El Salvador – highlights of the most underrated country in Central America

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“This country is not a happy place”, “It’s beautiful but dangerous”, “Don’t go there , they will rob you” – those are just a part of what people told us about El Salvador. We were making our way to this country while crossing Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. 

Having no online popularity and bad media appearance, we needed a little more reassurance so we wouldn’t have to do what most of the travelers around Central America do – skip it. We wanted to believe all the stuff that is said about El Salvador is simply not true.

By the end of this post you will see for yourselves that El Salvador is actually well-worth visiting and all the bad media and nay-sayers need to apologize, immediately!

And here is our way of correcting a travel wrong, here is our article with all the highlights from El Salvador!

 

Collage from El Salvador containing the volcano crater of Santa Ana, the fiesta costumes from Ataco and the sunset from El Tunco

 

 

To visit or not to visit

El Salvador’s online presence is not the most appealing one, definitely not so attractive to potential visitors. On the contrary, our Lonely Planet guide book was revealing the country’s beauties and urging us to give

it a try. We decided to ask around and every person we talked to about it said it’s not a good idea to go there. But there was this one important thing – none of these people had actually visited El Salvador, ever.

You know we have a special thing about non-firsthand information. It’s just so unfair to multiply a piece of information just like that, because everyone says so. We still found blogs of people who actually visited the country and who reassured us everything will be OK. Like Sheena and her very cool guide to El Salvador.

 

At the same time, we tried to contact a few tour agencies for private tour options. We thought at least we’ll be safer that way, even though we’d lose some of the authenticity and a ton of money. We even contacted locals through Couchsurfing, some of them claiming they’re working to fix the country’s bad reputation. Guess what – no response at all. It took the only agency that replied two weeks to send the quotes and there were not about the service requested at all.

With all those ups and downs, we still decided to give El Salvador a try. Later we would learn that some people are actively working towards making the country an attractive tourism destination. But hey people, start with answering your emails and putting together a few blog posts in English! This is a friendly advice, so follow it for the sake of any common sense!

 

View towards the Pacific ocean north from El Tunco, El Salvador

 

 

The region

Proud volcanos (both active and inactive), pristine lakes, dramatic Pacific coast, happy villages, friendly locals and huge potential – this is the region of El Salvador!

Compared to its neighbors – Guatemala, Honduras and the Pacific Ocean – it looks tiny, but we all know that great things often come in small boxes. So let’s find out if this is the case with El Salvador.

 

Waves and photogenic rock at the beach in El Tunco, El Salvador

 

 

Our itinerary

El Tunco

El Tunco and Costa del Bálsamo made the most sense to start with. El Tunco is a beach surfing paradise with tremendous amounts of security everywhere – every hotel, bar and store is guarded by armed security. There is a barrier or two to cross if you want to enter the village. I don’t know if locals can access it easily, but I guess that’s the point – to be protected by locals with bad intentions. 

It was like entering another country inside the country. We really enjoyed the views, the sunset and the chill atmosphere of El Tunco. We knew it has extra security but still it felt incredibly good to be in El Salvador. Initially we planed to stay just one night as we were not about to surf, but then the huge rain next day changed our minds, so we decided to stay for one more night. 

We relaxed at the porch of our room, ate tremendous amounts of the tasty pupusas, and did some blogging work. The Internet was a Speedy Gonzales compared to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. We also arranged a tour by car to Ruta de las Flores. With some local guys who also had a campsite and a lovely pupuseria. 

 

 

Drinking fresh orange juice served in plastic bags with straw in El Salvador

 

 

Ruta de las Flores

One of the highlights of the country, Ruta de las Flores goes through volcanoes, mountains and spectacular views. Different villages on the route reveal how locals live, their traditions, and the history of the country. 

We could use public transportation to do Ruta del Flores, but to reach first of the villages we had to change three chicken buses and that would be too much after the super long and tiring shuttle from Antigua to El Tunco. Going by car would save a lot of time but not money, and maybe we still needed someone with us to make us feel safer.

So we drove with the jeep and our local guide and driver Daniel. We would constantly ask him about the way of life, places and traditions and we figured that El Salvador is a place like every place else. I mean people still go to school, work, still have fun (which we were absolutely convinced of later), have dreams. People in villages and roads we passed were pretty much carried away in daily activities, no bandits were jumping out of bushes to rob anyone.

There were some active police presence in some view points (miradores) but that usually helps us feel even better. So we said goodbye to dramatic views over the Pacific Ocean and said hello to lush greenery and majestic volcanoes. 

 

The weekend local market in Nahuizalco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

 

 

Nahuizalco

The first village we stopped was Nahuizalco. It was a nice Sunday and we wandered around the fresh produce market. What a great variety of fruits and veggies! The offers were so tempting and the sun so scorching that we had to head soon to the covered artisanal market and the small history museum.

El Salvador was in civil war until not so long ago! Some of the visitors still enjoy debating with locals which side was right. We’re actually mesmerized by the speed of recovery. Not many places could look so well only quarter of century later. So no talks on war here, just a thumbs up for the peaceful recovery.

 

The cathedral and the park in Juayua village, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

 

 

Juayua

When we reached the village of Juayua we were already acquainted  with its weekend gastronomy festival. Although we are still not sure if we hit the festival or just a regular weekend culinary feast, we can say one thing. Eat in El Salvador! There is no shortage of tasty and fresh food in there! And it’s cheap, and it’s amazing! And it’s cooked right in front of you, accompanied by live music! The video below includes some hearty dishes and lots of salivating!

 

Waterfalls Chorros de la Calera near Juayua, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

 

 

Chorros de la Calera 

While digesting we took a crazy off-road tuktuk ride to a complex of waterfalls named Chorros de la Calera. We couldn’t quite get why we should take a tuktuk and not the jeep until we had to survive a super bumpy dirt road leading to the waterfalls. It was an adventure itself and costed only 3 dollars. 

We hiked a bit to get to the first waterfall. Dozens of teenagers were taking a dip in the nice pools below them. There was a hidden channel to swim to the next pool and waterfall. The water was chilly so we decided to walk instead. Nice refreshment from the heat and time to mentally prepare for the ride back to the village.

 

Let the journey take you to  Under the skies of Paris

The Cathedral in Apaneca, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

 

 

Apaneca 

Apaneca was the place to really absorb views and relax with an ice-cream. Most of the houses had facades in different colors, some of them with amazing paintings and art on top. The church contrasted to all the color being shiny white. 

We took a stroll around the center, contemplated the distant hills, and tasted what everyone around seemed to taste – local flavor of sorbet ice-cream. We seriously started to wonder if that day could become any better.

 

People in masks are dancing for their Sunday festival in Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

 

 

Ataco

Our final destination of Ruta de las Flores was Ataco. We could easily see the festive Sunday mood by just entering the village. Streets were full of people, artisanal stalls everywhere, noise of any kind. 

It was just a regular Sunday, but we’ve seen many carnivals and festival less exciting than what we were part of in Ataco. Costumes and masks, crazy street dance, giant bride and groom, this was just the beginning. Smiles and joy around, how could we even think El Salvador is no good for visiting?

And on top of all, this show was made by and for the locals. It was not some special program for the tourists. And yes, the tourists were a minority there.

Our energy levels were getting down from the intense day so we stopped for a coffee (it’s one of the world’s best!!!) and then went shopping for a tasty dinner in the quiet hostel. 

 

 

Our backpacks in the chicken bus to Santa Ana, El Salvador

 

 

Santa Ana

The next day we were determined that we’d use public transport to get to our next place – Santa Ana. Public transport is sometimes said to be avoided in “dangerous” countries but we felt like we should give it a try and save tons of money. We had to change once and for the whole ride took us less than 2 dollars per person to get to Santa Ana. Every time they gave us receipts and we never felt cheated. Unlike the guy who cheated us and got a proper propina during the ride between Chichen Itza and Ik Kil cenote in Mexico.

The only thing about riding the cheap and colorful chicken buses in Central America is that they take incredibly huge amount of time. A bus would also stop to pickup passengers, to drop passengers or to pick up and drop off sellers of anything you might need during a short or long bus ride. So even a distance of 60 kilometers can easily take 2 hours but that’s 2 hours of experiencing local life.  

 

Local market with guns forbidden traffic sign in Santa Ana, El Salvador

The magnificent white Cathedral in Santa Ana, El Salvador

 

 

Santa Ana welcomed us with a never-ending street market. Well, it ended a bit before our hostel. It was so hot but we still headed out to look around the center. The cathedral and the theater are the two most beautiful buildings in town, amongst the most beautiful in the country and the whole Central America.

We visited the tourist center so they told us how to DIY visit the volcano Santa Ana. They sent us to look for a travel agency to arrange our transfer to Honduras. To shorten the story, it’s kind of impossible to arrange a shuttle on a random day to Copan Ruins in Honduras. First, agencies are totally clueless and not talking to each other. Second, there is just one hostel with one driver offering the transport three times a week. You have to either chat on Facebook with a guy or be in the hostel. 

Situation was getting a little annoying. So we shared our problem with the guys in our hostel and they offered to ride us with their car for the same price for the day we wanted. It was like a big win for us and they ventured abroad to visit the Copan ruins town.

Santa Ana at night is best to be avoided. Walking in some areas is walking in ghost streets, and there might be some bad people on a quest to your cash or cell phone. That’s and advice from locals, they also don’t wander the streets in some areas after dark. 

 

Let the journey take you to  Highlights from our visit to Yucatan peninsula, Mexico

The Itzalco Volcano near Santa Ana, El Salvador

View over Lago de Coatepeque from the Santa Ana volcano crater in El Salvador

Selfie with the small lake in the crater of the Santa Ana volcano in El Salvador

 

 

Santa Ana volcano

We were advised by even the local tourist information office to do this trip alone. So if you have a whole day frew and your volcano-lust is calling, here is the recipe to DIY volcano Santa Ana.

  • chicken bus 7.40 a.m. – 0.9 USD
  • Cerro Verde park entrance fee – 3 USD
  • guide plus police officer – 1 USD – for your own protection from potentially getting lost or robbed
  • volcano entrance fee – 6 USD
  • chicken bus back to Santa Ana at 4 p.m. (potential change of buses required, stay alert) – 0.9 USD
  • pupusa 0.5 USD, breakfast plate 1.5 USD
  • Visited October 2017

The bus ride takes 2 – 2.5 hours and is bumpy and crazy. The hike through the park forest and the volcano takes about 2 hours, the way down to Tibet point is 1.5h. Bus passes from there but raise your hand to stop it. All the prices are per person. The volcano and all the views are totally worth the hike and the 14 USD you will spend for the whole day. An advice from us – just take in views and fresh air and let go! Everything has its own pace our there so don’t try to rush things and you’ll be amazed by the experience and the day!

 

 

 

Time to go

It was a little road trip from Santa Ana to Copan Ruinas (the name of the town is Copan ruins, ruins are named Archaeological park). We stocked up with pupusas, sweets and magnets and almost forgot to report to immigration in Guatemala. Borders were so silent and chill that one could easily just travel from El Salvador to Honduras through Guatemala without being noticed.

We still reported at all borders and immigration and had fun reading the Cyrillic letter on our passports. We also discussed how El Salvador could improve its online presence and attract travelers as it doesn’t fall below the qualities of any country in the area. Hope our feedback helped and ES will shine with its positive examples and happy stories. 

 

Selfie at the border between Guatemala and El Salvador on our drive to Copan Ruins in Honduras

 

 

The people 

All Salvadorans we met were very friendly, nice and helpful. Nobody was trying to rip us off, which was a relief after Guatemala. We would gladly spend time talking with strangers and acquaintances in ES, there is so much to learn about real life and real situation in the country.

We’re amazed by how people are trying to make the country a desirable tourist location, or just a place not to be skipped in any itinerary in Central America. Kudos and we’ll be helping this thing to happen faster as much as we can!

 

People with masks are dancing in Ataco, Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

 

 

Final words

  • The nature in El Salvador is more than tempting for every curious traveler. A tiny country with so many gems, sometimes the smaller, the better!
  • Life in villages is more from happy. It’s authentic and thrilling, you should become part of it to know you love it!
  • People are some of the most authentic and friendly we’ve met in our travels. Definitely worth more respect and need to receive more guests from all over the world to appreciate their beautiful country!

 

El Salvador highlights, Pinterest photo
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So did we change your opinion about El Salvador? Would you give it a visit? Can it become an amazing destination in its own right someday?

4 Responses

  1. yashajoy
    | Reply

    We visited El Salvador in 2007 as we were travelling across Central America in our own vehicle. We found people were friendly and helpful, but that they also told us to be careful where we parked overnight, or left our vehicle during the day. San Salvador was probably the place where we took the most care, but we were really happy to have visited this small country, mostly because of the people we met.

    • Nace Sapundjiev
      | Reply

      It’s so nice to hear that Salvadorians were so nice even 10 years ago. We love to say that it’s the people who make the country! We decided to skip San Salvador exactly because of the too many security prerequisites. Hope nothing happened to you or your car, and we’re glad that you like the El Salvador!

  2. Kevin Wagar
    | Reply

    So awesome to see an article about El Salvador! I haven’t visited yet, but I have have dreamed about going through CA with my kids and have found almost nothing on El Salvador. I’m happy to see you ignored the naysayers and gave it a go. So many countries get a bad rap because of the lifestyle of a small area.

    • Nace Sapundjiev
      | Reply

      Thank you, Kevin! I think that you will have tons of fun with the kids in El Salvador. Especially the fun in smaller towns and villages on weekends – they are so entertaining, for both small and grown-up kids! We met many families on the road on our journey from Mexico to Panama – Central America is an amazing region! Hope you manage to do your trip through Central America – it will be unforgettable!

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