El Salvador is at the bottom of Central America, on the way to nowhere, so even overland backpackers often skip it. Which is a shame, because the country is just as beautiful as its more famous neighbours. It has Mayan ruins, lines of smoking volcanoes, sleepy Spanish-colonial villages in flower-filled valleys, and long, wide stretches of surf-friendly Pacific coast. And since it’s about the same size as New Jersey, you can take your time and see the most beautiful places in a few days.
Archaeologists think that people first lived in Tazumal around 5,000 BCE and left in the 13th century. It is the most impressive Mayan ruin in El Salvador. In the 1940s and 1950s, the architectural complex was dug up and fixed up a lot, but many of the ruins are still not dug up.
People think that Tazumal was an important place for trade, and in the K’iche’ language, its name means “pyramid where the dead were burned.” Explore this huge site and visit the museum on site to learn about the history of the Maya people.
Playa El Tunco
Welcome to a cool beach town with only two streets and a lot of backpackers and surfers. The waves on the black, pebbly beaches are best in the morning. When the tide is low, you can walk along the cute streets or go to the beach caves.
Playa El Tunco is popular with both people from El Salvador and people from other countries. On weekends, the beach is always full. Don’t miss the beautiful sunsets every night. Pro tip: the hotel Monkey Lala has a great view.
If you go northeast of the capital city, San Salvador, you’ll find this old colonial city. It was damaged during the Civil War (1980–1992), but now it’s a great place to visit in the mountains and a cultural hub for the whole country, with arts and food festivals happening all the time.
You could walk around on the cobblestone streets and look up at the well-kept Spanish colonial buildings. You can find waterfalls and caves outside of town. Or, take your binoculars to Lake Suchitlán, where some of the country’s most numerous ducks are found.
Ruta de las Flores
This Flower Route takes you through some of the most beautiful towns in El Salvador. It gets its name from the wildflowers that grow along the roadside, which are at their best from November to February. You drive about 25 miles (40 km) from Sonsonate through Juaya, Ataco, Apaneca, and Ahuachapán.
Along the way, you’ll see beautiful waterfalls and coffee plantations, as well as Spanish-colonial buildings, tall churches, weekend markets, and great places to stop for food. If you drive yourself, you’ll have more freedom, but you can also take a bus.
Playa El Esteron
Here is a beautiful part of El Salvador’s coast that, for some reason, isn’t as popular as many of the other parts. The waves aren’t too big, and it’s quiet because there aren’t as many rowdy backpackers on the beach as usual.
The sands go on forever in both directions, but they are not as dark as the ones further west. Stop at Playa El Esteron for a beautiful, but never-ending, beach day. You’ll probably end up drinking cold beer and swinging in a rented hammock while watching the colours of the sunset change.
What used to be a volcano 1,500 years ago is now a large body of fresh water in the middle of El Salvador. It is at an elevation of 1,450 feet (442 metres) and is surrounded by high cliffs. Divers and boaters love it there. Between CE 410 and CE 535, the cone was broken by an eruption that killed and moved hundreds of thousands of people for miles around.
The 28sqmi (72sqkm) Lake Ilopango is in the bowl-shaped caldera, which is still full of water. Travelers are drawn to its peaceful beauty, and locals dive for fish in waters that drop off to 787ft (240m) or more.
National Park of Montecristo
From the highest peak (El Trifino, at 7,933ft/2,418m) to the lowest valleys, this national park is nature turned up to 11. It looks like a long-lost world, with oaks and laurel trees towering up to 100 feet (30 metres) above and mushrooms, lichens, and mosses growing everywhere on the forest floor.
Still, it’s easy to visit as part of a tour. Rare animals like pumas, anteaters, spider monkeys, and coyotes could be seen. Even if you don’t, it’s likely that you will see squirrels, porcupines, black shrew-mice, and white-tailed deer. There are also 300 kinds of birds, such as quetzals, green toucans, and white-faced quails. Keep your eyes peeled.
Puerta del Diablo
In the past, there was a lot of death and horror, but today, the views are beautiful and make people feel good. This keeps tourists coming. Devil’s Door is a rock formation made up of two tall boulders that look out over the green landscape of El Salvador.
From the viewpoint, which is reached by a winding path, you can see the indigenous town of Panchimalco below, Lake Ilopango to the left, the twin-peaked San Vicente volcano in front of you, and the Pacific in the distance. For the brave, it’s no surprise that there are more than 60 rock climbing routes in the area.
From San Salvador, Santa Ana is about 40 miles (65 km) away. It is the second largest city in the country. It is a beautiful city with streets lined with trees and bright buildings. Its wealth comes from the coffee industry. It feels grand, and people are drawn there by the beauty of the place as a whole.
It’s a good place to stay if you want to visit the ruins of Tazumal or the Ruta de las Flores. Make sure to check out Santa Ana’s neo-Gothic cathedral, which was finished in 1913 and has a lot of intricate carvings on the outside.
Lago de Coatepeque is one of the largest lakes in the country. It fills a caldera made by a volcano that is much older than Ilopango. The clean blue water falls 394 feet (120 metres), surrounded by steep slopes. It’s a beautiful sight to see as you drive up the highway on the crater’s ridge.
There are lots of things to do, like taking a kayak or boat out on the wavy water. As you paddle, look at the beach houses on the shore. These are where the lucky people go on the weekends.
When it comes to pre-Columbian ruins, all the attention goes to neighbouring Guatemala. Which is good, because El Salvador’s smaller Mayan cities are empty while Tikal is full of tourists. Even though they’re only 45 minutes north of San Salvador, if you go to Cihuatán on a weekday, you’ll have the pyramids and ancient ball courts all to yourself.
Since there are no roads nearby, the air is very quiet. Only the calls of toucans and tanagers in the nearby forest break the silence.
Laguna de Alegria
In the middle of El Salvador, there are rough, forested volcanoes, deep valleys, and lakes in crater rims. The Laguna de Alegria in the Cerro Verde mountains is one of the most beautiful. It is iris-shaped, emerald green, and sits in a bowl of rainforest at the top of Tecapa volcano.
From the nearby village of Alegria, also called “Happiness,” it’s easy to get there by road, and there are trails from the shore into the surrounding forest that lead to hot springs and fumaroles.
Playa el Espino
A lot of the beaches in El Salvador are sticky and brown, like muscovado. Not Espino, a place with palm trees and demerara sand that stretches for more than 12 miles (20 km) between the Periquera mountains, which have waterfalls, and the wild bays of Jiquilisco, which are full of dolphins.
There are restaurants, hotels, and surf shops in the village, so it gets busy there. But at the beach’s eastern and western ends, where turtles nest and terns caw, the sand is empty and wild, and there are more turtles and terns than people.