I just got back to Los Angeles this afternoon from spending three nights and four days on my fall vacation to El Salvador. I rented a car from National Car Rental and explored cloud forests, beaches, lakes, and quaint small towns. It was my first time to El Salvador and I loved every minute of it. I was sad when I left to El Salvador International Airport (SAL) for my early morning flight back to Los Angeles. Here are 10 things I learned from my recent trip to El Salvador:
1. Driving is pretty dangerous – Just like in Costa Rica, driving is really dangerous in El Salvador. First off, the road conditions are horrible and are riddled with potholes. Secondly, you have to watch out for pedestrians that are just walking along roads when cars are passing by at 80 miles per hour. Not only do you have to dodge potholes and hopefully not hit a pedestrian, you have to watch out for stray dogs that just park themselves in the middle of the road. Combine all these three factors at night with a potential downpour, and you’ll have a deadly situation at hand.
2. Bring lots of small change – The official currency in El Salvador is the US Dollar which makes it simple for tourists. Leave your $50 and$ 100 dollar bills at home because they won’t be accepted at many stores. I made the mistake of even bringing a few $20 bills because some vendors might not have change. Conclusion – Bring stacks of $10 dollar bills, $5 dollar bills and especially $1 dollar bills.
3. Tourism is non-existent – In most towns, there’s a “Welcome tourists” sign where the El Salvadoran government is trying to promote tourism. Most of the small towns don’t even have a tourism booth and it’s anything but tourist friendly. Every time I went outside of the Sheraton Presidente San Salvador Hotel, I hardly saw a single tourist. The only other time was in El Tunco which is riddled with backpackers and surfers in the La Libertad department of El Salvador.
4. The cost of items in El Salvador is inexpensive – I never spent more than $3 on lunch or dinner in El Salvador. Entrees ranged from $1 – $3 and if it costs more, you’re probably at a fine dining establishment. Pupusas are 50 cents, bottled water goes for 40 cents, and soda doesn’t cost more than 50 cents. I even got a car wash for $4 which took nearly an hour because every square inch was being hand washed.
5. Salvadorians are the friendliest people ever – Salvadorians are really approachable, nice, and friendly. I was also invited into several homes of Salvadorians whom I had just met which is unheard of elsewhere in the world. I’m convinced that Salvadorians will do anything and everything to make you feel welcomed in their home country.
6. The food is amazing – El Salvador is a foodie haven or shall I say, pupusa heaven. Pupusas are the everyday staple of a Salvadorian’s diet. They eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pupuserias can be found all over in El Salvador, but the best ones are in a small town called Olocuilta where every restaurant sells pupusas. Other typical Salvadoran dishes include arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), tamales and stews. Exotic fruits can also be found in El Salvador such as jocotes de corona which is delicious.
7. Chicken buses are everywhere – Chicken buses are retired U.S. school buses that are repainted in wild colors and it’s the main form of transportation for most local Salvadorians. They provide short distance and long distance travel and it never costs more than $1 for a ride. They create a lot of pollution on the road with plumes of black smoke, so they’re not environmentally friendly.
8. The landscape is simply stunning – The countryside landscape of El Salvador is filled with lush green trees and beautiful lakes. The views of El Salvador from the mountains are simply stunning and picturesque. There are scenic drives such as the Ruta de Flores (coffee route) and views of the volcanoes. I also had the chance to experience a true cloud forest at Cerro Verde National Park which is basically a foggy forest due to its sub-tropical climate.
9. Armed police are needed for a volcanic hike – At Cerro Verde National Park, armed police officers are required to accompany tourists to hike the Volcan de Santa Ana (Santa Ana Volcano). This is due to the fact that tourists have been robbed in the past. The hike through the cloud forest takes a total of 4 hours (2 hours to hike up, and 2 hours to hike down) and begins in the Cerro Verde National Park parking lot at 11am every day.
10. Police presence everywhere – El Salvador used to be at the top of the list for being known as the most dangerous country in the world. There is a huge problem with gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang whom practically run San Salvador. However, there is a large amount of police that patrol the Centro and San Salvador areas. Armed guards are also stationed outside businesses such as retail stores, malls, banks, gas stations, and restaurants. My advice is to avoid walking around during the night time in San Salvador.