Though tourism is El Salvador’s fastest-growing industry, its long history of gang violence and civil unrest has put it on the State Department’s travel warning list. Its capital, San Salvador, has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, due primarily to bloody wars carried out by rival gangs. But, as with any country with a bad reputation, crime tells only one side of the story. Travel beyond its seething center, and you’ll find many regions in El Salvador to be perfectly safe (or at least safer) for a non-touristy, under-the-radar adventure.
Located south of Guatemala and Honduras on the Pacific Coast, El Salvador boasts some of the finest surfing in Central America, with waves that break 200 yards or more without closing out. On the west coast is the small city of La Libertad, epicenter of Salvadoran surfing and home to Punta Roca and other world-class breaks. On the east coast, boarders flock to Las Flores, a volcanic rock point known for its long rides.
Though highly urbanized, El Salvador still offers some amazing hikes if you know where to look. El Imposible National Park, located in the Apaneca Ilamatepec mountain range, has high-altitude forests, eight rivers, and a variety of wildlife, including wild boars and small, tiger-like wildcats called oncillas.
Another must-do for hikers is the mountain town of Juayúa, a quaint jumping-off point for strolls along wildflower-lined trails and visits to nearby coffee plantations. Arguably the biggest draw for hikers, though, are the many active volcanoes that dot the country. Cerro Verde, Santa Ana, and Izalco—all located in Parque Nacional Los Volcanes—are the most popular.
If you do choose to visit El Salvador (and you should), be safe and smart. Check the State Department’s page for updates on problem regions. As of this writing, La Libertad was among those listed, but that could change tomorrow (keep in mind that issues are likely isolated to pockets of violence between gangs—which is no different from what goes on in L.A., Chicago, and other U.S. cities). Be sure to read the news. El Salvador’s newly elected president, Mauricio Funes, is promising to strengthen a gang truce that has dramatically reduced El Salvador’s homicide rate. If you travel in groups, never drive at night, and avoid carrying wads of cash, you’ll have a great time—just like the thousands of other visitors to El Salvador each year.