Travel to El Salvador:
It’s a place where grimy surfers voluntarily disappear barefoot on black sand beaches for cheap. It’s the type of place that’s getting harder and harder to find. You can order spicy chicken or fish under a thatched roof beach shack. The cook might chase your yard-bird or a fisherman might wrestle in pacific treasures into the boat that morning. It’s bubbling turquoise foam at your feet while the black sand sticks to you like Oreo cookie crumbs. If palm trees, quiet colorful towns, and ungodly amounts of papusas sound enticing, then El Salvador is for you.
Mind Open to the New
This is an up and coming backpacking destination. Let’s face it, generally speaking, backpackers are the first to enter unsavory places with bad boy reputations. Over eager hand-wave– hey– that’s me. Or as a new pilot friend recently said, “You’ll pretty much go anywhere where the bullets aren’t flying at you won’t you?” Why yes, yes I will. Insert a long pause here. Iraq was one of my very favorite trips.
But that’s not the whole story of this rising star location with a desire to improve it’s international reputation.
More than the Crime Hype
Truth is, when you travel to El Salvador you can find anything that suits you. I’ve grown out of hostels at this point (hELLo age 30!) But this is still a budget friendly paradise. The real news is that if you’re looking for a 4 star beachside resort or a free adventure out in nature, El Salvador has got that. National Parks? Check. Gated condo community? It’s got that too.
With a state of the art airport, the option to rent a car, or get picked up by your resort van, boutiques, Bitcoin acceptance, and foreign investment pouring in . . . this really is an up and coming world class destination.
You Should Go
Flights to El Salvador are some of the cheapest in the Western Hemisphere. You should plan your travel to El Salvador because I really think that this is a place worth discovering. The cliché goes, “Fortune favors the bold” which really applies here. When you get by the bad press that this country has received there’s a real diamond in the rough waiting for you to discover in El Salvador.
Our self-driven trip led me through the jungle, lakes, and volcanos region of Santa Ana. We then went down through the flamboyant flames of orange, yellow, and pink Poinciana flower trees along highway 2, the road kissed by the wet spray of the Pacific. Here are some tips organized by legs of my journey, with details of the loop highlighted on the map above:
El Salvador International Airport to –>Santa Ana
The country conveniently uses US Dollars. Car rental reservations are easily picked up at the airport exit. First we headed to the area that I was most exited to explore, the tourist town of Santa Ana and it’s surrounding volcanos. GPS will try to route you through San Salvador, which is where most of what you’ve already heard about El Salvador comes from. MS-13 is rumored to control the old town area and the eastern portion of the capital city (but might be found anywhere). Nervous, we simply locked the doors, and drove straight through, avoiding the aforementioned areas. We even chose the longer route, which wasn’t the primary recommendation for time by GoogleMaps, to avoid the inner city. We did sit in traffic for a bit. I enjoyed the roadside vendors selling nuts in the middle of congested highways and thatched tropical fruit sellers on the side of the road. The roadside vendors are one of the small things that make travel to El Salvador interesting and enjoyable. Once in the countryside, stop to sample!
Outside of the airport English is only found at hotels so conversational Spanish is essential. By the end of the trip I realized that I had been over-cautious and felt entirely safe, without a single incident. I confess that I felt safer in El Salvador than any big city in my home country. People who tell you otherwise are either caught up in the gang hype or confusing poverty with being unsafe (which extensive travel will tell you are not the same!)
This is a charming town of colorful barrio style houses on hills (cerros). It has a lively town square park (Parque Libertad) that frequently has weekend markets and performances. I especially enjoyed the Gothic architecture of the Cathedral (Catedral de Nuestra Senora Santa Ana) and nearby National Theater (Teatro Nacional de Santa Ana) and the National Palace. I marveled while nibbling papusas and churros. Historically speaking, small coffee farmers taxed themselves during the Golden Age of Coffee. They did this to compete with the capital city and they were successful as their home soon became the new cultural capital. You can easily walk the historical district and it seems very safe to do so before dark. This is the country’s second largest city and was originally founded by the Mayans, whose ancient sites are nearby (but I did not visit because I spent time in neighboring Guatemala doing that). Locals also recommended visiting the Old Art School.
I got wrapped up in the charm of Santa Ana and forgot about any initial safety hesitations that I had. A yellow lab-looking stray dog hung out with me. I was sitting in a plastic chair trying to keep my weight balanced to prevent it from bending. I was waiting on a pineapple papusa (delicious! who knew they came in fruit flavors?!) I opened the Spanish newspaper to find extremely graphic photos on the front page of gang violence, murder, and facial machete chopping. I was hit with the sense of shock that the reality of living in El Salvador is extremely different than visiting as a tourist.
However comfortable I felt in my explorations, however “very safe” the locals told me it was, I wanted to stay alert to avoid any potential problems. Let the record state, that I NEVER ONCE felt unsafe as a tourist in El Salvador. Short of this newspaper surprise I saw absolutely no evidence of gang or safety problems. Quite the contrary: locals yelled “hello” with smiles from their car windows and came over to say Bienvienidos! several times. By the end of the trip I became very comfortable.
Accommodation: (which I especially liked because of the owner, his family, it felt local, the air conditioning, and the ability to park our truck in his garage overnight)
Casa Vieja Guest House 9th South Ave. No. 10 1th/3th East St, Santa Ana 2201 El Salvador
Santa Ana Volcano
You can see volcanos in many places all over the world. The real difference when you travel to El Salvador is that you can climb a cone from base to caldera. The trick is, I didn’t come prepared for the sun. Thinking that I would only be out for 3 to 4 hours, my tank top earned me second and third degree sunburn with scarring. Climbing the volcano requires a guide for safety which rangers coordinate for you without reservations upon arrival. Groups meet at the trailhead (parking lot easily navigated to by Google) at various times throughout the morning to avoid past reports of bandit groups on this moderate/difficult hike. I didn’t see any bandits.
I was however, really happy to have a guide who, when he spoke strictly in Spanish, helped the group steer away from vipers and “serpientes” in the trees. Yeah, fluent Spanish wasn’t needed for my ears to perk up at that word! Long story short, the thick jungle tree cover didn’t last for long but shaking the trees to balance yourself might cause serpents to fall on you. At the top is the world’s best homeade bubblegum, lime, or chocolate popsicle enjoyed peering over the sulfur caldera. The REAL HERO being– the entrepreneur who hikes all the way to the top every day toting his styrofoam ice chest of popsicles. I highly reccomend the chicle! Feeling safe, and strung out on adventure we hiked down without our guide.
The only thing that would make the adventure better would be a swim in one of the picturesque nearby lakes. Outdoor adventures, places where you can really fly under the radar are part of the reasons that travel to El Salvador is so enticing. Several times I found myself thinking, I’m having a great time, in this beautiful spot (crystal clear lake, colossal volcano, or unassuming picturesque beach), and virtually no one else knows where this exact location inside of the country is. It was liberating. And it was exciting.
Accommodation: At $20 a night, Captain Morgan Hostel is rumored to have a bitchin’ swimming dock
and hammocks over Lake Coatepeque
SAN24E Lago de Coatepeque, Santa Ana
Mizata to –> El Tunco to –> La Libertad
An undiscovered jewel on the coastline, Mizata hosts sweeping black sand vistas and palm tree breezes. Salvadorians vacation here to escape the bustle of the city. Enjoy a beer at one of the bungalos or order food while pups lay at your feet. I enjoyed watching surfers get swallowed by the waves that were really intense. After staying at several budget locations, we enjoyed a short stay at a luxury oceanside resort filled with honeymooners and surfers. Mizata is one of the country’s quieter and less discovered locations. One the road to El Tunco I had the best fish meal of my life at one of the many unassuming roadside restaurants where we ate atop a cliff. The drive along HWY 2 was a special sight in itself with similar natural views to what I might compare to a Pacific coastline drive down California’s 101.
El Tunco was a gated village on the coast that held adorable boutiques. I wish we had spent more time in El Tunco, foresee it being the most popular future El Salvadorian destination. Coincidentally at the time, the village hosted the world surfing competition so overcrowding kept us away. Foreign investment is clearly pouring in to the El Tunco village, evident by construction road signs saying thus, condos, and chain ice-cream shops. Obviously the area is changing and this is the area that the Ministry of Tourism hopes to channel tourists to, even giving it the new name of “Surf City” with a new direct highway that is a straight route from the airport, which bypasses the rough imaged capital city entirely.
The gentrification sprawls east into the town of La Libertad, another coastal town, a bit more grimy, budget looking, and will probably look entirely updated on my next trip to El Salvador. With all of the new changes in the country, I hope the relaxed vibe stays the same.
Exit Out of the Country
You must have a Covid Test to enter back into the US as of June 2021. We used the Emed.com self test, which is supplied in a box and completed via your laptop and Navica app. These kits, sent to us in the mail and carried in our backpacks were easy to use. We completed them 2ish days before exiting the country. The app did take some persistence. You should plan for reliable internet (which is widely found but might not be strong enough to support the needed video teleconferencing). Medical testing was not easily accessible in the countryside and offices were often closed. I should also add that the self tests were less invasive and that I preferred them.
Accommodation: Hotel Rancho Argueta (near the airport)
Great food, interesting El Salvadorian antique décor, low frills, locally owned
Km. 40 Carretera Aeropuerto Internacional de Comalpa, Ex-Peaje, San Luis Talpa, El Salvador