El Salvador

El Salvador destinations

about El Salvador suffers horribly from bad press. While gang violence still dominates international headlines – and keeps so many adventurous travelers at bay – the vast majority of this beautiful country remains untouched by 'the troubles.'

Those visitors who do make the effort are invariably impressed by the warm welcome they receive and by just how much this tiny country has to offer: world-class surfing on empty, dark-sand beaches; coffee plantations clinging to the sides of volcanoes; pretty flower-filled villages with buildings splashed by murals; and sublime national parks. There are few crowds outside the capital, San Salvador, which itself has more swagger than its Central American counterparts. There is only so much encouragement we can give; it's now up to you. Please inquire within.

The People

Unlike every other country in Central America, El Salvador is the only one that has no Caribbean coast at all. And if there’s one factor in this part of the world that affects culture, it could be that Caribbean coast (or lack of) factor.

You see, El Salvador doesn’t have an African culture at all like the other Central American countries.

African slaves arrived in El Salvador in the sixteenth century, but over the years they have assimilated and mixed into the general population. Nowadays you see that typical mixture of African, European, and indigenous peoples that make up the bulk of Latin America. The culture of the Caribbean Coast of Central America is not a thing in El Salvador and never has been.

That means that English and Creole aren’t spoken and that calypso/reggae vibe doesn’t exist. For people traveling through the region, this one factor distinguishes El Salvador from the other countries.

The language here is Spanish. There’s a tiny minority of people who still speak the native Pipil language. But that minority accounts for something like one percent of the population. Pipil speakers nowadays in El Salvador are elderly for the most part.

All this is a long way of saying that El Salvador is the least diverse country in Central America. The culture of El Salvador is the culture of the Spanish settlers and the mestizos who descended from them.

El Salvador is a staunchly Catholic country.

All countries in Central America make hammocks. But El Salvador is the best. An old nickname for El Salvador is the “Land of the Hammocks”. This is due to the propensity for earthquakes in the region (think rocking like a hammock) and for the quality of the hammocks themselves. More than any other country in the region, the hammock is a source of national pride and more or less every single family owns at least one.

The Food

Like the rest of Central America, El Salvador’s cuisine is based on a hybrid of native, corn-based fare, and European influence.

For foodies, it’s fair to say that the cuisine of the region doesn’t set the world alight. That goes for El Salvador as much as for its neighboring countries.

But El Salvador does have something quite unique to its shores. Something that it has managed to export to the rest of the world as its diaspora spread. That something is the humble pupusa.

Pupusas are about the most Central American dish one can think of. And yet they are uniquely Salvadoran at the same time. Corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, pork, and beans, they are delicious. And they’re as easy to eat on the street as in a restaurant or a home. In El Salvador, they often come served with a bowl of a hot, tomato-based sauce that you can dip your pupusa in.

Putting the pupusa aside, Salvadoran cuisine is not a great deal different to elsewhere in the region. It’s not a country for vegetarians, with beef dishes popular. Seafood is also available throughout the country, as is chicken. Any of these dishes will come served with yuca, either fried or boiled. Soups are also a big part of the Salvadoran diet.

They love their beer in El Salvador, too.

Pilsener and Suprema are the two most popular brews. San Salvador is also home to a flourishing craft beer scene, which could be the most developed in Central America.

The national liquor is Tick Tack. It’s made from sugar cane, like other native liquors in the region.

The importance of coffee should not be missed either in El Salvador. Coffee, after all, was what built the country in the first place. Salvadoran coffee is among the best in the world.

Surrounded by green-tipped volcanoes, San Salvador is handsome for a Central American capital city. Its leafy suburbs are pleasant to explore on foot, and its galleries and museums stand out.

After undergoing a major facelift, the city center has never looked better. The area around the cathedral has been paved, pedestrianized and planted with greenery, while new lighting has improved safety and made Plaza Barrios look pretty at night. During the day, dive into the teeming centro markets, where travelers are greeted with typical guanaco hospitality.

Though travelers rarely catch a glimpse of gang-related violence, there are a few neighborhoods east of town that should be avoided. Head instead to the nightspots of Zona Rosa and the shopping and cafe scene of Colonia Escalón.

Perhaps San Salvador’s greatest asset is its location within easy reach of the ocean and the mountains, making it an excellent base for day trips.


City Center

El centro is nothing like a typical downtown. Here street vendors compete with honking traffic, restored Italian-style buildings tower over tarpaulin-covered licuado stands, and crowds squeeze through the artery of busy markets. By day the area is a snapshot of Salvadoran civic life; at night the blocks around the cathedral are lit thanks to renovations in and around the main square, Plaza Barrios. It's also where local protests – if anticipated – usually begin or end. Two blocks east is Parque Libertad, where a winged statue of Liberty holds court.

West of the Center

Calle Rubén Darío heads west from the center, changing names a couple of times along the way. Bus 52 rumbles down the entire length of this road. When the street is Alameda Roosevelt, it passes Estadio Flor Blanca, the national stadium, where soccer matches and the occasional rock concert are held. At 65a Av, you come to Plaza Las Américas, with the statue El Salvador del Mundo. Continuing west the road becomes Paseo Gral Escalón, going through the fashionable Colonia Escalón. Further west you hit Plaza Masferrer.

A Day of Art in the City

Once you have ticked off the numerous galleries around Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalón (don't skip MARTE and El Arbol de Dios), visit the Catedral Metropolitana for the image of the Madre del Salvador, a 17th-century polychrome wooden sculpture that was a gift of Queen Sofia of Spain, and an extraordinary tabernacle with images taken from the first engravings done in America.

Undergoing a major renovation at research time, Parque Cuscatlán is set to house a gleaming new gallery when it reopens – be sure to check it out.

The village of Panchimalco, just outside the city on the slopes of Cerro Chulo, is home to numerous leading artists' studios that welcome visitors. High-profile artists include the energetic painter Miguel Angel Ramírez, whose workshop for disadvantaged kids, Casa Taller Encuentros, has risen to national acclaim, and the renowned sculptor Guillermo Perdomo.

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Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalón have the city’s best hotels. Safe and convenient, the Blvd de los Héroes area offers reasonable lodgings close to the Universidad Nacional where lots students mingle during the day. The city center (el centro) is convenient for markets, but avoid sleeping here.


San Salvador has the country's most cosmopolitan restaurants by a mile, and real variety across all tastes and budgets.

Drinking & Nightlife

San Salvador has a healthy and diverse nightlife. Zona Rosa is the most popular locale, with plenty of smoky dance floors and live bands jamming until well after midnight, while a more refined crowd can be found around Colonia Escalón. Outside town, Paseo El Carmen in Santa Tecla is the nightspot à la mode, with alfresco cafes and thumping bars on weekends.


Check out the weekly concert and event listings in Diario de Hoy (www.elsalvador.com), El Salvador's most popular newspaper.

Hollywood films with Spanish subtitles dominate the theaters, while some bars have alternative movie nights. Major newspapers have schedules, as do www.multicinema.com.sv and www.cinemarkca.com.


Find local boutiques in Colonia Escalón and San Benito. Mercado Centro is the place for cheap clothes and electronics, while Mercado Ex-Cuartel is an emporium of traditional handicrafts, including hammocks. Flashy, air-conditioned malls are easy to find.


San Salvador follows the same grid pattern as most Central American cities. Unfortunately, signage is sparse in the central area (check for names on the street curbs). From the zero point at the cathedral, Av España goes north and Av Cuscatlán south; Calle Arce runs to the west and Calle Delgado to the east.

Avenidas (avenues) run north–south, and change from Sur (South) to Norte (North) when they cross the major east–west artery (Calles Arce and Delgado). Likewise, avenues are odd- or even-numbered depending on whether they are west or east of the north–south artery (Avs Cuscatlán and España). So, 5a Av Sur is south of Calle Arce and west of Av Cuscatlán (because it’s odd-numbered). Calles (streets) are similarly ordered, only using Oriente (East) and Poniente (West). It’s confusing to the visitor at first, but you’ll quickly learn the orderliness of it. The odd/even thing can be tricky, ie 25a Av is one block from 27a Av, but it is more than 25 blocks from 26a Av!

From the city center, 1a Calle Poniente and Calle Rubén Darío, to the north and south of Arce respectively, are the main roads to the wealthier west.

Travel with Children

El Salvador is a very Christian, family-centered society, so children are always welcomed. Some tips:

- Suchitoto, Ruta de las Flores and Alegría are generally relaxed, family-friendly places to visit. - La Costa del Bálsamo has fabulous beaches, but the ocean is dangerous for weak swimmers. - Camping is potentially excellent, but some experience is needed as facilities are not great. - Buses are often packed full and traveling on public transport with children is challenging in El Salvador.

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Only 65 km from the capital, Santa Ana is a mid-sized El Salvadoran city, the long-standing coffee wealth of which is reflected in its architecture, some of the most magnificent in Central America. There's a relaxed confidence in the wide, tree-lined streets and colorful houses, and Santanecos are genuinely proud of their growing cultural scene. Smart travelers are choosing Santa Ana as an alternative base to the capital for exploring Volcán Santa Ana, Lago de Coatepeque, the Maya ruins at Tazumal and Joya de Cerén, or the Ruta de las Flores.


Santa Ana’s biggest attraction is its large neo-Gothic cathedral, which sits on one side of the city's central square and park, the bustling Parque Libertad. On the north side of the square is the Teatro de Santa Ana, with an impressive interior. The Palacio Municipal faces the cathedral.

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One of the best hostels in El Salvador and a few other decent cheap sleeps are found within walking distance of each other. Good-value midrange options are scarce on the ground, but the private rooms at Casa Verde surpass those found at many boutique hotels.


Santa Ana has numerous high-quality eating options, some more refined than others. Look out for panes chucos, soy-meat hot dogs sold by street vendors that are a local specialty, and nuégados, deep fried balls made with corn or yucca dough.

Drinking & Nightlife

There's a growing bar scene in Santa Ana, but places go in and out of fashion with the seasons. Ask locals for tips on current Santa Ana hot spots.

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Founded in 1530 and dwarfed by Volcán Chaparrastique, San Miguel is El Salvador's second-largest city and a provincial capital with plenty of swagger. For the traveler, there are some colonial-era buildings in the center, though it remains mostly an important transport hub, halfway point between the mountains of Morazán and the Pacific Ocean beaches, and a base for excursions up the volcanic hinterland.

San Miguel is best known for the biggest party in El Salvador, the Carnaval de San Miguel. For the rest of the year, nightlife returns to normal, but as San Miguel has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in Central America, most visitors stick to the flash new malls along Av Roosevelt for their entertainment fix.


San Miguel's volcanoes dominate the skyline. Europa Guest House offers horseback riding excursions and guided hikes up Volcán Chaparrastique.

In the nearby town of Moncagua, a set of natural pools are a picturesque swimming spot.

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The cheapest places to stay are by the bus terminal. The larger hotels are on Av Roosevelt, but stay away from the many 'motels', which charge by the hour.


The best value is a comida a la vista for breakfast and lunch at a comedor; show up early when the trays are full and the food is fresh. Otherwise, the malls have a number of international and local chain restaurants.

Drinking & Nightlife

El triángulo (the intersection of Av Roosevelt and the highway) doesn’t get going until 11pm, when the mariachis congregate at the intersection gas station to await a prized gig. Be sure to ask your taxi driver for a discoteca, and not a ‘nightclub,’ unless of course you don't want to dance.


Parque David J Guzmán is Parque Central, with the cathedral to the east. This area can get busy with traffic by day and a little sketchy at night; west of central park is quieter and more secure. Av Roosevelt (Carretera Interamericana) skirts the southwestern edge of town.

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