Have you ever gone somewhere and for some inexplicable reason it just completely captures your heart and for years after you still find yourself thinking of and yearning for that place? Well, that place for me is El Salvador. The 'underdog' of travel in Central America - the tiny country with the massive heart. I will admit that I was nervous to travel to El Salvador, after all, the newspapers and news channels tell us it's a very dangerous place. And yes, sure, El Salvador has a very real gang problem, it has a very sad and harrowing civil war past. But there's so much more to this gem of a country than what you have read in a newspaper. Imagine witnessing the best sunset of your life, imagine meeting the friendliest and warmest locals, imagine spending your days surfing some of the best surf in the world. Now imagine yourself in El Salvador.
Here's 10 reasons why I think you should travel to El Salvador. I've honestly spent days thinking about how I should write this blog post because I really want to do this beautiful country justice. It deserves a place on your bucket list more than anywhere I've ever been. So, here we go (in no particular order) -
1. To witness the best sunset of your life
Honestly the best sunset you could ever imagine, beyond instagram-worthy. We witnessed this marvel in El Cuco while walking back to our hostel. The whole beach turned this magnificent burnt orange. I didn't want it to end. Here's a photo in all it's unfiltered glory.
2. It's cheap
Once you fork out the big bucks for the flights (honestly, from Europe it can be difficult to get a reasonable flight into San Salvador) it's cheap as chips once you touch ground in El Salvador. A nights accommodation for two people in a small hotel will cost you approximately $20, a meal can be as little as $2 provided you eat where the locals eat and buses from one town to the next can cost less than $1.
3. To surf
Most tourists come to El Salvador to surf & most base themselves in the little surfing town of El Tunco about an hours drive from San Salvador, with its black sandy beach, quirky little hostels and juice bars. El Tunco has some of the best surfing conditions in the world. We spent hours sitting on the beach, a Pilsener in hand (the local beer) watching some very talented surfers vying for attention. Of course we had a go ourselves but we didn't fare too well on our own. Luckily, if you're a beginner like us there are lots of surfing schools along the beach.
4. Meet the friendliest locals
Salvadorans were our favourite people of our entire 16 country trip and we met some amazingly cool locals so that's saying a lot. Salvadorans are warm, real and incredibly grateful that tourists are still visiting their home. They're even friendly enough to let you hold their fully-loaded pistol.
5. To stay at the best hostel we've ever stayed at
In the rustic town of Santa Ana in the North of El Salvador is a hostel. A hostel by the name of Casa Verde, run by the super-friendly Carlos. Casa Verde is honestly the best hostel we ever stayed at. Spotlessly clean, with a swimming pool, a rooftop terrace, a big kitchen (with lots of free spices, freshly ground coffee etc.) and an air conditioned TV room loaded with every movie imaginable. And if you can't be bothered going out to a restaurant, Carlos will order take-out for you and serve it to you while you're enjoying a movie on his massive TV. This is how it should be done (hosteliers take note). Also, worth a mention is La Tortuga Verde in El Cuco a turtle sanctuary & hostel - a double room here costs less than $25 and it's right on the beach, with your own deck area complete with hammocks, an extra-comfy bed and a spacious bathroom with a view of the coconut trees.
6. To climb an active volcano
Want to undertake a very difficult hike up a steep volcano with an armed guard? Then, head to the town of Santa Ana and just outside the nearby town you will find three active volcanoes - Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde. This hike is still considered dangerous due to a spate of robberies on the climb and so all hikes are undertaken with a big group and an armed guard. We climbed Izalco and it's pretty tough - first you climb down 1,300 steps to get to the bottom of the volcano then it's a tiring hour long hike up an almost vertical slope. But it's all worth it once you get to the top. On the south-side of the summit you can still see lava flowing down into the Pacific Ocean and steam vents are still active up top (you have to be careful where you sit as some rocks are still deadly hot).
7. Because Pupusas
A traditional salvadoran dish made of a thick handmade corn tortilla and usually filled with cheese, some meat & refried beans. It is served with curtido (a lightly fermented cabbage relish) - sounds horrible but I promise it isn't. And it's so cheap, usually 3oc for one. Our favourite place for pupusas was a little roadside stall in El Tunco that was run by nuns.
8. To night bike ride through the streets of San Salvador
This was one of the best things we did in El Salvador. No scrap that, this was one of the best things we did in Central America. Sure, a night bike ride through the streets of one of the most notoriously dangerous cities in the world sounds life-defying. The little local organisation who runs it - Ciclistas Urbanos has been doing this for years, it's more of a cycling group for locals than a tour, in fact I think we were the only tourists that night but they welcomed us with open arms regardless. They meet every Thursday night, to cycle a different route through the city, and some rides can be as long as 30km. There was also a police presence for the whole ride, so you're in safe hands. We met so many fantastic locals that night, one even cycled beside me the whole time because he could see I was struggling and he even drove us back to our hostel after because my 'legs didn't work like they used to before':)
9. To experience somewhere off the beaten track
Because don't follow the crowd and only backpack through South East Asia. Literally, every travel blogger has been to South East Asia, many even live there now. I adore South East Asia because it is a truly beautiful slice of the world, but it's starting to get overrun by backpackers. So, If you're looking to experience somewhere that not many people have been to, that will garner a "wow you've been there" from most people you meet, then visit El Salvador. El Salvador has enough tourist infrastructure to make you feel comfortable but then at the same time it's not at all ready for tourists and that's kind of scary and fun and exhilarating.
10. To get a true local experience
Not too many tourists in a country is good in a lot of ways but mainly because it makes for a more local and unique experience. The less Hawaiian shirt wearing tourists the better :) Leisure travel through El Salvador is still very much uncommon, most tourists we met are either there on business or for a short surf holiday. This means that most of the time you have the palm-tree lined beaches to yourself. There's no queues for that Lonely Planet recommended restaurant. There's no Contiki tours. And you will usually always nab a room at that hotel you've been wanting to stay at.
And finally 'no place is ever as bad as they tell you it's going to be'. Be careful, don't wear lots of expensive jewellery or carry around a glaringly massive camera, don't walk away from the main streets in San Salvador. But above all don't be stupid, if you go looking for trouble it probably will find you. The truth is 99.9% of the people in El Salvador are brilliant and funny and incredibly welcoming of tourists. Please don't let a minority and a distasteful news report turn you off visiting one of the most unique and exciting destinations I've ever visited.
Have I managed to convince you to meet El Salvador yet? Of course I have! Now, when are you going to book your flights? Read more about our El Salvador adventures on our Facebook page here.
Aimee Horgan is one half of the Travel Blog - Snap Happy Travel. You can find more of her articles about El Salvador and other countries at www.snaphappytravel.com