El Salvador is probably the most misunderstood country of them all. Some travelers believe that it is quite dangerous to travel there while others believe that it is quite boring (alright, extremely boring) compared to the rest of Central America.
Are any of those statements true? No, not at all. In fact, El Salvador is definitely safer than Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. And yes, it is an extremely awesome country.
So why do most visitors believe El Salvador is not safe? It’s simple: lack of mass tourism equals lack of information. And yes, that’s exactly the main reason why I loved the week I spent at Santa Ana, a charming town located one hour from San Salvador.
After being on the already beaten path in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, my visit to El Salvador made feel like an adventurer once more as I explored sights and landscapes that no one else had seen before!
Here’s a rough travel guide about the top 6 attractions of Central America’s smallest country.
#01 Joya del Ceren, the Pompeii of Central America
Sure, El Salvador has its fair share of (unimpressive) Pyramids but the true archaeological highlight of the country is Joya del Ceren, a Mayan village that was buried under the volcanic ash hundreds of years ago. It was just recently re-discovered by construction workers and it has been very helpful when it comes to studies about the life of the common folk in Mesoamerican times.
The site is fairly small so it can be done as a half-day trip from Santa Ana and you can combine it with either Lake Coatepeque or the Santa Ana Volcano. To get here, just take the 201 bus from Santa Ana and get off at Opico, from there you can either walk for 20 minutes or take a local bus to the entrance of the archaeological site. Entrance fee is 3 USD.
#02 The volcanic cauldron of Lake Coatepeque
Yes, if you had already been to Atitlan or Ometepe, this lake might seem very insignificant to you but to me, this peaceful lake represents everything that’s right with El Salvador: Family values, peacefulness and honesty. Contrary to most touristy lakes, here you will find warm smiles instead of scammers.
Did you know that you can take a boat ride across the lake for only 2 USD per person? Just sit back, relax and enjoy a freshly gaught fish at one of the many restaurants of this lake. To get here you can take the direct 220 bus from Santa Ana, just be warned that the bus runs every 90 minutes so be mentally prepared for the wait on the way back!
#03 The mysterious clouds of Santa Ana’s Volcano
Overlooking Lake Coatepeque and the city of Santa Ana, you will find this spectacular Volcano. There is only one guided tour (you cannot climb on your own) each day at 11:30. Buses from Santa Ana leaves at 07:00 and arrives at about 10:00 so you basically will have a lot of time to kill before attempting to climb.
The day I went it was so cloudy and foggy that I decided it wasn’t worth paying the 18 USD so I took the bus back to Santa Ana. The group of people from the hostel that actually climbed told me that it got very sunny after I left. Next time I’ll climb it for sure!
#04 Santa Ana: Pupusas and Singers
Other than being the touristy hub of the region, the town of Santa is a very unique one in the sense that it represents the slow and joyful daily lives of the Salvadoran citizens. A visit to El Salvador is not complete without trying the classical pupusas, which are basically fluffy fried tortillas filled with meat, cheese and/or eggs. You can get five for only 1 USD. How awesome is that?
Also, you can enjoy a nice lunch in the company of traditional Salvadoran singers, just don’t make the mistake of calling them Mariachis, the guy in this photo almost hit me with his accordeon when I called him that!
#05 Juayua and the Ruta de las Flores
Juayua is a town located two hours away from Santa Ana and is the most popular town of the Ruta de las Flores (Route of the flowers), a relatively popular backpacking route in El Salvador. Here you will find an impressive church, kitsch street art (including Mexico’s El Chavo del Ocho) and on the weekends, a delicious food market that attracts people from all over the country.
In the main plaza, just in front of the church, you will find cheap souvenirs (a wooden macaw for only 50 cents? Give me 20!), food and a lot of kids playing games. Don’t be surprised if you get invited to play football with them. The real football that is, not the American version.
You can get here by taking the 550 bus from Santa Ana’s market station. All local buses in El Salvador cost from 50 cents to 1 USD. Yes, they actually use USD as their official currency.
#06 Chorros de la Calera, your own private waterfall
30 minutes away from Juayua on foot, you will start hearing the roar of the waterfalls. And as you keep walking the deserted pathway, you’ll start to wonder if this was a good idea. After all, anything could happen to you in this isolated area far removed from civilization. It wasn’t until I first saw the guy with the machete that I began to question my own sanity.
“Good day, sir” he said, after which he used his machete to cut down some branches. He was the only soul I saw on the way to the most fascinating waterfalls I’ve ever seen in my life. The best part? I was the only one there.
I loved it.
Is El Salvador a must-see?
To be honest, it really comes down to what you’re looking for. Sure, Nicaragua has better volcanoes, Costa Rica has better beaches, Guatemala has better culture and Honduras has better ruins. But the charm of El Salvador is the fact that this is a country that doesn’t try to be the best in any particular area, this is a country that just goes on day by day living life to the fullest.
If you’re looking for an awesome over-the-top experience, you probably won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for a relaxed stay then you’re definitely in the right place. El Salvador’s main tourist attraction? It’s peacefulness.
Have you ever been in front of such a majestic waterfall all by yourself? Would you like to? Share your thoughts and let me know what you think about El Salvador and don’t forget to subscribe to obtain awesome updates of wonders to your e-mail!