With 23 active volcanoes, six national parks, more than 200 miles of beaches, hundreds of waterfalls, and a UNESCO biosphere reserve, tiny El Salvador packs a lot of nature-friendly punch into a country of only 20,000 square miles—roughly the size of West Virginia. And given that El Salvador’s population of 6.5 million people makes it the most densely populated country in Central America, it’s that much more remarkable how many natural wonders this cash-strapped country has protected from development. Not to mention its seemingly endless geological marvels—El Salvador’s perch right on top of the Ring of Fire makes for a wealth of volcano-related natural wonders including hot springs and caldera-formed lakes. Even better, El Salvador’s attractions are, for the most part, crowd-free, making it possible to hike through a cloud forest or kayak a mangrove lagoon and feel as if you discovered it for yourself.
Volcanoes National Park
There aren’t many places in the world where you can climb, not one, not two, but three towering volcanoes, two of them still active. The park’s hottest attraction is Santa Ana, also known to locals as the Ilamatepec, the highest volcano in El Salvador, and the fourth highest in Central America. Start early to avoid crowds on this popular four- to five-hour hike to the rim with its stunning view of a shimmering lake in the crater below. Even more dramatic in shape than Santa Ana, cone-shaped Izalco is the volcano of your childhood dreams—and science lessons. Its extremely steep, scree-covered slope makes for a challenging climb—a guide is recommended—but your reward is the steam you’ll see jetting from the crater when you ascend to the rim. The park’s most accessible hike is Cerro Verde, an extinct volcano now layered in a cloud forest, which affords excellent views of Santa Ana and Izalco.
Jiquilisco Bay Biosphere Reserve
This mangrove-fringed estuary, a labyrinth of canals, inlets, and islands, has become a critical sanctuary for endangered hawksbill sea turtles, as well as still-vulnerable leatherback, green, and olive ridley turtles. The best way to see the turtles is to take an eco-excursion with one of the rescue groups at work in the area such as ICAPO, EcoViva, and SEE; tour operator GreenBlueRed can arrange your trip. Stay in one of the fun treehouse-style cabins at eco-lodge Puerto Barillas Marina and Lodge to spend more time in this wildlife-rich area; they can also arrange a visit to a nearby spider monkey sanctuary and keep kayaks on hand for exploring.
El Boquerón National Park
Just an hour outside El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador, El Boquerón features a surprisingly wild landscape of dense woodland blanketing the slopes of two volcanoes. Of these, the more popular is the gigantic crater called El Boquerón, which translates as “big mouth,” so-called because inside it is a smaller crater created by a more recent eruption—quite the geology lesson. If you don’t want to walk, a paved road gets you close to the top, where the view of San Salvador is unbeatable.
Montecristo National Park
Many adventure-seekers come to Montecristo National Park specifically to climb its namesake 7,800-foot mountain, also known as El Trifinio, because its summit marks El Salvador’s border with both Guatemala and Honduras. But this fog-shrouded cloud forest also shelters rare wildlife like the puma, two-fingered anteaters, agoutis, and spider monkeys, and you might spot the brilliant plumage of toucans and quetzals flashing through the canopy. But wait, there’s more: an otherworldly orchid garden, 275 endemic species of birds, and the park’s other mountains, Miramundo and El Brujo, which offer excellent hiking as well. Be aware that the climb to El Trifinio is only open from November to May and may get crowded in peak winter months.
El Imposible National Park
The name is your clue when it comes to El Impossible on El Salvador’s western side, where steep terrain and vine-tangled rainforest have long made this 9,400-acre rainforest challenging to penetrate. Today, though, a network of trails makes it possible to access the park’s eight rivers with their many dramatic waterfalls and seek out wildlife like armadillos, ocelots, wild boar, white-tailed deer, and even possibly a puma.
Chorros De La Calera
A series of shimmering waterfalls plunging into crystal clear pools, Chorros De La Chalera is a popular swimming spot on hot days. Located near Juayua, one of the towns on the Ruta de las Flores driving route, it’s reached via a short walk from town, or you can go with a guide. Follow the river down from the falls, and you’ll find more cascades or sign up with one of the many outfitters that offer a seven waterfalls tour.
With a name that translates as hill full of snakes, Coatepeque might sound forbidding, but quite the contrary—it’s a tranquil retreat popular with boaters. Located near the Santa Ana and Izalco volcanoes, Coatepeque was formed by an eruption approximately 60,000 years ago. With much of its shoreline occupied by the luxury homes of El Salvador’s elite, Coatepeque is remarkably quiet; unless you’re staying on the lake, a boat trip will provide the best access.
El Salvador’s second-largest lake, Ilopango, also formed in the crater of an extinct volcano and is popular with divers challenged to explore its depths. Ilopango has numerous pretty beaches, and in one spot geothermal activity creates hot springs along the edges of the lake. Many people combine a trip to Lake Ilopango with a visit to the nearby colonial village of Suchitoto; many day tours offer this excursion.
Half an hour inland from the famous surf town of El Tunco, Tamanique is a series of four waterfalls that tumble down boulder-strewn cliffs. While it’s popular with adventurous types who jump from the rocks, it also makes for a nice hang on a hot day. The short hike to the falls starts at the town of Tamanique, about 1,000 feet above sea level from the coast.
Playa Los Cobanos
Singling out one beach in El Salvador is like trying to choose one flavor from a case of gelato, but Los Cobanos stands out for its golden tan sands and the fact that it remains at least somewhat off the radar. A fishing village discovered initially by divers who came to explore its shipwrecks, it offers long secluded stretches for strolling and coves of coral reefs for snorkeling.