The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador, is filled with important Mayan ruins, fine craft traditions alive and well in country villages, jungle peaks that brush the sky, lines of volcanic cones rising over lakes and valleys, and a Pacific shoreline where surfers push off from white and black beaches to meet world-class waves. And in the capital, there’s no shortage of things to see and do. Although there are few traces of colonial times—San Salvador was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century—there are many essential modern attractions, such as the Metropolitan Cathedral, which gleams white and modern with two colorful murals by the country’s most famous 20th century artist, Fernando Llort, and some top-notch museums: the National Anthropology Museum David J. Guzman has excellent exhibits on the ancient Maya; the Museum of Popular Art highlights the country’s contribution to regional folk art; and the Museum of Modern Art. San Salvador further surprises its visitors with first-rate art galleries, and a tourist-friendly, vibrant bar, restaurant and live music scene around the Zona Rosa, whose closest international chain hotel is the Hilton Princess. InterContinental and Crowne Plaza are also in the capital, but coming back to a good location (in/around Zona Rosa), 47-room Suites Las Palmas is within walking distance and has a great rooftop pool.
Heading to the countryside is the key to getting to know El Salvador. Everyone’s favorite town is colonial Suchitoto, 30 miles north of the capital; the delightful 22-mile-long Ruta de Las Flores links Sonsonate and Ahuachapan, with Juayua’s weekend food and crafts festival town along the way, as well as Alegria, the mountain-top flower capital; and major Mayan sites are Joya de Ceren, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Tazamul with its iconic step pyramid. Cerro Verde National Park, with its fine orchid gardens and good hiking trails is a popular day excursion from the capital; and it takes more time to explore and enjoy the waterfalls, streams and swimming holes in Parque Nacional El Imposible, El Salvador’s richest-in-wildlife national park. Of course, the waters are warmer along the close-to-the-capital beaches: that famous right-hand wave is at Punta Roca.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: November to April; December, the coldest month, is best of all
FUN FACT: When the surf is up, the world-class Punta Roca is rated the best surf wave in Central America
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta to San Salvador
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport
CURRENCY: U.S. dollar
MUST-TRY LOCAL FOOD: For the country’s best national dishes—pupusas (tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, pork rinds and other fillings) served with hot sauce and spicy coleslaw—head for the weekly (Saturdays & Sundays) food and artisan festival in Juayua along the Ruta de las Flores
BEST BUYS: For the high-end artisan crafts—basketry from Nahuizalco, textiles from San Sebastian, ceramics from Ilobasco—drop into boutique Nahanche in the capital
INFORMATION PLEASE: Ministry of Tourism of El Salvador—elsalvador.travel