Ultimate Guide to Backpacking El Salvador

Backpacking El Salvador: The Ultimate Travel Guide

Mark Stewart Travel Tips, Trip Planning 51 Comments

“Don’t Skip El Salvador.” It’s a slogan found all over the tiny country, grasping at the tourism market that seems to have passed it by. Wedged between three rapidly growing destinations of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua; the smallest of the group is often overlooked. Having recently spent several weeks backpacking El Salvador, we’ve decided to help shed some light. Let us help you explore this fascinating little nation with our travel guide. El Salvador is eager to break free of its unfortunate history, join the ranks of her neighbours and be the next great tourist destination.

The Past

Like many Central American countries, El Salvador has had its share of unfortunate events. Revolutions, coups and civil war stand out in recent years, the war itself ending as recently as 1992. Prior to that, it was corrupt governments and coffee owners. The age-old story of all of the power and money in the hands of the very few, the rest suffering dearly. Of all Central America, El Salvador has the smallest population of indigenous people, sadly due to a massacre in the early 1930’s.

The Present

To say the country has a tumultuous past is an understatement. These days things have improved significantly, though some progress is still to be made. Poverty and inequality are all too common, as is gang activity in some areas. All of that said, the situation is nothing like what it appears on mainstream media.

During our time backpacking Central America, we experienced nothing that made us question our decision to stop and visit El Salvador. We were greeted by smiling locals, who would often stop us in the street simply to thank us for giving their home a chance. It’s time to end the stigma surrounding this fantastic little country and focus on the positives. Delicious cuisine, unique and fascinating festivals, and incredible people. Mountains, volcanoes and over three hundred kilometres of coastline – featuring some of the best surfing in the world.

Resist the urge to simply pass through like the majority of travellers do. Stop, stay and explore. Don’t skip El Salvador!

So enough about this, let’s get to the travel guide

Must-Visit Locations

San Salvador

Many will argue against visiting the capital city of San Salvador and depending on their reasons, some may be correct. However, in our opinion, visiting El Salvador without exploring this rapidly progressive city would be a shame. It’s a city of great divides, the richest of the rich and those living in the extreme opposite. Neighbourhoods of corrugated-metal fences and razor wire, and towering American chain hotels and modern shopping centres only blocks away.

In the last two years, the local government has spent large sums of money towards reinventing the city centre. The change has happened so quickly that many government websites and travel guides still recommend not visiting many parts of downtown that are now completely safe. On top of it all, its central location as a transport hub makes it the perfect base for exploring the rest of the country.

What to Do

San Salvador is a great spot to check out some fantastic monuments and really unique buildings, from early-20th-century architecture to modern shopping plazas.

The Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo is a fairly central hub in the city. In some ways, it is a focal point in which the rest of the city spreads and class is divided. It’s an impressive sight, especially for sunset photos but is also a great place to watch skateboarders make use of the structure for play, or even catch an impromptu hip-hop show.

Take a free walking tour of the centre through Eco Tours El Salvador and or explore the downtown on your own. Visit the chaotic markets before relaxing in the newly restored Plaza Libertad. While there, don’t skip out on seeing the Iglesia El Rosario, an architectural marvel that can only be truly appreciated by witnessing first hand.

To get out of the dusty city without really leaving, spend an afternoon at Parque Bicentenario. On the west side of the city, this nature reserve has plenty of trails, playgrounds, activities and picnic sites to wind down after a few days in the busy centre.

A cathedral in San Salvador with rainbow coloured glass in the ceiling

Be sure to visit the Iglesia El Rosario in San Salvador

Eat and Sleep

Good food is scattered throughout the city but can be a little tricky to find a proper Salvadorian meal aside from pupusas and street snacks. Thankfully, both of those options are delicious and foundeverywhere in town! If you’re looking for a break from pupusas and plantains, there are plenty of chain restaurants found in the modern shopping centres around the city.

Most hostels and hotels are found in the southwest part of the city, which is typically the hub for most expats and upper class. Here you’ll find everything from dirt-cheap dorms to the Crowne Plaza.

Although a lot of travellers are looking for a more ‘authentic’ experience, this is a great spot to be located for a couple of reasons. First, it’s safe. San Salvador still has it’s share of problems, especially in the north and east parts of the city. Secondly, it’s convenient. Catching buses, taxis, and Uber; as well as any self-catering needs will be much easier.

El Tunco, El Salvador’s Surf Capital

Only a few short hours from Antigua, Guatemala, El Tunco is where most visitors stay when they pass through El Salvador. And while it’s an amazing place to spend a little time, it’s often the only bit of the country many foreigners get to experience.

Like most little beach towns, it was once considered a ‘hidden gem’ in the region but in recent years has become the most touristic spot in the entire country. Full of great restaurants, incredible nightlife, and some of the best sunset watching in all of El Salvador, people tend to stick around longer than planned.

What to Do

Surfing.

If there’s one activity to partake while stopping in El Tunco, it’s surfing. Famous worldwide for its breaks, people from around the globe flock here to give it a go. For experienced riders, board rentals go for around $10-15 per day, while lessons start at around $15-20 per hour (including board), which is far cheaper than many other surf towns in Central America.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Northern coast of El Salvador is quite rocky. If you’re a complete beginner, understand that there is a real chance of injury.

Always be sure to buy Travel Insurance that covers risky activities like surfing. Personally, we use World Nomads to take care of this.

Check out the fish market in La Libertad. Get up early in the morning and head twenty minutes down the highway to the largest city in the region. See the hustle and bustle of the morning market as the locals swarm through the stalls and watch as fish mongers fillet the fresh catch with surgical precision. Kick back at the end of it all for some beachside ceviche and a cold breakfast beer.

Get down to some of the best nightlife in the country. El Tunco, being the tourist destination it is, is home to some fantastic nightclubs and beach bars that keep the party going until late. While getting down at a party is a nightly event, when the locals come down from the city on the weekends, things really get wild!

Eat and Sleep

Consisting of only a few small roads, everything in El Tunco is fairly close together. The food scene varies considerably in the small area. Beach restaurants have upscale tourist menus with a lot of the typical burgers and pizza, while tiny road stalls sell pupusas and grilled meat. There are a few vegetarian and vegan-friendly spots available as well to give your body a rest from all that drinking and fried food!

For sleeping, there are a few higher-end resorts up the coast and some nice hotels along the beach, but the majority of accommodation hovers in the budget realm. Within that, you’ll find everything from simple campsites and rentable hammocks, to dorm beds and private rooms. Due to the rocky shoreline which is quite unfriendly towards swimmers, many hostels have their own pools to relax in after a long day in the sun.

A surfer on a wave.

A local showing off his skills in El Tunco

 

Ruta de las Flores

This serene valley of charming villages is one of the most magical spots in the country. Only a short distance from the coast, its altitude and climate are significantly different – leading to an alluring landscape of brilliant colours.

The Ruta is actually made up of five small villages, south of Ahuachapan, spread out over 40 kilometres. These towns include Nahuizalco, Juayua, Zalcoatitan, Apaneca and Ataco, which are all interconnected by local buses.

If you’re fortunate enough to visit during the spring, while the flowers are in bloom, you’ll be treated to a wondrous expanse of colours and freshness.

What to Do

The weekend food festival in Juayua is a highlight for anyone staying in the region. Residents from the surrounding villages and the coast to the south converge in this otherwise quiet town for a frantic two days of food and celebration. Sample locally produced sausages, grilled seafood and refreshing cocktails.

Take a dip in the waterfalls! Two options here: the first is to hike for several hours and visit the seven different falls of the area, including a chance to repel down the face of one. If you’re tighter on time, one gorgeous waterfall is easily accessible on the outskirts of Juayua.
 

 
At the time of writing, there have been several robberies on the route to the waterfall just outside of Juayua. We personally know two people who fell victim. The two of them were hiking to the falls than two kilometres outside of Juayua when they were robbed at knife-point. They lost some belongings and were shaken up, but were ultimately ok.

Our hostel clearly informed us about this issue, unfortunately theirs did not.

The local police will escort you – free of charge – if you want to do this hike without a proper guide.

 

Check out the street art and views in Ataco. Probably the prettiest of the towns in the Ruta de Flores, Ataco is full of colourful buildings and fantastic artwork – ranging from religious to political and everything in between. For incredible views of the surrounding area, head up to the Mirador de la Cruz on the south end of town.

Get lost in a maze! Head to Cafe Albania in Apaneca and venture into the deceivingly-sized hedge labyrinth. Once you find your way to the centre and back out, you can celebrate over some locally-grown coffee and take in the wonderful view of the hills below.

Eat and Sleep

Aside from the fabulous weekend food festival in Juayua, be sure to check out Esmereldas for some of the best pupusas in the entire Ruta de Flores.

Juayua and Ataco are the most popular spots for budget travellers, while several higher-end resorts and hotels can be found dotting the area between towns. Many of the fancier places will be found further north, towards Ahuachapan.

During our time in the region, we stayed at Casa Mazeta, which had a nice kitchen, relaxing patio and garden area, and a fantastically chilled-out common area.

A colourful mural painted on the side of a building

Colourfully painted buildings are a common sight on the Ruta de Flores

Santa Ana

Conveniently located between the Ruta de Flores and San Salvador, and a common entry point from Guatemala, Santa Ana is a popular spot anyone backpacking El Salvador. Unfortunately, much like El Tunco, many travellers simply pass through without taking time to explore.

A city rich in history, Santa Ana was actually a thriving pre-Colombian urban centre. In the early 20th century, it was home to the majority of coffee plantation owners, as a result, here you’ll find some of the most beautiful colonial architecture in the country.

What to Do

First, check out the stunning architecture, particularly the Cathedral de Santa Ana in the heart of the square. While here, spin yourself around and stop in for a show at the old theatre just up the street. If you aren’t feeling for a show, it’s worth marvelling at the fantastic building alone.

Visit the Mayan ruins of Tazumel, just 15 kilometres west of the city centre. When you’re finished exploring the ancient ruins, head south of the city to swim inside an old volcano! The crater of Lago de Coatepeque was formed over 50,000 years ago during a series of eruptions but now lies dormant. The massive caldera has flooded over the centuries and is now a great spot to take a dip!

Eat and Sleep

Santa Ana has a surprisingly impressive food scene. There are a few standout places you can read about in our post here but our absolute favourite is La Cieba, which has some of the best pupusas in El Salvador.

The vast majority of travellers stay at Casa Verde, which is often considered not only the top spot in the city but the entire country. Although we’ve heard nothing but positive vibes about this spot, it was booked full during our visit. However, we were fortunate enough to stay at Casa Vieja, a small, family-owned spot right near the centre. The owner and his two sons were gracious hosts and wonderful company; we highly recommend giving them a shout!

The stunning white cathedral in gothic style architecture in Santa Ana

The Stunning Cathedral of Santa Ana

 

Unique Experiences

Costa del Sol

This strip of brilliant coastline a few hours south of San Salvador is a hot spot for higher-end vacationers. If you’re looking for a nice hotel/resort to relax in during your time here, this is where you’ll want to go. Not the party resorts you’ll find in more popular destinations like Cuba or Mexico but much posher than a lot of the places you’ll encounter in other coastal towns in El Salvador.

Costa del Sol isn’t limited to travellers with deep wallets either. There are several options for budget accommodation a little off the beach itself. That being said, the local buses are dirt-cheap and will get you where you need to be with little hassle.


One place we would definitely check out, even for a day trip, would be to head to the southeast tip of the beach and grab a ferry across the bay to Isla Tasajera. We actually discovered this stunning place during a rather unfortunate Workaway experience, but overall, are glad we found it!

Although it’s not technically an island, it’s cut off from nearly all outside traffic. Cross the island via pickup trucks that regularly drive along the single road. Check out some truly local restaurants for great seafood or head down to the beach where you’ll encounter the same beautiful strip of the coast as Costa del Sol proper, but without a single hotel or resort – it’s completely empty!

Climb an Active Volcano

El Salvador is full of volcanoes, some of them still very active. Just outside Santa Ana, you can hike right to the edge of the central crater of the tallest volcano in the country. Known locally as Volcan Llamatepec, the Santa Ana Volcano stands a staggering 2300m above sea level and towers above the surrounding landscape.

Hiking this volcano is fairly easy and affordable. It often involves a couple of buses or trucks from the city centre as well as several hours on foot hiking through the jungle. Costs and methods always vary, depending on the police escorts (mandatory – for safety) and what local landowners decide to charge for crossing their property. Typically, the whole journey can easily be done for around $10.

Upon reaching the top, stand in awe as the sulphurous steam bubbles from the lake below and the cracks in the crater walls. Just hold on to your gear! The wind reaches powerful speeds at this altitude. As pretty as the cloudy-green water is, you’re not going to want to chase anything into it.

A milky-green pool steams inside of a crater.

The Steaming Crater of the Santa Ana Volcano

Cliff Jumping and Waterfalls

While spending some time in El Tunco, head to the hills high above the coastline and do some cliff jumping at the Tamanique waterfalls. Reaching the falls takes a bit of effort but is ultimately worth it! Simply cross the main highway outside El Tunco and cross the road heading up to the town of Tamanique. Bus 187 does the return trip frequently but you can easily hitch a ride to save a few dollars.

Once in town, locals will most likely come to you. They know why you’re there. Prices vary but for a group of four of us, we were charged $4 each. It seemed a little heavy at first but about 20 minutes into the hike, we realized it was worth every penny. The hike down is quite steep and we wouldn’t recommend it if it’s been raining or if you aren’t much for physical activity.

Upon arrival we were greeted with several pools beneath waterfalls falls to swim around in, as well as some small jumpable cliffs into the narrow gorge below. It was a fantastic reward after a hot hike down the valley.

The only downside to this activity is the long hike back up and out!

Lesser-Visited Destinations

Suchitoto

This sleepy town is situated up in the highlands northeast of San Salvador on the edge of a grand lake. Full of well-preserved colonial architecture and a cooler climate than other parts of the country, Suchitoto is slowly gaining popularity on the tourist trail.

A wonderful place to stop and relax is in Parque Central, sipping a locally grown coffee or puffing a hand-rolled cigar while staring up at the Iglesia Santa Lucia. Sip a cool beer and wander the local markets and don’t miss the tie-dye shop that lets you make your own using locally-produced indigo.

Los Tercios Waterfall is a nice hike for the scenery, especially the stunning basalt rock formations. It can be a tough climb through the rocks, so be prepared for some work. The falls themselves can be a little underwhelming, especially in the dry season but the mystical basalt formations are worth the effort. For a little more relaxed activity, spend some time in the gorgeous Lake Suchitlan and sip a cold beer while enjoying the sunset.

El Cuco

With it’s laid-back vibe, smooth sand beach and postcard-perfect sunsets, El Cuco is the beach bum paradise you’re looking for in El Salvador. Though it’s gaining popularity lately, you still have plenty of time before it reaches the tourism levels of El Tunco to the north.

With a spattering of small restaurants and hostels, many of which you won’t find online, El Cuco still holds onto much of the charm that backpackers long for. Another bonus is that unlike the hard-hitting waves and rocky shoreline of other beaches in the country, the beaches here are perfect for swimmers and beginner surfers alike.

The one significant downside to a visit here is that restaurant options get a little pricey and any decent supermarket – or ATMs for that matter – are nonexistent. Stock up on snacks and cash prior to heading down. If you do need cash or specific items, San Miguel is the closest city, roughly two hours away by bus.

If You Only Do One Thing…

Ride the Chicken Buses

Central America is famous for these incredible rides and El Salvador is one of the best (and cheapest) places to experience them. Old, outdated school buses from America are sent down here for “retirement.” The buses are then polished up and with elaborate paint jobs, faux-chrome, strobe lights, powerful sound systems and any number of other flamboyant modifications imaginable.

Occasionally in questionable condition safety-wise and often packed like sardine cans, they’re a great way to have a true local experience. Catching a bus on the side of the highway from El Tunco up to Juayua early one morning at around 6am with 90’s techno blaring from the speakers, is a surefire way to wake up fast – trust us on that.

Although you can experience them in countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, they’re a fun ride but often horribly uncomfortable. In El Salvador the routes are often much shorter, so you can have the experience without committing to six or seven hours of discomfort.

A chicken bus on a cobbled street.

Ahh Chicken Buses, one of the great Central American experiences

 

The Food of El Salvador


Salvadorian cuisine is often misrepresented by many as underwhelming. While this may be true when compared to other regional heavy hitters – notably Mexico – the cuisine of El Salvador is by no means bland. Given the country’s history, they simply haven’t had the luxury of being able to focus on expanding their culinary scene. Limited crops and resources have kept options rather limited.

That being said, their creative use of common staples such as corn, beans, plantains and cheese have brought about some incredibly delicious dishes. Just don’t forget that while travelling El Salvador, you’ll be eating much more than just pupusas!

Must Try Salvadorian Food

Pupusas

Yes, I know what I just said. But just because there are other options, doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing!

The national dish of El Salvador and something you’ll find on nearly every street of every town in the country. Ridiculously cheap, simple and fantastically delicious, pupusas are a staple in Salvadorian cuisine.

Pupusas are essentially stuffed patties of masa (a corn flour) dough. Fillings are most commonly any combination of either cheese, beans or pork. The patties are expertly formed into perfectly round forms and fried on a hot, greased skillet until a deep-brown crust has formed and the filling has reached magma-like temperatures. They’re served along side a simple, pickled cabbage slaw called curtido, and a simple, spicy tomato sauce. Curtido is actually quite common throughout Central America, check out our own recipe for this tasty condiment!

Some restaurants, such as this one in Santa Ana, have dozens of unique pupusa fillings. These include everything from zucchini blossoms and loroco (an edible flower) to grilled prawns.

Pupusas, covered in cordita.

Glorious pupusas!
Photo: Peter Fitzgerald

Chorilonza

We first encountered this sausage during our time at the Juayua Food Festival. As a speciality of the western part of El Salvador, specifically the Ruta de Flores, it’s difficult to find elsewhere in the country. However, you’ll probably be going there anyway, so no worries!

This spicy snack is in essence a fusion of two classic Spanish sausages: Chorizo and Longazina. While I won’t bore you with the subtle differences between the two, just understand that chorilonza truly captures the best aspects of each. From the finely minced pork to the just-spicy-enough heat, it’s simply a perfectly crafted sausage.

Seafood

Another aspect of the food of El Salvador that is often overlooked is one that should almost be obvious. Given the ratio of coastline to landmass in this tiny nation, fresh seafood is easy to access – though understandably most common along the coast – and is of impeccable quality.

Like many of the best seafood preparations around the globe, seafood here is simple and rarely messed with. Fish, squid and giant prawns are typically cleaned and cooked whole, either grilled or fried. They’re served with lemon, a simple garlic-heavy sauce, cordita or fresh vegetables, and fried plantains.

Pastel de Platano

In a cuisine dominated by plantains, beans, cheese and corn; desserts weren’t something we expected to encounter too often. Thankfully, while staying with some locals in San Salvador, we were treated to a rather splendid – and surprisingly inexpensive – sampling of food. They ordered from a local place called Tipicos Margoth, and aside from the wonderful sauces, tamales and variety of pupusas, it was the dessert that really caught our attention.

Utilizing those same four staple ingredients mentioned above and a bit of cream and sugar, Pastel de Platano is unlike any dessert we’ve ever tried. Layers of sweet, roasted plantains with a sweet corn dough and fried beans, it was absolutely delicious!

We aren’t entirely sure if this is a treat specific to this restaurant or a dessert available throughout the country. Either way, if you find yourself in San Salvador, give it a shot!

A block of pastel de platano covered in shaved cheese

Pastel de Platano

A huge thanks to Tipicos Margoth for the above photo. Ours was crap so Kylee reached out to them and not only did they send us this shot, but they actually made this one fresh, just for the picture!

Tamales

Tamales are everywhere in Central America, and while all have the same base ingredients, each country has their own unique fillings and preparation.

In El Salvador, one stand-out difference is the use of a banana leaf rather than a corn husk to steam the rich filling. This leads to a much larger tamale than is typically found in Guatemala or Mexico to the north for example.

As for ingredients, El Salvador has some of the most complex flavours when it comes to their fillings. While tamales are typically fairly simple, it’s a much different story here. While the masa dough and meat remains the same as elsewhere, the Salvadorian style also includes boiled eggs, roasted sweet red peppers, chickpeas, tangy capers and salty olives.

You’ll have a difficult time finding so many layers of flavour in tamales elsewhere in the region.

Ponche

Ladlefuls of the steaming, milk-brown liquid were drawn from the bubbling cauldron and poured into styrofoam cups. A hearty couple of ounces of local rum was swirled in next.

This little treat tastes like more of a Christmas drink, one that should be enjoyed while hiding indoors from winter on the Canadian Prairies; not something to be sipped in 30 degree heat. However, we found ourselves returning for seconds, thirds, fourths…

Typically found during celebrations or special occasions, this festive concoction goes down a little too easily. Ponche itself is a simple mixture of milk that’s been flavoured with cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and vanilla.

Ponche, a great treat while backpacking El Salvador

Sweet, rich, boozy Ponche

Festivals

Nejapa El Salvador

August 31st Fire fight! We didn’t get to check this out because it’s in August. If you find yourself around Nejapa during the summer, make sure to get to this festival and write us! Its a fireball festival.

Check it out, it sounds dangerous, crazy and amazing.

Semana Santa

One Week leading up to Easter the beaches come crawling with locals and it is hard to find accommodation.

Carnaval de San Miguel

One of the biggest parties of the year in San Miguel, get there, book ahead and let loose!

Dia de Independencia

Independence Day September 15th Lots of food, lots of fireworks and a lot of fun.

Feria Gastronomica

Food festival is every weekend in Juayua, and should not be missed. Make sure to take a friend or two so you can share plates and eat more!

Festival del Cristo Negro

In Juayua, during he first two weeks of January. Activities take place throughout the city, with a huge celebration peaking at the end of the second weekend. This coincides with the Feria Gastronimica mentioned above.

A huge display of Jesus with fireworks

The Fireworks of the Cristo Negro Celebrations

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good

The People.

There are few countries we’ve travelled where we’d encountered such friendly and hospitable people – and we have met some amazingly friendly folk around the world. What stood out for Kylee and I the most, was how often people would walk up to us on the street just to thank us for visiting their country. So proud of their nation, their faces beam with giddy delight as they greet those who ignore the stigma and give their beautiful home a visit.

Their humour is another stand-out quality. We entered the country on the same day as Donald Trump famously referred to El Salvador as a Shithole. We weren’t sure how the reaction would be and certainly weren’t prepared for what it was. Salvadorians actually embraced it! As the hashtag was trending, they took advantage of this to draw attention to themselves. Cycling teams, videographers, bloggers, writers, artists and businesses began sharing #shithole all over the socials, using it as a quick and easy way to draw in those who were following. 

This use of humour and ingenuity was astounding!

The Bad

Getting around the country is cheap relatively easy – if you have enough time and patience. While cities and towns are very well-connected with buses and other transportation options, there are very few long-distance direct buses.

Quite often we would find ourselves having to take two or three different buses to get between two relatively popular towns that may have only been 70 or 80 kilometres apart. While this is merely an inconvenience, given the time constraints of some travellers, this can become a fairly significant issue.

The Ugly

Gang activity is widespread throughout the country, especially in the North and Eastern areas of San Salvador. Though it rarely spreads into tourist areas, gang violence does often spill into more populated areas and as unlikely as it is, innocents can and have become caught in the crossfire.

As with anywhere, doing a bit of research on current situations prior to arrival in a destination is a good idea.

The Important Bits

Average Daily Spending

For the sake of simplicity, all prices are listed in USD unless otherwise specified.

Budget

Solo: $25 – $30 per day
Couple: $45 – $55 per day

We spent an average of $45 a day, we stayed in private rooms, usually with shared bathroom. We cooked our own food most of the time, and went out for pupusas quite a bit when we were out. We also hitch hiked and took local transport all throughout El Salvador.

Mid-Range

Solo: $30 – $50 Per day
Couple: $50 – $75 Per day

This will include doing more activities and going out for beer and food in actual restaurants. We didn’t go out too many times since the street food (pupusas) are amazing. Mid-range hotels and nicer hostels will get you MUCH more overall, so make sure to do your research for accommodation, and spend where you need to!

High

$75+
Spend when you want, where you want and don’t think of money at all, do everything and stay anywhere.

Costs – Based on Budget Travel

Accommodation

Dorm bed – Between $7-14 a bed (expect more accommodation to be on the higher end)
Private Room $20 – 30 (without private bathroom)
With Bathroom $35 and up

Transportation

Local buses although usually crowded are the cheapest option, and super fun! Sometimes you can pay a bit more ($0.25)for an AC bus in and around the cities.
Short Distance (1 – 3 hours) $0.25 – $2
Medium Distance (3 – 5 hours) $2 – $5
Long Distance (5 hours or longer) Will usually be Tica bus or shuttle $20 – $30

Beer

In a bar : $2 and up (for 1L)
In a grocery store: you can find beer as cheap as $0.50 a can.

If you can’t find this deal, prices often drop when you buy in large quantities.

Food

In a restaurant: $3 and up for a sit down meal
On the street: $0.25 – $2 Pupusas: each If you search for the street food carts you can get these for breakfast and dinner. When eating pupusas, make sure to get a good amount of the cabbage salad and tomato sauce, this is quite healthy for your guts while travelling; although your dorm mates might not like you too much in the middle of the night…
Make at home: $0.75 and up per meal (if you buy your groceries at the beginning of your trip and use throughout you will save a lot more than buying every meal.)

 

Money

Currency

Currency: USD (American Dollar)

The paper money consists of $5, $10, $20, $50, $100 and up, but mostly try to have only $20 notes and lower, since it is tough to find change in many smaller shops. The coins will usually only consist of $1 and $0.25 coins since most of the prices are rounded up or down to the nearest quarter.

El Salvador uses USD as their currency. You will see one-dollar coins being used as well, which are not legal tender outside of El Salvador, so spend them prior to leaving.

Most prices are rounded to the quarter ($0.25) when purchasing.

ATMs

ATMs are common in most bigger towns and tourist areas but sometimes can run out of money in smaller towns – El Tunco on the weekend is notorious for this. Make sure to have enough cash to keep you going for a few days if leaving bigger cities.

Tipping

Do tip around 10% at a restaurant, if you feel the service deserved it, but check the bill first, many restaurants will automatically add a gratuity so make sure you aren’t overpaying. Tipping taxi drivers is not common practise, so if you round up it should be enough as well.

Visa Requirements

For most passports, No visa is required for stays up to 90 days or less.
Passport must be valid for at least six months prior to entry.

Entry: If arriving by air there is a $10 entry fee/tourist card.
If arriving by land, no fee required. Officials occasionally demand proof of sufficient funds to cover stay and documents for onward travel.

Always check prior to arrival for your specific country, as things can always change.

Countries Requiring Visas

Visa application needs to be approved for passport holders of:
Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Cameroon, China, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Timor-Leste, Vietnam and Yemen

If only in transit and from a visa-requiring country, visa is not needed for a stay of up to 48 hours if holding onward tickets.

Exit Tax

None as of time of writing.

El Salvador is part of the CA-4 agreement along with Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. This states that entry into any of these four countries lets you travel freely between them with a collective of up to 90 days.

This means you get a total of 90 days within all four countries – not each one.

 

Getting Around El Salvador

Chicken Bus:

Are usually over packed but can get you pretty much anywhere for super cheap. El Salvador is quite small so most buses are an hour or less.
Check out Centro Coasting to get almost any route in El Salvador and how to get there.

Private Driver

Hiring a driver is quite normal in El Salvador. These drivers are usually great for getting you places fast, and they usually give a good amount of information if you want it, during the drive.
(price depends on driver and length of time/distance)

Shuttles

These will usually be only for getting into and out of El Savador. Unless you hire a shuttle from your hotel in San Salvador you won’t find them to go short distances, like between towns.

Hire a Car

About $20 a day for rental without insurance. Roads can be a bit rough so make sure to get the applicable insurance, especially for windshield rocks! Also, make sure to enquire about insurance any time you rent a vehicle and check out your credit card for protection, because you might not need the extra coverage. Also, make sure you check out if you can have an extra driver, some countries insurance don’t cover unless you pay for a second driver.

Tica Bus

A Central America bus system that only brings you into or out of the country via San Salvador. The bus is great and an easy ride, but only leaves from two terminals in San Salvador depending on where you are going.

Uber & Taxi

There are normally taxis only in the major cities. Flag them down and make sure they know where you are going and they have their papers before you hop in.

Uber is only available in larger cities but are a great to get to and from the airport in San Salvador.

Hitchhiking

A super easy and great way to get around. Hitch-hiking is free, just wave down the driver and tell them where you want to go. They will get you right there, or just closer to the place. Make sure you try to know a bit of Spanish before doing this to have better communication with the driver, you don’t want to end up somewhere you don’t want to be!

Although we hitchhiked often in El Salvador, it always comes with some risk. Avoid hitching alone and never do it after dark.

Accommodation

Hostels

There are a lot of choices in El Salvador for hostels, but they do vary quite a bit. When spending more you do get quite a bit more and we found that it is very worth going to the nicer hostels here.

Hotels

Are available everywhere, and range from cheap and dingy to expensive resorts with spas and relaxation centres.

AirBnb

We use AirBnb for most of our travels to keep costs down. You don’t meet as many travelers, but you get a chance to meet local families, which we really love. We also work online and the WiFi in hostels doesn’t always pan out.

If we aren’t using AirBnb we are using Booking.com for Hostels and Hotels.

Due to always fluctuating prices and changing of ownership (and resulting quality), we’ll almost never recommend specific business unless in special cases or where we were truly blown away.



Booking.com

Electricity

Electricity in El Salvador is 120V / 60Hz

Plug type: B

El Salvador Electrical sockets are Type-B

Language

Spanish

Hello/hi: Hola
What is your name?: Como Te llamas?
My name is___: Me llamo _____
How are you: Como estas?
How much is this?: Cuanto Cuesta?
Where is the bathroom/toilet?: Donde esta el bano?

While translations can often come out somewhat confusing and robotic, a safe bet is to download Google Translate on your phone before visiting.

Make sure to know the basic numbers, so you know how much things cost. A good idea is to have the calculator app on your phone, or even carry a small calculator so they can input the cost. This can also help with bargaining at local markets, simply type a counter-offer and see how it goes!

Weather and Climate


Average Temps for San Salvador are 24C (75F) year around
Hottest Month: April 26C (79F)
Coldest Month: December 23C (73F)
Dry Season: November to April
Wet Season: May to October 

Rainiest Month: October, although rarely, is affected by hurricane season.

Best Time to Visit

December. Great weather, not too hot, just after the rainy season, and able to see the flowers in the Ruta de Flores and are able to surf in El Tunco. If in Juayua for the first two weeks, make sure to hit up the food festival on the weekend and the end of Jesus Negro celebration for the running of the bulls as seen here.

El Salvador Safety and Health


El Salvador safety concerns are typically one of the biggest issues travellers have before visiting. Given the country’s history, this is understandable.

During our several-week stay in the country we had no problems. Most people are really considerate and helpful. However, saying that we met some people that didn’t have the same experience, so please be careful.

Be sure to check with your accommodation or with locals before going on any hike to know if there has been recent robberies, and always take a guide when recommended as a safety precaution. Sometimes the local police will escort tourists to sites (free of charge) if they know of it to be dangerous.

All you have to do is ask for an escort police officer and they will send someone, give them a heads up so they have enough staff on board to help you out.

Always try to travel in a group, never walk alone especially at night. Do not flash signs of wealth: money, jewelery, cameras, etc.

Do not resist a robbery! Many people in El Salvador carry weapons, whether it be a knife or a handgun. Your belongings are always replaceable.

Don’t travel without Travel Insurance, especially where there may be a heightened risk of theft.

Emergency Contact Numbers

Dial from any phone within El Salvador for emergency:
Police: 911
Ambulance: 132
Fire: 913

Drinking Water

Water is not safe to drink in El Salvador, most hotels and hostels will give water refills for free or a small fee, so please don’t forget to bring your own water bottle to reuse, and save the environment.

Illness/Sickness

The most common illnesses in El Salvador are stomach problems relating to diarrhoea, and vomiting.

Malaria is low so take precaution especially around Guatemala borders. If hiking make sure you keep an eye on Altitude sickness, since some of the heights in El Salvador can cause Acute Mountain Sickness. Please contact your health service department before entering the country.

Dengue fever and Zika have been found in El Salvador, so take precaution and cover up and/or use a high DEET formula.

Vaccinations

No vaccinations are required to enter the country but some are recommended. Typhoid, hepatitis A and Hepatitis B are recommended, as well as routine Measles, Mumps Rubella (MMR); Tetanus, and Diphtheria.

We hope you found our Ultimate Guide to Backpacking El Salvador helpful. Enjoy your adventure!
Beautiful El Salvador Sunset over the Ocean

The Sun Setting over the pacific coast, as viewed from El Tunco

 

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Mark Stewart

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Manon van Os - Flip Flop Wanderers
Guest

Wow this was such a comprehensive article! So much information! We are actually thinking of going to Central America next year and we will definitely visit El Salvador as well!

Unravelling Travelling
Guest

This is an amazing post, so detailed and thorough! Thanks so much for sharing all of this, it looks like an incredible place.

dalibro
Guest

Wow, that’s what I call a full report. Just print it out and Lonely Planet is doomed! 😀 It’s cool that you’ve made the trip, El Salvador’s stigma is really strong!

Mohana and Aninda
Guest

I’d love to visit El Salvador! The cities look lovely. The colourful buildings and the murals are esp. attractive. El Salvador also seems to have grand outdoors. Plus the food looks delicious!

Katerina
Guest
Katerina

Perfect detailed guide for El Salvador! I like the introduction to the history of the country! Great and informative post 🙏

Erica Edwards
Guest

Fantastic post! Admitedly I know very little about El Salvador (other than that my friends abuela used to always send over some AMAZING Salvadorian coffee!) but you’ve definitely inspired me to give it a closer look for future travels in central America! And that catherdral is stunnnnning!

Ee Sing
Guest

This is super informative and the food looks really good. Its basically the all you need to know to travel in El Salvador!

Rio
Guest

What an informative and comprehensive guide. We’re looking to backpack around Central and South America next year so this is a great resource for us.

Monique
Guest

This is an awesome and comprehensive post! I don’t know much about South America, so I’m really glad to have found your article about El Salvador. It’s not often that you find a lace where locals are actually thanking you as a tourist for visiting! Will pop it on the bucket list for sure 🙂

Alex Trembath
Guest

Wow guys, you’ve got absolutely everything covered here! Brilliant guide and we’ll be visiting El Salvador before too long for sure. You’ll be our go-to for Central America 🙂

Alicia
Guest
Alicia

What a very thorough review of El Salvador! I am really impressed. I love that the country is begging to be remembered! It sounds like they still have their share of issues, but like all places, a little preparation should ensure safety. Thanks for sharing!

suvarna
Guest

The chicken bus sounds like a fun experience! and the food looks great. This is an extremely informative travel guide. Thank you for all in the information.

Meagan
Guest

We recently spent time in Belize and Guatemala, and the longer we’re in Central American countries, the more we fall in love with the region. To your point, the people truly are amazing!

Alexander Popkov
Guest

Nice! there is so much information here. El Salvador has its charm. I would love to get there with my camera. LIked the “chicken bus” as an engineer, I love thins kind of things.

Nadine
Guest

Wow what a comprehensive post. You shared so much information its really a fantastic guide to this city. I love that your explore, places and food as well as giving practical tips.

Nkem
Guest

Gorgeous photos and good tips! I haven’t spent much time in Latin America, but El Salvador seems like a place I should visit – especially given this comprehensive guide!

alison netzer
Guest
alison netzer

This is a great and thorough post about El Salvador. I was in in San Salvador in the 90’s , but only for a night. Yes the chicken buses are an experience for sure. I have taken a couple and it was the experience. So happy you wrote this as so many people skip El Salvador because of the gang reputation. It is a beautiful country and should be visited.

Soumya Gayatri
Guest

This is one detailed post. I have pinned for whenever I plan a trip to El Salvador. But I prefer the lesser-known destinations and I would visit Suchitoto (hope I got the spelling right) for sure.

David
Guest

A very comprehensive introduction to the country, I feel if I was to go there I would have a great time. 🙂

Lisa
Guest

This is an excellent and well-written guide on a lesser travelled destination. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t think of visiting El Salvador because of the gang violence there. However, it’s good to know that it’s open and safe for visitors. El Tunco is so pretty even though I don’t surf, as is Santa Ana, just wow!

Nina Nichols
Guest

I got excited when I saw tamales. You’re right, I think they do differ from country to country.

Supriya Bhardwaj (SuBhaSun)
Guest

Wonderful post! This includes almost everything for an explorer, adventurer, foodie, and budget traveler. I am a big fan of buildings holding history and magnificent architecture. Good tip of surfing for beginners. Thanks for the great post!

Saniya Puri
Guest

It is a detailed post, really useful for travelers. I saw surfing last time in Bali and since then I am so desperate to try it but I am a little scared. If I head to El Salvador, I will go prepared. Great post!!

Jonathan Morales
Guest

It was a really long read for El Salvador but I like this informative post, I will be sometime before I will try travelling overseas and this country will definitely be on a long shot but who knows what future will bring! saved your post for future reference.

Jonathan Morales
Guest

This is one detailed post! Highly informative and worth taking note of. Please make more posts like this. Photos tells the story tjat one just can’t resist visiting El Salvador.

BackpackingTony
Guest
BackpackingTony

Love this article! So much info! I’m thinking of backpacking Central America next year. El Salvador is certainly on my list after reading your blog! Just one question. You guys traveled as a couple. Is it difficult to travel as a solo (male) traveler?