El Salvador goes on sale often. The challenge with El Salvador is the media coverage portraying it to be unsafe. While crime is definitely of concern, those who stay in the tourist areas should generally be okay. Rom Brafman, a New York Times best-selling author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and other business and psychology books, recently took advantage of a deal to El Salvador and here are his practical tips.
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When The Flight Deal featured a $250-something roundtrip fare between San Francisco and San Salvador last year, with availability for Memorial Day weekend, I figured why not explore Central America for a quick getaway with the wife? A quick Google search revealed that El Salvador has a volcano you could climb, and that was a good enough reason for me to visit. Booked.
A few months later when I googled “El Salvador” again in order to plan the trip more specifically, news articles popped up announcing that El Salvador is the new murder capital of the world. Gulp. And I’m taking my wife there? What have I done? The thing about El Salvador is that relatively few people visit there (it all started to make sense…) so information was scant. The TripAdvisor forum posts about safety reassured visitors that El Salvador is safe, that the murder rate is due in large part to gang warfare, and that tourists are not targeted. For better or for worse, we decided to visit El Salvador.
In order to play it safe, we hired a guide, Edwin Carrillo of ECTOURS. Edwin’s name came coming up as a trusted expert. We hired him more for safety than anything else. We figured that implicit in the tour arrangement is making it back to the airport alive. Normally we don’t care much for guides. At all. They talk too much, “If you look to your right, you’ll see a tree that was planted here years ago,” and intrude their presence on your vacation. But safety concerns prevailed. It turned out that we didn’t need Edwin at all when it came to safety, but hiring a guide was the best decision we made.
Getting Around El Salvador:
Bus: By far the cheapest way to travel in El Salvador is by bus. Any journey, however long, will not cost you more than a dollar or two. El Salvador is riddled with old school buses that tourists have nicknamed “chicken buses.” A large number of the people traveling to El Salvador are on a tight budget as they backpack through Central America, and taking the bus is an economical option. However, they’re time-consuming and will add hours to your journey if you want to see most of the top spots.
Car: Renting a car was our second option. Rental rates were quite reasonable and the roads in El Salvador are pristine. The only thing is that if you’re driving on your own, you may miss some of the cultural aspects of El Salvador that make it a must-do destination.
Guide: We paid $135 per day for our guide ($90 if you’re going solo), which includes entrance fees to the different places we visited. It’s not exactly cheap, but it afforded us the opportunity to relax by not worrying and also introduced us to unique aspects of El Salvador we would otherwise have missed.
El Salvador is lush. It looks and feels like Hawaii, and in a way it also reminded us of Bali in that it is tropical and very culturally rich. If you want to see beautiful beaches, head out to the Gulf side, which is a bit out of the way of most of the tourist sites; or take to the Pacific side, where the water is wavy—great for surfing or wave riding—and extremely warm. Water temperature hovers around 90 degrees year round. It’s much warmer than the waters off of Hawaii.
What to See:
San Salvador: Feel free to skip the capital. It’s not much different than most Latin American cities. If you decide to stop over, then visit the Iglesia El Rosario church and the Catedral Metropolitana. But if you’re not in El Salvador for long, I would skip them. Also in case you’re vegan, stop by the GoVegan restaurant in San Salvador. It’s interesting to see a local vegan restaurant, where the owners only speak Spanish, in a largely meat eating country.
Santa Ana Volcano: You must go there. I repeat, you must go. I’ve traveled to five continents and this ranks as one of the top sites anywhere. You can only hike as part of an organized tour, the cost is roughly $5 per person (El Salvador uses the American dollar as its currency) and tours start at 11:00 a.m. daily. You hike up the volcano through a rainforest that turns into a semi-desert landscape as you climb up. The climb is moderately difficult. If you have knee problems or if you’re really out of shape, this might be too difficult but otherwise you should be fine. A couple of police guards join the hike for protection and they’re more than willing to pose for pictures. The highlight of the hike is when you get to the top of the caldera, peer downwards, and see a breathtaking turquoise-colored sulfur pool beneath. On a clear day, you can see Lake Coatepeque (another crater) in the distance. But what’s truly amazing about the Santa Ana crater is that it has its own weather system—clouds roll up the volcano, sip into the caldera, and dissipate—all in a matter of seconds. Best to visit on weekdays as it’s less crowded.
Lake Coatepeque: It’s a nice lake in a caldera with a few restaurants/bars featuring a gorgeous view, and on rare occasions, (once every couple of years) its water turn turquoise for a few days.
Ruta de Flores: A 20-mile road that snakes through the villages of Juayua, Apaneca, and Ataco. Go here on Sunday when the markets are bustling with life. Food is very cheap but extremely good; you’ll come across new finds that you’ve never tasted before. And in El Salvador, tourists don’t get gouged. A bag of tropical fruits we had never tried before: 25 cents. A large ready-made yucca dish: 50 cents. But most amazingly, we stopped by an indigenous artisan and bought beautiful bracelets for $2, a clay vase that looks like it belongs in a museum for $8. We basically bought half the stuff the guy had. And in all the markets, we were the only gringos. We didn’t spot any other tourists.
Other things to see: If you have more time, go see the different waterfalls (you can turn that into a half-day trip), Maya ruins (not as grand as the ones in Guatemala or Mexico), and hot springs.
Seasons: The high season is from December to February when temperatures are relatively low. You can also see the flowers bloom from October to March. During spring, you may catch a few showers or thunderstorms, mainly at night, temperatures are high, but it’s also the tropical fruit season (we tried so many new tropical fruits in El Salvador that we lost track of them all). The rainy season is September-October.
Food: Although San Salvador features numerous trashy American fast food joints, you can still find local cuisine aplenty. Every one will tell you to try out the pupusas (think stuffed corn flour pancake) but you’ll strike gold with the yucca (which is a tapioca root). Fried yucca is like nothing you’ve ever tried before. Think sweet potato fries on crack. You can find it served on little food carts on the side of the streets: You get a bowl with a supersized helping of fried yucca, a cabbage slaw, salsa, pork (optional), and tortilla chips for 50 cents. I was so excited that I ordered four and gained 5 pounds on the spot. So worth it. Also try boiled yucca. It has a warm, soft taste. Delicious, for the same 50 cents price.
If you’re traveling in the spring, you must try the tropical fruits. Some of them are an acquired taste but it adds to the exotic feel of the trip. Who knew that cashew nuts come with a fruit? Do not bite into the raw cashew, but the fruit has a pungent strong flavor. There’s another gray fruit that tastes like sweet potato with chocolate on the inside. And there are many others. We also found a place in Ataco that served tropical flavored sorbets: Six flavors, all locally made, for 50 cents a scoop.
Like any other place, El Salvador has its good parts and dangerous parts. Unfortunately, gang warfare happens in low-income neighborhoods and many innocent victims are caught in the middle. But your travels in El Salvador will not take you to those places. Aside from gangs, there is a small risk of being robbed if you’re alone in the countryside, so make sure that if you go on hikes or off the pain path, you take a guide with you.
About The Author:
Rom Brafman is a New York Times bestselling author of Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior and other business and psychology books. In his free time, he acts as travel agent for his gorgeous wife, Josyn, as they travel the world with their playful gang of Boco, Edna, and Zippy.
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