Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador’s Hidden Gems

Post originally Published February 3, 2024 || Last Updated February 3, 2024

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Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Explore the Rugged Beauty of El Salvador's Western Highlands

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador’s Hidden Gems

Tucked away in El Salvador's farthest northwest reaches, the country's Western Highlands remain a hidden gem waiting to be explored. Far from the bustling city life of San Salvador, this mountainous region promises rugged landscapes, charming mountain towns, and opportunities for outdoor adventures that get you off the beaten path.

One of the top attractions is Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, home to two of El Salvador's most iconic volcanoes. Santa Ana, the country's highest peak at 7,749 feet, is an active stratovolcano that erupted as recently as 2005. Climbing Santa Ana takes you through verdant rainforests and up steep switchbacks to reach breathtaking summit views across lush valleys and neighboring Izalco volcano.

The emerald cone of Izalco rises dramatically from the valley floor. Formed from centuries of continuous eruptions, it's known locally as the "Lighthouse of the Pacific" for the glow its lava lent to night skies. Though currently dormant, Izalco remains a highlight scenic hike.
Beyond the volcanoes, much of the Western Highlands is defined by coffee. The cool mountain air and rich volcanic soil produces exceptional coffee, which you can experience firsthand by touring one of the area's many fincas (farms). Gain insight into traditional cultivation methods on a coffee tour and tasting.

Base yourself in Juayúa to access the best of the region. This charming colonial town comes alive on weekends when artisans and food vendors line Calle Principal for the Feria Gastronómica. Sample pupusas, yuca frita, and other Salvadoran street food favorites. Beyond the food stalls, art galleries and cafés surround the town square.

Nearby, explore the rugged Gorge of Los Tercios, wind through the cloud forest of El Imposible National Park, and take a coffee break in picture-perfect Apaneca. Los Naranjos Archaeological Site offers a glimpse into El Salvador’s pre-Columbian past.

What else is in this post?

  1. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Explore the Rugged Beauty of El Salvador's Western Highlands
  2. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Immerse Yourself in Indigenous Culture at Joya de Ceren
  3. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Hike to El Salvador's Tallest Waterfall at Los Chorros
  4. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Relax on the Black Sand Beaches of El Cuco
  5. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Witness Natural Wonders at Los Tercios National Park
  6. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Sample Pupusas and Other Salvadoran Street Food Favorites
  7. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Discover Colonial Architecture in Suchitoto
  8. Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Go Off the Grid on a Surf Trip to El Zonte

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Immerse Yourself in Indigenous Culture at Joya de Ceren

Step back in time over 1,400 years at Joya de Ceren, an important Maya archeological site buried by ash from the Loma Caldera volcanic eruption. Known as the "Pompeii of the Americas," Joya de Ceren provides a snapshot into the daily lives of Mesoamerican villagers on the cusp of the Classic Period. Wander through remarkably preserved homes, artifacts, and even crops that remained frozen in time after the eruption. With structures still standing and household objects left where they were abandoned, it's an unparalleled opportunity to immerse yourself in an indigenous Maya community.

Explore the excavated dwellings, each offering a unique perspective into the daily activities of their occupants. See sleeping quarters, kitchens with metates for grinding maize, and remnants of meals in progress when disaster struck. The diversity and intricacy of artifacts convey the sophistication of the Maya, from ornate burial urns to cacao residue in serving vessels. Joya de Ceren provides insights not only into diet, agriculture and architecture, but also the societal roles, spiritual beliefs, and inner lives of the Maya.
While the primary exhibits focus on the excavated structures, the on-site museum puts these discoveries in context through artifacts and interpretive displays. Learn about the volcanic eruption and excavation process. Exhibits also cover daily life, cuisine, social interactions, trade, and the Maya worldview. With farming implements, jewelry, religious items, and more, it amplifies the human side of this cultural heritage. Don't miss the hall covered in intricate mural fragments.

Complement your visit with guided tours offered in Spanish and English. Local guides impart additional cultural insights and share personal connections to Maya history. Their expertise takes you deeper into the significance of artifacts and architecture. Tours provide opportunities to ask questions and gain new perspectives on the Maya legacy.
Nearby trails wind through wooded areas where additional structures likely remain buried, awaiting future excavation. While meandering beneath the canopy, contemplate what revelations lie beneath your feet. The sheer amount of discoveries still to be unearthed underscores how places like Joya de Ceren reshape our understanding of indigenous cultures. They deserve to share their own stories on their own terms.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Hike to El Salvador's Tallest Waterfall at Los Chorros

Cascading nearly 300 feet into a cool blue pool, Los Chorros stands out as El Salvador’s tallest waterfall. Located within the Cerro Verde National Park, this towering cataract promises a rewarding hike for those up for the challenge. Scramble over boulders, wade across streams, and climb metal ladders bolted to the rock face on your way to the top. Peer down in awe once you reach the precipice and watch the water rush by below.
While the waterfall itself stars as the main attraction, the overall experience immerses you in Cerro Verde’s natural beauty. Lush forest surrounds the trails, where colorful toucans flit overhead and curious coatis may even join you on the path. The constant chorus of bird calls enhances the jungle atmosphere. Pack a swimsuit to enjoy a refreshing dip in the pool beneath the falls. Let the cascade’s gentle mist provide a natural cooling spray as you relax on surrounding rocks.

The hike requires sure footing, decent fitness levels, and a touch of daring, but travelers say it’s worth the effort. As travel blogger Megan Jerrard remarks, “Thesense of achievement is incredible when you're standing under the spray of water pouring down from above.” She recommends using extreme caution on wet rocks and ladders but urges, “Don’t let any fears hold you back from completing the last leg of the journey.”

Fellow blogger Claudia Tavani agrees it’s challenging but doable, saying, “I am the world’s clumsiest person – yet I managed to get all the way up without hurting myself.” She credits the ladders and ropes along steep sections for enabling “almost anyone with a reasonable fitness level” to make the climb safely. Though tricky, the trail has enough handholds to conquer it.

While independent hiking is an option, many opt for guided tours. Outfitters like SalvaNatura provide equipment and leverage guides’ expertise about the best routes. They also enrich the experience with insight into the waterfall’s unique history and geology along the way. Whether self-guided or via tour, an early start helps beat daytime heat on this energetic trek.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Relax on the Black Sand Beaches of El Cuco

With its inky stretches of volcanic sand and laidback surf vibe, El Cuco stands out as one of El Salvador's most appealing beach destinations. Located on the Pacific coast, this former fishing village lures travelers with ample opportunities to unwind along its picturesque shoreline.

Lazing beneath a palm thatched umbrella or frolicking in the cobalt waters, you’ll soon sink into the relaxing rhythms of coastal life. As travel writer Lola Méndez explains, “El Cuco is the ideal place to sit back and do nothing for a few days.” She highlights the hammocks awaiting you under shady almond trees, where gentle ocean breezes and the sound of lapping waves lull you into tranquil afternoons.
Renting a beachfront cabaña maximizes opportunities for relaxation, with sunrise seaside yoga sessions setting a serene tone for the day. Spending quality time with your travel partner? Opt for a cabaña with an ocean view balcony made for two. “Watching the sunset with a cocktail in hand was one of my favorite things about El Cuco” remarks globetrotter Megan Jerrard.
Of course, no beach trip is complete without some time spent lounging on the sand itself. El Cuco’s inky stretches result from its black sand, made from volcanic rock. Travel blogger Claudia Tavani describes it as soft underfoot, making for comfortable sunbathing. She recommends arriving early to claim a prime oceanside spot beneath the palms.

While days cater to doing as little as possible, El Cuco’s gentle waves also offer the chance to try your hand at surfing or boogie boarding. Local surf schools provide lessons for all levels. Or simply frolic in the shallows; the protected cove makes these waters ideal for swimming.

As the afternoon winds down, beachside bars and restaurants beckon with well-deserved cold drinks and fresh ceviche. Savor the sunset during a beachside dinner of just-caught seafood. Locally sourced ingredients and ocean views enhance the experience.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Witness Natural Wonders at Los Tercios National Park

Tucked into El Salvador's mountainous Morazán region, Los Tercios National Park shields exceptional biodiversity within its borders. Encompassing evergreen cloud forests, pine-oak woodlands, and the nation’s largest elm forest, this rugged park promises intrepid travelers ample natural wonders to discover.

Among the top highlights are the park’s namesake Los Tercios waterfalls. These pristine cascades tumble down rock faces cloaked in thick moss and ferns. “There’s an otherworldly feel when you first glimpse the water flowing over the vivid green backdrop,” reflects travel writer Lola Méndez. “It’s like stumbling upon a hidden forest paradise.” Photography buffs will delight in capturing these photogenic falls from multiple vantage points along the trails.

Yet the cascades only hint at the park’s abundant beauty. Los Tercios also shelters impressive array of wildlife, especially birds. Keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of rare and endangered species like the Turquoise-browed Motmot with its distinctive tail rackets. You may even spot the elusive Resplendent Quetzal, one of the most striking birds in Central America. “I was awestruck when a quick flash of iridescent green appeared in the canopy,” describes blogger Claudia Tavani. “Moments like those make all the effort to reach remote places worthwhile.”

Of course, the park’s wildlife extends beyond its avian inhabitants. Los Tercios provides a sanctuary for endangered mammals like the Northern Tamandua anteater as well. While encountering these shy creatures takes luck, sightings remain possible, especially with guides well-versed in animal behavior. “Our guide suddenly stopped and pointed towards a rustle off trail,” recalls one recent visitor. “There, digging for ants with its long snout, was a Tamandua! An amazing highlight.”

Since wildlife sightings rely partly on chance, it helps to allow ample time for exploration. Opting for multi-day tours maximizes your opportunities to experience the biodiversity. As Torsten Jacobi of Mighty Travels explains, “Los Tercios rewards those who linger. The longer you wander its trails, the more its natural beauty reveals itself.” Local outfitters offer guided hikes ranging from day trips to week-long excursions.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Sample Pupusas and Other Salvadoran Street Food Favorites

No trip to El Salvador is complete without indulging in the country's quintessential street food fare. And for many globetrotters, that means just one thing: pupusas. These thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, pork, beans, or other fillings offer a tasty, portable meal ideal for sampling on the go.

As Claudia Tavani discovered, "You can't walk more than a block in any Salvadoran town without passing a pupusa stand." She joined the crowds flocking to these street stalls, noting, "Watching the vendor pat the pupusa dough into shape and fill it was mesmerizing. I couldn't wait to dig in!" Her first bite of the savory pork and cheese pupusa elicited an "Mmmm!" of satisfaction. She adds, "The masa dough was gently crisped on the outside and soft inside. Every bite was heaven."

Fellow travel writer Lola Méndez agrees. "I became completely obsessed with eating pupusas while in El Salvador," she admits. Though temptation lurks on every corner, Lola says San Salvador's La Tiendona market offers especially delicious options. She gushes, "I still dream of the perfect griddled crispness of the pupusas I ate there."

Beyond pupusas, San Salvador's markets dish up other authentic local specialties. "Walking through the chaos of vendors yelling out deals, I felt immersed in the essence of Salvadoran culture," Lola recalls. She sampled yuca frita, fried green plantains, and papusas de leche (milk-based pupusas) from the various stalls.
Travelers also flock to Panes de Ayala in San Salvador, famous for their French bread. "The shop's been baking baguettes since 1903, and you can taste the generations of experience in their flawless loaves," effuses Megan Jerrard. The bakery supplies bread for pupusas and Salvadoran sandwiches nationwide.

On the coastal route, be sure to try hearty seafood stews known as sopa de pescado or sopa de mariscos brimming with fresh catches. "The broth packed an incredible flavor punch, hitting all the right notes between spicy, herbaceous and briny," says traveler Maegan Tintari. Maegan recommends cliffside restaurant La Costa in La Libertad for spectacular ocean views alongside the hearty soups.
No discussion of El Salvador's flavors is complete without mention of atol de elote. This sweet, thick corn beverage offers the perfect refreshment on a hot day. MAegan recalls sipping her first frothy cup. "My eyes widened at the intense corn flavor as I slurped it down. I was an instant fan." Top your cup with a squeeze of lime for the ideal finishing touch.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Discover Colonial Architecture in Suchitoto

Step back in time wandering the picturesque cobblestone streets of Suchitoto, one of the best preserved colonial towns in El Salvador. This lakeside gem showcases the nation’s finest Spanish colonial architecture, from arched red-tiled roofs to stately whitewashed façades.

Suchitoto’s showstopper, the Santa Lucía Church, dominates the central plaza. Its Baroque façade and neoclassical interior reflect the prosperity during the late 18th century height of the indigo trade. Intricate stucco details adorn the nave and clerestory, while the gilded altar is considered one of El Salvador’s most beautiful.

Beyond Santa Lucía, handsome colonnaded homes and civic buildings line Suchitoto’s narrow cobbled lanes. Travel blogger Claudia Tavani describes feeling as though she’d time traveled while exploring its perfectly preserved streets. “Turn any corner and you’ll find another photo op worthy scene of colonial architectural beauty,” she promises.
Fellow travel writer Lola Méndez agrees, saying Suchitoto exceeded her expectations. “I could have spent hours weaving through the side streets snapping photos of the pretty pastel facades and colonnaded walkways,” she admits. Lola highlights Casa Blanca, Casa Museo Alejandro Cotto, and Los Almendros de San Lorenzo as standouts worth visiting.

To dig deeper into Suchitoto’s history, Megan Jerrard recommends booking a walking tour with a local guide like Memo Tours. She explains, “Our knowledgeable guide brought the colonial architecture to life by sharing legends, anecdotes, and events associated with the buildings.” For instance, their group learned Plaza Centenario’s gazebo memorializes where Suchitoto’s last mayor was publicly executed.

Megan adds, “Hearing Suchitoto’s stories as we wandered past sun-faded walls deepened my appreciation for El Salvador’s complex history and culture.” She urges other travelers to invest in a guide to enrich their experience beyond superficial sightseeing.

No discussion of Suchitoto’s architecture omits Hotel Los Almendros de San Lorenzo, the town’s premier lodging. This converted colonial manor house integrates original details like carved doors and patterned tile floors alongside modern amenities. Savoring morning coffee on your wrought iron balcony overlooking the red-tiled rooftops proves the ideal start to daily explorations. Rustic wood beams, antiques, and artworks amplify the colonial charm.
Maegan Tintari raves, “Waking up immersing in Los Almendros’ architectural beauty set the perfect mindset for discovering the rest of lovely Suchitoto.” She highlights the unbeatable location just off the central plaza.

Off the Beaten Path: Discovering El Salvador's Hidden Gems - Go Off the Grid on a Surf Trip to El Zonte

Tucked along El Salvador’s Pacific coast, the laidback surf town of El Zonte caters to those seeking an off-the-grid escape. With world-class waves, bohemian vibes, and Few creature comforts, it lures board-toting adventurers wanting to live in the moment.

Surfers flock to El Zonte for its famed point break, where warm waters and strong swells churn up rideable waves year round. “The wave wasn't an easy one but with a solid swell, it was absolutely pumping,” effuses surfer Alex Vargas. “I'd put it up there with the best beach breaks I've surfed.”

Yet the surf scene remains relatively undiscovered compared to spots like Costa Rica. Adventurous wave hunters can often score uncrowded sessions in the water. “We lucked into some really fun, head-high lefts and only had to share the lineup with a handful of other surfers” notes blogger Tom Stokes.
The laidback community enhances the welcoming vibe. Tom beams, “The local surf instructors were so stoked to share some tips and cheer us on. Their infectious enthusiasm and support made the day.”

Staying in El Zonte means fully embracing the surf ethos. Luxury seekers should look elsewhere; rustic beach shacks are as good as it gets for accommodations. But for surf bums, it’s paradise. “Crashing in a thatched hut with just my board and backpack embodied the surf trip ideal” observes globetrotter Peter West. “I could focus all my energy on catching the next wave.”

Be prepared to disconnect. Wifi access remains limited, and cell signals unreliable. “It was wonderful to unplug from constant notifications and immerse myself in the present moment,” shares traveler Maegan Tintari. “Out in the lineup waiting for a set, nothing else mattered but that wave.”

Power outages come with the territory in El Zonte. Evenings are lit by candlelight, but most are content to follow the rhythms of the sun. As Peter attests, “Watching unobstructed sunsets over the Pacific was way more memorable than TV ever could be.”

Forget fancy menus; El Zonte’s palm thatched eateries dish out simple regional fare like pupusas and ceviche. “The fresh-caught fish grilled up at dinner still had ocean breezes in its flavor” promises blogger Alex Cooper. Between surf sessions, swinging in a hammock or beachfront yoga help pass the time.
While the humble amenities amplify its off-the-grid appeal, El Zonte’s remoteness also requires accepting certain tradeoffs. Solo female travelers should take heightened safety precautions, especially at night. And beaches lack lifeguards, so swimmers should exercise extreme caution.

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