El Salvador is not always on the bucket list of destinations for many travelers, mainly because of the reputation it has gained in recent decades.
For years, the smallest country in Latin America was identified with high crime levels, gangs and drug trafficking. But that’s changing, and I’ll show you why El Salvador may be your next great trip in this article.
Unlike the past travel destinations that pulled me towards Asia, this year, I wanted to change the compass, to go to Latin America, which I know so little about. To tell the truth, the only country to these parts I had visited to date was Nicaragua, when it was in a near civil war. So, I chose El Salvador after many twists and turns.
The news said the political situation was stable, with a new young president making vital reforms and declaring a real war against gangs and crime. So would the risk be reduced? Of course, but who am I kidding: it has never stopped me! In fact, it feeds me. So I bought my ticket, booked my accommodation and car, made my travel insurance, and counted the days to get there.
From my research before the trip, El Salvador didn’t have that much to see. For those who are fans of trails and volcanoes, the country promises. But I was going for the waves and just wanted to visit some strategic spots in the time I spent out of the water. However, El Salvador proved to be so much more!
So, I leave you here the best El Salvador has to offer. All these activities are special and together show the best of the country, its culture, and its extraordinary people.
When in El Salvador…
Explore the Ruta de Las Flores
It is one of the main routes for those who want to experience the culture of El Salvador, as it passes through the most typical pueblos of the country.
The route starts in Nahuizalco and ends in Ahuachapán, or vice versa, depending on where you are. It earned the name Ruta de Las Flores (Route of the Flowers) because nature shows its grace as you enter the mountainous area and the landscape starts to blossom. But, of course, it depends on the time of year you go. If you go in the mid-season, you will have a better chance of seeing its true beauty.
The route connects a total of six municipalities – Ahuachapán, Concepción de Ataco, Apaneca, Juayúa, Salcoatitán and Nahuizalco – each of which stands out for its colonial architecture, arts and nature.
On this trip, I made a point of visiting Concepción de Ataco, strolling through the local market, tasting the fresh fruit and entering the many handicraft stores. This city is the ideal place to go if you want to take souvenirs back home.
I also made a stop in Apaneca, which, of all the municipalities, is the one at the highest altitude above sea level.
Since you are traveling through the mountain area, it is natural that the weather will change considerably around here, especially in winter. So be sure to check the weather forecast and bring a warm coat.
Bathe in the waterfalls of Tamanique
The Tamanique waterfalls are one of the leading natural attractions between the capital San Salvador and Surf City, and a trip there is to be noticed if you are a fan of trails and hiking.
The GPS will lead you to the village of Tamanique and the starting point of the hike to the waterfalls. But don’t be surprised if you are stopped by the police right there. To visit the waterfalls, you can’t do it alone; you will have to go in the company of a local guide.
Such presence is justified by the fact that the way to the waterfalls isn’t obvious (more ahead we would have this confirmation), nor easy to do in some points, but also to have control of visitors and the preservation of this area.
So, the first stop is at the tourist office to register and pay the entrance fee. For this visit, we spent $10 per person.
From there, we are assigned a guide who leads us on a long descent through trails full of stone, wood and vegetation for about 30 to 45 minutes (depending on the agility and physical form) until we reach the waterfalls.
In our case, it was Pedro who accompanied us on this adventure. He began working in agriculture, but he turned to this profession a few years ago, doing up to two or three descents (and ascents) a day. And let me tell you, it is tough!
Once you get to the waterfall, there are two options: go down to the foot of the cascade, but once there, the ground is very slippery, or go to the top, which is ideal for safe bathing.
It is essential to carry at least a liter of drinking water and appropriate footwear for the uneven ground to endure the hike.
After refreshing ourselves in the cool water of the waterfall and climbing the steep path, the visit ends again at the tourist office.
We invited Pedro for lunch, and he took us to a super typical (and cheap!) comedouro. Of course, we weren’t asked for anything in return at the end, but we still wanted to thank him for his friendliness.
Get to know the past at the archeological sites
When we talk about Mayan culture, we immediately think of Mexico… or, at least, I do. But the truth is that these people had a presence beyond the Mexican borders, with traces in other countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.
In the latter, you can see two archaeological sites if you want to know more about the Mayan ancestors: Tazumal and Joya de Ceren.
Tazumal is one of the best-known archaeological sites in El Salvador, largely because it features an extraordinary Mayan temple.
Upon arriving at the site, we are greeted by several handicraft stalls, attesting that this is one of the country’s great tourist attractions. So, ideally, you should go right at the opening time to enjoy the area more calmly before the crowds arrive.
At the entrance (the ticket for foreigners costs $5), we are asked if we want to take the guided tour (at no extra cost), which I accepted because I believe this type of visit makes more sense if we have someone explaining its history and all its curiosities.
The tour first goes through the museum, where we learn about the place’s past and who lived there. Afterwards, we go outside to learn more about the imposing ruin.
Even today, Tazumal is the stage for Mayan ceremonies, mainly when the solstice and equinox are celebrated.
On the advice of our guide in Tazumal, who encouraged us to go see “a real Mayan village,” we headed on to Joya de Ceren. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can understand why.
The archaeological site is well preserved and reveals a Mayan village buried in several layers of volcanic matter after successive volcano eruptions.
The whole village and community life are explained in the museum, but also by the guide (at no extra cost) who accompanies us during the visit to the excavations.
If you prefer to go on a tour, here are some suggestions:
Ride a jet ski on Lago de Coatepeque
With more than 20 km2, the Lago de Coatepeque (Lake of Coatepeque) is the destination to go to if you like water sports or to have a meal overlooking one of the largest volcanic craters in the country.
Around the lake, you can see numerous properties of El Salvador’s elite, some with private piers to the water. But there are also many restaurants that, in addition to food, have facilities for swimming.
The Lake of Coatepeque is extensive, and at one end stands an island that we can only get a true sense of its size when we get closer to.
Although there is the possibility of visiting the lake by boat, my option was to do it by jet ski. We paid 30 dollars for a 30-minute rental, which is not exactly cheap, but the experience is well worth it.
Climb one of the many volcanoes in El Salvador
As I said at the beginning of this article, my main focus on this trip was the ocean and the waves, so I left for another time to climb the volcanoes. However, I couldn’t help but recommend this activity since El Salvador has 23 volcanoes. It is no wonder that the country’s flag features mountains in its design.
One of the most visited volcanoes is Santa Ana, but because most of them are active and the trails need to be better known, I suggest taking a guided tour to have a better experience.
Here’s a tour suggestion:
Be a surfer in Surf City
In 2022, El Salvador presented itself to the world as a surfing destination by hosting one of the events of the World Championship Tour. The president of El Salvador has long seen the potential surf has for the country’s economy and has been developing infrastructure to welcome surfers along its 321 km of coastline.
There are at least 30 identified surf spots, but some are already well known among the surfing community for their consistency and quality of waves.
El Tunco is the capital of Surf City and has a large offer of hotels, restaurants and bars in the vicinity of the beach. Next door, El Sunzal was my beach of choice and where I stayed, with the sea right at my doorstep.
Other beaches/waves you can’t miss are Punta Roca (where the world surfing championship takes place), El Zonte, Punta Mango, Mizata, K59, El Palmarcito or Las Flores, where I stayed during my last week in El Salvador.
Taste El Salvador food
Of course, you know that every trip is complete with a tour of the local delicacies! El Salvador couldn’t be different.
Fish and seafood are part of the menus served in restaurants in El Salvador, with ceviches being the main highlight. But the barbecues are also delicious, having eaten some of the best meat in El Salvador. Corn is always a constant presence, as it is one of the main elements of the food in El Salvador.
But if I had to name the national dish, it would be Pupusas. They are everywhere! We see ladies shaping tortillas filled with cheese, pork, refried beans, and loroco, a Central American flower, everywhere we go.
Salvadorans eat Pupusas all the time, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so try one before you leave the country.
As for restaurants, most are found on the roadside, either the typical comedouro or large places with valet. Depending on your choice, the meal can range from $3 to $30.
For someone who believed that three weeks would be too long to stay in a country as small as El Salvador, I left with the feeling that much remained to be seen.
From what I could witness, the country is still developing, a result of its still recent democratic history. However, I believe that in the coming years, many other attractions and places will emerge that will allow us to take even more advantage of this nation’s potential.
Complete Guide to El Salvador
If you want to get more details about the main places and activities to see and do in El Salvador and the main surf spots, stay tuned because the El Salvador Surf and Travel Guide is coming very soon.
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Now, you! Have you ever visited El Salvador, or is it a destination you will consider visiting one day? Any other questions you would like to ask? Comment below. Let’s talk!
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