El Salvador Guide
Five Things First Time Travellers To El Salvador Should Know
- Learn some Spanish. English is not widely spoken in some parts of El Salvador. While tour guides and hotel staff will know the language, your trip will be easier if you learn a few essential words and phrases. Plus, the locals will appreciate the effort.
- There is a tipping culture in El Salvador. It's customary to tip at least 10% if no service charge has been included. If you're staying in a mid-range to a luxury hotel, it's also expected to tip the bellboys and housekeeping staff.
- Brush up on your haggling skills. It's part Salvadoran culture to bargain in the country's markets. A good rule of thumb is to cut the price in half and go from there.
- Bring US dollars. Since 2001, the country has been using the dollar instead of its own El Salvador Colon as the official currency.
- Don't drink the tap water. Unless you are sure it's purified, it's much safer to stick to bottled water. It's also a good idea to skip the ice and avoid fruit and vegetables that have been rinsed with tap water.
Best Time To Visit El Salvador
The best time to visit El Salvador is during the dry season. From November to April, the temperatures are cooler, and most of the country's cultural activities take place. If you find yourself in El Salvador the week before Easter, be sure to attend Semana Santa. It's a week-long festival celebrating the country's Roman Catholic heritage.
If you plan to attend, book your reservations months in advance. The hotels in the main cities fill up fast, and the top attractions will be packed with tourists.
El Salvador's wet season is from May to October. During this period, the days are hot, and the thunderstorms are short. The rain usually occurs later in the afternoon, giving you plenty of time to sightsee before the downpour.
If you don't mind the less than perfect weather, you'll be in time for the country's greatest natural event. Each year, between July and November, hundreds of sea turtles nest along El Salvador's coastline. Barra de Santiago and Playa El Cuco are the best spots to watch these creatures dig their nests and lay hundreds of eggs.
El Salvador Cities
San Salvador is the capital and largest city in El Salvador. Once ignored by travellers, it's become a tourist hub thanks to its central location and cheap inbound flights.
Before heading off to explore the rest of the country, spend a few days in the city. San Salvador is full of museums, cultural sites and some of the best restaurants.
For day trips, you're only four hours away from any destination, making the city a great base for exploring the country.
Surrounded by coffee plantations and rolling green hills, Santa Ana is El Salvador's second largest city. Its most popular attractions are the Mayan ruins of Tazumal, Cerro Verde and Lake Coatepeque.
Santa Ana is a great alternative to San Salvador if you want to escape the capital city's chaos. Its streets are lined with colourful buildings, and its towering neo-Gothic cathedral is a must-visit.
Don't leave without sampling the city's top export, coffee.
Suchitoto is the cultural hub of El Salvador. It hosts countless food and arts festivals throughout the year that attract visitors from all over the world.
Its Spanish colonial buildings are another highlight, as well as its nearby hiking trails. Spend an afternoon exploring Lago Suchitlan and keep an eye out for the 200 species of bird that frequent the area.
Top Attractions in El Salvador
El Imposible National Park
Located near the town of San Miguelito, El Imposible National Park is the last vestiges of biodiversity in the country. Once infamous for its hazardous gorge that claimed the lives of many farmers, it's now El Salvador's top natural attraction.
The park is home to 500 species of bird, including the rare Motmot that was thought to be extinct. Over 100 mammals roam the area including the elusive jaguars and more than 5,000 species of butterflies.
Founded in 1989, it boasts some of the most demanding hikes in the country. Guides can be hired from the visitor's centre, but there is a strong possibility they won't speak any English.
Joya de Ceren
Joya de Ceren is one of El Salvador's most important Mayan ruins. In 595 AD, Laguna Caldera Volcano erupted and covered the entire town in volcanic ash.
Since being discovered in 1976, "Pompeii of the Americas" has become one of El Salvador's most important UNESCO World Heritage sites.
One the most amazing discoveries so far is a dish with smeared fingerprints in the remains of an interrupted meal. While only a small part of the site is open to the public, it still gives visitors a glimpse into the daily life of the ancient Mayans.
Puerta del Diablo
Located near San Salvador, Puerta del Diablo is one of the country's most visited sites. Legend has it that the devil courted a young girl from a nearby village. One day, the family decided to capture the fiend. To escape his pursuers, the devil broke the cliff in half and disappeared down the crack, earning the site its nickname "The Devil's Door".
Today, the infamous boulder is one of El Salvador's top rock climbing destinations. Puerta del Diablo boasts more than 60 routes, all varying in difficulty level. Other adventurous activities include zip lining, canopy tours and caving.
Tazumal means the "place where souls are consumed" and is one of El Salvador's most impressive Mayan ruins. Built around 5000 BC, the city was an important centre of trade before being abandoned in 1200 AD.
Its most famous ruin is a largely intact pyramid. It's believed to be the site where victims were brought for the infamous sacrifices to the gods. Other interesting artefacts at the on-site museum show that the city had active trade routes with Panama and Mexico.
Tazumal is open from Tuesday to Sunday and is a must-visit for anyone interested in South America's ancient civilisations.
Montecristo Cloud Forest
At an altitude of 7,000 feet, the Montecristo Cloud Forest is one of El Salvador's most unique natural attractions. It's the highest point of the Montecristo National Park and lies on the border of Honduras and Guatemala.
The forest is home to a wide diversity of fauna including spider monkeys, pumas and more than 100 species of bird. Its exotic plant life is equally spellbinding with tree ferns growing up to 8 metres tall.
For the intrepid traveller, camping is the only form of accommodation. If you plan to spend the night, make sure you have the right gear and clothes.
Major International Airports in El Salvador
- Monsenor Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport