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17 Top Things To Do In El Salvador: Complete 2019 Travel Guide

Written by:
Cazzy Magennis
/
Last updated:
July 31, 2019
Travel stories
Planning a visit to the beautiful (but small) El Salvador of Central America? Then check out my guide on the top things to do in El Salvador right now...
El Salvador
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El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America wedged between Guatemala and Honduras. It’s a country of volcanoes, beauty and a reputation for violence in the past.

But that shouldn't worry you. A stop at El Salvador should be on every central america backpacking itinerary and we are going to inspire you with the top things to do in El Salvador!

Top Things To Do In El Salvador

We did the majority of these top things to do, but a few of them were not in our route. I will also provide you with a suggest route that will cover all the top things to do in El Salvador.

1. Hiking the Santa Ana Volcano

This was probably my favourite thing to do in El Salvador. The Santa Ana volcano is known for its stunning blue/green crater lake that’s in the middle of the crater once you reach the top. It’s located within the cerro verde national park.

This is one of the top tourist attractions in El Salvador.

I’ve written about my experience here and how you can visit without a guide.

couple at santa ana volcano

2. Take a coffee plantation tour

El Salvador is a coffee region of the world, and the really do produce some amazing coffee. I am a coffee fanatic, so I was actually very excited to come to Central America in general to taste all the amazing coffees.

The coffee of El Salvador is my second favorite in the region (Nicaragua has to be first!).

You should take a coffee plantation tour and learn about how the coffee is made and of course brew your own cup!

coffee making in el salvador

3. Visit the Mayan ruins of Tazumal and Joya de Cerén

So everywhere in Central America has its own batch of Mayan ruins, and El Salvador is no different.

Now, I’ll be upfront and say we didn’t visit the Mayan ruins. We planned too, but I’d already seen about 5 sets and the capital of the Mayan world: Tikal, and just didn’t feel like seeing any more.

But, if you want Mayan ruins that are completely uncrowded (as in you could be the only ones there), then you will love the ruins in El Salvador.

They’re easy to reach from Santa Ana via chicken bus, and when I did my research, I used this guys blog post to plan, so I’ve linked it for your convenience!

You’ll see there are actually quite a few to be seen, and I think it’s a great opportunity to experience some ruins with the crowds.

4. Visit the Santa Ana cathedral

If you’re doing the Santa Ana volcano hike, you should stay in Santa Ana. It’s the second biggest city in El Salvador (After San Salvador), and it’s actually quite cute.

There is a lovely square that’s got a great pizza restaurant, and the beautiful Santa Ana cathedral!

It’s definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

santa ana cathederal

5. Surf at El Tunco

El Salvador is home to some of the best surfing in the world, and it’s got something for beginners, and pros.

Head to the beaches of El Tunco and El Sunzal for an amazing time surfing. It’s about $20 for a lesson and day board rental.

El Tunco itself is also a backpacker hub so it’s got lots of great restaurants and bars. The weekend is when this place really comes to life with fantastic parties and live music!

We stayed in a place called the Casa De Mar hotel which was right on the beachfront and had the best surf break in the area literally in front of it!

The beaches are the most touristy part of El Salvador, so if for some reason, you are really concerned about safety, then this is one of the safe places to visit in El Salvador.

Ps, I suggest El Tunco because it’s where we went, but there are plenty of other beautiful beaches in El Salvador including La Libertad, Costa Del Sol and much more.

el tunco el salvador

6. Visit the waterfalls of El Salvador

There are a variety of waterfalls in El Salvador that are worth visiting, and I love waterfalls, so that’s why they’ve made it on my list of top things to do in El Salvador!

The Tamanique waterfalls are often a day trips from El tunco and can be organised via a tour, or you can rent a moped for the day and visit them yourself. It’s a 30 minute hike, but you can swim in the waterfalls which makes it worth the trip.

Then there is the Seven Waterfall hike which is for those who love chasing waterfalls and hiking! One of them is located in Juayua and the other one is in the National Park El Impossible

Juayua is the base for visiting the waterfalls and you’ll literally visit seven waterfalls, all stunning, but you will be accessing some of them via rope, so just be careful!

We didn’t visit waterfalls in El Salvador, because it kind of takes a lot to impress us waterfall wise nowadays (we’ve seen A LOT), but actually I regret not visiting some of the waterfalls in El Salvador.

This post from Champagne roads will fill you in on ALL the waterfalls in El Salvador, even the ones the guide bokos don’t mentioned. She spent 3 months in El Salvador and seen around 20, so I think it’s a great resource!

Oh, and you can fly a drone legally in El Salvador, which means you’re going to catch some pretty awesome shots.

If you can, rent a car and you’ll get to see much more of the waterfalls and the unseen El Salvador.

7. Visit the Ruta De Flores

The Ruta de Las Flores is a winding route of about 20 miles that goes through coffee plantations and brightly colored colonial towns and colonial architecture. The five main towns on the Ruta de Las flores are Salcoatitán, Nahuizalco,  Apaneca, Ataco and Juayua.

You can get buses from each place, and there are a variety of hotels and hostels along the way. If you want to see the true natural beauty of El Salvador then this is the place to be.

If you’ve only got time to visit one small town, then make it Juayua! It’s definitely one of the best places to visit in El Salvador.

A great tour is this one.

8. Go shopping in the capital

San Salvador is actually quite commercialised, and it’s home to the biggest shopping mall in all of Central America.

So, if you’ve got some spare cash or need some new clothes, then hit the mall and shop until you drop! They also have some cool arcade shops and cinemas, so you can literally chill and have a touristy day!

One of the fun things to do in El Salvador, and if you’re thinking of things to buy in El Salvador as a present, then bring coffee home!

If you want you can take a city tour of the capital too, there aren’t too many sites to see, so a half day tour should have you covered.

san salvador square

9. Visit the San Salvador volcano

The San Salvador volcano is located in the el boqueron national park. You can visit the “peak” by heading to the park via a 15-20 minute hike upwards.

You’ll get to see a crater, which is fairly green and it’s probably not the type of crater you’re picturing in your mind.

But it’s easy to hop in an uber to the entrance and walk up! It’s got beautiful views of the city, and it’s definitely one of the top things to do in San Salvador!

It’s actually pretty cool and you should fly a drone to get some cool shots.

You can also go with a tour if you’d prefer!

10. Explore Lake ILopango

This is another one of the great things to do in El Salvador. Actually, this lake is more like a beach. I say that because it’s got little “beaches” around it and the locals all flock there like it’s the beach.

There are lots of restaurants to dine by lake and you can rent a boat and have a romantic boat ride on the lake too!

The lake is located east of San Salvador and it’s a really cool place to explore for the day and you can get there and back via uber for around $8 which isn’t bad!

There is also a random little waterpark by the lake too, which I think is mainly for kids, but if you’ve got children, then this is a pretty good place to take them.

11. Explore the colonial town of Suchitoto

This is El Salvador's equivalent to the Antugia of Guatemala, expect much smaller and much less touristy. There aren’t exactly many accommodation options up in Suchitoto, so most people opt to explore the colonial town on a day trip from the capital.

Actually, they’re pretty good value tours too. But, if you wish, you can go there yourself, either by uber, or you can get the chicken bus. I would ask your hotel to guide you on what buses to get!

This area has cute churches, colorful buildings and a nice market! It’s also close to another beautiful lake, so it’s definitely worth visiting for a day.

san salvador cathederal

12. Swim at Lake Coatepeque Caldera

So, when you hike the Santa Ana volcano, you’ll see this lake from the views at the top. It’s a vast lake and a beautiful place to visit, either after your hike or just on a day trip!

You can get there via chicken bus or taxi, and there are lots of lovely restaurants around the lake and you can swim, or rent some kayaks and spend the day relaxing at the lake.

lake in santa ana

13. Eat Puspas

Puspas are the national food of El Salvador...well maybe not the national food, but they’re the most common food and you’ll find people selling them on the streets everywhere!

It’s basically like a round bread type thing stuffed with either cheese and beans, or mince and cheese. I’ve had both and they’re delicious!

It’s typically around 2 for $1, although I’ve seen 3 or 4 $1 too. If you want a quick lunch, or a quick snack, then you have to eat puspas!

They’re also really good when you want food after a night of drinking. A little lady sells them on the streets of El Tunco at like 2-3am haha

14. Visit the El Imposible National Park

Literally meaning “The impossible natural park”, this already has an awesome name, so it’s worth visiting!

It’s a great spot for hiking and camping, and if you’ve got a spare night or two, you should definitely get your hands on a tent and spend on time here.

The surroundings are beautiful!

It’s best to visit during the week as it’s less busy.

Btw, it’s steep walking, so it’s not for the faint hearted. There are 3 main trails: Cerro Leon (8 km), Los Enganches, (11km) and Piedra Sellada (8 km).

You can opt to visit with a tour, or you can make a DIY trip on your own.

It’s free to camp and you can rent tents at the entrance (I think), and it’s $6 to enter the park.

Transport to and from will be via chicken buses and won’t cost more than $1.

You can do an organised tour here to save hassle.

15. Visit San Andrés, El Salvador

This is a pre-columbian archaeological site that’s worth a visit and therefore on the list of top things to do in El Salvador.

This is one of the largest pre-Hispanic archaeological sites in the country, and it’s only 45 minutes from San salvador, so it’s a good day trip from San Salvador and you can use uber, or chicken buses to get there.

Or, you could rent a driver for the day to take you there amongst other sights in the area.

theatre in santa ana

16. Camp at Conchagua

This is a great area of natural beauty and one Bradley and I missed out on. Actually most of the research is in Spanish on Google, so it’s hard to get exact information, but this is a wonderful place to camp.

It’s better to visit via car and actually some people opt to sleep in their car rather than camp, but that’s up to you.

  • Conchagua Volcano is the only one in coastal area of El Salvador and on the viewpoint called Soul of the mountain. This is said to offer some of the most beautiful views in El Salvador.
  • The owner of the “viewpoint” organises a tour that costs $10 for transport to and from and entrance to the viewpoint, which isn’t bad.
  • He is called Luis Diaz and his contact number is +503 7824 7766. You can gain more information via him!

17. Chill at the Santa Teresa hot springs

When it comes to El Salvador attractions, this should be on the list. This is actually quite an undiscovered hidden gem of El Salvador and it doesn't make it on many of the backpacking itineraries or list of things to do in El Salvador. But it should!

I love a good hot spring, and there is actually a “luxury” resort area in the part, called the Santa Teresa Park which offers you the unique opportunity to appreciate the largest Ausol in Central America, the magic pool,the trail of the lagoons, ,the romantic pool and the blue lagoon, which together make the hot springs of Santa Teresa the main tourist destination of the West of El Salvador.

These are proper beautiful hot springs, all well organised, and I REGRET NOT KNOWING ABOUT THEM!

I wish i had of went, but even when I did my initial research, this wasn’t on the list of things to do in El Salvador, so if you go to El Salvador, please go and tell me what you think!

So there you have it, my guide on the top things to do in El Salvador! I hope this guide has given you some inspiration to the many amazing and different things there is to do in El Salvador.

It’s truly an undiscovered place that’s slowly but surely rising in popularity, so if you can, visit before it becomes overly backpackery (Not a word but I like it haha), and so you have it all to yourself (and whilst there are no drone laws!!)

san salvadr historic centre

Why visit El Salvador?

El Salvador is often overlooked by backpackers but it shouldn’t be.

It’s home to the stunning Santa Ana volcano, amazing waterfalls and natural beauty, and some of the best surf in the world, that’s consistent all year round!

Simply scratch the surface and you’ll soon discover a country with amazing places to visit, people to meet and beauty to discover.

square in san salvador

Is El Salvador safe to visit?

Yes. I am well aware of the reputation that El Salvador has for having one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Which it does, or did.

But the people of El Salvador are actually very much aware of this reputation too. And whilst there is no denying there is violence in the country (just like there is in any country), it doesn’t target tourists.

I have to say, I didn’t feel uneasy for a single minute in El Salvador, and Bradley and I used chicken buses to get from place to place and it felt safe.

The people were friendly, and not once did we feel threatened.

So I can say that it’s safe, or it was for us. Just take normal precautions such as don’t walk around alone at night, don’t get drunk and put yourself in a vulnerable position (especially at night), and don’t flash the cash or expensive jewelry.

Also ,don’t get involved with drugs.

Follow those rules and you will have a fuss free and wonderful experience in El Salvador!

When is the best time to visit El Salvador?

The dry season or summer of El Salvador runs between November and April, so I would say this is the best time to visit.

The wet season runs from May and October.

Bradley and I visited in February and the weather was dry and super warm. El Salvador is a very warm country and the temperature sits at around 33-35 degrees C every day.

How to get to El Salvador?

As I mentioned before, El Salvador is actually quite a small country. You could get from one end to the other in around 4-5 hours.

This means there is only one airport in the country and that’s located in the capital: San Salvador.

You can get flights to San Salvador from a variety of locations, and if you’ve been visiting Mexico or Guatemala, you can get flights for around £60.

If you’re flying from England or the USA the chances are you will have a stopover somewhere before you land in San Salvador.

If you are travelling by bus/on land, you can get to the beaches of El Salvador easily by shuttle bus from Guatemala, you can also get to the capital too.

If you want to go to Santa Ana, you will have to leave from Guatemala city, not Antigua as no direct shuttles go to Santa Ana from there.

If you’re coming from the other end (Honduras or Nicaragua), you can use Tica bus to get to San Salvador!

santa ana volcano

Visa Requirements for El Salvador

El Salvador is part of the C4-4 agreement (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua). This agreement gives tourists 90 days to travel in any of the 4 countries. NOT EACH COUNTRY. ( a common mistake)

You can request a 30 day extension, which gives you 120 days in the 4 countries.

If you are from Australia, Belgium, Lavatia, or Croatia you are required to purchase a visa card on arrival which is $10 and lasts 30 days.

You can find more information here.

How long do I need to backpack El Salvador?

Since it’s such a small country, you don't need a lot of time to see everything. I would say 2 weeks is suffice, but you could take it slow and do 3, especially if you are surfing.

You could do it a lot quicker if you’re only making a few stops! I know people who spent less than a week in El Salvador, but I don’t think that’s enough time to get to know the country and truly appreciate its beauty and check off all the top things to do in El Salvador!

Where to after El Salvador?

El Salvador is usually part of a full central america backpacking list, so depending on whether you’re going north or south, it would make sense to visit Guatemala afterwards, or Nicaragua!

Both countries are amazing, and if you have time, you should definitely visit both. To date, I haven’t visited Honduras as it wasn’t really safe at the time, but I will return and visit it in the future- don’t worry!

Hotels In El Salvador

The hotel industry in El Salvador is nowhere near as big as other countries, so for that reason, I’m going to list a hotel recommendation for each area I visited!

El Tunco: Casa De Mar

Santa Ana: Pool House Hostel

San Salvador: Cinco hotel B&B

Ruta De Flores: Casa Degraciela Hotel Boutique

You can find all accommodation in El Salvador here.

The equipment we use when travelling

In case you're wondering what cameras we used for these photos.

Canon G7x Mark II: Brilliant little point and shoot, video recording for creating travel videos and vlogging camera. A great all-in-one when you don't want to carry lots of equipment.

Tripod: We carry a travel tripod to take some pictures together or get unique shots.

Memory cards: I use 64G sandisk, sometimes sandisk gold for my drone footage.

Mavic Pro Drone: Our baby mavic is high quality, worth a lot of money and worth it for the beauty it captures. There are more new drones out, but this is honestly perfect.

If you’ve got anything else you think I should add to my list of the top things to do in El Salvador, then please comment below.

Happy travelling!

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