Tiny El Salvador is one of Central America’s hidden gems. Once considered dangerous for tourists, this up-and-coming destination is perfect for off-the-beaten-path experiences, from surfing and hiking volcanoes to exploring Mayan sites and colonial architecture.—Teddy Minford
Although El Salvador doesn’t have the famed Mayan sites of the Yucatán, Guatemala, or Honduras, the sites here are still fascinating and beautiful places to explore. Beyond stone pyramids, El Salvador is home to Joya de Cerén, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is a perfectly preserved Mayan town that was covered in volcanic ash and buried. Only a few of the structures have been excavated, but the site is an archaeological gold mine that gives visitors a peek into the mysterious daily life of the Mayan people.
You can’t leave El Salvador without eating a pupusa, and you’d have to try pretty hard to avoid them. Pupusas are served everywhere, and you’ll find a pupusa stand in every town. Corn dough (like the kind used for tortillas) is wrapped around a filling of beans, cheese, meat, or all three together. The ball is flattened into a thick pancake and grilled; the result is like a quesadilla on steroids—ooey, gooey, and delicious, with the right amount of burnt cheese on the outside. This is the ultimate comfort food. It’s usually topped with hot sauce and you can eat it with your hands as you walk around.
As indigo became less popular after colonial times, coffee was introduced to bolster the economy. The country is filled with small and large coffee plantations, some of which are open for visits. Carmen Coffee Estate offers tours of the farms and production equipment where you’ll learn about the process of coffee production from bean to cup.
Insider Tip: When you visit a coffee plantation or purchase coffee to bring home, make sure it’s Certified Fair Trade.
There is a major earthquake about every 20 years in El Salvador, which means that most of the original colonial architecture in the country has been destroyed. There’s one town however, that has so far been spared from destruction: Suchitoto. This charming town is filled with boutique hotels, shops, and restaurants all housed in colonial buildings that are more than 200 years old.
El Salvador has a long tradition of artisan crafts, most evident in the ubiquitous painted wood carvings and woven textiles. At stores throughout the country, you’ll find beautiful handmade textiles perfect for tablecloths, napkins, shawls, or even hanging tapestries.
El Salvador is a tiny country, but there are 26 volcanoes here, a third of which are active. Many are part of national parks that welcome visitors and hikers. Just outside of San Salvador, El Boqueron Crater can be visited with a short, easy walk up to the rim, or a longer excursion navigating the whole crater. The crater is home to wildlife like white-tailed deer, exotic birds, ocelots, armadillos, and lizards. Farther from the city, Izalco is the youngest volcano in El Salvador and also welcomes visitors. At nearby Santa Ana volcano, hikers can hire a guide for a strenuous hike to a perfectly blue crater lake.
In colonial times, indigo was El Salvador’s most valuable export. Now, it’s less popular (although the country still exports indigo to denim factories), but you can learn about the tradition and take home a truly unique souvenir at an indigo dyeing workshop. Students use indigo powder to paint, soak, and rinse natural fabrics in a technique similar to tie-dyeing. The end result is a one-of-a-kind garment covered in deep blue patterns.
El Salvador is one of the most famous surfing destinations in the world, and for good reason. All along the coast you’ll find rustic little surf towns, and some of the most famous breaks can be found at Las Flores and Punta Roca. Don’t worry, though—you don’t have to be a pro surfer to get your feet wet. Even beginners can try catching a wave at El Tunco, the most popular surf town just an hour from San Salvador.
While the capital, San Salvador, is home to many luxurious Western hotel chains, the rest of the country is filled with beautiful boutique hotels ranging from modern glass structures carved into the cliffs above the beach to lovingly restored colonial haciendas like Casa Degraciela in Ataco.
The tropical climate and western location of El Salvador mean that the country has dazzlingly beautiful sunsets. After a day of exploring, sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.