A quintessential El Salvadoran dining adventure awaited as our rented Ford Explorer rounded the top of a twisty mountain road on a rainy day: lunch on the volcano.
Seated at a window at Casa 1800, the popular restaurant atop the extinct volcano in Cerro Verde National Park, we enjoyed lunch with all the El Salvadoran trimmings: juicy steak with green sauce, sweet roasted corn and horchata de morro seed drink. (The menu also includes pupizza, a pizza-fication of the pupusa stuffed pancake and 11 specialty coffees.) The bill came to a bit over $100 for a party of eight, including tip. The family photos taken in the foreground of Izalco, one of the youngest and most active lava cones in the Pacific’s Ring of Fire? Priceless.
If you’re an adventure traveler who doesn’t like to rough it too much, in the months ahead El Salvador and fellow Latin American nations Costa Rica and Argentina offer bargains on expenses like airline tickets, restaurant meals and lodgings.
Here are tips for getting the most on a visit to three nations that are generally off the beaten flight path.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Currency: USD, Bitcoin
- Languages: Spanish, English, indigenous languages
- Best time to visit: year-round
- Flight price range by month: American Airlines round trip rates of $475 in September, $688 in November and $300 in April 2024
- Travel time from NY airports: 5 hours
- TIP: A visa is not required for stays under 90 days, but upon arrival you must purchase a tourist card for 12 USD (Source: travel.state.gov)
At Cerro Verde National Park, adventurous travelers can take a guided hike to Izalco’s crater ($3) or stay overnight at the luxurious Cerro Verde Boutique Hotel. ($180 per night, booking.com)
The park, one of El Salvador’s main attractions, lies about an hour and a half drive from San Salvador, the capital and population center. “You can be in a major international city and an hour away you’re in nature,” said frequent visitor Jose Flores, 43, of Huntington.
Flores, born and raised in El Salvador, made two trips this year after selling his longtime business in downtown Hempstead village. Flores relaxes at Santa Theresa Hot springs, a spa with a hot water geyser and a series of pools (elsalvador.travel). It’s in Ahuachapan, one of the villages on La Ruta de las Flores (The Route of Flowers), named for the white coffee plantation flowers that bloom in May. Flores plans to return in November to attend the 72nd Miss Universe pageant, which is to be held in San Salvador’s massive José Adolfo Pineda National Gym (missuniverse.com).
THINGS TO DO
Shiny new malls like Bambu City Center (bambucitycenter.com) and Metrocentro San Salvador (metrocentro.com), vie for visitors’ attention with the European-style city center and its sprawling secondhand market. The historic district is towered over by the Roman Catholic cathedral and a new national library. You can feed the plaza’s pigeons for a quarter, then sate your caffeine and pastry cravings at a Starbucks tucked into the national theater, where the national ballet performs behind a gilded facade (cultura.gob.sv).
No El Salvador trip is complete without a visit to Lake Coatepeque’s gleaming turquoise waters. You can dine on locally caught tilapia at restaurants on stilts, rent a personal watercraft ($30 per hour) or ride on a partyboat with a waterslide ($5 per person). Afterward, we stopped in Coatepeque’s street market for (truly) handmade sweets and hand-painted souvenirs.
WHERE TO STAY
San Salvador’s luxury accommodations can be affordable and include the Sheraton Presidente ($129 per night) and Real InterContinental ($167 per night). We stayed eight nights in Barceló San Salvador, part of the Spain-based Barcelo Hotel Group, spoiled by executive level terry cloth robes, all-day buffet and bar service and a spectacular mountain view. ($151 per night, barcelo.com)
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Currency: Costa Rican Colón, USD
- Languages: Spanish and Bribri, Cabécar, Maleku, and Guaymí indigenous tongues
- Best time to visit: Tourism peaks during the December to April dry season, according to Costa Rica travel spokesperson Louris Touma. Crowds are sparser during the May to November green season.
- Flight price range by month/ cruises: American Airlines flights to San Jose range from $462 in November (off season) to $1,256 in March. The Holland America Line is offering a 12-day cruise beginning and ending in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and stopping at Puerto Limon, from Oct. 22 to Nov. 3 ($929 per person, hollandamerica.com)
- Travel time from NY airports: 4 hours
- TIP: A tourist visa is not required for stays less than 90 days, but a return ticket is required. (Source: travel.state.gov)
Costa Rica — which means “rich coast” in Spanish — lives up to its name with coasts on both the Caribbean and Pacific and more than 25 national parks, nine biological reserves and 54 wildlife sanctuaries packed into an area smaller than West Virginia.
THINGS TO DO
The rainy season, which ends in November, coincides with whale watching season as humpbacks migrate along the Pacific coast. Whale watching itineraries are available at visitcostarica.com. Through October, nightly tours depart daily to see up to four species of sea turtles nesting in Tortuguero National Park (visitcostarica.com).
“If you are a plant-loving person, which my husband and I are, you will want to take a greenhouse tour,” said Eva Rodriguez Greguski, 49, of Patchogue. On a January Holland America Cruise stopping in Puerto Limon on the Caribbean Coast, the couple toured a greenhouse operated by an ethnobotanist who specializes in native medicinal plants.
During October, Limon’s Carnaval honors the country’s Afro-Costa Rican community, whose members decorate floats and dance in costume in the streets to calypso and reggae beats. Carnaval-goers can sample the region’s coconut-based Afro-Caribbean cuisine: rondón stew, turmeric-infused meat empanadas, and the Caribbean version of Gallo pinto, the national rice and beans dish.
WHERE TO STAY
San Jose, the capital and largest city, is a good starting point for drives or flights to all that biodiversity. The Palma Real Hotel and Casino is in the heart of the city ($90 per night, hotelpalmareal.com) and from Hotel Presidente ($113 per night, hotel-presidente.com) in the center of the revitalized downtown district, you can stroll through plazas and boulevards to local landmarks and museums.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Currency: Argentinian peso, USD
- Languages: Spanish, Rioplatense Spanish dialect
- Best time to visit: September, October, March and April
- Flight/cruise price range by month: $1,682 in October with American Airlines; $1,460 via United Airlines in April.
- Travel time from NY airports: 11 hours
- TIP: A tourist visa is not required for stays less than 90 days. (Source: travel.state.gov)
Stretch your dollars even further on a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The South American nation beloved for its thick steaks, red wine and tango culture, currently offers one of the best travel deals around, according to Long Islanders who’ve recently visited.
“If you want to have a good time on the cheap, there are tons of people running there,” Miguel Negron, a partner at Marcos & Negron law firm in Bay Shore, said of Buenos Aires.
“Anything to do with food, transportation and lodgings is dirt cheap,” said Victor Campos, 63, of Northport.
“The trick is you have to bring cash,” Campos said, to take advantage of “the blue dollar,” the informal name given to United States dollar bills, which exchange at twice the rate of the official Argentine currency, the Argentine peso. The lower rate is available only in special exchange houses (bluedollar.net).
THINGS TO DO
San Telmo, Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood, is famed for its Plaza Dorrego, street fairs and sidewalk cafes. The cultural surprises include the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art, which showcases more than 7,000 works, not just by Argentine artists, but also by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Henri Matisse (museomoderno.org).
Want to taste the grape in a nation known for good affordable wines? In February, wine lovers can visit the roots of Argentina’s Malbec and other varietals at the Vendimia Harvest Festival in the Mendoza wine region (southamericawineguide.com).
WHERE TO STAY
On a recent visit, Campos, a Long Island attorney born in Buenos Aires, said he paid $91 to stay in an Airbnb apartment that sleeps five, in an upscale Buenos Aries neighborhood. Campos said that a restaurant dinner for two costs about $40, and about $6 for a good bottle of Malbec, Argentina’s signature appellation.
Negron said that on his recent stay at Anselmo Buenos Aires, Curio Collection by Hilton ($109 per night, hilton.com), he enjoyed watching the tango contests in the plaza outside his hotel.
“When you went to the big restaurants, they would dance tango inside,” Negron said.