In September 2022, Luis and I were looking for a destination to celebrate our anniversary: Short-haul, direct flights, not too touristy. El Salvador had been on my radar for several years, thanks to friends who’d visited or who were from there and assured me it was one of the most underrated destinations in the world. Then Arajet came along, the Caribbean’s first low cost air carrier, offering direct flights out of Santo Domingo to San Salvador starting that same month of September. We jumped on the opportunity.
Unlike its Central American neighbors, El Salvador’s coastline faces the Pacific Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea, which makes it popular with avid surfers (the height of those Pacific waves will boggle your mind). That’s just one of many unique traits to this tiny country that sees the least number of tourists in the region.
El Salvador is also home to more than 170 volcanoes, according for the Ministry of Environment ,with at least 14 of them active. The scenic drive up into the center of the country and into its cloud forest reveals just how lush and undeveloped El Salvador remains, and the roads are excellent as well.
Because there are few tourists (unless you hole up in surf hub El Tunco), it’s easy to have an immersive outdoor or cultural experience in El Salvador—and if you’re looking for a place to get away from the hordes that descend on Central America this tiny country would be an excellent choice.
Just don’t expect it to be super cheap in terms of lodging or tours — the currency is the US dollar so it’s more expensive compared to say, Guatemala.
If you’re like many who’ve heard of El Salvador’s gang violence, then you’re wondering about safety. One would have to be living under a rock not to have heard of El Salvador president Nayib Bukele’s mass incarceration of gang members (part controversial, part acclaimed, depending on whom you ask) and how crimes have fallen countrywide. That doesn’t mean residents have stopped heading to the US for a better life and income; change takes time but for the past couple of years, El Salvador has seen crime tumbling to its lowest levels in decades.
But yes safety: we didn’t feel any sort of danger at all, despite being the only Black faces around during our visit (we were stared at a lot while visiting the pueblos on a Sunday, but mostly stares of curiosity and intrigue from teenagers and kids).
But here’s a fact that explains it: while enslaved Africans were indeed brought to El Salvador as well, to work in plantations and mines, and mixed with the Indigenous population, years later there was also a state policy prohibiting the immigration and settlement of Black people in El Salvador — read this account.
In the past two years, El Salvador has been rising in popularity among tourists. More travelers are heading here in search of fewer crowds and open spaces, and El Salvador will host Miss Universe in 2023. I recommend you head there before more tourists begin to descend on this country packed with natural landscapes and Indigenous culture.
Before you do, brush up on the complex history of El Salvador, from its first inhabitants—the Olmecs, the Maya, the Toltec and the Pipil—to Spain colonizing the country in 1528 until 1821, and post-independence, a deep inequality that led to a brutal civil war (1980-1992) plus past corrupt leadership from which the country is working to recover.
Here are five ways to immerse yourself in local experiences in El Salvador.
Hike Santa Ana Volcano
Hiking to the crater of Ilamatepec or Santa Ana volcano—the highest in El Salvador at 7,811 feet above sea level—was the highlight of our visit. We chose the family-owned and operated Eco Tours Petate, started by a Salvadoran father in 2015 after he spent years working in hospitality. His son, Osmaro, showed us around and I appreciated his honest take on his country. Along our scenic drive to the starting point for the volcano hike, no topics were off limits, from El Salvador’s politics and history to our guide’s favorite lookout stops for breakfast and a hidden waterfall along the way.
The actual climb to Santa Ana was a moderately difficult hike; most of it is easy until you get to the last hour when it’s a steep climb to get to the crater. It was my first time standing by a volcano crater so close, and my heartbeat increases every time I think back to the moment I stood at the edges of Ilamatepec. It’s no exaggeration to say that was the most overwhelming nature experience I’ve had anywhere in the world, perhaps even more awe-inspiring than cruising the fjords of New Zealand’s South Island some years back.
It was cloudy, cold and misty at the top when we reached, and we waited a good 30 minutes for the clouds to pass, not knowing whether they would. I asked my guide for the name of the Indigenous God they pray to (her name escapes me) and began chanting asking to let us see Ilamatepec. A half hour later, there it was…
The sight of the crater’s emerald green sulfur pool filled with a deep sense of mortality and a reminder that we are just mere humans, passing through while these wonders will outlast our existence. You’ll have to experience being that close to a volcano to understand —it’s a once in a lifetime experience and if you’re going to do it in an uncrowded destination, El Salvador would be a great starting point.
Hop on the Ruta de Flores Tour — Sample Market Foods and Buy Crafts
The western mountain towns such as Ataco and Juayua have a vibrant Indigenous legacy and a revival of the culture is underway. Five of these pueblos sit on the “flower route” or Ruta de Flores tour, one of the most popular among visitors: Santo Domingo de Guzman, Izalco, Nahuizalco, Juayua, Ataco, and others. The name comes from government initiative to promote these small culture-rich towns, calling them “flowers.”
It didn’t take long to see why the drive and walk through each of the towns was worthwhile. We went on a Sunday and the vibe was wonderful in Nahuizalco for example; Salvadoran families were out enjoying live music, the open air market in Nahuizalco was ideal to meander and sample local foods such as tamales, and nuegados (delicious fried yucca balls – make sure to ask for it). The Nahuizalco market shuts at 11pm and is one of the few night markets in the country.
Beautifully maintained parks at center of each town, and occasionally, open mic where youth stood in a gazebo and sang their hearts out even if out of tune. You can also buy unique crafts in these parts — I couldn’t resist buying handmade jewelry, and a handwoven purse from the Centro de Desarrollo Artesanal (CEDART) in Nahuizalco. This cooperative shop is part of a crafts school that trains local women to revive their heritage while creating crafts to sell to visitors. What’s not to love?
Sample Local Coffee
Coffee grows here and the cafe culture is strong. While we didn’t have time to tour a coffee farm, we did get to stop and enjoy a cup at a couple of artsy coffee shops and lounges, in the smaller towns in the center of the country. In Ataco, look for Axul Cafe, with an adjacent arts and crafts store, including a gallery of paintings for sale.
Enjoy the Juayua Food Festival
One of the highlights you’ll have to experience in El Salvador is the Juayua Food Festival, where more than two dozen restaurants set up their grills and kitchens under two large tents every week and offer a full menu of Salvadoran seafood, steaks, desserts, drinks and other delicacies. It was so much fun, hopping from one grill to the next and trying to decide what to have, while surrounded by a lively local scene almost devoid of tourists (we went in the fall so maybe we just lucked out). A plate at the food festival cost between $7-10.
You can either experience the food fest while on the Ruta de Flores tour, or head there on your own on Sundays.
Swim in Pacific Saltwater Pools
While staying at the mid-range, locally-owned Atami Escape Resort—perfectly fine, though the restaurant was better than the dated rooms—we braved their three infinity saltwater pools that literally make you feel as if you’re about end up in the deep end of the Pacific Ocean. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like them, but we had a blast being splashed by the massive Pacific waves that came crashing back and forth over us.
I’d go back to El Salvador in a heartbeat — for the clifftop views, the remote wilderness feeling of black sand Pacific beaches, the coffee, the lush volcanic interior, and the lack of crowds.
Note: My trip to El Salvador was a personal trip and not sponsored in any manner. When sponsored, I will always make that clear and share my honest opinion, as always.