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Tourist Profile: El Salvador

El Salvador, republic in north-eastern Central America, bounded by Honduras and Guatemala, on the extreme south-east by the Gulf of Fonseca and by the Pacific Ocean. El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated Central American state, is the only one without a Caribbean coastline. San Salvador is the capital and largest city. El Salvador is the Land of Volcanoes; there is frequent and sometimes very destructive earthquakes (Feb., 2001) and volcanic activity. El Salvador, which means "the Saviour" and got his name when it achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and from the Central American Federation in 1839. A 12-year civil war, which cost the lives of some 75,000 people, was brought to a close in 1992 when the government and leftist rebels signed a treaty that provided for military and political reforms. This was the result of gross inequality between a small and wealthy elite, which dominated the government and the economy, and the overwhelming majority of the population, many of whom lived - and continue to live - in abject squalor. Poverty, unemployment, civil war, natural disasters and their consequent dislocations have left their mark on El Salvador's society, but with a little caution you can form your own opinion of this -against all odds- still beautiful country.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

San Salvador, which is the second largest city in Central America, the capital since 1839 and largest city of El Salvador. It's marked with a history of civil strife and natural disasters. The city is in the south -western part of El Salvador with a quite large population of 1 214 000 inhabitants. San Salvador is being characterised by pollution, bustle and destroyed buildings. Not only the Civil War, but as well the earthquakes have caused extensive damage over the years and the city has been rebuilt several times and the colonial buildings were replaced and only a few are being restored. The city is a blend of modern buildings and colonial architecture, broad plazas and monuments, amusement parks and shopping centres. Once you're in San Salvador pay attention to attractions like the cathedral Palacio Nacional which still s being renovated, the National Treasury and the National Theatre, the large shopping-street Plaza Barrios. Go have a look at one of the 25 volcanoes in El Salvador, Parque Zoologico (a zoo). The amusement park on San Jacinto Mountain gives a panoramic view of the city.

Santa Ana, the second largest city with a population of 139,389 (1992), is the centre of a rich coffee, sugar, and cattle region. It lies in a superb location in the Cihautehuacán valley. Visit the 2 Volcanoes Santa Ana ( it's been said it is still in action) and Izalco and lots of natural beauty. Cooler and far mellower than San Salvador, it's a good place to relax, admiring the handful of grandiose buildings or simply walking the streets soaking up the atmosphere. Visit the nearby forest reserve Parque Nacional Cerro Verde and enjoy the flora and fauna and the beautiful view on the two volcano's and Lago de Coatepeque. While getting around in El Salvador, do not forget to pass by cities like San Miguel. The Carnaval in November is really great, in spite of the heat. Visit one of the many coffee, sugar and cotton plantations in San Vicente The ultimate relaxing can be done on the coastline Costa del Sol and most famous beach is Playa Costa del Sol. La Libertad on the Costa del Balsamo is a very touristic coastal resort. This is a 'been there done that' surfer destination with some of the best waves rolled out by the Pacific Ocean. La Libertad swells with city folk on weekends. A country that seems so small and densely populated is far more attracting than you first would've thought and there is still much more to explore.

The sun shines in El Salvador 360 days a year, but the dry season (November-April) is the easiest time to visit: roads are in better condition, you won't get drenched every evening and more cultural festivals take place. The biggest holiday periods are from Christmas through mid-January; during Semana Santa, a week-long festival before Easter; and during the first week of August when San Salvador holds its annual festival. Many services shut down during these periods and hotel prices can rise up to 50%. In the rainy season (May-October), prices are lower, beaches less crowded and the evenings slightly cooler after the rainstorms.

Currency: US dollar, Salvadoran colón

  • Budget: US$3-8
  • Mid-range: US$8-15
  • Top-end: US$15 and upwards
  • Budget: US$5-10
  • Mid-range: US$10-15
  • Top-end: US$15 and upwards

You'll pay more for accommodation and food in El Salvador than in neigh boring countries, but at least bus transportation is cheap. Budget travellers willing to be resourceful should be able to live on US$10 a day; travellers wanting more comfortable accommodation and a few sit-down meals should expect to spend US$20-25 a day; and anyone in search of the finer things in El Salvador should budget at least US$30 a day.

In January 2001, the US dollar became the legal currency, and the colón is gradually being phased out. It's best to bring US dollars, as it's the only currency that you can be sure of exchanging. Few banks change travelers' checks readily and easily, and the policy seems to differ not only between banks but between branches as well. Be sure to change any leftover colónes before you leave El Salvador. A value-added tax (IVA) of 10% is applied to all goods and services in El Salvador; make sure you know whether it's already included in the listed price.

The Olmec Boulder, a stone sculpture of a giant head found near Chalchuapa in western El Salvador, is evidence of Olmec presence in the region from at least 2000 BC. The step-pyramid ruins at Tazumal and San Andrés show that the Maya also lived in western El Salvador for over 1000 years. Groups that inhabited the eastern part of the country included the Chorti, Lenca and Pok'omame. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the country was dominated by the Pipil, descendants of Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs and Aztecs, both Mexican tribes. The Pipil probably came to central El Salvador in the 11th century just after the Maya dynasty collapsed. Their culture was similar to that of the Aztecs, with heavy Maya influences and a maize-based agricultural economy that supported several cities and a complex culture including hieroglyphic writing, astronomy and mathematics.

Spain's claim was staked by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who arrived in the area in 1525. The Spanish developed plantations of cotton, balsam and indigo. Throughout the 1700s agriculture boomed, but a group of 14 elite European families maintained control of most of the land, which was farmed by enslaved indigenous people or slaves imported from Africa. Father José Matías Delgado organized a revolt against Spain in 1811, but it was quickly suppressed. Napoleon's invasion of Spain the following year increased the impetus for reform, and El Salvador eventually gained independence in 1821. This did not alter the dynamics of land ownership, an issue at the core of an unsuccessful Indian rebellion in 1833, led by Anastasio Aquino. In 1841, following the dissolution of the Central American Federation (formed between El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), El Salvador became a sovereign independent nation. In the second half of the 19th century, synthetic dyes undermined the indigo market, and coffee took main stage in the economy. By the 20th century, 95% of El Salvador's income came from coffee exports, but only 2% of the population controlled that wealth. Intermittent efforts by the poor majority to redress El Salvador's social and economic injustices were met with severe repression.

The first popular movement for change followed on the heels of the stock-market crash of 1929 and the subsequent plummeting of coffee prices. In January 1932, Augustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist party, led an uprising of peasants and Indians. The military responded by systematically killing anyone who looked Indian or who supported the uprising. In all, 30,000 people were killed. Martí was arrested and executed by firing squad; his name is preserved in the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional). By the 1960s El Salvador's failing economy and severe overpopulation drove hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to cross illegally into Honduras seeking work. In 1969, allegations of Honduran mistreatment of Salvadoran immigrants were raised just as a World Cup soccer match between the two countries was being played. National rivalries and passions escalated to a ridiculous level that resulted in El Salvador invading Honduran territory and bombing its airports. The conflict lasted less than 100 hours, but relations between the two neighbors were hostile for over a decade.

During the 1970s the population suffered from increased landlessness, poverty, unemployment and overpopulation. Political parties became polarized and fought for power largely through coups and electoral fraud. In 1972, the military arrested and exiled the elected president and installed their own candidate in power. Guerrilla activity increased, and the government responded by unleashing 'death squads' who murdered, tortured or kidnapped thousands of Salvadorans. In 1979, a junta of military and civilians overthrew the president and promised reforms. When these reforms were not met, opposition parties banded together under the party name Federación Democrático Revolucionario, of which the FMLN was the largest group. The successful revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 encouraged many Salvadorans to believe that armed struggle was the only way to secure reforms. When popular archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated saying mass in 1980, his death sparked an armed insurrection.

FMLN guerrillas gained control of areas in the north and east of El Salvador and blew up bridges, destroyed power lines and burned coffee plantations in a bid to stifle the country's economy. The Reagan Administration, unnerved by the success of Nicaragua's socialist revolution, donated huge amounts of money to the Salvadoran government, and the military retaliated by decimating villages, causing 300,000 citizens to flee the country. In 1982, the extreme right ARENA party took power and death squads began targeting trade unionists and agrarian reformers. In April 1990, United Nations-mediated negotiations began between the government and the FMLN, and finally, on 16 January 1992, a compromise was signed and a ceasefire took effect. The FMLN became an opposition party, and the government agreed to various reforms, including dismantling the death squads and replacing them with a national civil police force. Land was to be distributed to citizens and human rights violations to be investigated. During the course of the 12-year war, an estimated 75,000 people were killed, and the US government donated a staggering US$6 billion to the Salvadoran government's war effort, despite knowledge of atrocities carried out by the military.

In March 1994, ARENA member Calderón Sol was voted president, amid allegations of electoral fraud. While some of the reforms outlined in the peace accords were implemented (most notably the land-transfer program), many Salvadorans consider the current situation to be no better now than it was before the civil war. Unemployment, poverty, disgruntled ex-combatants and a proliferation of guns in the country has led to high homicide rates - just one of the reasons why approximately 20% of Salvadorans now live abroad. In March 1997, the FMLN won elections in the cities of six of the 14 departments; it now governs a greater percentage of the population than ARENA and holds a majority in congress. However, ARENA candidate Francisco Guillermo Flores Pérez succeeded Presidente Calderon on 1 June 1999. Flores' first real test came on January 13, 2001, when a major earthquake touched off a mudslide that buried the middle-class neighborhood of Las Colinas, a suburb of San Salvador. Scores of shacks in surrounding impoverished shantytowns also collapsed. Flores had refused to listen to environmentalists trying to block further development of Las Colinas' sandy, unstable hillsides; his decision may have left 1200 dead and 250,000 homeless. To rebuild will cost more than half of the country's yearly budget; in response to the unforseen expenditure, FMLN officials have called on Flores to suspend the adoption of the US dollar as the national currency. Meanwhile, the bread-and-butter consequences of more than 3000 aftershocks - some nearly as devastating as the original tremor - continue to ripple through the region.

El Salvador is predominantly a Roman Catholic country. During the war the government assumed that the Catholic Church supported communism because it sympathized with the poor, and it targeted the Church for violence. Many fled the religion either because they feared for their lives or because they were unhappy with the Church's affiliation with the opposition. Protestantism, especially Evangelism, offered a welcome alternative. Other churches include the Baptist and Pentecostal. Spanish is the national language. Many men, mainly between the ages of 20 and 40, learned some English in the US during the war. Indigenous languages have died out in daily use, but there is some academic interest in preserving the Nahua language of the Pipils. Most of the music on Salvadoran radio is standard pop fare from the US, Mexico or other parts of Latin America, but there's a small underground movement of canción popular (folk music), which draws its inspiration from current events in El Salvador. Poetry is popular, and well-known writers include Manlio Argueta and Francisco Rodriguez.

The village of La Palma has become famous for a school of art started by Fernando Llort. His childlike, almost cartoony, images of mountain villages, campesinos and Christ are painted in bright colors on objects ranging from seeds to church walls. The town of Ilobasco is known for its ceramics, while San Sebastián is recognized for its textile arts.

El Salvadorans chow down on a standard daily fare of casamiento, a mixture of rice and beans. Another mainstay is pupusas, a cornmeal mass stuffed with farmer's cheese, refried beans or chicharrón (fried pork fat). Licuados (fruit drinks), coffee and gaseosas (soft drinks) are ubiquitous. Tic-Tack and Torito are vodka-like spirits made from sugar cane and are not for those who cherish their stomach lining.