Cruiser Guide to El Salvador Part 1: Arrival and practical stuff

When we set off from Vancouver in September 2017 with a plan to head south, El Salvador wasn’t really on our radar. We thought we’d probably make it to Panama for the hurricane season. In Huatulco and Chiapas, our last two stops in Mexico, we kept hearing other boats talking about the Annual El Salvador Rally and on an impulse we decided to check it out. We sent off a quick email, signed up as we were leaving Chiapas, and arrived here a few days later. That was last April and as you know from our recent post about daily life we’re still here! As the time approaches for this year’s rally and with people sailing down Mexico and making plans for where to be during hurricane season, here’s some info about what you can expect if you include El Salvador in your cruising itinerary.

  1. Illusion crossing the bar – photo by Bill of El Salvador Rally
    It’s an adventure getting in! We’re in an estuary and you have to cross a bar to get inside. To do that you get help from a local pilot who guides you in. Depending on the sea state it can be quite a thrill, you might get to surf, and you’ll want to hold that wheel steady; and even when it’s flat, it’s a relief when you hear Bill on the radio welcoming you to El Salvador and take the left turn into the calm, peaceful estuary. But don’t let the bar crossing put you off. Get in touch with Bill ahead of time and he can help predict when there will be easy conditions and advise of high tides (you’ll enter just before high tide). If you arrive early you can anchor out, though it’s a tad rolly. Everyone wants to hear the dramatic stories, but really, for most entrances, it’s an exciting but not too stressful ride.
    The two pilots, Joel and Saul – one of these lovely guys will lead you in, along with Bill.
    Top tip: Plan ahead to ensure a stress-free crossing. Email Bill in advance to co-ordinate a good time to arrive, and then radio Bahía del Sol or Bill and Jean when you’re getting close. Also, try to relax and enjoy it!
One of the pools at the hotel & marina

2. Bahía del Sol, the marina based at the hotel where you check in to the country, is totally affordable and a great place to be based for a bit. Check-in (and out) with Immigration and the Port Captain is super easy and the hotel organizes it for you. The hotel’s property is on both sides of the peninsula: the marina’s on the estuary side, with a swimming pool, showers, and bar, and on the beach side there’s another swimming pool, bar, and ocean/beach access.

Hotel Bahía del Sol

We’ve made friends with so many of the staff and loved our time at the dock. There are lovely views of the estuary and volcanoes. Security is good.  Wifi at the hotel is usually reasonable quality – it’s good in the restaurant, bar, and pool and the nearest docks. For the outer docks you probably need a wifi extender to pick it up. At maximum ebb and flood there’s a pretty strong current. There can be quite a bit of wake from weekend party boats and it can get a bit noisy when there are groups doing karaoke!  There’s a weekly membership fee for pool use, discounted laundry service, and bar & restaurant discounts. Even if you’re not staying at the marina, you can do the membresía and access the facilities.

Top tip: The marina usually does a better deal the longer you stay so talk to them about rate options. Don’t try drinking the dock water – drinking water is delivered by Deni and can be organized via Bill.

Staff from the hotel on a rare moment off work
Leo at work
Hotel grounds leading to beach
Sunrise  from our dock just before we moved to a mooring ball

3. There are plenty of options for different budgets – you can anchor just near the marina or further up the estuary, use one of the mooring balls at La Palma Moorings, owned by Bill and Jean of the El Salvador Rally, stay at Bahía del Sol, or move on up to the other marina, Paradise. This summer people have done all these options and some have tried out more than one.

Top tip: Even if you mostly like to be at the dock, consider at least a short stay on one of Bill’s mooring balls as life by the island feels like a whole new experience compared to being at the hotel. See our previous post for more about island life.

Main square in Zacatecoluca

4. Provisioning: shopping here is easy (if a little time-consuming) once you get used to it, though it can feel like a shock to the system after the ease of Soriana and Mega in Mexico as there’s nothing big within easy distance.

 Within walking distance from the marina are some little local stores which are fine for day to day stuff and there are fruit and vegetable trucks that drive up and down the peninsula road, as well as people on bicycles selling bread.

If you can plane in your dinghy, it’s about a 20 minute dinghy ride to Herradura where there’s a decent and cheap supermarket, a produce market, a hardware store, an ice cream store and restaurants. (But no cash machines).

A bus ride will take you to Costa del Sol Supermercado where there is nothing in the way of fresh produce, but it does have the nearest ATM, as well as alcohol, junk food, canned food, ice, and swimwear. And an ice cream store next door!

You can get pretty much everything somewhere – except for these packets of meat! If you’re coming from Mexico you might want to stock up!

An hour and half ride on the bus, from outside the hotel, takes you to Zacatecoluca with pretty much everything you could want for the galley. It’s a lively, loud, busy market town that felt kind of intense the first time I visited, but now I love it! If you want a local sim card (also good for data if you’re at a mooring ball) go to the Claro shop by the main square

San Salvador, also a 1.5 / 2 hr bus ride away, is the place to go if you want US-style shopping experience with malls, amazingly stocked supermarkets, especially the Super Selectos chain, as well as Walmart and PriceSmart (the Costco equivalent).

Top tip: If you’re on a tight budget but need to do a big grocery shop, a good option is to team up with someone else, take the bus to Zacatecoluca, then share a taxi back. Or you can group together to book a driver to do a day trip to San Salvador for a stress-free shopping day.

5. Boat maintenance and repairs: There are two fuel stations that sell diesel and gas: one at the Bahía del Sol marina and the other right opposite the mooring field (best to go to this one around high tide – and, usefully, you can also pick up cold beers there!) If you need things for your boat, San Salvador might have it. Machine work and parts for DIY fixes are readily available. More specialist stuff will have to be delivered. There’s not a big sailing industry here, but there is a small marine store on the peninsula and numerous boat services in the estuary like bottom cleaning, polishing, water delivery, woodwork, etc. Bill & Jean can put you in touch with people and places to meet you needs.

6. Medical and dental care: If you need a dentist or a doctor, you’re in luck! Dr Jessica in Zacatecoluca is a fantastic dentist, speaks good English, and is highly recommended by everyone who’s had work done. We had a family visit for a check-up and some follow up treatment and then I had an emergency visit recently when I broke my tooth after tripping on deck – best dental treatment I’ve ever had! Friends have had medical treatment – including eye, knee, and hip surgery – and have had positive experiences at the Hospital Diagnóstico in San Salvador with Dr Pablo as their contact.

Graduation ceremony for first Living English classes with organizers Linda and Jane

7. Volunteering opportunities: If you want to get to know local people and feel like a part of the local community, this is a great place. You can volunteer to help with English classes with Living English or in the island school. Toby is attending the island school and it’s been a lovely way to get to know families here. Many of the staff at the hotel are really keen to improve their English too.

Cruisers checking out the forecasts on a rainy day in October (SV Shearwater, SV Maraki, and us)

8. Weather: It’s out of the hurricane zone. There are regular evening squalls during April to November including some thunder and lightening, but nothing too major. We saw some strong winds but they were usually brief. Rain is tropical and dramatic, but mostly short-lived. Lots of sunshine and blue skies. Apparently there’s a lot less lightening here than in Panama, and less rain.

Top tip: It’s hot and if you’re going to be spending a lot of time at the dock you might want to get an air conditioner – we picked up a window unit in Zacatecoluca that helped make dock life more bearable!

9. If you want to explore a fascinating country, this is the place. It’s small enough that you can easily visit most of the country in a week. You can hire a car through the hotel and see beaches, volcanoes, archaeological sites, lakes, rivers, mountains, museums, and thermal springs in a few days. People have also had great experiences using this as a base for land travel throughout Central America. In Part 2 I’ll write about all our favourite places, both local hangouts and places to explore further afield, and how to easily get around.

Top tip: If you haven’t already started working on your Spanish, get to it as it will make everything easier and more fun!

It’s definitely worth considering El Salvador for a short or extended visit by boat and hopefully this information helps give an idea of what to expect. Here’s the link to sign up for this year’s rally. Part 2 has ideas of places to visit, things to do, and where to eat and Part 3 is a focus on San Salvador. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions in the comments if there are things I haven’t thought of… or if you’ve been here, add info in the comments!

If you’re on Facebook, join these groups to connect with people who’ve been here: Mexico and Central America CruisingEl Salvador Cruisers, and Cruising Mexico and Central America. Follow Annual Salvador Rally to see cool photos of new arrivals and departures crossing the bar.

4 thoughts on “Cruiser Guide to El Salvador Part 1: Arrival and practical stuff”

    1. Not quite as entertaining as your recent blog post!!! But hopefully it’s useful!
      Hugs to you and Marty
      Sara xx

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