This article is part of our Internet and Phone Report series.
General Availability: Medium-High
Quality of Bandwidth: In cities, excellent. Everywhere else, good luck.
Frequency of internet in hotels: Medium. Always in hostels and mid to high end hotels. Not likely in small guesthouses.
Frequency of internet in campgrounds: Low. Only expect internet if the campground is attached to a restaurant or a hotel.
Areas visited: We spent just under two weeks in El Salvador. A night in Santa Ana, a few days camping on the Ruta de las Flores, and a few more on the beach at Playa Sunzal. Plus a good three nights at a hostel in San Salvador before heading out to San Miguel for one night before a long haul to Nicaragua.
The story here is the same as the rest of Central America. Internet is available in cafes in pretty much every town, always in hostels, usually in hotels and rarely in campgrounds. But, connection speeds and reliability varies dramatically.
We stayed at a hostel in San Salvador with amazing wifi, free for three days. But we also stayed at a hotel in Santa Ana, and another in San Miguel where at least one of us couldn’t connect, or was constantly kicked off the network.
Camping areas that are connected to hostels or restaurants offer the best chance of wifi access. If you have appointments to keep, invest in a USB modem, or go to a café to connect.
In the interest of trying to save money by camping, we decided it was best to invest in a USB modem, even if we were only going to be in El Sal for a short time. Our first stop was in Santa Ana, specifically so we could setup phone and modem access. Armed with our mad Guatemalan Spanish skills, I was confident that buying a modem would be quick and painless. I was wrong.
It turns out that all prepaid devices (phones and modems) must be registered. To be registered, you need to have an El Salvadorian ID. We spent an agonizing hour at the Tigo headquarters trying to find a work around. There was none. At Telcel in Mexico, a passport could be presented, and with a bit of patience you could manage to get things done. But this isn’t Mexico. Tigo employees flat out refused to sell us anything unless we could present an El Salvador ID card.
From the Tigo store we headed to the roadside cheese shop, doubling as a Claro phone dealer. Turns out that Claro has the same deal, but the roadside shop was willing to offer the work around. Pull out the registration papers from some other random dude, read off his name and ID number to the Claro agent, take the gringos money, move along.
Lesson learned. When in El Salvador, don’t go to the official store.
Our Claro USB modem cost $18, and came with 15 days free data usage. Tigo modems cost more than $30, and included the same amount of free time. Coverage with the Claro modem was pretty good. The speed is hit or miss. In a big town, with 3G, it’s excellent. When you get out in the woods, sometimes EDGE is your only option, and downloads slow to a crawl.
Prepaid phone SIM cards have the same restrictions as the modems. Our trusty kiosk took care of the registration again and was extra helpful in explaining all those pesky details like how to check your balance and how to call internationally at discount rates.
All three phone companies in El Sal (Tigo, Movistar and Claro) offer packets (paquetes) for calling internationally. Claro had 30 minute packets for calling the USA for $0.75. They are easy to use: call a phone number, enter the code for the packet, and the cost is automatically deducted from your phone balance.
Depending on your budget, buy a USB modem or a research your accommodation in advance. Free wifi can be found, but free reliable wifi is rare. If clients are waiting, don't mess around, get a 3G modem.