Western El Salvador - Moon El Salvador (Moon Handbooks) - Jaime Jacques

Moon El Salvador (Moon Handbooks) - Jaime Jacques (2014)

Western El Salvador



Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.

S Siete Cascadas Tour: Hike through coffee plantations and tropical forest as you pass by beautiful waterfalls on this popular Juayúa excursion (click here).

S Weekend Artisanal Market in Concepción de Ataco: Stroll the cobblestone streets of this charming mountain town while tasting local food and exploring the unique art of Ataco’s finest artisans (click here).


S Aguas Termales in Ahuachapán: Give your travel-weary body a rejuvenating soak in these therapeutic thermal waters. These are more than just thermal pools—the diverse expanse of land has many trails, miradors, thermal mud, plus a restaurant and bar. Watch the sun go down with a cool drink in a hot pool (click here).

S Volcán Santa Ana: Hikers are rewarded with amazing views of crater lakes and volcanoes (click here).

S Piedra Sellada: Hike a scenic four-kilometer route to this massive rock etched with ancient Mayan writing and drawings. Around the corner there is an icy river where you can go for a swim, surrounded by flat sun-drenched rocks perfect for relaxing before continuing on through Parque Nacional El Imposible (click here).

A 40-kilometer winding road framed with wild flowers and punctuated by charming towns, Ruta de Las Flores is El Salvador’s perennial favorite. Beginning in Sonsonate and ending in the colonial town of Ahuachapán, the route includes the five towns in between, each with its own distinct appeal.

Coming from Sonsonate, the first stop on Ruta de Las Flores is Nahuizalco, a small town with strong indigenous heritage where the streets are lined with handcrafted baskets and furniture and the only night market in the country serves up traditional Mayan food. Salcoatitán, the tiny town in between Nahuizalco and Juayúa, offers a picturesque parque central full of vendors selling yuca and the famous Salvadoran quesadillas (a dense, sweet cake made with rice flour and cheese).

Just three kilometers down the road, you enter Juayúa, with its traditional charm and modern conveniences. This friendly mountain town is a long-standing backpacker favorite. Surrounded by volcanoes and coffee farms, the hills have beautiful hiking trails teeming with brilliantly colored butterflies, wildflowers, and waterfalls.

Apaneca, the highest town in El Salvador, offers a cool climate to enjoy canopy tours and hiking or cycling to the nearby crater lakes. Finally, Concepción de Ataco is quickly turning into a trendy weekend getaway where the streets come alive with an artisanal market, live music, and an eclectic mix of excellent restaurants.

As you travel between the towns, stunning views of coffee plantations, jade-green volcanoes, and the flowers that have sprung out of their rich volcanic soil make the entire route a visual delight. Cooler temperatures and cute cafés are the trademarks of this area, enticing the masses from congested San Salvador every weekend for leisurely breakfasts or mid-afternoon coffee and dessert in one of the route’s many picturesque gardens. This is the perfect region to exert or indulge yourself; and most people do a little of both.

Nearby Santa Ana is the fourth-largest city in the country and is quickly becoming a popular stopover for travelers; many even use it as a base for exploring the western part of the country. The center is full of beautiful colonial architecture including the famous Catedral de Santa Ana, a striking neo-Gothic-style church that sits in the parque central. Volcano hiking is just a quick day trip away, and the nearby ruins of Tazumal are just a 30-minute bus ride from the center of the city. Farther south, Parque Nacional El Imposible offers extreme hiking with spectacular views of the Pacific coastline and Guatemala, ancient rock art, cool rivers, and dozens of endangered species of plants and animals.



Four to five days is a good amount of time to really enjoy this area. Flowers are in bloom between November and February, making this the best time of the year to visit the region. The best way to explore Ruta de Las Flores is to make Juayúa your base and do day trips from there. It’s a good idea to arrive on Friday, as the towns on the route don’t come alive until the weekend. One day in Juayúa and one day in Ataco make for a great weekend. On Monday there will be nothing going on, so it’s a perfect time to head out on a hike in Juayúa and check out restaurants between Apaneca and Ataco, or end the day in the hot therapeutic Aguas Termales near Ahuachapán. Allow yourself two days to explore Parque Nacional El Imposible.

Buses run frequently from San Salvador to both Ahuachapán and Sonsonate, the main transportation hub for travel around the region. Sonsonate’s large, bustling bus terminal provides transportation to everywhere in Western El Salvador, and also has many comedors inside the terminal serving up tasty, cheap food. From Sonsonate, buses leave daily for Ruta de Las Flores and Cara Sucia (to go to Barra de Santiago or El Parque Imposible). Ruta de Las Flores buses run frequently, however if you are planning on heading to Barra de Santiago or El Parque Imposible, it is necessary to arrive on time for one of the two daily departures. Moving between the towns on Ruta de Las Flores is straightforward, as there are buses that run the length of the route every half an hour from 5am to 6pm daily. These buses leave from the entrances of the towns, or alternatively can be waved down at any point on the route. There is also a bus that travels daily between Juayúa and Santa Ana, passing through Los Naranjos, a misty mountain town with beautiful views and a few roadside cafés. Finally, if you are at one of the western beaches and want to head directly to Ruta de Las Flores, this can easily be done without having to backtrack to San Salvador. Just walk up to the Carretera Litoral (coastal highway), and wait for one of the two daily buses coming from San Salvador to Sonsonate.


The only reason to pass through hot, sticky, and crowded Sonsonate is to catch a bus going somewhere else. Sixty-four kilometers west of San Salvador, Sonsonate’s large bus station is the transportation hub for the region, and chances are you will have to stop here. This is also the largest city before you get to Ruta de Las Flores, and known for its high crime rates, so it’s best to pass through fairly quickly. If you happen to miss a bus and need to spend the night in Sonsonate, there are a couple of safe, comfortable options.


Plaza Hotel (9 Calle Oriente, between 8 Av. and 10 Av. Norte, tel. 2451-6626, hotelplaza_sonsonate@yahoo.com, $30 s, $35 d) is a quick cab ride from the bus station. This feels like an American budget hotel, with long carpeted hallways that lead into clean basic rooms with mini refrigerators, air-conditioning, cable TV, and hot water. There is an indoor bar and a large common area with tile floors and wicker chairs alongside an outdoor pool, which is a bonus in Sonsonate, where the heat can get intense.

Across the street from Plaza Hotel, you will find the excellent comedor La Estancia de la Abuela Café (9 Calle Poniente, in front of Plaza Hotel, tel. 2451-1667, 6:45am-7pm daily, $2-3) serving up delicious home-cooked meals and desserts inside a beautiful colonial home with outdoor seating beside the garden. Main dishes change every day and include options such as cheese crepes, potato lasagna, pizza and grilled meats, and fresh desserts such as tiramisu, cheesecake, and bread pudding.

On the outskirts of town you will find Hotel Agape (Km. 63, Carretera San Salvador, tel. 2429-8759, www.hotelagape.com.sv, $30 s, $35 d), which is part of the larger gated community of Agape, a safe area established and financed by social worker and priest Flavian Mucci. The money you spend here goes toward financing his work with single mothers, youth at risk, and orphans. In fact, one of the largest orphanages in the country can be found at Agape (not seen from the hotel or restaurant but on the same property). The rooms are simple and clean, with air-conditioning, although they lack natural light. The grounds are pretty, with lots of green space, flowers and plants, and a swimming pool. The hotel includes a restaurant that serves tasty Salvadoran food as well as pasta and a good selection of meat, including chorizo, steak, and rabbit. There is also a small supermarket.

The nearby Chicken Steak (Bulevar Las Palmeras and Carretera San Salvador, in front of the Shell Gas Station, tel. 2451-7670, 10am-10pm daily, $7-12) is easy to overlook if you don’t already know that it is one of the best restaurants in town serving, you guessed it, chicken and steak. A small weathered orange sign hangs in front of the restaurant, which is hidden among banks and gas stations on an otherwise uninteresting street. Inside there is a lovely large courtyard with a barbecue slow-cooking whole chicken that is served with homemade chimichurri, fresh salad and fried yuca.


There is a Scotiabank (Carretera San Salvador and Bulevar Las Palmeras, tel. 2451-0161, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.). Around parque central you can find other ATMs, including an HSBC. Also beside the park is the grocery store Dispensa Don Juan. There is a post office (1 Av. Norte between 1 Calle and 3 Calle Poniente), and Internet cafés can be found all around the city center. There is also a Metrocentro mall where you will find ATMs and a supermarket.


From San Salvador, take bus 205 from Terminal de Occidente (Bulevar Venezuela). There are two buses; the directo costs $0.70 and takes about 1.5 hours. This bus leaves the terminal about every five minutes from 4:20am to 8pm daily. The other option is the especial, which is a little faster and usually air conditioned. This one costs $1 and takes 1.25 hours. The especial leaves every 15 minutes from 5:30am to 7pm daily.

To leave Sonsonate, the bus terminal has buses heading to all of Western El Salvador as well as to San Salvador. The bus terminal is located two kilometers east of the city center.


Sonsonate’s parque central is the transportation hub in the city. Buses pass by for all parts of the city. There is also a taxi stand that is always well stocked with drivers. It is recommended to travel in taxis when traveling around at night. To travel from parque central to the bus station, take bus 53C or a taxi. A taxi should cost around $4. Buses leaving Sonsonate for San Salvador leave from a different station, located directly across the street from the entrance of the bus terminal.


Nine kilometers uphill from Sonsonate is the former indigenous capital Nahuizalco, a small, undeveloped town noted for its handmade furniture, handwoven baskets, and long-running night market. Nahuizalco maintains a strong indigenous culture, and this is one of the few places in the country you might still find elderly people wearing traditional clothing or women weaving baskets out of tule, a dried water plant. The central plaza is flanked by a small but informative Pipil museum on one side and the bustling daily market on the other. A few hours would be well spent here exploring the shops full of local handicrafts, including jewelry, handwoven baskets, and wooden furniture, or visiting the churches that date back to colonial times. El Salvador’s only night market is a great way to finish off the day, sampling traditional Mayan food made from scratch. Nahuizalco does not have anything in the way of accommodations, but Hotel Anahúac (1 Calle Poniente and 5 Av. Norte, Juayúa, tel. 2469-2401, hotelanahuac@tikal.dk) in Juayúa offers transportation to and from the night market.


Nahuat-Pipil Community Museum (across from parque central, tel. 7389-5904, 9am-5pm daily, $1) is a small but informative museum outlining the history of indigenous culture in Nahuizalco and the region. The museum includes a fascinating collection of photos taken by a Swiss photographer and anthropologist who chronicled the daily lives of the Pipil people in El Salvador in the 19th century. There are also replicas of artifacts along with handicrafts. The staff is well informed and very helpful, but they do not speak English, and all of the curatorial signs are in Spanish.


The Nahuizalco Night Market (located on the west side of parque central, in front of the alcadía, 5pm-9pm daily) runs every night of the week, but the best time to go is on the weekend, when all the vendors are out. Traditionally the market ran without electricity, and the food stalls were lit by the soft glow of candles only. Today, there are lights, but some vendors still use candles to showcase their food, creating a peaceful community atmosphere. Dishes include traditional Mayan fare such as chicken in pumpkin-seed sauce, rabbit tacos made with freshly ground corn tortillas, tamales, crab, tripe, endless varieties of freshly baked sweet bread, and traditional drinks such as hot chocolate (made with local cacao) and atol (a sweet warm drink made from corn). There is also plenty of comida típica (typical Salvadoran food) for the less adventurous (beans and rice, grilled chicken, and pupusas).

CEDART (Final 3 Av. Norte, tel. 2453-1244, 9am-5pm daily) is a lovely little shop on the same street as the night market, a couple of doors down from the museum and alcadía. Here you will find jewelry, brightly colored wall hangings, baskets, and art, all made by local artists. If you are lucky you may even catch one of the local women weaving together a basket out of tule.


Nahuizalco Tours (contact via the Nahuat-Pipil Community Museum, tel. 7389-5904) offers two-hour walking tours that visit the Nahuizalco market and local artisanal workshops. The tours take around two hours, cost $5, and are available on demand. They also guide hikes to the nearby La Cascada Golonderia, a pristine towering waterfall that rushes through a moss- and fern-covered canyon that leads to a swimming pool. The hike is moderate and takes about two hours. It takes you through coffee fincas and forest, offering views of the surrounding mountains.


Bus 249 runs every 15 minutes from Sonsonate ($0.45) or any other town along La Ruta de Las Flores, and will stop at the entrance to Nahuizalco. It’s about a one-kilometer walk into town, where you are able to explore the town on foot.


Six kilometers north of Nahuizalco is the tiny and often overlooked Salcoatitán, worth a quick visit if only for the excellent Los Patiós restaurant and a stroll around the quiet, picturesque town, with a crumbling colonial church, quiet tree-lined streets with colorful houses, and a large parque central surrounded by vendors selling delicious yuca and sweets.

S Los Patiós (Calle Principal, 2 blocks east of Salcoatitán, tel. 2401-8590, 9am-6pm Sat.-Sun., $6-12) is a must for foodies, serving up gourmet comida típica in a tranquil outdoor setting on two small patios surrounded by a garden and with a great view of the mountains. Only open on weekends, Los Patiós offers a small but excellent menu using lots of fresh local ingredients. Try the ofeteles, the specialty that Salvadorans come here for; it’s a kind of gnocchi, wrapped in savory tenquique mushrooms, indigenous to this area, and served in a cream sauce. The owner of the Los Patiós is also an artist, and there is a small gallery housing her sculpture work next to the restaurant.

Bus 249 runs every 15 minutes, costs $0.45, and stops in Salcoatitán.


High up in the Apaneca Sierra, nestled in a valley surrounded by lush green coffee fincas and a ring of volcanoes, lies Juayúa, or the “River of Purple Orchids” in Nahuatl. Just three kilometers from Salcoatitán, Juayúa is a peaceful, slow town where life takes place on the cobblestone streets. In the thick farms that surround the town, you will find excellent hiking trails that are teeming with waterfalls and brilliant indigo butterflies. There is a large and shady parque central, full of flowers and benches, surrounded by street vendors and flanked by the gorgeous Iglesia Santa Lucia. A small but well-stocked market, a bank, and a diverse selection of restaurants and hostels make this a perfect base for exploring the other towns along the route. Every weekend, Juayúa hosts a long-running food and artisanal festival that creates a vibrant family-friendly mood in and around the town center. During the week, things quiet down, but there is still plenty to do, including hikes, coffee tours, or just taking a few days to recharge at one of Juayua’s charming, homey hostels.


Iglesia Santa Lucia (6am-6pm Wed.-Mon.), also known as Iglesia Cristo Negro, sits on the west side of parque central. The white and red church was built in the neobaroque style in 1956, but the statue of the black Christ predates the church by around 400 years. Made by the same Spanish sculptor who made the black Christ in Esquipulas, Guatemala, this one was carried to El Salvador by a group of Dominican priests who were fleeing a malaria outbreak in Guatemala. According to local legend, they started their journey with the icon in Acajutla, proceeding through various towns before reaching Juayúa, where they found Maya and Pipil fighting over control of the town. The priests liked Juayúa and decided to settle the conflict between the two indigenous groups by usurping power for themselves and attempting to convert them all to Christianity. They placed the Black Christ on an altar in what was the spiritual center of Juayúa for the Pipil people and soon converted the indigenous place of worship into a church. Today, the inside of the church boasts towering columns, a wooden ceiling, and stained glass windows, and the famed black Christ sits at the center of it all, above a marble altar.




There is pretty much one place to go if you are looking for nightlife in Juayúa: El Cadejo Café (Calle Monseñor Romero, tel. 7536-9334 or 7528-6848, 11am-2am Thurs.-Sat., 11am-10pm or later Sun.). This hip little bar is a great spot to enjoy a nightcap and homemade dessert and chat with the locals or other travelers. Co-owners Roca (who will keep the drinks flowing and conversation going) and Alejandro (who serves up one of the best espresso coffees in the country) have created a warm, chic space that will make you feel like you are hanging out with friends (chances are, by the end of the night, you will be). There is free live music most Saturday nights, spanning reggae to jazz to folk.


El Cadejo Café offers the best coffee, cocktails, and conversation along Ruta de Las Flores.


Every New Year between January 6 and 15, thousands of Salvadorans make the pilgrimage to Juayúa to celebrate Festival Cristo Negro. The streets bustle for two weeks with music, food, and general levity.


The Feria Gastronómica (around parque central, 11am-5pm Sat.-Sun.) draws people from all over the country. Food vendors set up stalls on the north side of the parque central, where you will find no shortage of grilled meat and seafood, tamales, traditional soups, refrescos such as Rosa de Jamaica, horchata (a sweet drink made out of sesame, peanuts, and rice), tamarind juice, and a variety of sweets. On the south side of the park you will find artisans selling handcrafted jewelry and souvenirs as well as textiles and clothing imported from Guatemala. There is also lots of cheap trinkets such as earrings and sunglasses. There is much better shopping to be found in El Salvador, but the crowds that the fair draws make it worth a visit, if only to wander around and take in the festive atmosphere.



Hiking tours to Los Chorros de la Calera and Siete Cascadas can be organized through Hotel Anahúac (1 Calle Poniente and 5 Av. Norte, tel. 2469-2401, hotelanahuac@tikal.dk) and Casa Mazeta (1 Calle Poniente 22, tel. 2406-3403, http://casamazeta.com). The walk to Los Chorros de la Calera can also be arranged for free with the local police.

Los Chorros de la Calera

A two-kilometer round-trip walk east from the center of town, Los Chorros de la Calera is a fairly easy hike and takes about two hours. A dirt road takes you past homes and small communities living among coffee farms, and eventually ends up at a descending path that opens up to the beautiful waterfalls bursting out from behind a rock wall and rushing down into an artificial pool, where ferns and moss cover the rock and wildflowers peek out from all corners. This hike can easily be done on your own; just follow Calle Los Chorros all the way to the end. However, if you pay $1 for a guide, you can hike up through the coffee plants instead of along the dirt path, which can get very dusty and present problems for people with any kind of respiratory issue or allergies. Also, there have been reports of robberies along this route in recent months, so if you do decide to go alone, be sure to leave any valuables (including your camera) at your hotel.

S Siete Cascadas Tour

The Siete Cascadas Tour is one of the best hikes in the country. It’s a challenging eight-kilometer round-trip hike through lush forest and coffee fincas, interspersed with waterfalls of varying heights; you can free rappel down a waterfall and enjoy lunch with a spectacular view. This hike also includes an invigorating swim at the end in Los Chorros de la Calera. You have to hire a guide to do this hike; the cost is $20 and it takes about four hours.


A hiker free rappels down a waterfall on the Siete Cascadas hike in Juayúa.

Portezuelo Park

About seven kilometers north of Juayúa is the beautiful Portezuelo Park (tel. 2245-2614, www.akwaterra.com, 8am-6pm daily, $3), a private park on a coffee farm. Guided hikes around the farm are available, as is horseback riding and bike tours. Hikes in the park range 1-3 hours and cost $7-10. You can also hike from the park to Apaneca through coffee farms, where you will have views of the volcanoes and towns below; this takes 2.5 hours and costs $7.50. Horseback riding tours take 1-3 hours and cost $20-35, depending on the route and duration. The tours go on different paths up the hills around Juayúa. Bike tours are $25 per hour, and the route is determined according to your ability.

There are also beautiful tents ($35 d) and cabins ($65 d) if you want to sleep on the farm. The tents are large and have real beds inside, with a shared outdoor washroom with hot water. The cabins are spacious, with huge beds, lots of sunlight, and large colorful murals on the walls. They include a common area with hammocks and fireplaces. There is an on-site restaurant that prepares food if ordered in advance. You must make reservations in advance if you want to stay, eat, or do any of the activities on the farm, and often during the week there is no one managing things at the farm, so it is best to plan well ahead.

Coffee Tour

A visit to western El Salvador is not complete without deepening your understanding of how the golden grain becomes a cup coffee. Local coffee grower and aficionado Cesar Magaña Arevelo of Hotel Anahúac (1 Calle Poniente and 5 Av. Norte, tel. 2469-2401, hotelanahuac@tikal.dk) takes you to La Majada Coffee Cooperative, where he will guide you through the entire process, passionately explaining what makes a cup of coffee great as opposed to just keeping you awake. Join in on taste testing, learn about the history of the “coffee republic,” and finally understand the difference among dark, medium, and light roast varieties. Finish off with a cup of intensely aromatic freshly roasted coffee. The tour of the facility takes around 2 hours and costs $10 pp; you must pay the day before, and there is a minimum of two people required. If you are in Juayúa already, go to Hotel Anahúac to pay, or you can pay via phone using a credit card.


beans at a coffee cooperative near Juayúa


Under $10

A long-standing favorite for travelers of all stripes, Hotel Anahúac (1 Calle Poniente and 5 Av. Norte, tel. 2469-2401, www.hotelanahuac.com, $9 pp dorm, $17 s, $25 d private room) has an artsy, boutique hotel feel to it. Dormitories and private rooms have walls adorned with local art, fans (though you will not need them), and showers with wonderfully hot water. They all surround a peaceful garden with inviting hammocks, visiting birds, and colorful flowers. There is a very small kitchen for use, and a few tables located around the garden where guests can enjoy the highly recommended Anahúac breakfast ($3-5). Be sure to try the aromatic export-quality coffee straight from the family farm, guaranteed to kick-start any weary traveler before heading out on one of Anahúac’s very professionally run tours.

Three blocks east of Hotel Anahúac on 1A Calle Poniente, another backpacker-friendly hostel, Casa Mazeta (1A Calle Poniente 22, tel. 2406-3403, www.casamazeta.com, $9 pp dorm, $17 s, $25 d), strikes a great balance between feeling spacious and cozy, with a large common area that includes the comforts of home such as a TV, a well-stocked DVD collection, a big kitchen, and a seemingly bottomless pot of coffee brewing. The rooms are also large, with fans and plenty of storage space for backpacks and gear. A beautiful garden with hammocks, sitting areas, and sculptures makes for a lovely place to while away an afternoon (or a few) trying to decide where to go next. There is also a charming private room hidden away in the back of the garden. The very friendly bilingual owner, Darren Clarke, is extremely helpful and always ready to answer questions or even show travelers around town.

About a 15-minute walk up the hill north from the center of town, Hotel Juayúa (at the end of 6 Av. Norte, Barrio La Esmeralda, tel. 2469-2109, www.hoteljuayua.com, $35 d shared cabin, $50 d suite) is a quiet, offbeat option with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, a small swimming pool, and a large open lawn and garden, creating lots of green space. There are only three rooms, two of which share an old cabin, one room on top (opening up to an incredible view of the seven surrounding volcanoes) and the other below. They have funky wooden art and private baths with hot water. If you stay in the shared cabin, be aware that you will hear your neighbors through the thin, rickety wooden ceiling/floor. The bigger, more expensive suite is a hidden gem, located in its own house beside the other rooms, with a large open-concept space decorated with Asian rugs, Salvadoran art, wicker and wood from Nahuizalco, and big windows opening up to the unrivaled view outside. There is Wi-Fi, and all the rooms have fans. The owner, Alfredo, is a friendly guy and offers informal tours around the area. The prices for the rooms are negotiable.


Five rooms are hidden inside the lovely hostel Casa de Huespedes Doña Mercedes (2 Av. Sur and 6 Calle Oriente, tel. 2452-2287, $10 pp dorm, $20 d), conveniently located across the street from the most popular pupusería in town and around the corner from the best bar. Pink walls, fake flowers, and comfy couches will make you feel like you are visiting a grandmother’s house (in a good way). Spotless and peaceful, the common area also includes a sunny little courtyard with ferns, geraniums, aloe plants, and more. The rooms have lots of windows, TVs with cable, fans, hot water, and for an additional fee, Wi-Fi. There is a small kitchen that guests can use and very affordable laundry service ($2.50 per load).

Clean and quiet El Coyote (8 Av. Sur 1-5, tel. 2407-5493, $15 d) offers basic rooms with ceiling fans that are sparsely decorated with dressers, wall mirrors, and well-worn mattresses. Three simple rooms with one shared bath are located in the back of single mom Sonia’s home. The rooms all face the backyard of the house, where there is a couch to lounge in and lots of plants. It might be a good option for two people looking for a cheap private room.

Aside from its proximity to the bus stop and its lovely rooftop view of the mountains, there is no other reason to stay at El Mirador (4 Calle Poniente 4-4, tel. 2452-2432, $20-50). The hotel houses 40 mostly windowless rooms with fans that have all seen much better days. Stained walls and old bedspreads betray the hotel’s age, and a lack of light creates a bit of a depressing vibe. El Mirador is the first hotel you will see walking north from where the buses stop, so if you arrive after dark and are exhausted, it might be an easy option for one night.

The friendly family-run Hotel Posada El Encanto (road toward San José de la Majada, tel. 2452-2187, info@hotelelencanto.com, $30-50) is a bit off the beaten track, on the road that leaves Juayúa toward Santa Ana. It offers lovely new rooms with TVs, hot water, fans, lots of natural light, pretty tiling on the floors and walls, and fantastic views of the surrounding mountains. It might be better suited to traveling families, however, as the unofficial curfew (they lock the doors at 9pm) coupled with the street noise make for early nights and mornings. The place is clean and comfortable; with a small dining area and a garden. A modest breakfast is included in the rates. There is also a swimming pool across the street that guests can use.


Vision Inn and Suites (9 Av. Norte, Calle Merceditas Cáceres Poniente and 1 Calle Poniente, Barrio San José, tel. 2469-2968 or 2469-2969, vision.inn.and.suites@gmail.com, $85 s, $110 d) is the nicest hotel in Juayúa, though it might be hard to tell from the uninspired facade. Sitting on the western edge of town, this glaringly white, utilitarian-looking building could easily be overlooked as something other than a higher-end hotel. Like many of the more expensive hotels in El Salvador, it has a cavernous feel, with lots of big, characterless rooms intended for events such as conferences and a small windowless dance bar in the basement; however, the rooms make up for the otherwise bland space. They are big, bright, and modern with sleek, minimalist design and sliding glass doors that open to individual terraces with unrivaled views of the volcanoes that surround Juayúa. The rooms have air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, jetted bathtubs, flat-screen TVs, and room service.


Serving up delicious salads, soups, and sandwiches alongside signature cocktails and artisanal beers, S El Cadejo Café (Calle Monseñor Romero, tel. 7536-9334 or 7528-6848, 11am-2am Thurs.-Sat., 11am-10pm or later Sun., $6-12) is the perfect way to end a day in Juayúa. Life-size portrait photographs, planters made of recycled plastic with greenery and lights peeking out of them, and a small but lovely open-air space full of plants make this the most atmospheric place in town. The menu has several vegetarian and vegan options, including homemade pasta, excellent sandwiches, fabulous organic coffee, and sublime key lime pie.

The Canadian-trained chef serves savory seasonal food at the popular R & R (Calle Merceditas Cáceres 1-2, tel. 2452-2083, 10:30am-9pm daily, $5-10), where an intimate space is enhanced with plants, flowers, colorful murals of local scenery on the walls, and candlelit dinners. Cooking with fresh local ingredients means that there may be variation in the same plate on subsequent visits, but most people don’t seem to mind. The steaks are excellent (there is even one with coffee-infused salsa), as is the vegetarian lasagna. All entrées are served with a small salad.

Taqueria Guadalupana (Calle Merceditas Cáceres and Av. Daniel Cordón, tel. 2452-2195, 10:30am-9:30pm Tues.-Sun., $2-5) is hard to miss. Most nights there is loud music blaring, colorful streamers hanging from the ceiling, and a crowd of hungry locals. Tortilla soups, burritos, and tacos are the mainstays here, and although the food is not outstanding, it’s the only place you will find Mexican on La Ruta de Las Flores; it’s good for fast, cheap fare.

The tiny Mario Comedor (Calle Merceditas Cáceres, beside ANDA office, just west of Superselectos, tel. 2469-2990, 7am-9am and 11:30am-2pm daily, $1-3) will not disappoint if you are looking for cheap comida típica. This local favorite serves up excellent comida a la vista for breakfast and lunch at rock bottom prices. The comedor does not have a sign and is hidden behind a peeling red and white wall beside the ANDA office. Inside, a few wooden tables and a tiny kitchen make up the no-frills restaurant. Typical plates include pollo encebollado, sopa de res, and grilled meat. All dishes come with a healthy portion of salad, rice, and tortillas.

The most popular pupusería in town, Pupusería Doña Cony (2 Av. Sur and 6 Calle Oriente, tel. 2452-2931, 4pm-10pm daily, $1-4) is busy every night. This no-frills pupusería has bright lights, a TV in the corner, and tables with colorful tablecloths. You will find the very best traditional fare, refrescos, coffee, and hot chocolate.

Taking a modern twist on the pupusa, Pupusería Esmeralda (La Urbanización Esmeralda, tel. 2452-2931, 5pm-10pm daily, $1-4) is a cute little gem, with light purple and yellow brick walls and cafeteria-style tables both inside and outside. You will find giant pupusas with more adventurous fillings such as ayote (a kind of squash) and spinach.


There is a Scotiabank at the entrance of town with one of the few ATMs where you can often take out more than the usual $200 limit. There is a tourist office (1 Av. and 2 Calle, turismo@alcaldiadejuayua.gob.sv, 8am-5pm Tues.-Sun.) on the east side of parque central with English-speaking staff on weekends only. Internet cafés, pharmacies, and a supermarket can all be found on the main street, Calle Merceditas Cáceres.


From the Sonsonate bus terminal, or from any other town along La Ruta de Las Flores, bus 249 costs $0.45, runs every 15 minutes, and stops in Juayúa. There are daily buses that leave Santa Ana and go directly to Juayúa; bus 238 leaves from Santa Ana’s main terminal daily at 6:45am, 9:50am, 12:30pm, 2:30pm, 4pm, and 5:35pm. It takes one hour and costs $0.80.


Ten kilometers west of Juayúa is Apaneca, home to Laguna Verde and its sister lake, Laguna de Las Ninfas. There are various options for visiting the lagunas, including walking, cycling, or driving an all-terrain buggy.

Laguna Verde, so named because of the emerald-green hue of the water (not to mention the blanket of cypress trees that surrounds it), is the bigger of the two and has more activity around it; it’s a nice spot to stop and enjoy some pupusas or chat with the locals as you admire the lake. Laguna de Las Ninfas is smaller and less frequented by tourists, but the views of volcanoes and coffee farms and fresh, clean air on the way up make it worth a visit. It’s an incredibly peaceful place; once there, the only sounds you will hear are the birds above and the lake grass swaying in the breeze below.

The actual town of Apaneca is very mellow, with a slow and quiet parque central where vendors set up tables with sweets, handcrafted jewelry, and coffee on the weekends. The highest town in the country, Apaneca is appreciated for its cool, gentle breezes and sunshine.


Laguna de Las Ninfas and Laguna Verde


It is possible to hike to both lagunas. Both hikes take around two hours and are not very difficult. The walk to Laguna de Las Ninfas is a four-kilometer round-trip and follows a dirt path with great expansive views of volcanoes and coffee plantations. The walk to Laguna Verde is a five-kilometer round-trip on the road, so expect to have cars passing by occasionally. Along the way you will walk past the small communities along the road to the laguna, making it an interesting walk, but it is the less scenic of the two hikes. Guides for these hikes can be provided for $5 pp by the alcadía, which is located just west of parque central. It is possible to do the hikes on your own; the trailheads can be found opposite the entrance to Apaneca, where you will see signs.


There is also the option of biking to the lakes. The route to Laguna de Las Ninfas is very difficult—a steady incline up the rocky dirt path. The route to Laguna Verde is a little easier because of the paved road, but it is still quite an intense incline. Both routes take about three hours and can be arranged by Hostal Il Piamonte (2 Av. Sur, 4, Barrio San Pedro, tel. 7739-5830) or Akwaterra Tours (tel. 2265-1111, www.akwaterra.com). Prices depend on the tour. A new local company called Bici Tours Providencia Divina Apaneca (ask at the tourist kiosk at parque central, tel. 7656-2182, ulicesperez@hotmail.com) offers guided bicycle tours to Laguna Verde for $5 or bicycle tours of Apaneca for $3. They also offer cycling on more difficult trails through the surrounding villages for $30.

All-Terrain Buggy Rides

The final and most fun option is to join an all-terrain buggy tour with Apaneca Aventura Buggy Tours (Calle Los Platanares, on the corner across from the municipal court, tel. 2614-7034, 9am, 11:30am, and 2:30pm Mon.-Sat., $50 pp, $70 for 2 people), which will take you to both lakes, stopping along the way to enjoy the views. This tour takes about two hours. It is also possible to drive to the thermal waters in Ahuachapán. The total trip takes six hours and costs $115 for two people, which includes entrance to the thermal waters.


With Apaneca Canopy Tour (Av. 15 de Abril and Calle Central, tel. 2433-0554, www.elsalvador.canopy.com, 9:30am, 11:30am, and 3pm Mon.-Sat., $30 pp), you’ll spend two hours soaring over coffee plantations and lush vegetation on cables of 12 varying heights. It’s a great way to see the flora and fauna of the region—possibly even eagles and toucans.


Owner Massimo Tinetti of Hostal Il Piamonte (2 Av. Sur 4, San Pedro, tel. 7739-5830) offers the only hiking or cycling tours with an English- and Italian-speaking guide to the lakes. Tours take about three hours and cost $5-10 pp. He also provides transportation to the nearby Cascada de Don Juan ($7 pp) and Aguas Termales de Santa Teresa (minimum group size 7 people, $15 pp) near Ahuachapán.


A life-size Darth Vader will greet you at the door of Hotel Il Piamonte (2 Av. Sur 4, tel. 7739-5830, $8 pp dorm, $15 private room), where the Italian owner offers the best budget rooms in Apaneca in tandem with a small but well-stocked action-figure museum. The hostel is the owner’s home, and as a result it has a very cozy feel. Thankfully the action-figure theme does not continue inside the guest rooms, which are very clean, quiet, and infused with natural light. Rooms have fans and private baths. There is a very small restaurant ($4-8) in the hostel serving up Italian food on the weekends, and owner Massimo is available for tours in and around Apaneca.

Tucked away in the backyard of the owner’s home, Hostal Rural Las Orquideas (Av. Central Sur 4, tel. 2433-0061, $15 pp) has very basic small rooms with private baths, hot water, and fans. The rooms share a patio with hammocks that face the small orchid garden. Breakfast is available for $2.50.

The quaint and colorful Hostal Colonial (1 Av. Sur and 6 Calle Poniente, tel. 2433-0662 or 7948-9277, hostalcolonial_apaneca@gmail.com, $30 d) is a favorite among locals. It offers nine private rooms that all face a lovely garden. The rooms have colorful murals painted on the walls, cable TV, fans, and small windows to let the light in.

The newest hostel in Apaneca is Solvang (Av. 15 de Abril, tel. 7025-5862, $40 d with 2 beds). On a corner in the center of town, this brand-new house has a modern large kitchen that is sleekly designed with brand-new appliances, a big common area with couches, chairs, and a dining table, and a small terrace that looks out over the cobblestone street. Private rooms with fans, shared baths, and hot water are also clean and new with white tile floors and big windows.

Las Cabañas de Apaneca (Km. 90.5, Carretera Sonsonate, tel. 2433-0500 or 2433-0400, info@cabanasapaneca.com, $30 s, $41 d, breakfast included) offer cabañas set in a lovely large garden with brightly colored mosaic sculptures and secret stone pathways. Some of the rooms are dark and uninspired, but some are beautiful and bright, with windows facing the green scenery outside, so if you decide to stay here, ask to be shown a few different rooms before choosing. All have private baths with hot water, fans, and Wi-Fi.

The most beautiful rooms along La Ruta de Las Flores are at Santa Leticia (Km. 86.5, Carretera Ataco-Apaneca, tel. 2433-0351 or 2433-0357, www.hotelsantaleticia.com, $68 d). Just east of Apaneca on the left side, a dirt road takes you down to this sprawling property, where tucked away in the back you will find wooden cabañas, painted muted yellow and green with stained glass windows, fans, and handmade furniture. They are set around a charming courtyard, which is quiet and far removed from the traffic of the main road. Each has a hammock and its own little sitting area, and there is a lovely swimming pool with solar heating. The restaurant has very good Salvadoran food as well as comforting cheese lasagna. There is also a $5 tour that will take you to see some Mayan ruins that were recently discovered in the area.


There are not many options for food in Apaneca. On the north side of parque central there are comedors that serve excellent cheap comida típica, coffee, and hot chocolate (7am-7pm daily, $2-4). Las Cabañas Apaneca (Km. 91, Carretera Sonsonate, tel. 2433-0400, info@cabanasapaneca.com, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 7am-7pm Sat.-Sun., $5-12) has good Salvadoran food and is open during the week.

If you are looking for something special on the weekend, Café Café Apaneca (Av. 15 de Abril Norte and Calle Francisco Menéndez, in front of the Casa de Cultura, tel. 2263-2413, rcuadra@cafecafe.com.sv, 11:30am-10pm Sat., 11:30am-4:30pm Sun., $10-20) is the only higher-end restaurant in Apaneca. The Peruvian-trained chef Richard Siwady de Cuadra serves stylish meals that focus on seafood and meat, with a Peruvian twist. This large space has a barnlike feel, with high ceilings and wooden rafters, and tables scattered throughout the room. This is a great place to enjoy a quality meal after a day of hiking, zip-lining, or buggy tours, and then cozy up at the big wooden bar with a tumbler of cognac. Try the gratinado de mariscos—fresh shrimp and fish au gratin, smothered in cheese and baked to perfection.


From Sonsonate, Ahuachapán, or anywhere along La Ruta de Las Flores, bus 249 runs every 15 minutes and stops in Apaneca.


On the stretch between Apaneca and Ataco, you will find some of the most popular restaurants and nicest hotels in the area.

Set far back above the main road on a large expanse of land, Finca Los Andes (Km. 92.5, Carretera Ataco-Apaneca, tel. 2433-0429 or 7736-8923, $30 d) offers secluded small cabins surrounded by the finca’s coffee plants and flower gardens. The cabañas are simple but attractive, with local handcrafted furniture, fans, hot water, and front porches. There is no restaurant, but each cabaña has its own barbecue, and wood is provided.

S Jardín de Celeste (Km. 94, Carretera Ataco-Apaneca, tel. 2433-0281, www.eljardindeceleste.com, 6am-6pm daily, $6-14) is certainly the most ethereal place to enjoy an excellent meal or divine dessert. The restaurant is located just off of the main road, in the middle of a shady garden with sculptures, flowers, and chirping birds. The menu boasts high-quality Salvadoran food as well as excellent salads, soups, and pasta dishes. Owner Jill Lacina makes all of her signature desserts, such as coconut flan and tiramisu, from scratch with fresh ingredients, and you can taste the difference. Try the delicious hot pineapple tea, a welcome change from the ubiquitous Ruta coffee. You can even linger all evening and spend the night in one of the charming cabins nestled in the greenery behind the restaurant ($30 pp).

Just a little farther east down the road you will find Las Flores de Eloísa (Km. 94, Carretera Sonsonate, tel. 2433-0281, www.eljardindeceleste.com, 6am-6pm daily, $3-6), owned by the same family and very similar to Jardín de Celeste but smaller and more casual. The menu has the same delicious desserts but less formal mains such as soups and excellent sandwiches made with quality cheese in a sandwich maker; the cheese and asparagus sandwich is especially popular. There are also cabañas ($27-40 d) where you can sleep.

Continue east from Las Flores de Eloísa and you will find the quirky Entre Nubes (Km. 94, Carretera Ataco-Apaneca, tel. 7922-8592, cafeentrenubes@gmail.com, 9am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-6:30pm Sat.-Sun., $4-8), where owner Jorge García has also created an interesting place to stop and relax for a while. The ground is covered in sawdust, making a soft floor to wander around and soak in the atmosphere. A large garden with walking paths sits behind the restaurant, and handwritten jokes hanging all over the place will keep you happily distracted if you are dining alone. The food is significantly cheaper than at Jardín de Celeste and also very good, focusing on Salvadoran dishes as well as pizzas, soups, and salads. Jorge will happily fix you up with a bottomless cup of coffee, and the homemade desserts are not to be missed, especially the amazingly fresh and irresistible chocolate cake. Try the horchata here; it is maybe the best you will find in the country.

Finally, Alicante Montaña Hotel (Km. 93.5, Carretera Sonsonate, tel. 2433-0175 or 2433-0572, www.alicanteapaneca.com, $71 d, $150 cabaña, includes breakfast) is a good option for large groups or families. It’s located on beautiful sprawling grounds that include a swimming pool, a small gym with a massage room and excellent sauna, and an enclosed collection of rare imported animals that may delight or disturb you, depending on how you see things. Wooden cabañas with room for four people have TVs, hot water, fans, and fireplaces. There are also smaller rooms available with two beds, fans, and no fireplace. There is a massive restaurant that serves comida típica, popular with locals for events such as weddings and parties.

If you want to visit any of these places, you can hop on bus 249, which runs every 15 minutes, and just advise the bus driver, who will let you off wherever you like.

Concepción de Ataco

Cobblestone streets, creative cuisine, and colorful murals make this cool little town a hot spot on the route. Just eight kilometers west of Apaneca, Ataco is known for its restaurants and cafés, and it has an excellent weekend artisanal market with unique local arts and crafts. Brightly painted murals adorn the walls of the town’s buildings, and arts and crafts can be found in shops on every corner. There is a friendly community vibe here. It’s a really fun spot to spend the weekend wandering in and out of art shops, cafés, and restaurants. The weekend market is smaller than the one in Juayúa but offers more exotic fare, such as grilled iguana and lizard, and local treats such as wild honey and sweet bread. On Friday and Saturday evenings, street lamps light up the town, and the sounds of live music float out of the restaurants and bars.

Recently, some artifacts have been found in and around Ataco, including vestiges of pre-Hispanic ceramics as well as stone sculptures such as jaguar heads; it is an exciting time of discovery, and the archaeological potential of Ataco continues to grow. Unfortunately, none of these discoveries are officially on display. However, they are kept in the office of the alcaldía right beside parque central, and if it is open, you can ask to have a look.



The Weekend Artisanal Market (around parque central, 11am-8pm Sat.-Sun.) in Ataco is not to be missed. This small market has live music, artisans, and samplings of local food and culture. You can try grilled iguana or lizard, check out the uniquely Salvadoran crafts such as clothing dyed with indigo and jewelry made from local stones and shells, or check out local art in one of the galleries across from the park.


Diconte and Axul (parque central, with the murals out front, tel. 2633-5030, 9am-6pm daily) was the first established artisanal shop in Ataco, and it remains the best. If there is one place to do your shopping in town, this is it. The house dates to 1910 and sells high-quality handicrafts from all corners of the country. The outside of the building is covered in murals of cats, the favorite artistic subject in Ataco, and inside, the five-room shop presents a rainbow of vibrant color, including art, woodwork, textiles, pottery, and clothing. In the back you will find men weaving tapestries on traditional looms, and also a little café in the shade serving desserts and coffee.

Tingere Teñidos Naturales (in front of parque central, local 5, tel. 2450-5760, info@tingere.com, 10am-6pm Wed.-Thurs. and Sun., 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat.) is a lovely little boutique shop that sells wall hangings, purses, clothing, and more all made with natural fibers and dyes. Owners Grazzia and Sandra have been making natural dyes for the last eight years, using local plants such as avocadoes, rosemary, coconut, and indigo, and are proud to sell eco-friendly products that are beautiful and 100 percent natural.



About a 15-minute walk up through coffee fincas is Mirador de La Cruz, with a massive white cross, that looks out over the town of Ataco. This is an easy hike, and possible to do on your own; just turn left at the bottom of Calle Los Naranjitos, beside Iglesia Calvario, and follow the path.

Coffee Farm Tours

Quinta El Carmen, which is located just outside the entrance to Ataco (Km. 97, Carretera Ahuachapán, tel. 2298-4188 or 2450-5146, www.elcarmenestate.com) is a beautiful coffee farm that was established by the Morán family in 1930. The family-run business continues to produce one of the most popular coffees in the country, called Café Ataco, and also offers coffee tours that guide you through the farm, explaining the entire process from bean to brew. Tours cost $5 and take 1.5 hours.



There are two main places to go for live music and general levity. El Arky Café (2 Calle Oriente, beside La Placita, tel. 7551-2681, elarky_ataco@hotmail.com, 5pm-2am Fri.-Sat.) has live rock music every Saturday night (no cover). At Portland Bar and Grill (2 Calle Central and 1 Av. Sur 1, tel. 2450-5798, noon-10pm Fri., noon-11pm Sat., 9am-3pm Sun.), live bands play every weekend, and there is no cover.


Ataco celebrates one of the most beautiful festivals in El Salvador. Los Farolitos is a festival of lights that celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary. Every September 7, as soon as night falls, hundreds of people take to the streets carrying pretty lanterns in a parade of light. There is also lots of music, food, and revelry later in the evening.



By far the best budget choice in Ataco is Segen Hotel (3 Calle Ataco, one block behind parque central, tel. 2405-0832, Sun.-Fri. $10 dorm, Sat. $15 dorm, $30 private room any night). Segen offers dormitories as well as simple private rooms with TVs, hot water, fans, and Wi-Fi. There is a small common space with a little bar and tables, but no areas to relax outside the rooms. The rooms all face a cute little courtyard with a fountain and some green space with flowers. Very helpful owner Eduardo speaks English, and if he is around, he can advise you on what to do around the area. He is also able to organize tours in and around Ataco.

The only other budget hotel is Meson de San Fernando (1 Calle Poniente 14, tel. 7871-2126, $10 dorm, $20 d). The rooms are clean, though a little dark and damp, and don’t have fans, air-conditioning, or hot water; they’re set along a garden with a sitting area to eat and a small playground for little ones. Fernando and his wife prepare comida típica ($3-5), but there is not a proper restaurant per se.


The lovely Villa Santo Domingo (Calle Central Poniente Francisco Lorca, tel. 2450-5442, $30 d) has 12 rooms that surround a quiet, pretty garden. High ceilings, stone floors, exposed brick walls, and pretty tiled sinks in the baths give the rooms a boutique look. All of the rooms face a courtyard with lots of plants hanging around the periphery and a few tables where breakfast can be provided for the additional cost of $2.50. The rooms have TVs, hot water, fans, and Wi-Fi.

Hostal El Portal (Calle Principal, beside the church, no phone, $30 private room) has three big, bright, very well maintained rooms that sit beside a peaceful garden. The rooms have excellent hot water, fans, comfortable beds and local handcrafted furniture adds a decorative touch.

Raíces Hostal (Av. Central and 6 Calle Poniente 1, tel. 2512-4331, www.raicesataco.com, $25 s, $30 d) is a new hostel, with clean, basic rooms, TVs with cable, fans, private baths, and hot water. There is no common space or restaurant in the hostel.

The staff is a bit aloof at El Balcón de Ataco (8 Calle Oriente, a.k.a. Calle “El Naranjito,” tel. 2450-5171, $35 s, $65 d) but the views are unrivaled. It’s a bit of a hike (about 15 minutes) up the hill on the south end of town to get here, making it a perfect place to stay to get away from it all. There are beautiful, simple rooms with private baths and hot water, fans, pretty tile floors, and huge windows that let in the light and provide a fantastic view of the town below. There is no Wi-Fi and no restaurant.


El Pueblito de Don Luis (10 Av. Norte and 1 Calle Oriente, tel. 2450-5904, www.hotelpueblito.com, $85 for 2 double beds, includes breakfast) is the nicest place to stay in Ataco. Tucked away in a very quiet corner of town, enclosed by a tall wraparound adobe wall, you will find cute light-orange, yellow, and green houses nestled behind a beautiful garden bursting with plants and colorful flowers. Each large house has about four rooms located on the first floor. The rooms are big, with windows that let the sunshine flow in, multicolored locally made bedspreads, TVs, air-conditioning, hot water, and Wi-Fi. Each room has its own little space on the terrace with wooden rocking chairs to kick back and relax in.


The tiny little KaféKali (next door to the alcadía on the west side of parque central, tel. 2100-2234, 7am-5pm daily, $3-6) is a great place to sit on the weekend and watch the festivities in the park. You will find tasty comida típica, crepes, desserts, coffee, and hot chocolate. Plus, this is the only place in Ataco that is open from 7am during the week, serving up budget breakfasts and fresh coffee.

Café El Carburo (5 Calle Poniente, in front of parque central, near Iglesia Ave María, tel. 7412-4576 or 2406-8370, cafecarburoataco@gmail.com, noon-10:30pm Thurs.-Sun., $4-10) is a small, rustic space serving up fantastic food from a constantly rotating menu created by inspired chef Christian Hess. Expect international fare with Salvadoran twists using fresh, local food. Some of his favorite dishes include rabbit stewed in a white wine and thyme cream sauce served with roasted potatoes and vegetables or roasted chicken over mashed herb polenta. The menu is always changing, so you never know what you may get, but you can be sure it will be delicious.

A good place to escape the barrage of crafts and commotion is The House of Coffee (Av. Centro Sur 13, tel. 2450-5353, 11am-5:30pm Mon.-Thurs., 11am-8pm Fri., 11am-9pm Sat., 8am-9pm Sun., $4-8), a modern café with espresso machines, comfy leather chairs and couches, wooden tables alongside a rack of magazines, and a lovely open-air space where you can sit and enjoy not only coffee and dessert but casual meals such as salads and sandwiches.

As the name suggests, Portland Bar and Grill (2 Calle Central and 1 Av. Sur 1, tel. 2450-5798, noon-10pm Fri., noon-11pm Sat., 9am-3pm Sun., $4-10) is an American-style pub, known more for its nightlife than its food, but it does serve decent pub fare such as chicken wings, nachos, and burgers and fries. True to Yankee culture, there is a long well-stocked bar with amiable bartenders happy to keep you topped up and entertained with casual conversation. There are also two flat-screen TVs, making it a popular spot for those looking to enjoy a cold beer and catch a sporting event on cable.

The excellent S Piccolo Giardino Ristorante & Taverna (1 Calle Poniente and 5 Av. Norte, tel. 7600-2986, noon-10pm Thurs.-Sun., $6-12) is especially pretty for dinner, where a torch-lit path will guide you to this hidden gem, an outdoor restaurant beside a garden infused with the scent of orchids. You will find savory thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-burning pizza oven as well as homemade pasta, calzones, and grilled meat, freshly ground hot chocolate, and generously poured glasses of wine.

The perfect mix of modern and rustic, the trendy S Tayúa (2 Av. Norte and 5 Calle Oriente, tel. 2450-5755, tayuacafe@gmail.com, noon-11pm Fri.-Sat., noon-6pm Sun., $8-15) offers thin-crust artisanal pizzas, salads made with organic greens direct from the restaurant’s garden, and delicious sandwiches made with homemade bread and imported cheese, all against the backdrop of a beautiful breezy space with cozy nooks to kick back and lounge in. Tayúa really comes to life on Friday and Saturday nights when many people from around La Ruta come to enjoy the relaxed vibe and excellent food. Antique furniture, candlelit tables, and large wooden windows that open up to the cobblestone street create a space unlike any other in town. Young, hip owners Louis and Veronica set a welcoming vibe by personally greeting customers and chatting with the regulars.

La Raclette (5 Calle Poniente and 2 Av. Norte, tel. 2450-5836, 10am-9pm daily, $7-15) serves tasty cheese fondue as well as sandwiches and pastas accentuated with imported gouda and blue cheese. Pricier items such as grilled meats and seafood options are also available. Most of the tables are outside on the terrace that overlooks parque central, making it a great spot to visit for a meal or even just a drink on the weekend.

El Brasero (Av. Central, across from La Placita, tel. 2415-9985, 11am-8pm Wed.-Fri. and Sun., 11am-10pm Sat., $10-15) serves Chilean inspired dishes that focus on asado (barbecued meat). There are a couple of tables on the main floor, but you will find a much nicer atmosphere upstairs, where there is a small terrace overlooking Avenida Central. The food is excellent and includes steak, chicken, pork, and seafood (served with baked potatoes, fresh salad, or grilled vegetables) as well as vegetarian options such as a lovely vegetable gratin. Choose from a selection of Chilean wines as well as fresh fruit juices and smoothies. As an added bonus, the staff are very friendly and attentive, and the headwaiter speaks English.

Casa Guimerá (2 Av. Sur, near Iglesia Calvario, tel. 2406-6312, noon-3pm and 6pm-9pm daily, $10-20) is a small, intimate space with dark wood tables, decorative antiques, and a lovely hidden terrace out back. This Spanish restaurant serves excellent grilled meats, pastas, and wine, making it the perfect place for a special occasion or a date.


The main street has a Scotiabank ATM, various pharmacies, a couple of Internet cafés, and a post office. This is also where you will find the central market.


Bus 249 runs every 15 minutes and stops at the entrance of Ataco and goes north to Ahuachapán ($0.35, 15 minutes) and south to Apaneca ($0.25, 10 minutes), Juayúa ($0.45, 30 minutes), and Sonsonate ($0.80, one hour).


The last town on Ruta de Las Flores, Ahuachapán is 11 kilometers north of Ataco. This pretty colonial town sits on the edge of the country, just minutes from the Guatemalan border. There is not much to do in town, other than wander and enjoy the large, shady parque central (with public Wi-Fi) and the pretty whitewashed church that sits right beside Plaza Concordia, a lovely pedestrian area.

Three kilometers outside town on the way to Apaneca, there are active hot springs that drive the city’s electric power plant, which provides a portion of the country’s electricity. It is not possible to visit the plant, but these same hot springs create one of the highlights of Ruta de Las Flores, the Aguas Termales, a collection of hot therapeutic pools. Most hotels along the Ruta offer transportation to and from the pools, so there is no need to stay in Ahuachapán if you would like to visit them; if you do decide to spend a night in Ahuachapán, however, there are a couple of excellent options.


S Aguas Termales

The main reason many people come to Ahuachapán is to visit the nearby hot springs pools, located about three kilometers outside the town on the way to Ataco. There are two aguas termales right next to each other; which one you choose depends on what kind of experience you want.

The older Aguas Termales de Santa Teresa (tel. 2423-8041, www.termalesdesantateresa.com, 9am-6pm daily, $10 pp) is a gorgeously designed coffee finca where the river from the hot springs flows into seven hot pools of varying temperatures, from very hot to tepid. Each pool is surrounded by beautiful plants and lounge chairs, and there are rooms where you can spend the night ($70-100 d). The rooms are quite plush, with air-conditioning, flat-screen TVs, lots of natural light, and one room even has its own private little hot pool. There is no restaurant here, so it’s best to bring your own groceries if you plan staying for a while.

Nearby Aguas Termales de Alicante Ahuachapán (tel. 2417-6492, noon-5pm daily, $10 pp) is much larger and has plenty of green space to wander and relax in. One large pool has magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and a deck space with lounge areas. Below are three smaller pools of varying temperatures in a shaded area with a bar and restaurant. The land has a couple of beautiful miradors and plenty of areas for walking and enjoying the views. Owner Eduardo Méndez is a young entrepreneur and very flexible with the hours of operation. If you would like to visit at night, you can call him and arrange for the pools to be open. Méndez is also the owner of Segen Hotel (tel. 2459-5832, segenhostel@hotmail.com) in nearby Ataco, which can arrange transportation from Ataco to Termales de Alicante.

The pools are hard to get to on your own, and there is no direct bus. You can take bus 249 and ask the driver to let you out at the aguas termales, but from the highway it is a hot, dusty four-kilometer walk, by the end of which you will feel like swimming in cold water, not hot. Most of the hotels and hostels along Ruta de Las Flores can arrange transportation to and from the pools, usually at a cost of around $30.


Hotel de La Casa Mamapan (2 Av. Sur and Plaza Concordia, in front of parque central, tel. 2413-2507, www.lacasademamapan.com, backpacker prices negotiable, $40 d) is a hidden gem, full of natural light, eclectic knickknacks, and lots of character. Ten rooms with private baths, hot water, air-conditioning, and TVs with cable are tucked away in this colonial treasure just off of Plaza Concordia. Local art, light fixtures made out of wine bottles, a sunny courtyard, and a small restaurant with tall wooden stools and tables create a funky yet traditional ambience in the common areas, and the rooms are simple, clean, and quiet, with access to Wi-Fi throughout the house.

Another excellent option is Casa Blanca Hotel (2 Av. Norte and Calle Barrios 1-5, tel. 2443-1505, casablancaahuachapan@hotmail.com, $30 s, $40 d), a gorgeous historic home with wrought-iron gates, high ceilings, massive wooden doors, and tile floors. The rooms surround a garden with plenty of plants and a small restaurant ($3-7) serving comida típica. Each spacious room has big windows and high ceilings, dark wood furniture, TV, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, and hot water.


The cute little Mixtas (2 Av. Sur and 1 Calle Poniente, no phone, 8am-9pm daily, $3-5) serves up cheap breakfast, sandwiches, burritos, and hamburgers in an American-style diner with brightly colored booths, very friendly service, and delicious milk shakes. As the name suggests, they specialize in mixtas, which are pitas stuffed with meat, cheese, salsa, and vegetables.

La Estancia (1 Av. Sur between Calle Barrios and 1 Calle Oriente, 7am-6pm Mon.-Sat., $2-7) serves up delicious comida a la vista in a large open air house that gets busy for both lunch and dinner. Choose from typical meat dishes, steamed vegetables, salads, and rice.


From San Salvador, take bus 202 ($1, 2.5 hours, runs every 15 minutes) from Terminal de Occidente.

Plaza Concordia and Parque Menéndez, the parque central, are five blocks apart and are connected by the busy Avenida Menéndez, which runs north-south and is full of banks, pharmacies, and clothing shops.

Santa Ana

More and more travelers are choosing Santa Ana, with its colonial architecture and weekend nightlife, over the capital for a taste of El Salvador’s urban culture. About 35 kilometers east of Ahuachapán, Santa Ana is full of beautiful crumbling buildings, tree-lined streets, and low multicolored house fronts that open up into exquisite Old World homes and flourishing gardens. At the center of it all is a large shady central plaza, surrounded by striking buildings to explore, such as El Teatro Nacional and the Catedral de Santa Ana, unique restaurants, and one of the country’s best hostels. Even though the city is big, the attitude is humble, giving it a small-town vibe. Situated among green hills and near three of the country’s most prominent volcanoes, there is no lack of excursions to keep you busy. Day trips that can be done from the city include Lago Coatepeque, Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, and the ruins of Tazumal and Casa Blanca, both in the nearby town of Chalchuapa.


Santa Ana’s crumbling colonial buildings and narrow streets create a romantic, Old World feel.


Catedral de Santa Ana

The grand neo-Gothic Catedral de Santa Ana (tel. 2441-0278, diocesissta.ana@integra.com.sv) sits on the east side of parque central and commands well-deserved attention. The original church was finished in 1576 but was partially burned when struck by lightning in the 19th century. Since then the church has gone through various restoration projects over the years and is now protected by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property. The facade is covered in impressive intricate design with various arches and tall bell towers the shape of sharpened pencils. The inside has towering light pink and gray columns and a beautiful marble altar, where you will find the statue of the cathedral’s namesake patron, Saint Anne. Legend has it that when the Spanish priests carried the statue into the city, they set it down and were unable to pick it up again; so there it stayed, and now it sits above the altar inside the church. Saint Anne is the patron saint of childbirth, and today women come to the cathedral to pray in the days leading up to bearing their children.

El Teatro Nacional

On the north side of the park is El Teatro Nacional (tel. 2441-2193, teatrosantaana@cultura.gob.sv, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sat., $1.50). Built in 1910 with taxes collected from the coffee industry, the theater showcases majestic staircases, ornate doors, and beautiful artwork by the Italian artist who was commissioned to paint the walls and ceilings of the theater. While he was working in Santa Ana, he fell in love with a married Salvadoran woman; many of his paintings depict the taboo affair. The theater also provides a fascinating window into the social strata of El Salvador in the early 20th century. You will see the separate rooms for men and women and the different areas according to social status (the poor were only allowed standing room on the second floor in a dark, cramped space without ventilation). Today, the theater is used for concerts and community events. Check with the front office to see what the schedule is. There are free guided tours available.




You will need to take a taxi to get to Trench Town Rock (Km. 65, Carretera Panamericana, beside the turnoff to Chalchuapa, tel. 7261-9030, noon-midnight Tues.-Sat.), the reggae bar that has earned its name as one of the best options for nightlife in the country. This outdoor space is illuminated with colorful lights, art, and people. There is live music on some weekends, usually ska or reggae, and the cover charge ($3-10) depends on the band. If you are lucky, you may the catch the popular local group the Blue Beat Makers performing. When there is no live music, the sweet sounds of reggae records (yes, there is actually a record player) and friendly staff create a warm vibe. There is some food available ($3-7); make sure to try the excellent pizza or famous baked potatoes.

For nightlife in the city center, Villa Morena (2 Calle Poniente, between Parque Isidro Menéndez and Parque Libertad, www.paseovillamorena.blogspot.com) is a street that has recently been developed for tourism. Friday through Sunday the street is closed off to traffic between 5pm and 2am, and impeccably dressed waiters bring tables and chairs out into the street, where locals gather for dinner and drinks. The service is invariably excellent in all of these places, but unfortunately none of the restaurants stand out for the food.


Every year during the last two weeks of July, Santa Ana celebrates Fiestas Julias. The city gets busy, especially during the last weekend of the month; there are street parades, masses, live music, rodeos, and fairground rides and entertainment. This is considered one of the best festivals in the country.


Überhelpful owner Carlos Batarse of S Casa Verde (7 Calle Poniente, between 8 Av. and 10 Av. Sur 25, tel. 7840-4896, $10 dorm, $16 s, from $23 d) is a legend in Salvadoran hospitality. Casa Verde has foreseen every possible need of the weary traveler—right down to an electronic foot massager, medicine for whatever ails you, free coffee, and a fridge full of beer. Dorm rooms provide each occupant with their own storage space for luggage, individual lamps and fans, and shared baths with hot water. Private rooms are equally lovely with comfortable beds, storage space for luggage, fans, and private baths with hot water. They all surround a swimming pool and large common area with pretty flowering plants, hammocks, and large wooden tables for group meals. Two fully stocked kitchens, a barbecue, a rooftop terrace, a small lounge with a TV and DVDs, and all the travel information you need make this an easy place to stay; some stay here for weeks at a time. Throw in a complimentary ride to the bus station when you are on your way back to San Salvador; and it’s official: Casa Verde delivers like no other hostel in El Salvador, and likely in all of Central America.

Casa Frolaz (29 Calle Poniente and 10 Av. Sur 42, tel. 2440-1564, $10 pp dorm, $20 d) is the other lovely budget option for accommodations in Santa Ana. If you are looking for something quaint and quiet, this is the perfect place. Extremely hospitable brothers Francisco and Bruno Olano Rodríguez offer dorm beds on the second floor of a beautiful old house on the periphery of town. The rooms are large, with beautiful tile floors, fans, private baths with hot water, and local art on the walls. There is a lovely terrace, a common room with lots of light and plants, and the excellent restaurant Quattro Estaciones on the first floor.

At first glance, the entrance of the colonial-style Hotel Sahara (3 Calle Poniente, between Av. Sur and Av. José Matías Delgado, tel. 2447-8865 or 2447-0456, hotel_sahara@yahoo.com, $44 s, $54 d) can seem a bit dark and gloomy, but once you climb the majestic staircase to the open-air second floor, with lots of plants complementing the varying shades of green on the walls, the place really comes alive. The rooms are very clean and quiet, with hot water, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and cable TV. There is a restaurant (9am-9pm daily, $5-10) on the first floor serving seafood, pasta, and sandwiches.

Hotel Tolteka Plaza (Km. 62, Carretera Internacional, Av. Independencia Sur, tel. 2487-1000, toltekaventa@gmail.com, $53 s or d) is about a $4 cab ride outside the city center. Fifty rooms surround a lovely swimming pool and central courtyard. The rooms all have cable TV, hot water, and air-conditioning. Spotless rooms and great service make this a wonderful place to relax if you are just passing through and not interested in being in the heart of the city.


Tali Tunal (7 Av. Norte between Calle Libertad and Calle Oriente, No.1-B, tel. 2441-2297, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $1.50-4) is truly a hidden gem for vegetarians or anyone else looking for healthy, budget food. Three blocks east of the cathedral in a quiet residential neighborhood, Edwin and Carmen Maldonado have transformed their sunny, plant-filled courtyard into a modest restaurant where you will find the only vegetarian burger in the region, along with large fresh salads that include shredded beets, carrots, celery, radishes, and other seasonal vegetables all topped with a homemade creamy sesame dressing. The menu changes daily and includes soups, soy-based dishes, and other rotating vegetarian entrées. The veggie burger is always available; just ask. Homemade whole-wheat bread and baked goods are also available, as well as breakfast fare such as whole-wheat pancakes and fruit salad. In the front of the restaurant is a small shop that sells medicinal herbs and other natural health products that are difficult to find in pharmacies.

Just down the street from Casa Verde is Café Expresiones Culturales (11 Calle Poniente between 6 Av. and 8 Av. Sur, tel. 2440-1410, 6:30am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-6pm Sun., $5-10), a curious café that serves pastas, salads, and a long list of specialty chicken dishes. The café has exposed brick walls, a small sitting area outside with wrought-iron tables, and an awning made out of leaves to provide shade. There are also tables inside as well as a random book collection, wall hangings depicting scenes from pre-Hispanic history, and a very small stage for occasional live music (no cover) at lunchtime or in the evening. There is no alcohol or smoking permitted at the café.

S Quattro Estaciones (29 Calle Poniente 42, between 8 Av. and 10 Av. Sur, tel. 2440-1564, www.quattroestaciones.blogspot.com, noon-9pm Mon.-Thurs., noon-11pm Fri.-Sat., $6-17) is definitely the most polished place in town, where sleek style meets an antique atmosphere on the bottom floor of the house that is Casa Frolaz. Rotating art exhibitions, smooth dark wood tables, and sliding doors that open up to a small garden make this a great place for a weekend dinner. The kitchen takes a different spin on meat dishes, offering plates such as Caribbean chicken served in a coconut-orange-pineapple sauce. Finish your meal with one of the popular baked pears. The bonus of staying at Casa Frolaz is that after a big meal, your bed is just a short staircase away.

Las Palmeras (corner of Av. Independencia Sur and 27 Calle Oriente, tel. 2455-3778, 5pm-10pm daily, $4-12) serves pupusas cooked on a comal, a concave, smooth, flat griddle crafted from Salvadoran black clay. A big outdoor restaurant with multicolored lights and murals on the walls makes for a lovely place to sample some of these delicious pupusas, filled with atypical ingredients such as carrots, garlic, and jalapeño and loroco, a local plant.

Lover’s Steakhouse (21 Calle Oriente, between Av. Independencia and 3 Av. Sur, tel. 2440-5717, www.loverssteakhouse.com, 5pm-10pm daily, $7-12) is a longtime favorite for locals and visitors alike. This large restaurant has a lovely little courtyard lit up with colored lights and local art hanging on the walls. The floor is also covered with pottery and handwoven crafts to create a warm, intimate feeling. Lover’s serves up very generous portions of steak and seafood at reasonable prices.

Café Téjas (2 Av. Sur 52, between Calle José Mariano Méndez and 13 Calle Poniente, tel. 2447-6505 or 7799-6088, 8:30am-6pm Mon.-Sat., $5-10) is Santa Ana’s hidden gem. Tucked away on a side street near the exit from town, this family home has a small shop where antiques are set among imported clothing, local crafts and art, and some other eclectic merchandise such as kitchenware, sunglasses, and jewelry. This is a charming setup, but the main attraction is definitely out back, where there is a small idyllic garden with lush greenery crawling over the tall walls and a few small tables that make for a perfect spot to escape the heat of the city and enjoy a cup of iced coffee, homemade ice cream, or one of the famous chorizo sandwiches. Run by young Canadian-Salvadoran couple Ameera Dennis and Roberto Basagoitia, they set a tone that you won’t find anywhere else in town, with a fine selection of reggae music, fusion plates such as yuca poutine, and fresh salads and soups. Everything is made from scratch and always with fresh, local ingredients.

The Corner (6 Av. Norte and 2 Calle Poniente, tel. 2407-5962, 6pm-midnight Tues.-Sat., $3-7) is small but full of good stuff. This little gem specializes in European beers, and the chef makes simple dishes like sandwiches and pizzas come to life with delicious homemade sauces and quality ingredients. The Corner is a great place to grab a beer and a bite.


There is a tourist office (Av. Independencia 2, in front of parque central, tel. 2402-4576, 8am-noon and 1pm-5pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-noon Sun.) in the alcaldía; there is also a DHL office in the same building. You can find many banks near parque central, including Scotiabank (Av. Fray Felipe de Jesús Moraga, tel. 2250-1111, 8am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.) and Banco Hipotecario (2 Av. Norte and 2 Calle Poniente, behind the alcaldía, tel. 2441-1272, 8:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., 8:30am-12:30pm Sat.), where you will also find a Western Union office. Nearby you will find Banco Proamerica (2 Calle Poniente and 4 Av., tel. 2513-5000, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-noon Sun.), with a MoneyGram office inside the bank. There is an office of TACA Airlines (Plaza Florida, 2nd Fl., local 210, tel. 7786-1572 or 7850-2353, 8am-5:30pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.) and an office of TICA Bus (Plaza Florida, 2nd Fl., tel. 2448-2387, 7:30am-6pm daily).


From San Salvador, take bus 201 ($0.90, 1.25 hours, every 15 minutes). If you are driving to Santa Ana, head 64 kilometers northwest of San Salvador on Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy.).

Avenida Independencia runs north-south from Parque Libertad, while Calle Libertad runs east-west. Most tourist sights are located right at the center of town around Parque Libertad, within walking distance of all hotels.


Tropical Organic Farm El Salvador

Tropical Organic Farm El Salvador offers volunteers the chance to work and live on an organic farm. Owners Mauricio and Gloria have set up their own little piece of paradise on this farm nearby Santa Ana, on the way to San Andrés ruins. You can choose what kind of work you do, from farming to construction to teaching the local children. An important part of their vision is to educate and involve the surrounding communities in their projects and the benefits they bring. There is a space for yoga and meditation, very basic dorms with shared baths, and three organic vegetarian meals a day, all for $8 pp. To get to the farm, call Mauricio (tel. 7544-8953 or 7224-4869) and he will arrange to pick you up near the San Andrés ruins.

Lago Coatepeque

Located between Santa Ana and Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, 56 kilometers west of San Salvador, Lago Coatepeque is a shimmering emerald green national treasure. The 26-square-kilometer crater lake was formed through a series of eruptions that took place thousands of years ago, and the volcanoes Izalco, Santa Ana, and Cerro Verde (not responsible for its birth, but gorgeous nonetheless) stand proudly behind it, creating a magnificent backdrop. Unfortunately for visitors, most of the land around the lake has been bought up by Salvadorans to build private homes, so it’s very difficult to find public areas to swim and sunbathe. If you want to enjoy the lake, you will need to go to one of the restaurants and use their piers. Food on the lake is not cheap, with a plate of fish costing roughly $15 at any of the hotels right at the lake’s edge. Up above, where the road starts to descend toward the lake, there is a series of cheaper restaurants that all serve seafood and offer the best views and photo opportunities. If you just want to see the lake and take some photos, this is your best bet.


Lago Coatepeque

Recreation, Accommodations, and Food

If you are interested in doing some hiking around the lake, an excellent option is through Los Pinos Coffee Cooperative (Km. 55.5, Carretera Cerro Verde, tel. 2434-0038, $10 for up to 5 people), a beautiful coffee finca that sits high up on the eastern edge of the lake and is very easy to get to from Santa Ana. This is one of the best ways to access the lake for the day, without having to stay at a hotel or go to a restaurant. The excellent guided hike takes about two hours and begins at the top of the mountain ridge surrounding the lake, and slowly descends along coffee fincas and primary forest until you reach the water’s edge. This interpretative trail is dotted with beautiful lookout points, providing excellent views of the sparkling lake and volcanoes. At the bottom is a private dock and plenty of grassy space to picnic, swim, and sunbathe.

The only budget lodging option on the lake is Amacuilco (formerly El 3er Mundo Hostal, tel. 2441-6329 or 7822-4051, $8 pp dorm, $20 d), a large property that sits on the edge of the lake. There are rustic dorms and a cozy lounge area with a bar and a large grassy lawn that leads to the lake and a pier. Private rooms are also very basic, with well-worn beds, colorful bedspreads, and eclectic art on the walls. All rooms have fans. It’s a perfect place to relax for a while or take out some of the kayaks and bicycles available for rental. Spanish lessons are also available for $120 per week, which includes 18 hours of classes, a dorm bed, and food. The food here is average, but much cheaper than everywhere else—you can get a small pizza for $4.

Next door to the hostel is the restaurant Las Palmeras (tel. 7248-5727, 7am-9pm daily, $10-20), definitely the flashiest place on the lake, serving up fresh, pricey seafood on the large dock with a thatched roof to provide shade.

A few doors down, Rancho Alegre (tel. 2441-6071, ranchoalegre@hotmail.com, $40 d) is a popular restaurant and hotel with a massive dock that gets packed on the weekend. The ambiance is a bit less sophisticated than Las Palmeras, but the food is just as good. It offers several rooms near the dock that are simple and clean, with TVs, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and private baths with hot water. Here you will also find the office for Waterquest (tel. 7160-8361, 8am-5pm Fri.-Sun., noon-4pm Mon.-Thurs.), which offers certified PADI diving in the lake (2 hours, $90) as well as Jet Ski rentals ($70 per hour) and boat rentals ($40 per hour).

Getting There

Lago Coatepeque is 12 kilometers from Santa Ana. To get to the lake, take buses 220 or 242 from Terminal Pineda in Santa Ana. They leave every 30 minutes, and the last one returns from the lake at 5pm.

Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (Parque Cerro Verde)

Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (tel. 7227-5466 or 2222-8000, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $3), commonly known as Parque Cerro Verde, includes three prominent volcanoes that create the country’s most poetic portrait. They are of distinct ages rarely seen so close together. Volcán Izalco is the youngest volcano in Central America; Cerro Verde is considered middle aged, formed around 25,000 years ago; and Santa Ana is one of the region’s oldest volcanoes.

Cerro Verde

Cerro Verde (2,030 meters) is the lowest of the three volcanoes and offers easy trails that can be explored in less than an hour. The humid air, abundant greenery, and multicolored birds make this a lovely walk for those looking to explore the park without too much physical exertion. A 45-minute walk around the old crater can be done with park guides and is free, but a voluntary tip of $1-5 per group is a nice gesture and enough to get an appreciative smile and thank-you from any of the young men and women that are park guides.

Volcán Izalco

Volcán Izalco (1,910 meters), the youngest of the three volcanoes and the most striking in appearance, is also the most difficult to climb because of the steep ascent. Once named the “lighthouse of the Pacific” because of its constant eruptions, today the dark, perfect cone of Izalco is inactive, last erupting in 1966. It is possible to climb the steep, gravel-laden volcano, but it is necessary to take a guide. Guides leave the parking lot of the park at 11am daily. The hike takes about four hours and costs $1.

S Volcán Santa Ana

Volcán Santa Ana (2,365 meters) is the most popular hike in the park for good reason. The view from the top of El Salvador’s largest volcano looks down on its striking green crater lake on one side and gorgeous Lago Coatepeque on the other. Unlike its younger neighbor Izalco, Santa Ana has been around long enough to have vegetation. As a result, the climb up leads through coffee plantations and cool forested areas where you will see a variety of birds and flora and fauna, including lots of agave plants and various species of hummingbirds, woodpeckers, jays, and emerald toucanets..

Although Santa Ana is taller than Izalco, the hike up is easier because it is not as steep. The hike takes around four hours and costs $5-8 pp, depending on how many people are in the group (3 people minimum). Guides for this hike leave the parking lot at 11am daily.

Getting There

To get to Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (Parque Cerro Verde) from Santa Ana, take bus 248 from La Vencedora bus terminal (1 block west of Parque Colón, tel. 2440-8453). The bus takes 1.75 hours and costs $0.85. If you want to climb either Volcán Santa Ana or Volcán Izalco, you must catch the 7am bus so that you arrive in time for the 11am start time for the hikes. From San Salvador, take bus 205 from Terminal de Occidente, leaving no later than 6:30am; tell the driver you would like to get off at El Congo Bridge, where you will need to catch bus 248, which should pass by around 8:30am. The last bus leaves the park at 4pm. It is possible to get back to San Salvador from Santa Ana the same day, though by the time you get back, it will be dark.

If you are driving, the park is 67 kilometers from San Salvador via Sonsonate.


About a 30-minute bus ride west from Santa Ana in the town of Chalchuapa is the archaeological site Tazumal (Final 11 Av. Sur and Calle El Canton, Chalchuapa, tel. 2444-0010, 9am-4pm Tues.-Sun., $3). It is estimated that most of the Mayan city was constructed between AD 400 and 600, and it was a well-organized city by the time the Spanish arrived. The ruins were discovered and studied in the 1940s by American archaeologist Stanley H. Boggs, and today there is a small museum at the entrance of the site named after him. He identified more than a dozen structures made of stone and clay, including a collection of pyramids, a ball court, and a water drainage system.

Today, the biggest pyramid (23 meters tall) is fully excavated and has been refurbished. Around the ruins is forested area with walking paths and picnic tables, which provides a peaceful, unique place to have a picnic. Inside the museum, you can see excavated ritual objects such as Mayan pottery, jade tools, and jewelry, with explanations in English. In front of the museum is an Olmec statue that predates the pyramids by 800 years, indicating that there was a link between El Salvador and other Central American Mayan communities, namely in Veracruz, Mexico.


Mayan ruins at Tazumal

Casa Blanca (Km. 74.5, between Chalchuapa and Santa Ana, tel. 2408-4295, 9am-4pm Tues.-Sun., $3) is only five minutes on foot from Tazumal and is a small piece of what was once a much larger complex that existed sometime between 250 BC and AD 250. The site is very small but contains three pre-Hispanic pyramids, a small museum, and a free indigo-dyeing workshop.

Getting There

Chalchuapa is 18 kilometers from Santa Ana. Bus 218 leaves Santa Ana for Chalchuapa from 9 Calle Poniente, between 8 Avenida and 10 Avenida Sur (very close to Casa Verde), approximately every 15 minutes starting at 5am until 7pm, and costs $0.40.

If you are driving, head west on Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy.) to Las Chinamas International Border exit (just a few kilometers from Santa Ana), which will take you to Chalchuapa. There are signs indicating where the ruins are located.


Parque Nacional Montecristo-El Trifinio

Thirty-two kilometers north of Santa Ana is the town of Metapán, and 20 kilometers farther north of Metapán is the largest cloud forest in Central America: Parque Nacional Montecristo-El Trifinio (tel. 2233-6276, www.marn.gob.sv, 7am-3pm daily year-round, El Trifinio 7am-3pm daily Dec.-Feb., $6 pp) is the most pristine region of El Salvador, where 1,973 glorious hectares of primary forest boasts one of most biodiverse areas in the country. The forest includes more than 3,000 species of plants and animals, including more than 200 species of orchids, quetzals, toucans, wild pigs, and pumas. Towering pine, oak, and cypress trees, some centuries old, create a leafy awning that provides shade for ferns, lichens, and moss to thrive. The result is a flourishing eco-paradise that is unrivaled in the rest of the country.


Parque Nacional Montecristo-El Trifinio

The cool, clean air makes for incredible hiking, and there are several trails and miradors. The most difficult hike is an 18-kilometer trail up to El Trifinio, the highest point of the park at 2,418 meters elevation—it’s the lookout point where El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala all meet, and it offers beautiful views of the neighboring countries. The hike takes about three hours and takes you from the park’s lowest elevation at 700 meters through subtropical forest, farther up through transitional forest, pine forest, cypress plantations, and finally the misty cloud forest.

Montecristo cloud forest is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Because of this, the hiking trail up to El Trifinio is closed from March until November every year, when wildlife is left in peace to reproduce.

There is a campsite in the park. Camping is free, and tents are available to rent ($5). Local Spanish guides can lead you on the hike to El Trifinio ($5).

Getting There

Unfortunately, getting to the park is very difficult unless you do it as part of an organized tour. There are no buses that travel to the park, and if you want to go on your own, you will need a 4WD vehicle (the road is clearly marked from Metapán). You can usually find a ride in a pickup from the park turnoff in Metapán, however the cost will be at least $85 for a drop-off and pickup. El Salvador Turismo (Av. Masferrer Norte 139, Centro Comercial El Amante, tel. 2510-7640) is an excellent tour company that often organizes tours to the park ($25 pp). This includes transportation, entry to the park, and the El Trifinio hike. The tours leave from their office at 6am and return to San Salvador around 6pm. Call to see if they have one scheduled during your visit.

Parque Nacional El Imposible

Just southwest of Ruta de Las Flores is El Salvador’s largest national park, Parque Nacional El Imposible (tel. 2411-5484, www.salvanatura.org, open daily, $6 pp). The park is a haven for hikers and nature lovers, offering pristine rivers, archaeological sites, well-maintained campsites, and challenging terrain.

Parque Imposible’s 4,000 hectares of protected tropical mountain forest are home to an array of wildlife, including wild boars, tigrillos, and more than 285 species of birds. You are more likely to see wildlife if you spend the night in the park, as many of the animals are nocturnal, but day hikes will take you past towering ceiba trees and local plants with educational signs, plenty of butterflies and birds, and maybe even some smaller creatures like armadillos. It has been years since the last puma prints were detected, but it’s possible that this majestic animal also still roams the forest.


Parque Nacional El Imposible

The steep topography of the park offers extreme hikes and incredible views that reach all the way to the Pacific coast and Guatemala’s edge. Multiple rivers rush down the slopes of the park, creating waterfalls and swimming pools throughout and finally emptying out into the Barra de Santiago. The park was named El Imposible because of the steep, vertical gorge between two mountains that used to claim the lives of people and pack mules traversing the forest on their way to the Pacific port in the early 20th century. In 1968 the government finally built a bridge at El Imposible Pass, adorned with a plaque that reads “The year 1968: no longer is it impossible.”

The park is administered by SalvaNatura (tel. 2279-1515, www.salvanatura.org), El Salvador’s excellent independent conservation organization. The main entrance to the park is on the southeast side through the tiny community of San Miguelito in the town of San Benito. This is a true rural tourism project, with the park entrance fee going toward maintaining the park, and the $10 hiking fee going directly to your guide. There are 12 guides who have been professionally trained and are very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna as well as the history of the park.

The best time of the year to visit the park is November to April, when the weather is warm and dry.



You must have a guide to explore the park; visitors are not allowed to hike alone. The $10 hiking fee is per group. You do not need to book a guide in advance—just tell the park ranger when you pay your entry fee that you would like a guide.

Los Engaches

A seven-kilometer round-trip hike will bring you to Los Engaches, a beautiful shady part of the park with swimming pools and lots of grassy areas for sunbathing or picnics. If you want, you can continue from here another kilometer to Mirador El Mulo, a mirador that looks out over the forest and river.

S Piedra Sellada

An eight-kilometer round-trip hike takes you to Piedra Sellada, where you will find fascinating petroglyphs on massive boulders in the middle of the forest beside the Río Venado Canyon. They date back to AD 600-900 and contain more than 100 pictures of geometric patterns, butterflies, and birds. You can swim in the cool, crystal clear, and clean river and relax on the sun-warmed rocks before heading back. This hike takes about two hours and is intermediate in difficulty.

Cerro El León

The most challenging hike in the park is to Cerro El León, a very steep, eight-kilometer round-trip through primary forest that opens up to spectacular views of the park and the Pacific coast. You will need at least four hours to complete this hike.


Another option for exploring the park is the backdoor route through Tacuba, just west of Ahuachapán. El Imposible Tours (Av. Cuscatlán near Calle 10, Tacuba, tel. 2417-4268, www.imposibletours.com) offers hikes that enter the park unofficially (not at the main entrance) and some that explore the periphery. These tours are for those seeking a more rugged and adventurous experience. Guides will take you through difficult terrain on the famous waterfall tour, a seven-hour hike through the thick of the forest, jumping off waterfalls and swimming in pristine pools. El Imposible Tours also offer bike tours that go all the way from El Imposible to Barra de Santiago; the 20-kilometer route takes a day.

It is best to organize your tour a few days in advance, and to be very clear about what you expect from your tour, as there can be discrepancies around the level of difficulty as well as the actual route.


Inside the Park

Camping is available inside the park for $1. Sometimes the guides rent out tents ($5), but it is preferable to bring your own. There is one large campsite, with elevated platforms to set up tents, as well as cooking areas and restrooms.

A small cabaña right beside the entrance to the park, Cabaña Guaquito (tel. 7916-9419, cguaquito@gmail.com, $10 d) is basic but newly constructed, clean, and quiet, with one outside bath.

Farther down from the park’s entrance is the lovely Hostal El Imposible (tel. 2405-6505 or 7885-7438, hostalelimposible@gmail.com, $25 pp), initiated by SalvaNatura and since handed over to the community of San Miguelito. It is actually a series of cabañas built on a hill, interspersed with stone pathways surrounded by plants and flowers. The cabañas have hot water and fans, and there’s Wi-Fi in the restaurant area.

Hostal El Imposible’s restaurant ($4-6) has very good food using fresh local ingredients. There is also a comedor closer to the park’s entrance, serving up economical comida típica. If you are camping, make sure you bring all the food you will need, as there are no markets in San Miguelito.


Tacuba is a cute little village 14 kilometers west of Ahuachapán that is a popular backdoor to the park. Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, Tacuba sits on the northern side of the park. There is not much to see in this tiny town other than the crumbling remnants of the town church, destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. It sits in the center of the village and only the front facade remains; the rest is overgrown with grass and trees.

The well-known Mama y Papa’s (Av. Cuscatlán, near Calle 10, Tacuba, tel. 2417-4268, $8 pp dorm, $15 d) is a home that has been turned into a hostel, giving the place a homestay kind of feel. Although the dorms are comfortable, with fans and lots of space, insomniac roosters outside the windows will keep light sleepers awake most of the night. The kitchen may be used for the cost of $1, although the women who work here, along with Mama, are usually cooking, so it might feel a bit awkward; you are probably better off ordering from their menu, as the food is excellent. El Imposible Tours is based at Mama y Papa’s.

The other budget option in town in is Hostal Miraflores (7 Calle Oriente, tel. 2417-4746, $10 d). This cute little hostel sits kitty-corner to parque central has economical rooms, a small garden, and a colorful little restaurant with daily prepared lunch and vegetarian options. There is no hot water, but rooms have fans. The kitchen has a tile bar to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch Tacuba go by. Hiking tours to El Imposible can also be organized here.

For something a little nicer, 11 spacious rooms with private baths and air-conditioning sit around a beautiful breezy garden and a swimming pool at the lovely Las Cabañas (3 Av. Norte and 1 Calle Poniente, tel. 2417-4332, $35 d, including 3 meals), which is tucked away on a quiet street. The very attentive staff and lovely food will not disappoint.


Getting to Parque Nacional El Imposible

From Sonsonate, take bus 259 ($0.80, 1.75 hours, every 10 minutes 4:30am-7:30pm) going to Cara Sucia. Ask to be let off at Sectora San Benito. From here, two buses pass by every day, one at 11:30am and one at 2:30pm; the cost is $0.50 and the ride takes about 15 minutes. You get dropped off at the main entrance to the park.

If you miss the buses, you can hitch a ride with one of the pickups heading up the hill toward the park. A sure bet is Freddy Molina (tel. 7325-3401), who charges $15 per trip. Best to call him ahead of time.

The same bus that brings you to the park takes you back to the main road. It leaves from the entrance of the park around noon and 3pm. Again, alternatively it is possible to catch a ride with a pickup truck.

If you are driving, the park’s entrance is 68 kilometers west of Sonsonate. From Sonsonate, head five kilometers toward Acajutla South. At “Kilo 5” is the intersection of CA2 Coast Highway. Turn right and drive to Km. 116, where you turn right onto a dirt road and continue about 16 kilometers to the park.

Getting to Tacuba

From Ahuachapán by bus, take bus 264 (40 minutes, every 30 minutes).

Driving from Ahuachapán, look for Parque Concordia and the white church there, where you’ll see a sign directing you onto the road for Tacuba. The drive from Ahuachapán takes about 30 minutes.


The Pacific Coast



Western Beaches









Eastern Beaches










Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.

S Hiking in Parque Nacional Walter Thilo Deininger: Choose from two trails that take you through beautiful subtropical and dry forest, natural swimming pools, caves, and a spectacular mirador (click here).

S Surfing at Playa El Tunco: Surf La Bocana, El Salvador’s most popular break for locals and tourists alike. This intermediate to advanced wave is the most consistent spot to surf in the country, with conditions that are often described as perfect, including year-round warm water, a grinding left, and an understated right (click here).


S Hiking to Tamanique Waterfalls: Hike through lush greenery, cornfields, and rivers to get to the gorgeous waterfalls of Tamanique, where you can jump into the clear, cool water in the pools below (click here).

S Fishing Around Playa El Sunzal: Choose from a variety of tried and tested catching methods with fishing aficionado Roberto Figueroa in El Sunzal (click here).

S Marine Life Boat Tour: Take a boat tour through protected waters and look for dolphins, huge manta rays, turtles, and beautiful birds. If it’s the right time of year, take in the majestic humpback whales as they migrate (click here).

S Bird-Watching in Barra de Santiago: Help boost rural tourism and have a great time doing it by enjoying a boat tour through the surreal mangroves, spotting some of the colorful birds who call this peaceful estuary home (click here).

The secret is out. For years, the beaches of El Salvador’s coast were strictly the terrain of fearless surfers, some who came in the 1970s and dug the waves so much they never left, even while a civil war raged on. But today, the war is over, the waves are still sweet, and more and more curious travelers are showing up to check out what coastal El Salvador has to offer. They are discovering that the coast is not just for surfers. Yes, there are world-class waves all along the coast line, but these beaches are interspersed with quaint fishing villages and large coral reefs, white sand beaches perfect for relaxing and swimming, mangroves teeming with colorful birds, beautiful bays, volcanic gulfs, and otherworldly estuaries.

Most people head straight for the west coast, a surfer’s paradise that stretches from La Libertad, conveniently located just a 30-minute drive from Aeropuerto Internacional Comalapa, to Mizata, a much remoter western beach. This coastline consists of rocky dark-sand beaches with hot temperatures, strong currents, and rolling, bold waves. The heart of the action is in Playa El Tunco, a popular beach town with a string of beachfront hotels and bars that draw crowds every weekend to enjoy the sun, surf, and sociable evenings. El Tunco has the most variety in accommodations and restaurants, and it boasts the best nightlife outside of San Salvador. Right next door, Playa El Sunzal doesn’t party. Here you will find great surfing for beginners and experienced surfers alike. Next stop is Playa El Zonte, a magical little beach where the rocky shore and crashing waves are set against the beautiful backdrop of towering cliffs and tropical birds. Keep heading west and you will hit Playa Mizata, a remote getaway with capricious waves that capture the hearts of adventurous surfers searching for solitude. In the small fishing village of Los Cóbanos, simple seafood shacks line the white-sand beach, and the craggy shoreline opens up to the largest coral reef in Central America. Finally, Barra de Santiago boasts the most unique of landscapes due to its location between a mangrove-filled estuary and the roaring Pacific Ocean.


On the other side, the east coast offers expansive white-sand beaches, unexplored islands and bays, and when the conditions are right, some of the best surfing in the country. Heading east from San Salvador, the first and arguably most beautiful beach in the country is Costa del Sol, where a long stretch of pearl gray coast is flanked by the Jaltepeque Estuary, a prime location for fishing and birding, or simply relaxing on the beach with a cocktail in hand. Next up is Isla Montecristo, where untouched beaches, mangroves, and cashew plantations make a perfect destination for those seeking peace and solitude in a rustic setting. Next, Bahía de Jiquilisco is Central America’s largest remaining mangrove forest and coastal estuary, providing critical habitat for birds and the most endangered turtle species in the world, the beautiful hawksbill. Farther on, Playas El Cuco, Las Flores, and Esterón offer excellent surf and beautiful beaches. If you make it to where the ocean’s shore meets the country’s edge, the islands in the Golfo de Fonseca offer raw natural beauty for intrepid travelers who seek off-the-beaten-path adventure.


Two weeks is enough time to enjoy the coast of El Salvador, but realistically most people usually only have about a week. Unless you are doing a targeted surf trip, it is not easy to get both coasts in one week. It’s better to choose one, and most people choose the west, as it is more developed for tourism and easier to get to from the airport or San Salvador.

Traveling the west coast is easy. There are buses that run along the Carretera Litoral (coastal highway) frequently, and you can flag one down at any point. Whether you are surfing or not will influence how much time you want to spend here; in general, a week should be enough time to see all the beaches on this side of the country.

Your time on the east coast also depends on whether you are surfing or not. One or two days in Playa El Cuco and vicinity should be enough, but many people end up staying longer (or wishing they could). Bahía de Jiquilisco and Isla Montecristo take a bit more time to reach, but one day and one night in each place is enough to do a tour, take in the natural beauty, and move on. If you plan to go to the Golfo de Fonseca, you will need two days. There is only one boat that leaves the islands for the mainland each day, very early in the morning, so unless you hire a private boat, you will have to spend the night on Isla Meanguera.

You can learn to surf at any time of year, but November to February offers ideal conditions for beginners. The waves are smaller and there are consistent offshore winds. Peak surfing season is March to October, so expect the more popular surf resorts to be fully booked most of the time.

Western Beaches

The western beaches of El Salvador are quickly becoming a beacon of surf, sun, and socializing for visitors of all stripes. Surfers flock to the strip of beaches along this side of the country, each of which offers unique breaks of varying difficulty. The famous Punta Roca in La Libertad is a favorite for experienced surfers, and nearby Playa Sunzal and Playa El Zonte are both great spots to learn. But you don’t have to be a surfer to enjoy these beaches. The west coast is also attracting backpackers and travelers looking to relax on beaches that are still relatively undeveloped; there are plenty of great places just to kick back in a hammock and be mesmerized by the waves, practice yoga, sunbathe, and enjoy the fresh seafood and social atmosphere.

Playa El Tunco is the most developed for tourism and boasts an eclectic mix of locals and visitors, including surfers, artists, tourists, and urbanites coming to party for the weekend before heading back to the daily grind in smoggy San Salvador. If you are looking for action, this is where you will find it. Other beaches such as Los Cóbanos and Barra de Santiago offer secluded getaways where you will get a taste of the local culture.

The western beaches are easy to get to, easy to travel between, and the number of hotels, English-speaking guides, and tourism amenities are increasing every day.


Just 32 kilometers southwest of San Salvador and 25 minutes from Aeropuerto Internacional Comalapa, the port town of La Libertad is the gateway to the western beaches of El Salvador, and exactly where you want to be if you are looking for fresh, cheap seafood. The malecón along the waterfront has recently been revamped with the objective of improving its once less-than-savory reputation, and so far it seems to be working. A long pier juts out to the sea and is surrounded by colorful fishing boats that bring in their fresh catch every day. On the western side of the pier you will find the Complejo Turistico, a freshly painted boardwalk with higher-end bars with live music, fancy cocktails, and fresh seafood. The other side of the pier also serves plenty of fresh seafood, ceviche, and beer for the more budget-minded. The less-manicured town center is teeming with pupuserías, blaring reggaeton, pharmacies, and small shops. The crowded central market seems to spill out onto every street corner, where colorfully clad women peddle equally colorful fruits and vegetables.

La Libertad draws local and international surfers to its world-class Punta Roca waves on a daily basis. For everyone else, the chaos and heat do not make this unpolished port town a prime destination. Most people visit simply to use the ATM, enjoy fresh seafood on the malecón, or pick up food at the market before heading to one of the prettier beaches farther west.



Surfers come to La Libertad to surf Punta Roca at the small beach called Playa La Paz, and most come in to surf and then leave. The waves here are for experienced surfers only, and it is one of the two places along the west coast that is considered a local surf spot (the other is La Bocana in El Tunco). This long hollow barrel can reach up to five meters but does get shallow during low tide. The beach is very rocky, so surf this wave with caution, or wear surf shoes.

Located at the entrance to Playa La Paz, Hospital de Tablas (tel. 7944-3632, 7am-4pm daily) is the only surfboard repair shop along the coast. It also sells boards and offers surf classes ($10 per hour), and you can also rent boards (10 for the day).

S Hiking in Parque Nacional Walter Thilo Deininger

Parque Nacional Walter Thilo Deininger (just east of La Libertad at Playa San Diego, tel. 2345-5684, 7am-4pm daily, $3) is one of the largest forest reserves in the country and is often overlooked, which is a shame, especially if you are interested in learning more about the flora, fauna, and history of the area. This dry forest is home to 25 different species of mammals, 27 species of reptiles, and 115 species of native and migratory birds, many of them endangered. The best time to spot wildlife is when the park’s rivers are dry, by the end of December until the beginning of April. During this time, you may spot iguanas, ocelots, or the local tepezcuintle, a large rodent similar to a guinea pig.

There are two main nature trails you can do in the park. Explore on your own, or go with a local guide, who will provide information about the landscape, history, and biodiversity of the area. The easier trail is a three-kilometer round-trip hike that takes you past a cool pool that you can swim in and a cave. If you want something challenging, you can do the eight-kilometer round-trip that goes up into the surrounding mountains. Both of the trails end at a beautiful mirador with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. The first hike is easy to do upon arrival, however it’s best to call ahead to arrange a guide if you are interested in doing the more challenging trail. Other interesting highlights on the guided hikes include vestiges of Pipil structures dating back to approximately AD 700, likely used for rituals involving water, and a cave where a unique type of bacterium has been discovered. Research is currently underway to develop it into an antibiotic.

While the best time to visit the park to see wildlife is December to April, the best time for swimming and seeing the lush greenery and rushing rivers is May to November.

To get to the park, take bus 80 from La Libertad and ask to be let out at the park. It runs every 30 minutes and costs $0.25.

Accommodations and Food

For surfers with their hearts set on finding budget accommodations next to the best waves in the country, there are cheap hotels and homes with rooms for rent along the malecón, but none that I would recommend. These kinds of places have garnered bad press in the past, mostly due to security issues. Things have definitely improved in the last few years with the installation of security cameras along the malecón, and most hotels now employ 24-hour security guards. If you are willing to spend a bit more money, there are two perfectly safe and suitable options in La Libertad.


Surfers who do decide to stay in La Libertad usually stay at La Terraza Surf Hotel (Malecón Turístico 2-7, Edificio AST, 3rd Fl., tel. 2346-2381, info@laterrazaelsalvador.com, $85 d), which is located right on the malecón and run by the international company Adventure Sports Tours (www.astadventures.com); guests are usually people who have booked tours through them, but it is possible to rent rooms if you are not part of a tour group. The rooms are on the second level, with a fantastic view of the ocean. Rooms are simple, clean, and bright, with retro floral print sheets on the beds, beige and salmon colored walls with surf art, brown tile floors, air-conditioning, and sliding glass doors that bring in the breeze from the ocean. There is a restaurant with the same great view, with passable food, but it’s a great place to have some drinks after a day of surfing.

The other best bet for lodging is Hotel Pacific Sunrise (Carretera Litoral and Calle El Obispo, tel. 2526-7000, www.hoteleselsalvador.com, $59 d, includes breakfast). Part of a wider chain of hotels in El Salvador, what Pacific Sunrise lacks in character it makes up for in comfort. This large hotel has 30 air-conditioned rooms with neatly made double beds, private baths, spotless tile floors, and if you are on the second floor, lovely views of the ocean. They all surround a pool and lounge area, with a small restaurant, Wi-Fi, and excellent service.

Sueños Pacíficos (Playa el Cocal, Hacienda Santa Emilia, Lots 1-4, beside Río Comasagua, tel. 7112-0662, suenospacificos@gmail.com), an eco-farm located near Playa La Paz in La Libertad, should be running by the time you read this book, with six oceanfront rooms with solar power and sustainable amenities. Sueños Pacíficos aims to combine conventional tourism with small-scale community tourism that directly involves the traveler with the locals. They will offer hands-on opportunities to learn new skills such as organic farming, permaculture, and natural building. They also plan to offer workshops in yoga and massage therapy. In addition to the oceanfront rooms, Sueños Pacíficos will have volunteer housing made entirely out of cob and rammed earth. If this isn’t enough to get you excited, the farm is also located just steps from one of the best surf breaks in the country.

Information and Services

The Ministry of Tourism (Km. 34, Carretera Litoral, right at the entrance of town, tel. 2346-1898) has an office in La Libertad with visitor information about the western beaches. El Faro Centro Comercial is located right at the entrance to La Libertad on Carretera Litoral. This shopping complex has a grocery store and an ATM.

Getting There

From San Salvador, take bus 102 ($0.60, 1 hour, runs every 15 minutes) from the southern terminal. From Sonsonate, you can take bus 287 ($1.50, 3 hours, 5:55am and 3:30pm daily). If you are driving from San Salvador, follow the CA4 highway for 45 minutes southwest to La Libertad.


Just west of La Libertad is San Blas, a pretty, peaceful beach lined with private homes and a few quiet hotels. San Blas is a good swimming beach with pearl-gray sand and not many travelers. It is also very close to Punta Roca, and Punta Roca Hotel is a popular choice for surfers who want a quiet place to stay that is close to the surf break. San Blas is a good choice if you are looking for a very low-key secluded beach with not much to do. It’s a perfect getaway with few restaurants and amenities—think romantic weekend away.

Accommodations and Food

Punta Roca Hotel (Playa Cocal, San Blas, tel. 2335-3261 or 7213-2178, www.puntaroca.com.sv, $60 d) is easy to find, with plenty of signage on Carretera Litoral and on the road to the beach, just a five-minute drive from the Punta Roca break. This tranquil and popular surf hotel is a good alternative for those who are looking for a quiet, relaxed place to stay, away from the crowds and parties in El Tunco. Lovely large rooms with tile floors, colorful art of ocean scenes, sofas, rocking chairs, TVs, air-conditioning, double beds, and private baths with hot water are set among the garden, right in front of the beach. There is a swimming pool and an excellent restaurant. Rooms can be rented on a nightly basis, but they also offer popular surf packages that include meals and daily transportation to Punta Roca and other surf spots. Check their website for details.

SABAS Beach Resort (Km. 39, Carretera Litoral, tel. 7670-5768, www.sabasbeachresort.com, $78 s or d) is a remote getaway for those looking for a quiet vacation. The resort is a two-story peach-colored building with art deco style—it looks more like Miami’s South Beach than El Salvador—but for those looking for a secure American-style hotel, SABAS is a good choice. The service is excellent, and the restaurant serves very good food. Rooms are spacious, breezy, and brand-new, with dark wood bed frames, mint green walls, white tile floors, and sliding glass doors that open to a terrace with an ocean view. All rooms have air-conditioning, TVs, and modern private baths.

Getting There

Buses 192 or 192B ($0.25, 15 minutes) run frequently from La Libertad to San Blas.


About two kilometers west of San Blas, El Tunco is the most popular beach on the west coast and the perfect place to catch the vibe of El Salvador’s international surf scene. A beautiful rock formation is the inspiration for the name of the beach—el tunco means “pig,” and the large rock that sits in the water is shaped like one. The famous El Tunco rock creates the river mouth that is La Bocana, one of the busiest surf spots in the country, drawing crowds who will captivate you with their grace and agility riding currents that can reach up to three meters high. Surf lessons are widely available here, as well as beachfront yoga classes and hikes to nearby waterfalls. A variety of restaurants and nightlife draws foreigners and Salvadorans alike to bustling bars with live music and open-mike nights, and there is a wide range of accommodations available, from cheap surf hostels to beautiful beachfront hotels.


The main pathway to the beach is lined with shops selling sun hats, bathing suits, beachwear, sunscreen, and jewelry. For higher-quality clothing and bathing suits along with surfboards and other surf gear, check out Papaya’s Surf Shop (tel. 2389-6185, 9am-6pm daily), right on the corner of the two main streets.

Xaltenco El Salvador (beside Hotel Tunco Lodge, tel. 2389-6322, www.toururales.com, 8am-5pm daily) sells handicrafts from local artisans as well as soaps, local coconut oil, and shoes. Check out the art from Artesanias El Pedregal, local artists who specialize in found and recycled art such as lanterns made from seashells, painted rocks, and hand-sewn bags.


S Surfing

La Bocana is the locals’ favorite break, and one of the most consistent waves in the country; with a grinding left and an underestimated right, these hollow waves often hit perfection. Expect to find wave hunters from the city being quite territorial on weekends. It’s best to surf La Bocana during the week when things quiet down. La Bocana is for experienced surfers only.

Surf classes can be arranged by any of the hotels in El Tunco, but the only certified surf instructor in El Tunco is Marcelo Castellanos at Puro Surf El Salvador (tel. 7737-4759, info@purosurf.com.sv). This professional surfer and national champion can be found at Club Tecleño, located on the beach. It’s the first surf club you will see leaving El Tunco on the way to El Sunzal. Marcelo charges $40 per hour for high-quality surf lessons. For all other instructors, the going rate is $10 per hour. It is also possible to rent surfboards at almost all of the hotels; the rate is usually $10 for the day.


surf lesson at Playa El Tunco

S Hiking to Tamanique Waterfalls

The hike to Tamanique Waterfalls is an excellent intermediate hike. The four-hour round-trip includes walking past cornfields, through lush rainforest, scrambling up and down large rocks, jumping over rivers, and finally past a series of waterfalls where you can jump into the cool pools below. The hike ends at a large pristine pool fed by a gorgeous waterfall and surrounded by large smooth rocks perfect for relaxing in the sun.

If you would like to support community development in the town of Tamanique, you can contact TouRurales (next to Hotel Tunco Lodge, tel. 2389-6322, 8am-5pm daily, $20 pp for up to 4 people, $15 pp for a group of 5 or more). This excellent company supports sustainable tourism and provides transportation to and from Tamanique, where they organize local guides to take you on the hike.

The hike can also be done with Baltazar Monroy of Eternal Summer Tours (tel. 7842-8886, baltazar_monroy@yahoo.es, $20 pp for up to 4 people, $15 pp for a group of 5 or more), which includes transportation to and from Tamanique and a bilingual guide. If you are willing to take the bus, Tamanique Cascadas Tour (tel. 7226-2534, $7 pp) is a fun local outfit that takes groups on the bus to Tamanique and also does guided hikes.

Alternatively, you can just show up in Tamanique on your own. There is never a shortage of entrepreneurial boys hanging out, happy to guide you for a few bucks. To get to Tamanique, take bus 187A ($0.50, 45 minutes, runs every half hour) from the Tamanique Desvio on the Carretera Litoral. Bring a hat, water, and sunscreen—it gets hot.


Hikers cool off after the trek to the Tamanique Waterfalls near El Tunco.


Many people offer tours to San Salvador from El Tunco, but your best bet for a bilingual guide who offers unique tours you will not find anywhere else is El Salvador Adventures (tel. 7844-0858, www.wtf-elsalvador.com). Go to San Salvador to take a tour of a local brewery and finish with the best burger in the city, or head to an underground parking lot in downtown San Salvador to experience the heated excitement of lucha libre, the Mexican-inspired free wrestling that involves colorful masks, dramatic characters, and plenty of beer. El Salvador Adventures also offers more traditional tours through Ruta de Las Flores, where you will visit artisanal villages, waterfalls in Juayúa, and the ruins of Tazumal, San Andrés, or Joya de Cerén. Check the website for details, or find out more at Gekko Trails Explorer (tel. 7249-6263, www.gekkotrailsexplorer.com, 10am-5pm daily), located on the main road near Mopelia Hotel.


Ashtanga yoga classes are offered by experienced teacher Suni Apter of Essy Retreats (tel. 7682-3237, www.essyretreats.com, $5 pp) three times a week at either La Guitarra or El Tunco Veloz. Apter also offers excellent therapeutic massages and personal training. See her website for class schedules and details.



El Tunco is notorious for its nightlife, and Salvadorans flock to this beach every weekend to enjoy the sun, surf, and party. The beachfront bars are the most popular and usually have live music on Friday and Saturday nights. La Guitarra (tel. 2389-6398, www.surfingeltunco.com, 5pm-2am Fri.-Sat.) is right in front of El Tunco rock, which is lit up after dark, creating an amazing view of the rock formation and ocean at night. La Guitarra brings the best bands in the country to its stage every weekend and does not charge cover. Expect to hear jazz, funk, soul, reggae, and ska. If La Guitarra is not your thing, you can check out D’Rocas (tel. 2389-6126, rocasunzal@hotmail.com, 5pm-2am Fri.-Sat.), which is right next door. D’Rocas has a cover charge of $3 and also often has live dance music. There are two floors with a towering balcony where you can have a drink with a bird’s eye view of the action on the dance floor below. Both La Guitarra and D’Rocas have seating available outside where you can enjoy the ocean breeze and view.

Farther west, down the beach, things get a little headier, where the pummeling reggaeton and flashing lights of La Bocana (tel. 2389-6134, www.baryrestaurantelabocana.com, 7pm-2am Fri.-Sat., no cover) and Erika’s (tel. 7890-1923, 7pm-2am Fri.-Sat., no cover) compete for the attention of dancers.

For action farther away from the beach, be sure to check out Surfo’s the Bar (tel. 7666-4745 or 7854-8839, ivan_patino72@yahoo.com, 9am-midnight Fri.-Sat.). Minimart and travel agency by day, international watering hole by night, this space may not be big, but the vibe is always right. Stock up on snacks, buy a bus ticket, grab a beer, and make some friends—it can all be done here. Affable owner and local musician Patiño will keep you moving with premium selections of funk, soul, house, and hip-hop, plus he has the coldest beer in town. There is no cover.

Right next door to Surfo’s is Jaguar Bar and Restaurant (tel. 2389-6159, barjaguar@gmail.com, 8am-10pm Sun.-Thurs., 8am-2am Fri.-Sat.), a casual bar that usually plays a good selection of reggae and serves up colorful cocktails on the lovely street-side patio. There is an outdoor open-mike night every Tuesday (no cover) starting at 8pm, which always draws a crowd. Get there early if you want a table.

Right across the street from Jaguar, The Lab (tel. 7817-3383, 5pm-2am daily, $5-10) definitely has an experimental vibe to it. White tables sit under black lights and fluorescent psychedelic art and electronic music keeps the crowd moving. The Lab has a variety of tasty infused vodkas, from jalapeño to strawberry. Their other shtick is meat on a stick, which is also very good. There is no cover.


Under $10

The most popular budget hostel in town is La Sombra Hostel (located on the second dirt road on the left side after entering El Tunco from the Carretera Litoral, no phone, www.surflibre.com, $7 pp dorm, $18 s with fan, $20 s with a/c, $25 d with fan, $30 d with a/c). Boasting a very laid-back vibe with amiable management, a swimming pool, Wi-Fi, and a small kitchen, La Sombra is also just a short walk to the beach, and it is almost always full. Simple rooms with tile floors and clean white walls are complemented with surf art and colorful bedspreads. The dorms are small and very basic, but at $7 it’s the cheapest bed you will find in El Tunco.


A little farther down the road from La Sombra Hostel, you will find the equally laid-back but more intimate Casa Makoi (tel. 2389-6360, catherine.b1@gmx.ch, $10 pp dorm, $15-20 d with fan, $35-45 d with a/c). Hidden behind a sliding wooden gate are a garden and a colorful mural covering the front of a lovely three-story house, where you will find a small dorm and private rooms. The rooms are basic but clean and new. The private rooms on the top floor have a great private terrace and windows that open up to the palms and birds. Casa Makoi is a favorite for those interested in more long-term stays (ask about weekly and monthly discounts), although it works just as well for a short visit. There is a very small kitchen on the second floor and a cute café on the first floor serving breakfast, freshly baked bread, sweet treats, and coffee fresh from the in-house espresso machine.

S Hotel Mopelia (Calle Principal, near the entrance to El Tunco, tel. 2389-6265, produitblanc@hotmail.com, $10 s with fan, $15 d with fan, shared bath; $25 s with a/c, $35 d with a/c, private baths) is an excellent budget choice. This hotel offers a long, peaceful piece of land where stepping-stones lead you to colorful cabañas set amid papaya and palm trees; you’re close enough to the beach for the waves to lull you to sleep. The rooms are basic, with concrete floors, double beds, shelves, and a small side table. There is a swimming pool and a very good restaurant with the best selection of beer in El Tunco. Wi-Fi is available, but only in the restaurant area.

Although centrally located on the main street, Papaya’s Lodge (tel. 2389-6027, www.papayalodge.com, $8 pp dorm, $25 d with fan) is a bit inconspicuous due to its large wooden gates that hide the inside of the hostel. Once inside, you are greeted by a swimming pool, spacious lounging areas with hammocks, a small kitchen, and a TV area. Owned by longtime surfer and laid-back El Tunco local “Papaya,” the lodge was the first place to open its doors to traveling surfers back in the 1990s. He has since rebuilt the hostel, which now boasts two floors with wraparound terraces and plenty of lodging options. Rooms are simple, keeping with the bright color theme, with yellow and green walls, surf art, and striped bedspreads. Surfboard rental and surf lessons are also available.

Tunco Lodge (tel. 2389-6318, www.tuncolodge.com, $10 pp dorm with fan, $12 pp dorm with a/c, $30 d with fan, $40 d with a/c) sits on the street that runs perpendicular to the main road, heading away from the beach. This is a very competitive backpacker place because of the little extras, like the option of air-conditioning in dorms for just a few dollars more, Wi-Fi, computers, a kitchen, a shady lounge area with a TV and DVDs, and a swank swimming pool where the parties can occasionally get wild. There are rooms for different budgets, from dorms with fans to brand-new private rooms with air-conditioning. They are all hidden away in its own little complex, close enough to the action but still a nice little refuge. You can arrange transportation, tours, and surf lessons here; just ask at the front desk.

Zuzu’s Hangout Guesthouse (turn left at the end of the road that runs perpendicular to Calle Principal, heading away from the beach, tel. 2389-6239 or 7468-9898, www.zuzusplayaeltunco.com, $10 pp dorm, $25 d with fan) is cute enough but never really took off due to its location. Close to the main road, far away from the beach, in a quiet residential part of town, Zuzu’s is a good place to check if you are in El Tunco on a busy weekend and everywhere else is full. It is the one place where you can almost always find a room. There is a great lounge area with throw pillows and hammocks that overlooks the river, and rooms are small but cute with seashell themes. There is also a TV area and a small kitchen for guest use.


Beside the river, on the road that runs perpendicular to Calle Principal, heading away from the beach, you will find Posada Luna (tel. 2389-6147 or 7721-3420, www.lunasurfingelsalvador.com, $35 d with fan, $45 d with a/c), a quiet little hostel offering basic private rooms, a cute lounge area beside the river, and a swimming pool.

Set on a quiet side street away from the bustle of El Tunco, but still close to the beach, Hotel Pupa (first left coming into El Tunco from Carretera Litoral, tel. 7529-1414, hotelpupa@gmail.com, $25 d with fan, $30 d with a/c) is a hidden gem. Pupa offers private rooms in a quiet, laid-back environment with friendly, helpful owners who are always nearby to answer questions or perhaps even invite you on one of their informal tours around the country. A cheerful yellow and green house with a terra-cotta roof sits in among the trees and flowers and large beautiful hammocks, perfect for postsurf naps. This all surrounds a courtyard with a small swimming pool and a kitchen. The rooms are spacious, with pretty tile floors, big windows letting in lots of light, and private baths.

Hotel La Bocanita (Calle Principal, near the entrance to El Tunco, tel. 7211-9519, $20 d with fan, $30 d with a/c shared bath; $40 d with fan, $50 d with a/c private bath) is a nice new addition to El Tunco’s mid-range options, offering brand-new air-conditioned rooms around a courtyard full of plants and a big swimming pool. Rooms are basic, with chocolate brown and orange tones, couches, and tile floors. The rooms on the second level have a terrace that overlooks the pool.

S La Guitarra (corner of Calle Principal and the path to the beach, tel. 2389-6398, www.surfingeltunco.com, $28 s, $50 d) is the most comfortable mid-range stay in El Tunco, offering amenities such as a swimming pool, Wi-Fi, and a kitchen for guests to use. It is a local favorite, and designed to appeal to long-term stays (ask about long-term discounts). Each room has two big beds with tie-dyed bedspreads, ceiling fans, cool tile floors, exposed brick walls, and private baths. Sliding glass doors open up to cute individual terraces and hammocks that faces a tranquil green space with a stone pathway that takes you out to the restaurant and beach, or to the main road. La Guitarra also has a popular bar, with live (loud) music on the weekend. Unless you are planning on taking part in the revelry, or you’re an exceptionally deep sleeper, it’s best not to plan a stay here on Friday and Saturday nights.


On the same road as budget hostels La Sombra and Casa Makoi, Eco del Mar (no phone, www.ecosurfelsalvador.com, $50 d with fan, $60 d with a/c) is a lovely if not-so-aptly-named hostel (although it’s beautiful, there is nothing about it that makes it specifically eco-friendly). Popular with those looking for a comfortable mid-range option, Eco del Mar has stylish rooms in a modern yet organic-looking building, with terraces built out of local wood logs. The rooms are clean, new, and full of neutral colors, with sleek white walls adorned with simple art in primary colors. Each room has a kitchenette, including a tiny dark-wood bar. There is a swimming pool, hammocks on the terraces, and a small restaurant, but you need to order food in advance so the staff can arrange for someone to come in and cook.

El Tunco’s only boutique hotel, Tekuani Kal (Calle Principal, tel. 2389-6388, www.tekuanikal.com, $86 d, includes breakfast) offers simple, elegant rooms with low platform beds covered in brightly embroidered Guatemalan textiles, TVs, air-conditioning, and a great view of the sea. The grounds are peppered with indigenous sculptures, sleekly designed waterfalls, and an infinity pool. Although the property design is gorgeous, the carpeted rooms are quite worn and do not do the rest of the hotel justice. At the time of publication renovations were underway, so hopefully the rooms are looking a little fresher by now.

Beachfront hotel Roca Sunzal (tel. 2389-6126, rocasunzal@hotmail.com, $75 d) offers lovely rooms around a swimming pool and restaurant, all facing the famous El Tunco rock formation that the town is named after. The rooms are simple and spacious, with air-conditioning, TVs, cool tile floors, and big double beds with floral bedspreads, but the real draw here is the location and the view. It’s possible to walk from your hotel room straight onto the beach. The restaurant is a perfect place for evening drinks as you watch El Tunco’s famous sunset. Be warned that if you stay here on the weekend, you will hear the live music from La Guitarra next door until about 1am.


Tucked away in a pretty backyard garden, the casually refined S Tunco Veloz Pizzeria (Calle Principal, in front of Tekuani Kal Hotel, tel. 2319-8611, tuncoveloz@gmail.com, 4pm-10pm Tues.-Sun., $5-10) is the perfect spot to start a night out, or to make a night of it—enjoying a slow, intimate meal away from the chaos and crowds. Serving up delicious thin-crust pizza with homemade dough and local ingredients alongside infused oils and a decent wine selection, this hidden gem is not to be missed. The menu also boasts tasty pastas, soups, and salads.

The rustic and cozy S Mopelia (Calle Principal, tel. 2389-6265, produitblanc@hotmail.com, 9am-11am and 5pm-10pm daily, $3-7) has the most extensive beer selection in town (the owner is Belgian; what would you expect?). Combine this lengthy list of libations with hearty home cooked meals like excellent pastas, the best steak in El Tunco, meatballs, pork chops, and if you still have room for dessert, proper Belgian waffles—it’s no wonder this place is so popular with hungry surfers and locals alike. Lounge areas with throw cushions, Wi-Fi, a Ping-Pong table (including a pretty serious Ping-Pong competition every Monday night starting at 8pm), and an excellent selection of music all come together to create a great atmosphere.

On the same property as Mopelia, the Asian-inspired Take a Wok (Calle Principal, tel. 6007-5539, 4pm-10pm Mon.-Thurs., 4pm-11pm Fri., noon-11pm Sat., noon-10pm Sun., $3-7) fills a much needed niche with its popular fast-food open kitchen. Staff furiously work over hot woks as they prepare rice or noodles, combined with your choice of protein and vegetables, and unique homemade sauces like coconut curry and ginger guava. Portions are big and economical, and freshly brewed iced teas with ginger, basil, and honey are delicious too.

S Soya Nutribar (Calle Principal, near Mopelia, tel. 7887-1596, 8am-5pm daily, $3-5) is the perfect solution to a weekend of excess in El Tunco. This tiny little juice and salad bar offers fresh vegetable juices, fruit smoothies, and other chlorophyll-infused elixirs to get your blood cleansed and energy levels back up for more surfing and socializing. They also serve excellent salads and other treats such as gluten-free granola, chocolate energy balls, and local honey.

Centrally located on the main street, Jaguar Bar and Restaurant (tel. 2389-6159, barjaguar@gmail.com, 8am-10pm Sun.-Thurs., 8am-2am Fri.-Sat., $4-10) is a good stop for pub food. Jaguar is popular for its massive smoothies, steaks, nachos, big salads, and hearty fish-and-chips. It’s one of the only restaurants with Wi-Fi and outdoor seating, ideal for people-watching while you check your email.

Right across the street from Jaguar is the most tastefully designed place in town, Loroco Bistro (tel. 7725-5744, hours vary, hit or miss). This outdoor bistro is designed with local wood from Ruta de Las Flores, with trunks serving as both tables and chairs. Owner Carlos Cardona Sasso tries to bring a bit of culture to this surf town, with occasional art exhibits and guest lectures about Salvadoran culture and history. The sign that hangs out front is also wooden and painted with the signature colorful designs of local artist Renacho Melgar. The food aims to use local ingredients to create international fare, offering dishes such as pulled-pork sandwiches, black bean burgers, and potato salad.

Esquina la Comadre (tel. 7261-3873, 8am-11pm Mon.-Sat., $3-8) is the long-standing El Tunco favorite for budget food. Cheap breakfasts and burritos are the mainstays in this small family-run restaurant, located on the corner of the two main roads in town. This is a popular gathering spot for lunch after a morning surf session. Taco Guanaco (tel. 7730-5933, 7:30am-11pm daily, $3-10) is the other budget favorite. As you walk on the main pathway that leads to the beach, look up and you will see the sign on the left side. Serving reasonable portions at reasonable prices, Taco Guanaco specializes in burritos, seafood plates, grilled meat, and pasta. There are a couple of tables right on the pathway, but the majority are upstairs, where a small second level overlooks the pedestrian traffic. The brand-new Coyote Cojo (left side of the pathway to the beach, no phone, 9am-5pm daily, $3-6) is known for its popular sandwiches and an extensive breakfast menu, including eggs prepared any way you can think of, such as egg quesadillas, eggs benedict, and bagels with eggs.

Dale! Dale! Café (tel. 2389-6126, 6am-5pm Mon.-Thurs., 6am-9pm Fri.-Sat., 6am-8pm Sun., $3-5) is a popular pit stop for surfers seeking a caffeine hit. Located on the right side of the main path toward the beach, Dale! Dale! Café has an espresso machine and offers lattés and cappuccinos alongside specialty teas, great breakfast options like fruit, yogurt, and granola, and healthy lunches that include salads, hummus and pita, and sandwiches. There is a nice shady seating area out back with a great view of the river and beach. They also have Wi-Fi.

La Cuma Burgers and Grill (tel. 2389-6126, 7am-10pm daily, $6-14) is right next door to Dale! Dale! Café, and as its name suggests, serves burgers and does them right. High-quality beef is served on homemade bread and with toppings that come together to make a burger you will keep coming back for. Try La Niña, with Sriracha aioli, grilled pineapple, and onion rings la local with jalapeño garlic mayo, cheddar cheese, bacon, grilled onions, red bell pepper, and mushrooms. La Cuma also serve great pasta, grilled meat, and seafood. The seating is beside the river so there is more of a breeze than most other places, and there is Wi-Fi.

La Bocana (at the end of the main pathway to the beach, left side, tel. 2389-6134, www.baryrestaurantelabocana.com, 7am-10pm daily, $5-15) serves decent food with a great view. This is a local favorite for seafood, ceviche, and beer. The second floor looks out over the ocean and catches a lovely breeze. If you are craving pasta, La Bocana serves tasty, generous pasta plates for $5.

Information and Services

On the main road, you can find Gekko Trails Explorer (tel. 7249-6263, www.gekkotrailsexplorer.com, 10am-5pm daily), an excellent tour company that can arrange package tours and provide shuttle transportation from El Salvador to Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

Surfo’s Travel Agency (tel. 7666-4745 or 7854-8839, ivan_patino72@yahoo.com, 9am-10pm daily) is also located on the main street in El Tunco, closer to the main path toward the beach. This is where you can book international bus tickets, private shuttles, and taxis. Owner Ivan Patiño speaks English and can help you out with any questions you may have about getting around El Salvador or out of the country to neighboring Guatemala or Honduras.

Xaltenco El Salvador (beside Hotel Tunco Lodge, tel. 2389-6322, 8am-5pm daily) is the only Internet café in El Tunco. Services include Internet access, international calls, printing, scanning, and photocopies. There is no supermarket in El Tunco, just small tiendas with the basics. The closest grocery store is in La Libertad.

Dr. Luis May (Calle Principal, close to the entrance of El Tunco, tel. 7887-1596) has an office inside Soya Nutribar and provides excellent consultations ($25 per session) for alternative health treatments.

Getting There and Around

Buses 80, 192, 102A, and 187A (30 minutes, $0.25) all run from La Libertad to El Tunco.

You can rent a car in El Tunco, but it will cost you significantly more than it would in San Salvador. The going rate for car rental in El Tunco is $40-50 per day, as opposed to $25 per day in San Salvador. Beware of locals offering to rent their cars; they sometimes break down, so you could be left stranded and likely not get your money back. Ronaldiño of 360 Rentals (tel. 7648-1477) provides reliable car rentals. You can ask for him at Xaltenco El Salvador.


Just a seven-minute walk west along the beach from El Tunco is El Sunzal, where one of the most consistent and powerful waves in the country keeps serious surfers content. There is one high-end hotel here, but the other options are strictly for surfers who are looking for a secluded budget option close to the popular point break.



Sunzal is famous for its surf, and all of the hotels here offer surf lessons and surfboard rentals. This fun, long right-hander seems to pick up every bit of swell in the water, making it a favorite break. This is a great beginner to intermediate and longboarding wave. Rides of over 150 meters are not uncommon.

Eternal Summers Tours (tel. 7842-8886, baltazar_monroy@yahoo.es), run by Baltazar Monroy, manager of Sunzal Point Hostel, can arrange surf tours.

S Fishing

La Libertad Fishing Co. (tel. 7887-0666, esfishinco@gmail.com, prices vary by tour) offers expert fishing instruction on offshore and inshore fishing trips around Sunzal. Head out to sea on a seven-meter panga with a 115-hp engine to fish for jack, tuna, red snapper, grouper, mahimahi, barracuda, roosterfish, snook, and mackerel. Your guide, Roberto Figueroa of Hostal Los Almendros, is bilingual, and his passion for fishing is infectious. The area around Sunzal is rocky, but those who are adventurous enough can also try their hand at surf fishing. Take your catch back to the beautiful hostel, where the kitchen will cook it for you (in Thai curry if you want) and enjoy it with a cold beer and an unrivaled view of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Cacao Farm Tour

Learn about the history of cacao in El Salvador on a tour of a local cacao farm with Roberto Figueroa of Hostal Los Almendros (tel. 7887-0666, chocotoursv@gmail.com, about 4 hours, $200, up to 10 people). This tour will take you to the indigenous town of Izalco, where you will learn how cacao is grown and how it goes from seed to chocolate. Finish with a chocolate-making session by the beach and then savor the sweet fruits of your labor.


Three budget surf hostels sit beside each other in the shade of mango trees right beside the beach. Surfers Inn Hostel (tel. 2355-7049 or 7925-4232, surfersinnantonio@hotmail.com, $10 d private room), a friendly, family-run hostel with small, simple, but clean cinder block rooms with fans, hammocks, and a very small, very basic kitchen.

Right across the way from Surfers Inn Hostel is Guesthouse El Balsamo (tel. 7404-8117 or 2389-6140, guesthouse@elbalsamo.com, $5 pp dorm, $25 d with fan), where the dorm is a great deal. Four bunk beds are inside a cheerfully painted green and orange brick room, with a shared bath, floor fans, and a common lounge area. The private rooms are spacious and new, with lots of light, plants, shiny black tile floors, and space to store your surfboards. There is no kitchen, but some burners are set up outside the dorm for basic cooking. El Balsamo also has a half pipe for skateboarding as well as cool little wooden bar set up on a platform in the shade.

Sunzal Point Hostel (tel. 7237-9869, sunzalpoint@sunzalpoint.com, $7 pp dorm, $18 d) has been around the longest and is an established favorite for serious surfers on a budget. It is located right in front of the other hostels, closer to the beach. Nestled between mango and tamarind trees, just steps from the beach, Sunzal Point has one dorm with eight beds (most of which are quite well worn) and one private room with the same setup as the dorm (basic, worn bed, surf art on the wall, one fan). Rooms can get crowded and hot during the day, but they open up to a shaded common area with hammocks. There are two common showers and toilets, an outdoor volleyball court, and a small not-so-clean or well-stocked kitchen. Manager Baltazar Monroy also runs Eternal Summers Tours (tel. 7842-8886, baltazar_monroy@yahoo.es) and can arrange surf tours and hiking trips.

S Hostal Los Almendros (tel. 7887-0666, hostal.losalmendros@gmail.com, $25 s, $35 d) is the hidden gem of this part of the coast. This large beachfront house, with plenty of outdoor terrace space, hammocks, and lounge chairs, is just steps away from the Sunzal surf break. Rooms are spacious and simple, with cool tile floors, fans, and private baths. The vibe here is friendly and mellow, and the extremely helpful bilingual owner Roberto Figueroa also runs excellent fishing trips, and cacao tours. Thai food is available at the restaurant. You can add three meals a day to your stay for an additional $15.

S Casa de Mar Hotel and Villas (Km. 43, Carretera Litoral, tel. 2389-6284, www.casademarhotel.com, $153 s, 189 d) is one of the best boutique hotels in the country and a popular place for all-inclusive surf tours, but you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate this beautiful hotel for both its superior service and beautiful rooms with ocean views. Two-story wooden cabañas are set above the beach, nestled between flowers and palm trees with a spectacular view—surfers can practically check the lineup from bed when they wake up in the morning. The rooms are impeccable, with large windows that let in sunlight and the sound of the palms swaying in the ocean breeze. Double beds with a simple design of white and red sheets, plants, sofas, and chairs with floral-print throw pillows all come together to create the perfect blend of tropical style and boutique chic. All rooms have air-conditioning, TVs, modern baths with hot water, and nice little touches like hooks in the shower to hang wet bathing suits. There is a swimming pool and a bar as well as one of the finest restaurants along the coast, Café Sunzal. Tours, surf classes, massages, and yoga classes can all be arranged here; just ask at the front desk.


Sharky’s (tel. 7959-3458, sharkyssunzal@gmail.com, 9am-9pm daily, $4-8) is the only budget restaurant in Sunzal, and sits right across from Sunzal Point Hostel. This casual outdoor restaurant, on a patio underneath a thatched roof, serves up a hearty breakfast burrito and lots of other great breakfast options as well as burgers, quesadillas, and other yummy pub fare.

Los Almendros (tel. 7887-0666, hostal.losalmendros@gmail.com, noon-2pm and 5pm-7pm daily, $8-10) is the only place in the country serving up Thai-influenced tropical curry made with freshly pressed coconut milk straight from the trees in front of the restaurant. Daily plates vary, but beef, chicken, fish, and vegetarian options are usually always available. This friendly, informal restaurant is a part of the Hostal Los Almendros and offers a simple outdoor seating area and beautiful ocean views. Hours are flexible; if you show up and the chef is here, you can eat.

Café Sunzal (Km. 43, Carretera Litoral, tel. 2355-7137, www.casademar.com, 11am-5:30pm Sun.-Thurs., 11am-9:30pm Fri.-Sat., $7-15) is Casa de Mar’s adjunct restaurant and offers some of the best food on the coast. A large wooden deck built into a cliff overlooking the ocean offers a sweet breeze and choice views of surfers doing their thing. This is a gorgeous place to have a meal or just stop by for a drink. The seafood is your best bet. Try the fish fillet with sesame seeds and honey-roasted almonds, or island-style fish with coconut curry.

Getting There

Buses 80, 192, 102A, and 187A ($0.25, 35 minutes) all travel from La Libertad to Sunzal. If you are coming from El Tunco, it’s faster to walk along the beach, but don’t walk between beaches at night; it can be dangerous.


A relaxed community vibe appeals to surfers and nonsurfers alike in El Zonte, about 15 kilometers west of El Sunzal. It’s the perfect place to while away a few days in a hammock, or to take surf lessons with some of the most highly recommended teachers in the country (although at slightly higher prices than at El Tunco). A handful of restaurants and hostels line the beach, and every evening there is a certain magic in the air as the locals and tourists gather at the shore to admire surfers ride the gorgeous sunset crests. Everything shuts down here by 9pm or earlier, unless one of the local bars decides to stay open (this usually depends on the number of people harassing the bartender).

Sports and Recreation


El Zonte is one of the best spots in El Salvador to learn how to stand up on a surfboard. The waves here are very forgiving. Classes cost more here than in El Tunco, but they are less crowded, and the teaching style is better suited to beginners, meaning students start off by practicing in the white water instead of immediately being taken out to tackle intimidating waves. Surf lessons are offered at all the hotels in El Zonte, but the teachers at Esencia Nativa (tel. 7737-8879, www.esencianativa.com, $20 per hour) come highly recommended. You can also rent surfboards at Esencia Nativa for $10 per day.

Intermediate surfers will love Zonte’s hollow, fast right-hander with clean sections. Just past the point on Zonte there is also a good left-hander that offers a welcome change to the ubiquitous right points.


Alexandra Pacheco of Yoga Group El Zonte leads yoga classes five days a week in El Zonte: 9:30am Monday and Thursday at Casa de Frida (west side of the river, tel. 7561-0315), and 8:30am Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday at Olas Permanentes (west side of the river, tel. 7432-7560).


For guided trips to Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (Cerro Verde), informal surf tours, cultural tours to the ruins of Tazumal, San Andrés, and Joya de Cerén, or a fun day trip to Ruta de Las Flores, contact the lovely Luis Rivas of Zonte Spanish S’cool and Tours (tel. 7297-6003). He speaks English and also offers highly recommended Spanish classes. Ask for him at Esencia Nativa.


Under $10

Esencia Nativa (tel. 7737-8879, www.esencianativa.com, $8 pp dorm, $20 d) sits in the heart of El Zonte, with a perfect view of the palm-lined river and the rocky shoreline that leads to the breaking waves. A simple palapa with a huge mural of indigenous art on its facade creates the restaurant area, which sits beside a swimming pool surrounded by flowers, green space, and pretty mosaic stepping-stones that lead you around the property. There is lots of chill-out space with hammocks and loungers, all put together with sleek, organic design that blends beautifully with the landscape. Sociable owner Alex Novoa is one of the best surf instructors in the country, and his staff are among the hardest working, serving up top-notch food from the open-concept kitchen and bar. Esencia Nativa offers one large dormitory with wooden bunk beds, fans, and one shared bath, as well as cute private rooms with double beds, fans, surf art, and private baths. There is also an indoor lounge area with a TV and DVDs, a small shop with beach essentials (sunscreen, bikinis), surfboards for rent, transportation, and surf tours provided. Just ask Alex for details.

Canegue Hostal (tel. 7598-6913, $3 camping, $7 pp dorm, $20 d) is a small two-story house set back from the beach with a sprawling property where it is possible to camp or rent hammocks. The dorm is small and simple with four beds, one floor fan, and a colorful mural on the wall. There are two simple but cute private rooms on the top floor, with double beds, private baths, and storage space. Both open up to a large terrace with hammocks and tables and chairs. One more private room is hidden behind the house in an adorable little casita with its own tiny porch and hammock. All rooms have fans. Quirky owner Zancudo is well known for surfing El Zonte’s bold waves on a boogie board as well as hosting some of El Zonte’s impromptu parties.


On the west side of the river is La Casa de Frida (tel. 7561-0315, www.lacasadefrida.com, $25 d), a popular spot for day trippers, but also an excellent deal for those who want to stay the night. Rooms are spacious, each with two double beds, fans, exposed brick walls, tile floors, big windows, and private baths. Outside, a relaxing green space with hammocks and a few tables right on the beach make for a great place to spend a lazy afternoon. The restaurant serves good food, and the new management is very friendly and accommodating.

Horizonte Surf Resort (tel. 7737-5239, horizontesurfresort.com, $10 pp dorm, $20 budget s, $40 d, discounts for longer stays) is across the street from Esencia Nativa and is known for the colorful parrots and large iguanas that hang around the swimming pool. The grassy grounds are well manicured and relaxing, with a shady lounge area with a flat-screen TV, a small basic kitchen, and a restaurant. The double rooms have cinderblock walls with modern art, sliding mirrored glass doors encasing the baths, and tiny floor fans, creating a strange blend of utilitarian and chic style. There is also a great third-story terrace space with hammocks, a small swimming pool, and expansive view of the ocean. The budget single rooms are very small and stuffy, with floor fans and no windows; you would be better off going for the dorms, which sit on the second-level terrace, with fans, overlooking the ocean and catching a great breeze. There is Wi-Fi in the lounge area only.


El Salvador Surf House (tel. 7297-1633, $25 pp with fan, $30 pp with a/c, $70 3rd Fl. suite with a/c, private bath, and patio overlooking the ocean) is a bit farther away from the beach than the other hotels, but what American owner Dan Roberts lacks in location he more than makes up for with atmosphere. Entering town from Carretera Litoral, take the first left down a dirt road; it’s the first house on the right side. Th. house boasts a beautiful wide-open air space with hammocks for lounging, a small but well-stocked kitchen, and a gorgeous swimming pool that is lit up at night and has stylish waterfalls flowing into it. The rooms are simple but new and attractive, with double beds, towels, and private baths. Roberts is an experienced surfer who has been living in El Zonte for years and can provide customized surf tours for groups or facilitate long-term stays. This is the perfect place for a group of surfers looking for a private house with a fun host.

Surf hostel Olas Permanentes (tel. 7432-7560, www.olaspermanentes.com, $40 d) is located on the west side of the river, just a few doors down from Casa de Frida, and has a great shady lounge space with comfy sofas and chairs, sea shell mobiles swaying in the breeze, wooden tables, and surf art. There is a good restaurant with thatched-roof shade. The rooms are simple and spacious, with air-conditioning, wallpaper with aquatic designs, cool tile floors, and private baths with seashell mirrors. Surf tours, classes, and board rentals are offered.


El Dorado (first hotel west of the river, tel. 7226-6166, www.surfeldorado.com, $92 d) is the swankiest place to stay in El Zonte. Run by a French Canadian surfer, El Dorado is a popular vacation spot for French Canadian surfers. Geared toward surfers, there is a short but powerful left break right in front of the hotel, with outdoor showers and plenty of hammocks and lounge chairs for relaxing between sessions and keeping an eye on the waves and the lineup. The rooms are lovely, all set on the second floors of wooden cabañas with thatched roofs, with minimalist organic design including low wooden platform beds, fans, and private baths (also with wooden floors and some with open air showers). There is a swimming pool that is beautifully lit up at night as well as a hip little bar that gets busy during the high season and serves cocktails made with local fruits, and a popular Long Island iced tea made with Zacapa rum. The restaurant serves fusion food with Thai, French, and Italian influences on Salvadoran staples.

Information and Services

There are no services in this tiny beach town. You will not find Wi-Fi, but some places have a USB device that you can rent for about $2 an hour that provides an Internet connection.

Getting There

From La Libertad (or anywhere between La Libertad and El Zonte), take buses 192 or 192B ($0.25, 1 hour); buses run every 15 minutes.


Continue west along the winding road, popping in and out of a series of tunnels, and the views get more and more impressive. The road hugs the coastline, and jaw-dropping views of the roaring Pacific on one side are complemented by the vibrant green cattle fields and expansive palm-laden land on the other. About 30 kilometers from El Zonte, Mizata is the last surf town on the west coast, a remote paradise where there is not much else to do but ride the famously unpredictable right point wave. Mizata is a favorite for surfers looking for a tranquil, secluded vibe.

Mizata Point Resort (tel. 7977-4994, www.mizatapointresort.com, $65 d) is a beautiful remote resort with a sprinkling of lovely cabañas facing the sea. A small pool sits right in front of the ocean with a view of the towering cliffs and crashing waves. The rooms are simple, with queen beds below surf murals, air-conditioning, hot water, TVs, and a terrace facing the ocean. There is a large open-air restaurant that serves seafood and other snacks. Surf lessons and surfboard rentals can be arranged.

The aptly named The Last Resort (tel. 2347-9041 or 7243-0401, www.mizataresort.com, $10 pp dorm, not including breakfast; $50 s, $65 d, includes breakfast) sits at the end of the road in Mizata. This newly constructed hotel has air-conditioned rooms with crisp white walls adorned with massive surf photos. A beautiful pool is flanked by a shady restaurant that offers salads, burgers, sandwiches, and seafood. They can also arrange transportation to El Tunco.

Getting There

Getting to Mizata from La Libertad is very difficult, requiring various bus changes and a total travel time of about three hours. It is worth hiring private transportation for the trip. Alternatively, take bus 281 ($1.45, approx. 1 hour) from Sonsonate; it leaves 10 times daily.

If you are driving, when you arrive at Km. 86 on the Carretera Litoral, you will see a sign that says “Mizata.” Take the small dirt road beside the restaurant Mama Con. When you get to a fork in the road, follow the left road, which leads to the point.


West from Mizata, the coast gets more remote and rural. Los Cóbanos is a small fishing village about 80 kilometers from San Salvador. This remote beach is a protected marine area with the largest coral reef in Central America just off its craggy shores. Los Cóbanos is a popular diving spot, and also a great destination to see humpback whales during their migration in November-December. Otherwise, this beach is perfect for those looking for a quiet, secluded getaway and a taste of the rural coast of El Salvador.


fishing boats anchored off Los Cóbanos

Sports and Recreation


Los Cóbanos offers excellent diving around the coral reef and at the sites of two sunken ships, where you can see moray eels, angelfish, eagle manta rays, green turtles, and lobsters. The best time to visit is December to May; January and February are the prime months for visibility. Diving trips can be arranged through Los Cóbanos Village Lodge (tel. 2264-0961, www.loscobanosvillagelodge.com, $65 per person).

S Marine Life Boat Tour

Los Cóbanos is home to the Salvadoran NGO Fundarrecife, an organization that works to protect and preserve the coral reef and the area around it. They work with Los Cóbanos Tours (tel. 2417-6825 or 2420-5615, loscobanstours@yahoo.com) to help educate travelers about the ecology of the area and how they are working to protect it. They offer excellent Marine Life Boat Tours (3 hours, $35 pp, minimum 5 people), where you explore the marine life in this beautiful protected area, including dolphins, manta rays, turtles, and birds. If you go between November and January, chances are high you will also see the majestic humpback whales as they migrate.

Other Tours

Los Cóbanos Tours (tel. 2417-6825 or 2420-5615, loscobanstours@yahoo.com) also offers excellent artisanal fishing trips (3 hours, $34 pp, minimum 5 people), turtle releases (Sept.-Dec., 2 hours, $12 pp, minimum 2 people), and snorkeling around the coral reef and two sunken ships (3 hours, $12 pp, minimum 2 people).


Casa Garrobo (Playa del Amor, tel. 2469-2401, www.casagarrobo.com, $15 pp dorm, $40 d) is a cute, secluded hostel on the beautiful Playa del Amor, a white-sand beach with a rocky shore. Rooms are large and simple, with double beds, private baths (no hot water), and fans. The dorm is also large, with two sets of bunk beds, ceiling fans, and one shared bath. There is a large shady common area where fresh seafood and breakfast is served (breakfast is included in the rates for double rooms). Between the rooms and the beach is a small swimming pool with lounge chairs and hammocks. This is the perfect place to relax for a few days, away from the crowds.

Nearby Los Cóbanos Village Lodge (tel. 2264-0961, www.loscobanosvillagelodge.com, $59 d with fan, $79 d with a/c) is the other option, and many consider it to be overpriced for what is offered. Cute second-floor rooms with seashell curtains open up to terraces with ocean views. The rooms are big, with large beds, tile floors, a small sitting area with cozy chairs, TVs, ceiling fans or air-conditioning, and hot water. Below is a restaurant and a swimming pool. Diving and fishing trips can also be arranged.

Getting There

From Sonsonate, take bus 257 ($0.50, 45 minutes), which stops right in Playa Los Cóbanos. It leaves the bus terminal in Sonsonate every half hour.

If you are driving, from San Salvador, take CA8 highway to the Carretera Litoral (CA2). Take a left at the Club Salinitas turn. From here, it’s about eight kilometers to Los Cóbanos.


On the southwestern edge of the western department of Ahuachapán lies the surrealistically beautiful Barra de Santiago (or as the locals call it, “La Barra”), a sandbar flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one side and a mangrove-filled estuary on the other. The remoteness of La Barra is both its biggest draw and its greatest deterrent. Many travelers overlook it due to the fact that it is off the beaten track, but those who make the journey find that it has a magical allure, and is definitely not just another beach on the backpacker trail.

Sports and Recreation

S Bird-Watching

The mangroves here are teeming with birds, and a boat tour through the estuary is the best way to see them. If you speak Spanish, local bird aficionado Juan Pérez (tel. 7366-4768, perez-2022@hotmail.com) can guide you on a peaceful bird-watching boat tour ($50 for 2 people, 8-10 hours) through the surreal scenery of the mangroves. The shores of the estuary create a cool, shady haven for birds like the American pygmy kingfisher, the yellow crowned night heron, and the mangrove yellow warbler. Pérez also offers excellent artisanal fishing trips and bicycle rentals. Ask for him at the local NGO Asociación de Mujeres de Barra de Santiago (AMBAS), located on the main street.

If you need an English-speaking guide, contact Green Trips El Salvador (tel. 7943-5230, greentripselsalvador@gmail.com), where English-speaking Benjamin Rivera (who works in partnership with Pérez) arranges excellent boat tours in La Barra for a significantly higher price ($270 a day for 2 people, 8-10 hours).


Although not one of the country’s most popular surf spots, this sandy beach break could be a good spot for absolute beginners. For those interested in lessons, contact local guide Julio César Avilés (tel. 7783-4765, or look for him at Capricho Guesthouse), who gives lessons for $10 per hour.


Under $10

Mercendero Don Antonio (tel. 7427-9316) is on the right side of the main road coming in to La Barra. This is the office of AMBAS, where a rustic restaurant sits right beside the estuary, providing a beautiful place to have dinner (bring your mosquito repellent). Owner Antonio and his wife also rent out a very basic second-story terrace where they will bring a mattress for you to sleep on in the open air, with the sound of the waves crashing in the distance. They charge $8 for this, or you can sleep in a hammock for free, as long as you have a few meals at their restaurant, or even better, buy fresh fish in the morning and ask to have them prepare it for you. There is access to clean baths beside the restaurant. This is a good investment in community development.

Rancho Familiar Santiago Apostol (tel. 2455-1773 or 7413-8412, $30 for 5 people) is the first place you will see on the left side coming in via the main road. Here you will find simple cabañas, each with five single beds, a fan, and a bath. The rooms get pretty hot at night, but the grounds are quite nice, with a swimming pool and lots of green space. You can hear the traffic from the road in front of the hotel, but the bonus is that the back gate opens to a short path that takes you straight to the beach. There is no restaurant, but the woman who sells food on the street corner will take your order and bring food to you.


There are two proper hotels on the Barra, one of them the very expensive luxury eco-resort La Cocotera Resort and Ecolodge, and the other cheaper but still not budget Capricho Guesthouse. They are right next door to each other, about three kilometers west of the center of town.

Capricho Guesthouse (tel. 2260-2481, www.ximenasguesthouse.com, $40 d) has clean, basic rooms with air-conditioning and private baths. There are hammocks that line the shared porch alongside lounge chairs, so you can kick back and relax with an ocean view. The restaurant serves decent (though like the rooms, a bit overpriced) food.

La Cocotera Resort and Ecolodge (tel. 2245-3691 or 7359-5238, www.lacocoteraresort.com) has a small house on the property that is available for rent. This house is an excellent mid-range option, with the same stylish rooms and king beds of La Cocotera, each with air-conditioning. There’s a terrace overlooking the estuary, a kitchen for guest use, and a swimming pool. The entire house sleeps eight and can be rented for $190, or alternatively rent one of the second-story rooms for $75 d. There is a dormitory on the first floor with single beds ($25), also with air-conditioning.


La Cocotera Resort and Ecolodge (tel. 2245-3691 or 7359-5238, www.lacocoteraresort.com, $100-200 depending on the season, check the website for details), three kilometers west of the town center, is an absolutely gorgeous place on a large expanse of land with incredible views of the ocean and estuary, coconut and palm trees, and flowers. It offers five beautiful individually designed rooms, with Salvadoran art on the walls and sliding glass doors that open to either the ocean or the estuary, both with exquisite views. Everything is eco-friendly, from the solar heating and saltwater pool to the biodegradable soap and shampoo. Meals are included in the rates.


The seafood shacks in front of the beach in the center of town all sell very good seafood for reasonable prices.

SieteMares (Av. Jaragua and Calle Shasca, tel. 7855-5491, 4pm-9pm daily, $1-3), the best pupusería in town, is hard to miss: It’s a big white building in the center of town. The inside is full of white plastic tables and chairs beside bright blue walls and plenty of windows, creating a cross breeze to counteract the heat from the furious pupusa making. They serve delicious seafood pupusas as well as the more traditional choices, as well as excellent refrescos such as fresh pineapple and tamarind juice.

If you are staying at Capricho or La Cocotera, you can walk 15 minutes to the edge of the peninsula, where you will find Julita’s (Final de la Bocanada de la Barra, tel. 6129-7280, 8am-6pm or later daily, $7-12), a little shack that sits at the edge of the estuary beside the ocean. On a day with perfect weather conditions, you can see the entire mountain range of Parque Imposible, as well as Volcán Santa Ana. Fresher and cheaper seafood can be found in town, but it might be worth a visit simply for the novelty of the location.

Getting There

From San Salvador, take bus 205 ($0.80, 1.5 hours, runs every 10 minutes) from Terminal de Occidente to Sonsonate. From the bus terminal in Sonsonate, there are two daily buses to Barra de Santiago. Bus 285 ($1, 1.25 hours) leaves at 10am and 4:30pm daily; returning to Sonsonate, the bus leaves the beach at 4:30am and noon daily.

If you are driving, head west along the Carretera Litoral (CA2) to Km. 98.5. Just before the Río El Naranjo bridge, turn left at the sign and follow the dirt road until you reach Barra de Santiago.

Eastern Beaches

The eastern beaches of El Salvador (with the exception of Costa del Sol) are still unexplored and generally lack tourism infrastructure, but as more and more travelers are deciding to visit the east coast, this is slowly changing. The majority of travelers who hit the eastern shores are there for one reason: the waves. Playa Las Flores and nearby Punta Mango are two of the best surf spots in the country, boasting not only world-class surf but also some of the country’s best resorts. The surrounding beaches are starting to develop as destinations for those seeking secluded beach getaways. Playa Esterón, east of Las Flores, is quickly gaining popularity for surfers and nonsurfers alike. Close enough to the surf spots, but also with a pristine beach suitable for sunbathing and swimming, this beach has a wider appeal than nearby Las Flores. Also in the east, Isla Montecristo and Golfo de Fonseca are undeveloped and raw, enticing those looking for a more challenging and nontouristy coastal adventure, while Bahía de Jiquilisco offers either community tourism or relaxing resorts.


This is the longest stretch of perfect pearl-gray sand beach in the country; and most of it is privately owned. Its accessibility—just a 45-minute drive from the capital—makes Costa del Sol the preferred weekend getaway for San Salvador’s upper crust. Most of the paved Bulevar Costa del Sol is lined with tropical-colored adobe walls that enclose beautiful beachfront vacation homes. There are also hotels on the Pacific side of this peninsula, offering tranquil places to relax for the day or spend the night. Costa del Sol is a great day trip for deep-sea fishing, or just to relax on the beach, in a safe, secluded environment.


Serious fishers will want to check out Javier Vairo of Hipocampos Tours (tel. 7797-1116, hipocampostours@gmail.com). He is passionate about fishing, and by the time you are done with this tour, you will be too. This deep-sea fishing trip (8 hours, $130 pp) takes you more than 100 kilometers offshore—in a boat equipped with GPS, radio communication, a stereo, a compass, and a sonar fish finder—where you can try your luck catching mahimahi, sailfish, albacore tuna, marlin, and more.

Aqua Fun (Km. 75, Bulevar Costa del Sol, tel. 7064-6207, info@aquafundelsol.com, 8am-5pm Wed.-Sun.) offers boat trips in the estuary (prices and duration vary by destination) as well as deep-sea fishing trips. Fishing trips cost $500 for up to five people, last the entire day, and include food and beer. You can also rent Jet Skis ($75 per hour).


Fishing is popular around Costa del Sol.



Mini Hotel Mila (tel. 2355-7400 or 2338-2074, $10 s, $15 d) is a decent budget hotel located in the small village in the middle of the peninsula. Small cement-block rooms with peach-colored walls, plastic tables, fans, and private cold-water baths are a pretty good deal. The outdoor area is quite cute, with hammocks and a swimming pool. A second-floor restaurant has a great breezy terrace, also with hammocks.


Hotel Izalco Cabaña Club (Km. 65.5, Bulevar Costa del Sol, tel. 2524-5406, www.hotelizalco.com, $65 d, includes breakfast with room service) has the most flair out of all the mid-range hotels and surprisingly is the cheapest. The rooms are set around the swimming pool and restaurant area, which also has a cute little bar with colorful cushions on top of tree trunks for seats. The common area has lots of lounges, chairs, and hammocks underneath the palms, and it is all just steps away from the beach. The rooms are spotless and new with a funky 1970s vibe, beige and brown tones covering the walls and floors, retro designs on the bedspreads, a simple dining table (breakfast can be served in your room), TV, and air-conditioning.

The Comfort Inn Bahía Dorada (Km. 75.5, Bulevar Costa de Sol, tel. 2325-7500, $70 pp, includes 3 meals) has all the trappings of a decent mid-range North American hotel. From outside it is a tall, nondescript concrete building; inside there is a lobby with worn leather couches, tile floors, and a front desk with very attentive staff. Small elevators take you to the upper floors where interminable hallways open to pleasant rooms with carpeted floors, generic art, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning, and a small terrace with a great view. Outside, there is a colorful courtyard with a dining area beside two swimming pools, and the beach is just a short walk away.

Just a short drive farther down past the Comfort Inn is the well-known Hotel Bahía del Sol (Km. 78.5, Bulevar Costa del Sol, tel. 2506-4444, $70 pp, includes 3 meals and unlimited alcoholic drinks), which is usually defined as upscale, but is definitely not. However, it is very popular because of the package rate that includes unlimited booze. The hotel comprises small individual buildings, each painted a different cheerful color and each with a simple sitting room with tile floors, wicker furniture, a TV, air-conditioning, a bedroom with unappealing well-worn blankets, and a bath. The “luxury” suites ($100-150) are the much nicer rooms, but still not the definition of luxury. They have larger bedrooms and newer bedspreads, and a lovely common area with couches, a kitchen, and a small jetted tub in the back. You can choose from rooms with either a view of the ocean (although they’re not oceanfront) or of the estuary. There is a swimming pool and a lovely dock with a restaurant that looks over the marina. This hotel hosts a popular international fishing competition every year in the first week of November. Teams can enter one of several categories, including blue or black marlin, tuna, or mahimahi fishing. Group fishing trips can also be arranged.


Pacific Paradise Hotel (Km. 75, Bulevar Costa del Sol, tel. 2338-0156, $150 d, includes 3 meals and 2 snacks) has sprawling grounds with a large, very clean swimming pool, shaded tables, and beachfront access. Ask for one of the newer rooms, which have clean tile floors, air-conditioning, big double beds with crisp white sheets and colorful pillows, and tropical-style wicker couches and chairs beside large windows that let in the light and have great oceanfront views. The grounds are large and pretty, with tables with individual awnings right in front of the beach, where dinner is served. If you are traveling with kids, it is good to know they also have licensed lifeguards on duty every day for both pool and ocean swimming.

Tortuga Village (Km. 66.5, Bulevar Costa del Sol, tel. 2564-1777 or 2564-1778, www.tortuga-village.com, $165 d) is without a doubt the most beautiful hotel on the coast. Unfortunately, the owners do not have full-time managers here, so you are left to fend for yourself as far as service goes. One of the managers from the restaurant next door will check you in and out, and aside from that, you will be left completely alone. If you are looking for a remote getaway without any disturbances, it just might do. A few bungalows built out of gorgeous teak rise up from stilts that sit in the white sand, with thatched roofs and amazing views. Each cabaña has a double bed with crisp white sheets, a TV, air-conditioning, and a view of the ocean. They all sit around a swimming pool with lounging chairs built right into it, and it is all just steps away from the beach, a truly idyllic setting. The beach area has wooden lounging chairs and beds with white cotton awnings, where you can nap in the shade or get a massage, offered with virgin coconut oil and aromatherapy. There is no hotel restaurant, but one of the best seafood restaurants in the country has set up on the same property: La Ola Betos’s (tel. 2338-2210, 9am-7pm daily, $10-15) serves cocktails, beer, and large portions of delicious fresh seafood on the beach. They also serve excellent comida típica (typical Salvadoran food) breakfasts.

Getting There

From San Salvador’s Terminal del Sur, take bus 495 ($1.10, 2.5 hours, runs every 30 minutes). If you are driving from San Salvador, follow the Carretera Litoral (CA2) east to Km. 43 and look for the detour south toward Costa del Sol.


Where the Río Lempa meets the Pacific Ocean, in the region called Bajo Lempa, this little island (it’s actually a peninsula) is a remote getaway with untouched gray sand beaches, mangroves, and a progressive, friendly community. You can walk the length of the island in about 30 minutes, through mangrove forest that eventually opens up to an untouched beach where you can spend a few hours swimming and sunbathing. All tourism activities on the island are organized by the community, who have yet to see many foreigners come to visit, but they are expertly preparing the area for tourism through boat trips, walking tours, and visits to the beach with packed lunches. The island is exceptionally clean compared to the rest of the country, and the local community is interested in sustainable, community-based tourism. Quiet and sparsely populated, this is a wonderful place to visit to feel like you are far away from civilization—it’s pretty much guaranteed you will be the only visitor here. This is best done as an overnight trip.


The shores of Isla Montecristo are remote and pristine.


Very basic cabañas are available at Hostal Montecristo (right in front of where the lancha lets you off, tel. 7470-9745, $25 d). Each wooden cabaña has a bed and a fan, and a small porch with a hammock overlooking the river. From here you can arrange boat trips around the island and walking tours to a cashew plantation and onward to the other side of the island. They run a small restaurant serving fresh daily plates with some vegetarian options.

Getting There

From San Salvador, take bus 302 from Terminal del Sur toward Usulután ($1.70, 2.5 hours, runs every 30 minutes) and tell the driver to let you off at San Nicolás Lempa near the Texaco station. Buses leave from there for the 13-kilometer trip to La Pita daily at 5am and 2pm, and return at 5:30am and 3pm. The journey takes 40 minutes and costs $0.70. From La Pita, you can catch a lancha to the island. It only takes about 10 minutes and should cost around $25; however, the cost varies depending on how many people there are. Alternatively, you can call ahead to the hostel on the island and arrange for a pickup from Geovanny Reyes (tel. 7470-9745).


Called Xiriualtique (Bay of Stars) by the local indigenous people because of the way its tranquil waters reflected the stars at night, Bahía de Jiquilisco consists of more than 27 islands that are undeveloped, peaceful, and teeming with biodiversity. In recent years it has also been discovered as one of the most important turtle nesting areas in the world. This complex of inlets, intertidal wetlands, and beaches has untouched natural beauty and provides critical habitat for shellfish, crabs, migratory birds, and a variety of fish.

The people who live on these islands were forced from their coastal towns during the civil war and returned in the 1990s to rebuild homes in the largest remaining mangrove forest in Central America. The islands are now homes to these communities, and to this day they depend on the mangroves for survival, as the trees protect them from inclement weather, and crabbing and fishing help them make their living. The area consists of the mainland Península San Juan del Gozo, the mangroves, and various small islands that dot the bay.

The bay is an interesting destination for nature lovers and environmentalists, with boat tours through the mangroves, fishing, bird-watching, and amazing volunteer programs that allow visitors to have hands-on experience in saving the hawksbill turtle population. There have been recent proposals for the development of the area, which would mean the arrival of large high-end resorts. This could potentially displace many of the communities on the bay and undoubtedly affect the natural habitat. By supporting local tour groups and conservation efforts, you can help convince the government of El Salvador that tourism can work in tandem with environmental efforts, instead of against them.

The Península San Juan del Gozo is the mainland side of the bay and where you will arrive by road. The peninsula has two main towns, Isla Méndez and Corral de Mulas, both of which are launching points for exploring the bay by boat. Local community group Adesco (tel. 7727-3453) works out of Isla Méndez and can provide boat tours through the mangroves ($35, approx. 2 hours). Another excellent option for getting around the bay is to arrange a boat with one of the hotels. Hotel y Restaurante Solisal is highly recommended.


To organize activities around the bay, your best bet is to go through one of the hotels. Hotel y Restaurante Solisal (Península San Juan del Gozo, tel. 2243-2590 or 7890-2638, www.hotelsolisal.com) provides excellent bilingual service. They can arrange different tours around the bay, including kayaking ($5 per hour), horseback riding on the beach ($15 per hour), fishing in the bay or the ocean (price vary by duration and destination), and boat trips to the other islands and beaches ($50-100).

If you are interested in releasing baby turtles or any kind of volunteer opportunities working with Hawksbill turtles in the bay, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO, Caserío La Pirraya, Isla San Sebastián, tel. 7697-1551, www.hawksbill.org) is an excellent organization that is spearheading the turtle preservation project here. If you speak Spanish and are interested in low-impact tourism such as fishing or bird-watching tours, ICAPO can help connect you with excellent local guides. Alternatively you can contact Green Trips (tel. 7943-5230, greentripselsalvador@gmail.com), based in San Salvador, a company that provides top-notch birding tours ($200-300 per day) with bilingual guides.

For more adventure tourism around the bay, contact Suchitoto Adventure Outfitters (Calle San Martín, 4B Plaza Central, tel. 7921-4216, www.suchitotoadventureoutfitters.com) for excellent kayaking trips (full-day trip $150 pp, minimum 3 people, includes lunch).



Hostal Pirryata (La Isla Pirryata, tel. 7555-3149) is a basic hostel with wooden cabañas starting at $20 d. Each has two double beds, a fan, and not much else; but you are not here for the rooms. The pier takes you out to a large deck with a five-star view of the bay with the beautiful backdrop of the eastern volcanoes of Usulután and San Vicente. Here you will find two more cabañas, which sit on stilts. They have the same rustic setup but with windows that open up to that incredible view. There are shared composting toilets and showers. The hostel is partnered with ICAPO and can arrange boat tours, fishing and birding trips, and turtle releases. For those who want a more involved turtle volunteer program, this is also the hostel where you stay and eat; the food at the hostel’s restaurant is excellent.

S Hotel y Restaurante Solisal (Península de San Juan del Gozo, tel. 2243-2590 or 7890-2638, www.hotelsolisal.com, $40 d) has simple wooden cabañas right on the water with a gorgeous view of the estuary and volcanoes, a swimming pool, hammocks, and large grassy grounds. Rooms are simple, with private baths and air-conditioning. There is also a restaurant serving excellent food. Kayaks are available for rent and boat trips around the bay can be arranged. The bilingual owner is extremely helpful.

Puerto Barillas (tel. 2263-3620 or 2675-1135, www.puertobarillas.com, treehouse $118 for up to 6 people, two-story apartment $238 for up to 8 people) offers sprawling grounds and beautiful apartments for groups. Set right on the bay, this hotel with exceptional service doubles as a marina, complete with immigration officials available to process your documents if you are arriving by water from another country. The treehouse and two-story apartments, set back from the bay deep in the lush greenery of coconut palms and towering bamboo, have simple organic design and are gorgeous. Rooms are painted in neutral greens, brown, and beige to complement the trees and plants outside. Each apartment also has a well-stocked kitchen, a TV, air-conditioning, a barbecue, and a large terrace with sliding glass doors. The grounds also boast a swimming pool, a small shady restaurant with a view of the bay, a convenience store, horses (horseback riding tours also available), and a wild monkey sanctuary. Excellent boat tours to the different islands can also be arranged; just ask at the front desk (prices vary depending on destination). Bring mosquito repellent; you will need it here.


A series of four floating restaurants serve up seafood and snacks at Restaurantes Flotantes (in front of Corral de Mulas, tel. 2434-2613 or 7714-3792, 8am-5pm daily, $4-10). Hard to miss, these electric-blue restaurants are a development project launched with the help of the NGO Action Aid. Set in the middle of the estuary, you can only arrive by boat. A boat from Corral de Mulas should cost approximately $10 round-trip. The food at all four restaurants is the same, and it’s all good, so it doesn’t really matter which one you choose.

Hostal Pirryata (La Isla Pirryata, tel. 7555-3149, 8am-5pm daily, $4-6) has a restaurant in the back of the hostel, but feel free to ask them to pull a table out to the dock, where you can dine with a jaw-dropping view of the bay and the volcanoes. Here, the local women serve up excellent wholesome food. Just ask what the plate of the day is: If you are lucky, it will be freshly caught fish, served alongside a chirmol (tomato salsa) with fresh herbs, rice, and delicious tortillas. At $5 a plate, this is one of the best deals in the country.

Getting There

From San Salvador, take bus 302 from Terminal del Sur toward Usulután ($1.70, 2.5 hours, runs every 30 minutes). In Usulután, from 4 Calle Oriente or the small de facto bus lot east of town, across the street from Despensa de Don Juan supermarket, catch bus 363 ($0.50, 1 hour, runs every 10 minutes 4:30am-5:30pm) to Puerto El Triunfo. From El Triunfo, take the boat to Isla Méndez. Alternatively you can hitch a ride with the pickacheros at the Puente de Oro bridge at the Río Lempa; they leave every half an hour or so until 5pm. The ride should cost $1.


Playa El Cuco proper does not offer much for visitors other than seafood and beer in one of the many shacks that line the beach. The real draw of El Cuco is the two beaches on either side of this tiny fishing village. Just west is Playa Las Flores, a gorgeous gray-sand beach with towering rock cliffs and one of the best surf breaks in the country. Just east of El Cuco is the beautiful and remote Playa Esterón.

Playa El Cuco

If you do decide to stay in El Cuco, the best bet is Azul Surf Club (1.5 kilometers east of El Cuco, tel. 2612-6820 or 7132-2175, www.azulsurfclub.com, $75 s, $85 d). Hotel Azul provides exceptional service for surfer and nonsurfers alike in a hidden tropical paradise just minutes from the fishing village of El Cuco. No request is too onerous for the attentive staff, and owner Lissette Pérez will go out of her way to make your stay memorable, from making sure surfers catch the waves when the conditions are ideal to providing special gluten-free or vegetarian meals in the restaurant. The rooms are simple but lovely with strong air-conditioning, hot water, and flat-screen TVs. A large terrace faces the palms and flowers of the lovely grounds, and a pool with a swim-up bar makes the perfect way to end a day of surfing. Most people who stay here do surf packages; details can be found on the website. Azul also runs a nonprofit project that helps provide education to local children.

Turtles in El Salvador

“Real men don’t eat turtle eggs” reads the back of the T-shirt of the man standing in front of me. The slogan is showing up more and more often, and this campaign is slowly gaining momentum in El Salvador, a country where in the recent past it was common to hear men order a side of turtle eggs to go with their beer. The belief that the eggs have aphrodisiac powers is entrenched in machismo culture and has contributed to the sharp decline in natural turtle populations over the years. Although the exact origin of the belief is difficult to pinpoint, many people say it has to do with the fact that turtles mate for 4-6 hours at a time. Some men believe that eating the eggs might imbue them with similar powers of endurance. Science says this is impossible. The nutritional and energy content of a turtle egg is half that of a chicken egg, and there is no proof that turtle eggs have any aphrodisiac attributes; but cultural habits can be hard to break, and the placebo effect is very powerful.


A child releases a baby turtle along the Salvadoran coast.

Up until 2009 it was common to find turtle eggs listed on the menus of many restaurants in El Salvador. It is now officially illegal, but turtle eggs are still sold on the black market, and if you ask in some restaurants, sadly, they may just oblige. Due to the demand for turtle eggs, many people trying to boost their income will scour the beach looking for eggs so that they can sell them. Some hotels along the coast will buy the eggs at a marginally higher price than the market pays, so that the turtles can be saved, and tourists can have the experience of releasing the babies once they hatch. If you ask just about any hotel along the Salvadoran coast about releasing baby turtles, they can arrange it for you. However good their intentions may be, the fact is not all of these turtles are being released properly, and the reason has to do with the timing of the release. Right after turtles hatch, they absorb a yolk sac that provides them with just enough energy to make it from their nest on the beach to the ocean. If the release does not happen within these first few days after hatching, their chances of survival drop dramatically. Considering that only 1 out of every 1,000 hatchlings will make it to adulthood, these vulnerable little creatures need all the help they can get.

There are four types of turtles found in El Salvador: olive ridley, green, leatherback, and hawksbill. Of these, hawksbills are the most threatened, and are in fact the most threatened turtle species in the world. Part of this is due to the poaching of their beautiful shells for jewelry, eyewear frames, and other ornamental objects. You will know the hawksbill shell by its distinctive translucent dark and light brown design.

Fortunately, there are organizations working to curb the illegal market and to conserve the threatened turtle populations. Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO) (Caserío La Pirraya, Isla San Sebastián, tel. 7697-1551, www.hawksbill.org) has recently discovered that Bahía de Jiquilisco is one of two areas in the world where a significant population of hawksbill turtles has been found, and local communities are now working hard to protect this endangered species.

If you are interested in releasing baby turtles, and want to be sure that you get an experience that is ecologically sound and in the best interest of the turtles, you should contact ICAPO. They can also give you hands-on volunteer opportunities helping to protect the hawksbill turtle in Bahía de Jiquilisco, and remember: Real men don’t eat turtle eggs (rumor has it they taste vile anyway).

Playa Esterón

Just east of El Cuco is Playa Esterón, a clean, wide white-sand beach good for swimming, with an active turtle nesting area and a great hotel called La Tortuga Verde Hotel (10 kilometers east of Playa Cuco, tel. 7774-4855, www.latortugaverde.com, $10 pp dorm, $35 d). To get to Playa Esterón, you can take a taxi in El Cuco (free of charge because the hotel covers the cost), about 10 kilometers farther east, to the beautiful and somewhat remote hotel, where a long piece of beachfront property, complete with a swimming pool, yoga shala, and a coconut nursery dares you to try not to relax. A stone pathway leads to the lovely dorm, built of stone and wood, with screens instead of walls, creating a great cross breeze. Dorm rooms have double beds, brand-new floor fans, and ambient lighting. Private rooms are simple but pretty with beach decorations such as conch shells, fans, and tropical art. They have screened in porches with hammocks, lounging chairs, and free drinking water. American owner Tom has been living and surfing in El Salvador for many years and is an excellent source of information about surfing, border crossings, and any other practicalities. He can arrange border crossings into Nicaragua by boat. La Tortuga Verde is the perfect place to kick back and do sweet nothing, but there is also plenty to do if you are seeking a little adventure. Boat rides to the nearby islands of Fonseca, trips to Volcán Conchagua, and other activities can easily be arranged. Surfers can also often catch an early morning ride to Las Flores with Tom.

Playa Las Flores

West of El Cuco is Playa Las Flores, one of the most revered surf spots in the country, offering world-class waves. Las Flores is a very fast, machine-like right that can run up to 300 meters long. Less experienced surfers may be able to enjoy surfing Las Flores when the waves are moderate, but when the swell is big at low tide, Las Flores is a freight train suitable for experienced surfers only. Nearby Punta Mango (accessible only by boat or 4WD vehicle), with the fastest, strongest waves in the area, is a powerful point break that is for experienced surfers only. This right point breaks over sand or large smooth rocks, depending on the tide. At its best, it is a double overhead open barrel from start to finish, and because of its relative isolation, less crowded than the other popular surf spots in the country.

Playa Las Flores is for surfers, and all of the hotels here are geared toward surf tours.


At the far west end of the beach are two budget options. Hotel Clemen (tel. 7442-4472, $25 s, $35 d) and Hotel Natalie (tel. 7724-0153, $25 s, $30 d) are essentially the same setup, with small cinderblock rooms with nothing more than a bed and a floor fan. The rooms are located right on the beach, and budget surfers looking for no-frills accommodations head here. Hotel Clemen also has a small restaurant serving very good food.

Heading west from El Cuco, the first hotel you will see on the road to Las Flores is Vista Las Olas Surf Resort (Calle Conchagüita, tel. 7215-2951 or 2619-9053, www.vistalasolas.com, $96 s, $130 d, includes breakfast), a beautiful brand-new whitewashed home with beachfront rooms. Lounge chairs sit beside a small infinity pool that looks out to the ocean, and right behind the pool is an indoor icy-cold (you will want it around here) restaurant and lounge area with a large flat-screen TV and couches. The rooms are beautiful, boasting a fresh organic style with lots of windows letting in the natural warmth and air-conditioning to keep you cool. Tweed furniture and dark, gleaming wood bed frames and ceiling fans are complemented by muted orange, brown, and green walls decorated with modern art. The restaurant serves excellent seafood and boasts a quiet, intimate vibe. Relax in the outdoor jetted pool after a day of surfing as you gaze at the stars and hear the crash of the waves.

Next up is Hotel Miraflores (Calle Conchagüita, 500 meters from El Cuco, tel. 2252-7822, www.elhotelmiraflores.com, $60 d), long a popular choice for surfers looking for a comfortable mid-range option. Miraflores has a casual atmosphere, with friendly staff, lots of green space with hammocks, and an outdoor restaurant with a fabulous views of the waves. The rooms are simple and clean, though a little cramped for two people. They have muted brown walls, cool tile floors, TVs, and air-conditioning. To get to the beach from the hotel, you need to walk down a beautiful staircase that zigzags to the shore, offering inspiring views of the waves rolling in. It’s not so bad on the way down but can be challenging returning after a surfing session. Reward yourself with a massage and meal from the restaurant, offering seafood, burgers, and salads, or alternatively take the short walk into town to eat at one of the cheaper seafood restaurants that line El Cuco. Miraflores offers great tours around the area, like kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding in Bahía de Jiquilisco. They also offer transportation to and from the nearby surf spot Punta Mango.

One of the best hotels in the country is S Las Flores Surf Resort (Calle Conchagüita, tel. 2684-4444, ventas@lasfloresresort.com, $100-150 d depending on the season), which is generally booked as a package deal through Wavehunters (www.wavehunters.com). It is possible to make a booking independently, but whether or not you can get a room will depend on luck; during the high season, the place gets packed with repeat clients. The rooms here are gorgeous, integrating sleek, modern design into the natural environment. Marked by muted colors, clean lines, and organic material such a wood, wicker, and marble, all the suites have large windows and some have small decks with views of the ocean. The grounds are just as pretty, with a swimming pool, an outdoor restaurant, and the surf break just a short walk away. Personalized packages can include yoga classes, boat trips, surf lessons, and cultural tours.

Getting There

Getting to Playas El Cuco, Esterón, and Las Flores is straightforward, though a little time-consuming. From San Salvador, take bus 301 ($1.25-5, depending on the bus, 2-5 hours, runs every 15 minutes) to San Miguel from Terminal de Oriente (Alameda Juan Pablo II). From San Miguel, take bus 320 ($1, 1.5 hours, runs every half hour). Once in El Cuco, you can take a taxi to Playa Esterón. It costs $5, but if you stay at La Tortuga Verde, they will cover the cost when you arrive. To get to Las Flores, you will need to walk 2-3 kilometers west of El Cuco, or take a taxi that should cost $2-4 depending, on where you are staying.


This relatively unknown beach is the antithesis to the sprawling homes and hotels of Costa del Sol. Playa Maculis is a gorgeous untouched beach with beige sand and gentle waves, making it perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and relaxing.

There is only one place to stay on the beach, a house that can be rented: The charming Los Caracoles (Km. 175, Carretera Litoral, tel. 2335-1200 or 7786-9949, $250 for the house, sleeps up to 8 people) is a four-bedroom house right on the beach. Bedrooms are simple but pretty, with sliding glass doors, comfortable beds with mosquito nets, and private baths. It has air-conditioning, a fully equipped open-air kitchen, a beautiful living room with a concrete floor inlaid with shells, and a large wooden deck with a round plunge pool and lounge chairs that face the beach, which you will have all to yourself.

Getting to Playa Maculis is very difficult on public transportation. If you plan to go, contact the owners of Los Carocoles to arrange transportation.


The sweltering, less-than-savory port town of La Unión is definitely not a destination in its own right, but since it is the gateway town to the Golfo de Fonseca, you may end up needing to spend a night there if you miss the lancha.

The only appropriate lodging option in town is the Comfort Inn La Unión (Km. 2.8, Calle a Playitas, Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2665-6565, www.comfortinn.com, $69 s, $81 d). This upscale business hotel is a very comfortable stay, with all the amenities you need, including a small business center with Internet access, a gym, a swimming pool, and a bar. The location is beautiful, overlooking the gulf and the San Vicente and Usulután volcanoes, and the restaurant is the perfect place to enjoy it, with massive windows offering the perfect vista. The rooms are sleek and spotless with modern design, including flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning, and Wi-Fi. The hotel is located near the dock where you take the lancha to the islands.

To get to La Unión, take bus 324 ($1, 1.25 hours, runs every 15 minutes) from San Miguel.


If you have made it to the Golfo de Fonseca, you have reached the country’s eastern edge, where a collection of small islands are shared among Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. From the sweaty, unrefined port town of La Unión, you can catch a boat to the islands.

Isla Meanguera is the most developed island and the one most travelers visit. The City of Small Jade, as it was originally named, was a Lenca settlement, and there are still vestiges of those indigenous people around the island. This island has almost no tourism infrastructure aside from a beautiful hotel with unparalleled views of the gulf.

Hotel La Joya del Golfo (tel. 2648-0072, www.hotellajoyadelgolfo.com, $79 s or d) is an elegant whitewashed hotel that sits gracefully at the edge of the water, with a beautiful dock and an excellent restaurant. The rooms are gorgeous, with queen beds and towering antique wooden bedposts, cool tile floors, and sliding glass doors that lead to little porches with postcard-perfect views. All rooms have cable TV, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, and pretty private baths with both bathtubs and showers. They also offer guided walking tours, fishing trips, and kayaks that are free for guests to use.

The only other option for sleeping on the island is with one of the lancha drivers, José Vicente Osorio (tel. 2648-0083; ask for him at the dock when you arrive) who rents a room in his house for $20. The room is right by the water’s edge, also with spectacular views of the gulf and neighboring islands Conchagüita and Zacatillo. It’s incredibly peaceful. The room has a fan, one single bed, and a private bath. You can sleep with the window open and be lulled to sleep by the lapping of the waves against the dock.

On the other side of the island is a pretty beach, Playa el Majahual. It’s about a 40-minute walk from the hotel or a $20 lancha ride. There is one family that lives on the beach and will allow you to set up a tent and camp. You can ask the family to cook you freshly caught fish, but bring anything else you may want, because this really is a stranded-on-a-remote-island experience—the only thing you can buy here is coconut water and soda. If you want food prepared, it’s best to call ahead (Ismail, tel. 7434-4814).

Trips to Isla Meanguera can be done on your own, but if you would like to go with a tour company, La Ruta del Zapamiche (tel. 2228-1525, www.larutadelzapamiche.com), based in Santa Tecla, does a great overnight tour to the island; prices depend on the kind of tour and the number of people.

Getting There

Public lanchas heading to Isla Meanguera leave from the dock in La Unión daily at around 10:30am. The time varies, so it’s best to be there about 10am or even earlier to make sure you catch the boat, because there is only one trip per day. The boat ride costs $3 and takes about 45 minutes. If you decide to stay at Hotel La Joya del Golfo, contact them beforehand and they can arrange a pickup from the dock once you arrive. Coming back from the island to La Unión, there is only one trip per day; it leaves at 5:30am. The length of the island can be walked in about an hour.