best things we did in El Salvador. No scrap that, 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.

Ciclistas Urbanos meets 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. We met so many fantastic locals that night, one even cycled beside me the whole time because he could see I was struggling and he even drove us back to our hostel after because my ‘legs didn’t work like they used to before’.

Other fantastic tours in San Salvador include this 3-hour guided tour city tour and this Mayan archaeological tour to San Andrès, Tazumal, and Casa Blanca (the best Mayan sites in El Salvador!) 

night bike ride, san salvador
Before the bike ride with Ciclistas Urbanas!

9. To experience somewhere off the beaten track

Because don’t follow the crowd and only backpack through South East Asia. Literally, every travel blogger has been to South East Asia, many even live there now. I adore South East Asia because it is a truly beautiful slice of the world, but it’s starting to get overrun by backpackers.

So, If you’re looking to experience somewhere that not many people have been to, that will garner a “wow you’ve been there” from most people you meet, then visit El Salvador. El Salvador has enough tourist infrastructure to make you feel comfortable but then at the same time it’s not at all ready for tourists and that’s kind of scary and fun and exhilarating.

volcano el salvador
Us at the top of Santa Ana Volcano!

10. To get a true local experience

Not too many tourists in a country is good in a lot of ways but mainly because it makes for a more local and unique experience. The less Hawaiian-shirt wearing tourists the better. Leisure travel through El Salvador is still very much uncommon, most tourists we met are either there on business or for a short surf holiday. This means that most of the time you have the palm-tree lined beaches to yourself. There’s no queues for that Lonely Planet recommended restaurant. There’s no Contiki tours. And you will usually always nab a room at that hotel you’ve been wanting to stay at.

surfing, el salvador, boys
Surfers at El Tunco beach!

Is El Salvador safe? 

El Salvador is safe to visit as long as you’re a smart traveler – don’t wear flashy jewelery, don’t walk alone at night and don’t get public transport at night. The biggest danger to tourists is pick-pocketing, which mostly occurs on public transport or in big markets or shopping centers. Violent crime too is prevalent in larger cities like San Salvador and it’s mostly gang-on-gang crime (not targeted at tourists). 

Not once did we feel unsafe in El Salvador and we got public transport everywhere but we were careful and followed the above tips. 

Final thoughts on reasons to visit El Salvador! 

And finally ‘no place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be’. Be careful, don’t wear lots of expensive jewellery or carry around a glaringly massive camera, don’t walk away from the main streets in San Salvador. But above all don’t be stupid, if you go looking for trouble it probably will find you. The truth is 99.9% of the people in El Salvador are brilliant and funny and incredibly welcoming of tourists. Please don’t let a minority and a distasteful news report turn you off visiting one of the most unique and exciting destinations I’ve ever visited.

Thanks for reading! 

surfing el salvador

Tell me – what did you think of my reasons to visit El Salvador? Have I managed to convince you to meet El Salvador yet? Of course I have! Now, when are you going to book your flights?

P.S. you can read more about our adventures through Central America (I’d really love if you did!) including 10 Reasons to visit Guatemala and Things to know before visiting Belize

PIN IT FOR LATER!

Find out why El Salvador is one of my favourite destinations ever. Including 10 specatacular reasons to to visit El Salvador.