El Salvador has a bad reputation. Western media consistently describes the country as dangerous, gang-riddled and governments advise their citizens against traveling there. If you google “El Salvador”, these are some of the images that come up:
However, if you’re a long time visitor to my website, you will know that I don’t trust government travel advisories or western media. So Expat Dragon and I went to El Salvador and had a wonderful time.
Now don’t get me wrong- this was not an easy trip especially when compared to neighbouring Guatemala; El Salvador is not (as yet) set up for tourism, never mind tourists like me with non-existent spanish-speaking abilities.
But it was still 100% worth seeing and visiting and I would recommend El Salvador for patient and flexible travellers. However, if I could do this trip again, I would probably join an organized educational tour like this one from the infamous Dr. Kiona.
Nevertheless, despite a lot of confusion and struggles while travelling independently, El Salvador is definitely one of those magical places that’s left me longing to return!
FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!
The Olmecs, Maya, and Toltec Empire all lived in what is now El Salvador before the arrival of the Spanish. The Pipils, sometimes known as Pipiles, were the dominant population in the area when the Spanish conquerors came in 1524. Before they formally founded a colony in 1540, the Spanish encountered fierce resistance from the Pipils.
Thanks to the indigenous people who were enslaved and made to work the land, agriculture flourished during the 1700s. El Salvador and the other Central American colonies won their independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Over 70,000 people died in El Salvador’s Civil War, which lasted from 1980 to 1992. Guerrilla forces fought the government forces—who also had American support—over the living conditions they endured. Before the president of El Salvador and 10 rebel leaders sat down and signed a peace pact with the El Salvadoran government, the deadly war lasted 12 years. Even though there is still a lot of work to be done, things have gradually improved since 1992.
El Salvador is bordered to the north and east by Honduras, to the northwest by Guatemala, and to the south by the Pacific Ocean. The only nation in Central America without a Caribbean coastline is El Salvador. It is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a sizable region in the Pacific Ocean where numerous earthquakes and volcanic eruptions take place.
When should I visit?
El Salvador is at its driest between November and March, when you may avoid the hottest months of March and April before the rainy season begins in May and lasts until October.
What to do about money?
US Dollars is the official currency of El Salvador and you should have cash with you. ATM’s are widely available but card payment isn’t always accepted. I also would not plan to change money in El Salvador as money exchange places were uncommon.
How to get around El Salvador?
This was a challenge for us. We ended up finding drivers through the hotels we stayed at and it was pricey. Prices we got were around an hour drive costing 80USD per vehicle. If I could redo this trip, I would rent my own car and drive.
For short trips, you can easily pick up a mototaxi (tuk tuk) or use the local (chicken) bus. We used both forms of transportation with no issues.
Did you need a visa?
South African passport holders do not need a visa however, the Salvadoran border control agents did not seem to know that. They were shocked to see (perhaps for the first time) a South African passport. However, as it became clear I was not going to produce any visa, they checked their documentation and discovered that South Africans are visa exempt.
Many nationalities are also visa exempt if they hold a valid residence or tourist visa issued by Canada, the United States or a Schengen member state. However, this is for specific passports only. I advise checking with the closest embassy/consulate or use this government website.
Something you need to be mindful of is the C-4 Agreement: a treaty between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. A visa issued by one of the four countries is honored by all four of the countries. The time period for the visa, however, applies to the total time spent in any of the four countries without leaving the CA-4 area.
When planning a trip to El Salvador, remember that your total stay in the four countries must not surpass the limit of 90 days. The first day you step into one of the four Central American countries, is counted as your day one, even if it is only before midnight. Same applies to the day you leave. While this is supposed to be a border-free agreement, everyone’s passports were checked while exiting and entering El Salvador but no passport stamp was given.
We stayed at a few places in El Salvador but I will only recommend the one place I think is worth staying at:
We stayed in Juayjua (not the best move but I will explain that later), and happened upon the only hotel in the area. This place had the friendliest staff, a delicious breakfast and wonderful views over the town. It also had fast internet and hot water (a rarity in El Salvador).
Did you feel safe?
I definitely felt safe in El Salvador; more safe than I have felt in most European countries. We travelled as two women and did not encounter any times where we felt in danger. Any Salvadoran person we approached was extremely helpful and polite. We did not encounter any uncomfortable situations.
DAY BY DAY ITINERARY
Stop 1: Border Crossing between Guatemala & El Salvador
For most international travellers taking a trip to El Salvador, they would enter through the airport in San Salvador. However, Expat Dragon and I completed this trip as part of a larger trip through Latin America so we entered through Guatemala. It’s a simple process to cross the land border but depending on which part of Guatemala you’re coming from, it can take the better part of a day. If you’re coming from Guatemala, I advise comparing prices/packages from different agencies when organizing your transfer.
Stop 2: Accommodation in Juayjua
As mentioned above, we stayed in Juayjua at Bourban Hostal. This was an extremely tiring day for us so we just grabbed a quick dinner at a restaurant nearby and got into bed.
Note: While I enjoyed where we stayed in Juayjua, there are literally no non-locals there and its very difficult & expensive to organize anything while staying in the town. It is small town- you can walk around it easily- and doesn’t have a lot to offer tourists. I recommend staying in San Salvador, El Tunco or Santa Ana and doing day trips to various other areas.
Stop 1: Cafe Albania
From Juayjua we took the local bus to Cafe Albania. This was really easy as we showed the bus driver a photo of the place and he made sure we disembarked at the correct place. Buses in El Salvador stop anywhere (no designated stops) so you just need to be sure of where you’re going (you can always ask for help). Use Google Maps to track your journey as well if you have data.
Cafe Albania has quite a few adrenaline-pumping activities to offer and should not be left off a trip to El Salvador. We opted for the rainbow slide (influenced by Instagram) and the bicycles in the sky. Both were extremely fun and safe (although I petrified). You pay per activity that you do.
Cost: the bicycles were 10USD, the slide was 5USD and we also paid 5USD entry into the park.
Stop 2: Chorros de Calera
We read online about a beautiful waterfall that seemed to be 20 minutes away from our hotel but no mototaxi would take us there- we couldn’t figure out why. The staff at our hotel told us it was because the waterfall was a part of private property and you had to have a local guide to go there. Thankfully, they were able to find us a guide speedily and we started the hike right from our hotel.
Once we arrived on the property, our guide went off to register us and then she led us to the falls. It was quite a leisurely walk there but we did encounter a fence that we had to climb (however this might’ve been a shortcut and is probably not the only way). We were welcome to stay as long as we liked but the water was icy so we started to make our way back after an hour.
This is a great half day activity that’s suitable for people of all fitness levels; it’s a low effort and maximum reward hike. If you need the details for a guide, please message me on Instagram.
Cost: 25USD (shared between 2 people) and 3 USD to take a mototaxi back to town after the hike.
Stop 3: Pupusas at “Pupusería ¨Sugey”
If you eat at one place in Juayua, I strongly recommend eating here! It’s a great place to try pupusas- the most famous food in El Salvador. There are plenty of vegetarian options and the prices are quite reasonable. This was recommended to us by various locals!
Stop 1: Santa Ana Volcano
With El Salvador being known as the “Land of Volcanoes”, no trip to El Salvador is complete without hiking up at least one volcano. Santa Ana is the most popular volcano to summit mostly because it’s quite easy and quick to get up to the top.
Click here for my comprehensive guide about hiking Santa Ana Volcano outlining all the details surrounding this hike.
Cost: 37USD (shared between 2 people and includes a private guide).
We didn’t know how strenuous how this hike would be so we didn’t plan anything else for this day.
Stop 1: Juayjua- El Zonte
With the help of our hotel, we organised a driver who would take us to the coastal town of El Zonte. The drive was around 1.5 hours (with traffic).
In my personal opinion El Zonte is very remote and not tourist-friendly. However, the black sand beaches here are stunning and they make a great place to watch the sunset from. If I could do it all over again, I would stay in El Tunco and visit El Zonte beaches as a day trip.
Stop 2: Garten Hotel Day Pass
Garten Hotel is unarguably one of the nicest properties in El Zonte and if your budget doesn’t extend to you booking a night there, you can enjoy their facilities with their 20USD day pass. They have a stunning infinity pool where you can sip, swim and admire the sunset from. Also, the food there is DIVINE!
Stop 1: Nuda Nails, El Tunco
We took the local bus from El Zonte to El Tunco (20 minutes) and were pleasantly surprised by how busy the town was compared to where we were staying in El Zonte (completely isolated). Through a series of complicated maneuvers, we ended up moving to stay our last night in El Tunco after meeting a friend of mine who found us a small locally owned establishment to stay at.
We indulged in some self care, while getting our nails done in El Tunco at Nuda Nails. Reach out to them on Instagram to make an appointment. I highly recommend their services!
Stop 2: Pupusas at Esquina los amigos
Another recommendation from the locals to try these delicious pupusas! So many options and all are delicious! I strongly recommend the beans & cheese as well as the shrimp pupusas!
While this itinerary is pretty relaxed, if I had a car I would’ve definitely visited more places. Spanish speakers might find it easier to find information online (I really struggled to find recent and relevant information). As I said earlier in the post, I wish I had opted for an organized tour instead of trying to go it alone based on outdated information I found online.
I truly underestimated how underdeveloped the tourist network is in El Salvador. Without the help of hotel staff and a friend who lives there, I would’ve had the most miserable time. My aim here is not to discourage you from taking a trip to El Salvador; but rather, to offer an honest account of my experience there.
There is something for everyone in El Salvador, with 23 active volcanoes, six national parks, and more than 200 kilometers of gorgeous coastline beckoning for surfers. Even better, the tourist destinations in this nation are frequently not particularly crowded, giving you the impression that it’s just you and nature. This makes them ideal for travelers who want to escape the main tourist track and reconnect with nature.
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Have you visited El Slavador before? Or have I inspired you to take a trip to El Salvador? Let me know in the comments below!