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Your initial arrival in El Salvador can be a culture shock. The language, the pace, and the heat in the capital, along with its poverty and third-world chaos, can be a little disconcerting, especially if it's your first trip to Central America. However, there are certain factors that make the country an excellent introduction to the region: a familiar currency, relatively good roads and infrastructure, no particular health concerns, and no visa requirements. The food is also excellent, if a little unvaried outside the capital.

Choose your accommodations carefully and think seriously about how you will get around. This guide will give you tips on how to plan your trip, stay safe, and keep in touch with home, as well as more specific information, ensuring you will be prepared for everything, including surprises.

Accommodations

El Salvador's hotels vary widely in quality, style, and price. San Salvador's larger hotels are mainly multinational chains that follow internationally accepted standards for service and amenities, but most hotels outside the capital are individually owned (which means you'll find some true gems and some real stinkers). There are also a few international and national chain hotels scattered around the country, but generally, most small-town hotels are going to be simple, cinder-block or stucco buildings with medium to smallish rooms, minimal decoration, and old furniture. Most are comfortable, with friendly, helpful on-site owners. Just don't expect everything to be shiny and new.

Rates range from more than $125 for a luxury room in San Salvador to $14 for a simple, comfortable room in a small mountain town. The bigger the town, the higher the price. And an 18% tax, which is included in the prices quoted throughout this guide, is applied to all hotel rooms. Rooms are not necessarily more expensive during Holy Week, Christmas, and early August. Sometimes, they are actually cheaper. But they definitely book solid, so make your reservations for these weeks well in advance.

Dining

Outside of the high-end, international restaurants of San Salvador, El Salvadoran dining can get a bit repetitive, with most small-town restaurants offering roughly the same combo of cooked fish, meat, or chicken with rice and salad. Occasionally a restaurant owner throws in an Argentine sausage or a veggie dish. But for the most part, you'll be offered just plain-ish meat with a starch and greens. There are a few highlights, however. The first is El Salvador's national dish, the pupusa. Styles vary, but generally pupusas are corn tortillas filled with pork and cheese and grilled warm and brown. They're usually served with a side of hot sauce and a tasty curtido, which is like a slightly spicy coleslaw, and sell for 25¢ to $1.50 each. You'll find them everywhere; and two to four make a meal. You'll also want to try El Salvador's refrescos/liquados, which are a combination of fruit, ice, and water or milk. (My favorite's a banana, milk, and honey concoction.)

If you have a strong stomach, you might want to try out one of the country's many comedores, which are small, often family-run restaurants, usually with a mom or grandmother in the kitchen serving pupusas and a few items based on whatever is available that week. And if you've had your fill of traditional cuisine, a world-class collection of Asian, Brazilian, Italian, Peruvian, and other cuisines is available in San Salvador.

The country's 13% dining tax is normally included in the menu price, with an additional 10% tip automatically added to most bills. Check your tab before tipping.

Shopping

Like dining, there is a world of difference between shopping in San Salvador and shopping in the rest of the country. San Salvador offers nearly everything you could ever want or need, and is filled with high-end malls and expensive designer shops. But the smaller towns often offer only small tiendas -- one-room food stores with a few necessities -- street markets, and small variety stores.

Weekends tend to see town squares turned into markets offering everything from arts and crafts to cheap calculators. Most El Salvadoran markets also sell traditional artesanías -- a broad term for El Salvador's various textile, wood, and art crafts, which often take the form of wooden crosses, decorative boxes, or natural wood surfaces painted in the unique style of the country's most famous artist, Fernando Llort.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.