Travel to El Salvador – Episode 491

categories: central america travel

Travel to El Salvador - Amateur Traveler Episode 491

Hear about travel to El Salvador as the Amateur Traveler talks to Joe Baur of about his recent visit to this Central American country.


El Salvador is a country the size of Massachusetts with about the same population (6 million) which makes it the most densely populated country in Central America. Long in the news for its civil war, and still the home of gang violence, Joe found an El Salvador that defies this bad news as he journeyed there for a week.

Joe started in urban Santa Tecla which was the capital of the country in the mid-1800s, a smaller city just outside the current capital of San Salvador. Joe calls it an “artsy bohemian city”.

From there he traveled to the colonial city of Suchitoto with its cobblestoned streets. Joe wanted to visit Suchitoto after reading the book “El Salvador Could Be Like That” by Joseph B. Frazier who was a reporter in El Salvador during the Civil War. Suchitoto was the home of FMLN during that conflict.

In the El Salvadoran National Park, Cerro Verde or Parque Nacional Los Volcanes Joe hiked up to view the young volcano Izalco (formed in 1770).

Joe ended his trip at El Tunco on the Pacific coast which is a haven for surfers.

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Show Notes
El Salvador
San Salvador
State Department El Salvador Travel Warning
Santa Tecla, El Salvador
El Salvador Could Be Like That by by Joseph B. Frazier
Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)
Boca Olas
Remembering the war in El Salvador and what it cost journalism


Travel to Moscow – Episode 490

Hi Chris,

As always another great podcast from the Amateur Traveler, my favorite travel podcast.

I had the opportunity to visit Moscow in the summer of 2005. Our small group visited Moscow for several days before & after traveling to southern Siberia for a whitewater rafting trip on the Katun River. Moscow was our gateway and staging city for traveling to Barnaul Siberia. There are definitely lots of interesting things to see and do in Moscow. Good food and restaurants too.

– the Kremlin museums are nice
– the changing of the guard at Kremlin is impressive
– St Basils and Red Square are amazing
– visiting the Lenin mausoleum and saying hello to Vladimir is one of the most bizarre and surrealistic experiences I have ever had. I do recommend it.

Probably the most memorable overall experience was simply standing in Red Square a taking in the entire surrounding view with beautiful St Basil at one end, the Kremlin and Lenin tomb on one side, and old soviet “department store” (mall) opposite. As a child of the Cold War it was a pinch-me experience.

There are lots of police and security scattered about Red Square. We had been warned to avoid them. As I walked the square, I would zig zag my way to avoid encountering police. Supposedly, a common scam was for them to ask to see your documents (passport), claim there was a problem or discrepancy, and then offer to ignore it if you paid them a bribe. This was in 2005. Not sure if it’s still an issue but I probably wouldn’t give them an opportunity to test their integrity if you can avoid it. I had no problems myself.

I also recommend visiting Lenin’s mausoleum. It was the most bizarre surrealistic experience I have ever had in my travels around the world. You must wait in a long line but it moves rather quickly as the minders don’t really allow you to linger too long. You descend a darkened staircase with a military guard lighted in spotlight at bottom of stairs. You are directed into room where Vladimir himself is displayed in repose in a glass case in all his glory. You actually can get relatively close and the controlled orderly procession has you walk 3/4 around the leader. It is darkly lit with military honor guard in corners of room. No cameras allowed. After exiting, you ascend staircase and your back out in the hubbub of Red Square. It’s an odd experience and perhaps not one for everybody but I found it fascinating and would recommend it.

Unfortunately, I missed seeing Chairman Mao in Beijing as we were there on wrong day for viewing. Perhaps someday I can chalk up the communist trifecta by seeing Lenin, Mao, and Kim Jong-il.

The logistics of visiting Russia was probably the most difficult that I have encountered in all my travels. I have traveled to all 7 continents and visited some rather obscure places and countries. And yet I found the logistics of visa, travel reservations, permits, and bookings for Russia to be most difficult of any place I have traveled. (It rivals if not surpasses traveling to Tibet.) And this was with my rafting company taking care of most things. I couldn’t imagine taking care of everything completely on my own. I must condition this comment with the fact that my trip to Moscow and Russia was in 2005. So I’m not sure if the logistics of traveling there is still as difficult. It probably is easier now.

Moscow is one of the great historic cities of the world. I highly recommend it. You can easily spend 3-4 days there. It would probably be best to combine it with visiting other cities or destinations and not just a as a single destination.

Thanks for your continued podcasting work. I always look forward to the next episode.

Randy, Annapolis MD

Amateur Traveler Trip – Cambodia April 2016 – 9 days

Travel to El Salvador - Amateur Traveler Episode 491


Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 491, today the Amateur Traveler talks about volcanoes and colonial cities, waterfalls and surfers as we go to El Salvador.

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Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. We’ll be talking more about our sponsor in a bit. In fact, you might want to keep in mind whether this is a trip you’d want to have travel insurance for. But now, let’s talk about El Salvador. I’d like to welcome to the show Joe Baur, from Joe is a travel writer, filmmaker, and recently a podcaster. Joe, welcome to the show.

Joe: Thanks for having me!

Chris: Joe, you have pitched me a destination that I have not been to in Central America. Where are we talking about today?

Joe: We’re talking about El Salvador, El Pulgarcito.

Chris: Excellent. Why should someone go to El Salvador?

Joe: Oh God. The list for me is long. But I would say first and foremost, the reason that I wanted to go there was I was living in Costa Rica at the time. My wife and I were doing a year abroad there. Honestly, my motives weren’t too idealistic at first. It was just that a cheap flight came up from San Jose to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. And we were living in Central America to see Central America. We weren’t going to say no to a country just because of a less than stellar international image. But with the benefit of hindsight and having the ability to look back on our week in El Salvador and all the studying I did and I research I did before going there and the follow-up conversations I’ve had with people I’ve kept in touch over there, I would just say the reason for anybody to go is because these countries where people aren’t travelling, the generic North American or European travel, those countries where they’re not travelling are the ones where you’re going to have the most profound experiences. And that’s what I found in El Salvador.

Chris: Now, you mentioned the less than stellar international reputation. So I want to say that I haven’t really heard anybody talk about El Salvador in, oh, 30 years. So you say El Salvador, I think death squads. And I’m sure because I haven’t heard about the country in 30 years, it hasn’t changed at all, right?

Joe: Well, yeah, I mean, a lot of people could say that! When we said we were going to El Salvador, my mother-in-law immediately sent us the FBI travel warning on El Salvador and…

Chris: …and there is still one.

Joe: There is! Oh yeah, absolutely. I had a great experience but in the coverage I did on it on my website and for some publications, I do acknowledge the realities. There’s a lot of danger.

Chris: And you said the FBI. I assume you meant the state department.

Joe: Yeah, correct, yes, sorry. Let’s change that to state department. There is a lot of things happening there. What they’re infamous for is the gang violence. And the government has really stepped up their efforts to put down the gang violence. And a lot of people don’t necessarily agree with that because it’s basically just fighting fire with fire and it’s getting really out of hand. When we were there, in about the second week of January, we had just pulled into our second stop along our week tour. We were in Suchitoto, El Salvador. Beautiful colonial town. We pulled up to do this hotel called Los Almendros de San Lorenzo that we had read was objectively the most beautiful hotel in all of El Salvador. To be fair, not a whole lot of hotel infrastructure in El Salvador. But this really was a phenomenal place. And the daily newspaper was out there and it talked about how the country had already lost two police officers in the gang war.

And this is the densest country in Central America. I’m not sure what the US state equivalent would be, but I’m pretty sure it would be smaller than West Virginia. So having two police officers who have already died within a couple weeks was certainly newsworthy. But having traveled to various portions of the country and talking to people, from the perspective of a tourist or traveler, somebody who might go there, everybody said that tourists have been given carte blanche to travel the country wherever they want to go, for the most part. There are places where the gangs are active that you wouldn’t go. You just wouldn’t go because you either not interested, or you know that’s where the gangs are. Their fight is not with you. We did not have a glitch the entire time. I’ve been in American cities where I felt like I was in far more danger than I ever felt in El Salvador. My wife can say the same. It certainly wasn’t our experience that danger was around every corner.

Chris: That being said, what did you do in El Salvador? What was your itinerary?

Joe: Our itinerary was interesting because we actually were working with a company. We weren’t scared going into it, but we certainly wanted to take every step possible to ensure that everything went swimmingly. We were talking to a company that was just going to take us around to various different spots over the week and then like a couple days before we were going to leave, they just emailed us pretty touristy saying canceled. Not much more than that, just saying, “Sorry, wish I could tell you more but…that cancelled.” So we were hastily figuring out what the hell we were going to do. We gotta figure this out. And I’m firing off emails like I’ve never fired off emails before. And I’m a travel writer so I know how to fire off an email or two. And to keep a long story short, we kind of figured it out as we were going. Basically, the group we were working with moved us away from our original intention. And so this was actually a blessing in disguise. We were able to get back to the original idea we had.

We started off in urban Santa Tecla, which is a smaller city that’s just right outside of the capital, San Salvador. It’s kind of an artsy, bohemian town. From the reading we had done on it before, we knew it was going to be something where people had been moving back to kind of rehabilitate the area. It was shocking at first and not in a bad way at all. We had come from Costa Rica, having seen a lot of that, that was our only experience…I’m sorry, we did make a stop in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. In our experience of Central American cities was very different that what we found in Santa Tecla. In Costa Rica, a lot of towns I love there, but they are all pretty much the same where there’s the big central park, anchored by a beautiful church. That’s just what it is. It’s nice but there’s not really any cities that really separate themselves in very notable ways. In Santa Tecla, as soon as we got there, we got through like, “Holy hell, this is a city!” The buildings, like on the street side, there is a sign for bikes. Previously we hadn’t seen much acknowledgment to two-wheeled transportation. So we get to Santa Tecla and there’s bike stands where you can lock your bike. There’s little signs telling you bike riders are going to be around here. There was beautiful buildings that were just brightly colored, cool little restaurants, a lot of dive bars. It was really stunning.

For our first stop, we had a private room and it was called a hostel, I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it a hostel. There were some dorm rooms but what we stayed in was certainly not/didn’t feel like a hostel. And we met up with the owner who offered to just take us around. And one of the special things about El Salvador is that, especially for a tourist, it’s going to be cheaper than Costa Rica or even some parts of Nicaragua. Or like, if you were going to go to Grenada or Panama City. And you’re going to get people who are just so passionate about the country that they want to boost tourism that they’re just going to show you things and you don’t necessarily even need to pay for it. And so that was the experience with this hostel owner. He just showed us around, gave us the whole story of the town. And our minds were just blown because there were these two beautiful parks that were unlike anything we had seen in Costa Rica that were just beautiful public spaces where people could come around and hang out. He introduced us to some people.

Then later that night we met up with a friend of mine who I had met online through a language exchange program. So one of the reasons we were down there is because we wanted to improve our Spanish. So I met somebody who also wanted to learn their English. And she said “I live in Santa Tecla, we should meet up!” She took us out for ice cream that supposedly done in a local style. It just phenomenal. And by the end up the night we ended up having pizza at this bizarre cacophony of American culture and Latino culture. It was like Dean Martin was playing but there was like cowboy paraphernalia. It was bizarre but in a wonderful way that we were just having the time of our lives and our whole entire worldview of what to expect in El Salvador was blown out the window. And again, never felt even the slightest aspect of danger.

So then after Santa Tecla, we only spent one day/night there. The same driver that took us in the airport, which is actually not right in San Salvador, it’s actually a little bit of a drive away, it’s between the Pacific coast and San Salvador. He picked us up again, and this time we went to Suchitoto, that I’d mentioned before. Beautiful colonial town. I mean, a lot of people want to go to Antigua, Guatemala, Granada or Leon in Nicaragua, to get the feel for the Central American colonial town. But this place. It was a lot of that, perhaps smaller in scale. But you’re going to be the only tourist there for the most part. There are some businesses that cater to tourists but I didn’t see any other US American, Canadian, European travellers the entire time I was there. We didn’t really have a set itinerary. It was just mostly walking around and seeing what came up. And we wanted to go to Sochitoto because I was trying to follow the history behind El Salvador that I had been reading about beforehand. I read this fantastic book by Joe Frazier, not the boxer. He was a reporter for, I think it might’ve been AP. I could be wrong about that. But he was a reporter covering the Civil War in El Salvador that was going on through the eighties. And that was kind of my backstory for it all. Sochitoto is in “Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación” country, which is the FLMN. You see those signs everywhere when you’re travelling around El Salvador. And that’s the Guerrilla party that was fighting against the ARENA party, which was in power.

Chris: Right.

Joe: And that’s what the United States was backing up. And going to El Salvador, you learn a lot about American history that we’re not necessarily taught. And so we wanted to go to Sochitoto to see more of that history. And also because we heard it was a colonial town. Costa Rica doesn’t really have colonial towns just because of a different history with the Spaniards at the time of colonization.

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Joe: And so in this town, we got to meet up with the hotel owners at the hotel I mentioned before, Los Almendros de San Lorenzo. Incredible hotel on these cobblestone streets and the owners were just fantastic to us. One of them had been an ambassador I believe to Europe for El Salvador. And he met his partner there in France. So the Frenchmen came back and just fell in love with El Salvador at first sight. So now they’re running this hotel together. They treated us to dinner and we just got to hear a little bit more about what’s going on. And just on the note about safety, at one point, I mean I’m a travel writer and filmmaker. I have my big obnoxious camera on my side at all times. And at one point I even asked him is it okay for us to walk around with a camera, right? And he just laughed and said, “Nobody cares!” We have this perception ingrained in us, at least some people I think, that people in other countries are going to see the American and be like get them. But that hasn’t happened in my experience in all of Central America, and certainly not in El Salvador, which a lot of people would be most afraid of.

While in Sochitoto, we also got introduced to this phenomenal woman named Peggy. She was an American nun who had been working in El Salvador before, during, and after the Civil War. She’s still there at the Centro de Artes Para La Paz. So we just sort of stumbled across that center. We met an individual there who lived during the Civil War, heard her story, asked us what we knew about it. That’s another thing that was special about El Salvador. Unlike Costa Rica or some of the other countries where they’re more accustomed to seeing tourists, everybody there who saw us would be asking “What are you doing here?” And not in an aggressive way, just truly inquisitive. What are you doing here? And then we would explain, “We wanted to see a country that people aren’t really going to. We wanted to see what’s special about it.” And they truly appreciated that, and then they would say, “Oh, you gotta go here! You’re only going here – how could you do that? You’ve gotta go over here and just-” really trying to expand and unlimit our itinerary within a limited amount of time. Everybody was just incredibly welcoming there. The gentleman at Centro de Artes Para La Paz was certainly no exception.

So we were there, just got some more of the history. And just a lot of walking around, just kind of really taking it in. And on the way out, we had one of our favorite moments of the whole trip on the way out. It was recommended that we take a cab over to this little, where there was supposed to be a waterfall. But it wasn’t the rainy season, so there wasn’t any waterfall. But we found this little kid who was just jumping around everywhere. He found us and he wanted to like take us to show things. And he just kept saying “Soy mono! Soy mono! I’m a monkey.” And he was crawling the trees and just being really goofy because he saw the cameras, so I think he was playing it up a bit. But granted, I’m sure, don’t know his whole story but those are the things that stick out to me, especially in a country where the general perception is you can’t go because it’s not safe. You know, here’s this little kid that’s just running around having the time of his life. And then it made me think back to a lot of stories that I have read about/heard about kids running around in the States. Now there’s this whole craze of people/parents getting arrested because they let their kid walk a few blocks between school and their house at like the age of five or something. I don’t know, I just thought that was something that stuck out to me. Not necessarily in a way that I can articulate too well, obviously. But it was just something special that really stuck with us.

Chris: Okay. By the way, you had asked earlier the size of El Salvador. It is the size of Massachusetts and almost the same population. Both have between six and seven million.

Joe: Right, so yeah. I think in Joe Frazier’s book he talks about the size and I think he does mention Massachusetts. So yeah, it’s not a big country, and that’s another great thing for travelers. A lot of people…and I don’t want to make it seem like I’m picking on Costa Rica. I love Costa Rica, I consider it like a second home after spending a lot of time there. But with El Salvador, it being the densest country in South America, you can get everything, as we did within our week, you can get everything like that, really quickly. We were in an very urban area where there was a lot of artists and a lot of cool things going on, nice restaurants. Maybe two hours or so, whatever it was, up to colonial Sochitoto, quiet. There’s a lake, it’s peaceful, just completely different atmosphere. Then after that, we took another two-hour boat ride. And we went to Cerro Verde, which is a national park. And it’s in an area they called Tres Volcanes, three volcanoes There’s active three volcanoes in the area.

This one was an AirBnB beast, called Los Suenos Verde. Beautiful property, but in order to get up there, we’re in this massive pick-up truck, we’re on a normal road. Then he turns right and he’s like “Okay, now we’re going to start going up!” And then just over time this road narrows, and gets more narrow and narrow. And suddenly we’re on what can be generously described as a hiking trail on a massive pick-up truck just bouncing our way up this mountain. But once we got there, I mean we’re face to face with this volcano called Izalco, which, looking up later, we found out was geologically speaking, it’s a very young volcano. It was only formed I think in the mid-eighteenth century. And it’s one of those science project volcanoes, just shaped perfectly. Great for picture-taking, great for doing the time lapsed sunsets.

And it’s a completely different because we’re really high up, completely different climate up there. Pretty warm but still comfortable weather when we were down in Santa Tecla and Sochitoto. But up here, I mean, it got cold at night. So this was kind of our world El Salvador experience, being up there. There was a caretaker for the property up there at the same time named Santiago, who was fantastic for showing us around the different hikes. We did this hike up Volcan Santa Ana, this beautiful crater. And of all the hikes I did of Central America during our time abroad, that one definitely sticks out as my favorite. Besides just the topography, there was a lot of diversity, I mean it felt like you were hiking in woods at first and then it suddenly felt like you were hiking maybe camelback in Phoenix. And then you’re at the top, and you see just this turquoise, beautiful blue crater down beneath you. And you have this beautiful panorama of just nothing but nature. And I felt like it’s an experience that you can’t just necessarily get in Costa Rica because the tourism industry is much larger there. There’s just going to be more stuff there. In El Salvador, it was just like we had found…you know, I hate to be, I don’t like to be the traveler who thinks like, ‘This is my first time! I discovered it!’. But it really did feel like we found a special place in a special country.

So after that we pretty much just kind of relaxed back at the property. And this place was nice because it cut off your connection to the world. No cell phone signal, nothing. You really just, you pass the time being in nature for sure. And we got to talk with Santiago more and learn a little bit more about the country. And like I said, this is another one of the special layers about El Salvador that you meet people who are pretty heavily involved in some pretty heavy recent history. And I don’t know if it was okay or it wasn’t but he was patient with me and I asked him, obviously he spoke Spanish and my Spanish isn’t fluent. But there was just something between our level of…well, my level of Spanish and maybe him just being a little more world that we were having a hard time understanding one another. But he was incredibly patient with me, and I got up the courage to ask him about his involvement in the Civil War. He said that he fought for the government. So that would be the ARENA, the opposing folks to the ones in Sochitoto where FMLN is kind of a stronghold there. And he just said, “Yeah, I fought for the government.” And he just sort of nonchalantly raised his hand northeast, pointing back towards Sochitoto area, saying “Yeah, that area was FMLN.” But he said it in such a nonchalant way that really hit me because this is such recent history, such a bloody Civil War, that I’d have to imagine he’d think of these people as like lifelong enemies like might be the aftermath of a lot of other conflicts. I mean, he said it with the same intensity that I might say, “Oh no, I want my coffee black, no cream please.” Just matter of fact that “No, no, they’re over there.”

And that’s another thing about El Salvador. They just had this awful Civil War. But at least politically speaking, the fighting is just huge obnoxious political banners. And you’ll see those all throughout the country. That’s something that almost every Salvadoran or immigrant from the United States, who are now for one reason or another is now living in El Salvador said that they were really angry about the international press. They don’t feel they get enough credit for the fact that they had a really horrible civil war but have been able to keep both ARENA as still a political party and FMLN had achieved the Presidency. And they feel they don’t get enough credit for maintaining the peace afterward. Obviously they have problems with the gangs but that’s just something that we heard a lot of. After Santa Verde, we headed down the mountain for our final stop for the week and that was El Tulco. Which I had read about I believe in Joe Frazier’s book, ‘El Salvador Can Be Like That’. And it’s referenced elsewhere where it’s a surfer town that had been settled by surfers for well before the civil war, during, and after. The idea being kind of that surfers will surf wherever. They don’t care what else is going on, they just, it doesn’t matter to them. They’re gonna surf. And it is a surfer’s town. But it just looked like no other surfer town that I had seen before. I mean it had this very cool pedestrian-only walkway that lead to the beach in the center of, I guess you could call it a town. I mean big, flat, white sand. Gets a little rocky but once you get in the water it was, it wasn’t one of those beaches where once you get into the water, you just have to, you’re kind of tip-toeing cause the floor is completely rocky and you’re just scraping up your feet. This was one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever been on. And in our experience, this was the only place where we saw significant tourism. And that we even heard a bunch of English.

I would also like to say that if you’re going to travel to El Salvador unless you have a guide with you the whole time, it’d be a good idea to know some Spanish because, like I said, a lot of people were curious as to why we were there. We saw it even when we were hiking. Like a guy in a pickup truck pulled over while we were hiking and said hey, how’s it going? But they just jump right in in Spanish, which makes sense because it’s their language. But in Costa Rica, because I think they’re so used to seeing tourism, either they speak English and will just jump at you in English and assume you don’t speak Spanish, which unfortunately is the case for a lot of travelers coming down there. Or they just won’t talk to you because they kind of assume that you don’t speak Spanish and they’re not just gonna bother. But because tourism is a growing thing in El Salvador, you see the curiosity as to what you’re doing there. But they must just assume that you speak Spanish cause why else would you go there without the tourism infrastructure?

But if you don’t speak Spanish, I don’t want that to turn you off. There are tour guide companies that you can find. And it’s certainly a lot more affordable there than it is in some of the more tourism-heavy Central American countries. So it can be affordable for a lot of people to have a guide with them and that can be just as great an experience because you’d still be getting the stories. But back to El Tunco. I mean that’s, I was talking about Santa Verde. Incredible climate difference. Just chilly at night, cool breeze. Very windy at night, especially. Then we went back down, we’re on the pacific beach now. And it’s humid. I mean, this is like melting stuff during the day. I mean people at the hotel, we stayed at this new place called Boca Solas that usually more intended for a longer stay. But they were new, so they were taking guests anyhow. And there was a receptionist who was actually Swiss, who had kind of similar story in that she was going to go backpack through Central America, was told don’t go to El Salvador. Went anyway. And she met somebody there and married him. And so she’s there and saying how she has no plans to leave, loves it there. But she did say that you can tell if it’s the hottest part of the year because people will walk based on where shadows are. So as the sun’s going, you find out which side of the street people are on. They’re gonna be on the side with the shadows. But you know, you can hop in the water and you’re gonna be fine. People are gonna be playing soccer on the beach.

And really it’s just like, you know, throughout the trip we were just loving each thing more and more. And we didn’t want to say anything out loud to each other cause we thought, if we say something out loud, something’s gonna happen. It’s gonna be ruined cause we’re gonna jinx it. But once we were in El Tunco, kind of city on the beach with all these Salvadorenos and other travelers watching this beautiful sunset. And you can see all these silhouettes of the surfers, cause that’s when the wave hits the best. We were like, okay. I think we can say it now. This is a phenomenal country and we’re gonna be coming back here for sure. And that wasn’t even, I mean we had that beautiful night. And then, again what I was talking about before about you get these connections in these countries with little tourism that people wanna show you things. And that Swiss receptionist pointed to who was her husband’s brother. So her brother-in-law, I believe, was basically like, yeah I’ll take you on a hike if you want. And this wasn’t any designated hike in a metropolitan park or a national park. This was just a trail he used to do when he was a kid.

And he said it hadn’t been changed at all. So he takes us down. It’s pretty steep going down but perfectly safe. And it was to a set of waterfalls. So if you imagine you’re hiking down and then you get to kind of a flat bed of rock. And then you’re surrounded by some modest waterfalls. I mean, it’s not Niagra or anything but it’s just kind of some nice pretty waterfalls that you could jump into if you want. I chickened out and only did like the six-foot jumper. I said, not like you could fact check me. I did the 30 foot jump. Not that you could fact check me or anything. But I was having a blast with this guy and he’s talking about living in El Salvador and how much and he likes it. And we’re walking back up and there’s this group of school kids that are just playing in the river. And they have their chaperones. And that’s when it really hit me that I was like really, kind of shaking my head at all the foreboding warnings that we got. Like, don’t go there. And one of the things that really bothers me is when people put down somebody’s hometown that they really identify with. And everybody from El Salvador was telling me like, oh you live in Costa Rica? That’s cool. El Salvador’s better. Like, there’s a lot of pride there. Even not necessarily justifiable pride, and I say that only that because a lot of people probably hadn’t been to Costa Rica to really judge the two. But they just inherently love the country so much that they just instinctively believe that this is a great place.

And so we’re watching these kids having the time of their lives, playing in this river. And I was thinking, you know, who are these people to say don’t go to El Salvador, it’s too dangerous. You just should travel there. And yet there’s these little kids that are just having the time of their lives. And I couldn’t imagine that anybody would go to these kids and say, yeah you shouldn’t be here. It’s really dangerous. And I just feel that that level of ignorance need to be corrected. So that’s what really drove me to afterwards just try do my own publishing on it for my own various websites. And I’m still talking to different people. Any chance I get I’m talking to a new contact at a publication. I’ll be like, if you haven’t covered El Salvador, I need to do that for you. And I’ve done that at a couple places. And that’s the first thing I thought of when you said you were looking for some new destination. I was like, if he hasn’t talked about El Salvador, we gotta talk about El Salvador. I feel like I’ve become a quasi-ambassador in the travel world because everybody knows we met at TBEX. And over there I was telling everybody, El Salvador. If you haven’t gone, go. You know, everybody’s talking about Cuba right now which, don’t get me wrong. I wanna go to Cuba. But they’re talking from the perspective like, oh we wanna get there before tourism really gets in there and we can really see it for what it is now. And I wanna do that too.

But you can do that now with El Salvador. It’s pretty untouched as far as tourism goes and if you go, it’s kind of a trite or cliche word to use, but you’re gonna get an authentic experience if you go to El Salvador.

Chris: And the one thing I wanna caution a little bit here. I don’t wanna dimish your enthusiasm for El Salvador. And I haven’t been there and you have. But in terms of safety, and I feel like we’re harping on this a little bit. But whenever you go someplace, I think it’s useful to read the state department’s warnings and then kind of just put it in context. And there’s to start with, tens of thousands of US citizens safely visit El Salvador every year for study, tourism, worship visits, business and volunteer work. And that’s kind of the good news. But the bad news is there have been 34 US citizens that have been killed since 2014 there. So do you have any guidance in terms of places that you should avoid? Because obviously even a country the size of Massachuttes, even if you’re in Massachuttes, there are places you would go and places you should avoid.

Joe: The only thing I can think of off the top of my head was I think, so the overall country. Or I don’t know if they use county or canton, like in Costa Rica. But El Tunco is in the state, whatever you wanna call it, of Libertad. And La Libertad is a coastal city.

Chris: Right. Kind of in the middle of the coast.

Joe: Correct.

Chris: Not far from San Salvador.

Joe: Yeah. And you know, you’re really not far from anything. That’s El Salvador. You’re gonna be close to just about everything. It’s a tiny, really tiny country. But that was a place where we had heard you don’t necessarily need to go to. Santa Ana as well. When we were in Santa Teco, we met somebody from Santa Ana who was saying like, ‘Oh no, it’s fine. You can come.’ And they know their context. They know places not to go. I can’t really give you too many specifics on places not to go because the overwhelming feedback had been that nobody is going to take you any place. I mean, sure. On your own you could hop on a bus and go anywhere in the country. But if you don’t speak Spanish, I would just recommend hiring a driver because it’s gonna be an ease of mind thing. I’ve traveled to countries where I don’t speak the language and it’s just an ease of mind where if you have somebody who knows what they’re doing. And I have a friend, a fellow travel writer who does a lot of solo traveling and writes about solo female traveling. And he did just a layover tour of El Salvador, had a long layover there. And just, a guide picked her up in a cab and showed her around. And she had said the same to me that, the guy wasn’t interested in having her experience any danger because they’re very cognizant of what their reputation is. They want people to go back and say they had a good time in El Salvador.

I had the hotel folks in Suchitoto saying oh, don’t worry about your camera. But then we went on the hike to Cerro Verde. All the information say to go with police escort. And that might sound like a huge red flag. And I get that. But to me that was my experience across Central America is that they are very cautious and very protective when it comes to tourism. I don’t know if it’s just if that’s just because they know of what the general reputation of history of Central America is because like I’ve said and throughout all of Central America, we never had anything that felt remotely scary. And so this police escort, I mean this wasn’t, you know, secret service escorting President Obama. This was us coming to the post where the hike started, realizing we had just missed them, we went and caught up. I don’t even know if he even had a weapon, it was just a guy in a nice looking police uniform that had the country’s flag on his shoulder. And that was about it.

Chris: So this was a regularly scheduled hike or something?

Joe: A lot of it is very informal. We actually showed up and there was different people walking by, we’re like “Oh no, they pick up at this time…” And so what I would say, if you’re going to do anything that’s kind of remote, you’re just going to have to be patient and talk to people and see what times that they offer because it’s not like there…in El Tunco they’ll have websites and you can figure out what type of surfing you can do and other activities. But for some of the more remote areas, it’s just going to be knowing okay, there’s a volcano there. I know I can hike it, I’m just going to have to get there and talk to people and figure out what time makes the most sense. And it’ll get done. I mean, that day we decided “Let’s go hike Santa Ana.” And we just kind of got up early and started working our way to where our guy Santiago said the entrance was and just kind of figured it out from there. And everything was fine.

But back to your question about what places to avoid, at Bocas Olas in El Tonco we met a US American who had married an El Salvadoran and she was involved with this hotel. And so she met with us and gave us a talk. And she was actually the one who told us that tourists have carte blache to go wherever you want, nobody wants to mess with tourists. Her father-in-law had actually been in the government during the Civil War. So we got to chat with him about it. And the general perception was just that there are places that you don’t want to go. And you can research them beforehand. I’m sure if you talk to people who are living there on the ground. They can tell you specifically where not to go. But that’s the beauty of El Salvador, how dense it is. I would tell you if you were to go to El Salvador, do the trip that I just explained because you’re going to get a little bit of everything. You get an urban city with a little bit of art and culture, you get history with Sochitoto with the colonial stuff, you get the outdoors in Cerro Verde, and then you get the beach to relax in El Tunco. There are some other spots that I’ve heard, I’ve actually heard more about some other places that you should go on a return visit but not necessarily places that you shouldn’t go.

Chris: Okay, I think we’ve beaten that dead horse here.

Joe: [laughs] Sure!

Chris: So I want to move on here. What surprised you?

Joe: The first thing that comes to my mind is how curious they were to see us there. And I talked about already to that length about how they’d see us and they’d say “Oh, what are you doing here?” And they’re just incredibly welcoming. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot and I’d never been to a country like El Salvador that had that reputation and that tourists were not going to, pretty much at all. That’s just what stuck out to me was that everybody was kind of surprised to see us there, asked us what we were doing. And then once that was out of the way, they would just say thanks for coming, I hope you come back, I hope you go tell people that you had a good time so that they’ll come too.

Chris: Okay. As we go to wrap this up before I get to my last four questions, what else should we know?

Joe: I think I mentioned before, I do think it’s good to go in there knowing a little bit of the history. The US history with El Salvador isn’t the cleanliest of histories and to just be cognizant of that. I think it’s helpful in talking to people. And like I said, we are at the center of arts in Sochitoto. I mean, the guy was wondering, “Do you know that your country supported the ARENAs?” who were doing, like you said in the very beginning, the death squads stuff. And I think he responded better to us because we said that “Yeah, we read about that.” And were able to be honest with him that we weren’t necessarily thrilled with the history but that we were at least cognizant of it. And I think that opened him up to us a little bit more and, therefore, gave us another side of El Salvador that maybe we wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise.

Chris: Okay. You’re standing in the prettiest spot in El Salvador that you saw. Where was it? What are you looking at?

Joe: Oh god, I mean I’m having like a side-by-side image fight of the view from…

Chris: [laughs]

Joe: from the view from Los Suenos Verde, looking at the Volcan Izalco, the sunset. But then it’s like, trying to push into the frame, is the central park of Sochitoto where there’s the beautiful colonial church. There were kids riding in circles on their bikes. And so I don’t know which one wins out of that. They’re very different experiences, but they’re in my head just kind of running into each other like the Sunday night football highlights or something.

Chris: I love the fact that as I think of that question, I’m thinking of still photography and you clearly are thinking of video, so….

Joe: [laughs] Yeah!

Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh? Only from El Salvador.

Joe: I don’t know if this counts because part of it made me laugh after the fact. But pupusas are the food of El Salvador. They’re like these, uh…

Chris: I happen to be a big fan of pupusas.

Joe: Oh, that’s excellent. So if some folks might not be familiar with it, it’s like a handmade corn tortilla. They fill that with cheese…

Chris: A little thicker tortilla that the usual.

Joe: Yeah, right. And they stuff it with cheese, some kind of meat, usually pork and refried beans. And like I said, obviously this country connected to me in a special way. And after our trip, I started hearing this song going “A mi me gusta las pupusas” It’s just this ridiculous, silly song about pupusas. And then I found out that they have, actually it just happened, it was November 2nd. They have a National Pupusa Day. And so whenever, whatever, all that mixed together just makes me smile.

Chris: And basically the song is “I love pupusas.”

Joe: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

Chris: Yep. For our non-Spanish speakers in the audience.

Joe: Pretty much!

Chris: Awesome. Finish this sentence for me: You really know you’re in El Salvador when….what?

Joe: Oh, man. When you’re looking at national park scenery, a volcano by night. And in the morning, you’re relaxing on the beach and people are coming up to welcome you and telling you thanks for coming. I hope you come back and I hope you share this experience with other people.

Chris: Excellent. And if you had to summarize your experience in three words, what three words would you use?

Joe: You know, I could sit here and try to give you something more profound but I mean the first thing that comes to mind is special because that’s how it connected with me and that’s how it clearly connects with so many El Salvadorans who are living there. Fun. Just fun. I don’t need to overthink it any more than that. It’s just fun, the people are just…everybody who talked to us was smiling, laughing, whether it was in the urban Santa Tecla or up in Sochitoto and having a quiet drink with the hotel owners, or relaxing on the beach and talking to people who passed by. It was just a constant stream of fun.

Chris: Okay.

Joe: Then last but not least. Unexpected.

Chris: Okay.

Joe: I think anybody’s who’s going to go there is going to…even anybody who listened me yammer on about El Salvador, even if they were to retrace my steps perfectly, there’s no way that they would come away from that being like yeah, that’s pretty much what I expected. Even if you retrace my steps, you’re going to come back and just be like, ‘Wow! I did not see that coming, I did not expect that.’ And everybody’s experience is going to be different. Hopefully as good as mine. But no matter what, it’s going to be an unexpected experience.

Chris: Excellent. Our guest again has been Joe Baur. Joe, where can people read about your travels?

Joe: Uh, they can just go to my website, creatively titled

Chris: [laughs]

Joe: All the videos and words are up there.

Chris: And is there one article or video about El Salvador that you would recommend particularly?

Joe: Of mine? If you would just go on the menu bars under travel, Central America, and click on El Salvador, it’s got all of my stuff there. But I did do a four part series breaking it up from Santa Tecla, Sochitoto, to Cerro Verde, to El Tunco. And at the top of each of those articles, I think they’re about 800 words a piece, so I wanted to split it up, so people would actually maybe read them. At the top of each of those articles is a video, kind of like a travel log music video of our week in El Salvador. So even if you don’t want to sit down and read the words or you’ve had enough of my yammering and you don’t need to get that experience in written form, you can just go watch the video and get a sense of what a week in El Salvador is like.

Chris: Excellent. Well Joe, thanks so much for coming on The Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for El Salvador.

Joe: Thanks for having me! I appreciate it.

Chris: In the news to the community, first my apologies. The microphone sound for this episode may have sounded very different during the interview. My microphone broke. The microphone that I’ve been using for an number of years now just gave up the ghost. I’ve done 1100 episodes, many of them with that microphone and I just got my replacement microphone now. So we should be better in the future.

We got the great feedback from the episode we did on Moscow. We had two very long comments and I’m going to read part of one that came from Randy from Annapolis, Maryland. Randy said

“I had the opportunity to visit Moscow in the summer of 2005. Our small group visited several days before and after traveling to southern Siberia for a white water rafting trip on the Tune river. Moscow was our gateway and staging city for traveling for Barnal, Siberia. There are definitely lots of interesting things to see and do in Moscow. Good food and restaurants, too. Which is true. We really didn’t get into the food scene. We just kind of ran out of time with the Moscow episode. He said the Kremlin museums are nice. The changing of the guard at the Kremlin is impressive. Seeing St Basel and Red Square is amazing. And visiting the Lenin mausoleum and saying hello to Vladimir is one of the most bizarre and surrealistic experiences I have ever had. I do recommend it. Probably the most memorable overall experience was simply standing in Red Square, taking in the entire surrounding view with beautiful St. Basel at the end. The Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb on one side and the old Soviet department store mall opposite. As a child of the cold war, it was a pinch-me experience.”

The logistics of visiting Russia was probably the most difficult that I had encountered in all my travels. I have traveled to all seven continents and visited some rather obscure places and countries. And yet I found the logistics of VISA, travel reservations, permits and booking to Russia to be the most difficult of any place I have traveled. It rivals, if not surpasses, traveling to Tibet. That was with my rafting company taking care of most things. I couldn’t imagine taking care of everything completely on my own. I’m not sure if the logistics of traveling there is still as difficult. It is probably easier now.”

For all of Randy’s comment, go to the Moscow episode.

With that, we’re gonna end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. Remember we have the trip coming up in April to Cambodia. The Amateur Traveler trip. You can find more details now on the website under the book travel tab.

Thanks to JayWay travel, experts in Eastern European travel for the transcription of this episode.

If you have any questions, send me an email at host at Or better yet, do what Randy did and leave a comment on this episode at And as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

4 Responses to “Travel to El Salvador – Episode 491”



This podcast made me happy! I love El Salvador so much, it’s one of my favorite places in the world for many of the same reasons that Joe brought up. Gorgeous beaches, fantastic national parks, Suchitoto (and Los Almendros! Love that hotel!) and the fact that Salvadorans aren’t annoyed with too many tourists, and don’t mind showing off their amazing country to travelers willing to make the trip. I’d like to add that Juayúa and the Ruta Las Flores is a great destination for less adventurous tourists, with solid tourist infrastructure, trails, waterfalls, handicrafts, and easy transport connections to Guatemala City. If you speak a little Spanish, other spots to see include massive Coatepeque crater lake, with some lovely little hotels and restaurants right on the water; Perquín, the old revolutionary capital that’s now a semi-developed base for ecotourism; Bahia de Jiquilisco, if you want to support El Salvador’s nascent sea turtle protection programs; and La Palma, the handicrafts center founded by Fernando Llort, plus a side trip into the cool cloud forests of El Mirador del Mundo. Joe was right, everyone who spends time there want to become an informal ambassador of El Salvador!

Please note that the State Department warning that says 34 US citizens have been killed in El Salvador since 2014 ignores the fact that their infamous organized crime organizations (gangs, maras, whatever you want to call them) are transnational, and most (if not all) of those deaths involve US citizens who are involved with gangs. The average USAmerican tourist is not going to have any problems with crime, much less violent crime. Obviously you want to travel smart, but I’ve spent months, much of it alone (as a middle-aged woman) working and traveling in El Salvador, using public transport, and have never even had problems with pickpockets or bribe-happy police officers. 11/11 would go there again and again.

Joe Baur


Glad you enjoyed the podcast, Paige, and that you’ve had a chance to travel El Salvador yourself!

Morning Dubai Desert Safari


Good to hear that you really enjoyed and happy with podcast. EI Salvador is a amazing place to spend some memorable time. Wish to visit that place in future.



Great Episode! I too really enjoyed my trip to El Salvador. Even though I was there on a mission trip with our church we did have a “tourist” day. I would like to add a recommendation for the waterfall hike in El Impossible National Park. this is easily one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done. We used Impossible tours ( to provide our guides and they were great.

I also must echo what the guest said, the people are great and we never felt like we were in any danger what so ever.

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