Ready to travel to El Salvador? In this El Salvador travel guide, I’m going to share with you everything I know about Central America’s smallest countries.
For a bit of context, when I lived in Guatemala I decided not to visit El Salvador. I’d read in a few El Salvador travel guides that it wasn’t so safe and that El Salvador could be a little volatile. So I skipped it.
Fast forward a few years later and when I was invited to visit El Salvador with a friend I didn’t hesitate. Let’s face it, if you are a reader of my blog then you will already know that I’ve made a living out of going to places ‘unsafe’ for women. And it’s never as bad as people like to make it out. I figured El Salvador would be the same.
So what is El Salvador really like? Is it safe to visit El Salvador in 2022? What about for solo travelers? And where are the best places to visit in El Salvador?
In this El Salvador travel guide, I’m going to answer all of those questions and many more. This will help you to plan for your El Salvador vacation!
Tourism in El Salvador is booming, and in my opinion, it’s only going to get better. So do yourself a favor and get planning your El Salvador vacation now to avoid the crowds.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that us travelers should be prepared for anything.
Travel insurance has always been high on my list of things to organize before I travel but now more than ever it’s at the top of my list.
I’m pretty sure we have all had travel plans messed up because of COVID and not all insurers covered this. So you need to find an insurer that covers travel disruption due to COVID-19, World Nomads, Safety Wing, or Travel Insurance Master are the ones to go for.
World Nomads is great for incidents that happen prior to your trip, so if you get sick or are unable to travel due to travel restrictions some of their policies will cover that as cancellation cover.
I also use Travel Insurance Master for some short vacation-type trips as they are cheaper than World Nomads a lot of the time.
If you are doing shorter trips or a longer backpacking trips then WorldNomads or Travel Insurance Master are the best options. If you are a digital nomad or planning travel of at least 6 months then go for SafetyWing.
El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. It is 21,041 km² in size.
El Salvador has a population of approximately 6,825,935
The El Salvador currency used to be the colón but in 2001 the US dollar was officially adopted as the primary currency in El Salvador. So if you are traveling from the USA you won’t need to worry about exchanging money. Interestingly I’ve yet to see dollar bills here, instead, they used dollar coins!
Even more interestingly in 2021, just after I returned from El Salvador they officially adopted Bitcoin as a national currency. Making it the first country in the world to do so.
The dialing code of El Salvador is +503
The water is not safe to drink from the tap inEl Salvador. You will need to buy water from the store. You can still help to control your plastic use though by buying larger bottles of water and filling up a smaller reusable water bottle.
I’m sure your first question is going to be is El Salvador open for travel right now? The answer is yes. They have a very hard lockdown in 2020, El Salvador was actually one of the first countries in Central America to close its borders. They acted fast shutting the country down and as a result, they weren’t hit too hard.
They even built a brand spanking new hospital to deal with C***D cases.
As a result of their fast action, they were able to open back up again in late September to visitors who have taken a PCR test within 72 hours of their flight departure.
They will check your PCR test before you board the plane and at border control in San Salvador airport. I was able to show them my test results on my phone, but it will save time if you can print your test results.
Without a PCR test, you will not be able to travel to El Salvador right now.
You can get the most up-to-date travel information about El Salvador travel requirements here.
As well as your negative PCR there are a few other El Salvador travel requirements you need to think about.
That’s pretty much it! Although for most people, you don’t even need a travel visa for El Salvador.
As a British passport holder, I automatically get 90 days here on entry. It’s also very easy for me to extend my stay. I can either travel to San Salvador and ask for an extension. Or I can simply hop over the border for a few days and then come back.
Looking for the best El Salvador tours to take? I’ve listed out the top tours in El Salvador to take. Click the link to learn more about the tour.
The company I recommend booking through is Tunco Life. If you scroll down a little you will see a form that you can complete to get in touch with them. Otherwise, click here to visit their website.
If you are looking for El Salvador vacation packages and are interested in taking a trip to El Salvador with me and a small group of travelers in 2022 I’ll be starting to lead small group trips to El Salvador. Click here to learn more about my small group tours to El Salvador.
If you think El Salvador is a budget travel destination, you may need to rethink your plans or add a bit on to your budget at least. I was actually quite surprised at the prices here, especially after living in Mexico for a few years. Of course, there are always ways of saving money, but it’s your food budget here that will make or break your budget.
If you want to keep costs down, eat local, sleep in dorm rooms, and take the local buses everywhere.
The thing that will likely blow your budget is going to be the food. I was really surprised at how expensive it was. Even a traditional breakfast is going to set you back $5 USD in most places. If you want to cut your burger then get a hostel with a kitchen and cook for yourself.
Backpackers Budget – $35 USD
Accommodation: $10 USD
Food: $15 USD
Activities & Transport: $10 USD
Mid Budget – $70 USD
Activities & Transport: $20
Luxury Budget – $160 USD +
Accommodation: $100 USD
Food: $80 USD
Activities & Transport: $80 USD
Let’s face it, this is probably one of the first things you googled right? “Is El Salvador safe?”
Well, the answer from me is a hard yes. Yes, El Salvador is safe to visit. I wrote a whole post about safety in El Salvador that you can read here. I go into a lot of detail about my personal experience visiting El Salvador as a woman.
Now we have gotten that out of the way, there are a few, pretty generic things you should be aware of when visiting El Salvador.
Don’t buy drugs – Seriously, it’s illegal and drug dealers are members of the gangs that you want to be avoiding. Don’t be a dumb dumb, stay away from gang friends.
Don’t leave your stuff at the beach – I’d say this is the biggest security issue tourists have in El Salvador. Because it’s so safe here, people get complacent and leave their stuff unattended at the beach. They go off for a swim or a surf, come back and SUPRISE, it’s gone.
Don’t forget to pick up your credit cards from the bar – Another common tourist issue is forgetting to get your credit card back from the bar tender. They don’t remember until they are halfway to their next location.
Leave doors unlocked – As with leaving your stuff at the beach, it’s easy to get complacent here. Especially in the more underdeveloped areas, as it is generally very safe. Just try not to get complacent. Always lock your doors and make sure you keep valuables in close sight.
Earthquakes – Yup, earthquakes are a thing here. Most are very small and you won’t evern notice them. Others are larger and you will most definitely notice them. Trust me, I was in 3 in Guatemala.
Don’t forget your insurance -Make sure your insurance covers all of the activities you plan on doing. Surfing hiking volcanos, boat trips, zip-lining, riding ATVs, etc. I strongly recommend either World Nomads if you are taking a short trip or a longer backpacking adventure. If you are nomadic then SafetyWing is who I use. You can renew each month and so long as you don’t need coverage in the USA then it’s around $34 USD a month and it includes COVID and even quarentine.
Whatever you do though make sure you have some sold travel insurance before traveling abroad. I wrote a whole post on the best backpacking insurance and you can read it here.
In Mexico I’m spoilt, so I can often turn my nose up at other countries’ food. Especially when the most beloved national dish looks a lot like an arepa (I’m sorry Colombia, I love you, but I’ve almost lost a few teeth to arepas.
Anyway, I’m glad to report that El Salvador’s food really isn’t bad! Especially if you like fish! You are never too far from the coast in El Salvador, so there is fresh fish aplenty here.
Pupusas – I was dubious at first as I’m still traumatized from bad arepas in Colombia. But Pupusas may look like arepas, but they taste sooooo much better. Personally, I loved them with fish, prawns, the Loma flower, and banana and chocolate! If you want to eat on a budget then you had best get used to eating Pupusas.
Riguas – thin patties of fresh corn cooked in banana leaves.
Yuca Frita – Kinda like super thick-cut fries made with potatoes but with yuca instead.
Elote loco – I’m not going to lie, that one’s not really for me. But people go crazy for it. Well, it is called crazy corn after all! So what’s crazy about this corn-on-the-cob treat? It basically has a lot of things put on it – mayonnaise, mustard, salsa inglesa, ketchup, and cheese.
Chocó bananos – Does this even need an explanation? It’s a banana dipped in chocolate then frozen. Don’t skip out on this one!
Nuegados – Nuegados are basically fried dough balls. It’s a bit of a take on Spanish Churros. But rather than coating them in sugar and cinnamon here, they are dipped in honey and sometimes served with a little cream.
A big staple in El Salvador foods is their selection of fruits. Here are a few that you may not find in your home country that you should really try to eat while you are in El Salvador.
Drinks in El Salvador are very similar to Mexico, it’s all about the fresh fruit juices, coco frio, and of course, Horchata! Make sure you try the horchata de coco too.
Atol de elote – This is a traditional Pre-Hispanic drink made from corn and milk. It’s especially popular with school children and adults as a late afternoon pick-me-up.
Shuco – Is the oldest traditional pre-hispanic drink you will find in El Salvador. Once again it’s another maize-based drink but this time the corn is fermented. Although you can use normal corn it’s traditional to prepare it with black or purple corn, to get the distinct flavor.
My biggest money-saving tip for El Salvador is to watch what (and where) you eat! I loved El Tunco, but honestly at $15 a meal, plus drink, plus tip. It wasn’t cheap. Set a food budget and try to stick to it. If you find money is escaping you just stick to eating Pupusas for a few days!
In fact, as a general rule if you want to save money then you need to eat local food and try and find the more local places to eat that food. As a rule, If the menu is in English, you’re probably going to pay for it!
Where possible try and stay in accommodation that includes breakfast as that will save you $5-$10 USD a day!
Travel like a local. The local buses are a lot cheaper than renting a car or taking an Uber. For example, if you want to get from the airport to El Tunco, you would need to take 2 busses and walk a fair bit, but it’s going to save you around $40 USD.
Basically, it’s going to take a bit more effort to get from A-B, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. This brings me to my next point.
Take some Spanish classes. Seriously, it’s the only way of avoiding the ‘tourist tax’. Either book a week of lessons when you first arrive, or you can learn online before you leave.
My good friends at Heart of Travel created an awesome travel Spanish course that you can sign up for here. You can do it at your own pace, and just book 121 classes as and when you need them.
Wondering what to pack for El Salvador?
I actually wrote a whole packing list that you can read by clicking here.
But if you just need a list of a few ‘must pack’ items, here they are:
Need to know how to get to El Salvador? Well, that’s really all going to depend on where you are coming from.
Most people will come one of 2 ways, by air to San Salvador airport, or by land from Guatemala, or Nicaragua (via Honduras unless you’re fancy and come on the ferry). Below I’m going to outline some information to help you get here by land and then how to get from the airport to where you need to go to next.
These are the current times and days as of June 2021. The services are still limited due to COVID restrictions. I will try to keep this updated but if you do see any errors please do contact me to let me know.
You can fly from Guatemala to El Salvador, but in all honesty, it’s not that bad on the bus and it’s going to save you a lot of hassle and money.
There are big buses from Guatemala city departing at 6 am each day from the bus terminal. The bus arrives in San Salvador at 1 pm and costs around $50 USD.
It’s the same bus that goes back to Guatemala. So if you want to travel from El Salvador to Guatemala then the bus will be at 2 pm and it gets into Guatemala City at 8 pm. Same cost.
Although it’s great that the bus goes every day, in all honesty, it’s not my favorite option. But that’s because I [personally wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the Guatemala City bus terminal that early in the morning for safety reasons. If I was traveling with someone maybe I’d feel different.
For this reason, I’d suggest getting on a shuttle from Antigua instead. the cost is around $45 USD and it’s probably not going to be as comfortable as the big busses from the city, but it is likely to be more convenient if you are already in Antigua. Right now the service is reduced due to COVID and the shuttles only depart on Tuesdays and Fridays. Hopefully, as tourism in Guatemala and El Salvador picks up this will increase.
Shuttle Wed and sat 9 am -10 am t
El Tunco to Nicaragua Leon $55 USD
City to Leon – 2 companies Tika and Transporte el sol daily
Traveling in El Salvador is really going to depend on your budget.
Personally, I think the best way to explore El Salvador is by renting a car and driving yourself. The roads are some of the best I’ve seen in Latin America. The police and people in general here are very helpful if you get lost, although you really shouldn’t as there are plenty of signs everywhere.
If you want to just travel in west El Salvador (towards Guatemala) then you will be fine with public transport.
But if you want to go check out all of the beautiful underdeveloped spots in the east of El Salvador, you will either need to rent a car or have the budget to pay a driver to take you.
Some places are easier to get to than others, for example, it’s pretty straightforward to get to Playa Las Flores from San Salvador by changing bus in San Miguel. But in other places, it could take you a full day of bus changes, and then you would still need a taxi to get to your final destination.
Uber does work in San Salvador and some of the larger towns and cities. But in the more rural areas, you are unlikely to find a driver.
Taxis are safe here too, just always make sure you fix a price before you get in and when possible find out the normal price of the ride so you know you aren’t getting totally ripped off.
TOP TIP- If you are getting a taxi in El Salvador then make sure you check the license plate of the car. All taxi plates must start with the letter A which comes from the world Alcilar – to rent. If it doesn’t have this, don’t get in it.
If you are a digital nomad like me then the number one make or break factor when trip planning is always “Is there WiFi?”.
I’m not going to lie, it’s been tricky in some places. Especially in the East of El Salvador which is much less developed than the west. Fiberoptic is becoming more of a thing, but as of 2021, most businesses haven’t yet invested.
So if you are a digital nomad planning a trip to El Salvador, then I’d recommend basing yourself in one of the nicer areas of San Salvador. There are coworking spaces starting to pop up, but they aren’t quite there yet.
El Tunco has some cafes with good WiFi, check out my guide to El Tunco here to learn more.
Wondering when the best time to visit El Salvador is?
The best time to travel to El Salvador is during the winter months from November through until February or March. Personally, I’d say aim for January or February because that’s also whale-watching season! This is why I’ll be running my group tours in January. Click here for more information.
But in reality, as the climate in El Salvador is tropical it’s warm all year round. Plus as the inland is elevated you can always find cooler spots to hang out if it gets too hot at the beach!
The only time you want to maybe try and avoid is May to October when the rains can get pretty heavy. But it’s not a deal-breaker as it doesn’t often rain for the entire day. But you may end up with some canceled plans if you aren’t lucky with the weather.
The dry season lasts from November to April.
If you want a guide to Machu Picchu written by a very adventurous adventure writer Turn Right at Machu Picchu is it. It’s a New York Times best selling travel memoir, and a pretty funny account of Mark Adams’s attempt to recreate the original expedition to Machu Picchu. The biggest problem though is his lack of experience. Although he called himself an adventure travel writer, he has spent more time writing about adventure, than actually having it. In fact, he had never even slept a night in a tent!
Conversation in The Cathedral takes place in 1950s Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odría and it’s the perfect companion if you want to gain a deeper understanding of Peru’s history.
The book is a work of fiction that weaves a complicated web of secrets and historical references. Llosa analyzes both the mental and moral mechanisms that govern power and the people behind it. Conversation in The Cathedral tackles the subject of identity and how a lack of personal freedom can forever scar a people and a nation.
In this book, José María Arguedas beautifully describes the magic of the Peruvian landscape, as well as the grimness of the social conditions in the Andes. The story follows Ernesto, a young man whose internal identity conflict reflects the larger struggle between native and Spanish cultures in Peru.
The book explores the serious and deep-rooted social issues still prevalent in Peru today while capturing the beauty of the landscapes. It’s a great read for anyone wanting to delve a little deeper.