El Salvador is the smallest and most underrated country in Central America. Due to its compact size, it is an ideal country to explore by chicken bus. However, since we were traveling with backpacks way too big for a chicken bus, we had to be smart about sorting out our itinerary. The solution? Use our San Salvador and Santa Ana hotels’ luggage storage facilities and travel only with our small day packs when using public transportation. El Salvador certainly impressed, even though it has a horrible reputation in the media. Highlights of our trip here included San Salvador’s historic center, Suchitoto, the surf town of El Tunco, Tamanique Waterfall, Juayua’s food festival and “Seven Waterfalls Hike”, climbing up to the top of Santa Ana volcano to peer down at its turquoise crater lake, and checking out the Mayan ruins at Tazumal. We had originally only planned a week here but were surprised to find that it wasn’t enough and extended it to 11 days. That only allowed us to scratch the surface though and we can definitely envision ourselves on a return trip to El Salvador to explore more of this fascinating country.
Casa de la Abuela, Suchitoto: $44 per night for an AC double, with private bathroom, WiFi, incl breakfast. This boutique hotel is the cutest! Perfect location next door to the white church on the town square, in the middle of restaurants, cafes, and the easy to walk town of Suchitoto. Staff here is friendly and helpful. We booked the studio room and although it was small, it was perfect. Breakfast is a choice of traditional Salvadoran breakfast, pancakes or toast/jam. Highly recommend staying here!
Hotel Villa Florencia Centro Historico, San Salvador: $29 per night for a fan double, with private bathroom, WiFi. The rooms next to the main street are noisy until 8 pm, bring earplugs if a light sleeper. Showers are cold water, but given San Salvador’s hot climate, it felt great. Double room is big, comes with two double beds. Staff is helpful and friendly. There is a cafeteria next door serving up cheap breakfasts ($4 for 2 meals plus drinks) and dinner ($7 for 2 meals plus drinks). We were able to leave our big bag here at luggage storage and it was not an issue. Within easy walking distance of the historical center but we were advised not to wander around after sunset (not safe). No problems at all walking the streets during the daytime.
Kali Hostal, El Tunco: $30 per night for an AC double, with WiFi, pool, incl breakfast. Nice option for staying in El Tunco. Located a few minutes walk away from the main town, this budget accommodation is adjacent to the main road. There are two entry points (one from the main road, perfect if arriving on the public bus) and the second gate provides easy access to the main town of El Tunco. Owners are a nice, young family who run a simple, clean guesthouse. Toilets and showers (cold water) are shared facilities. There is a swimming pool ($10 fee to use if you are not a guest). Breakfast is included and served whenever you want it (choice of eggs – scrambled, omelet, Benedict, or pancakes or cereal/fruit).
Hostal Casa Verde, Santa Ana: $33 for an ensuite double with fan (AC $5 extra per night). Free WiFi. Hostel facilities: two fully stocked kitchens with spice racks, swimming pool, roof terrace, hammocks, luggage storage, tours, shuttle services. Rated #1 hostel in El Salvador and now we know why since it lives up to its reputation. Carlos (owner) has worked very hard to make this a home away from home. There are only 3 rules here: no outside alcohol allowed, no visitors, and quiet after 10 pm since it is not a party hostel. Everything is spotless, showers are all hot water, and WiFi is fast and reliable. There is a handy map that the staff gives you showing the main bus stops in Santa Ana where you can take the public bus to major sights nearby (Santa Ana Volcano, Juayua, Tazumal Mayan Ruins). Book onward shuttle service here. Carlos arranged a shuttle from Santa Ana to Copan Ruins for $25 each and others wanted to charge $40 per person.
Hotel Juayua: $41 per night for an AC double, ensuite, pool, WiFi. This property is set a bit outside of town in a beautiful location, with nice views of the volcanoes. Staff is very friendly and welcoming. They organized a “Seven Waterfall Tour” (cost was $15 each for a private guide, Spanish speaking only). Our room was nicer than expected, simply but tastefully decorated. It gets cold at night here so the heavy blanket (provided) was a nice surprise. Con: No outside alcohol can be brought to the property so be aware of that.
7 Jan: Fly in to San Salvador at 1 pm on Copa 410. Pick up from airport and visit to El Boqueron volcanic crater before drop off at hotel. Private taxi is with Vladimir Ponce, cost is $75 (Whatsap: +503 7885 4460). Overnight at Hotel Villa Florencia Centro Historico in San Salvador.
8 Jan: Leave big bag in luggage storage at hotel. Take local bus from bus station “Punta de Microbuses 140” in city center. Take bus 129 full bus with AC or 140 microbus to Suchitoto. Visit Los Tercios waterfall. Overnight Suchitoto at Casa de la Abuela.
9 Jan: Bus (129 full bus or 140 microbus) from Suchitoto to San Salvador (Terminal de Oriente), get off at the last stop and walk to Terminal de Occidente. Bus 102A from San Salvador (Terminal de Occidente) to El Tunco. Stay overnight at Kali’s Hotel, cost is $60 for 2 nights incl tax, double room, AC, pool, wifi.
10 Jan: Visit Tamanique Waterfalls with Tunco Life ($15 each for 3.5 hour tour). Chill in El Tunco for the afternoon. Overnight at Kali’s Hostel.
11 Jan: Take bus 102A back to San Salvador. Walk over to “Hotel Villa Florencia Centro Historico” to stay overnight. Check out historical center (National Theater, National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral). Overnight Hotel Villa Florencia.
12 Jan: Grab big bag. Uber to Terminal Occcidente. Take bus 201 to Santa Ana. Stay overnight at Hostel Casa Verde.
13 Jan: Bus 238 (9:50 am) to Juayua. Food festival on Sunday. Stuff ourselves silly at the food stations before visiting Conception de Ataco (murals, cobblestone streets, mirador lookout) on bus 249 in the direction of “Ahuachapan” (bus leaves every 15 min, cost is 50 cents, takes 30 minutes). Return to Juayua on the same bus. Stay overnight at Hotel Juayua.
14 Jan: Half day tour of Los Chorros 7 waterfalls and pools. Take the 2 pm bus back to Santa Ana. Overnight at Hostel Casa Verde.
15 Jan: Parque National Los Volcanes hike, overnight at Hostel Casa Verde.
16 Jan: Tazumal Ruins: Catch the 218 chicken bus to Chalchuapa, overnight Hostel Casa Verde
17 Jan: 2 pm shuttle from Santa Ana to Copan Ruins, Honduras.
7 Jan: Flight was good, ate chicken sandwich and beef burrito for lunch. Immigration smooth, had to pay $10 each for a tourist card, and we were greeted with a “welcome to El Salvador” and friendly smile. Luggage was offloaded in minutes and we were happy to see Vladimir waiting for us outside. Loaded up and drove a few minutes before stopping for pupusas at a popular eatery (they have the Guinness book of world records for largest pupusa ever). Very tasty and we tried the traditional: cheese, pork and beans. Drove towards El Boqueron but unfortunately, the lighting was terrible. Worst time of the day to visit as the sun was in the wrong direction. Boo! But it was a nice view and it would have been spectacular if we had visited in the am. Vlad was a nice guy and he accompanied us on the hike as we trudged from mirador to mirador. Locals very friendly and smiling. Drove to Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo (Jesus Christ standing on the sphere of the earth) and hopped out while Vlad drove circles round and round to give us enough time to take photos. Since all our luggage (and money) was in the car with Vlad, you can imagine how much we trusted him! Dropped us off at our hotel (Villa Florencia Centro Historico) and we paid him $80 ($5 tip) and promised to leave a good review. Our room was already charged to the credit card on file, so we were shown to our room (upstairs, street side) and freshened up before dinner which was a cafeteria next door (delicious savory chicken on rice and juice and beer for $7)…we are going to like this country!
8 Jan: Woke up just after 6 am because the buses started running again (it was surprisingly quiet throughout the night). Had breakfast at the cafeteria next door which was a bargain $4 for scrambled eggs, 3 massive plantains each and coffee and hot chocolate. Finished organizing our big bags for storage and dropped them off at reception, informing them that we’d be back on 11 Jan to retrieve them. Walked over towards the bus stop and had to take photos along the way. The square next to the National Palace had a massive Christmas tree, and the square next to the Iglesia del Rosario had a massive monument and more Christmas decorations, along with a “Yo amor San Salvador” sign. The Iglesia del Rosario looks nondescript from the outside but inside, wow! Just amazing with the sunlight streaming through the colored windows, making for a really cool vista inside. Awesome! We walked over to the “Punto de Ruta 140” bus stop where buses 129 (full bus) and 140 (microbuses) were parked and waiting. Many of the 140 buses had different destinations, and the next bus leaving for Suchitoto was a 129 AC bus. Cost was $1 each and we left after a few minutes. We quickly learned the lesson of sitting on the side away from the sun and in the far back, as vendors board the bus and proceed to shout/scream whatever it is they are selling. Becky had to pull out the earplugs as it was way too loud and unbearable. The 60 minute ride was more like 100 minutes with all the stops along the way. We were dropped off right in the center of town next to Central Park and our hotel, Casa de la Abuela, was adjacent to the lovely Church of Santa Lucia. Fantastic location! Plus the boutique hotel was tastefully decorated. We were quickly checked into our room ($44 for a double bed, AC, private bathroom with hot water, and full breakfast included). Chuffed with our decision to stay here, we walked over to the tourist office where a helpful representative gave us a map and showed us all the highlights: three different mirador lookout points of Lake Suchitlan, the old theater (nothing special), Galeria de Pascal, Casa 1800 (where we stopped for horchata drinks and cheese cake & apple pie overlooking a beautiful view of the lake). We later discovered horchata is El Salvador’s national drink, known as “semilla de jicaro”, which is made from jicaro seeds ground with rice and spices like ground cocoa, cinnamon, sesame seeds, nutmeg, tiger nuts and vanilla. It was surprisingly good and we both would drink it again. Next up was an attempted visit to the casa de Alejandro Cotto but it was priced at $3 each and we weren’t that keen on paying that much to visit the house of an artist that we’d never heard of before. Very popular spot with domestic tourists though! We had just enough time to return back to the hotel, change into clothes made for sweating, grab a bottle of water and head over to the Politur (tourist police) office out of town. Apparently, every day around 3 pm, they escort tourists over to the Los Tercios waterfalls. We were linked up with a jovial policeman named Frank who insisted that we ride over instead of walking. He used his own personal vehicle to transport us, and gave us a personal guided tour. Very sweet of him and we enjoyed his company. Before leaving, we walked over to a lookout point of the lake (even better vista from here than in town) and we were more than happy to give him a small tip for his services. He acted shocked and tried several times to refuse, and we begged him to take it as gasoline money, then ice cream money or beer money. He finally begrudgingly accepted but was absolutely not expecting a single thing from us other than for us to enjoy his country. We love the people here! Back at the town square, we did a bit of shopping (Becky got a headband and a silver ring) and took photos as the sun began to set. The square began to get more lively, and tourists came out in droves. We were very surprised to see how popular Suchitoto is…it is definitely on the tourist circuit of El Salvador and for good reason. It is very picturesque, full of friendly locals and feels safe. Dinner was at “Donde Charlie” which was excellent. Charlie (the chef) whipped up a home cooked meal of steak for Robby and chicken for Becky and it was muy rico! With drinks, our total bill was $18 and it was well worth it. We had an entourage of 4 dogs escort us from the town square to the restaurant, and they tried their best to bully their way into the restaurant to eat with us, but the owner wasn’t having any of it and shooed them away. We took lovely hot water showers and got caught up with trip planning for the rest of the night.
9 Jan: Breakfast (pancakes or traditional beans and eggs) was served starting from 8 am in the cafe. Since we were keen on getting to El Tunco at a reasonable hour, we ate as soon as the cafe opened and left shortly after 9 am. Catching the return bus from Suchitoto to San Salvador was easy (129 full bus, $1) but about 4 km outside of the city, the bus driver forced us to switch buses for some reason. Not sure why but everyone jumped off immediately and we barely got seats on the new ride. It was an easy walk from the last stop for bus 129 to the bus 102 terminal (about 1 km). We only had to wait a few minutes before the bus loaded and we paid our $1.5 fare to ride straight to El Tunco. 90 minutes later, we were at Kali’s Hostel, banging on the front door facing the road. We were quickly led to our room (a quad dorm normally but sold to us as a “double”). No private bathroom as promised but there were no other guests staying here so it wasn’t a big deal to share. Lunch was at a tripadvisor recommendation, Tunco Veloz Pizzeria, and for the first time in a while, we left disappointed. How the hell did this place earn all its positive reviews? The pizza sucked and was expensive to boot. Not happy with our lunch, we wandered around sleepy El Tunco but the heat at 2 pm was a bit too much so back to the hostel for a nap. Back out by 3:30 pm and we lingered until sunset. It was spectacular, with the sky filling up with pinks, oranges and red. Dinner was at Rock and Roe, a seafood joint that was also recommended by tripadvisor. Thankfully this one lived up to its reputation, especially the fish tacos. Delicious and with drinks, our meal came out to $20 even. Deal! Back to the hostel and we arranged to have breakfast at 8 am. Took cold water showers and worked on website stuff.
10 Jan: Woke up at 7 am, had breakfast at 8:40 (took our host 40 minutes to prepare eggs Benedict so we had to rush). Over to Tunco Life by 9 am and had to wait for Salvadore to show up. We were joined by an Irish guy named John for the day. Salvadore drove us over to Tamanique where we met our guide for the day, a nice man named Melvin Salinas. He used to live in the US for the majority of his life so his English was quite good. Sweaty walk downhill to reach the waterfall but well worth the effort. The waterfalls were beautiful! Perfect for swimming in the cold water and we took tons of photos. Hiked to another nearby waterfall and then climbed up to the upper falls. Jumped into the pool from there…it wasn’t too scary. Then came the hard part, a long 35 – 40 minute slog uphill. We were drenched in sweat but did take one long rest break. Back up to the main square of Tamanique by 12:30 where Salvadore was waiting for us. Drove back to El Tunco and said thanked Salvadore for a fun day. Had lunch at a taco shack (Taco Surf) which had reasonable prices ($4 each for shrimp tacos and a shrimp enchilada). Good food and our meal was $12 total including drinks. Tried to explore the nearby caves since it was low tide but the water was already moving back in and was way too high and dangerous. So we gave up that idea and walked back to the hostel to relax. It was already 3 pm, so we only had 90 minutes to cool down in the AC. Took cold water showers and did a bit of laundry. Went back out for sunset and cocktails at Bar La Guittara before returning to Taco Surf for dinner. Should have stuck with the Mexican food (their specialty). The seafood pasta and grilled meat mains were both ok but not great, unlike our lunch meal earlier today. Lesson learned! Finished the Falkland Islands video and tried uploading it but WiFi at the hostel was really slow. Let it run all night long to see if it will finish tonight.
11 Jan: Had breakfast at 8 am (pancakes for Becky and eggs Benedict for Robby). No rush to return to San Salvador since we were going to leisurely explore the city. Caught the 9:30 am bus 102A back to the city. The minibus actually got pretty crowded so we were happy we got on at El Tunco and managed to get some seats on the shady side of the bus. Back to our hotel by 11:30 am and we were able to check into our room straight away. Retrieved our big bags and did some laundry before heading out towards the historical district. Ate lunch at Pollo Campero which was as good as advertised. We ordered Buffalo wings which were tasty…next time we’ll get the super crispy traditional chicken meal because that was what all the locals were getting. After lunch, we paid $3 each to visit the National Palace. There was a sign stating photography would cost $25 more but we took photos for free and no one said anything. The palace was really cool and well worth a visit even though 95% of the rooms were empty. Next was a visit to the Metropolitan Cathedral which had an unusual massive crown of angel faces at the front of the church. Last up was the National Theater where we just took photos from the outside. Stopped by a supermarket to get some snacks and chocolate milk before returning to the hotel. Still stuffed from lunch so we hung out in the room working on admin stuff.
12 Jan: Had breakfast at the cafeteria next door. Pancakes were yummy! Packed our bags and got an Uber to the bus station. Caught a TUDO bus (201) to Santa Ana. We were lucky and got the rear seats which had plenty of leg room for our big bag. The ride was cold with AC on full blast. Got off about 500 meters from our hostel, and we were happy to discover that we could check in right away. Mapped out what we wanted to see in Santa Ana and set out for the central market first. It was a massive corrugated sheet metal building but not as many vendors as we had expected. Walked over to the El Calvario Temple, and then to the main square where we took photos of the City Hall, National Theater and Santa Ana Cathedral. The San Lorenzo Cathedral was nearby but completely locked up so we gave it a miss and wandered around an artisan market. Loads of souvenirs but they looked cheap and mass produced in China. Walked through the main square and over to El Carmen Cathedral but it was rather plain/modern. Last stop was a wander around the ruins of the Art School before heading over to Selectos Supermarket. Great prices here. Even though the hostel doesn’t allow alcohol from outside to be brought in, we couldn’t resist getting some Smirnoff and beer for a sneaky drink in the room. Watched some TV and relaxed until dinner. Met some nice fellow guests and enjoyed their company.
13 Jan: Slept in until 8 am (room was dark and quiet). Had granola for breakfast before sorting out our big bag for storage. Paid for the night and walked over to the bus station. Bus 238 was parked and waiting so we got first choice for seats. It filled up fast…guess that is what happens when there are only 5 buses running a day. Trip to Juayua wasn’t too bad and we managed to hop off the bus close to our hotel. Our hotel was located a bit out of town, but had a beautiful lookout over the volcanoes and a nice pool. Since our room wasn’t ready, we got on internet to see if we wanted to do the 7 Waterfall tour today or tomorrow. Everyone recommended to start first thing in the morning, so we organized a tour ($15 each) for tomorrow at 8 am. Since the food festival was ongoing, we walked into town and got free samples of grilled meat. Yum! The town was packed with locals stuffing their faces for cheap and we soon joined them. Great lively food festival and we liked the vibe. Around 1:20 pm, we decided to head towards Ataco. We had been told to catch bus 249 so we did just that. Too bad no one told us that the bus sometimes goes towards Ataco and sometimes towards Sonzacate. We got on the wrong bus! And by the time the driver finally let us off, we were 7 km downhill from Salcoatitan. Boo! Thankfully, it was only an hour detour as we managed to flag another bus 249 that was headed to Juayua and then to Ataco. We reached Ataco by 2:50, so the mistake only cost us an hour delay. Ataco was booming on a Sunday afternoon. The lookout point was OK, but wandering the town was a delight, especially as we photographed the various wall murals. We wandered around for nearly 2 hours and then caught a bus back to Juayua. This bus was much quicker, and we were back just before 5 pm. Stopped by the supermarket to grab some muffins for breakfast tomorrow, as well as a few drinks and watched sunset from our hotel…fabulous. The Smirnoff Ice Maracuya flavor is a winner…we’ll have to see if we can get that drink elsewhere! Watched an episode of Vikings and took hot showers.
14 Jan: Got up by 7 am to get ready for the 7 Waterfall tour and have breakfast. Met our guide Pablo and we walked out of town, and then hiked on an “atajo” (shortcut) through the mountain. It was a bit challenging because Pablo kept up a good pace. The waterfalls were as spectacular as we had imagined, and we had plenty of time to take photos. Other tours allow you to rappel down the falls but Pablo didn’t have the gear so we gave that a miss. The final waterfalls were at Los Chorros and we were able to swim there. The water felt refreshing and clean…very nice! Back in town, we thanked Pablo and paid him $30 for his guiding services for 4 hours. He is an indigenous guide and obviously really cares for the environment, which was great to see. We rinsed off our sandals and checked out of the hotel, then headed to a nearby cafe for lunch. Chicken and rice and drinks came out to $3 for both of us…bargain. Had an hour to kill so we relaxed in the park and then caught bus 238 back to Santa Ana. The bus wasn’t nearly as full as it was yesterday, so we were eventually able to take one seat to ourselves to stretch out a bit. Back in Santa Ana, we got our room and picked up our bags from storage. Then went shopping at the nearby supermarket for food for the next 3 night. Dropped off the groceries and walked over to the mercado to get 5 avocados for $1 and a papaya for $1. Watched sunset and then whipped up chicken pasta for dinner. Absolutely stuffed. Early night to bed since we are getting up early tomorrow.
15 Jan: Woke up early (6:30 am) for breakfast before catching the bus to the volcano. We weren’t sure of where the bus station was but it was next to the supermarket and was in a building (with a ticket booth to buy tickets). Robby had 1.79 in change and we found a penny on the ground, so we had the exact amount of change for our tickets there…score! The ride to Cerro Verde was scenic, but it was impossible to take photos from the moving bus. We arrived by 9:30 am, so there was a 90 minute wait. There were nice views of Izalco Volcano. Around 10:40 am, a tour guide started rounding us all up for a briefing and hike to the park. We had to pay 90 cents for the bus ride, $3 entry fee to the park, $1 tip for the guides, $6 to hike the volcano and 90 cents return bus ride, for a total of $11.80 for the day…not too shabby. The hike up was steady and constant, not too hard for the magnificent view we were rewarded with after 50 minutes of hiking (from the ranger station). We had nearly an hour to enjoy the vista and take photos to our hearts’ content before the tour guides/police started blowing their whistles and forcing everyone back down the mountain. No one is allowed to hike without a police escort due to banditry/robberies in the past (or so the rumor goes). We hiked back down and had a nice siesta at a park bench, before moving to the road to wait for the 4 pm bus. It showed up like clockwork but refused to pick us up as it was very clear that the folks who were up at the main parking lot would be allowed to board the bus first. We were a large group of tourists (about 12 of us) and we did manage to find seats, but the bus quickly became packed with locals and it was crammed standing room only for them. The bus driver kept stopping and shutting off the engine at random stops, making us wonder what the hell was going on. Maybe his engine was overheating? Or he had an important phone call. In any case, when you only pay 90 cents for a 2 hour ride, you keep your mouth shut and suck it up. We were dropped off half a block from our hostel where we took wonderfully hot showers to clean up before making a meal of spag bol. Yummy and we were both quite happy with our volcano hike today. Just gorgeous experience and the perfect day for a hike.
16 Jan: After breakfast, we leisurely made our way towards Tazumal Ruins. Catching the bus was easy (one block away from Hostel Casa Verde) and it didn’t take us long to arrive to the ruins. Entrance was $3 each and we were surprised by how small and compact the ruins are. 20 minutes to walk around the ruins and take photos and 10 minutes for the tiny museum were more than enough. No idea how some people can stay here for 1 – 2 hours as we had read on tripadvisor! We caught the return back into Santa Ana and got off near the supermarket where we did some final shopping for Honduras. Apparently groceries on Roatan are expensive so we stocked up on peanut butter and tuna. We had contemplated eating lunch at Simmer Down, a highly rated restaurant in Santa Ana but ended up self catering. The afternoon was spent researching our onward itinerary for Nicaragua. Over dinner, we chatted with the French girl who had been sick and recovering here over the past few days. Nice person and we enjoyed our conversation. Then we met a British guy (Richard) who was on holiday from his stressful job and hoping his husband (back in Canada) wasn’t getting too jealous! He was fun to chat with.
17 Jan: Got up around 7:30 am and had a hearty breakfast (remainder of our papaya, toast with peanut butter and granola). We ran around town trying to buy some sunscreen but the pharmacies were asking for $40 per bottle…ridiculous. Back at the Selectos supermarket, we found SPF 50 on sale for $14 which was much better value. Since checkout was at 1 pm, we packed our bags and then had lunch. Alex from Casa Verde informed us that the shuttle was delayed as it had run into serious traffic in Guatemala. We told him it was OK since we had WiFi and power. The mosquitoes were tearing us up until we sprayed DEET on. The 2:30 pm shuttle became 3 pm and then 3:45. We were happy when Alex came to get us, telling us that our ride had arrived. We thanked Carlos for everything and let him know how much we liked his hostel in Santa Ana. Our shuttle had been arranged by Berakah hostel and it was a happy coincidence that we were staying there tonight! Becky talked to a Honduran girl named Karina for the first part of the ride, getting the scoop on what to expect in Roatan and Copan. Getting stamped out of El Salvador was a breeze and our time to this lovely country came to an end way too quickly!