Tour guides often refer to El Salvador as “the country of 40 minutes.” Because it is the smallest country in Central America, flanked by Guatemala to the west and Honduras to the northwest, you can easily hike a volcano in the morning, grab lunch at the beach, and end your day with a zip-line canopy tour near the Guatemalan border.
Today, El Salvador boasts seventeen volcanoes, nine of which are active. There are also over one hundred “hidden volcanoes” that are now extinct but can be seen in the form of small, rolling hills scattered across the landscape. The capital city, San Salvador, was hit by volcanic activity in 1917, then again in 1986 (the eruption reached an 8.3 on the Richter scale) and once more in 2000. Locals jokingly attribute to the building of the country’s capital city at the base of a volcano to “Mayan logic.”
For stunning views, take a trip to the Cerro Verde National Park. Also known as the Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, the park includes three volcanoes: Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Santa Ana. Fortunately, the last eruption occurred around 2500 BC; it resulted in a huge crater which now contains one of the country’s most beautiful sites, Lake Cotepeque. The circular trail through the volcano park takes about forty-five minutes to walk, but you can also hike around the lake if you’re feeling more intrepid. With a diameter of twenty-four kilometers, this will take you significantly longer, but there are plenty of restaurants along the way.
For swimming, you can’t get much better than Costa del Sol, but before you head off to the beach you may want to hire a boat for a short tour of the Mangrove Forest reserve. The reserve is sometimes called the “salty forests” and it protects the Pacific Ocean from eroding the land. Your guide will be able to point out a number of birds and fish, including one that’s known as the cuatro ojos (“four eyes” – it has two eyes for looking up and two for looking down), but don’t be put off by the black sand at the heart of the estuary. It looks dirty, but it’s actually the result of volcanic ash coloring the earth.
Tours typically cost $30 for ninety minutes and there are number of different companies operating in the reserve. Locals usually like to visit Tasa Jera, a small island of about 4,500 people, but you can also ask your guide to take you to one of the sandbars or even to one of the many floating restaurants along the river.
Another local favorite is the La Hola Beto in Costa del Sol. It’s especially popular for New Years Eve, when bonfires light up the beach, but any sunny day will do the trick. You can order food or drinks and enjoy an afternoon lounging on the beach or swimming in the Pacific. If you decide to stay the night, check out the Turtuga Village, a boutique hotel of 8 Balinese style bungalows, just down the beach. They may look rustic but they include air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and even Netflix.
If surfing is more your style, be sure to check out the nearby beach town of El Tunco. The food is cheap, the accommodations are cheap and you can rent a surfboard or even take lessons for around $10 per hour. Because the coastline is a bit rocky, it’s not the greatest place to go wading, but the waves are fantastic.
Last but not least, head north to Metapan’s Hostal Villa Limón. Known as “la cuidad blanca” (the white city), Metapan was a leading producer of limestone, which can still be seen today in many of El Salvador’s churches. Now, the remote Hostal offers visitors an overnight stay in one of its rustic cabins (they’re not for the faint at heart but rates are extremely reasonable) and, best of all, a canopy tour.
Designed and inspected annually by experts from Costa Rica, the zip line is perfectly safe, although you may feel differently when you first give it a go. Villa Limón’s course is designed with eight different cables – four short ones are for “practice” and the other four are longer ones that get progressively faster and much higher. Your guides will equip you with a harness, a helmet and a pair of leather gloves that serve as your “break.” (If you’re lucky, they may show off a few of their “tricks” too, spinning around or even flipping upside down as they zoom off to the next platform, but you’re better off keeping one hand on the cable.) Don’t be surprised to find yourself eye to eye with an eagle as you soar between the mountaintops. If you’re a first timer, you might be too scared to look down, but give it a shot – this is one time where the journey definitely trumps the destination.