Destinations

Five things to do at Lago de Yojoa

Five things to do at Lago de Yojoa

You could probably spend weeks here without running out of activities, but if you need to prioritize, here are my favorite things to do at Lago de Yojoa.

Go kayaking on the lake

We got a double kayak with transportation included from our accommodation, but there are lots of places to rent kayaks around the lake. I’d definitely recommend going in the morning, before it gets too hot and the sun will fry you up. We started at 9, and paddled around the lake for three hours.

Kayaking on Lago de Yojoa, Honduras.

We were dropped by the canal leading down to the lake and paddled on for a bit before it opened up. It was so tranquil and nice! Lots of birds that I don’t know the names of just gliding above the surface, and no other person as far as we could see. The weather was lovely and we stopped to swim from the kayak several times.

We did get horribly sunburned though, so make sure to reapply your sunscreen properly after swimming! I missed some spots and everyone could tell afterwards. The kayaking is only as strenuous as you want it to be, so you can pretty much just float around once you get to the lake. No previous kayaking experience needed, don’t worry!

Visit the archeological site Los Naranjos

For a Central American archeological sight, this must be one of the least impressive I’ve been to. Sure, they do have some ruins and they do have a small museum with the usual clay pots and stone carvings, but that hardly made it worth paying the 6 USD entrance fee.

Archeological museum at Los Naranjos in Lago de Yojoa, Honduras

For me, this visit was all about the park itself. The ruins are located inside a large natural park, with well-maintained paths going through the lush forest. There were hardly any other people around, so we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves. I think it’s possible to spend hours just walking around it.

There’s also an area with boardwalks that go above the marshland, which we found really exciting. Unfortunately, during our visit, most of this was closed for maintenance. Not sure when or if it will open again. It was still possible to go out to a small clearing with a view over the lake.

The boardwalk at Los Naranjos archeological park, one of my favorite things to do at Lago de Yojoa, Honduras

When we got there, there was a local family having a picnic in there. Turns out the man worked for the park, so even though he was off duty, he told us a lot about the park and the ancient civilizations of the area.

Enter the Taulabé Caves

Getting to Taulabé Caves (Cuevas the Taulabé) required taking three buses from Los Naranjos, but hopping between buses is a breeze in Central America. Everyone was super helpful about where to change and where to wait. The cave entrance is just by the main road, so you’ll get dropped just outside. It’s also possible to get a driver if you’re several people, but then you miss the loud music and all the cowboys on the buses.

Normally, the caves are lit up by electric light, but when we came there was a power shortage and we were given flashlights. I think this is probably a very different experience compared to what it is like with the regular lights on, but I enjoyed it! The entrance fee was for foreigners was 4 USD.

Inside Taulabe Caves near Lago de Yojoa, Honduras

We were the only people visiting at the time, which was probably good, because it was quite scary. The trail into the cave goes on for a few hundred meters, and then you will turn around and walk the same way back. It still feels pretty deep, the air is damp and there are bats that will move when you hit them with the flashlight. Still, it was very enjoyable, and all the buses getting there was worth it.

Visit Pulhapanzak waterfall

We went to the Pulhapanzak waterfall immediately after the caves. This also required a bunch of buses and then a walk through the village, but it was still fast, and it was that kind of day. If you have a driver, I assume you can get both of these into a half day tour. I would really recommend the buses and walking and hanging out with the locals around here though, if you have the time.

Pulhapanzak Waterfall near Lago de Yojoa Honduras

Now, I’m well aware that every small town in the world has a waterfall that they promote and make tourists go to, but this one is actually worth the hike. It’s pretty big, and it has a viewing platform both above and below the drop. There’s also an area for swimming if you’re up for it, and some other activities on offer such as ziplining and a guided tour behind the falls.

My favorite thing was the iguanas that moved about the area, seemingly unbothered by the tourists. It seemed to me that mostly local tourists came there, and the whole thing was very low-key. There is an entrance fee of 70 lempiras, and you will obviously pay more for ziplining.

Try the local craft beer at D&D Brewery

We stayed at D&D Brewery, which is a bit of a backpacker hangout around these parts. They have different types of accommodation, ranging from dorms to stand-alone cabins in a lush forest area. This very hostel is a shuttle stop, which explains the backpacker vibe.

They also have a restaurant on site, and more importantly, it is a brewery, so you can taste a half dozen locally brewed beers. It was a strange feeling, arriving after hours and hours on chicken buses to a place in the middle of the forest, on the outskirts of a small village, and be served super hipster craft beer. Strange, but nice.

Honestly, I thought the place was just alright. I’d heard people raving about D&D for ages, some saying that staying there was the only thing he’d recommend about Honduras. Yet I wasn’t really comfortable there. The beer was great, the outing advice was great, the kayaking was great. The bed was really comfy. It just wasn’t very personal, I guess. I think it has been a smaller place before, so maybe it just needs some time to transition.

The village by D&D Brewery, Lago de Yojoa, Honduras

It’s still a good base for activities around the lake, but do make sure to spend your time outside of the hostel. The village is really nice, you can watch the kids play football, buy your lunch supplies in the small shops, and have your laundry done for a fraction of the price just down the road from the hostel.

How to get to and from Lago de Yojoa

We went from Copán to Lago de Yojoa with public transportation, and it was a breeze. Well, it wasn’t the most comfortable ride of my life, but the connections were very smooth and we were dropped just outside the hostel.

Riding the bus near Lago de Yojoa, Honduras

To make the same journey, take the early morning bus from Copán to San Pedro Sula. Get there on time for the 7 o’clock, as we got to the bus stop about fifteen minutes before departure and scored the last seats. The journey to San Pedro Sula takes about three hours, and you will be dropped in the huge bus station. San Pedro is pretty much the murder capital of the world, but you will never have to exit the bus station when you transfer and the vibe in there is not weird at all. It’s just a regular bus station. We were going to the village of Los Naranjos, and so changed to the minibus going toward El Mochito. The total journey took around six hours and we paid just over 200 lempiras (8 USD). It was not comfortable, but not scary or unsafe at all.

There are also tourist shuttles passing Lago de Yojoa, going between the coast and Nicaragua, I think. If you’re not a chicken bus kind of person, there are also bigger buses going this route. Check with your hostel!

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Why you should spend a few days in Copán Ruinas

Why you should spend a few days in Copán Ruinas

We arrived in Copán, Honduras, after a long day of travel from El Salvador, spending most of the day getting in and out of minibuses and crossing the border at El Poy and Nuevo Ocotepeque. We were dropped at the edge of town and walked through the center, looking for a place to stay for a few days. There’s not so much to see in Copán, and there are daytrips from Guatemala to see the ruins, but I think the town is worth a couple of days.

The center of Copan Ruinas Honduras

Where to stay in Copán

Copán Ruinas town is definitely on the tourist trail, and there are so many hotels and hostels to choose between. We stayed at the hostel Iguana Azul, in a private room with plenty of shared bathrooms and showers out back. We didn’t book ahead and were lucky to get their last available room, so I would definitely recommend making a reservation if you know in advance that you are going.

The hostel is run by the same people as the fancier Casa de Café next door, which looked fantastic with its garden and lovely restaurant. We had breakfast there in the mornings, which was a little bit pricey, but it was enough food to last us until dinner. The breakfast menu honestly was a struggle, so much eggs and bread and fruit.

Visiting Copán Ruinas and Las Sepulturas

I’ve always loved those places where people spend the night only to see the one same attraction, like Agra in India, or Aguas Calientes in Peru. Although the ruins in Copán are neither as impressive nor as well-visited as the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu, the town still had the same sort of vibe. Everyone had either been to the ruins, or were going there in the morning.

View over one temple in Copan Ruinas Honduras

We went our first morning, which is recommended as the temperatures can get quite high in the day. If you arrive when they open around 8 am, you’ll also see the macaws near the entrance being fed. The entrance fee is 15 USD, which is quite a lot of money in Honduras, but also includes the lesser visited but highly recommended site Las Sepulturas nearby.

The main site is located about 1-2 kilometers outside of town, and there’s a really nice walking path going there. There are also plenty of mototaxis willing to take you there if you don’t want to walk. To get to Las Sepulturas, just continue down the same road a bit further and you’ll see it.

View from a temple at Copan Ruinas Honduras

The main site at Copán Ruinas is a quite large area, with plenty of temples and statues. It’s definitely more impressive than the site Tazuamal that I’d visited in El Salvador, but not as big as Palenque or Tikal. There are so many sculptures and carvings, which I really liked about this site.

We strolled and climbed around the ruins for a few hours, reading about all of them in our guidebook. Some people had guides, but we weren’t super interested in the details, we mostly wanted to see everything. The area wasn’t very crowded, at times it was even possible to take pictures with no people in them.

Horses by the road on the way to Las Sepulturas Copan Ruinas Honduras

After we were done with the main site, we continued walking to Las Sepulturas. I would highly recommend visiting this site as well unless you’re really stressed to leave town. There were no other people there, only one young man who was trying to do that trick of starting to walk next to you dropping pieces of info until you realize that you have a guide and will now have to pay. We kindly informed him that we didn’t need a guide and he took off immediately, leaving us to explore the site on our own. These ruins are smaller and more overgrown, but much less polished up for tourists.

Visiting Macaw Mountain, the bird park

On the following day, our main activity was a visit to the bird park Macaw Mountain. The macaw is the national bird of Honduras, and this park is a sanctuary where rescued or injured birds are rehabilitated before being released into the wild if at all possible.

Bird at Macaw mountain parque de aves in Copan Ruinas Honduras

The entrance fee of 10 USD goes toward the care for the birds and includes a guide. We had heard it was possible to swim at the park, but we didn’t see a place for that when we were there. Perhaps it was temporarily closed.

mountain parque de aves

The park itself was really lovely, and there are walking paths through the forest where you can walk around looking at the birds. It’s really relaxing, not noisy and busy like some other bird parks. There’s a small restaurants and gift shop on site if you need it. We took a mototaxi from town for 20 lempiras per person and walked back. It’s not far, maybe 2 kilometers or just over, so you could definitely walk both ways if you want to.

Where to eat in Copán

I’ve already recommended Casa de Café, which was an absolutely amazing place, and very vegetarian friendly. It’s a little bit pricey, but still excellent value for money.

Another place we went to was the gringo restaurant at the hostel Vía Vía. There were a lot of street dogs in the restaurant, which we thought was awesome but I can see how not everyone would agree. After roughing it for a while in El Salvador, we really appreciated some burgers and beers.

Our last night in Copán, we went to Jim’s Pizza, a place that came highly recommended, run by an American who’s lived in Honduras for a  long time. The place is nothing fancy, but the pizza was excellent and the service friendly, and they will also show sports games when something’s on.

Taxis waiting at the parque central in Copan Ruinas Honduras

Getting to and away from Copán

We came from El Salvador, traveling for most of the day to get to Copán. It was still easy enough, but if you want to break the journey we heard good things about Santa Rosa de Copán. Leaving Copán, we were going to Lago de Yojoa. The first step of that journey was to take a bus to the infamous San Pedro Sula, which left in the morning from the edge of town. We took the bus at 7, which I think was the last direct service, and when we got there fifteen minutes before departure we got the last seats. This is not recommended, as I ended up sitting in the front with my back to the window and zero legroom, so I’d say definitely get there a half hour before departure.

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El Salvador to Copán Ruinas without passing through Guatemala

El Salvador to Copán Ruinas without passing through Guatemala

When I was in Santa Ana, it seemed like most people were headed straight to Copán Ruinas in Honduras through Guatemala, some on chicken buses and some on shuttles. I really wanted to spend some time in the little colonial town of Suchitoto on the way, so I figured I might as well go from El Salvador to Copán Ruinas by the El Poy-Ocotepeque border crossing and make it one of those days mostly spent getting on and off buses.

If you’re don’t want to pass two border crossings in a day, look no further. If you’re starting from San Salvador, take the bus #119 directly toward the border at El Poy (Frontera El Poy) from Terminal de Oriente and skip the first step.

Step 1: Suchitoto to Aguilares

It seemed like everyone in town knew the exact interval between buses (40 minutes), but no one could say at what time one would leave. The bus number is 163, and it leaves from near the corner of the main square in Suchitoto where the tourist information is, as always in El Salvador you can just ask somebody and they’ll be happy to tell you exactly where to wait. We were lucky and the bus pulled up just as we got there, and the ride took about a half hour down to the main road from San Salvador. The bus pulls into a market on the other side of the main road, but tell the attendant that you’re going to the border (la frontera) and they’ll let you off at the main road.

Step 2: Aguilares to El Poy

The attendant pointed us toward a gas station about a hundred meters south of the crossroads, so we set out walking in that direction. A bus was waiting when we got there, number 119 from San Salvador to the border. The trip takes around two hours.

If you don’t want to make this trip in one day, or take a lunch break somewhere, you can make a stop in La Palma, a small town famous for its colorful murals. You can really see most of it in about an hour, so there’s no need to stay the night unless it’s getting late. If you do end up staying, I’d recommend Hotel La Palma, that has indoor murals in the rooms.

Colorful mural on a building in La Palma, El Salvador

Step 3: Crossing the border

This border crossing is really quiet, at least when we passed, and it was hard to tell where to go as there were no other travelers crossing. We stopped to ask several people on the way before we found an abandoned kiosk with an official in training who looked through all of the pages in our passports and chatting about the stamps to make time pass quicker, before he stamped us out of El Salvador. Another short walk and another kiosk later, we were in Honduras.

Cowboys in the minivan from Ocotepeque border to Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras

Step 4 and 5: Ocotepeque to La Entrada to Copán Ruinas

On the Honduran side of the border a minibus was waiting, the driver saying it was going all the way to San Pedro Sula. We were traded off to another minibus in Santa Rosa de Copán, and then dropped by the road at La Entrada, where the main roads meet. Another minibus going to Copán Ruinas was already waiting, and we got onto that. So many buses, but zero waiting time between them, and a total of about five hours travel time from the border.

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Is it safe to travel in El Salvador?

Is it safe to travel in El Salvador?

The first question most people asked me when I announced that I was off to El Salvador was if it really is safe to travel in El Salvador. And I can see why. With one day without a homicide every other year being worthy of newspaper headlines, and a murder rate of around a hundred per hundred thousand citizens, El Salvador has more than a bad rap going. It’s definitely dangerous to live in El Salvador, especially if you have any connection to gangs or drugs. But is it dangerous to travel in El Salvador? My short answer would be no. Stay away from the dudes with the face tattoos and you’ll be fine.

That being said, in San Salvador in particular, you will notice that this is not a safe place. I’m not used to armed guards from home, so for me they’re not necessarily associated with safety, but I do understand that in some places they are. In San Salvador, even the fast food restaurants have bars across the windows and an armed guard out front. In the smaller towns, however, you won’t notice a thing.

Street in colonial Suchitoto, El Salvador

The friendliest people in the world

You’d think that in a country where people kill each other to that extent, regular people would keep to themselves and be suspicious of strangers, but they’re the opposite. I’ve honestly never been to a friendlier place than El Salvador. As a tourist, you’ll need a lot of help from locals to understand how things work, as they don’t have much of a tourist infrastructure in place. There’s no marked bus stop, because everyone knows where the buses stop anyway, and so on. You’ll always have to ask the old ladies selling candy on the street corners or the guard watching the gas station entrance where to wait for the bus, and they will LOVE to help you. People really went out of their way to help and give advice, wherever we went.

You must, of course, exercise the same caution as you would anywhere else as a traveler. Don’t show off your money or electronics, don’t wear flashy jewelry, don’t carry your passport in your back pocket, don’t leave your stuff unattended, and always go with your instinct whenever you don’t feel safe. Don’t go for a random walk around San Salvador without reading up on which barrios to stay out of, and never walk alone at night, especially not if you’ve been drinking. But this is the same as everywhere, isn’t it?

Learn some Spanish before you go

I think it does help to speak Spanish. I do, so I don’t know what it’s like to navigate El Salvador in English, but I’m assuming it’s a bit tricky. It’s also so much easier to get closer to the locals if you can chat with them and understand what they’re saying. I’m guessing that El Salvador might not appear as extraordinarily friendly to an American who don’t speak a word of Spanish. I don’t know this, though.

All I know is that I’m not alone thinking that El Salvador is one of the friendliest countries on the planet, I’ve met so many others who said the same thing. I’ve also met a lot of other travelers in other parts of Central America saying that they would never go to El Salvador, instead they skip both El Salvador and Honduras on a shuttle because they don’t think it’s safe enough.

I think that’s a mistake. I cannot tell you that it is completely safe to travel in El Salvador, although I think it probably is. I can only tell you what I saw, and say that you should really go there and see for yourself what it’s like. El Salvador is not a scary place at all, quite the opposite. And you probably won’t get murdered.

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Suchitoto, a sleepy but picturesque mountain town

Suchitoto, a sleepy but picturesque mountain town

When I had booked my ticket to San Salvador, I started looking into where I’d like to go in El Salvador. One town that kept popping up was Suchitoto, which looked absolutely dreamy in the photos. The white, colonial buildings and the tranquil location right next to the big Suchitlán lake looked very promising for a place to spend a couple of relaxing days in between long travel days.

What’s there to do in Suchitoto?

Well, to be honest, not a lot. But that’s part of the reason why you should go! Our guidebook lists a few museums, one of which was called The museum of a thousand plates and more, which we obviously wanted to visit. Unfortunately, it was closed, although the opening hours posted on the outside said is shouldn’t be. Another museum was called Museo de la moneda, which was supposed to showcase a collection of world currencies, but although the museum sign was still up, the place was now a prison. Yeah, we accidentally walked into a prison in El Salvador.

Once place we did end up going was Centro Arte para la Paz, which is a community center with lots of classes and activities for the local kids, to keep them out of trouble. For visitors, there was an art display and a nice café. It’s not a lot, but you can still learn some things about El Salvador and your coffee money will go toward a good cause.

A local herding cattle on the way to the lake Suchitlan in Suchitoto, El Salvador

And the one thing not to miss in Suchitoto is obviously the lake, Suchitlán. You can walk down to the lake, which we did and really liked. It took about half an hour and the route goes out of town on a small and peaceful road, where local farmers are herding their cattle and everyone you meet will say hello. There is also a minibus that shuttles people between the town and the lake, if you don’t feel like walking. By the lake is a park, where you’ll have to pay a small entrance fee. There are restaurants and shops inside, and if you want to do a boat trip on the lake that’s also possible. We just wanted to relax and do a bit of people-watching before heading back up, and there were plenty of opportunities for both.

Another thing you can do in Suchitoto is to visit the indigo dyeing workshops. Indigo has a long history in El Salvador and Suchitoto in particular has many workshops, where you can see the work and also purchase the finished product.

Where to stay in Suchitoto

We stayed at La Barranca, a hostel connected to the restaurant Villa Balanza, which I don’t think you can book online. It’s located down the hill from Parque San Martín and offers cheap rates and a terrace with a view over the hills that are hard to beat. We paid $20 for a double room with shared bath, although we were the only guests staying at the time so it wasn’t that much shared. We particuarly liked the hammocks on the terrace, where we spent a lot of time just chilling. Walking up and down the steep hill was not that much fun, and it wasn’t a very cozy hostel vibe though.

If you have a little bit more money to spend, I’d definitely recommend Casa de la Abuela just by the Parque Central and the cathedral. We went there for coffee and sandwiches, and had a look around the lovely little gift shop, but also took a peek inside the hotel part and it looked amazing. It doesn’t have the lake view, but then you won’t have to climb the hill either.

If you want to splurge, Suchitoto is also a good place for that. We went for dinner to the excellent Los Almendros de San Lorenzo one night, and that hotel looks just amazing. The restaurant had outdoor seating in the garden, which was decorated with great attention to detail just like the indoor part that we saw. I can only imagine what the rooms are like. If you can’t afford to stay, you can still treat yourself to a nice dinner here and have a look around.

A street in Suchitoto, El Salvador

Getting to Suchitoto from Juayúa (and San Salvador)

We left Juayúa in the morning on one of the frequent buses to Sonsonate (45 minutes), then changed to the service into the capital (1.5 hours). This bus goes to the Terminal de Occidente, while the buses to Suchitoto (number 129 or 140, 2 hours) leave from Terminal de Oriente. You can either take the local bus or a taxi for $5. I read a lot of warnings about the Terminal de Oriente, but it didn’t seem very sketchy to me although you probably shouldn’t flash your cash out there.

The buses to Suchitoto don’t leave from inside the terminal but from the road outside. I asked a lot of people to be sure I found the right spot. Lots of buses pass by so you’ll have to be quick to board as they only stop briefly. If you take the 140 minibus, make sure it’s labeled Suchitoto as they have several destinations.

The total travel time from Juayúa was five or six hours including waiting times, so start early if you plan to go all the way. All enjoyable though, traveling on chicken buses is always entertaining.

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Playa El Tunco: great for surfers, but not my favorite

Playa El Tunco: great for surfers, but not my favorite

After I’d left my newfound friends in Santa Ana, I still had a few days before I was due to meet up with my regular travel partner in San Salvador. A few people I’d traveled with were headed down to El Cuco beach and the universally praised Tortuga Verde, but I didn’t want to go all the way there for just a couple of days. Instead, I decided to go to the nearby beach community of El Tunco.

Playa El Tunco is located near the international airport and San Salvador. It’s one of the few stops in El Salvador on the backpacker trail through Central America, and where most of the few backpackers who dare venture into El Salvador at all end up getting dropped by their shuttles.

Why I didn’t like El Tunco

While I did have some good chats with a few people in my dorm, there wasn’t a nice communal vibe in the hostel. Most people seemed neither interested nor interesting, and I struggled a bit to join conversations even at the communal dinner table. I think this might be a Tunco thing rather than a Papaya’s thing, as more young backpackers come here on the shuttle and already know each other from Guate. At 30, I felt a bit old, and most people seemed to be chatting about what things are like back in England, something I don’t know a lot about either. If you’re young and surf, you’ll probably blend in better.

Most places in Tunco seemed to be very party oriented, and there were signs everywhere advertising buckets of beer and cocktails. Prices were a lot higher than elsewhere in El Salvador, and I guess it just didn’t feel a lot like El Salvador. Or maybe I was just having a bad couple of days.

El Tunco beach at sunset, El Salvador

What I actually liked about El Tunco

As much as I missed the conversations and people I’d just left in Santa Ana, I took the time to be on my own in El Tunco. I took long walks, sat on the beach to watch the sun set, went pupusa eating at an actual Salvadorean place down a dark alley, and read novels in the hammocks. I really enjoyed all of this. I understand that El Tunco just wasn’t for me, I’m interested in a different kind of town, but I can absolutely see how some people will love it. It’s easy, it’s Western, it’s the beach.

Getting to El Tunco on public transportation

The public bus to El Tunco (#102) goes from Terminal de Occidente in San Salvador. You may have to transfer in La Libertad, but it’s uncomplicated. There’s either a big bus from inside the station, or a microbus that passes by on the road out front. There are also a few buses a day coming from Sonsonate, and if you’re coming from the airport early in the day, you can go to La Libertad without passing through San Salvador.

Where to stay in El Tunco

I stayed at Papaya’s Lodge, which is what most people recommended before I arrived. I simply got off the bus at the entrance to El Tunco, walked down the road to the hostels and had a look. The dorm had single beds and a/c for $10 a night, which seemed like a good deal. There was also a kitchen, a swimming pool, and most importantly, lots of hammocks on the terraces.

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Juayúa, Ataco and the Ruta de las Flores

Juayúa, Ataco and the Ruta de las Flores

Ruta de las Flores, or “the flower route” is a stretch of road between Sonsonate and Ahuachapán in western El Salvador. We decided to make the village of Juayúa the base for our trip to Ruta de las Flores. It seemed to be the town with the most accommodation on offer, which is usually a good pointer, but more importantly, they have the feria gastronomica every weekend. This is a food festival that they set up on the main square and in the streets around it, where you will have an excellent opportunity to sample the local food.

Street in Juayua, El Salvador

What to do in Ruta de las Flores?

So what’s there to do in Ruta de las Flores? Well, first of all, if you’re traveling in season, you should probably see the flowers. I’m never traveling in season, so I didn’t, but if it’s worth naming the place for, it’s probably pretty enough for Instagram.

You should definitely see some other villages. I liked Juayúa a lot, it was large enough to stroll around and to have a supermarket, and some good hostels and restaurants. You can also check out the famously black Jesus in the Templo del Señor.

We also went to Ataco (short for Concepción de Ataco), which is a short bus ride away, and found another large food market, a handicraft market and street art that was more interesting than pretty. There were also some good shops and cafés, and I would say that Ataco is definitely another good option for a base on this route.

Some special street art near the market in Ruta de las Flores, El Salvador

On the way back from Ataco we stopped briefly in Apaneca and strolled around it in the pouring rain, visiting the church but mostly just trying to take cover before another bus brought us back to Juayúa. I think it would’ve been great to self-drive in this area, and to travel in season, but going by bus in the rain was enjoyable enough.

You should also eat. As I said, there’s a food festival in Juayúa every weekend, but there are also other food events. We had excellent pupusas and smoothies in a large food court style tent in Ataco. We also went to a chili sauce tasting in Juayúa, at café El Cadejo. I didn’t dare trying the spiciest one because there were elaborate warnings on the label and it was probably named Exorcista for a reason, but it was fun and the hot sauce was not only spicy but also tasty.

Chili tasting in Juayua, El Salvador

There’s a hike to a waterfall in Juayúa (big surprise, like in every other small town in the world) but the rain was pouring and we weren’t feeling it. If you’re into small town waterfalls it’s worth a shot.

Where to stay in Juayúa

We stayed at Casa Mazeta, which I highly recommend. It’s a hostel with dorms and privates, and also a place to hang hammocks on the outside for the cheap and adventurous. We tried both the dorms and a private room in the garden, and both were excellent. There is a large kitchen and a communal living room with loads of games and activities for rainy days. And there are also very cuddly dogs around! Do book ahead if you arrive on the weekend, to be on the safe side.

The entrance to hostal Casa Mazeta, Juayua, El Salvador

When to visit Ruta de las Flores

If you’re going for the small towns and the food festivals, you can go anytime. If you want to see the flowers, which I’m assuming a lot of people do, you should time your visit to the months of October through February. We visited in July, which was fine, but the main attraction won’t be there.

How to get to Ruta de las Flores, and how to get around

We took the bus from San Salvador (Terminal de Occidente) to Sonsonate, then changed to the local service (#249) toward Ahuachapan. It’s a 45-minute ride from Sonsonate and you’ll be dropped in the middle of Juayúa. You can use this same bus to travel between the villages along Ruta de las Flores. There are also plenty of services coming to Juayúa from Santa Ana.

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Visiting Cerro Verde and climbing Santa Ana Volcano on a DIY daytrip

Visiting Cerro Verde and climbing Santa Ana Volcano on a DIY daytrip

Climbing Santa Ana Volcano was one of my highlights in El Salvador. It’s the highest volcano in the country at around 2,300 meters, and it’s active. It last erupted in 2005, so I guess it’s wise to check activity updates before you go.

If you’re enough people traveling together, it’s possible to share a taxi to Cerro Verde. But it’s also really easy to get there and back from Santa Ana on the public bus.

The bus to Cerro Verde

There’s only one bus to Cerro Verde from Santa Ana in the morning, leaving at 7.30 from the Vencedora bus terminal. Get there well in time and buy a ticket at the counter inside the waiting hall. The ride up to Cerro Verde took a couple of hours and we were dropped at a booth at the entrance to the Parque de los Volcanes where we would pay the entrance fee. From there, we walked a short distance up to the first viewpoint, and the parking lot with toilets (bring coins and toilet paper), a restaurant frying breakfast pupusas and small booths selling gifts.

Climbing Santa Ana Volcano

This is also where to find the guide. If you want to climb Santa Ana Volcano, you’ll have to go in a group with a guide and police. The group left at 11 from the parking lot. We were about thirty people, but I’ve heard stories of more than a hundred people going up together on the weekend. So, I guess, avoid the weekends and public holidays if possible. The guide spoke Spanish only, but there were many people in the group so if you don’t, I’m sure you’ll find someone to translate the important bits for you.

The group walked together for a bit through the woods, to another booth where we paid another fee. It seems a bit annoying to pay for everything separately, but you will get receipts, and I guess that way you’ll know that each service gets their share. You’ll end up paying like 10 dollars in total, or just over.

After this, the real hike started. We were warned that we would have to turn back if it started to rain, and there was a specific time that we were to leave from the crater, so the people who hadn’t yet reached it by that time would have to turn back. Everyone didn’t walk together, the group stretched out so it didn’t feel like being herded like sheep.

Walking around at the top of Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador

The hike was quite strenuous as it goes uphill, but not difficult. Some people even brought children, although the guide clearly didn’t approve of this. (The kids made it up there before many of the adults, actually). Wear good shoes and you’ll probably be fine, although you’ll have to be careful with the loose rocks on the way down. A walking stick would’ve helped, I think. Also, bring a jacket or sweater as it’s quite chilly at the peak.

There were some viewpoints on the way up where we could stop to take pictures, but it was quite foggy in the morning and we didn’t see much. On the way down, however, the photo ops were a lot better.

At the top of Santa Ana Volcano

The reward of climbing Santa Ana Volcano is the view into the crater, and you can look down into it where there’s a lake which is bright turquoise and steaming. This looked really cool.

I’ve climbed volcanoes before and what you get up there is always different. My little group was pretty quick to get up there, so we had plenty of time to take pictures from all angles and just sit at the edge and look down into the crater. You will also have a 360 degree view over the other volcanoes (Cerro Verde and Idalco) and the lake Coatepeque if you’re lucky. We weren’t, it was all in a cloud. But the people who went the day after us had only the view and the crater lake in a cloud, so I’m glad we got this.

The hike to the top took about an hour, and the same time back, giving us a bit of time to have more pupusas before the bus left at 4. Everyone takes this bus, so you’ll notice the workers packing up their stands just before the bus arrives. Ours was a bit late, but not much.

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Why Santa Ana is my favorite city in El Salvador

Why Santa Ana is my favorite city in El Salvador

When I got to Santa Ana, I just felt right at home. I’d spent several months in Nicaragua a year before and loved it so much, but San Salvador wasn’t really the same thing. Santa Ana, on the other hand, was exactly what I wanted from this repeat visit to Central America.

Possibly the best hostel in Central America

The best thing about my stay in Santa Ana was the hostel Casa Verde and its people. I think there are other hostels in Santa Ana, but this one seems to be the place to go. It’s hands down one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at in the world, run with an excellent attention to detail, and attracting the best people. For example, there are large plastic boxes for smelly shoes in the dorm, individual super silent fans above the beds, no bunks but regular single beds, power outlets in the lockers, two kitchens with all the basics, anything you need, they have it. There’s also a pool and a rooftop terrace. YES.

The dorm in Casa Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador

Santa Ana is a stop on the backpacker trail, for those who dare go into El Salvador at all, and many of the other travelers were stopping between León, Nicaragua, and Copán Ruinas, Honduras. While I’m not a fan of these shuttles, at least I’m glad that some of the people who take them get off in this lovely town.

The rooftop terrace at hostel Casa Verde, Santa Ana, El Salvador

What to do in Santa Ana

The town itself doesn’t have a lot of your typical tourist attractions to offer, but you will easily get a taste of local life. There’s the cathedral, like in all larger towns in Central America, and there’s the theater, which is more unusual. They didn’t have anything on when I was there, but I’ve followed them on Facebook and they seem to have a lot of events on for a very low entrance fee. Plus the building is so pretty, just at the side of the square. I spent a lot of time just sitting on the square, drinking a smoothie, and looking at everything that was going on around me.

Santa Ana is also an excellent base for excursions in the surrounding area. The highlight for me was a daytrip to Cerro Verde, which is really easy to do on your own with the local bus, together with a group of new friends from the hostel.

Visiting the ruins of Tazumal

Another excursion was to the Mayan ruins of Tazumal, in Chalchuapa, very close to Santa Ana. These ruins are nothing like the big ones at Copán or Palenque, but what I liked the most about these was that they’re still a work in progress.

The ruins of Tazumal outside of Santa Ana, El Salvador

The main site pretty much has one pyramid and one museum, and the best things have been transferred to a museum in San Salvador. Near the site, however, is a second site that very few people seem to visit, called Casa Blanca. This site is where they are currently excavating some ruins, and you can see the half-opened ruins. I would absolute recommend that you visit both while you’re in Chalchuapa!

Eating and drinking in Santa Ana

If you’re staying at Casa Verde, chances are that you will self-cater and have dinners with your new friends at the hostel. If you do want to go out, however, you’ll find the best pupusas in town just down the road, at Pupuseria Santa Lucia at the end of 5a Calle Poniente. Ask anyone at the hostel and they will tell you where it is. It’s only open in the evening and it does get pretty crowded, but it’s worth the wait.

During the day, I loved to pick up a smoothie at a licuadería in the market. This is also one that came recommended from the hostel. There are several of them, and you would probably be happy with whichever. One thing I really like is that the drink comes in a plastic bag. That feels a lot like vacation to me.

Getting to and from Santa Ana

Getting around El Salvador is really easy, and buses go all the time. From San Salvador, you’ll take the bus from Terminal de Occidente. This bus will probably drop you somewhere near the market in Santa Ana. To get away, you’ll have to ask someone where to wait for the bus for your destination. Chances are it’s a specific street corner somewhere in a dodgy-looking area. Use the excellent website Centrocoasting.com for advice on bus travel in El Salvador.

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Surviving San Salvador, one of the friendliest and deadliest cities in the world

Surviving San Salvador, one of the friendliest and deadliest cities in the world

I landed at the airport in El Salvador at night and had to take a taxi into San Salvador. This was really straight-forward, as there is a taxi queue and the driver didn’t even try to rip me off. I was really grateful for that, as I hadn’t haggled in Spanish in a long time.

The airport is located quite a bit south of San Salvador, so if you’re headed to one of the beaches you might as well go there directly. I wasn’t, so I had decided to spend the night and then a day in San Salvador. The capital is a transport hub in the country, so if you’re planning to spend some time in El Salvador, which I highly recommend, chances are that you’ll pass through a few times.

Sorry about the lack of photos in this post, San Salvador is not a particularly pretty place, and while I felt perfectly safe most of the time, not flashing my electronics was probably one of the reasons I could.

What to do in San Salvador

My guidebook said that the old town is really nice, with the squares and the churches and all, but when I got there it was all a construction site. Some genius had decided to do construction on all of the squares at once, blocking off the entire center with fences and making all the streets very crowded. There was a central market, partly in a temporary location, but really nothing else. A shame really, the squares looked nice in the pictures, and I’m sure they’ll look even nicer once the renovations are done.

I walked over to the Parque Cuscatlán, a more relaxed location, but that was also kind of a depressing place. I was still a bit jet lagged and I wasn’t really feeling it. Where was the Central America I’d missed so much? After trying a museum that was closed during its normal opening hours, I decided that San Salvador wasn’t for me and walked over to the mall Metrocentro to get some things I needed and then head back to the hostel. I was randomly approached by an American who told me that the area was very unsafe and that I would probably get robbed. Just what I needed.

Man boarding the chicken bus in San Salvador

My first day in San Salvador wasn’t a success, to say the least, but the next morning I was already getting into it. I was leaving San Salvador to go to Santa Ana, but had to take two local buses (hint: it’s not dangerous) to the bus station (not dangerous either). The bus stops aren’t marked, so I had to ask around a little, and everyone I talked to was SO friendly. They just loved to help me find the right corner to wait for the bus. Then I got to the messy bus station, and had another series of lovely conversations with people. I left San Salvador smiling.

But what to actually do in San Salvador?

I would return to San Salvador a week later, with a day to explore the neighborhood of San Benito, or Zona Rosa. I went to the Dr. David J. Guzmán National Museum, an anthropological museum that was really interesting, with an exhibition on a devastating volcanic eruption and lots of old artefacts.

I also went to the art museum nearby, Museo de Arte de El Salvador, to see the works of local artists. I really liked that museum as well, and they’re both small enough that you don’t get tired seeing both of them.

In the evening I bumped into a guy I’d met in Santa Ana, and we went out together to have dinner at a food truck park just outside the art museum, and then to a rooftop bar nearby. I must admit that as a solo female I wouldn’t have wanted to walk around alone after dark, but with two men I wasn’t worried at all. Zona Rosa is a safe area, but safe in El Salvador means that it’s full of armed guards. That doesn’t make me feel safe, even though it probably should, because I’m not used to seeing weapons like that.

Where to stay in San Salvador

I stayed my first two nights in Hostal Cumbres del Volcan in Colonia Escalon, and on the return I stayed at Zona Hostel in Colonia San Benito. They were both alright and reasonably priced. Zona was a little bit more expensive and had optional breakfasts, and a really nice lounge area downstairs. Cumbres del Volcan was almost empty when I arrived, so it’s hard to say what it’s like when it’s full of people, but it had a more homey feel to it.

Where to stay all comes down to what you want to do. If you want to have easy access to the historical center, maybe Escalon is a better option. If you want to see the museums and be close to the main road for buses out of town, San Benito is excellent. I personally liked that I got to try both! If I returned I would probably go back to La Zona.

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