The time is now and the price is right to visit El Salvador

Until recently, it never occurred to me to go to El Salvador. I’d been to Guatemala and Costa Rica and loved both of them. But somehow this never translated into a longing to visit their neighbor.

There are two reasons for this — El Salvador has little media presence, so it seldom crosses most travelers’ minds, unless they have family ties or are surfers seeking the country’s world class surf breaks.

Also, I’m old enough to remember the bloody 20-year-long civil war that ended in 1992, and that was always the first thing that came to mind on the rare occasion when I gave any thought to it.

But let me tell you, I think differently now. My friend Cheryl and I flew there for a long weekend, after we scored incredibly cheap airfares on Avianca airlines.

I bought the plane tickets knowing nothing about the country, except that they have volcanoes there and it’s hot. But I’ll go anywhere as long as the flight is cheap. And, as I began to research where we might go, I began to get excited.

Cascadas de Don Juan, El Salvador. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023

Marla Jo Fisher enjoys the hot spring resort at Termales Santa Teresa in El Salvador, October 2023

Hot spring pools at Termales Santa Teresa. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023

Botanical gardens at Cascadas de Don Juan, El Salvador. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023



For one thing, it’s a bargain. The least expensive country in Central America that I’ve ever visited. A piña colada with fresh pineapple and coconut ran around $4 in most places. That alone would be enough to send me there.

If you’ve ever eaten pupusas — yummy Salvadoran pancakes stuffed with cheese, beans, veggies or other stuff — you’ll be interested to know we paid around 75 cents each for them.

On our last night in the country, Cheryl and I went to a pupusa restaurant for dinner. We had been splurging on fancier restaurants (still cheaper than here at home), but this time we shared five pupusas, and each of us had a cocktail. Total dinner check: $13.75. No wonder the cute restaurant was packed with families.

But cheap drinks and eats aren’t the only reason to visit. El Salvador’s mountains are covered with luxuriant rainforests, flowering trees and volcanoes. Even though it’s the smallest country in Central America, it has 23 active volcanoes and 170 total, according to our tour guide, Melissa.

If you’ve ever wanted to climb a volcano, well, they’ve got you covered. And while you’re hiking, you’ll probably come across one or more of what seem like 8.2 zillion waterfalls that seem to be everywhere in the country.

Even a gimp like me — leaning heavily on the arm of our driver Alex — managed to hobble an easy trail to a gorgeous pair of forest waterfalls called Cascadas de Don Juan, which had a swimming hole that tempts you to stay all day. I was sorry I didn’t have my swimsuit. Don’t make that mistake.


We flew in nonstop from Los Angeles in about five hours, landing in between the capital city of San Salvador and the coastal surfing areas such as El Tunco frequented by avid surfers from around the world.

Because we arrived late, we spent the first night at the Hyatt Centric in San Salvador, which I was able to book with only 3,500 Hyatt points, a fraction of the normal cost.

It’s not difficult to get around El Salvador with a rental car or by public bus. It’s a small country — a bit less than the size of New Jersey — and the roads are good, although traffic can be heavy. However, I like to hire drivers, get to know them and let them do all the work.

We paid $300 for four days of drivers through EC Tours of San Salvador, including one day with a full English-speaking guide. Our drivers generally spoke Spanish.

Our EC Tours guide, Melissa, picked us up promptly at 10 a.m. the next morning, and we set out on the mountainous highway that the government has dubbed the “Ruta de las Flores.” And even though it was October and the rainy season, there were still many flowers to be seen along the scenic drive through the rainforest, including rare orchids and many flowering trees.

Let’s talk about the rainy season. Yes, it rained. Typically, our days would start out sunny and bright. It would begin clouding up in the early afternoon, become oppressively humid and then rain in the late afternoon or evening.

However, it never rained continuously for long periods. There were always breaks. And the warm tropical rain broke up the humidity and left the air damp but fresh feeling. So, it really wasn’t a problem for us.

The rainy season accentuated the many waterfalls. And it also kept some tourists away, meaning that rates for everything were cheaper. I wouldn’t hesitate to return at that time of year, unless a hurricane was forecast.

We meandered along the Ruta de las Flores, stopping at cute cobblestone villages, a coffee plantation and ended our day in Concepcion de Ataco, one of the favorite tourist destinations here.

The small town of 18,000 has cobblestone streets with many colorful street murals, restaurants, hotels and shops.

Because it’s also in the heart of coffee country, Ataco has a profusion of coffee houses with many choices at each one.

Coffee has been one of the top exports of El Salvador for centuries, and has only recently been overtaken by sugar cane as its top export, according to our guide Melissa.

Sadly, as in many such coffee meccas, the locals can’t afford their own best coffee. It is sent overseas, while the people who grew and picked it drink the dregs.

Much of El Salvador is hot and steamy, so I’d made sure to reserve a hotel with air conditioning. We loved Casa Degraciela, our 150-year-old hotel, built around a colonial style plaza, with its friendly staff, but I realized that we were in the mountains in the fall, and we never needed to turn on the air at all.

Restaurant and bar at Termales Santa Teresa, El Salvador. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023

Casa Degraciela, 150-year-old hotel in Ataco, El Salvador. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023
El Salvador. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023

Orchid growing wild in the mountains. El Salvador. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023

Coffee beans growing near Ataco, El Salvador. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023

Coach at Casa Degraciela hotel, Ataco, (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023

Lake Coatepec in El Salvador, a crater lake formed by a massive volcanic explosion. (Photo by Marla Jo Fisher/SCNG) 2023



The following morning, our driver picked us up and drove us half an hour to one of the highlights I’d been looking forward to: One of the hot spring resorts in the area, thanks to the volcanoes.

Termales Santa Teresa is a pleasant rainforest resort with hot and cold pools, hiking, a restaurant and bar, massage and mud baths. There are also a few attractive cabanas available.

Admission for the day was $10, though you could splurge and pay $25 including lunch and a mud bath. A couples massage was $35.

Soaking there was truly an international experience, as I met friendly folks from all over, including engineers from South Korea who were there to build a highway and a woman born in El Salvador who grew up in New York, but now returns annually on vacation.

Next time, I plan to check out the adjacent hot spring resort called Alicante Hot Springs, which costs $5 to enter.

After soaking most of the day, we were ready to leave just as the clouds rolled in and got back to the hotel in time for a nap just as the rain started and before dinner at an Argentinian restaurant where I paid $20 for a luscious filet mignon dinner, and $4.75 for cocktails. Yeah. $4.75.

All too soon, the next day, it was time to start wending our way back to the airport. The following morning, driver Alex picked us up early and we headed out to see some volcanoes. We had fish for lunch at a simple restaurant overlooking the stunning Lake Coatepec, in a caldera created when a massive volcano blew its top starting around 72,000 years ago.

That’s when we also stopped to visit the waterfall, and then sadly made our way back to the new, clean, efficient San Salvador airport for our trip home.

We never even made it to the coast, which is ironic considering that is the most popular tourist destination today.

I recently tried to figure out a way to take my entire family to Hawaii for Thanksgiving weekend, but the cost was simply prohibitive for this single mom.

And, after our visit, I couldn’t help comparing the two:

Hawaii has volcanoes. El Salvador has volcanoes.
Hawaii has beaches and surfing. El Salvador has beaches and surfing.
Hawaii is a five-hour flight away. El Salvador is a five-hour flight away.
Hawaii has rainforests. El Salvador has rainforests.
Hawaii is expensive. El Salvador is … not.

Hmm. Something to think about.

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At one time, El Salvador had a violent gang problem. But the new president has thrown many of them in jail, and local residents told me they feel much safer now (though the move has been controversial with human rights activists.) For what it’s worth, the U.S. State Department has issued a “Level 3” advisory for El Salvador on its 4-tier scale, which means “reconsider travel.” The advisory noted both gang violence and the government’s crackdown against it — which has caused U.S. citizens to be detained — as reasons for caution.

We never felt unsafe. In fact, it may be the most friendly country I’ve ever visited.

It was also clean, something that can’t be said for every Latin American country. No trash. Anywhere. I didn’t have time to find out why, but I was grateful.

The main problem that I observed was a lack of English spoken in the tourism industry. Our guide Melissa told me that most of the tourists she guides now are former Salvadorans who left during the civil unrest or their children, and now feel safe enough to come back on vacation.

Related links

Frumpy Mom: Enjoying some sweaty fun in El Salvador
Frumpy Mom: Why I went to Guatemala
Frumpy Middle-aged Mom: I’m gimpy but I’m getting ready to travel
Marla Jo Fisher: I’m taking my kids on vacation – against their will
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They generally speak Spanish, and so do tourists from neighboring countries. But if the country wants to attract more international travelers and their cash, it needs to teach English to its tourism people.

I speak enough tourist Spanish to get us around, but my friend was disappointed she couldn’t talk to more people. El Salvador tourism folks, are you listening?

Even with communication gaps, people were astonishingly kind and lovely and anxious to help out. I know I’ll be back, at least to check out the famous beaches at Playa El Tunco, El Zonte and El Cuco. And I hope to bring the rest of my family with me.

Hey. It’s cheaper than Hawaii.

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