El Salvador travel guide
About El Salvador
The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is big on natural wonders. The word is out among more intrepid travellers that this is the region’s up-and-coming destination. Newcomers are bowled over by the stunning landscape, with smoking volcanoes, surf-pounded beaches, pristine cloud forests and crystalline lagoons. And those in the know are drawn back time and again by its warm-hearted and dynamic people.
This tiny tropical land, about the size of Wales or Massachusetts, is packed with highlights. Magnificent, crowd-free national parks include Cerro Verde, Montecristo and the irresistibly named El Imposible. You can shoot the rapids on whitewater rafts, or take a lazy boat ride across volcanic crater lakes Ilopango and Coatepeque. Surfers flock to the world-class Pacific breakers at Sonsonate, El Zonte and La Unión, only a short drive from the capital. The archaeological remains at Tazumal mark the furthest outpost of the Maya empire; the Ruta de Las Flores features colourful, flower-filled villages, with volcanic hot springs and indigenous craft markets; and Morazán province offers tours of civil war trenches led by former guerrillas turned guides.
El Salvador still has a bad reputation for violent crime, but the truth is that the locals have always suffered much more than tourists at the hands of criminals, most of whom are more concerned with the feuding of rival drug gangs.
The tourism industry is responding rapidly to the country’s rising popularity. Coffee plantations are inviting guests to visit, to eat and drink, to stay, to work. Beach resorts are becoming more boutique, spa hotels are multiplying and the eastern Gulf of Fonseca is being developed, with boat-and-bus routes connecting with neighbouring Nicaragua. El Salvador may not yet be the most comfortable place to visit in the region, but for the increasing number of people who are making the effort, the rewards are plentiful.
21,041 sq km (8,124 sq miles).
6,146,419 (UN estimate 2016).
291.9 per sq km.
President Salvador Sánchez Cerén since 2014.
President Salvador Sánchez Cerén since 2014.
115 volts AC, 60Hz. North American-style plugs with two flat pins (with or without circular grounding pin) are most commonly used; you may sometimes need an adaptor if your plug has a third pin however.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
El Salvador has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America. Violence between gangs is a particular and growing problem. Targets are usually rival gang members and police, not tourists or visitors. Most gang violence occurs away from tourists and visitors, but no location is completely safe. Most visits to El Salvador are trouble-free but there have been some violent attacks on tourists including robberies, car-jackings and assaults. You should take the following steps to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of crime:
take particular care in downtown San Salvador, other towns or cities, or if you are travelling on roads outside of major towns and cities after dark: the following areas within San Salvador are safer than others at night, but you should still take care: San Benito, Maquilishuat, La Gran Via and Multiplaza
take care when travelling alone; it may be safer to travel with others or take part in a tour with a reputable company; the same applies to walking on remote trails; there have been reports of attacks on tourists walking alone
if possible keep your valuables including your passport in a safe; carry a photocopy of your passport for identification purposes; take particular care of your personal belongings at bus stations, airports, tourist sites and on public transport
avoid displaying items of value, particularly when arriving at the airport; foreigners have been targeted when leaving the airport; don’t wear expensive jewellery and only carry minimal amounts of cash
it’s safer to withdraw money from ATMs in shopping centres or change money in hotels or banks; don’t withdraw too much money at one time; there have been attacks on foreigners after withdrawing money from ATMs; don’t use ATMs at night or in isolated or badly lit areas
stick to main roads; avoid travelling on unsurfaced roads as you are at greater risk of attack in remote areas where there are fewer police patrols
public buses (repainted US school buses) are not safe; private inter-city buses are generally safer, although attacks can also occur on these; only use reputable coach companies; for shorter trips within towns and cities take radio or hotel taxis; don’t use unofficial taxis
there remains a small risk of kidnapping, despite success by the national police in tackling the problem in recent years; kidnap gangs generally target rich Salvadorians rather than visitors
if you’re driving, take extra care at junctions, where stationary traffic is often targeted by armed robbers
if you’re attacked, don’t resist
Foreign visitors and residents can be targeted by scam artists. The scams come in many forms, and can cause great financial loss. If you, or your relatives/friends are asked to transfer money to El Salvador, make absolutely sure it is not part of a scam and that you have properly checked with the person receiving the money that they are requesting it.
Should you have any questions on security or local travel; you can call the local tourist police on +503 2511 8300 or 2511 8303 or visit the POLITUR website.
You can use your UK Driving Licence to drive in El Salvador for visits of under three months. However, an International Driving Permit is recommended.
Driving standards are variable and you should expect the unexpected. Car insurance is essential. If you are involved in an accident, contact the national police or the fire brigade by dialling 911. If you are involved in an accident you should normally wait for the police to arrive.
Roads between the main tourist locations in El Salvador are of a good or acceptable standard. Sometimes manhole covers are stolen, leaving large holes in the road. In more isolated locations, roads are unsurfaced and four-wheel drive vehicles are advisable. Lock doors and keep windows closed.
Take particular care when travelling to/from the border with Guatemala. There have been reports of violent attacks on vehicles, particularly on the Guatemalan side of the border. Vehicles with El Salvador number plates are often targeted. It’s better to cross borders in the morning, giving you time to reach your destination before dark. Borders sometimes close in the early evening. Private bus companies are considered safer than public buses for crossing borders.
There may be a small risk of unexploded ordnance (eg landmines) in remote areas. If you are going off-road take local advice and avoid travel to such areas if advised.
Swimming on the Pacific coast can be dangerous due to strong undertows. The currents around La Bocana de San Diego are particularly treacherous. Several people have drowned in recent years. There are very few lifeguards. You should avoid swimming on isolated beaches.
Demonstrations occur from time to time and can do so with little warning. They can become violent and disrupt travel. Avoid large gatherings or demonstrations. The El Salvador Constitution prohibits political activities by foreigners, and participation in demonstrations may result in detention and/or deportation.
The British Embassy in El Salvador reopened in May 2012, but the Embassy does not have a dedicated consular section. If you need consular assistance in El Salvador, contact the British Honorary Consul in San Salvador:
Mr George Chippendale
Cónsul Honorario Británico
17 Calle Poniente No. 320
San Salvador, El Salvador
Telephone (503) 2236-5555
Fax (503) 2271-1026
Honorary Consul Office Hours: Local Time: Mon-Fri: 08:00 to 12:00 and 13:00 to 17:00.
You can also register with the Honorary Consul on arrival in El Salvador, either in person or by email.