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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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!
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!
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.”
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!
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