The 13 Most Beautiful Places to Visit in El Salvador

| Roberto Peña / Unsplash
Courtney Stanley

Tucked at the bottom of Central America on the way to nowhere, El Salvador often gets overlooked even by overlanding backpackers. Which is a shame – with Mayan ruins, avenues of smoking volcanoes, sleepy Spanish-colonial villages set in flower-filled valleys and long, broad stretches of surf-friendly Pacific coast, it’s as enchanting as its more celebrated neighbors. And at around the same size of New Jersey, you can see the most beautiful spots at your leisure in a few days.

1. Suchitoto

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark

Latin country side town framed by green plant leaves in the foreground, Suchitoto, El Salvador
Erick Chévez / Unsplash

Head northeast of the capital, San Salvador, and you’ll reach this former colonial city. It suffered structural damage in the Civil War (1980-1992), but now it’s a great mountain getaway, and a national magnet for culture, with arts and food festivals forever filling the streets. You might amble round the cobblestone streets gazing up at beautifully preserved Spanish-colonial buildings. Head beyond town for waterfalls and caves. Or take your binoculars to Lake Suchitlán, where migratory species include the country’s largest duck populations.

2. Playa El Tunco

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark

Two surfers holding surf boards walking into the sea, Playa El Tunco, Tamanique, El Salvador
Eduardo Iraheta / Unsplash

Welcome to a funky two-street beach town, very popular with backpackers and surfers – waves on the pebbly black beaches are best early in the morning. Stroll the quaint streets or visit the beach caves when the tide is low. Playa El Tunco is popular with Salvadorans as well as travelers, and is always packed on weekends. Don’t miss the stunning sunsets every evening (top tip: there’s an amazing view from the hotel Monkey Lala). At night, the bars are fabulously upbeat – and the crowd can get quite rowdy.

3. Lake Ilopango

Natural Feature

Blue lake surrounded by green forrest hills and mountains, Lake Ilopango, El Salvador
Eduardo Moreno Flamenco / Unsplash

What used to be a volcano 1,500 years ago is now a blue expanse of freshwater in central El Salvador. At an altitude of 1,450ft (442m), edged by towering cliffs, it is much loved by divers and boating enthusiasts. An eruption, sometime between CE 410 and CE 535, shattered the cone, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of people for miles around. The bowl-like caldera that remained filled to form the 28sqmi (72sqkm) Lake Ilopango. Travelers are bewitched by its serene beauty, and locals dive for fish in waters that fall away to 787ft (240m) or more.

4. Puerta del Diablo

Natural Feature

Puerta del Diablo, El Salvador
Ricardo Ardon / Unsplash

The past is dark – filled with death and horror – but today the views are awesome and uplifting, ensuring a steady flow of tourists. Devil’s Door is a rock formation composed of two tall boulders, forming a window out over the lush El Salvadoran landscape. From the viewpoint, accessed along a winding pathway, you’ll see the indigenous town Panchimalco directly below, Lake Ilopango to the left, and the twin-peaked San Vicente volcano straight ahead with the Pacific beyond. Unsurprisingly, for the intrepid, there are more than 60 rock climbing routes in the area, with zip lining, canopy tours, caving and rappelling on the agenda, too.

5. Santa Ana

Architectural Landmark

a statue of a woman holding a torch in front of a cathedral, Santa Ana, El Salvador
Luis Desiro / Unsplash

A drive of some 40mi (65km) from San Salvador brings you to Santa Ana, the second-largest city in the country. An idyll of tree-lined streets and vibrant buildings, it amassed its wealth from the coffee industry. It feels grand, and there’s a blossoming cultural scene, drawn by the all-round beauty. It’s a good place to base yourself if heading out to explore the Tazumal ruins or the Ruta de las Flores. While here, make sure you explore Santa Ana’s towering neo-Gothic cathedral, completed in 1913, with an exterior liberally covered in intricate carvings.

6. Tazumal

Ruins, Historical Landmark

Tazumal is the most impressive Mayan ruin in El Salvador – first settled around 5,000 BCE, archaeologists estimate, and abandoned in the 13th century. The architectural complex was excavated and extensively restored in the 1940s and ’50s, but many of the ruins remain unexcavated. Tazumal is believed to have been an important center of trade, and its language in the K’iche’ language means “pyramid where the victims were burned.” Explore this vast site and learn about the history of the Maya civilization through the on-site museum.

7. Ruta de las Flores

Architectural Landmark

Named for the wildflowers that grow roadside (at their best from November to February), this Flower Route leads you through some of the most beautiful villages in El Salvador. From Sonsonate you drive for some 25mi (40km), through Juayúa, Ataco, Apaneca and Ahuachapán. Along the way, you’ll pass Spanish-colonial buildings, towering churches, weekend markets and great little pit-stops for food, not to mention stunning views of waterfalls and coffee plantations. You’ll have more independence if you self-drive, but the trail can also be covered by bus.

Playa el Esteron

Here’s a charming stretch of coast that, for whatever reason, somehow isn’t as popular as many of the others in El Salvador. The surf is gentle, and the ambience is tranquil thanks to the absence of the usual shore crowd, heavy on rowdy backpackers. The sands stretch out endlessly in either direction, not quite as black as the kind you find further west. If you need a tranquil beach getaway in El Salvador, stop at Playa El Esteron for a lazy beach day in beautiful, if unremitting, sunshine. You’re bound to end up swigging cold beer and swinging in a rented hammock as you watch the sunset colors form.

Montecristo National Park

This national park is nature with the volume turned up to 11 – from the highest peak (El Trifino, at 7,933ft/2,418m) to the lowest valleys. It looks like a long-lost world, with dense canopy of oaks and laurel trees soaring up to 100ft (30m) above, and mushrooms, lichens and mosses running rampant across the forest floor. And yet you can visit easily as part of a tour. You might glimpse the rare likes of pumas and anteaters, spider monkeys and and coyotes. Even if you don’t, sightings of squirrels and porcupines, black shrew-mice and white-tailed deer are common. All that and 300 bird species, including quetzals, green toucans and white-faced quails. Keep your eyes peeled.

Coatepeque Caldera

Filling a volcanic caldera forged tens of thousands of years ago – much older than Ilopango – Lago de Coatepeque is one of the larger lakes in the country. Surrounded by steep slopes, the clean blue water descends 394ft (120m) – a miraculous view seen from the highway on the ridge of the crater as you approach. There’s plenty to do – perhaps taking a kayak or boat out over the rippled depths. As you paddle, notice the beach houses on the shores: weekend getaways for the very lucky.

Cihuatán

When it comes to pre-Colombian ruins, neighboring Guatemala gets all the limelight. Which is good news, because while Tikal is tourist-teeming, El Salvador’s more modest Mayan cities are deserted. Even though they’re just 45 minutes north of San Salvador, you’ll have the pyramids and ancient ball courts at Cihuatán to yourself, if you come midweek. With no roads nearby, the air is meditatively still, except for the calls of toucans and tanagers in the surrounding forest.

Laguna de Alegria

Central El Salvador is rugged with forest-swathed volcanoes, cut with plunging valleys and dotted with crater lakes. Emerald green, iris-round and sitting in a bowl of rainforest at the summit of Tecapa volcano, the Laguna de Alegria in the Cerro Verde mountains, is one of the prettiest. It’s easy to reach by road from the nearby village of Alegria (aka “Happiness”), and trails run from the shore into the surrounding forest to hot springs and fumaroles.

Playa el Espino

Many of El Salvador’s beaches are sticky and muscavado-brown. Not Espino, a place of palm-tree shade and demerara sand stretching for more than 12mi (20km) between the waterfall-laced Periquera mountains and the wild, dolphin-populated bays of Jiquilisco. Things get busy around the village, where there are restaurants, hotels and surf shops. However, the sand is empty and wild at the beach’s eastern and western extremities, with more nesting turtles and cawing terns than tourists.

Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.

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