El Salvador, officially the Republic of El Salvador, is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America. Plagued with years of internal strife, El Salvador has a long and bloody history. In recent years, El Salvador is slowly but surely tottering back to its feet. The stark cultural differences characteristic of most Central American countries is sadly lacking here.
The natural beauty of the country, however, is astounding – majestic hills, lush green terrain and meandering rivers. Sadly, El Salvador has the highest level of environmental damage in Central America, and nature's bounty is under serious threat of destruction. Its rivers are clouded with pollution and there is large-scale deforestation.
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EL SALVADOR QUICK FACTS
Capital: San Salvador
Currency: United States Dollar (USD)
Area: 21,040 km²
Population: 6,421 million (2018)
Language: Spanish, English and Nawat (less than 1% of the people, Amerindians)
Religion: Roman Catholic 52%; there is extensive activity by Protestant groups throughout the country; by the end of 1992, there were an estimated 1 million Protestant evangelicals in El Salvador
Electricity:120-240V, 60Hz (US plug)
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EL SALVADOR PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 1 May, Labor Day
- 10 May, Mother’s Day
- 17 June, Father’s Day
- 1st week of August, Fiestas Patronales
- 15 September, Independence Day
- 2 November, All Souls Day
Also, Holy Week, especially Holy Wednesday to Easter Sunday.
FESTIVALS IN EL SALVADOR
Fería de Cultura de las Flores y las Palmas - (May) In Panchimalco (near San Salvador), this colorful extravaganza stars beauty queens and gauche floral arrangements.
Festival de Invierno - (August) For the Winter Festival, hip, lefty students flood the small mountain town of Perquín and party like the war has just ended.
Bolas de Fuego - Local funseekers paint their faces like devils and throw fireballs at each other. Held on August 31 in Nejapa.
BEST TIME TO VISIT EL SALVADOR
The climate of El Salvador is tropical with pronounced rainy and dry seasons but with moderated temperature which changes mainly by elevation in the interior. Rainy season is from May to October and the dry season November to April.
- December to January - The landscape is lush and green after the rainy season and the weather is perfect. Travelers from further north escape the winter and locals are on holidays.
- May to August - The surf gets heavy during this time. Early August brings a week-long celebration of El Salvador's patron saint.
- July to November - It's turtle-nesting season right along the 300km Pacific Ocean coastline. Barra de Santiago and Playa El Cuco are recommended places to see the magic.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
HIKING & CYCLING IN EL SALVADOR
The best time for outdoor activities in El Salvador is during the dry season, from November to April. During this time explore the tropical mountain forests of Parque Nacional El Imposible.
BEACH OPTIONS IN EL SALVADOR
The beaches in El Salvador are particularly beautiful from November to April when there is little to no rain, and the weather is just right. The peak tourist months are December, January, March & April.
SURFING IN EL SALVADOR
The most consistent and bigger swells in El Salvador come over the very wet months of May to October. March and April are considered to be the best months for both great waves and dry weather. November to December has smaller waves perfect for learning.
KITESURF IN EL SALVADOR
The only suitable spot for enjoying the wind in El Salvador is on Lago de Guija. Here you can wind and kitesurf from January to April, but it's not the best place for beginners!
HEALTH RISKS IN EL SALVADOR
Be aware of possible health risks in
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
EL SALVADOR TRAVEL COSTS
El Salvador really supports the budget traveller. Food and accommodations are great value, while the bus network is cheap and reliable.
La Tortuga Verde is a fabulous creative community where you can stay for free if you volunteer for a month. Shuchitoto is a charming, culture-filled town, with the excellent, affordable Pajaro Flor Spanish School and great volunteer opportunities at the Centro Arte Para la Paz.
EL SALVADOR TRAVEL TIPS
El Salvador is the last country to embrace Uber in Central America, launching in May 2017. Embrace might be putting it too strongly though as like everywhere else, everyone loves Uber unless they’re a taxi driver. In the post-launch months of 2017, the government asked its citizens to stop using Uber and threatened to seize drivers’ cars. As expected most people love the service as it's cheap, convenient and safe - government thankfully stopped stopped short of criminalizing the service. You can get around San Salvador for less than $5 and out to the beach for less than $20. Uber in El Salvador is available in San Miguel, San Salvador and Santa Ana.
El Salvador is small and pretty easy to get around by bus, car and taxi. Mostly due to it's size, flying within El Salvador is neither cost effective nor easily accessible. Colourful 'American school buses' run frequently to points throughout the country and are very cheap (US$0.25 to US$5). Some weekend fares increase by up to 25%. Routes to some eastern destinations have different categories: ordinario, especial and super especial. The last two options cost more, but they are faster and more comfortable. In San Salvador, the most popular long-distance buses arrive in fashionable Zona Rosa (Tica Bus Terminal - map). From here, taxis can take you anywhere in the capital for US$10 or so.
Arriving via the airport, Aeropuerto Internacional Comalapa, San Salvador Buses run to the city center every 60 minutes, but it can be a challenge to the location, especially if you have a lot of luggage. Taxis cost about US$30 to US$35 (and takes 45 minutes) and are plentiful, but negotiate beforehand. Taxis Acacya (US$5) run a smart shuttle service to downtown, but you'll most likely need a second cab as they terminate in a dodgy area. As alternative contact your hotels to arrange pick-ups.
Tica Bus Terminal, San Salvador
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF EL SALVADOR
- Ruta de las Flores - Track your gourmet coffee from plantation to cup, swim in natural springs and hangout at weekend food fairs.
- La Costa del Bálsamo - Kick back at Playa El Tunco: surf, party, repeat.
- Parque Nacional los Volcanes - Get steamy hiking the park's active peaks.
- San Salvador - Gallery-hop and rub shoulders with the young party set in flash Zona Rosa.
- Playa Esteronb - Tackle the wild east, starting in the poorly kept secret of Playa Esteron, before venturing by boat to the deserted islands near Nicaragua.
- Tazumal - Enjoy Maya ruins all to yourself, then gaze at the finest architecture in the country at nearby Santa Ana.
El Salvador is compact and with this itinerary you can easily get across the whole country in a week. Assuming you enter from Guatemala, head straight along the Costa del Bálsamo, staying over in either Playa El Tunco or Playa El Zonte. Head north to Ruta de las Flores to sample coffee and culture in small artisanal towns. Stay over in Juayúa. Spend a day hiking nearby Cerro Verde or visit the Maya pyramids at Tazumal. Sleep in San Salvador, then explore the capital’s galleries and museums.
Head for the mountains and visit La Palma and Suchitoto then return to San Salvador. If you are bound for Nicaragua, head east along the highway. Alternatively, Playa El Cuco is a relaxing base to explore the islands in Golfo de Fonseca, the volcanoes around San Miguel and even further north to the ex-guerrilla stronghold of Morozán. From here you can exit the country via La Unión.
SAN SALVADOR & SURROUNDS
Surrounded by green-tipped volcanoes, San Salvador is handsome compared to some other Central American capital cities. Its leafy suburbs are pleasant to explore on foot, while its galleries and museums stand out for such a small city. San Salvador’s huge wealth gap does mean that violent crime is a reality, and there are a few neighbourhoods east of town that are no-go zones. Head instead to the hip nightspots of Zona Rosa and the shopping and café scene of Colonia Escalon, or dive into the teeming centro markets, where travellers are very welcome and often greeted with infectious guanaco hospitality. The area around San Salvador is awash with historic ruins and grand miradors such as Joya de Cerén (the Pompeii of America) and the modest ruins of Cihuatán.
Perhaps San Salvador’s greatest asset, though, is its location within easy reach of the ocean and the mountains. It makes an excellent base for day trips to Volcan El Boquerón, the arts village of Panchimalco, and the eerie hillside district called Los Planes de Renderos, or for longer forays to La Costa del Bálsamo and the Ruta de las Flores.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map
WESTERN EL SALVADOR
Western El Salvador is a small region that somehow contains the majority of the country's attractions. The cloud forest and conical splendour of Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, the mysterious and at times unvisited Mayan ruins at Tazumal, the Ruta de las Flores and a volcanic lake are all within a 90-minute drive of Santa Ana, the charming provincial capital with the finest plaza in El Salvador and a good alternative base to the capital for exploring.
With three major volcanoes in hiking distance – one prehistoric, one impossibly steep and one recently exhausted – the burning heart of El Salvador is justifiably a highlight for many travellers to the country. The volcanic peaks of Izalco or Santa Ana can be tackled in a day – not the same day – or you can take a short stroll on a nature loop in the forested area of Parque Nacional Los Volcanes.
From the wilds of Parque Nacional El Imposible near the Guatemalan border – where you can find pumas, boars and tigrillos – traverse waterfalls until you pick up the famed Flower Route, a pin-up region of hot springs, food fairs and artisan villages. Indeed, if you fly into San Salvador, you can reach it all in a day and end at the far western tip at Barrio de Santiago, a wind-swept beach with massive surf where turtles lay eggs by moonlight.
EASTERN EL SALVADOR
Most travellers race down the Carretera Interamericana in search of El Salvador's western attractions or, if heading east, the Nicaraguan border. However, the east of the El Salvador is a diverse geographical region that warrants greater consideration.
The quaint village of Alegría, the visceral war history around Morazán, and the long, sandy surf beaches near El Cuco and Las Flores will give even the most worldly traveller something to savour. They see only fleeting traffic from nearby cities such as San Miguel, the working-class capital with a distinctly cavalier attitude. Real off-the-beaten-track coastal adventure is found at Bahía de Jiquilisco, where birdlife soars, and in tiny fishing villages with little contact with the outside world.
There are two ways to travel east – along the Carretera Interamericana or along the Carretera del Litoral (CA2); the latter accesses the beaches, and the former the northern reaches. The Ruta de La Paz (peace route; CA7) runs north from San Miguel.
NORTHERN EL SALVADOR
The small province of Chalatenango constitutes the northern region of El Salvador, where mountains run to the Honduran border. It's a very pretty, peaceful area, easily accessible from San Salvador and, the more so since the construction of a new freeway, the Honduran border too. Suchitoto – everyone's favourite Salvadoran colonial town – is deservedly the area's most well-known attraction. On some weekends it can feel like the cultural centre of Central America, and it makes a fabulous base for a visit to the country.
La Palma is a unique artists' hangout, famous for art which continues to capture the world’s imagination, while hiking trips from San Ignacio and Miramundo are world class. The commercial hub of Chalatenango – the center of what is now El Salvador’s safest province – is a proud farming town with a strong community spirit, as seen in an ongoing dispute with international mining companies.
The countryside around Chalatenango climbs into dry forest studded with toothy peaks and rugged tawny hills. The small villages in this remote area have stunning landscapes and interesting histories. La Montañona is a pine-forest reserve at 1600m with prime views and pre-Columbian rock carvings. The civil war left several tatús (cave hideouts), including one used by clandestine guerrilla radio station Radio Farabundo, as well as an underground guerrilla hospital. Beyond the Río Sumpul, Arcatao is a beautiful village in the mountains bordering Honduras. Northwest of Chalate, Concepción Quezaltepeque is a hammock-making centre.
WHAT TO EAT IN EL SALVADOR
A typical breakfast in EL Salvador includes eggs, beans or casamiento (rice and beans mixed together), fried plantains, cheese, tortillas and coffee or juice. Panaderías (bakeries) usually offer a selection of morning cakes and coffee.
El Salvador's most famous food by far is the pupusa - round cornmeal dough stuffed with a combination of cheese, refried beans, wild vegetables such as ayote and mora, chicharrón (pork rinds), or revuelta (mixed filling), then grilled. Curtido, a mixture of pickled cabbage and vegetables, provides the final topping.
Licuados (fruit drinks made with water or milk) are perfectly suited to El Salvador's climate. Horchata (rice milk and cinnamon) and chilate (roasted corn drink with other natural ingredients) are popular alternatives found at street stalls and most restaurants. A refresco de ensalada is not coleslaw puree, but a mixed fruit juice served with a spoon for the fruit salad floating on top, sangria style.
LGBTQ IN EL SALVADOR
Gay people in EL Salvador receive little tolerance. Previous
attacks on members of the gay community have gone unpunished. Some hotels refuse to rent a room with one bed to two men; women will encounter less scrutiny. In San Salvador, the area around Blvd de los Héroes has cultural centres and clubs that more are gay friendly.
WHERE TO STAY IN EL SALVADOR
El Salvador has an excellent range of small hotels and backpacker hostels, particularly in San Salvador, and the busier tourist areas such as Playa El Tunco, Suchitoto and the Ruta de las Flores. We seek out the safest and most secure options for travelers here.
Camping and eco-albergues (ecohostels; basic shared cabins, some with modest kitchen facilities) are found around popular outdoor destinations. Bring your own camping equipment. Room rates are stable season to season, except during the first week of August (summer holidays) and the Semana Santa (around Easter), when hotels can fill up quickly.
In San Salvador, Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalón have the city’s best hotels, big or small. Safe and convenient, the Blvd de los Héroes area offers reasonable lodgings close to the Universidad Nacional where lots students mingle during the day. The shaded streets around the Universidad Tecnológica (south of the Puerto bus terminal) offer easy access to the airport shuttle and international buses. The city centre (el centro) is convenient for markets, but avoid sleeping here.
In the La Costa del Bálsamo area you will find some of the country's best budget accommodation located in the beach hamlets west of La Libertad.