Even though we’re at the height of Canadian summer, there’s no reason you can’t be thinking ahead to where you want to escape Canadian winter. While southern destinations like Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean tend to get all the ink, the countries of Central America are certainly worth exploring. They’re a little harder to get to, but remain a great value for the more adventurous traveller.
We’ve talked about the highlands of Guatemala before, but neighbouring El Salvador is another tropical, affordable and friendly destination.
Nestled on the Pacific Ocean and bordered by Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador is less than half the size of Nova Scotia with a population of nearly six million. It’s the smallest country in Central America and packed with lakes, volcanoes and tropical rainforest. The Pacific coast is renowned for its surfing.
Like many countries in the region there is a high crime rate (although there have been some recent improvements). This shouldn’t put visitors off. By exercising reasonable caution, you can go a long way to staying safe.
The roads are surprisingly good – especially the main highways – and it’s pretty easy to get around using the local bus system.
1. San Salvador and Environs
The vibrant, chaotic capital is home to about 25 per cent of Salvadorans. If you’re arriving by air, you’ll land here at the international airport. Rather than leaving town right away, plan to spend a couple of days. There are several good museums, notably:
- Museo David J. Guzman (The David J. Guzman Museum of Anthropology) – Located in the city’s upscale Zona Rosa district, it boasts a large collection of indigenous (Maya) artifacts.
- The Art Museum of El Salvador (MARTE) – Also located in Zona Rosa, MARTE features an extensive collection of Salvadoran art and works from around the world.
There are also numerous parks to explore and wide boulevards to stroll down. A spectacular view of the city can be had from Los Planes de Renderos.
Just 40 km south in La Libertad is Punta Roca Beach. The area is a world-renowned surfing spot and a major draw.
2. San Miguel
The area around San Miguel, in El Salvador’s southeast, offers a great blend of activities. There’s decent nightlife in the city and some of the most beautiful beaches in the country are just an hour away. The city stands in the shadow of the active San Miguel Volcano and makes an excellent launching point for exploring this part of the country.
3. Joya de Cerén
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is called the Pompeii of the Americas. Located to the west of San Salvador, Joya de Cerén is a preserved Maya farming village that was buried in a volcanic eruption around 600 AD. The remains are in exceptional condition and provide a snapshot of how people lived at the time.
4. El Imposible National Park
Named after a dangerous gorge where many farmers died transporting coffee to market, El Imposible National Park is home to an astonishing variety of plants and animals. There are hundreds of bird species alone. The park is El Salvador’s most important nature refuge. Located in the Apaneca-Ilamatepec mountain range on the west side of the country, the park contains one of the last remaining pieces of pristine forest in El Salvador. Hike one of the many trails for a chance to see plants and animals that are disappearing elsewhere.
If you’re looking for a little luxury, you can rent a private villa on the Pacific coast. There is a fair amount of competition, which means that you can get a spectacular place for a very reasonable rate. If you’re splitting costs as a group, this is an excellent (and affordable) option.
For example: a four-bedroom house on the ocean with a 300-metre private beach, infinity pool, air conditioning in the bedrooms, private baths, fully equipped kitchen, amazing views and full-time live-in staff for four nights costs just $1000. If you’re splitting that four ways, then you’re paying just $62.50 each/per night.
El Salvador, along with Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, is part of the CA-4 (or C4) Border Control Agreement.
For the visitor, this means that upon arrival you are issued a 90-day visa that covers the four countries. If you’re entering El Salvador by road, you’ll already have a valid visa. However, if you stay longer than 90 days, you must travel to a country outside the CA-4 (Mexico, Belize, etc) to renew your visa.
If you’re entering El Salvador by air from a country outside of the CA-4, you’ll be issued a 90-day tourist visa. The purchase of a tourist card ($10) is required. You should carry your passport at all times as local police may ask you to produce it.
If you’re bringing gadgets, you’ll have no problem as the electricity (110v) and plugs are the same as in Canada.
El Salvador uses the US dollar as its currency – so figuring out the value of things is easy.
Official Tourism Site: www.elsalvador.travel
Canadian Government Travel Report on El Salvador: www.voyage.gc.ca