El Salvador used to be a no go country. When I travelled Central America in 2015 it was considered to be very dangerous and was left off many people’s itineraries (including mine!). But El Salvador’s government has put in a solid effort to make the country safer both for locals and tourists and 2023 was the year I decided to check it out.
Like any Central and South America country, care is needed. Be careful at night and reconsider going out alone, don’t flash around expensive items and keep an eye on your valuables on public transport.
While I was only there for a short time, I didn’t feel unsafe at any time but I was also careful. Locals were friendly and helpful if needed, but no one seemed to pay too much attention to tourists even though there weren’t many of us. There were armed guards present at the national parks and in town centres.
El Salavador is a small country so you can see a lot in a small period of time – and I quite enjoyed my stay here.
Here’s a suggested itinerary for El Salvador based on my trip there.
To reach El Salvador, you will fly into San Salvador’s international airport, located about a 40 minute drive from the city centre. I decided to skip the capital as I’m not really a city person and instead was dropped off by an airport taxi at the Terminal de Buses de Occidente on the outskirts of San Salvador. From here, I caught a bus to Santa Ana ($1 USD payable to the bus driver).
The journey between San Salvador and Santa Ana takes about 90 minutes.
If you’re not travelling overland through Central America, you’ll likely end up coming through San Salvador at the start and end of your trip so you have a couple of opportunities to visit if you want to see some sights.
Santa Ana is El Salvador’s second biggest city and it’s where I spent most of my time in this country.
I enjoyed my time in the town mainly because of the people I met here and the nearby sights, but the town also has a nice cathedral and local markets you can wander.
I was also attracted here because I wanted to see the town’s namesake volcano.
From the town, you can take Bus #248 to the Santa Ana volcano from the La Vencedora bus station. The bus departs at 7.30am and costs $0.70 USD. The drive takes about two hours (the distance isn’t that long but the buses are very old and slow) to the Cerro Verde National Park entrance. There’s a nice view of Lago de Coatepeque on the way up so aim to sit on the right side of the bus.
Due to the risk of robberies, it is mandatory to have a guide for the hike up the Santa Ana volcano. The tours usually start around 10am, shortly after Bus #248 arrives. Cost of entry and the guide is $10 which is paid at the national park entrance after you start the hike. There’s also a small fee of $0.50 USD to pass the property of a local landowner on the way to the trailhead.
You’re not allowed to bring matches. lighters or alcohol into the national park. Bags are checked at the entrance station, and if you have those things on you, you can leave them there and collect them on your return.
You then hike up the volcano, which takes 1-2 hours one way depending on your group’s pace.
The hike starts on a jungle trail before getting more and more rocky and exposed. The closer to the top you get, the more rocky the trail.
Make sure you bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and plenty of water as the trail is exposed for the most part and can get very hot. But you may be able to get an ice cream from the top from an enterprising local.
At the top, you have a spectacular view of the active volcano’s crater, as well as surrounding volcanoes and the fertile valleys below.
The last bus back to Santa Ana departs from the national park entrance at 4pm. If you’re fast on the descent – you may be able to get the 1pm bus back.
I recommend you spend two full days in Santa Ana – one day for the volcano hike and another day to drive the Ruta de los Flores.
La Ruta de las Flores
La Ruta de las Flores (The Route of the Flowers) is a beautiful drive with the odd view of a volcano and quaint colonial towns.
It’s easiest if you have a car to do this journey – luckily I made some friends on the trip that had a car and we travelled together.
From Santa Ana, we first headed to the Santa Teresa Hot Springs, a thermal spa complex. There are multiple pools in the complex to soak in of varying temperatures from boiling hot to lukewarm. The entrance fee is $10 USD (September 2023).
We spent a few hours soaking in the hot pools, before heading to Ataco – one of the beautiful colonial style towns on the route.
If you want to pick up some souvenirs, Ataco is the place to get them with lots of handicraft stores scattered throughout the town. Also keep an eye out for the town’s colourful murals.
There are also other stops possible on the way including the town of Juayua and its nearby waterfalls, as well as Nahuizalco and Apaneca.
Compared to the rest of El Salvador, El Tunco is very touristy. It’s popular for its surfing beaches, which attract people from all over the world.
The town is very small but offers up the normal tourist shops where you can buy clothing, jewellery, handicrafts and it also has several places to eat, ranging from local pupusa places and trendy cafes to restaurants.
Even if you’re not a surfer, El Tunco is worth visiting to catch some sunsets on the surrounding beaches. The sunset from El Tunco beach was one of the best sunsets I’ve witnessed.
Things to Know
- El Salvador’s currency is the US Dollar. Bring small notes if you can as it’s a very cheap country.
- It’s possible to get around by public transport although the buses are very old and may be uncomfortable for some, however distances are short. They don’t put luggage underneath the bus, so you’ll need to be able to carry it on board.
- Like any country in Central and South America, keep an eye on your valuables on public transport and be careful at night.
- There are armed guards in many locations throughout El Salvador.
- El Salvador is a Spanish speaking country. Some people speak some English, but don’t expect it.
- Make sure you try pupusas during your stay. Pupusas are a flatbread made with cornmeal or rice flour with a variety of fillings on offer including cheese, chicken, pork and refried beans.
- Make sure you bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and insect repellent. It can get very hot and humid and there are mosquitoes.
- Don’t expect air-conditioning in your accommodation. Some accommodation will have it but there may just be fans.
- You need to pay a $12 USD tourist tax when you enter El Salvador. You’ll be asked to pay it at a counter before you go through immigration. Cash or card is accepted.