A view of the Izalco volcano from the Santa Ana in Cerro Verde National Park in El Salvador. 

Dear reader,

It wasn’t like El Salvador was always on my bucket list. But I often find myself on Google Flights, typing in a variety of destinations, some far-flung and some nearby. You never know what kind of deals you’ll find. I’m based in Mexico City, and a few months ago I was looking at flights in the region; Mexico City to Managua, Nicaragua; Mexico City to Panama City; Mexico City to San Salvador, El Salvador. And there it was. A direct (two-hour), round-trip flight for $200.  

The next step was researching. My go-to resources are Wikitravel and travel blogs, where I read things like:  

“Tourism in El Salvador is booming, and in my opinion, it’s only going to get better. So do yourself a favor and get planning your El Salvador vacation now to avoid the crowds.”

“Somewhat bypassed on the tourist trail as it’s tucked away from the main route people take through Central America, this country is filled with natural beauty, forests, beaches, and even the opportunity to view some archaeological sites.” 

“Often overlooked by travelers, this tiny country has some fascinating nature. Once you meet other travelers who have visited the country you’ll hear a clear “Don’t skip El Salvador” from everyone.”

I was sold.

One thing to note is that the main reason El Salvador has been overlooked as a destination is due to its violent past, which has given the country a reputation it’s struggled to shed. 

A very abbreviated explanation is that El Salvador experienced a brutal civil war, which started in 1979 and didn’t officially end until 1992 (and yes, like most Latin American conflicts, the United States  was involved). It’s estimated that more than 75,000 people were killed. During this time many Salvadorians fled to the U.S., where they were refused asylum and instead classified as undocumented immigrants. A large population settled in Los Angeles, where they dealt with racism and persecution. In response, the gang Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known as MS-13, formed. MS-13 members were deported back to El Salvador, where gang violence flourished. 

But since 2019, El Salvador has been under the leadership of 41-year-old President Nayib Bukele. In addition to making Bitcoin a national currency (the other national currency is the USD), Bukele, who has an approval rating of nearly 90% (for context, President Biden is at roughly 40%) has made stamping out gang violence a top priority, and murder rates have decreased to historic lows. Everyone I spoke to in El Salvador — from Uber drivers to tourism workers to waitstaff — sang the praises of the president and emphasized how much safer the country has become since he was elected. 

San Salvador

Getting in was easy, El Salvador is visa free for many nationalities including Americans. I simply purchased a $12 tourist card at the airport (which is new and mall-like and even has a Bath and Body Works), exited and ordered an Uber to Fotherhouse, a simple but comfortable hotel in an upscale neighborhood. I wasn’t interested in spending much time in El Salvador’s capital, but my flight landed at 7 p.m., too late to catch a bus onward.

View of San Salvador’s historic center from Moris rooftop restaurant. 

I spent a few more hours in El Salvador on the tail end of my trip (regretting selecting the 11:40 p.m. return flight), and enjoyed a view of the city’s quite pretty historic center from Moris, a funky rooftop restaurant with live music located in a semi-abandoned building in the heart of the city — very El Salvador and my top recommendation if you have to spend time in the capital.  

Santa Ana

On my first morning I caught a bus to Santa Ana. The roughly one-hour ride on the air-conditioned bus cost $1.30. Santa Ana is a popular jump-off point for many of El Salvador’s attractions, including Ruta de Flores, a loop of five scenic towns in coffee country, many archaeological sitesLake Coatepeque and Cerro Verde, a national park which is the starting point for climbing the Santa Ana volcano.

With just a week in El Salvador, I only had time for the latter. The hike to the top of the volcano is moderate — sneakers were fine — and took about 2.5 hours.

I was rewarded with a stunning turquoise lake and impressive views at the top.

Pupusas in the making.

Despite being the second-largest city in El Salvador, Santa Ana is relatively tiny.
It’s worth spending a few hours exploring, making sure to visit the majestic Catedral de Santa Ana and enjoying a meal of pupusas, thick fried corn tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese or refried beans (or all three) that are the country’s national dish. 

The coast

Tourism in El Salvador is most developed along the country’s coast, which attracts travelers for its laid-back vibe, epic sunsets and waves; it’s a major surfing destination. I arrived by bus to El Tunco, which is basically Puerto Escondido, Mexico, 10-15 years ago.

The view at Lagarza Hostel, where accommodations run from about $20-110. 

After another meal of pupusas, I grabbed a taxi 20 minutes down the coast to Lagarza Hostel, which is a destination unto itself. Don’t let the name fool you — in addition to dorm-style accommodation, Lagarza has several hotel rooms, but the real draw is its infinity pool overlooking the pacific. Factor in the fast (ish) internet and a restaurant serving some of the best food I had in El Salvador, and it’s a great place to spend a few days relaxing and/or working remotely. 

Enjoying a Golden beer and the views at Los Mangos.

From Largaza I caught another taxi (at $100 this was my biggest expense but I failed to realize there were no direct busses) four hours down the coast to the town of El Cuco, and then another 20 minutes down a bumpy dirt road to Los Mangos, another remote hotel with an infinity pool and endless ocean views.

If you’re not a surfer (I’m not), El Salvador’s beaches are the perfect place to … do nothing, in the best possible way. 

San Miguel

After hitching a ride with other hotel guests back to El Cuco, I caught one of the region’s ubiquitous chicken buses onward to San Miguel. Chicken buses are old school buses from the U.S. that have been refurbished (pimped out might be a more accurate term) and serve as an affordable and efficient means of public transportation. San Miguel is a city that wouldn’t normally make it on my itinerary, but it’s home to the country’s most famous carnival celebration, which falls on the last Saturday of November, when I just happened to be in town.

Carnival started with a seemingly endless procession of floats — each with a queen chosen from the city’s different neighborhoods — cowboys on horseback, decked-out semi trucks and performers.

Afterward there were dozens of concerts held along the city’s main street — and even more beer, with festivities lasting well into the morning. The following morning I caught (a quite miserable) three-hour bus back to San Salvador. In sum, I would say El Salvador is a beautiful country with incredibly nice people and a complicated history, but it seems to be at a turning point for the better. It has great beaches and hikes, easy-to-navigate public transport and disappointingly average food (rice, beans, meat, pupusas). I always felt safe, in part due to the large military presence. El Salvador might not be for the average tourist, but for those with a sense of adventure, I say go. 

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