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Playa El Espino

A wide, gorgeous beach that is splendidly isolated on weekdays and alive with beach-goers on weekends, Playa El Espino is gaining a reputation as one of El Salvador's best places to throw down a towel and enjoy the sun, sea, and sand. Access was once difficult, but now a newly paved road means you can get there easily by bus or car from the main town of Usulutan. New hotels are popping up all the time.

Playa El Cuco

Your first impressions of Playa El Cuco may not be so great when you first arrive and see a ramshackle gathering of food huts and shacks. However, keep going, and it opens up into a vast plain of sand with a distant shore that goes on for miles. El Cuco is a medium-size fishing village that also functions as a popular El Salvadoran beach getaway. Swimmers often share the ocean with small boats heading out for the day (and the occasional jellyfish), and the beach is lined with tables for drying the fishermen's morning catch, as well as thatched-roof-covered restaurants catering to El Salvadorans. If you want to step off the normal tourist path for a couple of days, this is a great place to go. Three kilometers (1 3/4 miles) west is Playa La Flores, one of the best places to surf in the country and with none of the crowds associated with the Balsamo Coast. To get there, take the bus no. 385 from San Miguel, or drive east along Hwy. CA-2 and follow the signs.

Conchagua Volcano and Village

Tired of the beach? Take the morning off from sunbathing to visit the 1,243m-high (4,078-ft.) Volcán de Conchagua just south of La Union. Ride to the top in a 4-wheel-drive, and you'll find a mirador with incredible views of the entire Golfo de Fonseca, La Union port, the islands, and the coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua. On its slopes is a pleasant little village of the same name, worth checking out for its 17th-century church, leafy plaza, and laidback vibe.

Other Beaches

Farther east, you'll find the calm waters and uncrowded beaches of Playa Tamarindo. Tamarindo is nestled into a cove near the end of El Salvador's coast, which makes its ocean waters some of the calmest and best for swimming in the country. The area is also known for quality deep-sea fishing and its inhabited islands 1 hour off the coast.

Nearby is one of El Salvador's hidden gems: Playa Maculis. This 1.5km (1-mile) crescent-shaped beach is very private, with few houses and lot of trees. At either end, two rocky points jut out into the sea. This protects the waters from the lateral current that can be so dangerous on the Salvadorian coast. In addition, there are no rocks along the shore, so it is perfect for swimming. A few feet away from the tide is Los Caracoles (tel. 503/2335-1200; www.hotelsalvador.com), a breezy four-bedroom house with a lovely round pool surrounded by wooden deck and a bar within arm's reach. Owned by the same proprietor who runs the famous Los Almendros de San Lorenzo in Suchitoto, this lovely little beach house is a little piece of paradise. The house can be rented in its entirety for $220 a night -- a bargain, considering it sleeps eight and come with a housekeeper/cook.

Golfo de Fonseca

Now, you have reached the limits, a gorgeous bay with postcard-picture islands; fishing villages; and dark, volcanic beaches. Once a pirate hideout -- there is an enduring legend that Sir Francis Drake buried his stolen loot here -- the inlet is now shared with Honduras and Nicaragua, and has very little tourist infrastructure. El Salvador has sovereignty over just a handful of islands, the most important of which is Isla Meanguera. Here, there are no roads nor cars, and everybody travels by boat. There is one public boat a day from La Unión, so getting around is very difficult unless you pre-arrange everything with your hotel or go with a tour company such as La Ruta del Zapamiche (tel. 503/2228-1525; www.larutadelzapamiche.com).

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.