It may be Central America's smallest country, but El Salvador packs a lot into its 8,124 square miles — from black sand beaches to colonial villages brimming with new life after a destructive civil war. Here are 15 ways to thoroughly enjoy the vibrant culture, history, and beauty that the “Land of Volcanoes” offers.
They're El Salvador's national dish: thick, handmade tortillas stuffed with ingredients like cheese, Salvadoran chicharron (crispy pork), and loroco (a local edible flower), grilled in oil and served alongside a bowl of curtido (cabbage salad) and a spicy red sauce. A common and affordable staple food that's been passed down through generations, pupusas are served everywhere throughout the country — at roadside stands, restaurants, and at dedicated pupuserias where pupusa-making is an artwork. In fact, the second Sunday in November is National Pupusa Day in El Salvador, with events such as pupusa-eating contests and street fairs held countrywide, though a large collection are held in San Salvador — El Salvador's capital city.
Hike an Active Volcano
El Salvador is a literal hotbed of seismic activity, with at least 23 active volcanoes — many which are accessible by travelers. The tallest of these is Santa Ana, a 7,812-foot-tall stratovolcano located within the Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, also known as Cerro Verde National Park, which is also home to volcanoes Izalco and Cerro Verde. Hiking to Santa Ana's peak is a great workout and you're rewarded with stunning views, including view of the volcano's own highly acidic green crater lake with the stunning Lake Coatepeque in the distance, as well as verdant coffee plantations and Izalco's barren slopes. The round-trip journey takes a few hours, trekking from Santa Ana's main crater and across private land to the park's official entrance, then up through cloud forest and along an open, rocky stretch to the top. Both a guide and a couple of armed security officers are required for the scheduled hike, which is usually done in a large group.
Learn About Local Art and Create Some of Your Own
Artisans reign in El Salvador's many towns and villages, where handicrafts have a long local history. To truly experience this wealth of creative offerings, a drive along its Ruta Artesanal or “Artisan Route” is a must. Each town along the route showcases its own individual craft — San Sebastián is known as the city of “colorful textiles,” while Ilobasco boasts “surprise” miniatures: egg-size ceramics that open to reveal a scene such as a nativity or a woman making pupusas — with opportunities to purchase handmade works and try crafting something of your own. Swing by Suchitoto's Arte Añil Gallery to learn about traditional indigo dyeing and create your own souvenir scarf. After you're done, head over to La Palma — a mountain town just under 8 miles away from the Honduras border. border with Honduras — to see tiny copinol seeds painted with bright and colorful depictions of daily-life. Local artist Fernando Llort popularized this simplistic style of painting, known as Arte Naif, which can be seen on murals throughout town.
Suchitoto is a picturesque mountain town along the Ruta Artesanal lined with cobblestone streets and colonial architecture that are brimming with pupuserias, art galleries, and cafes — and it's El Salvador's cultural capital. Suchitoto was largely deserted during the country's Civil War from 1980 to 1992, but is today flourishing. The chalk white Santa Lucía church — with its impressive ionic columns — overlooks Suchitoto's central square, and nearby you'll find places like Teatro Alejandro Cotto (“Theater of Ruins”) and Centro Arte Para La Paz (“Art Center for Peace”), both bastions of creativity — especially during February, when the town's month-long International Festival of Arts and Culture occurs.
During the months of October through February, El Salvador's Ruta de las Flores, or “Route of Flowers,” bursts to life with wildflowers in bright shades of pink, red and purple, though this 22-mile mountainous route has plenty to offer the rest of the year, too. Beginning 46 miles west of San Salvador in the town of Nahuizalco, the Ruta de las Flores winds its way along past coffee farms and through picturesque villages, providing spectacular views as it goes. Stops along the way include Nahuizalco, known for its indigenous heritage and wicker and tule handicrafts, and Juayúa, which hosts a popular food festival every weekend where you can taste grilled prawns, chorizo sausages and pupusas. The village's “Seven Waterfalls” trek also provides the perfect cooling-off excursion for El Salvador's sometimes stifling heat.
At the end of the Ruta de las Flores sits Apaneca, a 4,757-foot-high mountain village that's an ideal hub for thrill-seekers. Embark on a dune buggy adventure along Apaneca's cobbled streets and ascending through cloud forest to reach Laguna Verde, an often mist-shrouded lake at the end of a long mountain pathway. Later, soar through a stunning rainforest canopy on a zip-lining course that overlooks coffee farms and spectacular valleys, with an occasional toucan or two joining you in the trees.
The closest thing to a national beer that you'll find in El Salvador is Pislener (yes, the extra “e” is intentional) and it's everywhere: popped open at al fresco beach bars, served up at street-side pupuserias, and on the menus at comedores (neighborhood restaurants) from Suchitoto to San Salvador. But no worries if alcohol isn't your thing. El Salvador is home to a wealth of interesting beverages, like horchata, a drink made of rice and ground nuts, flavored with cinnamon and sweetened with sugar; a sugarcane-flavored, almost bubble gum-tasting soft drink called Kolashampan; and Ensalada, a drinkable fruit salad filled with diced fruits like pineapple and mango.
El Salvador may be the only Mesoamerican country with no Caribbean coastline, but what it lacks in eastern seas it more than makes up for with laid-back Pacific beach towns and legendary right-hand point breaks. The bulk of U.S. tourists to El Salvador are surfers who head to coastal towns like La Libertad, El Tunco, and El Sunzal for the warm waters and long rides. However these beachfront properties are also some of El Salvador's hottest backpacker hubs, with plenty of hostels, loads of pupusa vendors, and tons of shops and bars. Strolls along El Tunco's black sands and La Libertad's Fisherman Pier — where fresh catches of tuna, snapper, and eel appear daily — are a must. It's worth splurging a little ceviche, too.
Experience Concepción de Ataco, the Town of Murals
There's something extra special about Concepción de Ataco, or “Ataco” for short, a mountain town along El Salvador's Ruta de la Flores that's covered in colorful artwork. The latter is the result of a 2004 government-sponsored competition to help beautify the country's towns and earned Ataco the nickname “Town of Murals.” The art adorns shops and colonial-era buildings all along its quiet cobblestone streets. With nearby hillsides covered in coffee fields and brimming with singing birds, as well Ataco's own Axul Artesania — a colorful arts and crafts shop that features brightly woven blankets, painted wall-hangings and pillows, and wind chimes — this scenic village is a little slice of charm.
Explore San Salvador's Old Town
San Salvador is El Salvador's capital city, and Old Town is its historic center — the heart of its political and religious happenings. The neighborhood's most notable buildings only date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, since natural disasters such as earthquakes destroyed many of its original Spanish Colonial structures, though the architecture is still impressive. Old Town is home to El Salvador's National Palace, the French Renaissance style National Theater, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, where the remains of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero — El Salvador's first Catholic saint, recently canonized in October 2018 — currently reside. One of the neighborhood's most illuminating buildings (in the literal sense) is Iglesia El Rosario Catholic Church. Sculptor Ruben Martinez designed this stunning late-20th-century structure, and while its arched-roof concrete exterior seems more akin to an airplane hangar, once inside you're awash in a rainbow of light: resulting from a series of stained-glass windows completely unnoticeable from the outside.
It's part of the overall Salvadoran experience: a traditional breakfast made up of eggs, refried beans, fried plantains, and cream or cheese. A plate of thick tortillas is usually served on the side, and coffee is par for the course. If you can partake in this daily ritual from an outdoor courtyard or overlooking one of El Salvador's spectacular lakes or mountainsides — all the better.
Trek Alongside a Former Guerrilla
From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador's Civil War wreaked havoc on the country and turned many local communities into ghost towns. One that's recovered from the ashes of despair is Cinquera, where rebel soldiers once killed more than 60 soldiers in a day-long siege of the town. Today, Cinquera is a peaceful community that doesn't turn its back on its past, but instead embraces its history. In the neighboring Cinquera Rainforest Park you can hike among blue morpho butterflies and cascading waterfalls while learning local civil war history first-hand with a former guerrilla fighter as your guide. This tropical nature reserve still features many remnants from the war, including an L-shaped trench where snipers hid and the remains of Rattlesnake Camp, with its former kitchen and improvised hospital for the wounded still standing.
Learn About Mayan History
Joya de Ceren is known as “El Salvador's Pompeii.” It's a pre-Columbian Mayan farming community buried under volcanic ash around A.D. 500. Unlike Pompeii, Joya de Ceren's villagers were able to escape — though they left behind everything from furniture to food. A family happened upon the ruins in 1976, and today Joya de Ceren is the only place in the world where you can truly experience the way Mayans lived their daily lives. This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the remains of adobe structures, obsidian jewelry, and structural recreations (such as that of the village's original sauna) that you can actually enter. Maybe of the buildings were built like mazes to keep spirits out, but the ongoing excavations don't deter El Salvador's national bird — the turquoise-browed motmot or Torogoz — from making use of the space.
You can order a quesadilla in El Salvador, but don't expect your typical corn or flour folded tortilla pan-fried and oozing with cheese. In this country, quesadillas are more of a sweet, spongy cheese bread—the kind that goes perfectly with a steaming cup of Salvadoran coffee. Quesadillas Salvadoreña, as they're known, are popular menu items at Salvadoran panaderias, or bakeries, alongside empanadas de leche, delicious custard-filled empanadas sprinkled with sugar and made with plantains. Absolutely divine!
El Salvador is home to 500 bird species, 1,000 butterfly species, and four of the world's seven species of sea turtles, which come to nest along the country's Pacific coasts. It turns out that about 40% of the world's Eastern Pacific Hawksbill sea turtle population spends time around Jiquilisco Bay, an enormous biosphere reserve and mangrove-lined estuary that's of prime importance to their conservation. You can actually assist in the release of sea turtle hatchlings and take place in tagging programs through organizations such as FUNZEL SV (the Zoological Foundation of El Salvador).