El Salvador: The Black Sheep of Central America?
To skip, or not to skip? That is a question travelers, especially backpackers, ask themselves when it comes to El Salvador. Most bypass the smallest country in Central America due to safety concerns or time constraints.
Luckily big strides, albeit political martial law, have taken place to help citizens and visitors feel at ease. More than 50,000 suspected gang members have been arrested resulting in a record low for homicide rates. Although Brad and I remained vigilant during our two-week stay, we never felt unsafe or experienced a problem.
Our whirlwind adventure in El Salvador was full of highs and lows. Check out these highlights below to help you decide if El Salvador is worth a trip!
The Pacific town of El Zonte feels like a hidden oasis. Brad and I enjoyed relaxing by the pool with a book and playing with the adorable hermit crabs on the beach. The combination of delicious food and laidback vibes at the Palo Verde Hotel was the perfect way to hit the reset button.
Playa El Zonte has a beautiful rocky coastline, but due to the powerful current it isn't ideal for swimming. Instead, take a walk along the shore during low tide to find some unique seashells.
The turbulent waves crashing against the black volcanic sand are hypnotizing. Both amateur and expert surfers show off their skills during high tide. Many shops offer reasonably priced lessons and surfboard rentals.
If learning how to surf is on your bucket list, head over to the bohemian town of El Tunco. Backpackers and modern-day hippies will appreciate the chill atmosphere, nightlife, and cheap accommodations. In between meals or beach breaks, walk along the streets to check out souvenir shops and vendor booths.
Brad and I spent most of our days working on the blog since we didn't feel up for surf lessons. Multiple oceanfront restaurants and bars offer great viewpoints to watch the surfers if you prefer to hang out with a drink. A nightly local tradition is heading to the iconic rock formation to see show-stopping fluorescent sunsets.
The second-largest city in El Salvador, Santa Ana, is the ideal spot to base yourself for day trips. There are two main bus terminals offering cheap rides on eclectic chicken buses to popular destinations.
Venture to the main plaza to get a sense of Salvadoran culture. Sample a papusa (thick corn flour flatbread) stuffed with refried beans and cheese topped with curtido (spicy fermented cabbage slaw) and tomato salsa. The national dish is hearty and delicious!
Once you finish wandering the square, check out the gorgeous white Gothic Revival façade of the Catedral de Santa Ana. Its magnificent spires make up for the unimpressive architecture throughout the rest of the city.
Ruta de las Flores
Perhaps the most popular thing to do in El Salvador is a tour of the Ruta de las Flores. The route winds along the five towns of Juayúa, Salcoatitán, Apaneca, Ataco, and Ahuachapán through lush hills and coffee fields. The best time of year to see colorful flowers is between November-February. Our visit in early October was just starting to show a variety of blooms.
Plan to go during a weekend to take advantage of the food festival in Juayúa. Vendors display huge plates of meat, seafood, and sides to entice customers. A satisfying meal costs as little as $5.00 USD!
The Ruta de las Flores is accessible by chicken bus #249 starting in Sonsonate. Buses leave every 15 minutes and stop at every town. Ask the bus drivers whether the arrival and departure stops are the same. Locals are very helpful if you need directions. Don't end up lost like I did in the maze at Café Albania in Apaneca!
Brad and I opted to hire a private driver to save time. A major downside was the hefty price tag of $130 USD. The tour was underwhelming since our unenthusiastic guide didn't have a lot of knowledge about the towns.
Fortunately, the intricate murals and craft shops in Ataco made up for our transportation decision. In retrospect, I would've taken chicken buses and prioritized Juayúa, Apaneca, and Ataco.
Las Siete Cascadas
My favorite activity in El Salvador was hiking and repelling the trail of The Seven Waterfalls with friends we met in Santa Ana. Hiring a local guide is necessary since you'll need ropes and assistance traversing the slippery terrain.
TIP: Bring a waterproof bag, active sandals (such as Teva or Chaco), and plenty of snacks/water. Consider wearing your swimwear since there are natural pools along the way!
We met our guide, Elizabeth (WhatsApp +503 6113 7277), at 8:00 AM in the main plaza of Juayúa. To get there from Santa Ana, we rode chicken bus #238 which departed at 6:50 AM from the Francisco Lara Pineda bus terminal. The tour is $15 USD per person and lasts approximately 4 hours.
After a quick ride to the trailhead, Elizabeth and her brother led the way through steep hills, lush jungle, and streams. Playful butterflies kept us company along the trail in between the first three waterfalls.
The adrenaline kicked in at the fourth waterfall! I hung on for dear life as I pulled myself up on the ropes while carefully watching my footing on the rocks. At the top is another waterfall to the right. Beware of the cliff as you admire the miniature crabs residing in the pools.
Towards the end of the hike is the sixth waterfall with exfoliating brown mineral clay. Elizabeth showed us how to prepare the thick mud and apply it on our faces to rejuvenate the skin.
Los Chorros de la Calera, a wide cascading waterfall, was the epic finale of our hike. We all cooled off with a few cannonballs to celebrate the thrilling adventure!
Santa Ana Volcano
Ready to see a steaming turquoise lagoon inside of an active volcano crater? The spectacular views atop the 2,381 m (7,812 ft) summit of Santa Ana Volcano are worth the effort!
Getting to the trailhead is easy and affordable. From Santa Ana, head to the Sala de Espera y Abordaje "La Vencedora" Station and buy a one-way ticket for $0.70 USD for chicken bus #248 to Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (Cerro Verde) which leaves at 7:30 AM. The ride takes approximately 2 hours.
The main park entrance was closed during our visit so the bus driver dropped us off at El Tibet. Several local guides were waiting to offer their services. If you want to go the DIY route, follow the signs up the hill until you reach a small wooden shack.
In order to reach the trailhead, you'll have to pay a fee of $1.25 USD to access private property. Continue onward a short distance to reach the ticket booth to pay the entrance fee of $6.00 USD per person.
Although a park employee will advise you to join the police escorted group, it is completely unnecessary. The trail is well marked and the government has taken steps to ensure tourist safety. If you would rather go on the guided hike, expect to pay a few dollars as a tip.
The trail is a steady incline with rugged terrain. Soak up the views of the neighboring volcanoes in the distance from the metal watchtower. With a moderate pace you should reach the top in 1.5 hours depending on your fitness level.
Staring into the mesmerizing turquoise lagoon was awe-inspiring. Puffs of clouds danced over the summit while strong wind gusts cooled us off.
After about 30 minutes, we headed back down to catch the 1:00 PM bus in order to spend time at Lago de Coatepeque. Be sure to ask the bus driver for the return pickup times to plan your hike accordingly.
So is El Salvador worth it? Yes and no.
If you have the time, energy, and budget to include El Salvador on your journey through Central America I would say go for it. The Pacific beach towns are a great place to relax and Santa Ana is an ideal launch point to enjoy fun nature activities. Travelers looking for something off the beaten path will find it here.
However, I would not recommend coming to El Salvador for a special trip. The cities could use some TLC and the country is still recovering from its tumultuous past. Prepare yourself to see homelessness, trash in the streets, and a widespread military presence.
Whether or not you skip El Salvador mainly depends on your interests. Ultimately, experiencing a new culture is never regrettable!