El Salvador is full of coastal surprises, magical wonders to wander, warm hearts and welcoming people.
I went to El Salvador on a whim. After signing a contract for a grown-up job, I had 18 days of freedom to roam. I found a cheap flight to the capital San Salvador departing the next day and, knowing a few friends who went raving about epic waves and a breathtaking interior, I bought it. Best decision ever.
Nestled between Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. It is often skipped over by travellers – it has a well-known history of civil war and lesser-known reputation for secluded beaches, lush landscapes, and welcoming locals.
As a single female traveler, I was nervous when I left. By the end of my too-short trip I considered leaving my job (before I’d started) and staying. Not only did I feel safe, but I felt welcomed into a little country with a big heart.
Of course, exercise caution as you would in any other Central American country but don’t be wary of going. When you travel to El Salvador, bring your sense of adventure and leave the countries past behind.
El Tunco is a great introduction to El Salvador
My first destination in El Salvador was El Tunco, a small town about 45 minutes from the airport in the country’s capital, San Salvador.
Known by surfers for a steady and sizable point break, this town has so much more to offer than just waves. Take one day to wander the streets and be sure to say todo bien to locals passing by – the relaxed Salvadorian way of saying hi and meaning everything good?
Cheap eats are found on every street with vendors selling their national dish, the tasty pupusa. For those wanting to splurge, Loroco Bistro has wood-fired oven pizzas with a twist – the chef makes dough from corn meal, his mother’s recipe. And by splurge, I mean relatively. Each savory and saucy pizza is $5-10.
With other activities like yoga, aquatic wild life tours, stand up paddle boarding, a fun night life and day treks nearby you can easily spend two weeks in El Tunco. For those chasing waves – Sunzal Point has a stellar point break and the most relaxed line up.
The best part of the day is when the sun sets with locals and travellers alike gathering on the beach playing football or enjoying a beer.
Ancient ruins off the beaten path
After visiting historic Mayan sites in Guatemala and Honduras, I was surprised to visit each of El Salvador’s many ruins and have the room to wander, dipping into each corner and crevice, having Indiana Jones moments without my imaginary adventure spoiled by a massive crowd.
I first visited a ruin often regarded as the Pompeii of the Americas, Joya de Ceren. It is an archaeological site featuring a pre-Columbian Maya farming village remaining almost unspoiled under layers of volcanic ash. After evacuating, repopulating then evacuating a last time near 590 AD, Joya de Ceren is amazingly preserved and wasn’t discovered until 1976.
Tazumal offers a totally different experience. An important ceremonial area by 600 AD, it is fully excavated exposing a temple pyramid and other ancient Mayan architecture.
Close to Tazumal is Chalchupa, a town existing for at least 3200 years and an excellent example of welcoming Salvadorian culture. Take a few hours in Chalchupa to wander the same ancient roads once travelled by Maya people and you will wonder why you ever hesitated before visiting El Salvador.
A small adventure with breathtaking rewards: Las Cascadas, Tamanique
I went to El Salvador to surf, and despite great waves, Las Cascadas was the highlight of my trip. Located near the small traditional Salvadorian town of Tamanique, Las Cascadas is a short hike down a valley with prolific waterfalls, cliff jumping and serene natural pools.
We took a different route hiking back up through local farmland, exposing a landscape of rolling hills and a glimpse of real Salvadorian life.
The best part about Las Cascadas is being surrounded by the lush beauty of El Salvador’s interior and appreciating the magic of the natural world in peace. I did not see a single other traveller during my visit.
Magical Parque Nacional Montecristo
A dreamy wilderness where forest meets the sky, Montecristo National Park is filled with breathtaking views and hikes that will suit all athletic capabilities.
Located in northwestern El Salvador, oak and laurel trees grow up to 30 meters covering a dense exotic plant life below. Trek along paths surrounded by two-meter ferns and keep watch for monkeys and toucans above. In Parque Nacional Montecristo you can easily lose your mind and find your soul.
El Salvador is the region’s last frontier
El Salvador has so much more to offer, too. Think colonial towns of Ataco, Juayua, and Suchitoto (my favorite, and a destination that this trip visits); artisan shopping in the tiny rainbow-coloured village of La Palma; hiking the Santa Ana volcano, and more.
El Salvador was the last Central American country on my list and I honestly regret not visiting it sooner. If your wanderlust craves authentic local culture, breathtaking landscape and beautiful beaches then this country offers more than you can imagine.
If you come to El Salvador with an open heart you will be welcomed with open arms.
Tempted to give this underrated beauty a visit? Check out our range of small group tours in El Salvador.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Patrizi Rudoni, Intrepid Travel, Sarah Scimmi, iStock, Sarah Scimmi, Intrepid Travel)