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It is easy to overlook El Salvador. It is the only country in Central America that you don't have to pass through on your way north or south. The country's tourism board has even adopted a #DontSkipElSalvador campaign. It is one of the countries that Trump labelled a shithole but as we know Trump is wrong about everything. El Salvador is a beautiful country with people who all deserve respect and the ability to take pride in their homeland.
To be fair it took me a few days to feel the love for El Salvador. Arriving from Honduras I found myself on a busy road with no hard shoulder in the sweltering heat. There wasn't a lot to feast the eyes on. The afternoon heat was unbearable. There is little opportunity to get high up in El Salvador meaning you are often battling the humidity down near sea level. Thirsty work. The highlight of each day was my afternoon watermelon. As soon as the thirst became unbearable I would keep an eyeout for the watermelon sellers that line the roads. I would then sit in the shade and devour an entire watermelon with zero regard for etiquette or good manners. The watermelon sellers are always funny characters. One lady sang all the words to 'Girlfriend in a Coma' when I told her I was from Manchester.
Camping on the Pacific coast near El Zonte
It is in the west of the country where El Salvador really shines. I cycled up Volcan de San Salvador at sundown for incredible views of the capital San Salvador and the San Vincente volcano in the distance. After I dropped down to the coast and followed a beautiful coastal road. The beaches were empty except where the surf is good and there'd be a small surfing scene taking root. Easy to find a camp spot with warm equatorial water never more than a stone’s throw from your tent. After the coastal road I headed up into the mountains to the lovely colonial town of Jauyua. Impossible to pronounce (y-ooh-ah apparently) but a quaint little town with fantastic views all the way out to the Pacific. From Jauyua there is a great dirt road that takes you around the Santa Ana volcano to Lago de Coatepeque and more ideal camping. The road stays high almost all the way to Guatemala before finally dropping down to the river that marks the border.
Lago de Coatepeque
El Salvador is making a good job of shaking off it's once unsavory reputation. For a while it was competing with Honduras for the unwanted title of most dangerous country in the world. I was only in El Salvador a little over a week but I never once felt unsafe. Salvadoreans, like most people I met on my ride through the Americas, were kind and hospitable. Everyone I met was curious about the bike. I took care to camp discreetly and didn't go wandering around after dark. I even camped outside of a gas station one night on their beautifully manicured lawn. There was 24 hour security there and they had no problem with me pitching my tent. If you don't want to camp there are plenty of auto hotels along the main roads. What would be known as Love Hotels in Asia. Not places people generally go to sleep. They would often be confused when I explained I wanted to spend the whole night but would end up giving me a good deal.
All in all, after a slow start, I found El Salvador to be a charming place. Rich in natural beauty, pristine beaches, countless volcanoes and a vibrant culture. Very far indeed from being a shithole.
The roads are pretty good in El Salvador. Almost all tarmac. Roads are often narrow but I had no problem with the traffic. They always gave me a wide enough berth.
It is easy enough to find somewhere to camp. Although El Salvador is a lot safer than over the border in Honduras it is important to be discreet. I wouldn't camp by the side of the road. Also it is difficult to get up to a reasonable altitude so be prepared for some sticky nights in your tent. You will be lucky to find camping gas anywhere.
No visa required. Rock up at the border and you will get 90 days. No need for proof of onward travel. No surprise fees. Be warned you do not get a stamp when you enter El Salvador. I asked the immigration officer about 5 times 'Are you sure?', anticipating problems when I tried to leave the country. Nothing to worry about that. They just don't bother with stamps. Border crossings were quick and painless. I crossed at El Amatillo coming from Costa Rica and at Las Chinama on the way to Guatemala.
Basic bicycle shops in all the big towns but quality spare parts will be difficult to come by.
When to Go:
Best time to visit is El Salvador's dry season which runs between November and April. The rainy season is between May and October. In the rainy season, coastal and central regions typically suffer afternoon storms sandwiched between pleasant weather.
El Salvador's most notable dish is the pupusa, a thick handmade corn flour or rice flour tortilla stuffed with cheese, chicharrón (cooked pork ground to a paste), refried beans or loroco (a vine flower bud native to Central America).
Fairly cheap. El Salvador is on the dollar. I had to shop around a little to find accommodation for $10 or less.
Much improved but basic precautions should be taken.
Side of the road: