El Salvador is often skipped over by many travelers – it has a well-known history of civil war and gang crime, and lesser-known reputation for its secluded beaches, lush forestry, and welcoming locals. It is tiny compared to its neighboring countries, and you can honestly explore a good portion of it in 3 to 5 days. As with any country, exercise common sense and general caution, bring your sense of adventure and leave any preconceived notions of the country’s past behind.
Almost without a doubt, most blogs will say “Suchitoto is not to be missed!”, but I beg to differ. Perhaps it was overhyped from everything I read, but upon arrival, it was no more than just a small colonial town to walk through. There were many little shops and plenty of nice cafes to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee.
There was also a neat little waterfall nearby. Los Tercios Waterfall was less than a 15 minute walk from the city center. To get there, plug “Los Tercios” into Google Maps and it’ll get you there, otherwise, you can ask locals who will happily point you in the right direction. When you get to the entrance, on the left, there’s a beautiful lookout area with a view of Lake Suchitlán and surrounding greenery; and on the right, there’s a small “path” to the falls. “Path” is in quotations because there’s really not much of an actual path down to the falls. You can see where others have trod—just follow that and soon you’ll get to a bunch of small boulders. From there, you have to scramble across the rocks to get to the bottom of the falls. There was a pretty decent flow from the falls, although that’s not always the case especially in the dry season.
Santa Ana was a wonderful city to walk through. The prettiest part of the city was definitely Parque Libertad, the bustling main square lined with street vendors and spectators. Be sure to try a bit of this and that from each food stand! You can get a snack or small meal for less than a dollar.
Parque Colon is a nearby park worth checking out if you have time. A mansion sits vacant on the property and is open to curious visitors.
Santa Ana Volcano Hike
Santa Ana Volcano is one of several peaks in Volcanoes National Park. The most popular hike of course is the one to the summit of Santa Ana Volcano. There are scheduled hikes with official guides every day at 11am—unfortunately, this is not a hike you can do on your own, although it was pretty straight-forward. I arrived about an hour early and took the opportunity to explore the area a bit, munch on some pupusas before the briefing at 10:45am.
Surrounding the parking lot, there is a campground, bathrooms, and a pretty garden you can walk through to kill some time. The guides on this hike only speak Spanish, but chances are, in a large crowd of hikers, there’s bound to be one or two people who can translate for you.
At the beginning of the hike, there’s a non-mandatory fee/donation of $1 per person that is collected for the guides/police. When you get to the official park entrance, there’s a small wooden shack and fence where the park rangers collect an entrance fee—$6 for foreigners and $3 for nationals.
After about another hour or so of hiking, you’ll hit the crater at the top. You’ve got the beautiful green lake in the caldera on one side, and sweeping views of the other volcanoes and valleys on the other side. Take time to soak in the views, sit down and enjoy lunch before making your way back down.
Arrive at least half an hour early
Bring a light jacket or long sleeve shirt because it’s pretty chilly in the morning and at the summit.
Bring at least $20 in cash (for parking, donation, park entrance fee, snacks)
After a long hike, be sure to stop by the large crater lake, Lake Coatepeque, on the way back for lunch or a cup of coffee! Down at the bottom of the road beside the lake, a poorly paved road runs around most of the lake in both directions. It’s narrow in some spots, so drive slowly and carefully. Water activities are the highlight of Lake Coatepeque. You can go for a swim or boat ride, and rent kayaks or jet skis! There are plenty of places to eat along the road and many restaurants with a lakeside view. It may be worth staying the night if you aren’t in a rush to go someplace else.
Tazumal looks much larger in pictures, but it’s actually fairly small compared to other larger ruins like Tikal or Chichen Itza. Despite its size, it is still worth checking out if you’re in the area. The easiest way to get there is by car hire—if you choose this option, be sure to arrive early to find a parking since there isn’t a designated parking lot. There’s parking in a small alcove of the adjacent neighborhood and locals who collect a “donation” for watching your car while you are in the park. There’s a small entrance fee of $3 for foreigners and $1 for nationals. Be sure to check out the museum! It’s small, but has a lot of interesting artifacts on display. There isn’t much shade, so if you come midday, be sure to wear a hat and put on plenty of sunscreen.
Salto de Malacatiupan
These thermal waterfalls are not to be missed! Although they sit on private property, they are free to visit! However, they were a little tricky to get to, even with a car. I believe there are tours that take visitors there though. Plug “Salto de Malacatiupan” into Google Maps (the location is pretty precise on the map), go a couple kilometers down a dirt road and follow the sign that says “Salto” and you’ll soon arrive at the falls.
I was slightly disappointed, although not entirely surprised, that the falls weren’t the pretty turquoise color pictured in the blogs and forums I read online since it was “rainy season”. They were muddy and unswimmable (at least in my standards). There were some locals wading in the river above the falls though. You can supposedly jump off these falls somewhere as well, but I didn’t see any of the locals jumping nor did it seem safe since I couldn’t see the bottom. I think it was still worth checking out despite not being able to get into the water. People typically spend a couple hours here. If you decide to make an afternoon of it, don’t forget to wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water! The heat from the sun and the thermal waterfalls will put your body into stress in an attempt to cool it down. You’ll need plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration. There were plenty of shaded spots to sit down and set up a picnic too.
Juayua – Seven Waterfalls Hike
If there’s anything I wish I knew beforehand for this hike, it’s this: Los Chorros is only accessible over the weekend (Saturdays and Sundays)—at least that was what I was told. I’m not sure if that’s a seasonal thing or if that’s true all-year-round. It is closed the rest of the week and thus, the hike is technically a ‘six waterfalls hike’, because the seventh waterfall is Los Chorros. I found this out the hard way, but regardless, decided to go on the hike anyway. I ‘booked’ my hike through Casa Mazeta. I use the word ‘booked’ loosely because it wasn’t an official tour. I spoke to one of the staff, Douglas, at Casa Mazeta and we coordinated via Whatsapp to meet the next day along with another gentleman who wanted to hike the waterfalls as well. This hike is nearly impossible to do without a guide. More on that below.
Douglas met up with me at my hostel the next morning and we promptly went on our way. But first, we swung by someone’s house—presumably one of his buddies or partners—to pick up some gear for the hike. We hung around the front yard with the dogs, a couple chickens, and other livestock while he grabbed helmets, some rope, and a machete; and soon we were on our way again, but this time with extra company. Six dogs decided to join us along our hike, and after half an hour, it was clear that this wasn’t their first rodeo. In fact, they knew the way so well that they led most of it.
We walked through the thick forestry past numerous coffee plantations, hiked along narrow mountain ridge trails, and enjoyed amazing panoramic views of nearby volcanoes and dense, forest-clad mountains. Emphasis on dense. As aforementioned, this hike is nearly impossible to do without a guide because there was hardly a visible trail, if any at all. Douglas pulled out his machete and cleared the path as we followed closely behind him.
About an hour into the hike, we arrived at the first couple of waterfalls. They were all next to each other, cascading off the mountainside and feeding a larger creek below. Here, Douglas secured ropes around a tree and rappelled down a small waterfall, then quickly climbed back up to meet us. We both got down with ease. He collected the rope and again tied it to another tree, and swiftly rappelled down another, much larger waterfall. We watched in amazement as he scrambled back up the slippery rocks like a mountain goat. This time, we got soaked on the way down, but it was quite refreshing.
It wasn’t long before we reached the sixth waterfall, the largest of them all. This was our “break” spot. The dogs shuffled around to their usual spots for a nap and we gazed up in awe while Douglas settled on top of a rock and pulled out a bag of jocotes to share with us. We hopped from rock to rock and stood underneath the waterfall until we got our fill, then continued on to the last and final spot. This wasn’t a waterfall, but a water reservoir that had a beautiful view of the forest from above. We spent a couple minutes here cleaning and tidying up before heading back to the house to return the ropes and helmets. Although we missed Los Chorros (due to poor planning on my part), it was still a hike worth going on. Don’t miss this!
Barra de Santiago
If you come during the right season, you can witness giant sea turtles laying eggs along the beach and hundreds of baby turtles making their way into the ocean. In fact, Barra de Santiago is the El Salvador’s most active turtle-nesting areas. It’s not the easiest to get to, but well worth the effort if you have the time.
As with any place, there are high and low seasons. During the low season, keep in mind that lodging is a bit harder to find. Without prior reservation, I was pretty fortunate to find a spot to stay, albeit, not the nicest place, but a place nonetheless. If you are looking for a bumping nightlife, Barra de Santiago is not the place. The town itself is a squalid collection of shacks and huts for restaurants and makeshift shops along the shore. There isn’t a grocery store or gas station, so be sure to fill up before you get on the peninsula. It’s calm and quiet during the day, and even more tranquil in the evening. It’s a perfect place to unplug and unwind.
I woke up early in the morning to meet the owner of Cafe Mezcal, who is also responsible for the turtle hatchery. He introduced us to Juan who was going to show us the way. We walked for about 10 minutes along the shoreline until we reached the hatchery, which was really just a large fenced in area with tarp draped over wooden posts and a shack which housed baby turtles that were ready to be released into the water.
Juan pulled a small key out of his pocket for the padlock that was only holding a makeshift gate from swinging open, and untied a myriad of ropes that were supposed to deter trespassers from breaking in. A grid made up of small wooden sticks with numbers and string marked different lots of turtles/eggs beneath. He led us over to a lot and began digging with his hands. About two feet below, he began scooping out handfuls of little Olive Ridley turtles. Minutes later, a guy on a motorbike showed up with a surprise. He carefully untied a handkerchief revealing a pile of small ping-pong like eggs. Juan counted the eggs and carefully dug another hole in an unoccupied lot for them. One by one he delicately placed each egg into the hole and gently covered them up with a few pats.
In the shack, there was a tub full of baby turtles that were ready to be released. Juan scooped them up into a bucket and gently dumped them along the shore where they swiftly rushed towards the water. It was an amazing sight and experience!
El Tunco is the tourist hotspot for surfing, but wanting to avoid crowds and the price surge, I opted to stay and surf in the neighboring town, El Sunzal. For beginner surfers, El Sunzal’s sloping walls are very good for longboarding and learning how to surf. Although the beach is covered in relatively smooth rocks, there are a lot of sharp rocks in the water so watch your feet! Having to learn the hard way, I highly recommend wearing booties and a rashguard to prevent cuts and scratches.
On average, surfboard rentals are anywhere from $10 to $25 a day, depending on how long you rent it for. You get a better price on weekly rentals, of course. You can pretty much rent a surfboard from any restaurant or hotel along the coast. I rented a surfboard from Hotel Sunzal Reef for just $15 for the entire day.
The pier is a must-see in La Libertad! If you are staying at a hostel or airbnb where you have access to a kitchen, be sure to stop by the pier for fresh seafood. You’ll see the local fishermen selling every kind of seafood from fish to shellfish to even rays. Note that all seafood on the pier is in the rawest form, so if you’re looking for a place to eat, just drop in to one of the restaurants along the boardwalk. There are also plenty of other restaurants along the coastline which have great ocean views all within walking distance of the pier.