El Salvador is widely regarded as one of the most unsafe countries in Central and South America. It used to bear some of the highest homicide rates of the region but thanks to what the government calls a gang truce, those numbers have been drastically falling in recent years. News outlets often portray this country as a place of incredible civil unrest and huge gang violence. As a result, it is not a destination that often makes it on people’s list of places to visit or vacation. That sounds like my perfect place to check out! Before heading to El Salvador, when I mentioned I was going here most people did a double take asking either “where is that” or “why would you want to go there”. To be honest, I love going to places like this where the general consensus is a negative one often full of danger and crime to see what its really like. I’ll never be the kind of person to just accept what others tell me and perpetuate stereotypes. I’d rather go somewhere for myself and see what its really like because far too often what we or others tell us about a place is far from true. This is no more true than El Salvador.
Landing in El Salvador you can’t help but think what a beautiful country is. Green, luscious landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see. Heading out of the airport you come to a typical scene of hawkers trying to offer you an overpriced ride. Unfortunately the El Salvador international airport is some 45km outside of the capital, San Salvador so to get anywhere it can be a bit pricey. To get to the city or other nearby destinations you should expect about $20-$30.
I wasn’t eager to spend much time in the capital as I had read that it was just a large city like any other. Instead I wanted to go to some of the smaller towns and do some exploring/hiking out in the jungle and volcano’s of this gorgeous country.
I headed straight from the airport to El Tunco, a very small surf town on the coast Friday afternoon when I landed. This is a quaint little town comprised of only two streets. Here I stayed at Tunco Lodge, a great hostel in town! Actually all of the hostels I stayed at in El Salvador were incredible. This one runs about $10/night (a bit pricey I heard compared to other areas of the country) but they had a great pool that was nice and warm for swimming and overall the hostel layout was beautiful. A picture is worth a thousand words so i’ll let the one above speak for itself.
I spent the rest of Friday bumming around town, exploring the coast and walking the beach towards the next beach over, El Sunzal. You can get a lunch of Pupusas for $2 and a beer for $1 here. (not to mention the $0.5 ice cream!!!). This was such a chill little town to just unwind after a hectic morning visiting sites around Panama city and a perfect way to kick off a little mini weekend vacation!. I loved being able to go out swimming in the hostel pool at 10pm at night with the air and water still warm and then again at 5AM the next morning before getting a bus in to San Salvador.
On Saturday morning I got up early for a morning swim and some breakfast before heading out to the main road to wave down one of the buses heading to San Salvador. This morning I was going to head inland to the old colonial town of Santa Ana but to get there you have to take a bus 1 hour in to San Salvador and then get a second bus for an hour to Santa Ana. It was this morning that I came to realize why my flight here at this time of year in June was so cheap. It’s actually rainy season in Central America at this time of year! At 7AM I was standing out at the main road waiting to flag down the bus heading to San Salvador like a hitchhiker when it started down-pouring. While I forgot my rain jacket at home luckily I had enough foresight to bring a dry bag to keep all of my valuables dry!
Finally the bus came. You have to watch and read the signs in the windows to see where they are going. If you don’t know which bus to take just ask the people running the hostel. They will try to explain it in English the best they can! One of the great things about transit in El Salvador is it is heavily subsidized by the government so a bus ridge generally costs $0.3 for a bus in town to $1 for a 1-2 hour bus ride across the country! I arrived at the bus station in El Salvador but unfortunately it was a different one, several blocks from the one I needed to get to. So I got a taxi to the other terminal to save some time and caught the next bus heading to Santa Ana.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, there are two buses that go from San Salvador to Santa Ana on a regular basis. One that is an express bus going straight between towns and the other that takes a longer route with multiple stops along the way. Guess which one I ended up on? Yeah….I took the slow one. This bus costs $1 and takes about 1.5 hours to get from San Salvador to Santa Ana whereas the express bus costs $1.3, takes only 45 minutes and is considerably more comfortable. You best believe I took the express bus on the way back :). On the other hand, traveling like this is part of the true local experience. Seeing how others live and get around on a daily basis is part of the fun! These public transit buses are really just school buses from North America that are brought down here and used for public transit. I felt like I was a kid again in school taking the school bus! The trip was also made extra fun by all the looks of surprise I got as the locals boarded and saw this clueless white tourist sitting there!
Arriving in Santa Ana I made a quick stop at the hostel where i’d be staying for the next couple nights – Hostel Casa Verde. This was without a doubt one of the best hostels I have ever stayed at! The owner grew up in this house from a child and turned it in to the hostel it is today. They have worked really hard to make this feel as homey as possible and it really shows. The dorm rooms are all single beds (no bunk beds!!!) with power outlets at each bed and nice racks to put your luggage. It really is all the little things that make a huge difference when backpacking! In the main area they have a full kitchen with a ton of utensils and other amenities to cook whatever you want. There is also a nice swimming pool, courtyard, dining table area and even a living room with a flat screen and tons of movies for those who are on the road for a long time looking to just kick back and relax with some comforts of home for a change. So many people I met here all extended their stay because they loved how homey it felt.
After check-in I grabbed another bus for $0.3 and headed to the next town over called Chalchuapa to check out the Mayan ruins of El Tazumal. I actually didn’t know El Salvador had Mayan ruins so this was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately it started pouring again just as I finished wandering around the site. I headed back to Santa Ana and spent the rest of the day exploring the town. The city center has a beautiful city hall and theater. The colonial architecture is still somewhat apparent here despite the number of earthquakes and volcano’s this country has seen since those days.
I was super excited for Sunday! One of the things I wanted to do the most here is hike the Santa Ana volcano! However, being that it was rainy season this was gearing up to be a very touch and go kind of day. I got up at 6AM before the bus leaves at 7AM. There is only one bus that goes from Santa Ana to the Volcano at 7AM so if you miss it you’re out of luck or need to hire a car to take you there. This morning was pretty grey and looked like the skies would start pouring any minute. The bus ride took about 2 hours at which time we finally arrived at the starting point for the volcano hike. The hike begins at 11AM so everyone who came in their own cars or tour buses gathers at the same area and then we start the hike at 11AM. Part of the reason for this is because you are escorted up the mountain with armed guards for security purposes. I highly doubt anything would have happened without them but hey, doesn’t hurt any to give people a little more peace of mind.
There are several food stands and restrooms at the waiting area so you can have some delicious pupusas while you wait. At 11AM we all gather around for some basic rules when climbing (they are all in Spanish so of course I have no idea what they are saying but I was with a couple people I met at the hostel who helped translate for me!). The hike took about 2 hours to reach the rim of the volcano but we got super lucky in that the rain held off the entire time and the fog at the top actually cleared for a little bit so we could get a view of the turquoise lake in the middle of the volcano.
We walked around the rim for about 15 minutes when the inevitable rain finally began. At this point the guards told us to begin our descent due to the rain. We started heading back down and even luckier for us, the rain ended in about 5 minutes and it was enough to clear out the fog temporarily so we could now get a view over the entire valley below! The walk down was incredibly beautiful now that we could see everything we missed on the way up. I loved it, taking pictures of the amazing scenery and some unique plants I kept seeing along the way. Once you get back, it’s about 3:30PM. The last bus heads back to Santa Ana at ~4PM so we were just in time. We were walking back up the main road from where the trailhead ended to where we originally got dropped off in the morning. It was a rather long walk when a police truck came by. They were kind enough to stop and let us jump in the back and gave us a ride the rest of the way!
That night when we got back I had a craving for Mangoes! I went to the market where incredibly you can buy 20 mangoes for $1!!!! I couldn’t not buy them at that price. Back at the hostel that night I made some incredible Mango smoothie with these very fresh fruits! To top it off, I also went to Pupuseria Santa Lucia about 3 blocks away as everyone raved about how good their Pupusas were! At 6PM when they open for dinner you can find HUGE lines of people outside. This is the tell tale sign that they’ve got great food!
Monday morning I tool the express bus back to San Salvador where I checked out the Zona Rosa area before catching an Uber to the airport. One of my biggest takeaways from El Salvador was how incredibly nice everyone here was. I never felt unsafe at all and actually feel as or more unsafe in San Francisco sometimes. There aren’t many tourists at all in El Salvador so there is very little English here and I don’t speak Spanish but everyone I met or whenever I needed help with something were overly accommodating and friendly. It was an incredible weekend and an amazing trip! Definitely much better than expected. If ever you’re visiting Central America definitely don’t pass up the opportunity to take in this wonderful little country!