El Salvador is an easy and fun country to see by bus. There are very few places in this small nation that cannot be reached by one of El Salvador's many decades-old, brightly painted, former-elementary-school buses. Most city buses are 25¢ to 35¢, with few, if any, rides within the country costing more than $2. El Salvador's larger cities have dedicated bus depots, but in smaller villages, the buses often come and go directly from the main square. In small towns and along many slow-moving roads, you can also hail buses like you would a taxi by waving your arm.
Buses in El Salvador are also mobile markets and charities. Be prepared for vendors to hop aboard at each stop to sell fruit, bottled water, and dulces (candy). You'll likely encounter brightly dressed clowns who solicit for various charities, as well. Though riding a bus in El Salvador is an excellent way to get to know the country's people and culture, don't detour away from the main tourist routes mentioned in this guide and avoid nighttime bus travel, or you'll risk encountering some safety issues.
Older Is Better -- Stick to the older buses in El Salvador. You might be tempted to hop on one of the country's newer, more-modern-looking buses, but these rides rarely have air-conditioning, they cram just as many people on, and because they have bucket rather than bench seats, you'll have even less room than on the older buses. Fortunately, most buses that travel within the country are of the ancient variety. They regularly get fixed up, painted wild colors, decorated with religious symbols, and put back in service. These buses are packed, hot, bumpy, and stop frequently, but they will get you where you need to go, in style and more comfortably.
El Salvador is one of the easiest countries in Central America to see by car, since it boasts newly constructed, well-paved, and well-marked highways running the length of the country from east to west and north to south. Hwy. CA-1, also known as the Pan-American Highway or "Carretera Panamericana," is the nation's main artery traveling from the western Guatemalan border through San Salvador to the eastern Honduran border. Hwy. CA-2 runs the same direction along the coast and is intersected by three major north-south highways running the length of the country. Once you get off the main roads, however, things get a little different. The secondary roads are not usually paved. So, even in the dry season, it's best to rent a truck. In the rainy season, I recommend renting a four-wheel-drive, as some roads are not passable with regular vehicles.
To minimize your risk of robbery, do not drive at night. When visiting larger cities, it's best to leave your car parked in your hotel parking lot and just take buses and cabs; city streets here are often chaotic, filled with people and vendors, and streets are rarely marked. These are not roads you want to drive while reading a map. You should really keep your eyes peeled while driving anywhere in the country: El Salvador's roads are filled with old jalopies moving at half the posted speed, motorcycles puttering along on the shoulder, farmers walking with carts sticking a few feet into the road, and pedestrians just inches from the lane.
- "Alto" means stop.
- Many small towns have a one-way system around the central plaza, so keep right as you enter each town.
- Lines of traffic cones will occasionally block your way. These are speed checks, and you just weave through them.
- Make sure you get a "Tarjeta de Circulacion" from your car rental company and double check that it's not out of date. All cars must have this "Circulation Card" to move freely around the country.
- Avoid driving at night in order to minimize your risk of robbery.
- When visiting large cities, leave your car in your hotel parking lot and take buses and cabs, as chaotic traffic and lack of street signs makes city driving difficult.
Driving Rules -- The official rules of the road in Nicaragua and El Salvador are very much the same as those in North America. People drive on the right, and standard international signage makes it clear who has the right of way at city junctions. Seat belts are obligatory, and speed limits apply to urban areas.
Not that anybody notices. The standard of driving in both countries is poor and sloppy, with speeding and fender benders very common. Watch out for drivers turning without indicating and chaotic city traffic circles where anything goes. Huge potholes are frequent, especially in rural areas of Nicaragua, where kids make a living by filling these hazardous craters with dirt in exchange for change from drivers.
A valid driver's license is necessary in both countries, and it is recommended that you get an international license before you travel. Police checkpoints are frequent. It is important never to move your car after an accident, even if it is blocking the road. If an accident causes an injury, both drivers are taken into custody until the matter is cleared up, which can take several days.
There is regular ferry service across Lago Suchitlán to Suchitoto, and ferries ply the waters around La Unión, but additional ferry service is nonexistent.
Taxis are prevalent in the country's bigger cities and are usually easy to catch around each city's main square -- they're safe to hail on the street, except at night, when you should have your hotel call you one.
Smaller cities usually don't have taxis, but many feature small moto-taxis (called tuk -tuks) which are basically red, canvas-covered, three-wheeled motorcycles. Tuk tuks are often much cheaper than regular taxis -- sometimes as little as 25¢ for a few blocks -- and you get the added bonus of feeling the wind in your hair.
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.