From the outside, it’s easy to simply discard El Salvador as a country filled with street violence, MS-13, drugs, and crime. But that’s simply not true.
Our experience in El Salvador was seeing that most locals lead lives strikingly similar to ours back home. We were there during the Semana Santa, or holy week (Easter), which is taken very seriously in Central America.
As a result, we were able to participate in some pretty incredible parades, celebrations, and festivities. It was a very lively time filled with markets, music, and friendly, inviting people.
Our time in El Salvador also included some disappointments. Thought El Salvador did not feel unsafe and was a genuinely interesting country, we felt one week there is the perfect amount of time to get just enough of a taste of it.
El Salvador travel restrictions
Keep up to date on the latest travel restrictions and visa requirements on the iVisa website.
The best way to get to El Salvador in 2023
You can fly directly into the San Salvador (SAL) airport, or fly into Guatemala City (GUA) and take a bus to El Salvador.
We struggled finding bus companies that were still running between countries in Central America after Covid. Our struggles led to us finding Tica Bus. They were the most reliable, most convenient, and most accessible bus company we found.
With Tica Bus, you can actually select stops along the way as your final destination instead of continuing all the way to the next capital. Not knowing anything about the towns in El Salvador, we chose Santa Ana as our final destination.
Though Santa Ana is a cute town, it’s not really special. If you plan to take the Ticas Bus, I’d just get off in Ahuachapan to start on the Ruta de las Flores, an incredibly cute array of 6 towns up in the mountains surrounding volcano Santa Ana. Ahuachapan is actually one of the first stops so you won’t have to sit as long on the bus, and you’ll be in a decently cute town to start with.
Alternately, you can ride the bus all the way to San Salvador from which you can rent a car. That’s probably the best option – as you’ll read below, getting around El Salvador is tough.
The Tica Bus cost us $25 each, and was overall decent. The ride always takes longer than predicted, especially with how slow the border crossings can be.
Crossing the border from Guatemala to El Salvador in 2023
Out of all the border crossings we did in Central America, this one was actually the easiest. We disembarked in Guatemala to collect our exit stamps but did not actually have to step off the bus in El Salvador. Instead, a border agent came on the bus, collect everyone’s covid test results and passports, and returned with stamps.
Our one week itinerary through El Salvador
A quick preview of our trip through El Salvador, starting from Santa Ana and ending in San Salvador to catch the bus to Tegucigalpa.
Getting Around El Salvador in 2023
This was the part we screwed up. At the time, pretty much none of the shuttle services were running. We had no trouble finding them in Guatemala, yet in El Salvador we had to resort to taxis, private transport, or public buses.
We were hoping to rent a car in Santa Ana, but none of the rental car agencies shown on google (even those with working websites) were responding. So if you want to rent a car, make sure to go all the way to San Salvador (or perhaps El Tunco, where there are some rental car companies running).
According to a guest comment by Shreya (below), “The public buses, or chicken buses as the tourists call them, are actually very easy to take and cost a fraction of the price of what you were paying for Ubers and transportation. Taking the chicken bus from Santa Ana to San Salvador to El Tunco was very simple, took maybe 2 hours, and only had one bus change.” Thanks Shreya!
So public transportation is definitely an option for many of the more popular segments of this itinerary.
As for the other tougher parts of the journey, Shreya writes, “you can also find motorbike rentals for $15/day and go on a few days trip to most of the places around El Salvador. There are definitely cheaper options for transportation other than a rental car or private transfers if others are looking for that.”
The roads in El Salvador are excellent all around, even the dirt ones. Driving is relatively easy and painless.
Consider reading: 10 Best Places You Need to Visit in Guatemala in 2022
Where to stay in Santa Ana, El Salvador in 2023
We had an amazing time at the Casa Verde hostel in Santa Ana. Carlos, the owner, is a super cool and helpful guy with all the contacts for tours, transport, and maximizing your time in El Salvador.
Santa Ana itself is not very touristy. It has lots of local (and very cheap) markets, a cute central square, but is otherwise not exceptional town. The street food is pretty good but there isn’t much selection of restaurants. And if you’re vegetarian, forget it.
Visiting the Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador
After failing to arrange a rental car, we got ourselves an uber to our first stop on the Ruta de las Flores: Apaneca. Though it was an hour away, Uber only charged us $30.
An off-duty police officer picked us up, so we got to ask about violence and crime first-hand. He told us that El Salvador’s tourism initiative involved the government bulking up security forces including national police and even the military. There are some rough spots, but there is security basically anywhere that tourists would want to go.
It all seemed to have good effect. We never felt uncomfortable walking or driving around, even at night.
Our favorite town on the Ruta de las Flores was Ataco. It’s one of the bigger towns and simply has more to offer in terms of food and nightlife.
Speaking of nightlife, Nahuizalco‘s night markets are not to miss. They’re lively, exciting, and sprawling.
Chasing waterfalls in El Salvador
Central America has so many waterfalls that by the end, you should be tired of them… but you’re not.
We heard a local tip about some waterfalls close to the border with Honduras called the Salto de Malacatiupan. These are actually hot spring waterfalls and truly a must-see if you’re in the area.
Afterwards, we finished our tour of the Ruta de las Flores, exploring these incredibly cute towns during the Semana Santa. The streets were filled with locals flocking from all over the country, coming together to celebrate Easter with parades, parties, festivities, live music, great food, and awesome dancing. It was truly a spectacle.
Our full day tour of the Ruta de las Flores ended costing us $90 (total).
What you must see while in Juayua, El Salvador
We finished the night in Juayua, a tiny pueblo (town) with another must-see: the Feria Gastronomica, a weekend market filled with street food vendors. You’ll find everything from bao to barbeque to vegetarian food.
5 minutes from Juayua are the Chorros de la Calera, an amazing natural pool surrounded by cascades. At the moment, the cascades (main attraction) are closed, but you can still do a 2-3 hour hike to 7 waterfalls nearby.
There’s also a pretty cool maze nearby which features zip lining, biking on suspended lines, and other family-friendly activities.
The coolest place to chill out in El Salvador: Lake Coatepeque
Lake Coatepque is a ginormous crater lake situated between some gorgeous volcanos basically smack in the middle of El Salvador.
In my mind, Lake Coatepeque is the Lake Atitlan of El Salvador. It’s that nice. And during our stay, everything (hotels, restaurants) was basically fully open.
Here, you can spend the day relaxing on a hammock enjoying volcanic views, take a jetski out, or go for a swim.
Getting to Lake Coatepeque
Remember how I said getting around El Salvador was tough? As we couldn’t find a shared shuttle, we hired a private driver to get us from the Ruta de las Flores to the lake. Cost: $65. And we definitely searched around.
This is where having a rental car would be an enormous help.
We stayed at the only place that had rooms left during the busy Semana Santa: the Captain Morgan hostel. We quickly realized why there weren’t rooms left. It’s extremely noisy until late at night, the shared bathrooms are horrid, and the service is absolutely lackluster.
Instead, we recommend staying at the Cardedeu hotel (or residences if you fancy) to full take in the tranquility of this incredible lake.
Surf City: El Salvador is the surf capital of Central America
Next, we took yet again another $65 private transfer to El Zonte, the “surf city” of El Salvador.
Surfers flock here from around the world to catch world-class swells and enjoy some of the cheapest beach living you can find on this side of the planet.
We stayed at Palo Verde “Sustainable” hotel, which was great but in no way “sustainable”. It’s right on the beach and has a lovely pool and great restaurant. You can also take surf lessons – unless red flag conditions, like we had, are present.
Food in El Salvador: great for meat-lovers, terrible for vegetarians
El Salvador was probably the toughest place to find good vegetarian food. Instead, you’ll probably eat side dishes most of the time – if they even let you. Most restaurant workers are simply confused by a request. When you say “no meat”, their reply is typically “ok so chicken?”
But in El Zonte, we caught or lucky break (surf pun?). The only place that was still open at 9PM, the last place we found, ended up being the best food we had in El Salvador outside of the capital.
The lovely restaurant, Beach Break, doubles as a boutique hotel close to the beach (obviously), and the owners are super friendly. You can eat with your feet in the sand while enjoying views on the river.
Best for last: Suchitoto and Cinquera, ex-civil war hotbeds
Another expensive private transfer later and we found ourselves flabbergasted by the beauty of the next area. Nestled in the highlands of El Salvador is a colorful, lively town with a background of civil war hardships, guerrilla warriors, and absolute devastation.
Seeing how far El Salvador has come since then is nothing short of mind-boggling. The town of Suchitoto was the closest thing we saw to Antigua, Guatemala except that the surrounding scenery was, in our opinions, even more beautiful.
We had dinner at a wonderful restaurant called 1800 Casa. WOW. Views. When you’re overlooking the massive Lake Salcoatitlan and its surrounding tallest mountains in El Salvador, you won’t want to leave. Trust me.
The next day, we took a tiny TukTuk to the ex-guerrilla headquarters of Cinquera, a town fraught with death, destruction, and violence. We took a tour into the forested highlands where guerrillas hid, lived, and fought to the death.
Our guide was the niece of an ex-guerrilla and much of her family had been directly affected by the tragedy and violence of the war.
As a result, hearing her firsthand stories felt like re-living the experience, the peril, the devastation. It was certainly more real than any movie or book I’ve ever seen or read.
It was truly touching and quite a meaningful end to our week in El Salvador.
Getting a Covid test in El Salvador: how tough was it?
Super easy. You can find a list of testing enters here. We ended up getting an antigen test with Analiza in San Salvador. It was easy, super quick, and relatively cheap.
We didn’t have to make an appointment or anything, so we arranged for a stop on our private transfer from El Zonte to Suchitoto.
The test itself wasn’t bad at all, nor was it expensive. And we had our results in hours, making the whole experience the least awful possible.