Birds chirping loudly in all voices. Ripe, yellow, juicy fruits dangling from the mango trees. Locals joking around on the street in their super fast Salvadoreño dialect. Huge mountains dominate the background, wherever you look. That breeze along the lakes within the volcanoes is welcomingly refreshing. While your thoughts drift to the Pacific into the roaring waves! When backpacking in El Salvador you can experience Central America in its most authentic way. And you’ll be surprised about everything this small country has to offer.
Squeezed between Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador is the smallest of all Central American countries. Often overlooked by travelers, this tiny country has some fascinating nature. Once you meet other travelers who have visited the country you’ll hear a clear “Don’t skip El Salvador” from everyone. And it’s true. In just a week backpacking El Salvador, you can see quite a lot. I’ve packed it all in this El Salvador travel guide to give you some inspiration.

“El Salvador is on the move,” says my host, as we’re chatting about the construction sites all over El Tunco. While cutting cucumbers for their family lunch, she tells me about the political changes in her country.
Actually, all over El Salvador, you can feel that we’re in the middle of a transformation. With a new government since 2019, the country is improving a lot in terms of security, infrastructure, and tourism.
By using modern approaches El Salvador is taking huge steps to leave its tumultuous past behind.

Especially for surfers, El Salvador has become an alluring destination with major surf championships taking place around the Pacific beaches. But don’t just stick to the Pacific coast, there’s much more to explore in this small piece of land.

When backpacking in El Salvador you realize the whole country is under construction

When backpacking in El Salvador you realize the whole country is under construction

El Salvador Backpacking destinations

Suchitoto & Lago Suchitlan

Located next to a huge, beautiful lake in the hilly north of El Salvador, this town is as cute as its name. Here you can explore authentic Central American life in a cooler climate than further south.
While we were there, we saw less than a handful of other travelers, just local tourists from San Salvador escaping the city for a short trip.

We were lucky to spend a weekend in Suchitoto, as the small town was super lively during these days.
Children playing badminton on the streets, ladies taking their dogs for a walk, old Caballeros smoking cigars with their fellows.
Besides, every Saturday and Sunday the locals organize a weekend market on the main Plaza with lots of snacks, drinks, and some handicrafts.
So nice strolling through the cobblestoned streets with an ice-cold choco banana in hand!
Also, take a look at the sprayed picture next to the colorful doors of the town’s houses, showing a bird with the words: “In this house we live without violence against women.”

From Suchitoto you can walk to Cascada Los Tercios – during the rainy season a big waterfall within natural basalt rock formations.  As we went in the dry season there was no water, but the wall of basalt rocks is still nice to see and you can catch a great view across the lake.

Hotel recommendation: Casa 1800 in Suchitoto has the most amazing view across the lake, a wonderful garden & courtyard and the loveliest staff.

Santa Ana Volcano

As the area around Santa Ana used to be a hub for coffee plantation owners, you can find some of the prettiest colonial buildings in El Salvador there.

While the town itself is pretty, it’s also a great starting point to explore the western part of the country. Close-by you can climb the spectacular Volcan Llamatepec – also known as Santa Ana Volcano.
In case you’ve been to other Central American countries, you may think you’ve seen enough volcanoes. So why do I suggest another climb in this El Salvador travel guide?
Yet, you shouldn’t miss hiking to the crater of Santa Ana Volcano when backpacking El Salvador, as from up there you get a really special view. You can actually see right down into the turquoise-green lake shining inside the crater.

Also, within only an hour from Santa Ana, you find the beautiful Lago de Coatepeque. It’s a great spot to relax, go swimming, and enjoy nature.

Hostel recommendation: Hostel Casa Verde in Santa Ana is the perfect starting point to visit fellow backpackers and do the Santa Ana volcano hike together.
Hotel recommendation: If you’d like a treat, take a look at Equinoccio Hotel which is directly at the shore of Coatepeque lake – the perfect place to recharge your batteries and relax after the volcano hike.

Santa Ana Volcano is a major highlight when backpacking El Salvador / Santa Ana Volcano ist eine der top Sehenswürdigkeiten in El Salvador

The view onto the crater lake of Santa Ana Volcano (picture by my travel buddy Lea)

Santa Ana Volcano is a major highlight when backpacking El Salvador / Santa Ana Volcano ist eine der top Sehenswürdigkeiten in El Salvador

The view onto the crater lake of Santa Ana Volcano (picture by my travel buddy Lea)

Ruta de las Flores

Named after the numerous brightly-colored flowers blooming here once the rainy season has come to an end, the area of Ruta de las Flores is among the most beautiful regions and can’t be missing in any El Salvador travel guide.
As a rural mountain circuit with lovely villages, it’s great to be explored by scooter or motorbike. This way, you can stop everywhere you like between waterfalls, jungles, and volcano views.

Stops you shouldn’t miss are the pretty town of Juayúa and the hot spring waterfall Salto de Malacatiupan.
Besides, some of the best coffee in El Salvador is produced in the area. So, why not pause for a coffee plantation tour?

El Salvador travel guide tip: rent a scooter / Um die Sehenswürdigkeiten in El Salvador zu sehen lohnt es sich einen Roller zu mieten

El Salvador travel guide tip: rent a scooter / Um die Sehenswürdigkeiten in El Salvador zu sehen lohnt es sich einen Roller zu mieten

Beach towns

El Tunco

Fans of surfing and great waves rave about El Tunco being one of the best surfers places in Central America. In 2021 the ISA World Surfing Games 2021 even took place here.
Its popularity is growing and surfers from all over the world flock to El Tunco to catch the waves.
This also makes it a great backpackers hub with lots of bars and nice restaurants.
At the same time, El Salvadorian high-class tourism loiters in the resorts in the area.

Even though it’s the most popular destination in every El Salvador travel guide, I have mixed feelings about the place.
In the area around La Libertad, to which the popular beach destinations El Tunco and El Zonte belong, the gap between wealth and poverty is enormous.
We first stayed in a beach accommodation in La Libertad which was in an extremely poor neighborhood. The hostel was surrounded by homes built out of palm leaves directly on the sand.
Heading on to El Tunco we experienced the other extreme. Five-star resorts for the upper-class tourists. And that’s reflected in the hefty prices for accommodation and food.

Hostel recommendation: A great place to stay a bit further from the hustle and bustle is definitely Hammock Plantation in El Sunzal. If you prefer being directly in El Tunco and the heart of all action, a great but affordable option is Papaya Lodge.
Hotel  recommentation: Mandala Eco Villas – A bit further away from the quirky hustle & bustle, these bungalows are the perfect oasis.

El Zonte

For a less busy surfers town, head to El Zonte. It’s just a few kilometers up the coast from El Tunco and much quieter.
Yet, when we were there in February 2022 the whole town looked like one huge construction site. So the relaxed calmness of the place may give way to more hotels and more tourists very soon.

El Cuco

Are you more into tranquil beaches than rough waves? More the type to relax by the calm sea on your El Salvador backpacking trip instead of surfing? Then you should check out El Cuco.
Further south, almost down at the border to Honduras, this area is the place to go for some calm days by the sea.
We didn’t manage to go, but several Salvadoreños told us that you can find the most beautiful beaches in the country down there. And that’s a local’s tip that you won’t find in many El Salvador travel guides!

Hotel recommendation: Paradise Surf Hotel – It may be the most stunning hotel location in El Salvador, set right on the top of the cliffs in El Cuco. The sunsets with seaview will leave you speechless.

More things to do in El Salvador

Try typical Salvadoreño food

Most of the dishes in El Salvador are similar to the neighboring Central American countries: Heavy on beans, tortillas (and unfortunately meat).

The national dish that you can find on every corner and street food stall is pupusas. They’re a kind of filled tortillas with a mix of cheese and another ingredient of your choice. And you can always find vegetarian ones with cheese & either beans, jalapeños or other vegetables.
Usually, they’re super cheap at around 0,75 $ each which is great for budget travelers, as restaurant visits are relatively expensive in El Salvador.

For a refreshing drink, look out for yummy horchata – a sweet rice drink with cinnamon. Sometimes you can find horchata de maní (peanut) or almendras (almond).

Sustainable travel in El Salvador

Just like its neighboring countries, El Salvador has a terrible garbage problem. It’s hard to go backpacking in El Salvador and not cross any streets, roadsides, or beaches covered in trash.
Seeing locals just throwing their trash out of the car window without thinking makes it clear that there is no change in sight anytime soon.
Still recovering from the aftermath of a bad civil war, the country is struggling with poverty and a bad economy. So their focus is clearly somewhere else.

Yet, you as a traveler can make a difference by trying to travel more sustainably. Here are some ideas on what to pay attention to when backpacking in El Salvador:
  • Eat vegetarian – we were surprised to find more veggie places than expected. It’s easy, as most pupusas are vegetarian.
  • Stay with locals – either choose a homestay for the most authentic experience or a BnB or small hotel run by locals
  • Eat locally – Have food at Comedores (local small restaurants).
  • Save energy – Even though it can be very hot at the coast, try to use the fan instead of the Aircon.
  • E-scooter – Try to find an e-scooter if you want to drive around Ruta de las Flores or another area in El Salvador

Have your reusable straw ready when backpacking El Salvador

Have your reusable straw ready when backpacking El Salvador

El Salvador backpacking itinerary

Because El Salvador is so small, you’re able to see a lot of the country in only a week.
Coming from the north you can take the following El Salvador itinerary by local buses:

Suchitoto -> Santa Ana -> Ruta de las Flores -> El Tunco -> next country

From El Tunco you can move on to Nicaragua (through Honduras) or to Guatemala.

But even if you take another route, the distances are so short that you can easily do some zigzagging across El Salvador without losing much time on the road. That’s why I won’t talk long about a suggested itinerary in this El Salvador travel guide. It’s also possible to spend only three days in El Salvador and still have a good time in this tiny country.
With more time, you can just extend your stay at some of the destinations.

El Salvador border

El Salvador border

Good to know before you go

Is El Salvador dangerous to travel?

It’s no secret that El Salvador has a troubled past, with many problems still dragging on until today. All El Salvador travel guides will tell you that. With the highest crime rates in Central America, many travelers are unsure about backpacking in El Salvador while traveling through Central America.
Yet, the high crime rate traces back to issues between gangs. And as a foreigner chances are extremely low that you get involved in any gang riots. They usually happen far away from the typical traveler paths. Some say the chances of getting attacked by a shark are higher than encountering a gang riot.
Besides, the country’s been improving a lot during the last few years. Since a change to a new president in 2019, El Salvador has gotten more stable politically and crime rates have improved drastically and continue to drop.

That said, you should take the usual precautions as you do anywhere you travel. Especially in Latin American countries just don’t walk alone or travel at night and always check with your accommodation if there are any areas you should avoid.
Also, leave all the valuables, such as your passport and credit cards you don’t need, locked in your accommodation.
I also always store my money and credit cards in different places in my luggage. Just in case you may get mugged, you still have some money source somewhere else.

El Salvador travel guide

El Salvador travel guide

What’s the best time to visit El Salvador?

European wintertime is the dry season in Central America. Thus, from November to April is the best time for backpacking in El Salvador.
The beginning of the dry season is especially nice to experience the still lush, blooming landscapes around Ruta de Flores, as mentioned earlier in this El Salvador travel guide.

How to get around El Salvador?

The country is small, so most of the distances are super short.
As in other countries in Central America, you can either take the local chicken buses or shuttles.

  • Chicken buses

    Because the distances are not far, I’d suggest you stick to the chicken buses within the country. It’s only around 1 $ for an hour’s distance. Just ask in your hostel about the best route to get to your next destination.  They usually know which bus to take and where to change, so the journey is easy.

  • Shuttles

    You only need them to enter or exit the country (although these distances can be done by chicken bus as well). If you travel on to Nicaragua, I’d recommend going with Roneey Shuttle. Because there are two border crossings involved, taking a shuttle saves you lots of time and hassle. We were super happy with our journey with them as the border crossings went extremely smooth and they were super helpful, reliable, and on time.

  • Tica Bus

    This bus company is another option to get into or out of El Salvador. They only leave from San Salvador though. It’s a bit cheaper than taking a shuttle.

Riding the bus in El Salvador

Riding the bus in El Salvador

Is backpacking in El Salvador expensive?

Indeed we were a bit surprised about the prices, especially for food in El Salvador.
El Salvador is more expensive than its neighbors Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
If you travel on a budget, eat lots of pupusas and visit Comedores- local restaurants that are usually cheaper.
Locals buses are super cheap – you pay less than 1 $ per hour. Short trips are only around a quarter dollar.

Suchitoto, El Salvador

Suchitoto, El Salvador

Backpacking in El Salvador | a wrap-up

El Salvador in three words: pupusas | mango trees | surfing

Did you know? El Salvador is the first country in the world to introduce bitcoin as an official currency

Favorite photo spot: From Suchitoto down onto the lake

Favorite food: Pupusas con jalapeños with lots of spicy sauce

Can’t miss: Climbing Santa Ana Volcano to catch a glimpse onto its shiny lake

Did you ever go backpacking in El Salvador? Any tips or experiences to share that you’d like to add to this El Salvador travel guide? Leave a comment below!

More about Central America

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