El Salvador Travel TipsEl Salvador - A Latin Adventure
ADVENTURE defined, El Salvador is a destination for vibrant culture and undiscovered natural gorgeousness. With its tumultuous history, El Salvador is on the path less traveled, but it’s also FASCINATING to uncover, with a colorful street life, unspoiled beaches and one of the most beautiful volcanic lakes in the world. It’s a spicy weekend Galavante, especially if you’re with an adventurous crew, looking to tear it up together in a new and EXOTIC place.
El Salvador is hardly luxury hotel central, but you will find comfort at either the Hilton Princess or Real InterContinental San Salvador, both of which are generally better appointed than their U.S. counterparts. The Hilton is actually quite comfortable – the Executive Floor has updated rooms and gratis food and drink throughout the day. Plus, the hotel features gorgeous views of the city and is right in the Zona Rosa, convenient to restaurants and shops. There is zero pool scene here, though, which is where the Intercontinental dominates. The Intercontinental is larger and more impressive, with grander common areas, better restaurants and a swimming pool and lounge reminiscent of L.A. The main downside is that it’s not as conveniently located.
A weekend in El Salvador is little bit of town, and a little bit of country. In town, the Zona Rosa has the best food in the city. For a first taste, walk over to Basilea, an all-day, all-night oasis where you can chill out over good food, artisanal ice cream, gourmet chocolate and drinks. From here, it’s an easy stroll to the galleries and shops. La Pinocateca is a standout: Though not inexpensive, here you can acquire large canvas artwork that will be the center of many a dinner-party discussion. It’s full-service, too; the gallery will arrange for shipment of any large purchases that you can’t carry home. Next to the Hilton is a mall, for those who want to experience shopping with a Salvadorian flair.
If you seek history, the Museo Nacional de Antropología David J. Guzmán features an impressive collection of Mayan and pre-Colombian artifacts. Make the most of your experience by requesting a bilingual guide. A short walk from the museum lies the modern art museum, Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE), with an excellent collection of Salvadorian and Latin American art set in an architecturally beautiful building. You can even grab a quick bite to eat at their sophisticated restaurant PUNTO. Once again, it feels more like L.A., and not at all what you’d expect from a city with San Salvador’s troubled history.
The Sheraton Hotel sits between MARTE and the Guzmán museums, and has high-end shops in its complex where you can purchase the illicit Cuban goods that escape Americans. For local crafts, hire a taxi to Mercado Nacional de Artesanías, where you can buy handwoven hammocks, dresses for children and other wooden crafts. Ask the taxi to wait for you, as it’s not recommended to walk back to the hotel from here; we tried it, and dicey is the best way to describe the experience.
For those who seek the grittiness of the city and are comfortable leaving the confines of Zone Rosa, head to the Centro, 45 minutes away – make sure to go with a driver. There is nothing “touristy” about San Salvador, but you will be leaving the affluence to experience the local inner city, to which time has not been kind. The main draw of downtown is the Catedral, the religious center for the country, and impressive in its European scale. In the same area are the National Theater and National Palace, both featuring restored Spanish architecture that is a welcome haven from the chaos of downtown. Bring your own snacks, as it would be beyond adventurous to eat here. To round out the day, visit the Mercado Ex-Cuartel,a market set in old army barracks, with the best prices on guitars, crafts and handmade clothing. Make sure to depart before dark, though, and have your driver waiting to whisk you back to the Zona Rosa to prepare for a night out on the town.
If gritty isn’t your thing, connect with the countryside at El Boqueron Park. Again, you should hire a driver who will serve as your guide for the trip – this is easily set up through your hotel. At the park’s entrance, you’ll walk into a misty, cool tropical mountain rainforest filled with gorgeous flowers, including wild orchids.
Try and spot the Salvadorian four-leaf clovers – it’s not just the Irish who get good luck. At the top of El Boqueron, battle your vertigo and peer into a deep volcano crater. Afterwards, get a taste of local culture by touring a coffee plantation on the lush slopes of the San Salvador Volcano. Our favorite is Finca Cajamarca,home to many luxurious weddings and stylish evening events. You’ll definitely need your hotel concierge connections to get in, so plan ahead.
In the evening, enjoy dinner at Citron, a chic Salvadorian restaurant on the fringes of the Zona Rosa, which combines traditional cuisine with modern flavors. This will be the highlight of your Salvadorian dining – it’s a beautiful setting and the service is top-notch. Afterwards, head to Zanzibar in Basilea for cocktails with attractive young things before the bars close at 1am. For those still looking to walk the edge, follow the crowd, and preferably your own driver, to the clubs outside San Salvador, and dance until the wee hours.
The country part of your trip will take you to Lake Coatepeque, a lake in the center of a stunning – and, not to worry, also extinct – VOLCANO. It’s a must to arrange your own driver or a taxi you can rely upon. As you approach, you’ll understand why this gorgeous lake was once a contender for the Seven Wonders of the World. Lake Coatepeque is the Berkshires of San Salvador – it’s hard to believe that you’re in Central America. Splash in the cool lake, take in the Gatsby-esque estates looming in the distance and sigh to yourself, this is the life.
As for lunch: While certainly not highbrow, you can’t get more authentic than a picnic lunch of Pollo Campero, the local friend chicken chain that the entire country is obsessed with. Alternatively, you’ll find plenty of pupuserías and small cafes. When night falls, splurge on a grand dinner at Esperanto, the Zona Rosa’s newly opened high-end tapas restaurant. For more informal appetizers, plus cool cocktails and dancing, go to Relmora, set in a remodeled antique Spanish home, where the Salvadoran elite love to hang out.
On your last day, surf’s up. Riding the waves in El Salvador is as cool as it sounds, and Playa El Sunzal draws serious surfers from around the globe. Rent a room for the day at Casa de Mar, a boutique beachfront resort with unique bungalows and high-end service. They’ll arrange for surf or boogie boarding lessons with private pros, and provide you with all the gear and creature comforts. The gentle Maui surf this is not: The currents are strong and if you get caught in a wave, it can feel like you’re tumbling in a washing machine. But, this is exactly what makes it a world-renowned surfing destination.
If you’re not into surfing, you can take it easy near the shore on your boogie board, or just soak up the sun on the soft-sand beach. Later, enjoy a simple seafood meal at the hotel, or venture to the nearby Kayu Bar and Grill for Salvadorian beach food, from ceviches to grilled seafood. Follow that up with a Michelada, a special ice-cold concoction of Pilsner beer, lime juice, Tabasco and a few other secret ingredients. It’s perfect for the hot tropical weather – you’ll find it hard to stop at just one. The restaurant also has a pool for late-afternoon frolicking, and ping-pong so you can get competitive with a paddle. Sun, sand, surf and chilled cerveza: Not a bad way to end your trip to El Salvador.