El Salvador arrived like an unexpected gift. I received an invitation to come out and teach yoga by the owner of Balance Yoga Retreat, a friendly, surf-enthusiast named Adrian from the States who has called El Salvador his second home for roughly a decade. A little research before committing to the new position presented sharply contrasting views. There were adventurous travelers who experienced the many amazing things to do in El Salvador. They had fallen in love with the smallest of the Central American countries for its raw, natural beauty, hospitable locals, and rich history. Then there were those who had been fed enough statistics to write it off altogether. Can you guess which side I landed on?
The Best Things to Do in El Salvador
I decided to make my way down with an open mind and healthy curiosity and left pleasantly surprised.
After five weeks teaching yoga and traveling cross-country, my experience reconfirmed that if you play it smart, the limited number of tourists in El Salvador actually makes it an opportune time to visit.
Remember to check El Salvador travel warnings and register your trip and make sure you get travel insurance before traveling.
From the stunning coastline overlooking the Pacific Ocean, up into the mountains where iconic pastel-colored villages boast views of the volcanos there are so many things to do in El Salvador.
But I think these are the top things to see in this beautiful place on your first visit:
1. Do the Santa Ana Volcano Hike
Pictures will never do this experience justice.
The tour begins at the National Park where you get a stunning view of Izalco Volcano.
The trail for the Santa Ana Volcano hike is about a 90-minute drive from San Salvador (El Salvador’s capital city) in the Cerro Verde National Park.
You can hire guides prior to arrival or at the park’s entrance, as well as a security guard who is required to enter the trail.
There is a beautiful, scenic route that begins in the forest, leading into dry, rocky trails until you reach the summit.
At the top of Santa Ana, you can peer into an Emerald Blue lagoon.
It is a truly unique experience and a must-do in El Salvador.
2. Travel Back in Time and Visit the Mayan Ruins
Spend a day trip visiting all of the main attractions, most notably Joya de Ceren (Jewel of Ceren) which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in ’93.
The village was evacuated just before a volcanic eruption, and remains surprisingly well-intact giving you the feeling of time traveling to get a glimpse at Mayan Village life.
Organizing a guide is a great way to support the country’s slowly growing tourism industry.
Salvadorean Tours paired us up with Benjamin, who blew us away with his knowledge of history, governmental affairs, and very impressive birdwatching expertise!
3. Spoil Your Senses in Ruta De Las Flores
From the hot springs to the breathtaking mountain views to food festivals filled with the best El Salvadoran eats, la Ruta de Las Flores makes for the perfect weekend getaway.
I highly recommend a tour of one of the coffee plantations while you’re up there.
You can easily organize a shuttle from the popular coffee spot Point Break Café in El Tunco (see below) for about US $20.
There is a lovely guesthouse, Hotel Juayua, which was a great find among the simplistic accommodation options in town.
For about US $60 per night, you get a traditional breakfast, a pool with a stunning view of the mountains, a private bed and bath, and a bonfire for roasting marshmallows and mingling with fellow travelers.
4. Eat Like a Local at a Pupeseria
You definitely can’t travel to El Salvador without enjoying the local food and of course the most famous local dish – Pupusas.
These delicious stuffed corn tortillas come with a variety of fillings including beans, cheese, loroco (edible flowers), jalapeños, or meat.
They’re also served with a spicy cabbage slaw called curtido, which adds a nice, healthy crunch.
During our day at the Mayan Ruins we learned that remains preserved at Joya de Ceren show this local dish dates back as far as 2,000 years ago.
If you want to make a fun day adventure out of it, visit one of the Pupuserias in Tamanique, and then hire a local guide to help you walk off your lunch as you make your way down to the stunning waterfalls below.
5. Surf, Yoga, Eat, and Retreat in El Tunco
El Tunco is a popular hub where surfers and backpackers have been gathering for years to catch waves from sunrise until sunset.
The El Tunco yoga community is also rapidly expanding, offering studio vinyasa and restorative yoga, breathing workshops, full moon gatherings on the beach, and even teacher training.
Known as one of the best beaches in El Salvador, it’s the perfect place for surfers.
I got a very reasonable $US25 surf lesson with one of the local guys, which was fun and added value entertainment for any spectators on the beach, I’m sure.
Stay at Boca Olas Resort, El Tunco
Boca Olas Resort is situated on the beach within walking distance of Balance Yoga Retreat.
You can wake up for sunrise yoga, live within walking distance of the ocean – perfect for the surfers, and enjoy delicious, healthy meals starting at $US160 per night.
It also puts you just far enough outside of the party scene to get a good night’s sleep.
You can of course, still find suitable backpacker hostels under ten bucks per night and find yourself right in the center of the action on the beach.
Where to Eat and Drink in El Tunco
I started most days at Point Break Café where the friendly owner.
Enzo not only appreciates quality coffee, grown locally but honors the ritual of sipping slowly and enjoying good company.
Being more of a touristy town, El Tunco has a variety of dining options when you’ve had one too many pupusas (a must-try local dish noted below).
Day Café is a go-to for clean, healthy meals, as with the Pizza Shop Tunco Veloz just across the street.
For a night out, hit up the cliffside restaurant Beto’s just a short 10 min. drive from town.
5. Take a Boat Ride Along the Pacific Coastline in Costa Del Sol
With great luck, we were connected to Javier, a local El Salvadoran fisherman, whose love for his country is contagious.
Javier offers various Costa Del Sol boat trips, such as birdwatching in the mangroves and deep sea fishing.
We followed his advice to start the day at 5:30 am, with pickup at our resort, so we could catch the sunrise from the ocean coming up over the volcanos. The beautiful scenery was absolutely worth the early start.
If you have time, top off the day with horse riding down Javier’s private beach, which we now look back on as our “unicorn ride”.
The mirrored reflection of the colorful skies on the sand was like walking through watercolor.
6. Enjoy Barefoot Luxury in Las Flores
Las Flores Resort is stand out as one of the best resorts in El Salvador.
A great place if you’re looking to have a relaxing time at the beach with delicious food, yoga, surf, and spa, without the crowds, Las Flores Resort is worth every penny.
This barefoot luxury resort’s dedication to sustainability and quality service shines through in every aspect of the experience.
It may come at a slightly higher price point than the rest, but if you can swing it – I say treat yourself. It’s a nice place to relax after your days of sightseeing.
So, if you were wondering whether El Salvador is safe and worth visiting, I hope this travel guide has given you some insight into the beauty that the smallest country in Central America has in store.