WHY EL SALVADOR?
Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama remain the juggernauts of Central America travel. El Salvador, tucked in between Guatemala and Honduras on the Pacific coast, is often overlooked thanks to an endless stream of frightening headlines ever since the Civil War of the 80s gave way to gang violence.
The reality on the ground is much different from what you'll find on the CNNs of the world. "Tourists have been given carte blanche to travel," says Kelly, a PR manager for the Boca Olas hotel in El Tunco. That idea holds true through most of El Salvador. If you're looking for trouble, you can find it. Assuming you're not interested in getting involved in the drug trade over night, you'll most likely be fine. As the State Department's travel warning on El Salvador states, "Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, cruise ship visits, business, and volunteer work. There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals..."
A mere 181,000 tourists traveled to El Salvador in 1994. That number peaked in 2008 with 1.8 million, contributing about $720 million to the economy, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Compare that with Costa Rica's 2.66 million in 2015 and it's not too shabby.
Travelers to El Salvador will get a different Latin American, especially Central American, experience compared with the likes of Costa Rica and Panama. Though tourism is growing, it's still not nearly as noticeable as in other countries. That means fewer tour guides shouting at you in the town center to sign up for their package and more freedom to blend in (as much as possible) to get a taste of local life.
WHERE TO GO
Santa Tecla is the cool urban enclave of El Salvador. It's a colorful city that's easily manageable by foot. In fact, there are more restaurants and bars lining the street, right off the sidewalk than in financially wealthier corners of the globe. Juancito's Mango Inn is the budget option with simple hostel rooms that can be converted into a private room depending on availability and for a little more money. You can also arrange for a private airport pickup through the hotel.
Tip: Go to Las Veraneras for your first pupusa. It's just down the street from the Mango Inn. Your face will thank you.
Suchitoto is the colonial city few travelers to Central America know about. People know about Antigua, Guatemala or even León and Grenada in Nicaragua, but few have heard about this cobblestone beauty in northern El Salvador. It's also home to what many consider the nicest hotel in the entire country -- Los Almendros de San Lorenzo.
Tip: Go to Centro Arte para La Paz for a museum that features a mix of local displays and Civil War history.
Cerro Verde is a national park also known as Los Volcanes National Park. The "los" refers to the area's three volcanoes: Cerro Verde, Izalco and Santa Ana. Your best bet for lodging here is Airbnb. Wealthier families have homes up here and are starting to offer them up to travelers for very affordable rates. Some even offer transportation services, which you'll need to get up the gravel-turned-dirt roads. It's certainly worth the effort. Staying in Cerro Verde offers a completely different experience compared to the rest of El Salvador. Temperatures, for one, drop significantly. You're also right in the heart of some of the country's best hiking.
Tip: Hike to the crater of Santa Ana.
El Tunco is probably the only town in El Salvador that could be considered remotely touristy. Surfers have been coming here for decades, before, during and after the Civil War. You'll still see them out in impressive numbers during the sunsets. Backpackers make up the other large traveler population in this town, which isn't entirely surprising considering that El Tunco is made for backpacker travel. There are plenty of affordable hostels to stay at and there are a number of transportation services that will take you around the country or elsewhere in Central America. Boca Olas sticks out in its attempt to bring a different kind of traveler, namely families or empty nesters with a little extra cash to spend on something a bit more upscale and for a longer stay.
Tip: There are a number of small waterfalls in the area after a bit of hiking. Ask your lodging if they have a guide who can help you out.
Aeropuerto Internacional de El Salvador is located about 40 kilometers outside of capital San Salvador. It's actually closer to the coast, so it's a great spot if you're starting off with a beach town. Rental cars are available, but sticking with a private driver is your best bet for getting around a foreign country. Many hotels offer transportation or at the very least can connect you with a trustworthy private driver for a fair price.
More than anything, you'll want a little Spanish in your linguistic arsenal. Salvadorans are eager to chat with foreigners and get your impressions of the country. They might ask why you're there, what you've seen so far, and offer suggestions on what to see next time. In some instances they'll express gratitude for visiting their country and encourage you to share your experiences with others back home. If you don't speak any Spanish, then having this conversation is difficult, and English is not nearly as prevalent as it is in Costa Rica, Panama or the especially touristy corners of Guatemala.
Perquín to visit the Museo de la Revolución and tour the area with former guerrillas of the Civil War. La Unión for a more relaxed beach experience than El Tunco. Parque Nacional El Imposible if only because it's a great name for a park. Concepción de Ataco for Salvadoran coffee culture. Cycling along the Ruta de las Flores.
BEFORE YOU GO
Read Joseph Frazier's memoir on his time reporting during the Civil War, El Salvador Could Be Like That and watch Oliver Stone's Salvador for more Civil War history. For some Salvadoran music, check out Shaka y Dres. Last but not least, I detail my trip (which this guide is based on) in Talking Tico: (Mis)adventures of a Gringo in and Around Costa Rica.