El Salvador helpful travel guide and tips how to stay safe
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El Salvador helpful travel guide and tips how to stay safe

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Being in Peru I planned to continue on my journey to discover the world. I found cheap flights to El Salvador. After booking, I decided that my next trip would be through Latin America. El Salvador was the following country on my bucket list. I have prepared a blog post, ‘El Salvador – helpful travel guide and how to stay safe’. I gathered all the necessary information about traveling in El Salvador where Bitcoin is the legal tender. The traditional currency in El Salvador is the Salvadoran colón.

El Salvador tourism

Where is El Salvador located? That is a question I have heard very often. The location question arises because the country is not particularly overrun with tourists. In short, it is not a popular destination. The country is located in Central America and borders Guatemala and Honduras. To illustrate, I have attached a map with the location of El Salvador. Tourism is one of the major industries of the country. San Salvador offers tourists amazing beaches and the best surfing spots on the pacific coast. El Salvador received 707,000 tourists in 2020, which places them 113th in the world in absolute terms.

El Salvador helpful travel guide and tips how to stay safe

It is clear that smaller countries consistently rank lower than absolute numbers of visitors. If we relate the number of tourists to the number of inhabitants of Salvador we get a somewhat more similar picture: with 0.11 tourists per capita, Salvador ranked 118th in the world. In Central America, in 5th place, behind Panama.

El Salvador economy

In 2020, El Salvador generated about 661.01 million euros in the tourism sector alone. That corresponds to 3.1% of the gross domestic product and about 4% of all international tourism revenues in Central America. Tourism is one of the most important sectors of El Salvador’s economy.

Often unknown, this country has something to surprise between volcanoes and lakes and between colonial cities and beaches of the Salvadoran coast. 

El Salvador tourist attractions

El Salvador has more than twenty volcanoes, with its highest point at 2,730 meters if you are looking for natural spaces. Volcanos are the principal of El Salvador’s tourist attractions. Volcanic and seismic activity in the country is very high. Lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and forests will delight nature lovers and hikers. Numerous archaeological sites, including the location of Joya de Ceren are classified as Unesco World Heritage Site. It will help you discover the Mayan culture. The Capital, San Salvador, has monuments that testify to the richness of its historical heritage such as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and museums dedicated to the Mayan culture.

One place in the Capital of San Salvador reminds us of the country’s torments through the cathedral and its conquering white façade.

Rebuilt in 1999, it houses, opposite the National Palace, the tomb of Archbishop Romero, defender of human rights, assassinated in 1980 during the civil war. An artisan of peace, the Salvadoran people, devote an unwavering cult to him.

El Salvador helpful travel guide and tips how to stay safe

El Salvador facts

Some facts about El Salvador you probably haven’t heard yet. The image of El Salvador in Europe indeed remains that of an unstable country, although, despite the still unhealthy presence of urban gangs (the famous maras), it is now pacified. Salvadorans are one of the happiest nations in the world.

The fault lies with a fratricidal civil war, which left the country on fire for more than ten years. But that was in the 20th century, and peace between the state and the guerrillas they signed in 1992, 25 years ago.

Indeed, El Salvador is still an unequal nation. But it is renovating itself, building hotels, and beginning to make itself known in Europe.

The proof is in San Salvador. An open-air construction site. Squares and streets under construction, monuments being restored. The city is getting a makeover to attract visitors better and capture its share of tourism.

Traveling in El Salvador

The choice is vast and invites first to discover the mountain range marking the border with Honduras, the Sierra Madre which carries high its front (El Pital, 2 730 m). Then, the central plateau, the Meseta, will reveal its charms. The volcanoes, active or not, form another hilly chain (San Miguel, Santa Ana, Tepaca, Izalco, Colchagua, San Vicente, etc.). Traveling in El Salvador is usually very exciting.

The Lempa, a long river that crosses the surrounding countries, ends its way in El Salvador and fills an artificial lake in Ceroon Grande. To all these beauties are added some natural lakes (Ilopango, Güija). The Cerro Verde National Park includes both a lake (Coatepeque) and a volcano (Cerro Verde). As for its beaches offer an active stay to the athletes, surfers are welcome, or soft idleness to the others. The Costa del Sol is best known for its well-developed tourist complexes.

San Salvador, beautiful capital city

Not to be forgotten is the San Salvador beautiful capital city with all modern conveniences (hotels, shopping centers, museums, varied architecture, parks) the town of “fabrics,” San Sebastian, in the city’s vicinity. San Sebastián, around the lake Ilopango, or the region of San Andrés, is strongly marked by its Mayan past.

The country has a tropical climate and remains hot all year round. The humidity is high between May and September but beware of hurricanes between June and November. One last piece of information for tourists looking for a real adventure: the international airport is located in San Salvador.

When arriving in El Salvador you will need to adjust the time on your watch. El Salvador uses Central Standard Time (CST), UTC -6, the same UTC offset all year.

Safe places to visit in El Salvador 

There are many safe places to visit in El Salvador. I tried to avoid cities and see as many places outside of them as possible. It was a very thoughtful decision. 

Lac Coatepeque

A stunning blue pool nestled beneath the peaks of the Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Santa Ana volcanoes and bordered by sloping sugar and coffee plantations. Lake Coatepeque is one of El Salvador’s most enchanting natural attractions, located at the edge of Cerro Verde National Park. It is nearly 6 km long. It is the largest lake in the country, formed in the crater of an ancient volcano more than 50,000 years ago, and home to a colorful population of catfish, guapote, and zebrafish.

A tranquil vacation destination for locals and travelers alike the most popular activities at Lake Coatepeque are swimming and water sports, with sailing, kayaking, water skiing, and scuba diving. Other highlights include the hot springs scattered along the water’s edge and the island of Teopan, once an important place of Mayan worship.

There are many safe places to visit in El Salvador. I tried to avoid cities and see as many places outside of them as possible. It was a very thoughtful decision.

Volcan Santa Ana (Volcán Ilamatepec)

Cerro Verde National Park’s star attraction is also its most threatening – Santa Ana Volcano (Volcán Ilamatepec), El Salvador’s largest and most active volcano, which last erupted in 2005 when the force of the eruption hurled car-sized rocks. For more than 1.5 km.

Climbing the 2,381-meter summit of Santa Ana is a popular challenge for hikers. This one-and-a-half-hour trail ascends from the scenic San Blas Plateau and offers spectacular views of the nearby Coatepeque caldera and Izalco volcano. From the summit, the view extends over the entire national park. Still, the otherworldly terrain atop the volcano is equally impressive, and hikers can walk around the crater rim, looking down on the four interlocking calderas and an emerald green crater lake.

Parc national du Cerro Verde

With its trio of volcanic peaks encircled by lush jungle, an extensive network of hiking trails, and the nearby crater lake of Coatepeque, Cerro Verde National Park presents some of the most stunning scenery in El Salvador.

The main pastime for visitors to Cerro Verde National Park is hiking, and its three volcanoes, Izalco, Cerro Verde, and Santa Ana, are easily accessible. The highlight is the 2,381-meter peak of Santa Ana, the highest and most active volcano in El Salvador, topped by four craters and a glistening green crater lake, but equally dazzling are the views from nearby Izalco, dubbed the “lighthouse of the Pacific” for its near-continuous 160-year eruptions.

Another highlight is the climb to the eponymous peak. Hikers climbing the now-extinct Cerro Verde volcano will find the cloud forest at the top of the mountain filled with colorful birds, including hummingbirds, jays, and emerald toucanets.

El Salvador helpful travel guide and tips how to stay safe

Parc National El Boquerón

With a trio of peaks surrounding the spectacular volcanic crater of El Boqueron, the wildflower-covered slopes of El Boquerón National Park are a scenic hiking spot, and less than a 30-minute drive from San Salvador, it is a popular choice for a day trip from the Capital.

The highlight of a visit to El Boquerón is the view of San Salvador and the distant Lake Ilopango and Izalco volcano, and there are several viewpoints to choose from. Hiking trails lead to the peaks of El Boquerón, El Jabalí, and El Picacho, the highest at 6,430 feet. It is also possible to descend into the crater itself, a 1,600-foot-deep caldera measuring about 3 miles.

Théâtre national d’El Salvador

Built between 1911 and 1917, the magnificent National Theater of El Salvador (Teatro Nacional de San Salvador) in San Salvador is not only one of the city’s main monuments but also a national monument and the oldest theater in Central America. Designed by French architect Daniel Beylard, the building is one of the Capital’s most remarkable architectural works. Its majestic neoclassical façade gives way to sumptuous French Renaissance interiors, including a large fresco by Salvadoran painter Salvador Carlos Cañas.

Today, the 650-seat theater remains the heart of the Salvadoran performing arts, hosting an ever-changing program of classical concerts, theater, folkloric music performances, and art workshops.

The archaeological site of Joya de Cerén 83

A pre-Columbian Mayan agricultural village dating back to 600 A.D. and the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in El Salvador, the impressive ruins of Joya de Cerén were discovered in 1976 and have since become one of the most visited archaeological sites in the country.

Smothered in ash during an eruption of the Laguna Caldera volcano, the buried village has been preserved in near-perfect condition, earning it the nickname “Pompeii of the Americas” and offering a unique glimpse into the life and culture of the region’s ancient Maya communities. Today, the remains of approximately 70 structures have been discovered at the site. Ten of which have been excavated and are open to the public, including warehouses, kitchens, workshops, a worship area, and a temezcal (ceremonial bath).

El Imposible National Park

The largest of El Salvador’s four national parks, El Imposible National Park, is home to one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, providing a haven for several endangered plant and animal species. It is located on one of the country’s most important historical trade routes; El Impossible is known for its treacherously steep gorge that has claimed the lives of many travelers and mules over the years.

Fortunately, since the construction of a bridge over the pass in 1968, exploration of the park has been much more accessible, and today the 3800-hectare parks are a prime location for hikers – a vast landscape of riverside mangrove forests and craggy peaks rising to heights of 1450 meters. Wildlife viewing is another popular pastime with about 250 birds in the park, including rare species such as the Great Curassow, King Vulture, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and Black-crested Eagles, as well as mountain lions, tigers, wild boars, and a wide range of butterflies.

Archaeological Park of San Andrés

Between 600 and 900 A.D., some 12,000 Maya inhabited a town in the Valle de Zapotitán dominated by a step pyramid. The grassy ruins of the pyramid and a large courtyard scientists discovered in 1977. And excavations at the site continue today.

Archaeological evidence suggests that San Andrés was a trading city and the provincial Capital. Goods from as far away as Honduras, Belize, and Mexico passed through the settlement. Residents remained in San Andrés until 1200, and by 1658, the abandoned city covered volcanic ash from El Playón, preserving many of the original structures from the site.

Today, the archaeological park includes a museum featuring pre-Hispanic and colonial eras artifacts.

Volcan Izalco

Located in El Salvador’s Cerro Verde National Park (Parque Nacional Cerro Verde), Izalco Volcano is the highest volcano in the country and the most beautiful peak in the park. It’s also one of the park’s most challenging hikes; it takes visitors an average of three hours (one way) to reach the summit at 6,404 feet (1,952 meters).

A baby compared to other Central American volcanoes, Izalco wasn’t formed until 1770 and did not stop erupting until 1966. Its violent eruptions made the volcano a natural lighthouse for sailors off the coast of El Salvador, earning it the nickname Lighthouse of the Pacific. These same eruptions also sculpted the volcano’s nearly perfect conical, moon-like, unvegetated shape, with an 820-foot (250-meter) wide crater at its summit.

San Salvador Cathedral

San Salvador’s National Cathedral may not offer the same old-world architectural charms of its European counterparts, such as ornate stonework and detailed religious statues. However, the iconic white Roman Catholic church is still a magnificent monument and a tribute to its deep spiritual roots.

It is the site of a violent massacre. Forty people were killed in a stampede at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero. That place is the iconic structure that now offers some peace and tranquility to visitors to this capital city. The white façade gives way to a colorful interior. The images of the Divine Savior and a four-columned bladcchino bless the main altar.

Travelers can spend a moment of quiet contemplation. Light a candle and admire the massive paintings. They are depicting moments in the life of Christ during a visit to the country's most famous cathedral.

Why is El Salvador dangerous? 

El Salvador has a bad reputation, which it is struggling to shake off: a legacy of the civil war, which ended more than two decades ago, and the violence between rival gangs, which generates a very high homicide rate.

However, the victims are mainly linked to criminal groups or victims of their racketeering. The risks are much lower for tourists, especially since the tourist police have taken the initiative to secure some of the most important sites. Guards will escort you, for example, to the top of the Santa Ana volcano to ensure you don’t get robbed on the way!

It would be best if you avoided unsafe neighborhoods, did not hang around in the city after dark – as everywhere in Latin America, in fact -and remained discreet in all circumstances.

For withdrawals from ATMs, do not take large sums of money and prefer shopping centers, hotels, or banks, which are safer.

El Salvador dangerous areas

In El Salvador, there are many dangerous areas that I do not recommend going to, especially tourists. On the other hand, there are also many safe places for tourists. San Salvador and Santa Ana are considered the most dangerous cities. There are also places where you can feel 100% secure. Importantly, gang violence very rarely targets tourists. Shootouts occur between rival gangs. 

Interestingly, it gets dangerous in most Latin American countries when the sun goes down. That doesn’t just apply to moving as a pedestrian. When driving a car after dark, it’s good to remember to keep your windows closed. Car hijackings are common. The mentioned attacks are possible and shared in the Capital, San Salvador, and outside the city. There have been cases of criminals following tourists from the airport to their accommodation. In case of an attack, it is better to hand over valuables than risk your life. 

Most violent crimes came from gangs like MS-13 or 18th Street Gang. After Salvadorans elected Nayib Bukele as president, the crime rate dropped nearly 60 percent in one year. The drop was also likely due to the coronavirus pandemic and numerous blockades in the streets.

Apopa 

Apopa is classified as a dangerous place. The place is a suburb of San Salvador. The gang’s Barrio 18 and MS-13 are active there. Apopa is a relatively safe place for tourists but certainly less safe than downtown El Salvador. The crime rate is still high there. That’s because of fights between rival gangs.

Sonsonate

Sonsonate is one of the most dangerous place in El Salvador. The locality has the highest homicide rate. Gang members are there and is a strategic place in the trafficking of drugs to other countries.

Ilopango

Lake Ilopango has become a popular tourist destination in recent years. Nature-filled crater lake with a volcanic caldera. Ilopango is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. This fact alone makes this place one of the most hazardous in El Salvador. Let me add that the risk of eruption is shallow. As a tourist, it is worth remembering that this place is potentially dangerous because of robberies, car thefts, and pickpockets. It is worth going there with an experienced guide who knows the area very well. 

Mexicanos

Mexicanos is a place known as a suburb of San Salvador. Locals often buy vegetables and fruits there that come in from the surrounding areas. It is not a place with many activities for tourists or accommodations. It is worth avoiding this place due to gang activity.

Izalco

Izalco is a stratovolcano located just over an hour’s drive from the capital city of El Salvador. The famous volcano is located near the Santa Ana Volcano. Tourists are very eager to visit and climb this volcano. It is equally an ideal place for all kinds of thieves. Tourists are very keen to see and climb this volcano. It is similarly a perfect place for all sorts of thieves. You will certainly be shocked when an armed bodyguard accompanies you on your climb.

Eight most beautiful beaches in El Salvador

One of the possible destinations in the Pacific Coast is El Salvador. It is less expensive than the Dominican Republic or Cuba, to be less touristy, but it has a series of gorgeous beaches. So let’s discover the eight most beautiful beaches in El Salvador. El Salvador offers tourists about 300 kilometers of beaches, and among them, there are two that experts consider the two best beaches in the world for surfing: La Paz beach and Sunzal beach.

From west to east, there are 45 beaches with warm blue waters and gentle waves, the waters of the Pacific, and on the eastern border is the Gulf of Fonseca, a site that hides the island of Meanguera, an island of beautiful nature to which you arrive by boat.

It is necessary to say that almost all the beaches of El Salvador have safe paved access and that in some, you will have to walk on the ground. There is even the Litoral highway that connects all the beaches. There are bars, restaurants, and stores to carry supplies for the picnic on the beach. Much fresh fish and seafood are sold here, a region’s specialty. But what are the best beaches in El Salvador?

El Salvador helpful travel guide and tips how to stay safe

The most beautiful beaches in El Salvador

This will be my subjective ranking of the most beautiful beaches in El Salvador.

El Sunzal Beach: It is in the top 10 for surfing but is also suitable for snorkeling, surfing, and diving. There are corals, oysters, and lobsters, and the waters are apparent in summer. Nearby is Playa del Tunco, with restaurants and a surf shop.

La Paz Beach: It is also very popular with surfers and is a very touristy place.

Beach of Metalío: It is a beach with black sand and a reasonable temperature. It is close to the port of Acajutla and enjoys dreamy sunsets. Ideal for taking good pictures.

Bocana de San Juan: It is a protected area for migratory birds. The beach is 4 km long, and the sand is light gray. There is a lot of suns, and it is a private beach.

Los Cóbanos Beach: it has white reefs and sand. It is perfect for diving, and here it is the main activity to dive between 20 and 30 meters.

Beaches of Tamarindo: Playas Negras and Las Tunas: it is an area that includes several beaches with different types of sand, the rocks form natural pools on the coast, and many boats that offer tours of the surrounding islands.

I believe that the guide to El Salvador ‘El Salvador – helpful travel guide and tips on how to stay safe’ has brought you close enough to this beautiful and surprising country. If you are going to El Salvador soon, I wish you a pleasant and successful trip. Share your impressions in the comments below.



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11 Comments

  1. I’ve never considered traveling to El Salvador before, thank you for this helpful guide! I appreciate that you’ve outlined the safe places to visit and the dangerous areas to avoid.

    1. Thank you so much for those words. I too had not considered visiting El Salvador. It turned out to be the best choice. The sites, the views, the delicious food. This is something I will remember for a long time!

  2. This is an amazing and comprehensive guide to El Salvador! I’ve been curious about visiting, but always wondered about safety. Great to know there are many safe places to visit, and amazing natural wonders to explore as well. Can’t beat visiting a country with both beautiful beaches and mountains!

  3. I had no idea El Salvador had so many volcanos! I would love to visit some of them and possibly hike there as well.

  4. For someone that hasn’t been to El Salvador, I found your tips to be very helpful especially the breakdown of the most dangerous cities like Sonsonate. It’s unfortunate such a beautiful place has to worry about that. I hope to one day visit, and see the pyramid ruins in San Andres and explore the history further. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thank you for taking the time to explain the cities that are safe and those that are dangerous. I’ve shied away from visiting El Salvador due to safety concerns. However, after reading your post and learning more about the safe areas, I am reconsidering my decision. I am interested in visiting to see the volcanoes and hiking in the national parks!

  6. This is such a comprehensive travel guide to El Salvador! I had never thought of travelling to this country, however, after reading your blog, I am adding it to my list. The beaches look incredible and the national parks are out of this world 🙂 I love your photos and video.