Travel Tips El Salvador

By | May 8, 2024

Travel Tips El Salvador – With 200 miles of coastline, more than 170 volcanoes, numerous archaeological sites with Mayan ruins, and a rich tradition of coffee and cacao farming, El Salvador is a wonderland for surfing, adventure, and relaxation.

Unfortunately, the country’s reputation abroad is usually more about danger than promenades – and understandably so.

Travel Tips El Salvador

Ravaged by civil war in the 1980s and plagued by decades of gang violence since then, Central America’s smallest country is considered a no-go destination for many travelers. However, significant improvements in tourism, including the fight against crime, road improvements and investment in new hotels and flight routes, have given this tropical destination a different look.

Travel To El Salvador

You can have an absolutely fantastic time in El Salvador. Take precautions where necessary while enjoying pristine beaches, geological gems and cultural treasures.

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El Salvador’s small size makes it easy to visit big cities and beaches in the same trip © bilgehan yilmaz / Getty Images

El Salvador is about 8,000 square miles—roughly the same size as the Central American country of Belize. The small but mighty country makes a trip to the capital city of San Salvador and the Pacific coast (about 45 minutes away) all within a five-night stay.

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Fill your time in San Salvador with architectural and cultural visits to the National Palace, the El Salvador Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Anthropology. La Libertad, a fishing port on the coast, has become famous for surfing and beach hotels.

Travel to Ilamatepec lagoon at the active Santa Ana volcano in El Salvador © mbrand85 / Getty Images

A national park with three volcanoes (El Boquerón), a former battlefield forest reserve (Cinquera), a cobblestone pre-Columbian city (Suchitoto) and the “Pompeii of America” ​​(Joya de Ceren) may tempt you to extend your visit. To El Salvador for a whole week… or longer.

El Boquerón is only half an hour from San Salvador and can be done as a day trip, Suchitoto is a good 90 minute drive in the opposite direction of the coast.

Surf El Salvador

Domestic travel increases during the winter holidays, New Years, Holy Week (Easter) and the first week of August. If you visit during these times, you may pay a premium for hotels, plus experience larger crowds at museums and parks.

Your best bet for clear skies and mud-free hiking is to visit during the dry season from November to April. If you decide to brave the wind (and drizzle) by visiting during the rainy season (May-October), pack a rain jacket, quick-dry layers and extra socks.

It should also be noted that not all roads in El Salvador are paved. Heavy rains can cause flooding, which can cause road closures and extended driving times.

If your home currency is USD, there is no need to exchange money. The USD has been the official currency of El Salvador since 2001. But it’s a good idea to get small bills.

Fun Things To Do In San Salvador

Most businesses will accept $20 bills, but 50s and 100s can be more difficult to break. ATMs are widely available in shopping malls and most will allow you to select English for the transaction.

In a surprising move, El Salvador added a second national currency in 2021: Bitcoin. Although the government requires all businesses to accept digital currency, only about 20% do, so you’ll likely be dealing with dollars.

Most hotels can arrange airport transfers or help you get a taxi to a nearby destination. However, hiring a driver or tour operator is highly recommended when traveling between cities.

Traffic in San Salvador can be intimidating. Its rural roads are often unpaved, full of potholes and sometimes turn into single lanes that can be difficult for foreign drivers to navigate.

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The tour operator can provide recommended tours or create a custom itinerary. Conveniently, the country’s Ministry of Tourism website has a list of recommended tour operators.

For US citizens, entry requires a current US passport and a US$12 tourist card (valid for 90 days) which can be purchased at the airport upon arrival. A visa is not required for stays of less than 90 days.

Citizens of countries such as Australia, Canada and the UK only require a valid passport for entry – no visa required for stays of less than 90 days. However, these visa-exempt travelers are still required to obtain a tourist card upon arrival at the airport. Contact your country’s embassy for entry requirements.

In the United States, park rangers can be decorated with a compass and a string hat. The dense forests in El Salvador require a completely different accessory – a machete. Don’t be surprised if your guide takes a knife to clear branches from the walkways. Definitely don’t bring yourself.

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Spanish is the official language here, and while the staff at restaurants and hotels in the main tourist areas speak English, it’s good manners to at least say a few greetings in Español.

Knowing hola (hello), buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon) and buenas noches (good night) is a decent place to start.

Be sure to cover your legs and shoulders when visiting Catholic churches in El Salvador © Henryk Sadura / Getty Images

As with most religious centers around the world, cover your legs and shoulders when visiting the country’s Catholic churches. If you don’t want to wear pants, a knee-length skirt will do, and wrapping a scarf around your shoulders will help cover up the tank top.

Tourism In El Salvador

It is customary to leave a 10 percent tip in restaurants and bars. However, always check your bill before tipping as sometimes it is already included.

From 1980 to 1992, El Salvador experienced a bloody civil war, and the effects of that turbulent period are still felt today. Chances are, your guide or the bartender serving your Cadejo beer (a popular local brewery) either lived through the war or has family members directly affected by it.

Be respectful and know that not everyone wants to talk about their experiences. But when you meet someone who’s open to sharing—you might take a Cinquera tour led by a former guerrilla fighter, for example—let them know how grateful you are to hear their story.

Despite the tropical weather, soup is a popular dish in El Salvador all year round © helovi / Getty Images

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Pupusa may be El Salvador’s most popular dish, but soups and broths are also popular here, even though the temperature is very tropical year-round. Even if you’re ready to hit the beach, don’t be surprised if your waiter recommends steamed seafood broth or sopa de pata (cow’s foot soup…yes!).

Likewise, coffee, the largest agricultural export since the 1800s, should not be missed. Neither should atol de elote, a sweet drink made with corn and served hot. But angry gourmands should stay away. Mayan folklore says that if someone in a bad mood touches it, the drink turns bitter.

The only vaccination required to enter El Salvador is yellow fever, and only if you are six months of age or older and from a high-risk country (South America and Africa or Panama). You no longer need a COVID-19 test or vaccination to enter.

Stick to bottled water and ice made only from purified H2O; tap water may be contaminated.

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Call 911 in an emergency. To contact Politur, the tourist welfare branch of the National Civil Police, call 2511-8300 or 2511-8302. They can offer safety information and even provide escorts with necessary arrangements.

Unfortunately, gang violence is a problem in El Salvador, and just as it is difficult to say definitively where gang violence will or will not occur in the United States, it is the same here. Gangs don’t usually target tourists, but to avoid traffic jams, avoid these areas in and around San Salvador: Soyapango, Apopoa, and Mexikanos.

On the other hand, the Centro Histórico in San Salvador—home to many of the city’s museums—tends to be safer, with a greater police presence.

Discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ+ community among Salvadorans has been well documented and reported by Human Rights Watch.

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With this in mind, same-sex couples should be careful about public displays of affection. In addition, it is worth researching hotels in advance and looking for gay-friendly places.

If you must walk somewhere alone, it is always recommended to do so only in daylight © ohne Titel / Getty Images

It is always recommended to avoid walking alone at night, both in big cities and in rural areas. If you are not in a group, ask your hotel or restaurant to arrange a taxi ride for you. Likewise, if you rent a car, skip driving at night.

Not only will you minimize your chances of being mugged, but you’ll also be more visible on poorly lit or non-lit roads.

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Always look for an “A” at the beginning of your check-in to confirm your taxi is official. Also,