Experience Authentic El Salvador on the Flowers Route

With a rich baritone voice and worn cowboy hat, the sun-weathered singer glides between picnic tables tightly packed with chatty families. The music builds. Grills sizzle with Salvadoran cuisine. The mouthwatering scent of it all drifts through the crowd, carried by cool mountain air that sweeps down in waves from the coffee-carpeted volcanoes above.

This is a typical day in Juayúa, a small town with a whitewashed church and waterfall-strewn outskirts—the most popular destination along a beautifully paved, 40-mile (63-km) road through western El Salvador’s coffee-growing highlands. It’s called Ruta las Flores, or the Flowers Route, so named for the colorful orchids and other tropical blossoms that line the road. And traversing it is one of the best ways to experience the unique qualities of El Salvador.

Experience Authentic El Salvador on the Flowers Route

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

With a rich baritone voice and worn cowboy hat, the sun-weathered singer glides between picnic tables tightly packed with chatty families. The music builds. Grills sizzle with Salvadoran cuisine. The mouthwatering scent of it all drifts through the crowd, carried by cool mountain air that sweeps down in waves from the coffee-carpeted volcanoes above.

This is a typical day in Juayúa, a small town with a whitewashed church and waterfall-strewn outskirts—the most popular destination along a beautifully paved, 40-mile (63-km) road through western El Salvador’s coffee-growing highlands. It’s called Ruta las Flores, or the Flowers Route, so named for the colorful orchids and other tropical blossoms that line the road. And traversing it is one of the best ways to experience the unique qualities of El Salvador.

The route winds past six small Spanish Colonial towns with deep indigenous roots, built around beautiful churches and shady central squares. The towns’ adobe walls are painted with murals, and the surrounding countryside filled with natural treasures: hot springs, waterfalls, crater lakes, coffee fincas, and beautiful views. Nearby, travelers can enjoy a dozen less-traveled towns that are just as lovely, as well as Los Volcanes and El Imposible national parks.

Ruta las Flores officially begins in the busy city of Sonsonate, 40 miles (64 km) due west of San Salvador and 16 miles (25 km) from the beautiful beach of Los Cóbanos. You can drive it in an hour, but take your time—spend at least a day, preferably with an overnight along the way. Dozens of operators offer tours along the Flowers Route, but public buses are inexpensive, relatively easy to navigate, frequent, and flashy (you can’t miss the paint jobs). And any hotel can help you hire taxis to less-accessible destinations.

The region has some of the best-developed tourist infrastructure in El Salvador, and even folks with limited Spanish skills will be able to get around without too much trouble. It’s a great place to begin your inland exploration of El Salvador. Here’s what you’ll see.

Nahuizalco

The first official stop on the Ruta las Flores is the small, proudly indigenous village of Nahuizalco—an artsy, unassuming pueblo best known for its traditional baskets and woven tule reed handicrafts. Local guides can take you on hikes around the countryside and to Golondrinera Waterfall. It’s a fine place to stop during the day, but no matter where you stay along the route, try to make it back for their night market. Lit with candles and lamps, it’s a romantic spot for an inexpensive dinner.

Salcoatitán

A few minutes down the road, Salcoatitán is a tiny, picturesque roadside town built around a lovely 1824 church and adorable park decked out in mosaic tiles. Shopping and dining could keep you here for a couple hours.

Juayúa

This gleaming, whitewashed Spanish Colonial town, surrounded by enormous volcanoes, is the star attraction on the Ruta las Flores for several reasons. First, its weekend Fería Gastronomica (Food Festival) features live music, handicrafts, a tourist train, and lots of stands serving the best Salvadoran cuisine. Plus, Juayúa’s cobblestone streets are lined with amazing murals, excellent hotels and delightful restaurants. It’s even an ecotourism center, offering hiking, swimming, waterfalls, and hot springs.

All of this makes Juayúa the perfect base for travelers eager to explore western El Salvador’s ancient towns, epic national parks, and other destinations. English is widely spoken and people from all over the world are waiting to join you on the next adventure.

If you’re headed to Volcanoes National Park, ask your guide to stop in Los Naranjos. It’s not officially on the Flowers Route, but its spectacular views and exceptional cuisine are worth your time.

Apaneca

Quaint and colorfully detailed, some of the old adobe homes in this coffee-growing town date to 1524, when the Spanish first began building up the ancient Mayan Pipil town of Apaneca. The name means “River of Winds,” and sure enough, cool breezes sweep down from a patchwork quilt of coffee and cacao just above this, the route’s highest village (4,823 ft/1,470 m).

Most travelers visit for the rush of adrenaline provided by zip-line canopy tours or the quiet trails to Laguna Verde, Laguna las Ninfas, or Cascadas Don Juan in nearby Jujutla. But be sure to spend some time exploring Apaneca itself—it’s one of the prettiest towns in El Salvador.

Ataco

Come here for the murals, arguably the finest collection in Central America. Many were painted by the proprietors of the famous Diconte & Axul, a handicrafts store featuring traditional treadle looms.

Ataco isn’t as heavily touristed as Juayúa, but stunning views, Colonial architecture, and beautifully decorated restaurants and hotels make it a great place to stay along the Flowers Route. While here, climb to the Mirador de la Cruz del Cielito Lindo for views across the city and countryside, take hikes and coffee tours, or just simply wander.

Ahuachapán

Your final stop on the Ruta las Flores is the prosperous department capital of Ahuachapán, just 6 miles (10 km) from the Las Chinamas border crossing to Guatemala and convenient to Guatemala City and Antigua. This bustling little city makes its living with coffee and geothermal energy, not tourism, but the friendly Spanish Colonial city center, replete with plazas and fountains, features several places to stay.

Ahuachapán is a jumping-off point for the tiny town of Tacuba, El Imposible National Park, the restaurants lining Laguna de las Espinas, and the best hot springs resort in El Salvador. It’s a perfect finish to your trip.

El Salvador’s Most Mouth-Watering Culinary Experiences

You sit in the outdoor dining room of a centuries-old Spanish Colonial adobe, sipping a cup of rich coffee grown right here on the estate. Around you, orchids and bromeliads luxuriate in the misty altitude, framing a pastoral view of rivers and volcanoes.

Then it arrives—that most traditionally Salvadoran of breakfasts, plátanos con crema y frijoles. The thickly sliced, pan-fried plantains have a delicate, caramelized crunch and soft, sweet interior; the cream and refried beans cut the sweetness perfectly.

El Salvador’s Most Mouth-Watering Culinary Experiences

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

You sit in the outdoor dining room of a centuries-old Spanish Colonial adobe, sipping a cup of rich coffee grown right here on the estate. Around you, orchids and bromeliads luxuriate in the misty altitude, framing a pastoral view of rivers and volcanoes.

Then it arrives—that most traditionally Salvadoran of breakfasts, plátanos con crema y frijoles. The thickly sliced, pan-fried plantains have a delicate, caramelized crunch and soft, sweet interior; the cream and refried beans cut the sweetness perfectly.

El Salvador serves up some of the best food in Central America, but it’s about more than just the flavors. Even in the most modest mercados, you’ll also find serious attention to detail. The focus is on fresh ingredients and complex recipes handed down through generations. Even better, you’ll often enjoy your meals in beautiful surroundings, with good music, lavish gardens, and other aesthetic extras.

But begin your culinary exploration with the simple yet delicious national dish: pupusas. These thick corn tortillas come stuffed with different fillings—usually beans, cheese, and/or pork–though you’ll also find shrimp, mushroom, loroco (a tasty flower), squash, chicken, and many other options, all of which you should try. This stack of deliciousness comes served with tomato sauce and curtido, a sort of spicy, pickled slaw. Eat with your hands.

Stands set up in alleys, beneath beach boardwalks, and almost anywhere that people gather, begin serving pupusas around 4pm. It’s been an El Salvador tradition for centuries.

Once you’ve indulged in this, the ultimate Salvadoran dining experience, it’s time to go further.

Mercado Municipal de Antiguo Cuscatlán

San Salvador is surprisingly sophisticated, and if you want to splurge on classic fine dining, you’ll find excellent, upscale restaurants serving almost any international cuisine. To truly experience San Salvador, however, head into its ancient heart (now housed in a fine modern building), Mercado Cuscatlán.

This sprawling market has almost everything imaginable on offer, from bawdy souvenirs to bouquets of fresh flowers. But you’re here for the food. Dozens of stands compete for your business with traditional Salvadoran cuisine and, at lunchtime, a side of live music. Indulge.

Fine Food With a View Atop San Salvador Volcano

El Salvador is in love with al fresco dining in the countryside, and the capital is no exception. On weekends, the classic getaway is a drive up Volcán San Salvador into the cool, clean, coffee-growing altitudes. The road to the top is lined with wonderful restaurants boasting spectacular gardens, small playgrounds for the kids, incredible views over San Salvador, and of course, amazing food—most of it traditionally Salvadoran.

You’ll also find charming outdoor restaurants along almost any scenic route, from the Ruta las Flores in the western highlands to Morazán Department in the east. These spots are designed to satisfy the soul as well as the appetite.

Rice Pupusas at Olocuitla

Most pupusas are made with corn. But the town of Olocuitla, conveniently located halfway between San Salvador and Costa del Sol, is famous for its delicate, rice-flour versions of the country’s favorite dish. Simply pull off the highway and you’ll immediately find dozens of pupuserías churning out hot stacks of tasty goodness. Most will take your order and bring the amazing snack right to your car.

Ceviche at La Libertad

You’ll find the freshest fish in El Salvador at the market on iconic La Libertad Pier. While you can buy the just-caught whole fish, an easier way to indulge your seafood desires is with colorful ceviche.

Simple stands lining La Libertad’s boardwalk serve delicious ceviche—made by marinating raw fish in lemon juice, onion, and spices—in a kaleidoscope of varieties, such as spicy, sour, shrimp, fish, and more. Some spots also cook up other seafood dishes (try the sopa de siete mares, a delicate seafood stew), and all of them serve cold beer.

Fería Gastronómica in Juayúa

The most classic gastronomic experience in El Salvador is the Juayúa Food Festival, held every weekend in this beautiful village along the Ruta las Flores. The central square is shut down to all traffic except for horseback rides and a tourist train, and scores of stands sell the finest in Salvadoran and international cuisine.

Don’t worry about your Spanish skills; savvy chefs cater to international tourists by displaying sample platters of their finest cuisine. You just need to point, pay, and eat—probably several times over the course of the weekend. Live music and other entertainment is all part of the fun.

How El Salvador Became a World-Class Surfing Destination

Imagine discovering one of the world’s most perfect waves.

When surfers Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson gazed out over the hollow right point break at La Libertad Point in the early 1970s, they christened it Punta Roca, or “Rock Point.” And a legend began.

The California teens had begun their trip to Central America after watching Endless Summer, a 1966 movie about two surfers who traveled the world in search of the perfect warm-water waves. It gave them an idea.

How El Salvador Became a World-Class Surfing Destination

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

Imagine discovering one of the world’s most perfect waves.

When surfers Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson gazed out over the hollow right point break at La Libertad Point in the early 1970s, they christened it Punta Roca, or “Rock Point.” And a legend began.

The California teens had begun their trip to Central America after watching Endless Summer, a 1966 movie about two surfers who traveled the world in search of the perfect warm-water waves. It gave them an idea.

Peterson, a photographer for Surfer magazine, convinced his editors to commission a handful of articles about Latin America’s untouched surf. Then he and Naughton set out in an old Volkswagen Beetle to sample the lonely waves of Mexico. As those became popular, the two pushed on into undiscovered Central America. Using old nautical maps to parse out the big waves, they discovered a collection of incredible breaks in El Salvador.

“La Libertad was a particularly idyllic place,” wrote Naughton. Surfers could live cheaply, close to amazing waves, and “not worry about a thing if you left your gear on the beach.”

Today, the surf is more crowded, people take their equipment with them, and prices have risen (though it’s still one of the least expensive surf spots in the Western hemisphere). But the waves are still awesome. El Salvador’s south-facing coast picks up large, regular swells from March through October (with the best between May and September), bequeathing the tiny country a world-class array of right-hand point breaks. And, yes, a few lefts.

Word Gets Out

With waves like El Salvador’s, it was just a matter of time before the surfing world became obsessed. Naughton and Peterson’s articles about El Salvador’s fantastic surf were published in Surfer magazine in 1972. The duo then traveled to Africa, in search of even better waves, finally returning to El Salvador three years later for another set.

“It was 1975, and my how things had changed,” Naughton wrote. Thanks to their articles, the water was packed with Americans. “It was raining single fins on anyone unfortunate enough to be caught by a set paddling out.”

Their romance with El Salvador’s waves was on the wane; they felt that the Central American surf circuit had become more about the party, less about the breaks. They returned to California. But surfers continued to roll into El Salvador.

Surfing Goes Local

One of these visitors was the legendary Gerry “Mr. Pipeline” Lopez, who took it upon himself to teach local kids how to surf. He couldn’t know that his students would become the first generation of El Salvador’s now world-class surf set.

As the 1970s came to an end, the Salvadoran Civil War began. Tourism in El Salvador, and throughout Central America, slowed to a trickle. There was only one group of travelers who could not be dissuaded from coming. Surfers.

It soon became customary to leave their boards behind in La Libertad for the increasingly surf-crazed local kids. With the economy struggling, this was the only way for residents to get them. The boards were put to good use: As the war wore on, it was almost all locals riding the waves.

Yet even during the war, this area took on the laid-back feel of a surf town. “This was probably the most tranquilo zone in the country,” surfer Robert “Roberto” Rotherham told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. He had arrived in La Libertad in the late 1970s and decided to stay despite the war. His beachfront business still got plenty of customers on weekends, when families from San Salvador would make the half-hour drive to enjoy the beach and some semblance of peace. And Rotherham had Punta Roca almost all to himself during the week.

The World Tunes In

Peace returned to El Salvador in 1992. The first wave of tourists to hit the country had to bring their own boards. By 2000, both locals and expats were investing in surf tourism. New hotels, restaurants, and surf schools sprang up. At first, these thatch-roofed businesses clustered around La Libertad and El Tunco, but gradually spread up and down the coast.

Soon, the scene exploded. World-class Punta Mango in Playa Cuco drew surfers onto eastern shores, where they discovered dozens of other surfable breaks. To the west, the waves at Playa Zonte, Km 59, Km 61, and Mizata were soon repopulated with both local and foreign surfers. Businesses opened. The roads improved.

And in 2011, the elite World Championship of Surfing decided that El Salvador was ready to host a top-level international competition, joining destinations such as the Canary Islands, Portugal, France, and the Azores as places with both the epic waves and organizational skills to host a major athletic event.

The excitement was electric. El Salvador welcomed “the best surfers in the world from more that 30 countries to a surfing tournament that will reach more than 240 million television viewers worldwide,” announced Minister of Tourism José Napoleón Duarte Durán. “With the coverage of respected sports channels such as ESPN, Sports News and CBS Sports, among others, the ISA World Masters will deliver a global promotion for our nation.”

The coverage was unprecedented, and people took notice. Today, El Salvador is one of the world’s premier surf destinations, home to dozens of surf outfitters, specialty guides, beautiful resorts, and schools where you can learn Spanish in between sets. Even Naughton and Peterson have returned for another ride.

Come follow their lead. The water is warm and the waves world-class. And it’s all here waiting for you.

Six Salvadoran Festivals You’ll Want to Celebrate

Incense swirls amid a riot of vibrant colors and majestic music. Red, white, purple, and yellow flowers are carried high, forming a canopy over the hundreds of faithful who march in an annual tribute to Catholic and indigenous traditions.

This celebration, the Festival of Palms and Flowers in Panchimalco, is just one of El Salvador’s unique spectacles. Each event brings together food, music, artwork, religion, and history—and all offer insight into this nation’s beauty and diversity.

Six Salvadoran Festivals You’ll Want to Celebrate

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

Incense swirls amid a riot of vibrant colors and majestic music. Red, white, purple, and yellow flowers are carried high, forming a canopy over the hundreds of faithful who march in an annual tribute to Catholic and indigenous traditions.

This celebration, the Festival of Palms and Flowers in Panchimalco, is just one of El Salvador’s unique spectacles. Each event brings together food, music, artwork, religion, and history—and all offer insight into this nation’s beauty and diversity.

While larger festivals provide the most colorful backdrops, even smaller events—like the food festival in Juayúa and the artisan market in Suchitoto, both held every weekend—are authentic expressions of this country’s unique culture. Plus, many other cities hold weekend culinary and handicraft fairs, and every town celebrates its patron saints with a big annual party, called a fiesta patronal. But if you can time your visit to coincide with one of these bigger festivals, you’re in for a real treat.

Semana Santa

Where: Itzalco
When: Week before Easter

The biggest holiday on the Central American calendar is Semana Santa, or Holy Week, and several cities hold elaborate religious processions, often re-creating the Stations of the Cross. The most extravagant of these, in Izalco, begins amid the baroque beauty of the 16th-century Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Church, where religious icons are lifted, in a cloud of incense, onto the shoulders of the faithful. Indigenous and Catholic traditions mix, with flowers and harvest-themed religious symbols joining the purple-clad priests, who make their way across the colorful sawdust carpets created for the occasion.

Festival of Palms and Flowers

Where: Panchimalco
When: First Weekend in May

This ancient celebration of rainy season’s arrival takes place in the Pipil Mayan town of Panchimalco, just south of San Salvador. Its origins date to the era of Spanish conquistadors; when they began consolidating power in the 1500s, many Mayans pulled back into mountain strongholds like this and survived. Today, Panchimalco honors its indigenous traditions and Catholic upbringing by weaving colorful tropical flowers into palm fronds and arranging them into altars, which are carried by costumed revelers to honor the Holy Virgin.

Festival of El Salvador

Where: San Salvador
When: August 1

Almost every town in Latin America celebrates its Patron Saint, and San Salvador is no exception. The Divino Salvador del Mundo (the Divine Savior of the World) is celebrated nationwide, but you’ll want to be in the capital as it erupts into live music, parades, dancing, and religious ceremonies. The event kicks off “Fiestas Agostinas,” a month of sporting events, major concerts, and parties around the country. Make travel plans in advance, as many Salvadorans are on holiday the first week in August.

Perquín Winter Festival

Where: Perquín
When: First Week in August

This pine-forested mountain town was once the de facto rebel capital during the civil war, and today brings in tourists with its unique museums, attractions, and ecotourism. But the best time to visit is the Festival de Invierno, or “Winter Festival.” (Perhaps better translated as the Rainy Season Festival.) It has deep Lenca Indian roots, and you’ll see remnants of indigenous and Spanish Colonial culture in the traditional dances, wild costumes, and huge puppets. There are also parades, beauty queens, live music and more.

Las Bolas del Fuego

Where: Nejapa
When: August 31

Just north of San Salvador, the small town of Nejapa celebrates the historic 1658 eruption of Volcán El Playon with one of the wildest parties you’ll ever be brave enough to attend. Legend has it that when the volcano began raining lava onto the town, Nejapa’s patron saint, San Jeronimo, fought back just long enough for locals to evacuate. The miraculous event is still celebrated by mostly young men hurling flaming, kerosene-soaked balls of rag and wire at one another in the street. It may not be for everyone, but you’ll never find another fiesta like this one. Anywhere.

Carnival

Where: San Miguel
When: Second Half of November

El Salvador’s third-largest city hosts the country’s biggest party—a two-week explosion of sequins and fireworks that culminates on the last Saturday of November with the Carnival Parade. It has everything: beauty queens, floats, horse parades, rides, traditional dance, religious processions for Our Lady of Peace, and a world-class lineup of internationally known musicians. It brings in visitors from all over Central America and beyond, so plan ahead!

El Salvador’s 5 Most Instagram-Worthy Beaches

Arguably El Salvador’s most popular attraction, the stunning Pacific coastline wends its way for some 300 kilometers (186 miles) past isolated crescent coves, broad tourist beaches, dramatic cliffs, and some of the world’s best surf breaks. The sand shimmers a deep volcanic gray, the legendary waves crest and crash, and the Western-facing shoreline sets the stage for mesmerizing sunsets.

The hard work comes in choosing between all of the magnificent stretches of sand. Is your goal relaxing? Surfing? Exploring a surf town? Whichever beach—or beaches—you choose, you can’t go wrong…and your Instagram fans will undoubtedly approve.

El Salvador’s 5 Most Instagram-Worthy Beaches

 

EL SALVADOR’S 5 MOST INSTAGRAM-WORTHY BEACHES

EL SALVADOR’S 5 MOST INSTAGRAM-WORTHY BEACHES

Arguably El Salvador’s most popular attraction, the stunning Pacific coastline wends its way for some 300 kilometers (186 miles) past isolated crescent coves, broad tourist beaches, dramatic cliffs, and some of the world’s best surf breaks. The sand shimmers a deep volcanic gray, the legendary waves crest and crash, and the Western-facing shoreline sets the stage for mesmerizing sunsets. The hard work comes in choosing between all of the magnificent stretches of sand. Is your goal relaxing? Surfing? Exploring a surf town? Whichever beach—or beaches—you choose, you can’t go wrong…and your Instagram fans will undoubtedly approve.

El Tunco

El Tunco

Party people looking for the best little surf town in El Salvador can begin here. Surfers and backpackers come to hang loose on this beach of dark-gray sand and smooth pebbles; you’ll make friends as waves crash around the iconic rock formation just offshore. But it’s not all serenity—you’re also here for the nightlife and festive atmosphere. Accommodations for every budget are plentiful, tour outfits and restaurants cater to foreign tourists, and English is widely spoken, making El Tunco the perfect playa to begin your exploration of the Salvadoran coastline.

Costa del Sol

Costa del Sol

San Salvadorans escape the city heat and noise at this long, broad, pearl-gray beach that’s perfect for swimming, walking, or playing a little volleyball. The relaxed shore is lined with fabulous vacation homes and hotels for every budget, along with excellent seafood restaurants. Once you’ve filled your camera roll with beach photos, pop over to check out the bay and take a tour of the mangrove forests that fringe Estero de Jaltepeque (Jaltepeque Estuary).

Los Cóbanos

Los Cóbanos

The soft, golden sands of Los Cóbanos—with its palm-shaded coves and colorful local fishing boats bobbing in the turquoise water—make up what is arguably the country’s most beautiful beach. But don’t limit yourself to the land. A protected coral reef lies just offshore, playing host to vibrant sea life and setting the scene for the best snorkeling, diving, and deep-sea fishing in El Salvador. Arrange tours through any area hotel (many of which are truly excellent).

El Cuco

El Cuco

The other nominee for El Salvador’s most beautiful beach is in the wild east, which means it’s less accessible and therefore less crowded. Dark sands and brightly painted fishing boats make El Cuco—really a collection of three beaches—incredibly photogenic. The break at one of them, Las Flores, brings in serious surfers and features some of the country’s finest resorts. But there are calmer stretches of glittering ocean where you can swim, paddleboard, hire boats for mangrove tours, or simply soak it in from rustic beachfront restaurants serving cold beer and fresh seafood.

Peninsula San Juan del Gozo & Corral de Mulas

Peninsula San Juan del Gozo & Corral de Mulas

When you really want to get away from it all, hire a boat across the Bahía Jiquilisco, a mangrove-fringed UNESCO Biosphere Reserve known for its incredible birding and sea turtle nesting sites. The barrier that protects this rich coastal estuary from the open sea is called Peninsula San Juan del Gozo, and it’s where you’ll find a broad, sandy, almost empty beach where you can walk for miles.

Why El Salvador Needs to Be on Your Travel Bucket List

Wander into El Salvador’s cool, coffee-growing highlands and you’ll come across a scenic road that threads its misty way through charming, whitewashed Spanish Colonial towns. Along the way, you’ll pass gargantuan volcanoes, mirror-like lakes, and all-natural hot springs, with quiet cafes tempting you to relax and take in the view.

This road—the Ruta de las Flores, or “Flowers Route”—offers a great overview of some of El Salvador’s highlights, and some insight into why this gem of a country is piquing the interest of more and more travelers. But it’s just the beginning. El Salvador’s friendly people, delicious cuisine, Pacific Ocean beaches, and enticing culture offer an allure all their own.

Why El Salvador Needs to Be on Your Travel Bucket List

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

Wander into El Salvador’s cool, coffee-growing highlands and you’ll come across a scenic road that threads its misty way through charming, whitewashed Spanish Colonial towns. Along the way, you’ll pass gargantuan volcanoes, mirror-like lakes, and all-natural hot springs, with quiet cafes tempting you to relax and take in the view.

This road—the Ruta de las Flores, or “Flowers Route”—offers a great overview of some of El Salvador’s highlights, and some insight into why this gem of a country is piquing the interest of more and more travelers. But it’s just the beginning. El Salvador’s friendly people, delicious cuisine, Pacific Ocean beaches, and enticing culture offer an allure all their own.

For now, El Salvador is primarily the province of adventurers who are drawn to a small but storied land. But the secret is getting out. Budget backpackers and sophisticated luxury lovers alike are falling in love and spreading the word about the unique experience they’ve discovered here.

Here are just some of the reasons why you should visit as well.

Nature

The fame of El Salvador’s beaches has made them a seductive starting point for many travelers. It’s easy to see why. Some are crescents of deep gray volcanic sand, framed with rocky points and swaying palms; others, endless and golden, stretch for miles along an untamed sea. Surf, swim, fish, and dive, then relax in a hammock rocked by the salt-infused breeze, enjoying a cold beer with a side of ceviche.

Move on to the country’s 23 active volcanoes, covered with cool cloud forest and picturesque plantations, all just waiting to be explored. They’re the perfect places to spot some of El Salvador’s 600+ bird species, spider monkeys, and tapirs.

The Sierra Madre Mountains, draped in lush tropical cloud forest, rise to even greater heights along the Guatemalan and Honduran borders. And it’s among these hills that El Salvador’s coffee plantations blossom white and fragrant in April, with the beans beginning to ripen by October. Book a tour or simply enjoy a cup of the famed coffee; refreshed, hike into the hills to find hot springs and waterfalls flowing through all of this rare beauty.

People, Architecture, and Artistry

Scattered among the volcanoes and coffee plantations are photogenic Spanish Colonial towns and bustling cities—hubs of beauty and energy where El Salvador’s welcoming locals work, dream, and create. Shop for their artisanías (handicrafts), enjoy their amazing cuisine, or simply stroll through their cities. They’ll let you know they appreciate your visit—often in flawless English—and offer to tell you about the hot spots your guidebook might have missed.

They might direct you to the pine-forested village of La Palma, where El Salvador’s most famous artist, Fernando Llort, pioneered brilliant handicrafts that have become the nation’s signature art form. Or you may end up in the graceful Spanish Colonial town of Suchitoto, where centuries-old oversized doorways guard cool, quiet courtyard gardens, which play host to fine hotels, restaurants, and shops.

The Cuisine

When it’s time to eat, start with El Salvador’s national dish, the pupusa—a thick corn or rice tortilla stuffed with beans, cheeses, meats, or vegetables, and served with curtido, a spicy, pickled slaw. And be sure to sample a frozen natural (fruit shake) or parillada (plate of grilled meats and vegetables).

But to experience a range of Salvadoran cuisine—some of it quite gourmet, such as camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp) and lomo relleno (steak stuffed with sausage)—along with great art, music, and shopping—the town of Juayúa beckons. Its weekend gastronomic festival is a highlight of any visit, and travelers can find amazing restaurants here and in the surrounding towns. 



Past & Present

To see where pupusas originated, you’ll need to explore El Salvador’s archaeological parks. The ancient stone pyramids of San Andrés and Cihuatán are the most impressive, having once each boasted a population of perhaps 25,000. Connect with the past, too, by visiting the 8,000-year-old petroglyphs at La Gruta del Espíritu Santo, which adorn the country’s oldest pre-Columbian site.

And it’s the humble, working-class Mayan village preserved at Joya de Cerén where the oldest pupusa-making utensils were found, buried beneath a mountain of ash after a volcanic explosion in 590 AD.

But your first impression of El Salvador will likely be rooted in the present, your journey beginning in the capital, San Salvador. Its wonderful neighborhoods, like Escalón and San Benito, are perfect for strolling, shopping, dining, and clubbing. Museums, churches, and other sites await in Nuevo Cuscatlán, downtown. From there, thanks to El Salvador’s compact size and excellent roads, you’re within four hours of almost any destination.

Still, words and photos can only do so much justice to the magic that is El Salvador. Come and experience it for yourself.

El Salvador’s Top Spots for Nature Adventures

Hiking, mountain biking, rafting, surfing, swimming: Whatever adventures you’re into, El Salvador has a lush playground for you to partake of it. Easy-to-reach waterfalls, hot springs, volcanoes, and beaches come together in this outdoor lover’s paradise, with expert outfitters ready to gear up and whisk you to the best spots.

The easiest way into wild El Salvador is at one of the many ecotourism centers scattered across the country, where you can arrange your own adventure with English-speaking guides and all the equipment you might need. Here’s where to get wild.

El Salvador’s Top Spots for Nature Adventures

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

Hiking, mountain biking, rafting, surfing, swimming: Whatever adventures you’re into, El Salvador has a lush playground for you to partake of it. Easy-to-reach waterfalls, hot springs, volcanoes, and beaches come together in this outdoor lover’s paradise, with expert outfitters ready to gear up and whisk you to the best spots.

The easiest way into wild El Salvador is at one of the many ecotourism centers scattered across the country, where you can arrange your own adventure with English-speaking guides and all the equipment you might need. Here’s where to get wild.

Montecristo National Park

Great For: Hiking & Camping

This park sits high in the cloud forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains, some 7,000 feet (2,1336m) above sea level—an entirely different world from the dry tropical forests that dominate the Salvadoran countryside. Cool (50°F/10°C), wet weather has created the perfect home for massive ferns, fantastic orchids, pumas, and vibrantly colored birds like the resplendent quetzal.

You’ll also find a wooded and well-maintain campsite, and several hiking trails up to 4 miles (7 km) in length. The longest, steepest trail leads to a monument where El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras meet. Bring everything you’ll need for your hike and stay, as services are limited.

Perquín

Great For: Hiking, Camping, and Swimming

El Salvador’s “Wild East” is just a bit less developed and accessible, preserving its natural wonders for more adventurous travelers. Start in the mountain town of Perquín, which has become the area’s center of ecotourism.

Guides can arrange all sorts of hikes through the mountains, taking in waterfalls, rivers, and hot springs, as well as multi-day excursions that include tent rentals and meals. One of the most popular destinations is the Rio Sapo, a river that rolls past one of the best campgrounds in the country, with toilets, fire pits, security, and swimming holes; a double waterfall is a short hike away.

Rio Lempa

Great For: Whitewater Rafting

The most important river in El Salvador is the Rio Lempa, once the southernmost border of the Mayan Empire. Its 262 miles (422 km) rush past rolling mountains, epic gorges, and small villages on the way to the Pacific. Experienced kayakers can paddle the Class IV and V rapids at the top of the Lempa, but most people head to Apazunga Aquatic Park Center to take easy whitewater rafting trips down the Class II and III portions.

Apazunga (which translates to “where the river begins”) also has a refreshing spring for bathers, a small canopy tour for adrenaline junkies, playgrounds, and other family-friendly amenities.

Bahia Jiquilisco

Great For: Biking, Kayaking, Sea Turtles, and Beaches

The mangrove-forested inlet of Bahia Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve is a quiet place of almost unspoiled natural beauty, covering more than 150 square miles (400 sq km). Locally run tour operators offer boat and kayaking trips around the islands and inlet that are perfect for birding, fishing, and wildlife spotting.

This is also one of the world’s most important hatcheries for hawksbill turtles, critically endangered because their translucent shells are used to make much-coveted jewelry; ask your guide about visiting a conservation project. Or choose to arrange bike rides, visits to plantations and wildlife preserves, and overnights along the endless white-sand Pacific beaches.

The Most Breathtakingly Beautiful Places in El Salvador

That such a small country could play host to so much beauty may seem surreal. But Instagrammable moments, which happen around almost every turn, offer assurance that the beauty is very real.

The moment when you fully appreciate the expanse of beauty may come while looking out across the whitewashed city of Juayúa, with the massive triple cones of Los Volcanes National Park rising behind it. Or it may occur among El Salvador’s sparkling lakes, stunning beaches, Spanish Colonial towns, and cool mountains marbled with waterfalls and hot springs. But no matter when that moment happens during your journey, it will happen. Have your camera ready.

The Most Breathtakingly Beautiful Places in El Salvador

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

That such a small country could play host to so much beauty may seem surreal. But Instagrammable moments, which happen around almost every turn, offer assurance that the beauty is very real.

The moment when you fully appreciate the expanse of beauty may come while looking out across the whitewashed city of Juayúa, with the massive triple cones of Los Volcanes National Park rising behind it. Or it may occur among El Salvador’s sparkling lakes, stunning beaches, Spanish Colonial towns, and cool mountains marbled with waterfalls and hot springs. But no matter when that moment happens during your journey, it will happen. Have your camera ready.

Here are some of El Salvador’s exceptionally gorgeous spots.

Coatepeque Crater Lake

From the rim of this massive volcanic crater, which plunges to a sparkling, 10-square-mile (26-sq-km) lake, you’ll appreciate why the Mayans made the island of Teopán a sacred site. (And yes, you can stay there, at several opulent Airbnbs.)

Descend into the caldera to find an inviting waterfront lined with hotels and restaurants serving up great food and live music. Then take a dip in the glass-like water, with the steep and verdant crater walls reflecting off its ripples.

Suchitoto

This gracefully preserved Spanish Colonial town, with its cobblestone streets and lovely little church, would be one of the country’s top destinations even if it weren’t perched above the shimmering, island-dappled expanse of Lake Suchitlán.

Founded in 1528 as El Salvador’s original capital, Suchitoto is a city of courtyard gardens hidden behind ancient adobe walls and red-tiled rooftops, with fine hotels, shops, and restaurants tucked inside. Venture beyond for more beauty: Take a short hike to Los Tercios Waterfall, which pours over 100-foot (30-meter) columns of basalt; or ride a boat out to uninhabited lake islands, where huge flocks of birds fill the trees.

El Rosario Church

Rainbows stream through the transformative interior of what some call the most beautiful church in El Salvador. Iglesia El Rosario, in San Salvador, is no Spanish Colonial structure.

Completed in 1971, it’s entirely modern, arching above the city center like an unusually graceful airplane hanger. Inside, it’s a place of sublime beauty, with a cascade of stained glass windows that paint the striking Stages of the Cross with colored light. Visit on a sunny afternoon.

Many of the capital’s more traditionally beautiful architectural gems, including the Metropolitan Cathedral and National Theater, are within a few blocks of El Rosario.

Playa Las Flores

Choosing the most beautiful beach in El Salvador is an impossible task; each offers its own reward. You can experience the mangroves and sea turtles of Corral de Mullas, the surf town of El Tunco, and the undersea scenery of Los Cobanos.

But Playa las Flores, adjacent to almost-as-attractive Playa El Cuco, is as close to beachfront perfection as you’ll find anywhere in the country. This crescent of dark, volcanic sand—framed in glistening cliffs and swaying palms—is best known for its epic surf break. But it’s also an excellent swimming beach, with enough hiking and accommodations to keep all kinds of travelers happy.

Miramundo

The Sierra Madre Mountains rise suddenly from the sweltering lowlands to cool pine-forested heights, and on a clear day you can catch a sweeping view of this shift—and see all the way to the Pacific Ocean—from Miramundo (loosely translated as “View the World”).

The high point here is Cerro El Pital (8,957 feet; 2,730 meters), where the rustling forest and misty climate creates a relaxing environment. Wonderful restaurants and accommodations encourage lingering. And even if it’s too cloudy to see the sea, you can’t miss the rolling farmlands, hung with orchids and epiphytes.

Must-Do Day Trips from San Salvador

When you first arrive in San Salvador, it seems like the busy capital must be hours from the nation’s natural wonders and cultural highlights. But nothing’s too far away in this compact country—and with the excellent road system, it’s easy to reach several impressive attractions.

Whether you have a full day or just a few hours, here are the spots to check out.

Must-Do Day Trips from San Salvador

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

When you first arrive in San Salvador, it seems like the busy capital must be hours from the nation’s natural wonders and cultural highlights. But nothing’s too far away in this compact country—and with the excellent road system, it’s easy to reach several impressive attractions.

Whether you have a full day or just a few hours, here are the spots to check out.

El Boquerón National Park

Distance: 12 miles (20 km)

The graceful silhouette of San Salvador Volcano dominates the capital’s skyline, and the park sits on top of this 5,905-foot (1,800-meter)-high mountain. Drive up the volcano’s steep slope, past pretty restaurants serving traditional food. You’ll soon arrive at the park, where you can explore botanical gardens lush with colorful ornamentals, playgrounds, and picnic areas. Then make the short, steep hike to the rim to check out spectacular views of the city and look down into the 1,830-foot (558-meter)-deep crater.

La Libertad

Distance: 19 miles (30 km)

One of El Salvador’s best beaches features world-class surfing and plenty of places to sample fresh ceviche. Relax on the palm tree-lined sandy beach, gazing out over waves lapping at the iconic pier. Or make it a weekend of it by staying at one of the many oceanfront hotels.

Puerta del Diablo

Distance: 8 miles (13 km)

Take in El Salvador’s rugged landscape just south of the capital at this dramatic split-rock formation. Climb the steep, rocky stairs to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with remarkable views to Lake Ilopango, San Vicente Volcano, and the Pacific. You’ll also find a zip line, rock climbing, and stands selling fresh pupusas (stuffed tortillas) near the parking lot.

Joya de Cerén and San Andrés Archeological Park

Distance: 25 miles (40 km)

See the region’s Mayan history up close at this archaeological park about 45 minutes from the capital. Here, the rolling hills are punctuated with stone pyramids and public buildings dating to 900 BC. Just minutes away is Joya de Cerén, a village often called “America’s Pompeii” because a volcanic eruption in 590 AD buried it beneath five meters of ash almost overnight. Homes, hearths, and businesses were perfectly preserved, offering unparalleled insight into the lives of working-class Mayans.

Lake Ilopongo and El Zapote Barracks Museum

Distance: 13 miles (21 km)

El Salvador has several outstanding military museums; one of the best is located just east of the capital. Along with an array of tanks, planes, and war memorabilia, El Zapote features an amazing three-dimensional map of the country’s dramatic topography, as well as a “popemobile” (Pope John Paul II visited El Salvador twice). Afterwards, visit the country’s second-largest lake—it sits right outside, nestled scenically into an ancient volcanic crater. Hammocks, boat rentals, and restaurants along the shore will tempt you to make a day of it.

How to Travel Around El Salvador

Just off the beaten path, at the very heart of the hemisphere, El Salvador beckons travelers with dramatic natural beauty, colorful culture, and surprising convenience. Its well-maintained roads, long dry season, and compact topography mean you can spend the morning surfing world-class breaks, the afternoon relaxing in the cool mountains, and the evening enjoying San Salvador’s fine dining and festive nightlife.

But don’t speed your way through; savor this small gem of a country and its stunning volcanoes, broad beaches, and pretty Spanish Colonial villages. You’ll enjoy it even more if you come prepared. Here are some suggestions.

How to Travel Around El Salvador

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

Just off the beaten path, at the very heart of the hemisphere, El Salvador beckons travelers with dramatic natural beauty, colorful culture, and surprising convenience. Its well-maintained roads, long dry season, and compact topography mean you can spend the morning surfing world-class breaks, the afternoon relaxing in the cool mountains, and the evening enjoying San Salvador’s fine dining and festive nightlife.

But don’t speed your way through; savor this small gem of a country and its stunning volcanoes, broad beaches, and pretty Spanish Colonial villages. You’ll enjoy it even more if you come prepared. Here are some suggestions.

How Much Time Should I Spend?

El Salvador is small, with excellent roads and a robust public transportation network making for efficient travel around the country. Spending about a week should allow you to experience the top attractions, most of which are in the western half of the country. If you really want to explore, however, you could easily spend a month and still not come close to seeing everything. The best strategy is to choose your own adventure, then make plans to come back.

Do I Need to Speak Spanish?

Learning a little survival Spanish and carrying a phrasebook will make your trip run far more smoothly. Still, English is widely spoken, and people are usually eager to help out.

Tourist centers, including San Salvador, Juayúa and the Flowers Route, Suchitoto, Perquín, and any of the popular surf beaches are relatively easy to get around without much or any Spanish. If you’re nervous about navigating public transportation or exploring less touristy areas without fluent Spanish, arrange guided tours and private shuttles through your hotel.

Climate

El Salvador has two seasons. Verano (summer), the dry season, runs from November through April, and it gets hot—average highs in the capital approach 90°F (32°C) in March and April. Rainy season, called invierno (winter), happens from May to October. The landscape is greener and prettier, and temperatures are slightly cooler, with highs in the low 80s (high 20s). Just be ready for afternoon downpours, which usually last an hour or two in April and May and become more frequent by late August and September.

Temperatures vary more with elevation than season. The coastal lowlands are hot year-round, while the mountains get chilly (it’s been known to snow atop Cerro El Pital). Even the central plateau (which includes San Salvador) gets chilly in November and December, when highs average about 82°F (28°C) during the day but drop to the high 60s (low 20s) at night.

So come prepared! Pack a light jacket and long pants along with your summer gear, and warmer clothes if you plan to spend time in the mountains.

Money & Costs

Conveniently for U.S. citizens, El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar as currency. Banks can exchange euros and some other currencies. ATMs are widely available and connected to most global networks. Most major credit cards are accepted, even in small towns. Be sure to let your bank and credit card companies know that you’ll be in El Salvador, to avoid any lapse in service.

Costs are reasonable, even by Central American standards. Budget travelers can eat, sleep, and travel well on less than US$40 per day, while mid-range travelers enjoying comfortable hotel rooms can expect to pay US$50–120 per day.

For luxury-travel aficionados, El Salvador offers a network of upscale offerings, including excellent hotels, Airbnbs, restaurants, private tours, and other amenities. Costs vary, but are considerably less than you’d pay in a more developed luxury market.

Getting Around

Most foreign visitors arrive at Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (SAL), still often called Comalapa International. It’s small, efficient, served by official taxis and Uber, and is located between San Salvador and the beaches of La Libertad; a taxi to either will cost US$25–$35.

Most international car-rental agencies have offices at the airport, as well as in major cities around the country. Renting a car is an excellent option; El Salvador boasts the best roads in Central America. They’re well maintained, relatively well marked and easy to navigate, and guarded parking is generally easy to find. Just be aware that while base rates for rentals are low, insurance and taxes raise the final cost significantly.

El Salvador also has an extensive and inexpensive public bus system that serves even the smallest and most remote villages. Minibuses, pickup trucks, and boats may also be options for reaching remote areas. Be aware that while major cities have central bus stations, smaller towns do not, so you’ll need to ask around for bus stop locations and schedules, which can be challenging. (Start at your hotel). And be prepared for crowded buses. If you’re traveling internationally by bus, plan to depart from San Salvador, Santa Ana, or San Miguel.

Ubers are plentiful, and taxis are usually easy to hail, either at taxi stands or through your hotel. You can also arrange private drivers, transportation and tours through almost any hotel.