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.
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.
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.
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.