El Salvador Travel Guide

Although El Salvador wasn’t on our must see list because of its bad reputation for gang violence, we had a free place to stay at the beach.  When weighing the cost of free accommodation against the likelihood we would be shot in the face, we decided our budget meant more than our safety and threw caution to the wind.  In case you think this makes us irresponsible parents, we had also heard enough good things about the natural beauty of El Salvador and the kindness of its people to give the place a chance.  In the end, despite the mattresses at our free beach house that felt like we were sleeping on hay, we were glad that we did spend time both on the Pacific Coast, which boasts some of the best surf breaks on the isthmus, and in the cooler climes of the eastern and western mountain regions.  While the first tentacles of tourism spread out along the Coast, in particular at the backpacker/surfer hot spot of Playa El Tunco, there remain many stretches of unspoiled beauty where you can lounge on volcanic beaches, watch nesting turtles, or get pounded by surf.  We were also particularly interested in exploring the northeastern part of the country with the kids which area was important to the civil war that scarred the nation in the 1990’s.  While this area was noticeably poorer than the rest of the country, the lush, wild mountainsides made for stunning vistas.  In the city of Santa Ana in the west, we stayed in one of the best hostels of our trip.  Overall, we found El Salvador easy to travel because it uses the dollar as its currency, it has well-marked and maintained roads, and the cost of accommodations, food and services didn’t bust our budget.

We crossed the border from Guatemala to El Salvador at La Hachadura. See here for information about the border crossing. 

We spent our first night in El Salvador at Costa Real, an auto hotel just a few miles from the border in a nameless town (at least, we never got the name of it.)  The cost was $14 for the night and there was no wifi. 

We easily made it to Playa El Tunco the following morning along the Carreterra Litoral, which runs the length of the country from west to east.  El Tunco is a full-on backpacker/surfer destination and there are lots of board rental options available.  There are also lots of bars/restaurants with a good mix of food options (not just beans and rice) and a range of hotel accommodations.  Though, we did not find a place in town to camp in our van (we didn’t look that hard because it was too hot.)

We stayed at Hotel Mopelia ($40/night/slow wifi), which is a stone’s throw from the beach and has a small pool and a large beer selection.  During high tide it is hard to wade into the ocean as the surf is fast and deep and it washes softball-sized rocks into your legs until you get further out. During low tide you can walk across the black sand beach and right into the water. 

We preferred the beach at Playa Mahajual, just a few miles east of El Tunco.  Playa Mahajual has a big, wide sand beach so is more kid-friendly.  It is more of a local beach with fishermen selling their catch from their boats, and several beachside bars/restaurants. 

We stayed for free with a family friend at Playa Mahajual.  There may not be other accommodations in town, but El Tunco is a short drive and there are other beaches both east and west of Mahajual where you could stay.

We spent our final night in El Salvador during our way south at Auto Hotel Marsela ($25/no wifi) in Santa Rosa de Lima, an hour west of the border crossing to Honduras at El Amatillo. There is a good grocery in Santa Rosa de Lima, but not much else.

On our second pass through El Salvador, we crossed the border from Honduras at El Amatillo again, and spent another night in Santa Rosa de Lima at Hotel Mediterraneo Inn ($55/good wifi). 

We next traveled to Perquin on the Ruta de Paz.  During the civil war this small, mountain town was headquarters for the guerrillas and there is a small museum with artifacts of the war and personal effects of “disappeared” fighters, as well as a bomb crater and reconstructed guerilla camp.  The fee for the museum and camp (paid separately) is a few dollars and at the end of it all you can ride a short zip line across the camp for $2.

There is hiking all over this area, including a short hike opposite the museum up Cerro de Perquin for views and a longish-hike to the town of El Mozote, the scene of a horrific wartime massacre by a U.S. trained army battalion.

We stayed at El Ocotal ($45/slow wifi) while in Perquin, in a pretty pine forest.  We didn’t eat at the restaurant but it is supposed to be pretty good.  The pool was nice.  There were hundreds, no thousands, of harmless but annoying flying bugs when we were there in June with paper wings that got all over our van.    

Our next stop was Santa Ana, the second largest city in El Salvador behind San Salvador. The city is quaint in that men play checkers in the park on boards painted onto the cement tables and with bottle caps for checkers, and sketchy in that the streets are mildly decayed and there is a red light district (prostitution is legal in El Salvador).

Santa Ana has a historic center with a neat main plaza (Parque Libertad) bounded by a cathedral (Catedral de Santa Ana) and the Teatro Nacional.  Santa Ana is also centrally located for natural attractions of Lago de Coatepeque, Cerro Verde forest reserve, and Santa Ana and Izalco volcanoes. Though, other guests in the hostel where we stayed were held up at machete-point when they hiked Volcano Izalco. They paid $10 to be left alone.     

Casa Verde ($52/good wifi) in Santa Ana is one of the best hostels that we stayed in.  The shared kitchen was clean and fully stocked.  There’s a nice pool, laundry services, rooftop deck, a beautiful courtyard, and the owner Carlos is super helpful.  We had some van repairs done and he was with us the entire time. There is a great market nearby for fruits and vegetables – the radishes are as big as cannonballs. Textiles and other services are also available in the market.  We had some bags sewed back together for cheap.

We exited El Salvador to Guatemala at the Chinamas-Valle Nuevo border crossing.  A good road leads there and away and it was quiet and easy.  There is not much in the way of food options on either side of the border so have your own grub.