If you’ve been following my blog for long, you know that I’m a big fan of El Salvador and I’ve really enjoyed my time traveling here. The one thing I will say is that El Salvador lacks good tourist infrastructure. It’s hard to know what to do, where to go or how to get there. In a city where one museum goes by multiple names, you can’t get a map, there are no published bus routes and no clear direction on which stations the buses out of town leave from, you’re likely to feel lost. Add to that the lack of content available in English – except for travel warnings that tell you to shun buses, avoid cabs and stay off the streets . . . . and getting around can feel pretty intimidating.
Traveling in El Salvador – How to Get Around
The good news is that Salvadorians are wonderful people. I could not have survived
without the incredible kindness of the local Salvadorians – I have been blown away by how far they will go out of their way to help a tourist. The locals ARE the infrastructure here. Need to find a bus stop? Ask a local. Can’t find a museum? You’ll often be led there by a local. They’re not the point in the general direction and move on types, they’ll actually show you where it is! Even if you don’t know Spanish, body language and a few key words can help you get around town (I recommend writing down your bus station name, your hotel address and where you want to go, just in case – sometimes my fabulous accent was not understood by the locals and it was handy to have something to show them).
I took buses everywhere I went and I felt safe. Occasionally, when the buses are full,
you’ll need to stand, but I felt safe and had no problems. Of course, take the usual recommended precautions – no waving your camera for everyone to see and keep an eye on your wallet. The bus costs US$0.35-$0.50 in the city and less than $5.00 to travel to some of the other sites in the country. Taxi’s are much more costly at about $5-8.00 in the city and much more to car service to other sites outside the city.
Traveling in El Salvador has been a wonderful adventure and I’d recommend it to any traveler!!! I love that it has a bit of wild west flavor and does not have a well worn backpacker trail. It’s worth the extra effort and the occasional lack of basic comforts. I predict, if they can keep crime in check, that El Salvador will emerge as a real tourist destination in the next 10 years. It has everything it takes!
If you plan on traveling in El Salvador, here is some guidance for your trip.
Things to Do in San Salvador
Iglesia El Rosario – A cool little church located in “centro”. It looks like an airport hanger from the outside, but inside is a treat for the eyes
Museo Nacional de Antropología “David J. Guzmán” – this museum has about 12 different names but it’s absolutely worth a look. It’s the only museum that provided any context for the war and it has lots of information on crafts, culture and food as well as some historical information. There was also a temporary exhibit of the work of El Salvadorian artist, Fernando Llort and an incredible wall mural depicting scenes from the war.
Catedral Metropolitana and Teatro Nacional are both off the Parque Central, downtown in Centro. It’s worth walking around this area a bit to see the hustle and bustle, the market that seems to go on forever and the Salvadorians in their daily lives.
Military Museum el Zapote Barracks – It took me 2 days to get here (the first time it had closed early) and I didn’t think it was worth the trouble. It has the pope-mobile from John Paul II’s visit along with some other military vehicles and old uniforms. Not my thing – I would have liked some history and information but there was none to be had here.
Santa Tecla – Beautiful and home to home to the El Carmen church, this area is worth a half day. There’s a section of restaurants that’s been built up and offers cuisine from around the world. Tres quaint and charming!
Los Chorros – Just past Santa Tecla you’ll find a lovely natural spring, with swimming ponds that cascade from overhanging volcanic cliffs, and surrounded by lush green foliage. This place offers a piece of paradise and is perfect for a relaxing day trip.
Museo Marte – An art museum. And it’s a good one too.
Things to do Outside San Salvador
El Tunco/Sunzal/El Zonte Beachs – The black sand beaches of El Salvador are worth a look but they can also be done as a day trip from San Salvador. Unless you need some serious quiet time or are a surfer, there’s not too much time to occupy your time. Food is more expensive than the big city and you’ll find more than your share of young, partying surfers. Stay at Hotel Mopelia for peace, quite, a pool, private rooms around US$20 and an excellent location and restaurant bar. Stay in El Zonte to avoid the surfer crowd. Make sure you eat at Take a Wok for out of this world asian food you design yourself!
Ruta des Flores (Conceptión de Ataco, Juayúa, Apaneca): I really enjoyed this area and could have stayed another day. These small towns are on the “Route of Flowers” so even the bus ride is picturesque. Each town has its own charms and it’s fun to poke around and see what you can find. All three of these towns have stunning murals adoring the walls – some historic, some brand new. It’s a photographers dream and you can get lost for days. Each town also has a charming center, there are coffee tours in Ataco, and an incredible food festival every weekend in Juayua. Stay at Casa Mazeta in Juayúa. It’s charming, comfortable and a great value at US$20 for privates and less than half that for dorms.
Suchitoto: A lovely, cobblestones city built atop a hill and next to a lake. Sounds charming? It is. It’s an easy day trip from the city. Suchitoto offers a couple of attractions that might convince you to stay the night. This area was the epicenter of the civil war, which ended in 1992 and the communities of Palo Grande, El Sitio and La Mora host tours of the old encampments, either on foot or horseback or a combination of both on Guazapa Mountain. You’ll find camp grounds, caves built to hid from the enemy, trenches, an old medic station and the remains of a school. It’s pretty spectacular and at US$15, you can’t beat the price. You can take the bus there, which is under $0.50. You can take a similar tour in Cinquera – it’s a bit more difficult to get to but the walk is shorter and easier. I’d sprung big money for this tour to be translated for me into English – originally $120 but reduced to $40 when others joined. It was supposed to come with a real guerrilla fighter to but he got the day off and I didn’t feel I got my moneys worth. Skip the bilingual guide and pay the $3 entrance fee to the park and $10 Spanish guide. You’ll get it when they point to the stove and save yourself a lot of money. The tiny town is worth checking out too – there’s a park with a lovely memorial to the war. The fence incorporates weapons from the war and the bombed out church has since been rebuilt. There’s no money for a new bell though so they ring old bomb casings instead. Also check out Los Tercios Waterfall. The Tourist Police can take you (just to be safe since it’s a remote area). Check in with them and expect them to set a time the following day. It has spectacular basalt rock formations that are worth a look whether the water is running or not. It is a short but steep hike down to the viewing area. Stay at Posada Blanca Luna for the cheapest, cleanest rooms in town in a historic building – I didn’t stay there but everyone I met who’d been to Suchitoto raved about it. If you’re up for a splurge, you can’t beat Los Almendros De San Lorenzo - a stunning historic property with killer views.
So that’s my wrap-up on traveling in El Salvador. There’s much more that I didn’t road test, so get out and have an adventure! If you have any questions or comments on this information – please don’t hesitate to send me a comment – I’ll happily respond as best I’m able! Even better, hook up with the forum Discover the Undiscovered Central America – post a question and you’ll likely meet some extremely knowledgeable and generous expats such as Donald Leibowicz who will happily answer any questions and steer you in the right direction.
Cheers and happy travels!