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.
Explore an Ancient Mayan Site
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. Chalchuapa is the biggest and most interesting pyramid. It was “restored” when its presence was first made public; concrete has been poured over the stones to make it look like it did thousands of years ago. The effect is a little unsettling if you’re expecting to see a rough stone pyramid like Chichen Itza, but it’s still a fascinating site worth visiting.
Eat a Pupusa
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 from fine dining establishments to street carts, 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.
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Visit a Coffee Plantation
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 TIPWhen you visit a coffee plantation or purchase coffee to bring home, make sure it’s Certified Fair Trade.
Explore a Colonial Town
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. The tiny town is centered around the Iglesia Santa Lucía, and along the main square in front of the church, you’ll find pupusa stands, indigo shops, and restaurants.
Shop for Textiles
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. Casa de la Abuela in Suchitoto will make you wish you brought another suitcase, with handmade wooden crafts and woven textiles that will seriously delight anybody you’re buying souvenirs for.
Climb a Volcano
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. Whichever volcano you choose, make sure to hire a local guide who can lead you on the safest route.
Take an Indigo Dyeing Workshop
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 at Arte Anil. 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.
Book a Hotel
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. Sunzal Surf Company can set you up with lessons, board rentals, or yoga on the beach.
Stay in a Boutique Hotel
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 like B Boutique Hotel to lovingly restored colonial haciendas like Casa Degraciela in Ataco and Los Almendros de San Lorenzo in Suchitoto.
Explore the Architecture of San Salvador
One of the most surprising things about El Salvador is the capital city of San Salvador. This sprawling city is gorgeous—full of colonial churches, bougainvillea-draped buildings, and chic restaurants, all nestled in a dramatic volcanic valley. Places like the Iglesia El Rosario, the National Palace, and the San Salvador Cathedral show the architectural beauty of the city.
Delight Your Tastebuds at a Fancy Restaurant
In San Salvador, it’s a good idea to do some exploring, especially at meal times. The city is home to a shocking number of super-stylish restaurants catering to the chic citizens of the capital, like Oleos, Restaurante Citron, and Il Bongustaio. The one you can’t miss is Lobby, a hotel-themed (but not in a kitschy way) gastropub serving incredible steaks and seafood.
Visit the Hamptons of El Salvador
About an hour outside the city, Lake Coatepeque is a picturesque azure-blue lake in a green crater. Not only is the lake beautiful, but it’s surrounded by beautiful homes and a few resorts and restaurants. This is where wealthy Salvadoreans have second homes, and it’s plain to see why: surrounded by lush green mountains on all sides, it’s a gorgeous landscape. Stop for lunch or spend the night at Cardedeu, a resort with incredible food and one very interesting amenity: an ultra-modern concrete chapel that’s so beautiful you’ll want to plan a destination wedding here.
See the Pompeii of the Americas
Beyond stone pyramids, El Salvador is home to Joya de Cerén, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is a perfectly preserved Mayan town that was buried in volcanic ash and preserved forever—much like Pompei. 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.
Admire Concepción de Ataco
High in the mountains, Concepción de Ataco is a small town with cobblestone streets, some cafés and restaurants, and a tiny boutique hotel. But what really makes this town worth a visit is the street art: Almost every wall is covered with a colorful mural. The story goes that two artists from San Salvador moved here to open a coffee shop and crafts store called Axul. They painted a colorful cat-themed mural on the outside of the shop to draw people in and the quirky cats inspired the artists and townspeople to paint more buildings. Now, the town has turned into one of the most colorful places on earth.
Watch the Sunset
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.