San Salvador: Central America's Ultimate Budget City

by  Lilit Marcus | Sep 30, 2013
San Salvador, El Salvador
San Salvador, El Salvador / Joey's Lens/istock

Although it’s not quite as cool as Costa Rica or Guatemala, El Salvador is truly a gem in Central America. The country is rebuilding after its bloody civil war in the early ‘90s, and is now improving its tourism infrastructure. The best news? The country is very inexpensive to visit, and your money goes a long way.

The most expensive part of your trip to San Salvador will be the flight. Although there are deals to be had – especially if you sign up for TACA Airlines’s email alerts – El Salvador is a remarkably inexpensive country once you're on the ground. It’s also relatively undiscovered by travelers, which means that not only can you get a great meal for under $20, you can count on being the only tourist in the restaurant.

The Salvadorean dollar is tied to the US dollar, but their rate of inflation is lower. To give an example, tickets to most museums, including the excellent Museo de la Palabra Y Los Imagen (the Museum of Words and Images, which looks at the country’s history through a cultural lens, with an emphasis on the civil war) and the Museo Antropologico (Anthropological Museum), both in San Salvador, cost between two and four dollars.

And downtown San Salvador boasts several treasures that are free to visit. If you like interior design and architecture, stop by the Palacio National (National Palace), which used to be where all government branches held their meetings before they outgrew the space and moved. Keep a look out for one of the prettier but more subtle design touches – every single room has a different intricate tile design on the floor. From there, visit the Plaza Libertad, downtown’s main square, and the Church el Rosario – though from the outside this parish church may not seem like much, on the inside it looks like a color wheel of rainbow stained glass. Try to visit on a sunny day for the full effect. Donations are requested, but not required.

When it comes to food, there are pupusas – a fluffy, stuffed tortilla that's the national dish of El Salvador – just about everywhere you look. Vendors will get up in the morning with booths on the side of the road, catering to workers who often take them for lunch. Some of these stalls are quite famous, so follow the locals and see which ones do the busiest trade. Most stands will also sell water, coffee, or fruit as well; for five dollars, you can usually get an entire meal. The pupusas are usually made to order, with the most common stuffings being cheese, cilantro, beans, and rice. Many contain meat, so vegetarians should check to be on the safe side.

If you want to meet locals, two papusa joints – Pupuseria Lily or Pupuseria La Unica in the neighborhood of Antiguo Cuscatlan – both offer up the national food along with beer, and the restaurants are often busy since locals use them as a central hangout. On Sundays, after church services let out, these pupuserias are often so packed that you can barely squeeze in. If you want to fit in, order a pilsener, the unofficial national beer of El Salvador.

The affordability of San Salvador means that hotels are a great bargain. Arbol de Fuego in Antiguo Cuscatlan is a rare find for Central America: not only is it a fully-functional eco hotel, it’s owned and operated by a mostly female staff. Double rooms run $60 a night, including breakfast (which you can have out on a cool, leafy porch) and wireless internet. If you’re hoping to hit the beach, the La Sombra Hostel and Surf Camp, just outside of town in La Libertad, has a range of inexpensive options, from single beds in dorm rooms at $7 a night to "deluxe" rooms with a/c and a private bathroom topping out at $40 for three beds.

One thing to keep in mind: public transportation in El Salvador still needs some work. If you don’t speak Spanish and aren’t completely sure where you’re going, you’re better off hiring a private taxi (instead of running meters, the cab drivers arrange fees up front and will often come back and pick you up later if you ask), or renting a car to get around. These cabs are cheap – you can often get single rides for as little as five dollars, or you can hire a driver for the entire day from around $50 plus tips. Most hostels and hotels have regular drivers who they work with and can call them for you.  There is no metro or underground system.

If you are in a central part of town and want to walk, you should be fine, as drivers are cautious of pedestrians. There is some street harassment, since it’s very uncommon for women to travel alone in El Salvador.  And because the country doesn’t get a lot of tourists, the ones who do come are usually subject to some surprised – but usually harmless – stares from the locals. If anything, most Salvadoreans are thrilled that people want to visit their country and talk about something other than the civil war. Locals are more than happy to give directions, and people will often offer to walk you to your destination so you won’t get lost.

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