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Although often overshadowed by expatriate hotspots like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama, El Salvador is proving to be a viable alternative for travelers in search of a low-key, low-cost Central American adventure.
Popular with the outdoors set for years, El Salvador’s empty beaches, mountainous terrain, and rustic appeal have been attracting surfers, hikers, mountain-bikers, and plain old pioneering spirits ever since the country’s civil war ended sixteen years ago. Beaches like El Sunzal sport long, slow swells that are perfect for experienced and aspiring surfers alike. $25 will get you a one-hour surfing lesson with the resident instructor at Sunzal’s Casa de Mar, a tropical hillside hotel made up of 11 villas. $40 buys drinks and a full-course meal for two at their hilltop restaurant overlooking the Pacific—think fried fish, ceviche, and seafood cocktails.
Nature-lovers will want to head north into the cooler air of El Pital, the nation’s highest point (8,957 ft.), to explore the region’s lush pine, oak, and cypress forests. Cabins and guest rooms start at $50 at quaint eco-retreats like El Pital Highland. Hiking, camping, paragliding, canoeing, and horseback riding are offered, but simply basking in the solitude and tranquility of the region also makes El Pital a satisfying spiritual retreat.
The best part: El Salvador uses the American dollar as its local currency. There are no money exchange hassles and your cash increases in value as soon as the plane touches down at Comalapa International Airport. And the lack of large-scale tourism means that over-priced tourist traps and foreigner-hungry hustlers are still a rare breed in the country.
Go during the dry season (November-April) when it’s easier to travel around the country. Keep in mind that many services shut down around Christmas, Easter, and the first week of August. Prices may increase during those periods.
The list below covers some of the most accessible places to stay, eat, and visit in the country. Some of the listings are considered “luxury.” In Tom Thumb-sized El Salvador though, nearly all are priced well below North American standards and the atmosphere is always casual.
WHERE TO STAY
Los Almendros de San Lorenzo: Although one of El Salvador’s finest boutique hotels, prices are still incredibly low. Double rooms start at $85 and huge, beautifully decorated suites start at just $120. This restored centuries-old hacienda is located in Suchitoto, an old Spanish town which has changed very little since the days of the Conquistadors. Cobblestone streets lined with cotton trees and white-washed colonials overlook scenic Lake Suchitlan. Visit Santa Lucia Mártir, the historic 16th century church that stands in the town’s plaza, or take a ferry ride across the lake to pass some time. Dinner and drinks for two at the hotel’s gourmet restaurant average $50. The oversized garlic shrimp easily rival anything the Mediterranean has to offer.
• 4a Calle Poniente 2b, Suchitoto; 011-503-2335-1200; www.hotelsalvador.com.
Casa de Mar: If you surf, or always wanted to, Casa de Mar is the place to be. Situated on a hillside overlooking El Sunzal beach—one of the world’s best surfing spots—a night for two in one of the large villas runs about $150. If that seems steep for Central America, consider that similarly luxurious retreats in Costa Rica cost upwards of $250 a night. Each villa has a TV, air-conditioning, cozy furnishings, and a deck overlooking the ocean. Even sans surfboard, this low-key hotel is a great place to unwind. The pool is just steps from the beach and, despite Sunzal’s international fame, there are precious few tourists to be seen. Stroll the beach at dusk and have a drink at one of the surfside cafes under the large coconut palms.
• KM. 43 Carretera del Litoral, El Sunzal, La Libertad. 011-503-2389-6284; www.casademarhotel.com.
El Pital Highland: You’ll need to rent a car to get to this high-altitude retreat—and make sure it’s a four-wheel drive. Three cabins, eight guest rooms, and a partially outdoor restaurant sit atop Cerro El Pital (Pital Hill). The chilly weather (usually in the 60’s) makes for a welcome change from El Salvador’s lower elevated tropics. Rooms start at $50 and a steak dinner for two goes for about $20. Gaze across mountains, volcanoes, and rivers toward neighboring Honduras and Guatemala while hiking or enjoying one of the many outdoor activities.
• Reservation office in San Salvador is located at 1a Calle Poniente & 21 Ave. Norte, #1204; 011-503-2259-0602; www.elpital.com.sv
Royal Decameron: If an all-inclusive resort with multiple pools, all-you-can-eat buffets, and an open bar is more your style, then you may want to consider Royal Decameron. This 552-room hotel tends to attract a slightly rowdier mix of Canadians and Eastern Europeans who come for the fun and the sun. Located on Salinitas beach, 45 minutes from the capital, the two-year-old resort offers spa facilities, a gym, five restaurants, guided excursions, and a nightclub. You may have to book through an agent to get the best price, but $1,000 per week for an all-inclusive stay for two adults is typical.
• Kilometer 79 on the road to Acajutla, Sonsonate; 011-503-2209-3100; www.decameron.com
El Pimiental Beach, San Luis Talpa, La Paz: Consider renting a house at this desolate beach just 25 minutes from the airport. City-dwelling Salvadorans employ cuidanderos (caretakers) to watch over their beach houses in the area. These same cuidanderos are often paid to cook and look out for guests who rent the properties. You’ll need a car to get around, but if you can snag a deal on a house, it’s worth experiencing the bliss of swinging from a hammock just steps from a deserted beach and dreaming about never going home. Check websites like http://www.viviun.com and http://www.vrbo.com for home listings. Prices vary greatly, but expect to pay around $150 a day. Considering the seclusion and beauty, it’s a very reasonable price (especially spilt several ways).
• From the airport: take the Comalapa Road toward San Salvador, get off at the San Luis Talpa exit, and follow the signs to El Pimiental.
WHERE TO EAT
Pollo Campero: Although this is basically a Guatemalan fast food franchise, Salvadorans wax poetic when describing the fried chicken served at this Central American favorite. Flights from El Salvador to the U.S are often redolent with the smell of crispy tostones, sweet plantains, heavily seasoned beans, and the venerated fried chicken that Salvadorans bring with them in take-out boxes. To visit El Salvador and not sample Pollo Campero is a mortal sin. Bring about $5 for each diner.
• Check the website for locations, or just look for the chicken-in-a-cowboy-hat logo. www.campero.com.
La Curva de Don Gere: This ocean-side eatery attracts a steady stream of locals with its huge selection of traditional dishes—Platos Tipicos—and revolving troupes of Mariachis that can seemingly belt out any Spanish song ever penned for a dollar. Located near the bustling port town of La Libertad, Don Gere is near surfing hotspots like El Sunzal, El Tunco, and El Zonte. Meat dishes start at $5, seafood at $8, and sandwiches go for about $3. Be sure to visit the port just down the road and watch fisherman haul in and prepare their catch at the fish market on the pier.
• On the road to San Diego, 600 meters east of the Shell station, La Libertad; 011-503-2335-3436. There are other locations throughout the country.
La Posada de Suchitlan: Waitresses in flowing multi-colored dresses serve unbeatable Gallina India (country chicken) at this wood and stucco restaurant on the cliff-side. The panoramic view of Lake Suchitlan will have you breaking out the camera and snapping pictures before you even sit down to order. There are rooms for rent (La posada is also an Inn), but most people come for the food and the view. Stop in on your way to Suchitoto. A full course meal for two (with drinks) will set you back about $25.
• Final 4ª Calle Poniente, Blvd. San José, Suchitoto; 011-503-2335-1064.
Champitas: No trip to El Salvador would be complete without visiting a local champita (roadside canteen). In these ubiquitous makeshift shacks, $3 will get you a plate of …something. Whether it’s a piece of grilled chicken with rice and beans, tortillas with cheese, or a few pupusas, the emphasis is on price. Many a surfer and backpacker have subsisted exclusively on champita food for longer than is recommended. Try to find one that looks well-kempt.
Cafe San Fernando: The first thing that most visitors to San Salvador notice is the large volcano looming over the city—and the first impulse is to climb it. A two-lane road winds upward through thick foliage and eventually deposits you at scenic Café San Fernando just short of the summit. Grilled rabbit, beef loin, salmon, and a jalapeno-coated t-bone steak are on the menu. But coffee, pie, and the spectacular view of San Salvador are what bring most patrons here ($3 should cover it). Afterwards, continue up to the summit and peer into El Boqueron (the crater).
• Kilometer 23.5, Carretera Ruta Boqueron, San Salvador; 011-503-7877-8944.