To most travellers, and some Salvadorians, San Miguel is nothing more than a stopping point between other destinations. Many find themselves here on their way from San Salvador to the beaches of El Cuco, or as an access point heading to or coming from Nicaragua. Few ever stay longer than what’s required to catch their next bus.
I’ve even heard one refer to it so eloquently as the armpit of El Salvador, due to its thick heat and lack of appeal. The first bit is true. San Miguel is fucking hot. The whole region here is the hottest in all of El Salvador. Temperatures regularly average in the high 30s (°C). And if I’m being completely honest with you, there isn’t a ton to do here. It’s not the kind of place you’re going to want to settle in for a week and explore — not yet anyway, but it’s coming around.
However, there are a few reasons you should consider spending a little time here, especially if you’re already on your way. Maybe skip the immediate connection and spend a night. It might not be the activity centre of Santa Ana or the backpacker-hub of El Tunco, but San Miguel has a few gems of its own worth checking out if you find yourself passing through.
Here are a few of the things to do in San Miguel, El Salvador, if you’re looking for some activities.
The Standard-Issue things to do in San Miguel, El Salvador
These are the most popular attractions and activities to do while visiting San Miguel. And while they’re good in their own right, we enjoyed the city for other reasons that we’ll get into a little later.
Explore the Quelepa Ruins
Not far from San Miguel are the Quelepa ruins, remnants of the Lenca people who inhabited this area centuries ago. These ruins aren’t as impressive as other, more famous, sites in Guatemala and Mexico, though they have an appeal of their own if you’re into these things. And are some of the least-visited ruins in Central America.
There’s a small information centre here as well as 30-40 different structures, all in the fairly compact archeological site.
Climb San Miguel Volcano
Towering in the distance just outside of San Miguel is the volcano of the same name. Though not nearly as popular as hiking the Santa Ana volcano, and far more difficult, making it a great option for adventurous types.
The hike itself can be organized through tour agencies and hotels in San Miguel. The trail isn’t marked nearly as well as more popular routes, and bandits have been known to make themselves present. So as with most hikes of this kind in El Salvador, it’s recommended using a guide/armed guard.
These can all be organized with the tour. Ask at your hostel.
Visit the Cathedral and Central Square
In the main square, the two-spired cathedral is the most notable architectural spot in San Miguel. And while it’s not as impressive as other churches in the country (like the gothic masterpiece in Santa Ana), it’s still an interesting focal point in town.
What really makes this place worth visiting, even if you couldn’t care less about architecture, is the excitement in the central square. With the nearby market and bus station, this is a hub of activity all day. It’s a great place to sit with a coffee and pastry and just watch the buzz of local life in San Miguel.
Check Out the Regional Museum
colourful, though unassuming building. The Regional Museum of San
Miguel features artifacts and historical pieces from the area, including many items discovered at Quelepa.
We didn’t visit ourselves, though reviews are overwhelmingly positive, despite its small size. Descriptions are in both Spanish and English.
Our Favourite Things about San Miguel
Sights and activities aside, we found enjoyment in San Miguel mostly due to “regular” things. These aren’t necessarily as exciting as climbing a volcano, or as informative as a cultural site, but they’re the reason we liked San Miguel as a whole.
A Really Great Bar
We arrived in San Miguel following a 7-hour travel day, which is something almost unheard of in a country so small. Needless to say, we were thirsty.
As we walked the streets in the general area surrounding the central square, we chanced upon a phenomenal bar. And I mean this literally, we were actually looking for a store, to pick up some beer, and a car stopped on the road asking if we needed help finding something. We casually said that we’re just out looking for beer, to which he replied, while pointing across the street from us, “This place is great”, before driving off.
This place is like the love-child of a beer garden and a dive bar; like a Salvadorian answer to a Bavarian beer hall. It’s a huge, open space filled with tables. There are a couple of televisions on the walls, and a bar lining two of the four walls; a small kitchen behind one. It’s a complete no-bullshit bar. Order some cheap beer (three 750ml bottles for $4.50!) and one of their simple snacks. We opted for a few tacos, bringing the grand total to $6.00.
It’s a very local bar, with a casual atmosphere.
Our initial reason for visiting San Miguel was for Carnaval. This annual event is the biggest in all El Salvador, and Salvadorians come from across the country and abroad to take part in the chaotic festivities. During the full month leading up to the event, there is an energy buzzing across the city. In the days before, it’s not uncommon for people to be drinking and setting off fireworks at all hours. The day of Carnival itself, all bets are off.
Though many people are drunk by noon, and fireworks haven’t stopped in 48 hours, most of the festivities don’t officially start until the evening. And much like the Festival del Cristo Negro in Juayua, the festival proper begins with a parade featuring beauty pageant contestants. This is a Salvadorian thing that we can’t seem to understand.
Things Get Wild at Night
The city centre after sundown is madness. Thousands of people in all states of sobriety are singing and cheering and dancing. Vendors selling water, snacks and beer fuel the excitement. On the sports grounds, the entire field is turned into a massive open-air food court, offering all kinds of tasty dishes (and plenty more beer).
Following the parade, things get even wilder. Music blares as bands perform in the streets and the drinking intensifies. And while we gave it a go, we didn’t have the energy to last the full night. Though the party could be heard echoing through the streets until dawn.
Hanging Out at the Local Market
One of the most exciting things to do, in any big city, is to visit the local market. And San Miguel has one of the best.
Starting at dawn, for several blocks along 3A Avenida Sur by 1A Calle Poniente, stalls line the street. Vendors sell everything from colourful fruits and vegetables, to fresh cheese, pickles, pupusas, and chickens — dead or alive.
Head inside and get lost in the dark, cavernous maze of stalls offering almost anything imaginable. Clothing, cookware, wicker furniture and a multitude of made-in-China nic-nacs are strewn about the different stalls. The rest of the market has more of the same as outside, with the addition of fresh seafood, more butchers; and countless, mouthwatering restaurants.
We read from other blogs that this market is not safe, (not sure how old they were) but we felt very safe and weren’t worried the whole time we walked around. We just suggest to keep an eye on your stuff at all times when travelling!
Finally, what really stands out for us in San Miguel are the people. Salvadorians as a whole are wonderful, happy, friendly folk; but down here it’s on another level.
The day we arrived, the bus driver and his assistant both smiled and waved farewell to us as we disembarked on the side of the road. As we walked to our hostel, people slowed down, waving at us, welcoming us to their city with beaming smiles. Then there was the guy who stopped and told us about the bar; he didn’t have to stop and ask us what we were looking for. Most people anywhere else would not.
For some time, we put this extra level of friendliness to the fact we were visiting for Carnival. Perhaps people were in higher spirits due to festival time. But when we arrived in Santa Ana and spoke with a friend of ours, he mentioned a time in his past where he lived in San Miguel for several years. What he loved most about the city were its people.
Where to Eat in San Miguel
Sopa de Mondongo
This is the soup that will cure your carnaval (or any other) hangover. We found this upon recommendation from our hostel, and after visiting made the brave claim that it’s home to the best soup in El Salvador.
Sopa de Mondongo, a type of soup itself, is the name of a San Miguel restaurant that, obviously, specializes in said type. And while we sampled this rich and potent stew on our visit, our favourite on offer is soap de gallina. In essence, it’s just chicken soup, with some vegetables. In reality, it’s something far more wonderful.
This incredible, family-run restaurant impressed us so much, I wrote an entire article sharing our praise.
Fast food fried chicken. Yes, one of the highlights of San Miguel, is a fast-food chain restaurant. And yes, I’m telling you to eat there.
But hear me out, this isn’t the Colonel’s grease trap.
Salvadorians adore their fried chicken. You’ll find fried chicken restaurants everywhere in El Salvador. Don Pollo, Pollo Campero, and Pollo Campestre are the larger chains. And while Pollo Campestre is the only truly Salvadorian brand, most locals will claim the Guatemalan Campero as their favourite. We disagree wholeheartedly. But then again, we didn’t try Campero at its flagship restaurant.
Pollo Campestre started in San Miguel, and the original location is the best fast food fried chicken experience we’ve ever had. Air conditioning in the dining room, friendly servers who take your order and serve you at your table, a full menu featuring everything from real salads and soups to, obviously, fried chicken. On top of it all, the chicken itself is outstanding. It blows anything we’ve ever tasted from KFC completely out of the water; it’s hardly comparable.
Seriously, if you like fried chicken (honestly, who doesn’t?), give this place a try. And if you’re the type of traveller who, on occasion, likes to “treat yourself” to some fast food in a foreign country, this is where you do it in El Salvador.
Los Gorritos Pupuseria
Of course we had to add a favourite pupuseria in San Miguel, otherwise it would ‘technically‘ not be a proper guide to a Salvadorian City. Sandwiched between the Stadium and the PanAmerican highway, this busy pupuseria is where it’s at in San Miguel after dark. You can’t miss the ladies cooking out front on the flat-top under the huge white and red sign.
This is the first place we got 3 side dishes with our order: the standard curtido, pickled veggies, and a creamy coleslaw. They also provide English sauce, hot sauce and mayo to every table. So if you love condiments like we do, this is the place to be. Prices range from $0.65 for revueltas to $1 for the ‘Especial’
Another Salvadorian chain, like the chicken shop above, it Pasteleria Lorena began here in San Miguel. It’s a simple, cafeteria-style place that offers a great selection of pastries and bread, and a rotating selection of breakfast options.
Throw air-conditioning and a playlist of ’80s power ballads, it’s hard to kick of a day in San Miguel any better (or at least any more interesting).
Much like our experience with other chains, they don’t always share a standard, so it often matters which location you visit. Our favourite location due to great staff, cleanliness, and delicious selection is the Pasteleria Lorena on 2a Calle Poniente and 3a Avenida Sur, just north of the market.
How to get to San Miguel
The easiest way to reach San Miguel is via San Salvador. Simply take bus #301 from Plaza Nuevo Amanecer, on the east side of the city. Buses are frequent throughout the day and cost $3.00 for a regular bus, or $5.00 for an ‘especial‘ that may or may not have functioning A/C.Plaza Nuevo Amanecer is in Soyapango, a part of San Salvador we typically recommend avoiding. It’s best to take a taxi here rather than a local bus, though if you do take a bus, keep a close eye on your belongings and sit as close to the front as possible. When you arrive at the station, don’t wander too far.
Where to Stay in San Miguel, El Salvador
We stayed at a small, family-run hotel about 10 minutes from the centre of town called Hotel Caleta. It’s not the fanciest place around, but the rooms are comfortable, have A/C and are really well-priced. The owner is really friendly (obviously), and can help you with any questions you have.