El Salvador is a great place to surf, go on adventures, and relax. It has 200 miles of coastline, more than 170 volcanoes, multiple archaeological sites with Mayan ruins, and a long history of growing coffee and cacao.
Unfortunately, the country’s reputation outside of the country is usually more about danger than hiking trails, which is understandable.
In the 1980s, the smallest country in Central America was torn apart by a civil war, and since then, gang violence has made it a place that many travellers don’t want to go. But the tourism industry has made a lot of progress, like getting rid of crime, fixing up roads, and putting money into new hotels and flight routes. This tropical destination is now worth another look.
Enjoy both a city and beach vacation
El Salvador is about 8,000 square miles, which is about the same size as the country of Belize, which is also in Central America. The capital city, San Salvador, and the Pacific coast, which is about a 45-minute drive away, are both easy to reach in a five-night stay in this small but powerful country.
Visit the National Palace, the Art Museum of El Salvador, and the National Museum of Anthropology to learn about the city’s history and architecture. La Libertad, a fishing port on the coast, has become well-known for its surfing and beachfront hotels.
But don’t miss out on volcanoes, forests and ruins
El Salvador has a national park with three volcanoes (El Boquerón), a forest reserve that was once a battleground (Cinquera), a Pre-Columbian town with cobblestone streets (Suchitoto), and “the Pompeii of America” (Joya de Cerén), which might make you want to stay there for a week or more.
El Boquerón is only a half-hour drive from San Salvador, so it can be done in a day. However, Suchitoto is a 90-minute drive away from the coast.
Brace for higher prices during peak periods
Domestic travel is busiest during the winter holidays, the first week of August, and Holy Week (Easter). If you go during these times, you might have to pay more for a hotel and find that museums and parks are more crowded.
Be ready for the rainy season
Visit between November and April, which is the dry season, for the best chance of clear skies and mud-free hiking. If you want to visit during the rainy season (May–October), you should bring a rain jacket, layers that dry quickly, and extra pairs of socks.
Also, it’s important to know that not all roads in El Salvador are paved. Heavy rains can cause flooding, which can close roads and make it take longer to get somewhere.
Skip the currency exchange
If the US dollar is your home currency, you don’t need to change it. El Salvador has used USD as its official currency since 2001. But getting some small bills is a good idea.
Most places will take a $20 bill, but it can be hard to break 50s and 100s. There are a lot of ATMs in shopping areas, and most of them let you do your transaction in English.
Hire a driver for multi-city itineraries
Most hotels can help you get a taxi to a nearby place or set up a ride to the airport. But when going from one city to another, it’s best to hire a driver or tour guide.
It can be scary to drive in San Salvador. Its rural roads are often not paved and full of potholes. Sometimes they only have one lane, which can be hard for drivers from other countries to navigate.
A tour operator can suggest tours or make an itinerary just for you. The site of the country’s tourism ministry has a list of recommended tour operators, which is very helpful.
Bring your passport and buy a tourist card
For US citizens to enter, they need a valid US passport and a USD$12 tourist card that is good for 90 days and can be bought at the airport when they arrive. For stays under 90 days, you don’t need a visa.
Australians, Canadians, and Brits only need a valid passport to get in; they don’t need a visa for stays of less than 90 days. But even though they don’t need a visa, these people still have to buy a tourist card at the airport when they arrive.
Be prepared to see a machete or two
In the United States, park rangers might wear a hat with a drawstring and a compass. In El Salvador’s dense forests, a machete is a very different tool. Don’t be surprised if your guide carries a knife to cut down trees that are in the way of the trail. Don’t bring your own at all.
Brush up on your basic Spanish
The official language here is Spanish, but most restaurant and hotel staff in tourist areas will also speak English. Still, it’s polite to know at least a few greetings in Espaol.
Knowing how to say “hello,” “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good night” is a good place to start.
Dress appropriately for church
Cover your legs and shoulders when you go to the country’s Catholic cathedrals, just like you should do when you go to most places of worship around the world. If you don’t want to wear pants, a knee-length skirt will do, and you can cover a tank top by putting a scarf around your shoulders.
Leave a tip for good service
It is common to leave a 10% tip in restaurants and bars. But check your bill before you leave a tip, because sometimes it’s already there.