El Salvador, where do I begin? As most of my followers are already aware, I have fallen madly and deeply in love with this Central American gem. It’s got everything a backpacker wants and needs – from surfing some of the best surf in the world, exploring tropical beaches, stuffing your face with amazing food and getting lost in conversation with the friendliest locals we have ever met. Honestly, there’s nothing I dislike about El Salvador.
We started this leg of our trip in Mexico, from there we visited Guatemala and we came in to El Salvador from Lake Atitlan arriving in El Tunco about 5 hours later. Over the course of 3 weeks we worked our way through 5 destinations, ending the trip in Juayua on the Ruta de los Flores.
If you’ve already done a bit of backpacking and are looking for something a bit ‘tougher’ than the typical tourist route of South East Asia, then, I hugely recommend El Salvador. Sure, backpacking El Salvador can be a challenge – pretty much the only way to get from one town to the next is the local ‘chicken bus’, it’s very difficult to book any accommodation in advance because there’s no such thing as an online booking system and WiFi is a rarity. But you know what, it’s been our most rewarding trip to date. Do you want a unique travelling experience in a tiny tropical gem of a country. Yes? Then read on to find out how we packed 5 destinations into 3 weeks.
El Tunco (6 nights)
A tiny beach-side town about an hours drive from the capital San Salvador, and predominantly inhabited by surfers or yoga instructors. Most of the towns hostels and restaurants line its black sandy beach, the main pathway through the town is a sandy trail, nobody wears shoes – in fact the town is so laid-back it’s horizontal. My kinda place! And obviously if you want to surf, this is the place for you. There are lots of surf schools for you to choose from, but the surf is so intense you have to be careful not to break your board. This disaster happened to a guy we met and he had to pay quite a lot of money to the surf school as a result. You’ve been warned.
We spent our days here pretty much lazing around, either sunbathing or surfing, then before dinner we would watch the sunset with a beer in hand, and finally ended our day, eating at one of the really cheap but amazingly yummy little food huts. During the week El Tunco is very chilled out, in fact most of the surfers we met went teetotal during the week. How very professional! But at the weekend, El Tunco comes alive – San Salvador’s richest come to town to party and boy do they know how to party. You are likely to come across couples salsa dancing in the street. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay – our hostel had a pretty cool crowd and a great pool!
How we got there: A bus from San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala (via Antigua) to El Tunco with Gekko Tours costing $40
Where we stayed: La Sombra Hostel
Restaurant recommendations: Take a Wok; Taco Guanaco
Overall rating: 8/10
El Cuco (5 nights)
El Cuco is simply a beach, no town, no shops (actually the little restaurant at the top of the beach had a stall selling cold drinks), there’s also a Pupusa stall, and well, that’s pretty much it. We stayed at perhaps the most unique accommodation of our entire trip – La Tortuga Verde, a hostel/ turtle sanctuary consistently ranked as one of the best hostels in the world by Lonely Planet. It has its own restaurant, a yoga studio, a vegetarian cafe, a swimming pool and you can rent surfboards for a minimal fee. La Tortuga Verde is right on the beach, and our private double room complete with patio area and two hammocks was $25 a night. It was super-comfortable, spotlessly clean, with a very strong shower and in any other country this room would be worth 4 times that.
We surfed, sunbathed, swam in the pool, read a lot of books, ate a lot of tacos and drank a lot of fresh coconut juice. Basically, we recharged our batteries for 5 full days. Absolute bliss. And did I mention, the sunsets here are the best in the world! It’s worth visiting El Cuco simply to see this marvel.
How we got there: We got a minibus with Gekko Tours from El Tunco to El Cuco, which took about 2 hours and cost $20 .
Where we stayed: La Tortuga Verde
Restaurant recommendations: There aren’t any restaurants per se in El Cuco, so we ate at La Tortuga Verde every night and it was more than satisfying
Overall rating: 7.5/10
San Salvador (6 nights)
Consistently labelled as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but for us, we felt nothing but safe the entire time. However, I don’t recommend spending too much time in downtown San Salvador, there’s really nothing there plus it has an inherently ‘sketchy’ vibe. In fact I felt so uncomfortable there, that we never even got off the bus, we just continued on to the bus station and got on another bus back to our hostel. BUT, the area we stayed in was a very safe residential neighbourhood about a 15 minute bus ride from downtown and next to the World Trade Center. About a 20 minute walk away is El Paseo a massive shopping centre filled with every ‘western’ store & restaurant you could imagine and the most comfortable and well-equipped cinema I’ve ever been to. The weird thing about San Salvador is that literally every store or restaurant has an armed guard standing outside, it’s quite frightening witnessing the sheer amount of firearms – but it made me feel safer, I guess.
As you may already know, we completed a night bike ride in San Salvador. This was one of the best things we did in Central America. Sure, a night bike ride through the streets of one of the most notoriously dangerous cities in the world sounds life-defying. The little local organisation who runs it – Ciclistas Urbanos has been doing this for years, it’s more of a cycling group for locals than a tour, in fact I think we were the only tourists that night but they welcomed us with open arms regardless. They meet every Thursday night, to cycle a different route through the city, and some rides can be as long as 30km. There was also a police presence for the whole ride, so you’re in safe hands. To join in this one-in-a-lifetime activity, message them on their Facebook page (link above) and let them know you will be coming along and if you need to rent a bike. The group meets at Parque Cuscatlan at dusk, you collect your bike here.
How we got there: A local bus from outside La Tortuga Verde brought us to San Miguel, from there we got a direct bus to San Salvador. The whole trip took 5 hours (it should take approx. 2 hours but two of our buses broke down). The total cost per person was $4.
Where we stayed: Hostal Cumbres del Volcan
Restaurant recommendations: Caminito Chocos; Rustico Bistro; Las Fajitas
Overall rating: 6/10
Santa Ana (4 nights)
Santa Ana is a rustic town in North Western El Salvador, used by most backpackers as a base to explore the nearby volcanoes of Santa Ana & Izalco and Lago Coatepeque. To be completely honest, there’s not a whole lot to do in the town of Santa Ana itself, there’s a bustling local market selling everything from beauty products to traditional Salvadoran clothing and some great restaurants including Expresion Cultural.
Just outside of town (and an hours bus-ride away) you will find three active volcanoes – Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde which together make up Cerro Verde National Park. Hiking up these trails is still considered dangerous due to a spate of robberies on the climb and so, all hikes are undertaken with a big group and an armed guard. We climbed Volcan Izalco and it’s pretty tough – first you climb down 1,300 steps to get to the bottom of the volcano then it’s a tiring hour long hike up an almost vertical slope. But it’s all worth it once you get to the top. On the south-side of the summit you can still see lava flowing down into the Pacific Ocean and steam vents are still active up top (you have to be careful where you sit as some rocks are still deadly hot).
We also ventured to Lago Coatepeque which lies just beneath Cerro Verde National Park. This lake is labelled as an up and coming Lake Atitlan by Lonely Planet and by many locals, but for me, it needs a lot of development before it can be considered in the same league as Lake Atitlan. A handful of cheap hotels dot the lake’s edge, but most accommodation is for the preserve of San Salvador’s elite. For around US$5 you can relax and enjoy lake access at one of the hotels on the northeast shore. For US$20 you can rent a boat for a couple of hours. One thing Coatepeque does have on Atitlan however, is that it’s safe to swim in its waters!
How we got there: A local bus direct from San Salvador to Santa Ana costing $2.
Where we stayed: Hostal Casa Verde
Restaurant recommendations: Expresion Cultural; Buffalo Wings
Overall rating: 6.5/10
Juayua (4 nights)
A picturesque little town on the famed Ruta de Los Flores, full of cobbled streets, white-washed churches and Spanish-colonial looking buildings. Don’t be fooled by it’s size, Juayua is a bustling town during the day, filled with day-tripping tourists and visiting rural locals. Every Sunday, a unique and crowd-pleasing Food Festival is held in the town’s Parque Central serving everything from fried Iguana & Guinea Pig to the more traditional Pupusa’s. Live music fills the streets and the locals dance until the sun goes down. We used Juayua as a base to visit the other villages on the Ruta de Los Flores including Ataco and Apaneca. Ataco in particular is worth a visit or even a night or two’s stay – excellent coffee shops (serving only local coffee beans) surround the towns square and everywhere you look provides an epic panorama of the surrounding coffee fields. A local ‘chicken’ bus serves all the villages on the Ruta de Los Flores and a one-way trip costs as little as 50c.
How we got there: A local bus from San Salvador to Sonsonate, then a direct bus from Sonsonate to Juayua. All-in approx. $2
Where we stayed: Hotel Anahuac
Restaurant recommendations: Restaurante R&R
Overall rating: 7/10
The best local beer: Pilsener (50c to $1.50 a bottle in a bar)
The best food: Pupusas (obviously)
The best thing to do: Night bike ride through San Salvador
The best place to stay: La Tortuga Verde at El Cuco or Casa Verde at Santa Ana
The best restaurant: Restaurante R&R in Juayua
What to bring with you:
- Lonely Planet’s guide ‘Central America on a shoestring’
- Good walking shoes – I had the Skechers GoWalk walkers (here) and they were so comfortable
- A GoPro or decent adventure camera – we had the Sony Cybershot DSC-HX50
- A lock for your backpack because you will be getting a lot of local buses
- A Spanish dictionary
Whew that was a long one but I think I’ve covered everything. If there’s anything else you would like to know please post in the comments below and I will get back to you ASAP.
I’ll leave you with a quote (as always)-
“I urge you to travel, as far and as much as possible. Work ridiculous shifts to save your money. Go without the latest iPhone. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Find out how other people live and realize that the world is a much bigger place than the town you live in. And when you come home, home may still be the same, but something in your mind will have shifted. And trust me, that changes everything.”
Thanks for reading,