El Salvador has suffered a history containing too much pain for its tiny size. Though it has almost entirely rebuilt itself since the brutalities of the Civil War in the 1980s, crime-wise El Salvador still remains the most dangerous country in Central America.
However, bold backpackers and other El Salvador travelers keep visiting El Salvador. They’ve got good reasons to. The locals are outstandingly welcoming. Generations of international surfers testify that the breaks of El Salvador’s Pacific coast rival the best of the world. And the nation’s natural beauty—volcanoes, verdant coffee plantations, isolated beaches—is stunning, though its destruction and deforestation are near catastrophe.
Where to Go
The crowded capital of San Salvador hasn't historically drawn much in the way of travelers, but a number of areas have been revitalized in recent years. The city is also central to many of El Salvador's attractions, like the beaches and San Salvador volcano. Nearby Santa Ana is much more attractive, surrounded by coffee plantations and sugarcane fields—travel to the Mayan ruin of Tazumal, the erstwhile setting of human sacrifice! Two hours north, La Palma offers cool weather and beautiful views.
Because El Salvador is so small, travelers are never far from the country’s Pacific beaches. And what beaches they are. The water is over eighty degrees on average, the wave breaks are perfect, and the sands are rarely crowded. No wonder surfers flock to El Salvador’s beaches all year long—the favorites are La Libertad, Las Flores, and Playa Herradura. The beaches of Costa del Sol and San Juan del Gozo are better for non-surfers, boasting soft white sands and calmer waters.
Four hours north of San Salvador, the Montecristo National Park is a mysterious and beautiful cloud forest, located in the exact spot where the borders of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador come together. The El Imposible National Park is another lovely natural destination—follow the 9km trek to the high point, Cerro Leon, for some unforgettable vistas of still-smoking volcanoes.
Disastrously, up to 98% of El Salvador’s forests have been stripped in the last 30 years. The remaining bits mostly belong to Montecristo and El Imposible National Parks, as mentioned above. These forests are home too over 500 species of birds and several mammals, which the fantastic organization SalvaNatura is striving to save.
Good news: El Salvador, once called the coffee republic, is still host to numerous plantations. These high-altitude plantations provide refuge more many of the country’s birds, mammals, and other animals. So drink up—and even when you’re home, buy coffee from El Salvador (especially if it’s labeled Fair Trade).
El Salvador is tiny, but its tourist infrastructure makes internal travel more difficult than you might expect. The public bus system is inexpensive, but buses are crowded and usually, don’t have luggage racks—not ideal for luxury travelers. Renting a car is a popular choice (especially for travelers with surfboards), or hiring a driver with a minivan.
The efficient international bus system Ticabus stops in San Salvador on its route from Guatemala City south (or reverse). El Salvador’s international airport in San Salvador is renovated and modern.
Believe it or not, in 2001 El Salvador adopted the US dollar as legal tender. Costs in El Salvador are extremely low—no more than $3 USD for your average meal. However, the airport departure tax is hefty at $28 USD and must be paid in cash.
Best Times to Visit
El Salvador’s rainy season is between May and November, and its dry season is between December and April. Even in the rainy season, sunny days are the norm. Thunderstorms are short and strong, usually occurring late in the day.
During the Easter Holy Week, called Semana Santa, El Salvador’s hotels and beaches are packed with local tourists. Christmas and New Years are busy as well—make sure you have reservations long in advance if you plan on visiting during these holidays.
Street crime and even violent crime is a big problem in El Salvador. Obviously, most travelers visiting the country leave without incident. But it’s crucial to follow some ground rules when traveling in El Salvador—and in any Central American country, for that matter.
Don’t walk around at night in the cities, especially in San Salvador. Multiply that times ten if you’re a woman, and times ten thousand if you’re a woman traveling alone. Take a taxi, even if your destination is a couple of blocks away. Keep copies of your passport in different locations. Don’t flash anything of value, especially money—keep it in a money belt under your clothes. If you are robbed, do as the robber asks—your camera isn’t worth your life.
As for health, it’s advised to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B and Typhoid and make sure you’re up to date on all your boosters. Malaria prophylaxis with chloroquine is recommended if you’re traveling in rural areas, especially Santa Ana, Ahuachapan, and La Union.