Everyone knows about the beaches of Tulum, the island vibes of Caye Caulker and Bocas del Toro, and the colonial beauty of Granada, Nicaragua. And they are all incredible places. But not everyone knows how incredible El Salvador is…which might be why it ended up surprising and delighting me more than anywhere else I visited in Central America.
Before my trip in 2016, the only other friends I knew who had visited El Salvador were surfers. I hadn’t heard anything about the country except that there are incredible beaches, so I was really excited to explore. This tiny volcano-filled country completely exceeded my expectations – and I didn’t even make it to the beach. Here are the 5 things that surprised me most:
1. San Salvador is fancy AF
When I went to El Salvador, I was surprised to find out that we’d be spending a few nights in the capital city of San Salvador. I had (wrongly) assumed that similar to other big airport cities (hello, Managua!) it would be a place to fly into and leave quickly – that there would be nothing for tourists to do.
Not only is there plenty to do within the city, but San Salvador is fancy AF. I stayed in an InterContinental Hotel for the first time, and it was possibly the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve ever slept in. For dinner, we didn’t just stick to the hotel. We had one of the best meals of the trip at Lobby, this super-stylish hotel-themed restaurant full of trendy San Salvadoreans.
And that restaurant is not an anomaly – San Salvador is full of painfully hip fine dining restaurants, like Oleos, Restaurante Citron, Il Bongustaio, and Restaurante Boca. And unlike in other countries, these high-end restaurants aren’t just catering to moneyed tourists – they’re full of fancy locals.
Outside of San Salvador, we visited Coatepeque Lake, which I can only describe as “the Hamptons of El Salvador”. The lake is bright blue and surrounded by these lavishly beautiful homes that look like they belong in an issue of Architectural Digest. We had lunch at this super modern restaurant/hotel/chapel (sounds weird, but once you see this place you’ll convert to Christianity just so you can get married there).
2. The FOOD…pupusas, yes, but so much more
To me, Mexico, India, and Italy are the culinary capitals of the world. But somehow, the beautiful flavors and complex varieties of Mexican cuisine don’t make it past the border. I was really surprised the first time I visited Belize and (no shade Belize, I love you!) the only thing on the menu was (delicious) stewed chicken.
Before I visited El Salvador, the only thing I really knew about food there was: Pupusas. And don’t get me wrong, pupusas are cheesy heaven. But what I was not expecting was a food scene that puts El Salvador a step above Belize, Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
Related reading: 14 Reasons to Visit El Salvador This Year
The food here is excellent. From fine dining restaurants in the capital to roadside stands, every single thing I ate blew my mind. The ingredients were super fresh (in some cases, grown in the backyard of the restaurant) and vegetables were plentiful. I traveled with two vegetarians and they both had no problem finding filling wholesome things to eat, while the rest of us gorged on grilled chicken and fish with amazing fresh salsas.
3. Travel in El Salvador is easy
Did you know you that El Salvador’s official currency is the dollar? Almost everyone there speaks at least some English, most people have lived in or visited the United States, and literally every single person has a sister/uncle/best friend/girlfriend living in the U.S.
As an American traveler, I sometimes feel like I need to be low key and not give anybody any fuel to add to their stockpile of American hatred. In El Salvador, I didn’t feel shy about being an American, since almost everyone we met had really positive feelings about the country (this was 2016) and wanted to talk about their visits to the United States.
Beyond the super friendly people, the hassle factor in El Salvador is generally pretty low. Roads are in good condition and you can zip around the entire country in a few days. Just like any place in America and the rest of the world, there are certain areas you want to avoid, but the vibe in general feels really safe.
4. The history…including the “Pompeii of the Americas”
Before I left for El Salvador, people had warned me that all the historic sites had been ruined by civil war and volcanoes, but that’s simply not true. There are Mayan ruins throughout the country (some in better condition than others) and intact colonial villages can be found nestled in the mountains.
The real piece de resistance for history buffs is the UNESCO-classified Joya de Ceren, which is sometimes called “The Pompeii of the Americas”. It’s an entire Mayan village that was wiped out in an instant from a nearby volcano – and perfectly preserved in ash for eternity. Although only a small percentage of the site has been unearthed, it’s unlike any other Mayan site in Central America. Don’t expect any pyramids here, though – what’s unique about this site is that it’s a village, so you’ll learn about people’s homes and their day to day life. If you’re looking for postcard-worthy temples, head to Chalchuapa instead.
The towns of Ataco and Suchitoto, nestled in the mountains, are picture-perfect colonial towns, with cobbled streets, cute cafes, and historic boutique hotels. Los Almendros de San Lorenzo is one of the cutest places I’ve ever spent the night – it’s chic without even trying to be.
5. Salvadoran crafts can rival Mexico
When I landed in El Salvador, I had just come from Mérida, Mexico, which is a shopaholic’s dream.The crafts and markets there are unbelievable. I had bought everything in sight and my suitcase was stuffed to the gills, so I did not expect to buy anything in El Salvador. I was wrong.
On my last day in the country, I took an indigo workshop in Suchitoto, where we hand-dyed pieces of fabric using traditional methods. I have a special place in my heart for tie-dye, so I was obsessed with this place. I wanted to buy everything in the shop.
Across the street was Casa de la Abuela, a craft shop selling fair-trade textiles and wooden crafts from a nearby artist collective. I went nuts in there and bought a blanket for my bed, two tablecloths to give as presents, and a set of amazing mismatched napkins. I think I spent maybe $75 total, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier with a purchase.
Who wants to go to El Salvador now? Have you already been? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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