El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, and one of the newest destinations for the cruise industry (and tourism in general) as the country continues to recover from a devastating 13-year civil war that ended in 1992. The handful of cruise lines that visit El Salvador during Panama Canal or westbound post-Canal sailings primarily stop at the country's main seaport, Acajutla, a massive industrial port on the Pacific Ocean. Princess Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises are the only lines targeted at English-speaking cruisers that visit the port.
Acajutla is well-situated for visits to several Mayan ruins, as well as tours to view some of the country's active volcanos, coffee plantations or see some of the native wildlife. Most attractions are within a one-hour drive of the port. Additionally, a handful of taxis are usually on hand for cruisers who haven't booked a tour but want to explore the local area. (You'll find them at the craft market, but only in the first hour or so after your cruise ship has arrived.)
There is little to see at the port itself, though the El Salvadoran tourist board has created a small park and craft market on site for cruisers to check out via a courtesy shuttle. There is no town within walking distance, so cruisers interested in touring the region will need to book an excursion, either through the cruise line or a private tour operator.
Only one tour company is permitted within the port's confines, but members of the local tourist board will try their best to arrange transportation to the port's entrance for cruisers who have booked private tours.
Cruise ships dock next to tankers and cargo ships in the immense industrial port, located just on the outskirts of the city of Acajutla.
The Acajutla port is an industrial port; cruise passengers are not permitted to walk beyond the length of the ship. A courtesy shuttle is provided to take passengers to the nearby Acajutla beach, as well as a small craft market and playground. The craft market -- which consists of local vendors selling a variety of handmade craft items like sandals and jewelry mixed in with T-shirts, shot glasses and more -- is usually open for several hours after the ship first arrives. Passengers hoping to hit the market after a morning tour might be disappointed to find most sellers have already departed by the time the tours get back. Refreshments including ice cream, cold drinks and pupusa (soft, thick corn tortillas filled with cheese and other ingredients) are sold at the craft market.
You'll notice a lot of armed policemen at the beach and the craft market. Their presence does not necessarily indicate tourists are in danger, though as with anywhere keep an eye on your belongings and don't wear any flashy jewelry. The increased police presence is more the result of a need for jobs for soldiers previously engaged in the country's civil war than safety issues for visitors.
Cruise passengers have only two choices for getting around in Acajutla: the courtesy shuttle or a taxi. Taxis are affordably priced and safe to use, but don't expect your driver to speak any English. If you take a taxi somewhere, either to a nearby restaurant or a local attraction, you'll want to prearrange for the driver to wait for you, as getting a taxi outside of the port can be tricky.
The official currency in El Salvador is the U.S. dollar. There are no ATMS anywhere near the port, so you'll need to use the ATM onboard your ship before getting off.
The official language of El Salvador is Spanish. Few people speak English, including taxi drivers.
El Salvadoran cuisine is a mix of Mayan and Spanish influences, so lots of corn, beans and pork. The national dish is the pupusa, which is a soft corn tortilla stuffed with a variety of ingredients. Most typically, the stuffing is cheese, beans and a ground pork paste called chicharron; vegetarian options are available as well. You can get a pupusa at the small craft market near the port.
Acajutla Restaurante: This local spot is the only restaurant in the area that guides recommend to visitors. The seafood is fresh, waiters are friendly, menus are in English, and the prices are fair. You'll need to take a taxi to get to the restaurant and arrange for the taxi driver to stick around or come back for you. (Avenida Miramar; 503-24524375)
Mostly what you'll find in the Acajutla region are cheap souvenir items targeted at tourists, such as shot glasses, T-shirts and jewelry that may or may not have been made in the area. But in a few spots you'll find colorful handcrafted items including baskets, mats and sandals made from wicker and tule (a native reed).
El Salvador's national drink is the guaro sour, which is rarely drunk straight. If you want to give it a try, go for a Cacique Guaro, which mixes the sour liquor with fruit juice or a soda.