El Salvador is a tiny country in Central America. I think it can sometimes be missed by travellers because it’s outshined by nearby countries like Costa Rica which have so much to offer for tourists. It is also overshadowed by a huge gang problem and a scarily high homicide rate. But for me, El Salvador was one of the most interesting and enjoyable countries in Central America.
The people we met were so warm and friendly, there’s some stunning scenery and fantastic surf beaches. I also learnt a lot during my fairly short time there. I’m always happy if I come away from a country with heaps of new knowledge!
A lot of people have asked if it is safe to travel to El Salvador. I would definitely say yes- it is safe, but precautions must be taken.
We were warned that the capital, San Salavador, is particularly dangerous and I do not think it is worth risking your safety to go there until things improve. This is where a lot of the gang violence occurs so I would avoid it for now but do check out other parts of El Salvador that I will mention in this blog.
If travelling without a tour company, do your research about neighbourhoods and towns that should be avoided and it is best not to head out late at night.
In other more touristy spots- like El Tunco for example- it’s safe to be out at night but always be careful. The violence is almost always kept between the gangs. Tourists are not their target but you definitely do not want to get caught up in anything.
El Salvador’s Gang Crime
It’s not easy to fully explain El Salavador’s gang problem in a few paragraphs but I think it is important I talk briefly about it.
Some of the worst gangs in the country were born out of the horribly violent civil war that lasted from 1979 – 1992. Many fled the country to escape the violence and hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans relocated to Los Angeles, California. Many of these refugees got involved in gang violence in LA.
In 1996 an act was passed in the US which called for deportation of “immigrants, documented or undocumented, with criminal records at the end of their jail sentences”. This took the gangs back to El Salvador but they also spread across many other countries too.
The two main rival gangs are called MS-13 and Barrio 18. They are some of, if not the most, brutal gangs in the world right now.
According to new figures produced by the Institute of Legal Medicine in El Salvador, there were 6,656 killings in the country last year. That translates into a national homicide rate of almost 116 per 100,000, more than 17 times the global average. You can see why it has earned the title of, ‘Murder Capital of the World’.
Shortly after I was in El Salvador they had a day without a single murder. This is so rare it made international news!
But do not let this put you off!
Many parts of El Salvador are now safe for tourists. In the last 20 years or so things have improved and areas are becoming more tourist friendly. Most people are of course, NOT gang members, but the gang problem affects every single person in the country which is why it is important to know about it. El Salvador has a lot more to offer so let me show you what I got up to when I was there.
A Quick Overview:
Currency: US Dollar
Transport: There are no trains in El Salvador so it’s best to use buses (About $1) or taxis ($5+). Tourist towns have shuttle bus services but these will be more expensive.
Food: Meals were really cheap in El Salvador but a little pricier for a western style meal. You can get a meal for under $5 or up to $20 in a nicer restaurant.
Accommodation: We were on a tour in El Salvador so our accommodation was pre booked but from some research I gathered that a hostel is about $5-12 and a hotel ranges from $15+. In general it is pretty cheap!
Activities: This is what I spent most of my money on! Day tours in Suchitoto and El Cuco ranged from $40-100 depending what you chose. Most national parks are only a few dollars if you are doing it independently.
My El Salvador Itinerary
We entered El Salvador from Guatemala and our first stop was Suchitoto. This is a beautiful little colonial town that has a lot to offer for tourists whether you are into nature or history. Thankfully, the town was not completely destroyed by the civil war and is largely preserved.
We opted for a couple of tours during our time there run by Suchitoto Adventure Outfitters. They’re a great tour company and they offer a bunch if different packages.
Here’s what we got up to:
Los Tercios Waterfall
At certain times of the year this is a waterfall but we were there in dry season so no water was flowing but it was still very cool to see these rock formations. Make sure you wear sturdy footwear for this one as it involves some climbing up and down the rocks.
After checking out the waterfall we got to take in some lovely views of Lake Suchitlan. Kayaking and bird watching is another optional activity (Suchitoto is also a bird migration zone with over 200 species!) but this is not something I chose to do.
The Indigo Shop
El Salvador has a long history with the production of indigo dye. The Mayans used to use it to colour their pots. In later years inhabitants of El Salvador were enslaved and forced to produce large quantities of the dye for textile producers in Europe. Today it is the main indigo producer in Latin America but there is much less demand since synthetic alternatives were created.
A little shop near the main square of Suchitoto sells natural, hand dyed products. Prices were way out of my budget so I couldn’t afford to buy anything but there were some lovely tops and dresses.
We also watched a demonstration of how the fabrics are dyed.
Learning about the Guerrillas
The civil war in El Salvador lasted 12 years and ended in 1992. Government forces fought against Guerrilla groups but it is believed that 85% of civilian deaths were committed by the governments armed forces.
Although fighting from both sides was brutal, one of the most disgusting things we learnt about was the military death squads. These death squads wiped out entire villages believed to be assisting the guerrilla efforts.
Civilians were massacred.
We visited a museum in Suchitoto where we saw shocking footage from the war of bodies lying dead in the street.
We also went on a hike through the nearby jungle to see where the Guerrilla’s used to set up campsites to hide and plan their attacks. They would spend long periods of time living in the jungle, away from their families. You are still able to see areas where the Guerrillas would cook their food with special chimneys to reduce smoke (to prevent giving away their location).
We were lucky enough to meet a real Guerrilla fighter who survived the war. He told us his story- how difficult it was living in the jungle, how he missed his family and how his brother went off to fight on the military side! He explained that he still had bits of shrapnel embedded in his body from the war.
Here in a small village near Suchitoto called Cinquera, they have part of a government helicopter shot down by Guerrilla fighters on display in the main square. They also had guns that were used to fight the military and the death squads decorating the fence.
Seeing guns was nothing new to me in Central America but this was the first time I had seen them used for decoration.
El Salavador’s recent history is very dark. This is one of the most disturbing and violent wars I have learnt about. But sadly, it is nothing new and these horrors are scattered throughout history all around the world.
If you want to learn a more about the civil war in El Salvador, I found this site summarised it well.
After learning about El Salavador’s history in Suchitoto, we moved onto the beach towns! El Tunco was our first stop- this is an incredible black sand/pebble beach. I had been to beaches with dark sand before but I had never been to one with sand this black- it almost glittered as the light caught it! You can’t really tell from my photos which is a shame.
The waves here are pretty big so it’s great for surfing. I didn’t surf but I did play around in the waves – my bikini top was full of black sand by the end of the day!
El Tunco was much more touristy than Suchitoto although still not as built up as beach towns in other parts of the world like Thailand for instance. There’s a couple of streets of shops and restaurants and it seemed like more of a party town (which isn’t really my thing).
The sunset here is possibly one of the best I have EVER seen!
I think it helps when you are on the Pacific coast. It was stunning when the sun shone through this unusual rock formation.
Chilled out beach town is the best way to describe El Cuco. We stayed in a great place called La Tortuga Verde.
This hotel has a restaurant on site and it is also a pelican and turtle sanctuary! I was so lucky that during my few days there I got to help release some tiny baby turtles into the ocean.
Releasing baby turtles
In the morning you watch one of the staff check the eggs that have hatched and are ready for release. The turtles are a little sleepy at this point so they are kept safe in a box until the evening.
That evening the turtles were released and we watched their tiny little flippers push them along the sand and into the sea. It is important they get into the ocean before dark so we had to pick up a couple to help them into the sea because the tide was going out fast.
Here’s a short video I made:
It was one of my favourite travel experiences so far!
Conchuga mountain lookout
Conchuga mountain is a half day trip from El Cuco where there is a fantastic lookout point. You can book the tour via the hotel but just be warned-this is a pretty long drive (about 2 hours if I remember correctly) and you might be travelling in the back of a pickup van (not very comfortable).
Sunset boat trip
The hotel also layed on a short sunset boat trip. This took us along the coast of El Cuco. We went for a quick swim- then struggled to get back into the boat! Pacific coast sunsets proved once again to be really beautiful!
And that was our lot! We headed to Nicaragua next by boat where the next leg of our Central American journey began.
I also want to add that although El Salvador is a very small country, I still didn’t see everything! There’s even more the country has to offer. I’d definitely consider going back.
Have you been to El Salvador? Has this blog helped you plan your trip ? Let me know in the comments!
14 thoughts on “El Salvador – Where to go, what to do & is it safe?”
Sad to hear about all the gang violence there. El Salvador looks like such a beautiful country. I love the photos of the sunset at El Tunco. I’ve never been anywhere in Central America so this was an interesting read!
Thanks ! The sunset photos aren’t even ‘re touched ! It was incredible. I’d recommend Central America as you can see a lot of countries by land since they’re all small and close together. Thank you for reading 😊
Excellent guide to El Salvador!! I appreciate your honesty. I went to Nicaragua in 2015 and I’ve been longing to go back to Central America since then. Guatemala is high on my list and you’ve made me very intrigued with El Salvador. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you 😊 Guatemala is brilliant- and cheap ! I enjoyed every country in Central America actually but Guatemala is up there as a favourite along with El Salvador. I’m glad I have intrigued you ! Haha
I loved my time in El Salvador! I wanted to visit Suchitoto, but didn’t make it out there. I did spend time in El Tunco, though. When were you there? I visited in early August last year, and it was almost unbearably hot!
Oh great ! I was there in January this year. It was pretty hot but maybe August is even hotter! I remember being sweaty all the time ! Haha
Such a Paradise… to bad for all the violence. Congrats on your brave travels, this, North Korea… really awesome!
Thanks ! I’m not sure I would describe it as paradise though! Glad you enjoyed the blog
Awesome tips and recommendations. My time in El Salvador was super short lived as I was passing through to other places more or less. I really should give more time to this country!!! It has good food too, so there’s that 😛
Thanks Megan! I would like to go back one day as I know there’s more to see. Yeah, I enjoyed the food! Belizean food was my favourite of Central America though. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on the blog 🙂
It’s weird; I’ve never been to Central America, but when I do, the one country I definitely want to visit is El Salvador 🙂 I think I’m attracted more to the civil war side of things than the beaches, mind …
Do you speak Spanish?
It’s such an interesting country. My favourite part was learning about the civil war- obviously it was horrible and I don’t want that to come across in the wrong way- but learning about these things is so eye opening and important when you visit country like El Salvador. The beaches were cool but not my favourites ever.
I don’t speak fluent Spanish but I can speak the basics.
I’m going to check out your blog in more detail because I think you like similar places to me ! Although I must admit I do like a beach too and some of the usual tourist stuff 🙂
Hi Jess, was the tour you went on called Volcano Trail through G Adventures? I think it follows the same path as the tour I have booked myself onto and have since been a bit worried about being safe going through a couple of the countries. Reading this has made me feel much better but I’d love to know how you felt about the rest of the trip? 😀
Hey Deanna, that’s not the tour I booked sorry ! I actually went on an Intrepid tour for this part of my central America trip but I know they’re very similar to G adventures. I’m glad my blog helped 🙂 I really loved my time in El Salvador and I know you’ll be in good hands on a G tour. I don’t know where else your tour goes but Nicaragua is also amazing and so is Costa Rica and Panama (they’re just a bit more pricey !) I hope you have a great time. Drop me an email if you have any more questions – firstname.lastname@example.org