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Backpacking in El Salvador – 10 Things You Should Know

El Salvador may be a lesser-known country when it comes to backpacking destinations, however that doesn’t mean you should give it a miss. Last summer I spent a few days in this wonderful little country and would love to go back. This country has everything it needs to be a fantastic destination for a backpacking adventure. Despite that, I think it’s important to have a good bit of preparation before considering a visit as I would not recommend it for beginner travellers.

1. Getting into El Salvador

The most common way to get into El Salvador is by flying and I did so by taking a flight from Guatemala City. What made that flight memorable was that It was the least busy plane I had ever been on. Once I arrived, there was no queue for immigration and I didn’t need to pay for a tourist card. Keep in mind that some nationalities are required to do so including US citizens. Furthermore, I had an interesting experience with the immigration officials as they seemed baffled as to why I had come to their country alone and they asked a few random questions about my trip. I was given a stamp which stated I was allowed to stay for up to 90 days, however this has changed for British citizens allowing them to stay for up to 180.

2. Keeping Out of Danger

When it comes to safety in this country, the media makes this country more dangerous than it actually is. El Salvador has a bad reputation and it’s for a reason. In recent years, the country used to be one of the most dangerous countries world due to its high homicide rate. In recent decades, Central American countries have been plagued by gang violence and El Salvador has has been hugely affected by gangs. However, in recent years, the homicide rate has been reduced dramatically with the current government’s no-nonsense approach to taking on the gangs.

Police advertisement about stopping the gangs

The big question is: how safe is El Salvador for you as a tourist? From my own experience, I did not feel like I was in danger at all during my visit and people went out of their way to help me out. I can’t guarantee that El Salvador is completely crime-free as the country is still recovering from the gang violence it has experienced. However, from asking local people and my own experience, I can assure you that it’s nothing like how it’s shown on the news.

There are some measures I would recommend making to keep yourself out of trouble during your visit. I would advise when travelling around to not wear anything that would draw attention and not to go anywhere you are not familiar with. The media has made up a lie that the police arrest people who have tattoos, but this is simply not true, however I advise against making yourself look like a gang member by wearing the numbers 13 or 18.

3. It’s Not a Touristy Place

As I had mentioned, I came into El Salvador on a flight with about 6 other passengers and it’s one of the few places in the world where I barely saw any other tourists. It’s possible that in a few places I visited, I was the only foreign tourist there and that means visiting this country guarantees a very authentic experience. That also means that it is not too easy to find places that sell souvenirs, however I did buy a cool fridge magnet which looks homemade.

4. US Dollars Are Mostly Used

El Salvador was recently in the news as it is the first ever country to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender and you can see a few Bitcoin ATMs in different places. Using it to pay for things seems a bit complicated, however it is completely optional. Most Salvadorans just prefer to use American dollars anyway and there are even dollar coins which I’ve never seen in the US.

5. It’s Very Affordable

El Salvador is one of the most affordable places I have ever been to, for example you can have a nice dinner for $8 and get a haircut for $2. If you plane to go backpacking here, you can expect to spend $25 a day and that includes accommodation. Staying in a hotel in El Salvador can be much cheaper than other countries as well and if you know how to do it, visiting the country can be incredibly good value for money.

6. Uber is Essential

I highly recommend making sure that you have Uber on your phone if you want to make things easier for yourself. San Salvador might not feel like it’s much of a big city, however it’s not very walkable at all. Having Uber handy means that you can get where you want to go and you can even use it to get to places outside of the city. What you do need to consider though is that using Uber can be quite expensive, if you want to save a bit of money it’s possible to take a bus which costs around $1 per ride. However, this can be difficult as it can be a challenge to know which bus to take and they aren’t always comfortable.

7. The Fantastic Climate

I was there in the middle of June and it was humidly hot almost the whole time I was there, it did rain a little bit as it was the wet season. I was told that the coastal areas of the country enjoys sunny days year-round, making it a decent destination for going to the beach. As it is a very humid place, I would suggest packing comfortable clothes suitable for such a climate.

8. The Recent History is Grim

For over a decade during the 1980s, El Salvador faced a harrowing civil war which made the country a battleground for the Cold War. Countless atrocities were committed during the war and many Salvadorans were forced to escape the country. If you are curious to get an insight into what the war was like, I recommend a visit to the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen as it gives an explanation of what the happened during the war.

9. Knowing Spanish Will Help

As a fluent speaker of Spanish myself, knowing the language was seriously beneficial as I did not feel English was widely spoken during my time there. If you want to make sure you have a good time in El Salvador, I seriously recommend brushing up on your Spanish as Salvadorans are incredible people. If you already speak Spanish and are worried about the accent being too unfamiliar, I can tell you that Salvadorans speak very clearly.

10. Get Out of the Capital

San Salvador is a very interesting city, there’s no doubt about that, however it’s not free of any criticism. It’s an extremely hectic city and the rest of the country has so much to offer. I took the opportunity during my time in El Salvador to go to Suchitoto and it’s definitely not a place to miss. Not only that, El Salvador boasts lush green forests, awesome volcanoes and some of the best beaches for surfing in the world.

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