Now El Salvador isn’t exactly a top tourist destination, which is such a shame considering this country’s wealth of natural beauty, quaint colonial towns, and incredibly friendly locals. ❤
As such, I’ve come up with THREE off-beaten-path places worth checking out in El Salvador:
1. La Ruta de las Flores
2. Cerro Verde National Park
3. San Salvador
How to Visit La Ruta de las Flores and Cerro Verde National Park
To visit the first two places on my list, I chose to make my home base in the stunning colonial city of Santa Ana.
Santa Ana has one of the most beautiful central plazas in Central America. Both the Gothic cathedral and the renaissance theater of Santa Ana are truly a sight to behold.
As well, from the city of Santa Ana, I could easily make day trips to the Ruta de las Flores and Cerro Verde National Park.
Getting Around in El Salvador:
To travel from Santa Ana, and to travel in El Salvador in general, I took chicken buses. These are basically old American school buses that have been pimped out with colored paint and decorations, and now serve as the main public transport in Central America. Overall, chicken buses are cheap, fast, and easy for navigation. I mean, the destination is written in bold on the front of the bus! 😀
Where to Stay in Santa Ana:
Now I have stayed in many hostels before, and I have to say that Hostel Casa Verde is one of the best! Not only is Carlos, the owner, incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, he has designed this hostel with the backpacker’s needs at heart. The rooms are spotless, the lockers have outlets inside for charging, the beds have personal fans, and each guest has their own rack to hang their belongings. As well, the full kitchen has free coffee and spices for use, plus an array of beverages and snacks for purchase. If that weren’t enough, they have a rooftop terrace, an indoor pool, fast WiFi, free purified water, and hundreds of DVDs to watch in their common room. This place was a dream! ❤
Cost: 11 USD/night
1. Cerro Verde National Park
The Cerro Verde National Park is home to three of the country’s most impressive volcanoes: Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Santa Ana. I chose to climb Santa Ana, since it’s the country’s highest volcano, and offer spectacular views of its neon-green crater lake. To get to Cerro Verde from Santa Ana (my home base), I took the local bus #248, which took 1.5 hours and cost 90 cents.
Fun fact on currency: USD is the official currency in El Salvador; however, I’ve noticed they also use uncirculated dollar coins. Check out these John Adams $1 coins! I chose to climb Santa Ana with a guided tour, which cost 1 USD and is recommended for overall safety. I had an hour to kill before my tour, so I decided to wander the botanical garden at the Cerro Verde National Park.
Anyway, when the tour finally began, about 30 locals gathered around our hunky guide, and we began our 2-hour hike to the summit. 😛
After about halfway through, it started to rain, and it seemed like I was the only one with rain gear (i.e. my purple umbrella). Some women were even wearing high heels! Anyway, despite being sopping wet, everyone continued to follow the rocky path to the summit. I was a little worried about visibility with the rain clouds, but luckily the path was painted with bright yellow paint. Although it rained during our ascent, we were so fortunate that when we reached the summit, the clouds cleared and the rain suddenly stopped. We had perfect views of Santa Ana!We even had great views of the surrounding mountains and Lago de Coatepeque, a volcanic lake, said to be one of the most beautiful in the world.
I also took in the beautiful local vegetation around me.
Now as I looked into the crater, I could see the water bubbling and smell the volcanic gases (i.e. sulfer).
What was so interesting to me though, was the powerful geothermal energy generated from the volcano. It even caused my hair to stand straight up! Check it out in this video! 😀
Anyway, at the summit, everyone sat down along the crater to enjoy a self-packed lunch.
That’s when I started chatting with some Dutch travelers and a local El Salvadorian, who became my new travel buddies during the descent.
Cost: 3 USD park entry, 6 USD volcano entry, 1 USD guide fee, and $1.40 for bus transport (Another option for hiking would be Ilamatepec)
2. La Ruta de las Flores
La Ruta de las Flores (The Route of the Flowers) is a series of five charming villages in northern El Salvador, home to colonial architecture, regional cuisine, and fascinating indigenous traditions. The allure of this route is to slow down your pace, and enjoy the local culture of this area, in a naturally beautiful place.
Of the five major towns on this route, I chose to visit Juayúa, which is well-known for their weekly Feria Gastronómica, or food festival.
To get to Juayúa from Santa Ana (my home base), I took bus #238, which took one hour and cost 70 cents. I was lucky to get a seat, since the bus was packed with people standing in the aisles. I think that’s why they’re called chicken buses, since people are packed in there like animals. Hah! As well, during the ride, many people came on the bus to sell items, offering everything from fresh fruit and pizza slices, to notebooks and zip lock bags full of marshmallows. One guy even came on to preach Bible verses. It was such a lively affair, and yet, the guy standing next to me managed to dose off while standing up! What?!
Anyway, I arrived in town quite early, so I took a stroll through the streets and made my way to visit the nearby waterfalls.
Anyway, that walk worked up an appetite, so I headed back to main square of town to check out the local food fair.
The main square of Juayúa is quite charming, with very family-friendly vibe.
They even had rides for kids. 😀
I also found the street art in town quite lovely and colorful. The street poles are covered in designs of tropical birds and plants, and even the public restrooms were painted in vibrant colors.
As for the food, I spotted lots of options, like plantain chips and fresh juices.
They also had main meals, like grilled meats and seafood, served with rice and fresh vegetables. To serve alongside, I saw this crazy pineapple drink that was mixed with rum, then topped with Worcestershire sauce and chili. Definitely a sweet and spicy combination! Heck, I even saw this local fruit called inga. This gigantic green pod is full of sweet white flesh, with a tropical taste of pineapple and raspberry. It’s been nicknamed the “ice cream bean” for its sweet and creamy consistency, but also nicknamed “Hulk’s penis” for obvious reasons. Hah! 😛
Personally, I wanted to try a regional staple, the pupusa. I visited a local restaurant, Pupuseria Sugey, and checked out their menu, which included a variety of fillings.
I opted for papelillo, a green leafy plant, that is mashed with cheese, stuffed inside a corn dough, and cooked on the grill.
The end result is a greasy and delicious El Salvadorian grilled cheese, that you can top with pickled vegetables and a spicy sauce.Here’s a short video of the cook making the pupusas. Hope you enjoy! (Sorry, no smell-o-vision) 😛
3. San Salvador
San Salvador is the country’s capital city, which may have a bad reputation in the media, but is actually home to many hidden gems.
I’ll admit, on my first day there, I kind of hibernated at the hostel, playing with the hostel’s dog, unsure about how secure it was to walk and see the city’s sights.
That being said, if I wouldn’t have ventured out, I never would have found places like this! 😮
Sights in San Salvador: MARTE
The first place I turned was MARTE, the museum of art, which uses art as a way to outline the history of El Salvador, including pieces which show the devastating effects of their civil war.
I couldn’t take photos inside, but here is a contemporary sculpture near the entrance.
Cost: 1.50 USD
Sights in San Salvador: El Arbol de Dios
Fernando Llort is an internationally recognized local artist, who has created beautiful and colorful, two-dimensional art pieces, which exhibit the beauty of rural El Salvador. The inspiration for his pieces came during the Salvadorian Civil War, when Llort fled to the small rural village of La Palma, to enjoy the simple life in the mountains, and escape the realities of his warn-torn country. Many of his designs include animals, nature, and village life in El Salvador. His larger message; however, has been the importance of community in his country. In fact, not only did Llort paint artwork in La Palma, he taught the whole community to paint as well. Now, the village of La Palma draws visitors internationally, to see the community’s beautiful artwork spread across the town.
Although I wasn’t able to see the art in La Palma, I did visit El Arbol de Dios, Llort’s gallery in San Salvador. I loved trying to teach this cute old security guard at the gallery how to use my camera. I think he did a nice job. 🙂Anyway, the gallery showcases a few art pieces, which are painted on both wood and ceramics. The gallery also has a large amount of souvenirs for sale. I opted for a small pendant for my necklace. Cost: 1 USD for the pendant, FREE entry to the gallery
Now after all that walking and art-viewing, I felt I deserved an iced cold beer, so I headed to a local microbrewery.
Sights in San Salvador: Cadejo Brewing Company
This place had six beers on tap, and I opted to try the Popol Brew, a cream ale, brewed with local maize(corn).The beer was light and well-balanced, and I found the brewery house had a very inviting atmosphere. They also offer tours of their brewery, have a full restaurant on-site, and they’re even pet friendly! ❤
Cost: 1 USD per beer sample
Overall safety in San Salvador: Similar to any major city, there are both good and bad neighborhoods in San Salvador. Personally, I enjoyed the neighborhood of Escalón and San Benito, which has lots of restaurants, cafes, and upscale homes. This is also near to where I stayed, at Hostel Cumbre Volcan (7 USD /night).
In contrast, the historic center of town is quite impoverished and dilapidated. Basically, make smart decisions with where you go and when. Don’t travel at night, and watch your belongings in crowded areas.
Anyway, these are just a few sites in a country filled with countless charming villages, miles of Pacific coastline, and hundreds of acres of unadulterated forest. I hope you enjoyed this snippet of El Salvador, and it inspires you to see what else the country has to offer! 😀
Up next, I’m visiting the country of Honduras, to see more off-the-beaten-path attractions. Stay tuned to hear all about it. Until then. 🙂