Get a Taste Of Adventure Travel
In Beautiful El Salvador
It was a random decision, based mainly on cheap airfare. We had been considering a bunch of destinations, including tourist hotspots in the US and Mexico. But ultimately, when my friend Ismael and I decided to meet up and spend the long President’s Day weekend in El Salvador, we had no idea what to expect. Honestly, it ended up feeling like my first real foray into the realm of adventure travel.
But what does adventure travel actually mean? It depends on who you ask. I think for most people, the phrase tends to evoke images of moving fast and getting a good workout, whether that’s zip lining down a mountain, skiing, or white water rafting. El Salvador has many options: whether you want to hike a volcano, jet ski on a lake, or take a surfing lesson in the Pacific Ocean, this country certainly fits the bill in that regard.
However, adventure travel in my opinion is about more than just that. It also involves going to places that few tourists venture to. It might mean accepting that you won’t know what you’ll encounter after leaving the airport. There’s probably not a ton of information online, either. This is really the essence of adventure travel to me: a truly unique and immersive cultural experience without the safety net of a developed tourism infrastructure.
American readers will probably be familiar with El Salvador’s reputation as a dangerous place from which refugees flee. But what does this country actually look like on the ground? Contrary to media portrayals, it’s surprisingly similar to life in the States: there are residential neighborhoods, malls and fast food restaurants, churches and schools, and a surprisingly well-maintained system of highways. In the countryside, farmers herd cattle, grow crops, and raise chickens. And on the weekend, families flock to the beach to enjoy an afternoon of warm, sunny weather.
That’s not to say that the challenges and suffering people have endured aren’t significant; the country has faced tremendous hurdles since the civil war in the 1980s. Despite these issues and widespread poverty, life here for the average person is much more recognizable and familiar than you might think.
But instead of trying to tell you, let me show you! I think you’ll be surprised by all the beautiful things that this country the size of New Jersey has to offer! The following are some shortcuts to sections of this post:
After doing a bit of research, we realized that El Salvador’s natural beauty is the country’s best attraction. For that reason, we wanted to spend most of our time exploring the country’s impressive volcanic landscapes and sunny Pacific coastline. For our volcano hike on Saturday morning, we visited the Parque Nacional Cerro Verde. After hiking for almost five hours, we spent Saturday night at a hotel on the shores of nearby Lake Coatepeque, which had an almost unreal and dreamlike vibe to it.
On Sunday, we moved from the mountains to the ocean. El Salvador has so many beautiful beaches to choose from, many of which attract world-class surfers. We had narrowed it down to El Zonte and El Tunco, and finally chose the latter. We spent the night there, and drove the car back to the airport after a delicious beachfront breakfast to catch our flights that departed on Monday afternoon.
Thoughts on San Salvador
Since both of us arrived to the country’s main airport on the outskirts of the city on Friday evening, we spent one night in the country’s capital of San Salvador with one of Ismael’s friends from college. After a delicious homemade dinner, we went out to one of the city’s nightclubs called Jaleo at the Multiplaza Mall (sorry, parents!). The music was great, we met some other locals, and it was a lot of fun!
We rented our car the following morning, so we only spent a few waking hours in the city before driving to Santa Ana for our volcano hike. With that said, it seemed to me like the capital city didn’t really have a ton of tourist attractions. However, areas of it was nicer than I expected, and because it’s situated in a mountainous valley, it reminded me a little bit of Medellín or Monterrey.
Parque Nacional Cerro Verde
Upon arrival to this national park which features at least two volcanoes that can be hiked, we parked our car and practically sprinted down a massive hill to catch up with the group that had left a few minutes prior. If you plan to hike here, you should arrive in the morning in order to go with a tour guide and group.
The volcano we hiked was called Izalco, and it was definitely one of the toughest hikes I’ve ever done! That’s because it was almost five hours of either climbing up or down, and the only place to actually truly take a rest and level off was the summit. Since the volcano is rocky, the path isn’t sturdy and you’ll find that your feet sink into the pebbles unless you manage to step onto a large enough rock. Even then, be careful: sometimes the bigger rocks would start tumbling down, so be sure to stay alert!
I was also surprised to find smoke emanating from the summit of the volcano! We noticed a significant drop in temperature at the peak, but the smoke was hot and smelled a bit like sulfur. Don’t get too close or you’ll be burned!
A really striking thing happened on the final part of our hike. As we ascended the hill we originally ran down (and yes, the final part of the hike is a pretty grueling stretch uphill), the forest became super foggy. It wasn’t the smoke from the volcano because it didn’t have a smell, but it did make for a very interesting atmosphere as we made our way back towards the trailhead.
By the time we made it to the parking lot, we were exhausted! Luckily, they have a number of food stands as well as a cafe nearby to rest in and order a drink or snack.
When we were finally ready to leave, it was already late in the afternoon, so we drove directly to our hotel on the shores of Lake Coatepeque. This was probably my favorite spot that we visited in El Salvador. The lake is just so serene, and it’s surrounded by beautiful green mountains on all sides.
Despite our hotel being pretty close to the national park, we had to drive nearly an hour to get there because the road around the lake isn’t a complete loop. If you pick a hotel near the small Isla Teopán, know that you’ll have to drive almost completely around the lake to get to it, and the road eventually goes from paved asphalt to dirt.
However, once we made it, the view of the lake right before dusk was absolutely worth the drive! We stayed at the Equinoccio Hotel, and although it’s a brand new hotel that was lacking in a couple of things (mainly WiFi), we really enjoyed our short time here. Equinoccio can be found on Airbnb, or you can try to reserve it through a number of other booking sites.
The following morning offered some equally stunning views of the lake as the sun rose over the mountains on the opposite side.
Ismael decided to try jet-skiing here, which the hotel arranged for 60 USD per hour. He said that there were some beautiful homes along the lakefront, which took almost the full hour for him to circle.
It should be noted that if you want to enjoy the lake properly, you probably need to rent a room at one of the hotels along its shores. There are a couple of viewpoints along the way to get a panoramic view, but for better or for worse, most of the waterfront appears to be private property.
For breakfast, we went to a restaurant on the northern side of the lake called La Pampa. I think it’s a chain with locations all over the country, but their food was good and the lake view from their open-air dining room was pretty awesome under the mid-morning sun. If you don’t want to spend a night at Lake Coatepeque but still want to check it out, this might be the place to go!
After breakfast at La Pampa, we drove back towards San Salvador but turned onto the main highway south heading towards the Pacific coast. We ran into some pretty bad traffic as we got closer to El Tunco beach, which we were told was a persistent problem on the weekends. Once we finally arrived, Ismael and his friend hired an instructor for a surfing lesson. From the beach, it looked like it was pretty tough to actually get up on the board and stay there!
The most impressive thing about the beach here is that it’s all black sand due to the nearby volcanoes. The water is warm, and the whole area has a very distinct Pacific vibe.
La Comida de El Tunco
Admittedly, El Tunco does feel significantly more touristy than Lake Coatepeque. However, most visitors to this beach town appeared to be serious surfers as well as Salvadoran weekenders. With that in mind, there are a lot of restaurant choices here, and all the food we had here was pretty good. For a place with a waterfront view, consider Beto’s Restaurante. We did that for lunch of Sunday, and they have a bunch of seafood options on the menu.
For dinner, we tried a pizza and pasta place called Tunco Veloz. The pizzas they had on the menu were pretty unusual, but the two flavors we tried ended up being really good!
We wanted to eat one last meal on the water for breakfast on Monday, so we walked along the beach until we found Roca Sunzal Surf Resort, which has a rather large restaurant with tables looking out onto the beach. As you can see, the portions here are pretty big, and the food here was also pretty cheap!
I’ll also throw this side note in here, but it applies no matter where you go in El Salvador: be sure to try a pupusa, which is the most famous Salvadoran food! It’s a thick tortilla that’s most often filled with beans and cheese, but may also contain meats or other ingredients. It’s a pretty mild flavor, but they’re often served with salsa to add a bit of spice.
Where We Stayed
In El Tunco, we ended up staying in Boca Olas, a very nice hotel that was definitely on the pricier side. I think this tiny surf town probably has lodging options for all budgets (I remember seeing a sign for hostel beds going for $6 per night), but you’ll have to check and see. I imagine most of the hotels close to the water are going to be similar prices to Boca Olas, where a two bed suite cost $240 for one night.
Tips for a Smooth Trip
El Salvador is probably best suited to travelers who have made at least a few journeys to Latin America before. Because the country doesn’t see a ton of American visitors, you’ll probably want to learn at least some rudimentary Spanish to get around here. Below are some other tips for making sure all goes well during your stay:
- Visas: Americans only need a passport to board a plane to El Salvador, but once you arrive and go through customs, you will be required to purchase a tourist visa which can only be paid for in cash. The cost is $10, and you’ll receive a half-page sticker in your passport instead of a stamp.
- Currency: The official currency here is the USD. Because you’ll need to pay for the visa, you might as well withdraw money before boarding the plane if you’re coming from the States. If not, there are a number of ATMs before customs that you can use to withdraw dollars.
- Cash: Credit and debit cards aren’t widely accepted, although you’ll probably be able to use them in touristy restaurants and hotels. It’s best to have a bit of cash on you at all times to cover small expenses like meals, parking, or entrance fees to national parks. There are ATMs, but they might be scarce (e.g., we had to drive almost half an hour from our hotel on Lake Coatepeque to get to the nearest one).
- San Salvador: Safety concerns need to be taken seriously throughout the country, and this is especially true in the capital city of San Salvador. If you’re spending time here, it’s best not to be out walking around after dark, and do your research or consult a local resident about which neighborhoods are fine and which should be avoided by foreigners.
- Driving: While we encountered no problems driving a rental car between the city, the volcano, and the beach, we were aware of the possibility of issues arising while driving. We basically avoided driving after dark, and were told that if we got lost or the car broke down, it was best to immediately contact law enforcement for assistance (911).
- Taxis: If you’re not going to be renting a car or using a hotel-arranged shuttle, we were advised to take taxis with the Acacya company label, especially from the airport. As in all places, exercise caution and stay alert whenever taking any taxi.
- Solo Travel: Although I am a huge fan and proponent of solo travel, it seemed to me like El Salvador is a place that’s best visited with others.
I have to admit that before arriving in El Salvador, I was pretty worried that we’d encounter some safety issues during our visit. However, I was so glad that everything went smoothly and that we took the risk and saw a few gorgeous spots in this small yet stunning country. I’m hoping to return someday to see some additional volcanoes, especially because we only saw the western half of the country during this short trip.
Have I convinced you to consider El Salvador for your next trip? If not, I’m at least hoping this post has provided an additional, fresh perspective on this Central American country. If you have any questions or thoughts, be sure to leave a comment below! Thanks for reading!