El Salvador: Travel/Tourist Information Guide

The Republic of El Salvador is a country located on the isthmus of Central America. It is bordered to the north and east by Honduras, by Guatemala to the west, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The capital of El Salvador is San Salvador, also its largest city. El Salvador is the smallest and also the most densely populated nation in Central America, with an estimated population of over 6.5 million. Being the smallest country in Central America, El Salvador was fondly given the nickname “Pulgarcito de America”, or “Tom Thumb of the Americas”. It is also known as “the country with a smile” because the locals are friendly, helpful, and hospitable.

A community on top of Cerro El Pital mountain rangeBeautiful and tranquil Playa Las Flores in the town of Las FloresAerial view of the capital--San Salvador CityThe main pyramid of La Acropolis complex in the Mayan ruins of San AndrésMoncagua hot springs caveA colorful bus on the San Salvador highwayA glimpse of typical San Salvador community lifeSunzal Point Beach in El Sunzal--one of El Salvador's surfing meccas

The country is divided into 14 departments under three regions. The Western El Salvador region comprises of Ahuachapán, Santa Ana, and Sonsonate. Central El Salvador comprises of Cabañas, Chalatenango, Cuscatlán, La Paz, La Libertad, San Salvador, and San Vicente. Eastern El Salvador comprises of La Unión, Morazán, San Miguel, and Usulután. The capital, San Salvador is in the Western region. The terrain is mostly mountainous with central plateaus and coastal plains. The mountains and the central plateaus combined are known as the highlands and cover 85% of the country. The coastal plains are known as the Pacific lowlands. Despite its small size, El Salvador is home to over 300 rivers, 25 volcanoes, 14 lakes, and 3 big cities. The country has had a long history of destructive volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The last destructive volcanic eruption in El Salvador was in 2005, when the Santa Ana Volcano spewed hot mud and rocks, plus a cloud of ash. It caused damage to nearby villages and killed two people. The highest point in the country is Cerro El Pital at 2,730 m (8,956.70 ft), and the lowest point is the Pacific Ocean at 0 m. El Salvador is similar in shape and size to the U.S. State of California.

El Salvador has a tropical climate and two distinct seasons: wet and dry. The dry season, which is called verano, or summer by the locals, spans from November to April. The rainy season, or invierno (winter), is from May to October. During this time, heavy afternoon thunderstorms are common, with the occasional hurricane forming from the Pacific. Mean temperatures vary from 21°C/69.8°F to 34°C/93.2°F. The temperature rarely goes below 19°C/66.2°F or above 36°C/96.8°F. It is consistently hot in the lowlands and more temperate from the central plateaus to the mountains. The coldest part of the country is Cerro El Pital, which experiences snow both during winter and summer. The hottest month is May and the coldest month is December. The best time to visit El Salvador is at the beginning of the dry season, most preferably December. This is when the rainy season has just ended, the landscape is still very green, and the air is fresh and clean.

The capital of San Salvador is a bustling cosmopolitan city with plenty of modern shopping malls and supermarkets, upscale retail stores, trendy bars and nightclubs, and good restaurants highlighting the best of the country’s fresh seafood. The countryside offers breathtaking views and eco-tourism activities like volcano hiking, trekking, lake tours, wildlife viewing, colonial town tours, and community visits. The city of San Miguel in the Eastern region in particular, is known for offering tourists a more authentic way of savoring the Salvadoran countryside with its more laidback, rustic, and less cosmopolitan environment. Lush greenery and beautiful, secluded beaches like Playa El Esteron, are scattered all over the country. El Salvador currently has a reputation for being one of the best destinations for surfing. Tourists from all over the world seek the surfing meccas of El Cuco, El Sunzal, El Zonte, and La Libertad, which is near San Salvador. Other water activities tourists go for include diving, jet skiing, parasailing, snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, tubing, wake boarding, and water skiing.

El Salvador is also known for its rich biodiversity. There are estimated to be 100 butterfly species, 800 tree and marine species, 500 bird species, and 400 bird species in the country alone. Of the eight sea turtle species in the world, four make their home on the Salvadoran coast. Because of this, the country is fast becoming a tourism hotspot in Central America.

It was the Spanish Conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, who named El Salvador after Jesus Christ, “The Savior”. More than 86% of the population consists mainly of mestizos of indigenous American and European descent. Of the remaining population, 12.7% are white and 1% with full indigenous origins. Spanish is the official language of El Salvador, and is spoken by almost everyone, even indigenous peoples with their own native language. Many Salvadorans are also bilingual, speaking in Spanish and English. Around 1% of the population speak Pipil or Nahuat, a variety of Aztec language spoken by the Pipils—a group of indigenous people living in western El Salvador, which they call Cuzcatlan. Half of the population in El Salvador is Roman Catholic. More than 30% are with various Evangelical denominations, almost 20% do not identify with any religious group, and the remaining 3% affiliate themselves with other religions.

The U.S. Dollar has been the country’s official currency since 2001. It’s recommended to carry smaller dollar bills like $1, $5, $10, or $20 dollar bills since most businesses, retail establishments, and stores prefer accepting these rather than $50 or $100 bills. If you need to exchange your bills to lower denominations, have them exchanged in a bank.

Salvadoran culture is predominantly mestizo—having both Native American and European Spanish influences. The mestizo population emerged due to the intermarrying between Native American population and European settlers. The Catholic Church is a huge part of Salvadoran life and culture. Various fiestas are celebrated all over the country, the most popular one being Fiestas de agosto—a week-long festival in honor of the patron saint of San Salvador, El Salvador del Mundo (Jesus Christ the Savior).

Typical Salvadoran fare includes rice, beans, and seafood, especially for those who live near the coast. The most common traditional dish is Pupusa—a round, handmade corn tortilla filled with quesillo—soft Salvadoran cheese like mozarella, chicharrón—fried pork rinds, refried beans, or queso con loroco—cheese mixed with an edible native vine flower bud. Like other Central American countries, Salvadorans are fond of eating fried plantains. Plantains are served a number of ways and usually with beans, sour cream, cheese, or eggs. When staying near the coast, the cóctel de conchas is a must-try dish. It’s a mixture of fresh black clams, chilies, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime juice in a spicy black sauce. Another popular local dish is yucca frita—deep fried cassava root served with pork rinds with pescaditas—fried baby sardines, and curtido—a combination of pickled cabbage, carrot, and onion. A common condiment used in many Salvadoran dishes is alguashte, which is made from dried, ground pepitas. Maria Luisa and Pastel de trés leches are common desserts in the country. Maria Luisa is a layered cake soaked in orange marmalade and sprinkled with icing sugar on top, while Pastel de trés leches is a chiffon cake made with three types of milk: condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream. Popular drinks in El Salvador include horchata—made from ground morro seeds added to milk or water, cebada—a sweet and refreshing pink barley drink, and kolachampan—a carbonated drink flavored with sugar cane. Ensalada is a drink made with natural fruit juices like arrayan, chirimoya, jocote, granadilla de moco, guava, and marañon. Try local fruits like hicaco, jocotes, marañon japones, nance, paterna, red or yellow almendras, salvadoreinas, and green mango slices sprinkled with ground pumpkin seed, salt, and lime juice.

El Salvador has had a tumultuous history fraught with violence and civil war. According to statistics from the U.S. State Department, the city of San Salvador and the whole country in general have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Crime and violence are mostly gang-related, and robbery is common. As with any other country, avoid entering areas that do not look safe. Do not walk the streets alone at night. As much as possible, avoid wearing eye-catching, expensive jewelry when exploring the city, and keep your gadgets secured inside your bag when out in public places. Despite ongoing rapid industrialization, the country still continues to struggle with issues of poverty, inequality, and crime.

If you are not used to eating street food, try popular Salvadoran dishes in reputable restaurants in the city instead. The same goes with iced drinks. This is to avoid food poisoning or acquiring amoebiasis. To be on the safe side, it is recommended to bring bottled water with you especially when you’re touring the countryside or the coast, rather than consuming water from the tap. When touring archeological sites or traveling to the countryside, make sure to bring a first-aid kit and mosquito repellant with you. Dengue fever is a risk and one can only prevent it by applying mosquito repellant. 

Getting around El Salvador

Common forms of transportation in El Salvador are via train and bus. Taxis and rental cars are readily available.