Moon El Salvador (Moon Handbooks) - Jaime Jacques (2014)
Discover El Salvador
If wealth were measured in kindness, El Salvador would be the richest country in the world. This tiny place with a big heart is famous for softening even the most hardened cynics, and showing them a damn good time while it’s at it.
Until recently the only people passing through were intrepid backpackers and devout surfers. But it was only a matter of time before the secretive whispers about crystal green lakes, misty cloud forests, and mysterious ruins got out. Throw some of the best surf breaks in the world into the mix and El Salvador’s a hidden gem that’s soon to be discovered.
Volcano hikes, national parks teeming with birds and butterflies, and a rugged Pacific coastline dotted with secluded getaways make this country an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. But by far, El Salvador’s most valuable asset is its people. Hard-working and fast-talking, Salvadorans always have time to help someone in need. The country seems to run on the perfect balance of play and productivity. Perhaps it is the many and varied hardships the people of this land have endured that has taught them that life is too short to be taken too seriously. If you ask a Salvadoran where something is, you may be offered a ride, asked to join a meal, then be offered half the plate. And if somebody invites you over to their home, chances are you will have a forged a friendship for life.
The land of El Salvador is as colorful as the people. The abundance of volcanoes lends it a mythical appeal; flowering trees pepper the landscape with orange, lavender, and fuchsia hues; and the diverse coastline offers huge waves, surreal estuaries, and expansive white-sand beaches. El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, making it possible to take a morning hike in the cool northern mountains, eat fresh seafood on the beach for lunch, and then shimmy the night away at a salsa bar in San Salvador.
Unfortunately, many people exploring Central America opt out of El Salvador, scared off by reports of violence and crime. Yes, gang activity is high, but it’s also localized in terms of where and who is targeted. Incidents involving visitors are extremely rare. The El Salvador you hear about in the news and the El Salvador you are about to discover are two very different places. Leave your preconceptions at the border, expect the unexpected, and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
San Salvador sits in a fertile valley and has a history as eruptive as the volcanoes that surround it. The churches and plazas of the Centro Histórico all have stories of protest and revolution. The museums, restaurants, and bars of Zona Rosa are perfect for an afternoon of art and culture, and day trips to the natural attractions of Parque Nacional El Boquerón or Puerta del Diablo are just a quick drive to the outskirts of the city.
Festival de las Flores y Palmas procession in Panchimalco, near San Salvador
Western El Salvador
Just west of San Salvador, the scenic rolling Ruta de Las Flores takes you through the Sierra Apaneca-Ilamatepec mountain range, punctuated with charming little towns including Juayúa, home of El Salvador’s most popular weekend food fair and Concepción de Ataco, the colorful cobblestone village. Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (Parque Cerro Verde) is where you can climb volcanoes, including Izalco and Santa Ana. Nearby Lago de Coatepeque is one of the largest crater lakes in the country, and the ruins of Tazumal in Chalchuapa are just a short bus ride from El Salvador’s second-largest city, Santa Ana.
The Pacific Coast
With just over 300 kilometers of Pacific coastline, there’s something for everyone on the beaches of El Salvador. The western coast offers several world-class beach breaks for surfers, and the bustling backpacker hub of Playa El Tunco is the perfect base from which to explore them all. Farther west, the remote Barra de Santiago is a peaceful escape with mangroves and bird-watching. The east coast also offers top-notch surfing at Playa Las Flores and Punta Mango, or sunbathing and swimming at Playa Maculis or Playa Esterón. The more adventurous can continue east to the Bajo Lempa region, where the Río Lempa meets the Pacific Ocean. Here, Bahía de Jiquilisco and Isla Montecristo offer community-based ecotourism and opportunities to release baby turtles. Finally, the rugged undeveloped islands in the Golfo de Fonseca offer remote beaches and spectacular views.
Northern and Eastern El Salvador
The first Spanish settlement in El Salvador, Suchitoto still shows its colonial roots, with cobblestone streets and crumbling century-old homes. The nearby ruin of Cihuatán is the largest pre-Hispanic site found in the country, and farther north the whimsical town of La Palma showcases the art of famed artist Fernando Llort. Continue up to the cloud forest of Cerro El Pital, the highest and coolest point in the country. The wild east starts in the major city of San Miguel, its nightclubs and big hotels in sharp contrast to the nearby rural towns of Perquín and El Mozote, where the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña and the El Mozote memorial are stark reminders that not so long ago this country was in the throes of a bloody civil war. The east also offers prehistoric cave art in the Cueva del Espíritu Santo.
When to Go
There are two seasons in El Salvador—the rainy season and the dry season. Rain falls from June to November, and usually during the night. The ideal time to go is right after the rainy season in December-January when things are still lush and green. The best time to go surfing is March to October.
The high season is considered Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter), the month of August (when there are school holidays and San Salvador celebrates its Fiestas Agostinas), and December, when there are extended holidays for Christmas.
Before You Go
Passports, Tourist Cards, and Visas
Travelers to El Salvador must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of entry. A visa is not required to enter El Salvador, but a tourist card, which costs $10, must be purchased upon entry at Aeropuerto Internacional Comalapa or through any of the four land-border entry points. When you buy the tourist card, you will be given a receipt to keep with your passport. You will not be required to pay it again if you exit and reenter El Salvador, as long as you have your receipt and your tourist card remains valid.
Although no immunizations are required to enter El Salvador (aside from yellow fever, if you are arriving directly from a tropical region), visitors should make sure their routine immunizations are up to date. In addition, dengue fever (for which there is no vaccine) has become quite prevalent in the last few years, so it is advised to take extra precaution when it comes to avoiding mosquitoes.
El Salvador has one international airport, Aeropuerto Internacional Comalapa, and a very comprehensive and economical bus system within the country, but riding on old American school buses might not suit everyone’s tastes. Hiring a private taxi to get around is an option but is quite costly. It’s cheaper to rent a car, and El Salvador has an excellent road system.