My girlfriend and I visited El Salvador in March, lured by the cheap airfare and the promise of unparalleled hipster credibility. If you’re looking to visit a country unspoiled by professional foreign tourism businesses, we highly recommend visiting. Below are ten things we wish we’d known before we went.
Despite government warnings to the contrary, we didn’t feel unsafe. The State Department makes a strong case that El Salvador is not a safe place to travel. We lost sleep over these warnings before we left. However, we never felt unsafe our whole time El Salvador. You can even make an argument that El Salvador, in the areas of the country where they have invested in security, is actually more safe than other countries because of the heavy security presence.
At one hostel, we did hear that a few tourists had been robbed in the last few months while hiking alone, but you can hire a guide for literally $2.50 a person or get a tourism police officer to accompany you for free. We read the local papers while we were there, and there were over 30 murders in the country while we were there – but we didn’t even hear a gunshot. One local also told us that some gangs demand “rent” from local business owners, but even if that’s true it didn’t affect us as tourists. The state department warning also talks about extortion and kidnapping, but we didn’t experience any of this, and our impression was again that it primarily was targeted at locals when it even occurs. We came away believing the Lonely Planet cliche is correct: be cautious and you risk of any crime is very low.
- You definitely need to speak Spanish, but not that much. I got to level 10 on Duolingo in the months leading up to the trip, and I was able to communicate most of what we wanted to do without much trouble. We met maybe four English speakers the whole time, so you definitely need at least a little Spanish. But aqui, alli, esto, eso, cuanto cuesta, la quenta, por favor, gracias, esta bien, disculpe, and vamos will get you through a surprising number of situations. The key is to accept that in most cases you’re not going to understand complex sentences that they say. Structure what you’re saying so they can respond in a few words that you’re more likely to understand. Also, talking on the phone, without the benefit of facial expressions and pointing, is a lot harder than talking in person.
- It really is as cheap as you’ve heard. We paid between $18 and$69 for private rooms. We regularly ate breakfast for $6 or less for the both of us, and lunch was often$11 or less for both of us. People took us on boat rides around lakes for $12. Beers were between 80 cents and two dollars. My personal favorite: a half-bottle of vodka plus limes and soda for$7 at a restaurant. A few people told us Guatemala and southeast Asia are even cheaper, but it’s still an excellent deal. A flight to Florida or Costa Rica can easily be the same price or more, and you’d spend twice as much while you’re there.
Be prepared to take public transportation, but know when to skip it to save time. The old school buses (“chicken buses”) run frequently and are super cheap (between 50 cents and $1.30 to ride), but they take forever to get to your destination because they make so many stops. Still, you should be prepared to take one because in many small towns, they are the only transportation option. You can’t even call a cab.
When cabs are available, consider taking them for short distances – especially at rush hour when the buses are fullest and make the most stops. For instance, at the end of a long travel day, we definitely wished we had paid the extra ~$20 to cab from Sonsonate to Juayua to save 30 minutes of extra travel time on a crowded bus. For very long distances between major cities (e.g. Sonsonate to San Salvador), see if there’s an especial or directo bus. It’s faster and might even have air conditioning.
- The guidebooks – and the Internet – are wrong. But that’s part of the fun! Because of the violence in El Salvador only recently stopped, it’s not nearly as well documented in foreign travel books as other nearby countries are. Many places don’t have websites, and the best book we could find on El Salvador hasn’t been updated since 2010. If you’re a compulsive Googler and Yelper, El Salvador is a great break. Read the guidebook for a general idea of a place, then show up and just walk around or ask to find the best places. It’s an adventure!
- You can get a cell phone almost anywhere. We thought we’d only be able to get one in San Salvador, but all the other towns we visited had them – and had better sales people too. Key tip: Make sure to buy enough Internet for the number of days you’ll be there, even if you won’t use all the megabytes. For instance, the 100 MB plan only lasts for two days, but the 700 MB plan lasts for seven days. I only used 100 MB, but I still had to buy the 700 MB plan because I needed the seven days.
- If pressed for time, skip San Salvador. It’s not very pretty, and the malls look like any you’d find in America. On the other hand, you’ll have a more visceral understanding of the country’s income inequality if you visit Multiplaza mall and eat at the huge Pizza Hut there after driving by slums all day.
- Juayua has the coolest collection of things to do in one place. Awesome waterfalls that you can swim under. Cool hostel with lots of friendly expatriates and a super friendly owner, Darren. Great food – from cheap pupusas all the way up to fine dining.
- El Tunco is becoming a little touristy, but it’s a great way to close out a trip. There are probably better “undiscovered” beach towns out there, but after a week in a relatively undiscovered country, it was nice to be catered to a little bit. We stayed at Tunco Lodge for $69 a night for a room with AC and a great pool. El Tunco was the first town where we saw a significant number of expatriates – although notably, almost no Americans. We surfed for$20 a person. We ate at restaurants right on the beach. The party scene didn’t quite live up to the hype, but it’s the best we found in El Salvador. Quick tip: they overcharge for water at the hotels. You can get liter bottles for $1 at many of the nearby corner stores.
- The Mexican food isn’t better than it is anywhere else outside of Mexico. Just like in America, most of the Mexican restaurants in El Salvador have giant sombreros on the walls and blare mariachi music. Also like in America, the food is nothing to get excited about. If you want great Mexican food, go to Mexico. In El Salvador, steer clear.