Very vibrantly painted building on the corner of a street in a town.

Things to Know before Visiting El Salvador

Visiting El Salvador for the first time? You’ve probably got some questions. I certainly did. El Salvador is one of the least-visited countries in Latin America and as such, there isn’t a ton of information out there.

Media coverage typically focuses on the bad, so the country as a whole is often skipped by most travellers.

The fact that you’re reading this means that at the very least, you’re curious. At best, you’re planning on visiting. Thank you for that!

Below are a few of the important (and trivial) bits to help you better understand the country while planning your trip to El Salvador.

El Salvador is Not Overly Touristic

El Salvador is the least touristic country in Central America. As a result, tourism infrastructure is lacking in many places. Even in popular spots such San Salvador, Santa Ana, and the Surf City coast, English is rarely spoken.

Knowing at least some very basic Spanish will help you significantly. Though using Google Translate is a helpful backup.

It Has a Troubled Past

Following the tragic civil war of the 80’s, El Salvador has been in a bit of a slump. And after a series of corrupt presidents, progress has been largely stagnant. Only in recent years have people really started visiting the country.

And thanks in-part to the most recent president, things are changing for the better for the first time in decades. It’s always nice to understand the history of a destination you plan to visit. But considering how recent the wounds, understanding the backdrop of El Salvador is especially important.


El Salvador is Safe to Travel

Safety in El Salvador has been a huge player in deterring most travellers. In fact, on our first visit we almost skipped over due to the portrayal in main stream media.

Thankfully, El Salvador has undergone significant changes over the passed few years. In 2022 alone, over 55,000 gang members have been imprisoned.

In short, El Salvador is just as safe as any other country in the region. Possibly more so.

So safe, in fact…

Many Salvadorans are Returning Home

An additional note on the state of overall safety in El Salvador. During and after the war, thousands of Salvadorans fled the country for better lives. Given the circumstances, this was understandable.

However, each time we visit we meet more and more Salvadorans who are actively moving back to El Salvador. The reason most give is simple: it’s safe now.

Read More | How Safe is El Salvador?

See the Article

Do You Need a Visa for El Salvador?

Most nationalities do not need to apply for a visa for visits under 90 days. All you need is a passport that’s valid for at least 6 months from the end of your stay. Upon arriving at either the border or airport you purchase a 90-day tourist card for $12USD. This is payable in cash, credit card, or bitcoin.

If you’re simply passing through El Salvador (but why!?) you don’t need to pay the fee so long as your time in the country is less than 48 hours.

See the full list of visa exemptions.

When to Visit El Salvador

The best time to visit El Salvador is between November and February. It’s fine to travel at any time during the year, but from April to mid-October, the heavy rains can affect the experience and cause flash floods, as well as landslides in the highlands.

Cloudy sky over a river flowing between trees.
Creeks can quickly turn into rivers during the wet season

Many El Salvador Beaches have Black Sand

Beaches in El Salvador are not the cliche postcard picture. The beaches are nearly all black from the volcanic rock that makes up most of the landscape. As well, purely sand beaches are rare — though they do exist.

The same is said for calm waters. El Salvador is a serious surfing destination due to the impressive breaks all along the coast. Tranquil waters for a calm, relaxing swim are less common than those with waves.

Eating in El Salvador

The local cuisine may not be as famous as that of Mexico or Thailand, but food in El Salvador runs the spectrum and has some delicious specialties.

If you’re a cautious eater, the safest bets are Desayunos Typicos (typical breakfast) and the national dish: pupusas. These are both simple, cheap options and are found everywhere.

Blue plate with fried dough patties and a cabbage slaw.
The National Food of El Salvador: Pupusas

Currency in El Salvador

The main currency of El Salvador is the US Dollar. This replaced the colón that collapsed in the years following the civil war. ATMs are common in most major centres and dispense bills in $20 and $50 banknotes.

It’s also worth noting that El Salvador uses both $1 bills and coins. So when you’re given a handful of change that contains a bunch of dollar coins, they’re not counterfeit. It’s a Salvadoran thing.

But more recently…

Bitcoin is an Official Currency of El Salvador

In the spring of 2021, president Nayib Bukele made the shocking and controversial move to make Bitcoin legal tender. And while the worlds most popular cryptocurrency is an official currency, businesses are not forced to accept it. This is due to the simple fact that such a change takes time for everyone to get on board.

So if you’re a bitcoiner, don’t expect to spend only sats in El Salvador. At least for the time being, cash is still king.

White brick wall with blue paint on one edge. Orange logo of "Bitcoin Beach" in the centre.
Bitcoin Beach is Where it all began

Carry Small Banknotes in El Salvador

Speaking of cash, many retailers, especially smaller shops (tiendas) have limited cash on hand. And what they carry is most often notes and coins in small denominations.

When you get cash from an ATM, try to break your larger bills ($20 and larger) as quickly as you can at bigger businesses. Hotels, hostels and larger restaurants are good for this.

If you try to spend a $20 at a shop or restaurant in a small town, they likely won’t have change to give you.

Distances in El Salvador are Deceiving

Geographically, El Salvador is a tiny country. This can be very deceiving when planning your journey. Small as it is, getting around takes time. Between traffic, road conditions, and landscape, getting from point A to B often takes longer than you would thing from looking at a map.

Even major routes, such as the one between San Salvador and Santa Ana, are slower than usual these days due to significant infrastructure upgrades.

Getting around El Salvador is easy, but expect travel to take longer than you anticipate.

Getting Around El Salvador

You’ve got plenty of options when it comes to getting around El Salvador. From renting a car, to local taxis, Uber, the famous Chicken Buses and even hitchhiking, getting from place to place is ridiculously easy.

All you need is a little patience.

School bus painted green and red.
Chicken Buses are Fun but can make for long travel days

Don’t Flush Toilet Paper in El Salvador

Like in many developing countries, the plumbing isn’t built to handle anything more than what leaves the body naturally. Don’t flush toilet paper. For those new to this concept, you toss the ass-wipes in the trash bin beside the toilet. This seems a bit strange at first but it’s the way it works here.

On a similar note, it’s a good idea to bring a bit of toilet paper and small change with you in your day pack. Most public washrooms have a small fee to use ($0.25-$0.50) and don’t always have toilet paper.

Electricity in El Salvador

Electricity in El Salvador is the North American standard. Plug type A and B (North America, China and Japan), with or without ground prong, and the service is 120V/60Hz.

Most electronic devices these days range from 100-240V, so regardless of where you’re visiting from, your gear will charge. If visiting from outside North America, a plug adapter will be required.

Red, yellow and blue graffiti on a stone wall with the words

The Complete Guide to Playa El Tunco

Experience El Salvador’s backpacker playground in the heart of Surf City. Jump from waterfalls, surf epic waves, enjoy delicious food, incredible nightlife and one of the best sunsets on earth.

Get the Guide!

Bring an Unlocked Smart Phone

Travelling with a smart phone feels like a no-brainer these days. This is particularly the case in El Salvador. But if your phone is locked to a carrier, you’ll be stuck paying roaming fees during your trip — and those hurt.

From organizing transport to paying for lunch, the smartphone is a lifesaver here. And when considering the dirt-cheap price of data in El Salvador, getting a local SIM is a no-brainer.

Apps for El Salvador (hidden link)

El Salvador has Mayan Ruins

Present-day El Salvador is the southernmost tip of what was once the mighty Mayan Empire. And while the ruins here aren’t as famous as those in Mexico or Guatemala, there are several impressive sites throughout El Salvador.

It’s Literally Made of Volcanoes

El Salvador is known as the “land of volcanoes” for good reason. There are over 117 volcanoes in the country with 23 being active .

This should not concern you as a visitor. While so many are active, small eruptions do take place from time to time. Thankfully, the chance of a major eruption is unlikely.

Seeing that El Salvador is such a volcanically-active country, earthquakes are common. Although they are almost always small and go mostly unnoticed.

Man in a red shirt walking on a path looking towards a volcano.
Volcanoes are Everywhere in El Salvador

Talk to your Bank before Visiting El Salvador

A hiccup that seems to be affecting travellers these days is two-step verification regarding online purchases with their credit cards. Depending on your bank, you may need to enter a special code that is texted to the phone number attached to your account.

This typically happens when doing online bookings for accommodation, tours, etc.

The problem is obvious: unless you’re connecting via roaming, you can’t receive the message.

There is no simple solution to this issue. We’re just pointing it out to give you some advanced warning. Perhaps speak to your bank ahead of time to see if there is anything that can be done to avoid this frustrating problem.

Diseases in El Salvador

For a developing nation in the tropics, El Salvador ranks quite well regarding safety from diseases. In 2020, El Salvador became the first country in Central America to be malaria-free. This is a huge leap for the tiny nation.

Dengue fever and Chikungunya exist in El Salvador but are not common. As no vaccine or preventative medications exist for either, your best bet is taking precautions against mosquito bites.

Don’t drink tap water. This is standard safe-travel protocol in most places. Even in parts of cities where the water is “safe” to drink, it’s a good rule to stay clear because the parasites and other illnesses that can show up aren’t worth the risk.

Check with your local health department for official recommendations.

Dangerous Bugs in El Salvador

Creepy crawlers and other critters are common in Central America. But your chances of being hurt by any of them are slim. All kinds of lizards, snakes, spiders, scorpions and other insects can be found but we’ve personally never had a negative encounter.

The best practices involve checking under your pillows before bed (if staying in cheap or exposed accommodation), and checking inside your shoes in the morning. Most of these critters are nocturnal and like tight, dark hiding spots during the day.

And that’s it!

You now have a solid overview of things to know before visiting El Salvador. If you have any other questions, something we might have overlooked here, send us a message or comment below.

Orange sunset over the ocean. Large rock in the water, people on the beach.
See you soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.