Essentials - Lesson 3 - Moon El Salvador (Moon Handbooks) - Jaime Jacques

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



view of islands in the Golfo de Fonseca from Conchagüita.




Aeropuerto Internacional Comalapa (SAL, tel. 2339-9455, is 44 kilometers southeast of San Salvador and is the only international airport in El Salvador. Like any international hub, it has all the usual airport amenities, including duty-free shops, restaurants, and hotel information. The airport is closer to the beaches of La Libertad than to the city, which works out nicely for surfers and anybody else looking to head straight to the coast.

El Salvador is not a country where you are greeted by hordes of taxi drivers or shuttle companies touting their services as soon as you exit the airport. There should be a line of a few official taxis, and you can rest assured they will provide safe, reasonably priced transportation to your hotel, no matter what time you arrive. A taxi to San Salvador should cost $25-30 during the day and $30-35 at night, and take 1 to 1.5 hours. A taxi to the beaches of La Libertad should cost $20-25 during the day and $25-30 at night, and take around 20 to 30 minutes depending on which beach you are going to.

From North America, there are several airlines that fly to and from San Salvador. They include American (, Delta (, Avianca/TACA (, United (, and Copa ( There are no direct overseas flights from Great Britain, Australia, or New Zealand. You have to fly to North America and catch a flight, most often from Miami or Houston. Departing international passengers must pay a $32 departure tax, although this may already be included in the cost of your ticket.


If you are driving into El Salvador in a vehicle, you need a driver’s license from your home country or, even better, an International Driving Permit in addition to your license, as well as full registration papers for the car in the driver’s name. If someone else holds the title, you have to obtain a notarized letter authorizing you to drive the vehicle.

International Bus

If you arrive in El Salvador from any of the neighboring countries, there are international buses that run frequently.

Guatemala: Pullmantur (tel. 2526-9900, and Ticabus (tel. 2222-4808 or 2243-9764, run from Guatemala City to San Salvador daily, cost $25, and take around four hours. From Antigua, several tour companies offer direct shuttle buses to the beaches of La Libertad for $30; the trip takes about four hours.

Nicaragua: From Managua, Ticabus, King Quality (tel. 2271-3330, 2271-1361, or 2257-8997,, and Del Sol (tel. 2243-1345 or 2243-8897, all run daily to San Salvador, cost $27, and take 11 hours.

Honduras: From Tegucigalpa, Ticabus and King Quality run daily to San Salvador, cost $15-30, and take around seven hours.

Costa Rica: King Quality and Ticabus run from San José to San Salvador, cost $88-116, and take 25 hours.


It is also possible to reach El Salvador by boat, coming from Potosi, Nicaragua, and arriving in La Unión. The trip can be booked through Cruce del Golfo, which can be contacted through any Vapues Tours office in Nicaragua ( The trip takes two hours, crosses a distance of 55 kilometers, and costs $65.


Car or Motorcycle

Driving in El Salvador is easy and straightforward. New, well-paved, and well-signed roads run across the country east to west and north to south. The Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Highway), or CA1, runs across the country from east to west, and the Carretera Litoral runs parallel to it along the coast. From the Carretera Litoral, there are three well-paved highways that run from the south to the northern part of the country. Although most of the roads are well maintained, some areas in Morazán and Chalatenango require a 4WD vehicle.

In El Salvador, cars drive on the right, as in the rest of North America. Remember that speed limits are shown in kilometers per hour. The speed limit is 90 km/h on freeways and 40 km/h in cities. Take extra precaution around bus drivers, as they tend to drive erratically. Gas stations are widely available.

Driving in San Salvador is at best an exercise in frustration and at worst rage-inducing. You need to drive aggressively if you actually want to get anywhere. This is one of the most densely populated cities in the Americas, and Salvadorans tend to lose their altruistic nature when behind the wheel. There are frequent accidents, and your defensive driving needs to be employed, as this is also one place in the country where all the rules are broken. Signals are barely if ever used, last-minute lane changes are common, and speeding is normal.

Police tend to be lenient with minor infractions such as running a red light, but very stringent when it comes to having your documents on order. There are checkpoints across the country, marked by orange pylons and armed police officers. They will randomly pull vehicles over and ask for your license and registration. If you have these, the check takes no longer than a few minutes. If you are missing either (but especially the registration), there can be serious consequences. Your car may be impounded at the nearest police station, where it will most likely be stripped of its parts by opportunistic thieves. You will then have to return to the station with the registration and pay a hefty fine to get your car back.

In case of a traffic accident, remember never to move your car away from the scene of the accident until after the insurance agent arrives. Insurance companies require photos to process the claim, making this especially crucial if the accident was not your fault. If you do not have insurance, you will have to try to sort things out with the other driver involved, which will involve agreeing on who is to blame and the costs incurred. If that is not possible, you will have to call the police, and you could end up waiting up to four hours for them to arrive. If you hit a person while driving in El Salvador and the person is injured, you will be sent to a detention center while the person is assessed and will only be released when the person claims no further damage.

If driving along the Carretera Litoral on the weekend, be aware that many Salvadorans are coming and going from the beach where they have spent the day drinking. Drunk driving is not heavily monitored, and the legal repercussions are minimal, so stay alert and take it slow.

If you decide to ride a motorcycle through El Salvador, the same rules apply. Be aware that the air quality can be suffocating in some parts of the country, especially San Salvador. It is worth investing in some sort of face mask that can reduce the effects of air pollution.

Car Rental

Most rental car companies are based in San Salvador, and also have offices at the airport. The daily rate is $25 per day, and in general you must be 25 years of age and have a valid driver’s license and a major credit card to rent a car. Make sure you check everything on the car, take photos if you can, and make a note of any preexisting damage before signing anything. It is unfortunately quite common for companies to try to claim that the car is damaged when you return it, in an attempt to finagle more money. Make sure all the paperwork is up to date, especially the Tarjeta de Circulación (“circulation card,” the vehicle registration) and that insurance is included.


There are no big bus companies in El Salvador. Instead, all the buses are owned and operated privately. As a result, it is very difficult to get bus information from a unified source. Buses do run reliably to schedule; the problem is figuring out what the schedule is. Because all the buses have different owners, the times and fares are not collected in one place. One way of getting information is to go to the bus terminal and ask the bus drivers or the men standing in front of the buses screaming out destinations. This method is accurate but inconvenient. Hostels that provide excellent information about bus fares and schedules include Joan’s Hostel (Calle del Mediterráneo 12, San Salvador, tel. 2519-0973) in San Salvador, Casa Verde (7 Calle Poniente, between 8 and 10 Av. Sur, Santa Ana, tel. 7840-4896) in Santa Ana, and Casa Mazeta (1 Calle Poniente No. 22, Juayúa, tel. 2406-3403) in Juayúa. A good online resource is Waves Tours Fiestas (

Traveling by bus in El Salvador is cheap and straightforward, and it’s a completely authentic way to see the country. Buses literally run from the most isolated villages at the end of bumpy dirt roads to the heart of San Salvador and beyond. For the most part, they are old school buses from the United States that have been decked out with neon lights, colorful tassels, prayers (you may come to feel you need them), and pictures of bikini-clad women. There seems to be no limit to the number of people that are permitted on a bus, and just when you think they couldn’t possibly fit one more body, the driver slows down at the next stop. All kinds of people take the bus: farmers, office workers, young families, teenagers, and the most beautiful elderly Salvadoran abuelas (grandmothers), who, despite the fact they look as frail as a bird, seem to have unparalleled determination and strength when it comes to getting on and off the bus. Equally admirable are the fare collectors, who somehow make their way through this eclectic mass of bodies, remembering who has paid and who still needs to pony up the fare.

Needless to say, there is often not much room for luggage, but if you want to travel on the local buses with your luggage, it is possible. It can be a bit intimidating boarding a crowded bus with all eyes on you and your baggage, but for the most part, other passengers will be helpful, and in many cases the bus driver will store your big bags up front or in the back. Otherwise, you will have to find a way to fit your luggage on your lap or at your feet.

Keep a close eye on your belongings, but in general, people are helpful not harmful, and it is not uncommon for someone sitting next to you with a bit more leg room to offer to hold something for you. If you are uncomfortable with handing anything over to a stranger, just politely decline. It is also not unheard of for other passengers to pay your fare as an act of hospitality. This usually only happens in rural areas where tourists are rarely seen. It can be nerve-racking being on a packed bus, pinned into your seat, and not knowing how far you are from your stop or how on earth you are going to get off. You can ask the fare collector to let you know when you reach your stop. Sometimes they forget, so make sure you maintain eye contact with him and remind him. The bus will stop at every stop, so you don’t need to signal to the driver when you want to disembark; you just need to know where you want to get off. When it is your turn to get off, other passengers will somehow maneuver their bodies so that you can squeeze your way out.

Salvadorans are natural salespeople, and the bus is as good a place as any to see many of them in action. On any given trip, you will likely witness a series of vendors board the bus and politely ask for your attention before proceeding to launch into an impassioned introduction to whatever product they are touting. Promoters will very seriously wax poetic about the perfect texture and taste of a tiny toffee candy or the incredible pant-saving antileak function on a pen. Natural remedies as well as antiparasitic medication are also extremely popular. Whatever it is, it never costs more than $2, and you will be amazed at the number of people who do a good deal of shopping on the bus. In addition to this, there are the regular vendors touting fruit, nuts, sweets, plantain chips, french fries, pupusas, empanadas, coconut water, horchata, and more. Most of these snacks are safe to eat, but it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to fruit, as you never know how clean the place was where it was prepared.

There have been some reports of robberies on buses, and although this is much more common in San Salvador, it could happen anywhere. Do not keep any valuables in your pockets and keep a close eye on your belongings at all times.

Visas and Officialdom


Entering El Salvador is usually pretty easy and straightforward. Immigration officials are friendly and like to do things by the book. You will need to pay $10 for your tourist visa, whichever way you enter the country, and you must have a passport that is valid for the next six months. In theory, you should have a return ticket or some other proof of when you will leave the country. In practice this is rarely enforced, but consider yourself warned.


El Salvador is part of the CA-4 agreement that also includes the neighboring countries of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Once you enter any one of these countries, you are granted a 90-day visa to all four countries for a $10 fee. This is important to remember when moving among countries. If you enter El Salvador after being in Guatemala for two months, for example, you will have one month left for El Salvador. If you want to reenter with a fresh visa, you have to leave the CA-4 region for 72 hours. Most people go to Mexico to do this.

If you overstay your visa without extending it, you will have to pay a fine of $114 when you leave the country, regardless of whether you overstayed two weeks or two months. If you would like to get an extension, the process is relatively painless. You need to go to the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjeria (Av. Olímpica and Alameda Enrique Araujo, San Salvador, tel. 2213-7778, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.) and wait a long time for a short interview, during which you will be asked what your reason is for requesting the extension. You will need to provide a passport-size photo of you, photocopies of your bank card and passport, and $25. Most applicants are granted an extension; technically this can only be done once, but depending on your reason for needing a second extension, it is not impossible.


When you leave El Salvador, your visa will be checked. If you have overstayed without extending, you will be charged the $114 fine, so if you know you have overstayed, make sure you have this money ready when you are heading out of the country.

If you are flying out of El Salvador, you will have to pay a departure fee of $32, which is often included in the price of your ticket; if it is not, you will be asked to pay this at the airport when you leave the country.


Customs is not overly strict in El Salvador. Articles up to a value of $500 are permitted into and out of the country, and if you are 18 years of age or over, you are permitted to bring in and take out 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars, and up to 2 liters of alcohol.

An import permit is required if you want to bring a pet into the country, for a fee of $9, which can be obtained ahead of time or on arrival at the animal quarantine department at the airport.


Most countries have embassies or consulates in San Salvador, most of which are located in the tree-lined streets of upscale Colonia Escalón.

Embassy of Belize: Calle La Mascota 456, tel. 2264-8024,, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.

Embassy of Canada: Centro Financiero Gigante 63, Av. Sur and Alameda Roosevelt, tel. 2279-4655,, 8am-12:30pm and 1:30pm-4:30pm Mon.-Thurs., 8am-1:30pm Fri., after-hours emergency contact information for Canadian citizens only call collect tel. 613/996-8885

Embassy of Costa Rica: 85 Av. Sur and Calle Cuscatlán 4415, Colonia Escalón, tel. 2264-3863,, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.

Guatemalan Embassy: 15 Av. Norte 135, tel. 2271-2225 or 2222-3903,, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.

Embassy of Honduras: 89 Av. Norte between 7 and 9 Calle Poniente, No. 561, Colonia Escalón, tel. 2263-2808

Embassy of Nicaragua: 71 Av. Norte and 1 Calle Poniente 164, Colonia Escalón, tel. 2223-7729 or 2298-6549

Embassy of Panama: Calle Los Bambúes and Av. Las Bugambilias 21, tel. 2298-0773,, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.

Embassy of United Kingdom: Torre Futura, 14th Fl., Colonia Escalón, San Salvador, tel. 2511-5757,, 7:30am-4:30pm Mon.-Thurs., 7:30am-11:30pm Fri.

Embassy of the United States: Bulevar Santa Elena, Antiguo Cuscatlán, tel. 2501-2999,, 8am-4:30pm Mon.-Fri.

Conduct and Customs

El Salvador is an extremely social country, and cultivating interpersonal relationships is considered the most important priority. Family and friends always come first. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Salvadorans are also extremely successful at business endeavors. Business relationships often start out by getting to know someone and building a rapport. Salvadorans are incredibly industrious, and you will notice that if you need help with just about anything, complete strangers will come to your aid, with smart, action-oriented solutions.

Salvadorans have a strong sense of personal pride and dignity and can easily get offended by direct communication that they may consider abrasive or rude. Be aware of how you talk to people and what you say about people. If you have something negative to say, or a personal subject to discuss with someone, always do it in private. Any kind of public comment that may jeopardize somebody’s reputation are considered inappropriate. If you do end up offending someone, it is likely that they will not let you know directly, but get somebody else to politely inform you of the affront. Apologies are greatly appreciated and grudges not likely to be held.

You will notice that Salvadorans are always making jokes and teasing each other. It is very common for people to have sobrenombres (nicknames) that their friends have come up with. It could be something based on a memory, as in el muerto (literally “the dead one”), poking fun at someone who once got so drunk time that it was impossible to wake him up, or tristeza (sadness) for someone who is sad all the time. In some areas, sobrenombres are so prevalent that often people don’t even know the birth name of their friends. It may seem a bit cruel but it is not unusual for a nickname to be based on someone’s appearance, even if it is something negative that is qualifying it. They can be as harsh as feo (ugly), gordo (fat), or flaca (skinny). On that note, Salvadorans do not consider it rude to make direct comments about your appearance. Don’t be surprised if someone tells you have gained weight, lost weight, or look tired and worn out. Try not to let it ruin your day.


Salvadorans are very kind and will often go out of their way to help others. If somebody does something for you, be sure to express your gratitude, and if possible, try to return the favor. It is not necessarily expected, but this kind of reciprocity is what fuels relationships here. If somebody invites you to their house for dinner, the same rules of etiquette apply as in your home country. It is considered polite to bring a bottle of wine, flowers, sweets, or some small token of appreciation. If you are invited out for a meal, it means that the person who has extended the invitation expects to pay for the meal. Listen for the phrase te invito, which literally means “I invite you.” Likewise, if you invite someone, you will be expected to pay.

Respect is expected to be given to older people by younger people, and to higher-status people by lower-status individuals. This includes using titles of respect such as Señora (Madam) or Señor (Sir) before people’s names and using the formal form of “you,” usted, instead of the informal vos.

As in all of Latin America, time tends to be a loose term in El Salvador, and tardiness is not considered rude. Expect most people to show up about an hour after your scheduled meeting time.

When entering somebody’s home or any commercial establishment, it is expected that you greet everyone who is there with a simple buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), or buenas noches (good evening or good night), depending on what time of day it is. Failure to greet a person is considered offensive. You can also use these greetings when passing people in the street, and it will always be appreciated as a sign of friendly politeness. You can also use adiós or salud as a way of greeting when you are passing by someone on the street.

When you see people eating, you should say buen provecho, which loosely translates as “enjoy your meal,” and they will say gracias (thank you). And vice versa, if you are eating and somebody says buen provecho, say gracias.

Although Salvadorans are generally very open to talking about most things, there are a couple of topics that are best to avoid when first getting to know someone. Salvadorans are very religious people and don’t tend to question Roman Catholicism too much. If you are getting to know someone, it is best to not broach the subject of religion. Most people are not into theological philosophizing—all of the good and bad things that happen are the will of God, and that’s that. Of course, there are definitely exceptions, especially among younger and more urban Salvadorans, but it’s best to feel it out before launching into a conversation about God and religion.

Secondly, most Salvadorans do not talk too much about the war. It was extremely brutal and touched everyone’s lives in some way, regardless of whether they lived in the suburbs of San Salvador or in the mountains of Morazán. This is another topic that should not be broached lightly, as you never know what painful memories it might bring up. Wait until somebody else mentions it before you ask questions.


El Salvador is no different than the rest of Latin America when it comes to machismo culture. It is prevalent, and by and large considered the norm. At its best, the macho attitude is connected with taking on the role of provider and problem solver; at its worst, it can transmute into aggressive and controlling behavior directed toward women. Unfortunately, El Salvador has a very high rate of violence against women, most of which happens in the privacy of people’s homes in the form of marital disputes. Crimes of passion are frequent, usually as a result of the dangerous combination of alcohol and infidelity. El Salvador has one of the highest rates in the world of women killed by men.

Sexism is deeply entrenched in the system. For the most part, stereotypical gender roles are accurate. Quite often, women are expected to take care of the children and duties in the home as well as to work outside it to supplement income. In families with both sons and daughters, it is common for the son to get special treatment, and the girls can even be expected to cook and clean for their male siblings. There is no resentment about it; that’s just the way it is. It is also considered normal for men to make comments on a woman’s appearance, even in professional settings, and many women accept the compliments in silence, perpetuating the stereotypical roles.

The good news is that attitudes are beginning to change, and a new term has arisen in recent years. Caballerismo is starting to replace machismo. Caballero translates as “gentleman” and is somebody who embodies all of the best attributes of a macho man. He shows strong leadership and is a good father and provider. Some men have even started going to workshops where they are taught how to be a more sensitive, less macho man.

At the same time, younger women are refusing to take on the same roles as their mothers and opting for more independent lifestyles. Most recently, shelters for victims of abuse have been established, and anti-domestic violence campaigns have taken off and helped to open up discussion about the once taboo topic on TV and radio shows.

Sports and Recreation


The best hiking is in the national parks, which are also the only areas with proper campsites. You can usually rent tents for around $5, but better to bring your own if you can, as the condition of the tents may not be that great. Campsites in the national parks are equipped with toilets, running water, and barbecues.

There is also decent hiking around Ruta de Las Flores, especially near Juayúa, where guided hikes cost $10-20. In other parts of El Salvador, there is not much in the way of organized hikes, but there is certainly no lack of possibilities. Basically anywhere you go in the country, there are mountains nearby that may not have distinct hiking trails but can usually be climbed with the help of some locals or the tourism police. One great thing about El Salvador is that the tourism police will accompany you to any place you want to go. Just go to the local police office and ask. Sometimes they have someone ready to accompany you right away; other times you may have to wait a few hours. But the option is always there, and it is free. The same rules apply for camping. Although there are not many official campsites, there are plenty of areas in the country where you are able to pitch a tent and spend a few nights without bothering anyone (or anyone bothering you). Ask around when you arrive somewhere where might be a good place to camp. The locals as well as the local police can advise you on secure areas.


El Salvador is a year-round surf destination with equally warm water and weather. The entire coastline is marked with right points and beach breaks, and even during the rainy season, waves still break cleaner than most beach or reef breaks around the world. The dry season runs November to April and typically sees offshore winds, sunny skies, and consistent surf. Large waves still roll through at this time of year, albeit less frequently than during the wet-season months of May to October, when waves can reach up to three meters high. Surfboard rentals are available at almost all of the hotels along the coast.

There are many options for surfing spots, and nobody knows them better than the local guides who can help you get the most out of your surf trip. Some highly recommended English-speaking guides in El Salvador include: Joaquín Aragón (based in La Libertad, tel. 7165-2882), Luis Rivas of Zonte Spanish S’cool and Tours (Playa El Zonte, tel. 7297-6003), and Juan Carlos Rodezno of Paradise Adventures (Playa El Sunzal, tel. 7670-5266,


Although not an obvious scuba-diving destination, El Salvador offers some unique lake diving in Lago Coatepeque and Lago Ilopango, as well as around Los Cóbanos.

Lago Ilopango is El Salvador’s largest and deepest lake and can make for some interesting dives, where you can see boilers, dry lava rocks, and the unique formation and topography of a volcanic crater lake. Lago Coatepeque is less frequented by divers, but still may be of interest to those curious about more crater lake diving. Around Los Cóbanos, you can explore the massive coral reef and see humpback whales, whale sharks, dolphins, and manta rays as well as the country’s only underwater archaeological site, which includes shipwrecks from the 19th century.

El Salvador Divers (3 Calle Poniente and 99 Av. Norte, 5020, Colonia Escalón, San Salvador, is the original and best diving company in the country. They have bilingual staff and can help you arrange diving trips as well as PADI certification. Remember that visibility is best November through January.


El Salvador is gaining popularity as a fishing destination and offers a variety of fishing methods, such as jigging, casting, trolling, and deep-sea fishing. For those who want to keep it simple, many guides can offer artisanal fishing trips that may involve standing in the surf and casting nets or going out in a simple panga to fish for some of the local favorites such as boca colorada (red snapper) or corvina (white sea bass).

Los Cóbanos is a great fishing destination due to the coral reef and the marine ecosystem that it supports, attracting a variety of fish to the area. Here you can find artisanal fishing trips or deep-sea fishing trips. If you don’t feel like heading out onto the deep sea, a fun option at Los Cóbanos is reef fishing, which is great for catching mackerel, barracuda, and snapper. Rock fishing can be done close to coral beaches in Los Cóbanos, where cliffs make great casting spots for the strong roosterfish and jacks.

For deep-sea fishing, many people head to Costa del Sol, where El Salvador is becoming one of the top sportfishing destinations for species that include blue marlin and tuna.


El Salvador is fast becoming a birder’s paradise. A two-week birding trip here can cost less than half the price of a similar trip in Nicaragua or Costa Rica, and the variety of birds is just as impressive. The geographic diversity coupled with the small size of the country means birders can hit all the best spots in a short amount of time.

Because of its location, El Salvador is a major throughway for migrating birds, making it a prime location for both endemic species and others that are just passing through on their annual journeys. The country has a rich ornithological history and more than 540 species of resident and migratory birds, and half of those species can be seen throughout the year in the different national parks, protected natural areas, and wetlands and along the Pacific coast. The largest number of the endemic species can be found in the cloud forests.

El Salvador’s prime birding locations include Cerro Verde and Montecristo cloud forests. Cerro Verde is very accessible and close to accommodations, making it a popular stop for birders. The shade-grown coffee plantations and forest patches at mid- and lower elevations create a buffer zone that makes this one of the most important sites for birds in the country. Older second-growth cloud forest surrounds this site where it is common to find species such as the rufous-browed wren, the blue and white mockingbird, and the slate-throated redstart. If you are lucky, you may even spot a singing quail.

Located in southwestern El Salvador in the Department of Ahuachapán, Barra de Santiago contains approximately 2,000 hectares of protected coastal mangroves, beaches, and mudflats and has been designated as Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International. Important Bird Areas are recognized as being globally important habitat for the conservation of bird populations. Some beautiful birds you can expect to see while quietly cruising through the mangroves include the American pygmy kingfisher, orange-chinned parakeet, lineated woodpecker, and shorebirds such as the mangrove swallow, Wilson’s plover, and lesser yellowlegs.

Parque Nacional El Imposible is another great bird-watching zone. The park contains some of the largest tracts of virgin Pacific slope forest in Central America, and nearly 300 species of birds have been recorded here. Some birds you might spot while hiking through the forest include the ivory-billed woodpecker, lesser ground cuckoo, long-tailed manakin, banded wren, mottled owl, and gray hawk, among others.

Suchitoto has excellent bird-watching in and around Lago Suchitlán, especially known for the great egret, great blue heron, American coot, blue-winged teal, ringed kingfisher, and green kingfisher. Finally, Bahía de Jiquilisco is one of the top spots for bird-watching in the country, but a lack of tourism infrastructure means bird-watching excursions can be a little more difficult to organize.

Benjamin Rivera of Green Trips (tel. 7943-5230,, based in San Salvador, is El Salvador’s top bird-watching tour guide and can arrange unique tours around the country. Robert Broz of El Gringo Tours (Calle Francisco Morazán 27, Suchitoto, tel. 2327-2351, offers excellent bird-watching adventures around Suchitoto.

Travel Tips


Volunteering in El Salvador

There are plenty of opportunities for volunteer work in El Salvador if you are willing to work with small organizations. Many of the opportunities are in remote areas and do incredible grassroots work with local communities. Listed below are some reliable options.

The Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) (Av. Bolivar 103, Colonia Libertad, San Salvador, tel. 2235-1330, is an excellent resource if you are interested in volunteering or studying Spanish. The organization focuses on education and social-justice issues and has a Spanish school inside its office in San Salvador.

There are also volunteer opportunities in Suchitoto at the Centro Arte Para la Paz (2 Calle Poniente 5, Suchitoto, tel. 2335-1080,, where you can speak with the director and tailor your own program according to your skillset. Also in Suchitoto, the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador (IPES) (2 Calle Oriente 13-A, Suchitoto, offers volunteer opportunities to learn and practice permaculture.

On the eastern coast, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO) ( organizes volunteer programs that focus on preserving the endangered hawksbill turtle. EcoViva (1904 Franklin St., Suite 902, Oakland, CA 94612, tel. 510/835-1334, offers volunteer programs that focus on sustainable development of rural communities around the Bajo Lempa region.

On the western coast, Sueños Pacíficos (Playa el Cocal, 5 minutes’ drive west of La Libertad, tel. 7112-0662) offers excellent volunteer opportunities in an enthusiastic eco-community just a few kilometers from one of the best surf breaks in the country, Punta Roca. The project aims to involve visitors directly with the local community and to provide training and scholarships to local people so that they are able to make a sustainable living through tourism. Sueños Pacíficos is always looking for volunteers to share their skills and knowledge with the local community as well as other travelers, or just lend a hand with tasks that need to be done in the eco-community. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about organic farming and permaculture, natural building, and environmentally appropriate technologies.

Work Opportunities

There are not many work opportunities for foreigners in El Salvador, apart from teaching in one of the international schools. Almost every formal job requires a preexisting visa or an already-hired expatriate. Leading headhunters in the region might be able to help expatriates look for jobs. Popular websites for this are and


In the more touristed areas you will find hostels that are geared toward international backpackers, but in less frequented towns, if you ask for a hostel, they will likely not understand what you need. It’s best to ask for a hotel or a hospedaje (lodging).

When many places say they have hot water, they are referring to electric showers. Although this is more common in less expensive places, it can also be found in some of the pricier hotels. If you are someone who loves a hot shower, the electric shower just may never fully satisfy your need for heat. To optimize the heat in an electric shower, you need to sacrifice water pressure, bringing your shower down to a lighter sprinkle, but at least it will be hot. Remember never to touch the electric showerhead when your hand or any other part of your body is wet. It is electric, after all. If piping hot water is a deal breaker for you, always ask to see the shower before you decide on a room. If there is a bulbous, beige plastic showerhead with a sliding button, this is an electric showerhead. If it is a regular showerhead, they likely have gas-heated water.

As in most of the rest of Central America, the plumbing in El Salvador cannot handle toilet paper, so remember to place it in the trash instead of flushing it down the toilet.

Central America is known for its scores of Auto Hotels, and El Salvador is no exception. Auto hotels are ubiquitous and uniform, and if you are driving through El Salvador, you are likely to become very familiar with them. For the most part, they look like and function as any other generic roadside motel, except they are specifically designed for illicit sexual encounters. The hotels provide absolute anonymity, including an enclosed space exclusively for your vehicle that has one door leading to a small, usually cement-walled room with no windows. All communication and financial transactions are done through a darkened sliding window or a revolving drawer in the room. If you are driving and desperately in need of a cheap, safe place to sleep, an auto hotel will serve the purpose.

Always check rooms to see if they are facing the street. Salvadoran buses and traffic can be noisy, and it usually starts around 4:30am. Always try to secure a room as far away from the street as possible.

Salvadorans are security conscious and like to know who is staying with them. You will be asked to provide your passport details upon checking into any hostel or hotel.


Travelers with disabilities can expect to be seriously limited in El Salvador. With the exception of the highest-end hotels and restaurants, wheelchair ramps and disabled toilets are virtually nonexistent.


Hermosa. Princesa. Niña. If you are traveling as a single woman in El Salvador you have likely heard all of these terms of endearment. Depending on what kind of mood you are in, and how many times you have already heard it that day, you may smile and laugh it off or grimace and rage inside. Traveling as a single woman in El Salvador can be equal parts charming and infuriating. The macho culture means that men are always expected to be the hero, and in El Salvador men seem to take this to the next level. Don’t be surprised to find men running after you to help you carry a large item, holding doors for you, or offering to drive you to wherever you are going. Basically, if there is a problem, they will help you solve it. This makes traveling a lot easier, and sometimes a lot of fun. But be careful—normal social interactions between men and women in your home country may not be the same in El Salvador. For example, if you are out in a social context with a group of people and a man asks if you would like a ride home, this can easily be misinterpreted as you wanting to go home with him. Always make sure you are clear about what you want—and what your expectations are regarding a relationship with a man. Pay attention to how you dress. It is a sad reality that unless you want to be ogled and catcalled, it is wise not to wear revealing clothing such as short shorts or low-cut tops. Even at the beach, you will notice that with the exception of the touristy surf spots, most Salvadoran women bathe in shorts and a T-shirt.

If you do find that someone is making you uncomfortable with their comments, say something to them in no uncertain terms. Salvadorans are very sensitive about their reputation, and if you make it public that you do not appreciate the attention, it is likely to stop. Take the normal precautions as a single woman traveler: do not take rides with unknown men, always take a taxi at night, and keep an eye on your drink when you are at a bar. You might want to invest in some pepper spray once you arrive. Thankfully, sexual assault of foreigners is almost unheard of, but with the rise in tourism, you never know how things could develop.


For Salvadorans, children are life’s deepest source of fulfillment and joy. Concessions are constantly made in honor of keeping kids happy and comfortable; when it’s clear that you’re foreign, the desire to coo, coddle, and cuddle your child will be magnified even more. Although at times it might drive you crazy, it is all done with only the best intentions, so try to be gracious and smile. Hotels and restaurants will generally go out of their way to accommodate kids, and you will be amazed at the number of places with small playgrounds, swimming pools, and toys available.

Safety issues are not exactly a priority in El Salvador. Car seats are not required by law, and you should keep a watchful eye at playgrounds and amusement parks because the equipment and rides could be unsafe.


Given its religious conservatism and macho culture, El Salvador is not a comfortable environment to be openly gay, and discrimination and violence directed to anyone who is not heterosexual is common. A national law does exist to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but discrimination remains widespread. Same-sex marriage is not recognized, and the national constitution defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. However, activism and visibility are on the rise. Gay pride parades and national conferences on LGBT rights have started to take form, and a dedicated minority is working toward a more just society. If you do decide to weather the discriminatory storm as an out LGBT traveler in El Salvador, there is a wonderful community of people that you can connect with. Start with Las Dignas (Av. Bernal 16S, San Salvador, tel. 2284-9550,, a women’s rights organization that is deeply involved with LGBT issues and events. There is also a collection of gay bars near the Metrocentro in San Salvador.

Health and Safety


Travelers to El Salvador should take certain health concerns into consideration. There are various risks of diseases that are nonexistent in your home country, however with the proper preparation and precautions your chances of falling ill are minimal. Before you leave, make sure you find a travelers clinic that can help get you prepared. Don’t leave it to the last minute, though, as some medications and vaccinations require some time for completion.


You do not have to have proof of vaccinations to enter El Salvador, but you should always travel with your International Certificate of Vaccination (Yellow Card). You never know when you may be asked to show proof of your immunizations. Some of these shots take several months to complete, so make sure you allow yourself enough time.

There is no yellow fever in El Salvador, but the government of El Salvador requires proof that you have been vaccinated against it if you are arriving from an area where there is yellow fever. Hepatitis A can be contracted through contaminated food or water in El Salvador, regardless of where you are eating or staying. It’s a good idea to get vaccinated before you go. The vaccination is given as two shots, six months apart. Hepatitis B is contracted through sexual contact, contaminated needles, and blood products, so it’s a good idea to get this vaccine if you plan on having sex with a new partner, getting a tattoo or piercing, or having any medical procedures. The vaccination is given as three to four shots over a six-month period.

Typhoid fever is also contracted through contaminated food or water in El Salvador. This vaccine is recommended for most travelers, especially if you are staying with friends or relatives (you are more likely to be infected if in close quarters with people who live in the country), visiting smaller cities or rural areas, or if you are an adventurous eater. Typhoid is one shot and will last 5 years. Rabies can be found in dogs, bats, and other mammals in El Salvador. You might want to consider getting this vaccine if your travel will involve a lot of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, and biking, or you plan to be around a lot of animals. A rabies shot is also a good idea for children, as they are more likely to play with and potentially get bitten by an animal. The vaccination includes a series of three shots over one month.


Air Quality

The air quality in some parts of the country is extremely poor, the worst area being the capital. The fact that San Salvador is located in a valley and is so heavily populated is bad enough; factor in the old buses expelling heavy, toxic exhaust and the result is a heavily polluted city. Asthmatics should take note of this and make sure to travel with appropriate medication.

Diseases from Food and Water

El Salvador is no different than any other tropical country and is teeming with potentially hazardous germs, especially near the coast. Always drink bottled water and never from the faucet, and ask for drinks sin hielo (without ice). You will likely be unable to resist a cold licuado (fruit shake) on a hot day, and you shouldn’t, because they are delicious. You can ask for your licuado with milk or water. If you choose water, ask if they are using agua pura (purified water) just to be sure. Your best bet is to avoid cheap, unhygienic-looking places and keep a close eye on the preparation of your drink. To be absolutely certain you won’t get sick from drinks, stick to bottled beverages. When drinking alcohol, remember that the sun adds to dehydration, and without proper hydration the tropical hangover can hit you like a ton of bricks. Try to alternate alcoholic drinks with water.

Be careful when it comes to salads and fruit. It is impossible to know whether fruits and vegetables have been washed with purified water or not. All side salads come with a wedge of lime: use it and ask for more to squeeze on your salad, as the lime helps kill bacteria. Try to stick to fruit that you can peel, such as mangoes and bananas. Pre-prepared fruit can be very enticing, but you do not know how clean the person’s hands were who prepared it, or how long it has been exposed to potential risks such as disease-carrying insects or airborne bacteria. It is a good idea to carry around a bottle of grapefruit seed extract (GSE) when traveling. This natural antibiotic can be found in any health food store in your home country and, when added to your water a few times a day, can do wonders to protect you from bacterial infections. Make sure you wash your vegetables thoroughly, as many of them are sprayed with toxic agrochemicals. You can contact Soya Nutribar (Av. Las Palmas, Pasaje 6, No. 114, tel. 2566-6835) or Café El Botón (Av. de la Capilla 210, tel. 2264-9738) to purchase local organic produce.

Cholera is spread by drinking contaminated water and by eating raw or undercooked food. It is an intestinal infection that causes diarrhea and vomiting, and the most important recourse if you contract it is rehydration through lots of water and rehydration salts. Rehydration salts are not easy to find outside San Salvador, so make sure you bring some with you. Chances of contracting it in El Salvador are low, and if you do, it is unlikely it will be severe enough to warrant seeking medical attention. Traveler’s diarrhea is an inescapable reality when traveling in tropical countries. Most cases are mild and do not last more than a couple of days. The best thing you can do for diarrhea is drink plenty of fluids and rest.

Insect-Borne Diseases

Transmitted by mosquitoes, Malaria is found in rural areas around Ahuachapán, La Unión, and Santa Ana; however, even in those areas, the risk is extremely low. It is not necessary to take antimalarial drugs while traveling in El Salvador unless you are in a high-risk category, such as the elderly and pregnant women. Dengue fever is also transmitted by mosquitoes and is most common in rural areas along the coast. There has been a spike in the number of cases of dengue fever in El Salvador in the last few years, and unfortunately there is no vaccine. Dengue fever mimics the flu with symptoms such as headaches, high fever, and joint pain, and the treatment is the same as for the flu: plenty of rest, fluids, and painkillers.

Chagas’ disease is found in very rural areas of El Salvador and is spread by a blood-sucking triatomine insect known as chinche or the kissing bug. An infected insect, which hides in dwellings made from mud, adobe, straw, or palm thatch, falls from the ceiling onto a sleeper’s face and bites, hence the name kissing bug. Symptoms can include swelling around the bite area along with fever, fatigue, body aches, headaches, rash, diarrhea, and vomiting. But sometimes there are no symptoms at all until decades later, when the disease can cause deadly heart problems. If you think you may have been kissed by the deadly bug, it’s best to take a course of antiparasitic medication, which can easily be picked up in any pharmacy in the country.

Leishmaniasis is carried by tiny sandflies and is one of the world’s most common parasitic infections. Small, itchy red bites develop into skin sores, allowing the parasite to enter through mucous membranes into the blood, where it then spreads to the internal organs, causing deadly damage to the spleen and liver. Try to use an extra-fine mosquito net to avoid getting bitten and look out for any bites that turn into lesions. This is a red flag for Leishmaniasis. If you do contract it, it can be treated with antiparasitic medication available in pharmacies.

Onchocerciasis, commonly known as river blindness, is caused by a parasitic worm, Onchocerca volvulus. This worm is transmitted by fly bites, specifically from the notorious blackfly that breeds in rivers, which is where the disease’s common name originates from. After initial infection, it may take more than a year for symptoms to develop. They include an autoimmune response that causes skin lesions, swelling, severe itching and burning, and gradual blindness in less than 10 percent of cases. There is no vaccine for river blindness but it can be diagnosed through a simple blood test and can be treated with antibiotics easily found in pharmacies throughout the country.


Hospitals and English-speaking doctors are available in the major cities. You can try your luck finding English-speaking doctors at the public hospitals, or go to a private one, where there will likely be someone who speaks English fluently. In rural areas, you will be hard-pressed to find a doctor who speaks English, and often there won’t be a hospital nearby. People in remote areas usually depend on pharmacies and small clinics for health care. Because of this, pharmacists are often knowledgeable about illnesses and appropriate treatments. Pharmacies are very well stocked with medications that would often require a prescription in your home country, especially antibiotics. The one exception is medication for psychological conditions; medications such as benzodiazepines are strictly regulated in El Salvador.


Crime is an unfortunate fact of life in El Salvador, and determining a potentially dangerous situation can be tricky, so it is better to be alert at all times. The fact is, for all the negative media about crime in El Salvador, it is a surprisingly safe country for travelers. This is not to say that the stories of violence are not true; considered the epicenter of the gang crisis, along with Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador has one of the highest rates of crime in Latin America. Although the murder rate dropped after a gang truce in March 2012, sadly it seems to be on the rise once again. Strangely, it is rare for a visitor to see this underside of the friendly face that El Salvador presents to the world, but rest assured that it is there.

Common Crimes and Dangerous Areas

Armed robbery seems to be on the rise in El Salvador. This could be either at knifepoint or at gunpoint and usually does not go any farther than threats; however, there have been a few rare incidents where robberies have turned violent. As in any country where there is rampant poverty, petty theft can also be a problem. Buses are the most common place where you may be robbed by a pickpocket, and any place where there are crowds of people can be risky. The most dangerous parts of the country are in San Salvador, and more specifically in the eastern area of Soyapango, where there is a well-known gang presence. The historic center can also be unsafe simply because of the sheer number of people. The well-heeled neighborhoods of Zona Rosa and Escalón are generally safe, but robberies also take place here, mostly at night and on dimly lit side streets. Along the coast, there has been a rise in armed robberies near El Tunco, specifically along the stretch of beach between El Tunco and El Sunzal, at nighttime. Do not walk between any beaches at night.

Safety Tips

Always be aware of your surroundings and trust your gut. If something seems suspicious, remove yourself from the situation. Be especially watchful on crowded buses, especially in the city. Do not keep any money or valuables in your pockets, and keep your bag closed and close to your body at all times. Make a copy of your passport and carry that around with you; keep the original in a secure place at your hotel. Do not wear flashy jewelry or carry expensive gadgets or cameras in plain view, especially on buses or in crowded areas in San Salvador. Always take a taxi at night, even if you are moving a short distance in a nice neighborhood—robberies happen on side streets no matter where you are. If you are driving at night, keep your doors locked, and remember that if you feel threatened, it is legal to run a red light. Dormitories are generally safe in El Salvador, but it is best to use security lockboxes if they are available.

If you do happen to get approached by a thief, do not try to resist or argue; hand over your money, and most likely the only damage you will receive is financial.

If Something Happens

If something does happen, go directly to the nearest police station and fill out a denuncia (police report). It is not likely that you will retrieve what you lost, but at least they will be able to look for the criminal. There are tourist police in El Salvador, but when it comes to reporting a crime, it doesn’t make much difference whether you go to them or the regular police, because most of them do not speak much English anyway. It is good to note that the police in El Salvador are generally not corrupt and usually do things by the book. Contact your embassy right away in the case of a stolen passport. Embassies can also sometimes help with wiring emergency funds.

Information and Services



In 2001, El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official unit of currency. The switch to the dollar resulted in an economic boom and an increase in prices. Compared to its neighbors Guatemala and Nicaragua, El Salvador is a bit pricey, but it is still cheaper than Costa Rica and Panama. For American travelers, the use of the dollar means that there is no need to worry about currency exchange.

Outside the major cities, cash is easiest, as not all places accept credit cards. Finding small change is always a problem, and often people will tell you they do not have change for bills. It is considered your responsibility to have the correct change for a purchase. It’s a good idea to keep a change purse and try and collect as much as you can for small purchases and bus travel.

Traveler’s Checks

Traveler’s checks are gradually becoming obsolete, but you may want to carry a few hundred dollars’ worth in case of an emergency. Most major banks, including Banco Cuscatlán, Scotiabank, and Citibank, will cash traveler’s checks. Don’t forget to bring your passport.

Money Transfers

If you need to get money wired to you, there is no shortage of Western Union offices in even the smallest of towns. The country’s economy runs on remittances from the United States.

Credit Cards and ATMs

Most establishments will charge a 6-12 percent surcharge for credit card purchases. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted.

ATMs are widely available in the major cities and also in the main tourism destinations, including Juayúa and Concepción de Ataco along Ruta de Las Flores as well as Suchitoto and La Libertad and El Tunco on the western coast. ATMs are harder to come by in the eastern part of the country, so it is best to make sure you have enough cash for the eastern leg of your trip when you stop in San Miguel. ATMs usually have a limit on how much you can withdraw per day. Typically the maximum amount you can get is $250, but occasionally you can find machines that will dispense up to $500. There is really no way of knowing except through word of mouth.


A propina is not required when dining out in El Salvador; however, unless you are eating at a comedor, it is usually expected. Some restaurants add a 10 percent tip onto your bill. If it is not included, consider leaving it anyway. It may be a small amount of money to you but could make a big difference for somebody making minimum or less than minimum wage. Plus, with the excellent customer service in El Salvador, it is usually well merited.

It is a good idea to tip guides a few dollars, as they only make a small percentage of what you pay; most of it goes to the tour company or the hotel you hired them from. Hotel staff do not expect tips, but will be very grateful for them. Use your own judgment as to whether someone has gone above and beyond their regular duties (which is often the case in El Salvador). You are not expected to tip taxi drivers, but again, if someone is very efficient or speaks English, it is a good idea to leave a little extra in exchange for the added value.


Hotels in El Salvador charge an 18 percent tax, which is usually included in the price and sometimes waived if you pay in cash. There is a 13 percent sales tax on all goods.

Prices and Bargaining

You are much less likely to get ripped off in El Salvador than you are in other Latin American countries with well-trodden gringo trails. That being said, of course, in the more touristy areas such as El Tunco, you will not get the same price as a Salvadoran. For the most part, though, the price given to travelers will never be too much higher than the real price, and bargaining is not really common in El Salvador. In rural areas, people are very honest and will give the correct price. Don’t aggressively haggle with people; they work very hard and make very little money. Let them renew your faith in humanity instead of you tarnishing theirs.


El Salvador can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. If you sleep in dormitories and eat comida típica (typical Salvadoran food), you can get by on less than $15 a day. If you want to sleep in a private room and have a little more variety in your food, you are looking at about $30 a day. For $50 or more, you can stay in quality hotels, hire guides, and eat at international restaurants.



Post offices can be found in nearly every small town in the country as many Salvadorans still rely on snail mail for both sending and receiving goods to and from other parts of the country as well as the United States. Prices for sending mail are quite reasonable, but the regular mail system is very unreliable. Packages are often opened and searched by customs, and it is not uncommon for things to go missing from El Salvador’s postal system, especially in incoming mail. If you need to send or receive anything of any value, it is strongly recommended that you use a courier service such as DHL or FedEx.


The country code for El Salvador is 503, which you only need to use if you’re calling from outside the country. International access codes for calling El Salvador are 011 in the U.S. and Canada, 0011 in Australia, 0170 in New Zealand, and 00 in Great Britain.

To place a call within El Salvador, dial the eight-digit number, which begin with a 2 for landlines and a 9 for cellphones. To place a direct international call from El Salvador, dial 00 for international access, plus the country code for the country you are calling, followed by the area code and local phone number.


Salvadorans in the city are very connected, and most places you go in San Salvador will have Wi-Fi. However, in rural areas and at the beaches, it is harder to find wireless connections. All four leading mobile phone companies here (Movistar, Digicel, Tigo, and Claro) offer USB devices that you can plug into your computer and access the Internet even in the remotest areas. If you are going to be traveling a lot in El Salvador, these are worth the investment. The initial purchase will set you back about $15 and then you can simply buy prepaid cards from any tienda to recharge them.

Newspapers and Magazines

The major daily newspapers in El Salvador are La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy, and they are available everywhere. Some Spanish-language versions of magazines are available in the cities, such as National Geographic and Cosmopolitan. In general El Salvador is not a reading culture, so your options are usually limited.

Television and Radio

Salvadoran TV is heavily influenced by Mexico, and as such has a lot of telenovelas, Mexican soap operas that involve heavy drama centered around the elite class of Mexican society, and histrionic talk shows that focus on celebrity gossip. Luckily for travelers, if there is TV in your hotel, it will have cable, and this includes a few English-language movie channels as well as American comedies and dramas. In more rural areas, radio is a very popular form of entertainment among older Salvadorans.


The Ministerio de Turismo (MiTur) (Ministry of Tourism, has offices throughout the country and they provide brochures, maps, and other information about visitor activities. They are well-staffed, and some offices have fluent English speakers. The main MiTur office is located in San Salvador (Alameda Dr. Manuel Enrique Arauajo, Pasaje and Edificio Carbonell 2, San Salvador, tel. 2243-7835), where you will find the most complete selection of maps and brochures. La Libertad (Km. 34, Carretera del Litoral, La Libertad, tel. 2346-1898) has a MiTur office located at the entrance to town that offers information about the western beaches. Suchitoto (Calle San Martín, beside parque central, Suchitoto, tel. 2335-1739) has a very helpful MiTur office with loads of information about what to do in and around Suchitoto. Added bonus: It is one of the few places in town with icy cool air-conditioning. La Palma (Calle José Matias Delgado, La Palma, tel. 2335-9076, has an excellent office beside the parque central with information about La Palma, El Pital, and Miramundo. The very enthusiastic staff can arrange guided hikes and has a good selection of maps and brochures.



Electricity in El Salvador is 115 volts and 60 hertz alternating current, the same as in the rest of North America. The flat pronged outlets do not have the third grounding socket. Power outages do happen, especially during the rainy season, so remember to back things up on your computer.


El Salvador uses the metric system, but there are still some residual Spanish terms such as manzana, a word used to describe the size of land, equivalent to about 7,000 square meters.


El Salvador is six hours earlier than UTC or Greenwich Mean Time, and daylight saving time is not used. That means in winter, El Salvador’s clocks are the same time as North America’s central standard time, and in summer it is the same as mountain daylight time.