Updated: Aug 6
El Salvador has grown in popularity in the last couple of years for visitors, and for good reason! It's home to over 200 miles of coastline and hundreds of volcanoes, and there's truly something for every type of visitor to enjoy in El Salvador.
If you're planning a trip here, though, you've probably heard a lot of different things about El Salvador. In order to help you prepare for your trip, here are my tips for visiting El Salvador.
Tip 1: Safety
Salvadorans are some of the most kind and welcoming people. You'll find people very welcoming and easygoing here! Things move at a slow pace and are relaxed. Below are a few tips for staying safe and understanding the culture.
Stay alert and don't walk alone at night: While El Salvador is relatively safe right now, there are still cases where people run into trouble. Staying alert and in groups made us feel safe through Colonial San Benito and around El Tunco at night.
Stay aware of your belongings: Just like in Europe, the most common type of crime against tourists is theft. Keep an eye on your belongings. Don't put them in a back pocket, keep them in a cross-body bag, and don't set down your things without holding onto them.
Don’t underdress: El Salvador is still pretty traditional and religious, so dressing more conservatively is expected. This is less important in major tourist areas and more important in places like Ruta de Flores or outside San Salvador/El Tunco.
Do not take photos at any local religious ceremonies in El Salvador or of the people without asking. If you feel like you must, let’s say if you’re invited to a ceremony or something, always ask beforehand.
Be polite and courteous. When addressing someone, always start with a simple buenas. Also, don’t be afraid to offer a friendly greeting when sitting down next to someone. Make sure to give a formal greeting to anyone older or of a higher ranking (so Señora or Señor) and use the more formal usted rather than a simple vos.
Tip 2: Choose a "home base" for your trip
As you plan where you're going to stay, it's important to keep in mind the top things you want to do, of course, but the good news is El Salvador is a small country. It's easy to choose a home base for your trip and take day trips from there. There are all types of day trips you can take - hike a volcano, visit a coffee farm, explore a beautiful village, swim in a volcanic lake, and so much more. You'll find there are a lot of fun things to do in El Salvador.
I'd recommend staying either in San Salvador or at the beach near El Tunco in La Libertad. These two areas have plenty to do and will be easily walkable for you in the evenings after a day of exploring on any day trips you choose to take.
In San Salvador, I recommend staying in San Benito at the Barcelo. Highly walkable and a great location for heading to many popular sites on the western side of El Salvador.
In El Tunco, I'd recommend Los Farallones. Walkable to many different places and right on the beach. This is an excellent spot for your trip!
Tip 3: Get around by Uber, hiring a driver, or bus
In El Salvador, Uber is easily accessible, safe, and simple in areas like San Salvador and El Tunco. However, it can be more difficult to get an Uber outside these main areas. Make sure your phone will work so you can easily call an Uber when needed! We found that all trips were between $2-$7, with our trips ranging from a five minute to twenty minute drive.
I would recommend hiring a driver for your time in El Salvador outside these two areas, such as for day trips to Ruta de Flores or Santa Ana Volcano. We used a family friend of my husband, and it cost us about $100 a day split between four of us. This saved us so much worry, time, and effort on our trip. We were able to do everything we wanted and more, along with discovering places that we didn't even know about! You can find recommendations for local guides here.
The old school buses, known by many as the “chicken buses” are very cheap and always available. You can spend between 40 cents to 2 dollars. However, it takes lots of time to get you to your destination. The bus has many stops on the way, and this is one of the causes of the delay. You will likely have this means of transportation as the only option when you visit any small town in the country if you don't have a driver.
Tip 4: US Dollar is the currency
The main currency used in El Salvador is USD, which you can get from ATMs throughout the country. Credit cards and debit cards are accepted in most places throughout El Salvador, but you will find that sometimes machines are not working, and you will need to be prepared to have some cash on hand at all times just in case. Having a little cash is also nice because then you can easily tip staff with a few dollars when needed.
Note: It's not recommended that you carry large amounts of cash with you. While El Salvador is relatively safe, you should be careful with how much money you have on hand especially as you make purchases.
Tip 5: ATMs
While ATMs are available throughout El Salvador, it is common for them to run out of cash. Ask your hotel or guide for help if you find you are running out, and look before you get close to not having any. It's best to stay ahead of your cash flow. We had to go to three separate ATMs before finding one that works just because they were out of cash.
Tip 6: Stay flexible with hours listed online
Google might say that something is open, you arrive, and it is, in fact, closed. Hours of operation are often off on their websites too! If there's a particular place you are wanting to visit, we found social media accounts to be the most accurate place for different destinations. I also say stay flexible because you may end up needing to change plans last minute. It's all part of the adventure.
Tip 7: Costs of Food and Drinks
When it comes to costs, it’s a travel destination of extremes. You can easily snag a bed in a nice hostel for less than $20, but you can also splurge on a beachside property for a few hundred dollars a night. Street food is still available on the cheap, and sit-down meals at a modern cafe will set you back between $5-10 USD.
You can eat well here on a budget and splurge at a much more affordable price than many other destinations too. It's all up to you and your taste buds!
Tip 8: Food to try
The pupusa is the most well-known food you have to try in El Salvador. But, there are several other dishes popular and worth a try on your trip. Some recommendations are below.
Sopa de Gallina
Tipico Salvadorean Breakfast
Tamarindo (Fresh Fruit Juice)
Refresca de Insalada (Fresh Fruit Juice)
Tip 9: Tipping
Most places include a 10% tip, but it's always good to have a few extra dollars in cash if you'd like to give more than the included price or share a tip with additional people.
You'll find Salvadoreans very hospitable and welcoming. When someone helps you open a door at your hotel, carry your bags, or offers above-average service, it's always nice to give a few extra dollars!
Tip 10: Street Food
You'll see street food vendors all over El Salvador and while it is good to try the local food, you'll want to be careful of what you choose to eat. In general, our guide recommended we only eat street food that was fully cooked or fresh fruit that we could peel or was freshly peeled. We had no stomach issues with this advice and did eat Carne Asada from a street vendor. Just be careful and pay attention to food safety practices you see.
Tip 11: Prepare to speak Spanish
Many people in El Salvador do speak English, but I found it was less likely than other countries in Central/South America I've visited like Panama or Colombia. Prepare with Google Translate, practice your Spanish before your trip, and/or hire a guide who can translate for you.
Tip 12: Wifi
Lots of hostels and hotels will have reliable internet, and there are some great co-working spaces in major cities if you want to get some work done. Generally though, wifi is a little bit slower here. You can get the SIM card from Digicel, and you might have to rely on that for video calls (get a video chat app on your phone rather than using your laptop or tablet). If you have T-Mobile, your phone will work as long as you have the correct plan without needing to pay anything extra.
Tip 13: Drinking water
Although if you’re in San Salvador, the capital city, chances are the water coming out of your tap is okay to drink, although it can taste pretty chlorinated. Outside of the city, avoid drinking the tap water.
Lots of people, though, use well water in El Salvador, accessing groundwater, and this should also be avoided. As you might not be sure where your water is coming from, you should stick with bottled water or a decent filtration system, like most Salvadorans do.
Tip 14: Understanding the past is important
Due to El Salvador's past and nearby countries being popular tourist spots, it is not overly touristy there. Most people consider it to be the least touristic country in Central America. As a result, tourism infrastructure is lacking in many places. It's easy to get a local experience there and immerse yourself in the culture.
El Salvador has a tumultuous past. It was colonized by both the Spanish and the Portuguese at different points in the 1800s, with many tribes being torn from their lands. In the 1980s, a civil war began and lasted until 1992. During this time, gangs also became prevalent in El Salvador as well.
With all that said, things are rapidly changing in El Salvador, and you'll hear people talk about the lack of crime and the uptick in safety within the country. Many of the tourists you see will be American or Canadian Salvadorans who are returning for the first time since their childhood. The rifts in society caused by the civil war are still very relevant today, and it’s also worth looking into Salvadoran migration to and from the United States before your visit.
I hope these tips prepare you for your trip to El Salvador and that you are more excited than ever about your trip!