Moon El Salvador (Moon Handbooks) - Jaime Jacques (2014)
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Iglesia El Rosario: Enigmatic El Rosario is one of the most beautiful and fascinating churches in Latin America (click here).
S Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE): This sleek, spotless museum is home to the best Salvadoran art (click here).
S Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (MUPI): This museum showcases the work of revolutionary writers and journalists, with a focus on the infamous Radio Venceremos, the rogue underground radio station that broadcast to the world during the civil war (click here).
S Puerta del Diablo: Stunning views, clean air, and peace and quiet make this the perfect and most accessible escape from the chaos of downtown San Salvador (click here).
S Parque Nacional El Boquerón: This park offers a cool climate year-round, walking trails around the crater of El Boquerón, and impressive views of the baby crater inside it (click here).
S Joya de Cerén: Often referred to as the Pompeii of the Americas, this pre-Columbian Mayan farming village has been frozen in time thanks to the eruption of a nearby volcano around AD 600 (click here).
S Paseo El Carmen: Pedestrian weekends are the perfect window to Salvadoran culture, where outdoor vendors sell local food, art, and crafts, and the nightlife beckons people from all walks of life to enjoy the scores of sweet cafés, bars, and restaurants (click here).
Chaotic, congested, and consistently noisy, San Salvador is El Salvador’s capital and resilient urban heart. Battle hardened by civil unrest and natural disasters, the city bears the scars of its past with a fierce determination to create a better future, and it seems that perhaps finally, the tide is turning. You can see it in the world-class restaurants and homegrown cafés popping up in the affluent Zona Rosa, and in the yoga studios and independent boutiques on the tree-lined streets of Colonia Escalón; but most significantly you can see it in the city’s Centro Histórico, where, until recently, most middle-class Salvadorans dared not go since the war ended in 1992. Today, however, the well-heeled are returning to nights out at the Teatro Nacional; bargain hunters are hitting the sprawling, informal market to shop for clothes; and brightly colored murals are turning up between the crumbling buildings and bullet-scarred walls. The young people of San Salvador are taking the first cautious steps toward reclaiming their city and building it into something they can call their own.
It’s an exciting time of transition, and as a visitor, there is much to see and do. In fact, San Salvador can be the perfect base for your travels, with all of the comforts and amenities you need and many of the country’s top sights within a short bus ride away, including Parque Nacional El Boquerón, the ruins of San Andrés and Joya de Cerén, and Lago Ilopango. You can complement your day trips with visits to museums and churches, both of which will give you a deeper insight into the turbulent history of the country. The Catedral Metropolitana and Iglesia El Rosario are not only beautiful but help put the role that religion played in the civil war into context. The Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán (MUNA) is an excellent way to learn more about pre-Hispanic and colonial eras, while the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (MUPI) will appeal to literature lovers and history buffs alike, honoring El Salvador’s revolutionary writers and journalists, with a focus on work that came out during the civil war. For entertainment in San Salvador, remember to look past the sprawling shopping malls and American chains and you will find restaurants and bars to suit any budget and taste, including cheap and delicious street food, artsy cafés with live music and poetry, and stylish fine dining. Finally, just a short cab ride away is Paseo El Carmen in the suburb of Santa Tecla, an essential weekend day trip, where a pedestrian walkway offers stall after stall of delicious traditional and international fare, live entertainment, and quaint cafés and pubs that come to life after dark.
San Salvador was founded in 1545, after two other attempts to establish the colonial capital north of the city near Suchitoto. The settlements in Suchitoto failed due to fierce resistance by the indigenous Pipil people, sending the Spanish to look for greener pastures. Motivated by the size of the land and the fertility of the soil around present-day San Salvador, they settled here. The city began where Plaza Libertad now stands and grew from there, with help from income gained from añil (indigo), cacao, balsam, and other profitable crops. San Salvador played a pivotal role in the years leading up to the independence of Central America. This is where the first uprisings against the Spaniards took place, in 1811 and 1814, and although the independence movement gained momentum quickly, the revolution was still in the distant future. After the uprisings, any kind of rebellion was swiftly cut down by the Spanish. In the years to follow, pockets of resistance secretly grew until September 15, 1821, when El Salvador officially became part of the Federal Republic of Central America before achieving its own independence in 1834. San Salvador has been the capital ever since.
During the second half of the 19th century, the city really began to take shape, thanks to the profits from El Salvador’s newest cash crop: coffee. Architecture began to take on the neoclassic and neo-Gothic styles of Europe, and luxurious palaces, theaters, and churches began to pepper the city center. The growing splendor continued until the 1960s, when the highly industrialized nation became the third-largest coffee exporter in the world. However, natural disasters often cruelly reversed the city’s growth; most famously the earthquake of 1873 that destroyed much of the city, and the eruption of Volcán San Salvador in 1917 that also caused significant damage. The 1986 earthquake caused mass destruction of the city center, resulting in the evacuation of virtually all residents and businesses, paving the way for mass migration of the nation’s disadvantaged to take over the abandoned streets for informal trade.
The capital also saw its share of violence during the civil war. The historic center was the scene of many antigovernment protests and saw the murder of many protesters by national security forces. Other neighborhoods were targeted by guerrillas for being pro-government. Civilians in the capital lived under a strict curfew and in constant fear, no matter what their political stance. Weapons proliferated and the situation grew tenser until the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) undertook its largest offensive in November 1989, when its guerillas stormed the city and took control of many poor neighborhoods. The Salvadoran government responded by bombing the occupied parts of the city. Many civilians were killed in the process. In 1992, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were joyously celebrated in front of the Catedral Metropolitana in the city center, but to this day many Salvadorans still have an underlying fear about being in crowded areas in the city, especially the Centro Histórico, where so much senseless violence took place. Today the city of San Salvador has a population of around 2 million, and many of these people live and work in the center of the city.
The city’s three main tourist areas, the Centro Histórico, Colonia Escalón, and Zona Rosa, are all connected by the primary east-west highway, called Alameda Roosevelt east of Plaza de Las Américas and Paseo General Escalón west of the plaza.
Bulevar Monseñor Romero is another major east-west road connecting the city of Santa Tecla and the neighborhood of Antiguo Cuscatlán, finally merging in San Salvador with Bulevar los Próceres, which later turns into the road to both Planes de los Renderos and the International Airport.
The main north-south route is through El Centro and known as Avenida España north of Plaza Barrios and Avenida Cuscatlán south of the plaza. The other main north-south route is Avenida Norte, which becomes Bulevar de los Héroes and splits the city in two. The neighborhoods north of the Centro Histórico around Bulevar de los Héroes, Metrocentro and the Universidad de El Salvador (the national university) are considered the downtown area.
Plaza Barrios in the Centro Histórico
Roads in the capital are called calles if they run east-west, and avenidas if they run north-south. Road numbering starts at the downtown intersection of Avenida España/Avenida Cuscatlán and Calle Delgado/Calle Arce.Avenidas that fall west of this intersection have odd numbers, and to the east, even numbers. Calles have odd numbers if they are to the north of the intersection, and even numbers if they are south of the intersection.
San Salvador is safer than most people think, but as in any other large Central American city, there is a high level of crime, and it is important to take appropriate precautionary measures.
For the most part, Zona Rosa and Escalón are very safe both during the day and at night. The city center is slightly more risky, mostly because of the sheer number of people. It’s much easier to get your pocket picked in the middle of all this chaos. However, the Centro Histórico is also the most interesting part of the city, so do not be deterred by potential danger. Take normal precautions, like not wearing any fancy jewelry and carrying expensive items such as iPods, cameras, and phones, and you will find that the whole experience is a lot less intimidating than you may have anticipated.
The downtown area around the national university is generally safe during the day, but extra precaution should be taken at night. If you go to the bars around the university, it’s OK to walk between the bars in the area, but take a taxi when you are leaving the strip. The area around the budget hotels just north of Metrocentro has some nightclubs that should be avoided, and again, do not walk around this area at night. If you want to go to nightclubs, many are located inside Multiplaza, a mall near Santa Tecla, and Salvadorans consider this the safest place for late-night action. The eastern part of the city should be avoided, in particular the area of Soyapango, where there is a well-known gang presence.
Because San Salvador is so densely populated, even if you are in one of the more affluent areas, poverty-stricken shantytowns are never far away. Unfortunately, there have been some reports of nighttime robberies on some of the less frequented side streets in Zona Rosa. The best way to stay as safe as you can is always to take a taxi at night, no matter what part of the city you are in. Like any big city, especially in Central America, your safety is not guaranteed unless you are inside a secure neighborhood or building. This is why many people love having a night out in Santa Tecla, the nearby suburb of the city, where there is a pedestrian strip lined with bars and restaurants that get very lively on the weekends. The area is well lit and convivial with a heavy (friendly) police presence; it is widely regarded as one of the safest and most fun areas for a taste of Salvadoran nightlife.
Gangs in El Salvador
If you have made it to San Salvador, or as the locals call it, Sivar, congratulations. This means you actually have a mind of your own. You have probably had to endure the well-meaning advice of friends and acquaintances who have told you to be careful here, to stay close to your hotel, and maybe even tried to convince you not to go. They are referring, of course, to the number-one reason most people are scared of San Salvador: the gangs. But there’s a good chance that those people have never been to San Salvador, because if they had, they would know there are much more relevant things to talk about, like where to find the best pupusas (they’re at Planes de los Renderos, if you’re interested), the beautiful churches (El Rosario is a must), or the best salsa nights (Café la T).
The truth is that the terrifying media image of the gangs of El Salvador and the reality on the ground are strangely incongruous. If you do come across members of the mara, as they are called in Salvadoran slang, you are much more likely to find yourself engaged in a friendly conversation rather than a victim of violence (many gang members speak perfect English after years of living in the United States). A Salvadoran is a Salvadoran, and whether they are a member of a deadly gang or not, that good-natured hospitality seems to be imprinted in their DNA.
This is not to say that the media coverage is not true. The statistics are inarguable: The homicide rate in El Salvador is among the highest in the world, averaging around 10 murders per day. However, as a visitor, your experience here is vastly different than that of a local. You are likely never to see the seedy side of El Salvador, unless you go looking for it. Gang violence is localized, mostly in the eastern part of the city, and targeted at members of rival gangs, business owners who are being extorted, and people involved with drugs. Gang members do not want to involve tourists because that brings the international spotlight to them; and if there is one thing all Salvadorans can agree on, it’s that the last thing they want is more negative attention from the media.
You might find it hard to reconcile the image of a gang member making genial small talk over beers or politely helping an elderly woman onto the bus with the reality of their criminal records, but understanding how they got there helps. Many gang members fled the civil war when they were just young boys, forced to leave their families behind and seek survival in the United States. There they faced a whole new set of problems. Seen as intruders by established immigrant groups in Los Angeles, they found themselves victims of violence again. They banded together in self-defense to form what would eventually become the Mara Salvatrucha 13 or MS-13, one of the biggest and deadliest gangs in the world. After years outside their home country, many of these men have now been deported back to El Salvador, importing criminal tactics learned in the States to a country teeming with left over weapons and struggling to overcome widespread poverty. These conditions made it easy to recruit new members, mostly young men in poor areas with little hope for a sustainable future. Not surprisingly, the result has been disastrous and extremely difficult for the government and police force to manage.
However, under the current FMLN government, important strides have been made in mitigating the endemic crime, including the negotiation of an unprecedented truce between rival gangs MS-13 and Calle 18 in March 2012, and the allocation of peace zones, where money has been invested in creating new job opportunities for gang members. To the surprise of many, the result has been a drop in homicides. The fact is that even the most hardened gang members admit they are tired of the violence and would prefer to live in peace than continue the vicious cycle of crime.
The bottom line is that, as a visitor, you are lucky enough to probably never have to see this side of El Salvador. Those who live and work here are not so fortunate. Whether or not they will one day be able to live free from the constant fear of the maras remains to be seen.
El Salvador has a strong culture of fear, unfortunately based on very real events in the past and present. Many locals will tell you it is dangerous to go somewhere or do something, based on residual anxiety from the civil war era or present-day reports of gang violence. However, it is important to note that in general, foreign visitors are not targeted here. Reports of theft or violence directed at visitors are much less frequent than in other Central American cities. Stay alert, use your common sense, and enjoy what this thriving city has to offer.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
If you have a few days to spare, that’s enough to hit the highlights in San Salvador. The Museo de Arte Popular and Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (MUPI) can be visited at the same time as they are in the same neighborhood, near the national university. Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán (MUNA) and the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) can also be done together in Zona Rosa; it is possible to do all of these in one day if you want. You will need half a day to explore the Centro Histórico, starting with the Palacio Nacional, Teatro Nacional, and the famous Catedral Metropolitana. Head west three blocks to check out Iglesia Calvarío and the nearby Mercado Central. Four blocks east is the fascinating Iglesia El Rosario, best explored in the late afternoon for perfect lighting. Give yourself a day to escape the traffic of the city and visit either the Puerta del Diablo or Parque Nacional El Boquerón. If you want to do them both, it’s best to set aside two days, as they are located at opposite ends of the city.
Although hotels are scattered throughout the city, the majority of people stay in Zona Rosa or Escalón; however, there are budget options near both universities, Universidad de El Salvador downtown and the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) in Antiguo Cuscatlán. For backpackers it is worth checking out Joan’s Hostel, right next to UCA; it’s conveniently located next to a major bus stop and has plenty of budget food available.
Unlike most city centers, downtown San Salvador is not where you will find the seat of government or the financial center, which makes it such a charming area to explore. Full of crumbling old buildings, historic plazas, and beautiful churches, this area is a fascinating cultural window into the past. The city center has existed since the 16th century, and most of the original Spanish buildings have been destroyed by natural disasters over the years, with the exception of those built in the 19th century. Continuous seismic activity means that there are no high-rise buildings in the center; the highest point is the bell tower of the Catedral Metropolitana. The eclectic architectural styles that can be found in the center reflect the grandiose past, before the city was battered by earthquakes and civil war. The turn of the 20th century saw the construction of elegant palaces and beautiful churches in neo-Gothic and neoclassic styles, followed by art nouveau in the 1920s and 1930s and art deco in the 1940s and 1950s. However, almost all of it was seriously damaged in the earthquake of 1986. The rubble of the former splendor was abandoned, and soon after, the empty streets of the center were taken over by the thousands of Salvadorans who had been displaced by war or left homeless due to land disputes. To this day, high levels of unemployment have made the city center one of the most vibrant informal marketplaces in the country. The streets are lined with stores full of bins overflowing with secondhand clothing from the United States and independent vendors selling anything from vegetables to vitamins to pirated DVDs, all against the backdrop of the dilapidated art deco signs and the grand buildings in all their current and former glory.
The most imposing building in the Centro Histórico is the Catedral Metropolitana (Calle Ruben Dario, in front of Plaza Barrios, tel. 2221-0003, 6am-6pm daily). This large white church with its tall bell towers and bulbous yellow and blue dome has a history of tragedy and rebirth that traces the tales of natural disasters and human struggle in San Salvador. In the 19th century this was the site of the colonial church of Santo Domingo until it was destroyed by the earthquake of 1873. In 1888 a new church was built entirely out of wood, only to burn to the ground in an accidental fire in 1956.
The Catedral Metropolitana in the heart of San Salvador took four decades to complete.
Construction of a new cathedral began immediately—the style was to be dramatic, with eclectic architecture using Byzantine and Roman influences. When Monseñor Óscar Romero became archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, the cathedral was still in the middle of construction, which abruptly came to a halt. Romero, a champion of human rights, redirected the money for the construction of the cathedral to help the poor and insisted on giving his sermons inside the partially constructed building.
Between 1977 and 1980 the cathedral was taken over on many occasions by people participating in antigovernment protests, and in 1979 tragedy struck when police opened fire on civilian protesters, killing 24 people on the steps of the church. In March 1980, Romero was assassinated while he was giving mass at another church, Hospital La Divina Providencia, and his funeral was held at the cathedral. Tragically, during the funeral, 44 people died in a stampede of mourners trying to escape gunshots fired by security forces from the roof of the neighboring Palacio Nacional.
After Romero’s death, construction of the cathedral resumed but suffered significant damage from the earthquake in 1986. Finally, four decades after it began, the construction of the cathedral was finished in 1999.
tomb of national martyr Archbishop Óscar Romero in the Catedral Metropolitana
The main altar features an image of Jesus donated by the Spanish king Charles V in 1546. The painting rests inside a four-column ornamental canopy surrounded by images of the prophets Moses and Elijah, and the main altar is surrounded by eight large paintings dating from 1996 by artist Andrés García Ibáñez, depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Above it all, the bright cupola stands 45 meters in height with a 24-meter radius. The last and most significant adornment was a colorful mosaic on the facade of the building, designed by revered Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort in 1992 in his signature style, titled The Harmony of My People. The art was meaningful because it celebrated the peace accords and was funded by the people of the parish. In January 2012 the archbishop of El Salvador ordered that the mosaic be removed, without consulting the government or the artist. Construction workers chipped away at the symbolic work of art until there was nothing left but a pile of broken tiles. No explanation was given for the destruction of the artwork.
Today, the main reason many people come to the cathedral is to pay respect to the late archbishop Óscar Romero, whose tomb is located in the basement and is open for viewing during regular church hours.
Right next door to the Catedral Metropolitana is the beautiful Palacio Nacional (Calle Ruben Dario, in front of Plaza Barrios, tel. 2222-7674 or 2222-9145, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri., $3), considered the first building of the republic, originally built in 1870. After having burned down in 1889, it was rebuilt in 1905. Designed by iconoclastic engineer José Emilio Alcaine, it was nicknamed the coffee palace because of the fact that the funds used for the construction came from the export of coffee. The palace was occupied by government offices until 1974 when it became a national historic landmark. Home to the national archives, the national palace was opened to the public in 2008, and there are occasional exhibitions.
The architectural style of the palace has neo-Gothic, neoclassic, and Renaissance influences. The front of the palace has six towering columns with statues at each end, one of Christopher Columbus and one of Queen Isabella I, donated by King Alfonso XIII in 1924. Inside are four principal rooms and more than 100 smaller ones. Each room has a distinct mudejar tile pattern on the floor, ornate cornices, and chandeliers. Many of the materials used were imported glassware from Belgium, marble imported from Italy, and timber from El Salvador.
Teatro Nacional El Salvador
The Teatro Nacional El Salvador (Calle Delgado and 2 Av. Norte, across from Plaza Morazán, tel. 2222-8760, email@example.com, hours vary by show) is the oldest theater in Central America and the most important space for arts and culture in El Salvador. It was built in 1911, and the original ornate French Renaissance style was the brainchild of French architect Daniel Beylard, who was awarded the design contract for the theater in an international contest organized by the state. In 1966 it was transformed into a space primarily for film screening, with sporadic live performances, until renovation work began in 1976 under the direction of architect Ricardo Jiménez Castillo, who rallied renowned local artists to contribute to the design of the building. The facade remained the same, but romantic art nouveau touches were added to the existing Renaissance-themed interior. Today, the theater is used for opera, symphony, and theater performances as well as conferences and film premieres. The theater has three floors and 650 seats, including an exclusive presidential section. The ceiling showcases a 1977 painting of partially nude angelic women by famous Salvadoran artist Carlos Cañas, accented by a large crystal chandelier.
Iglesia Sagrado Corazón
Continue north from the Teatro Nacional and Plaza Morazán to Calle Arce, where you will find Iglesia Sagrado Corazón (Calle Arce 810, tel. 2222-8606, 6am-6pm daily), definitely worth a visit to see the 19th-century influences, notably the stamped laminate sheet metal from Belgium, imported European wood, and the dramatic neo-Gothic design on the facade. Construction started in 1901 and finished in 1913, after which it survived several earthquakes due to the strength of the imported materials. The interior is humble and quiet, with old, simple wooden pews, lit candles, and sun streaming in through the gorgeous stained glass windows, creating an unexpected sanctuary in the center of the city.
The exquisitely beautiful Iglesia Calvarío (6 Calle Oriente, between 5 Av. and 3 Av. Sur, 6am-6pm daily) is the oldest church in San Salvador, originally built in 1660, and most recently rebuilt in the 1950s, with many of the original pieces still intact. This grand gothic church was conceived by engineer Augusto Baratta, who was heavily inspired by Italian and Spanish architecture. A beautiful stained glass dome casts natural light on the towering Italian marble columns and 19th-century religious sculptures. The central altar is made from Carrara marble and has a carved replica of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
La Casa Tomada del Centro
Quickly becoming a countercultural touchstone in the middle of abandoned lots and buildings, La Casa Tomada del Centro (6 Av. Norte 233, near Parque San José, tel. 6109-6096, free) is an old house in the center that has been taken over by artists. Inside you will find rotating art exhibits, an eclectic collection of used books, and activities such as art classes, workshops, and lectures. It’s a great place to meet young, creative Salvadorans and exchange ideas, buy books, and take (or give) a class.
S Iglesia El Rosario
By far the most fascinating building in the Centro Histórico is Iglesia El Rosario (4 Calle Oriente and 6 Av. Sur, no phone, 7am-noon and 2pm-6pm daily). Sitting on the east side of Plaza Libertad, this decrepit hangar-shaped building is easy to dismiss if you don’t know what lies inside, which is exactly what makes it so interesting.
Inside, thousands of different colored stained glass pieces are built into walls that curve up to become the ceiling, creating an enchanting kaleidoscope of moving light and color as the sun and clouds cross the sky. El Rosario is the brainchild of Salvadoran sculptor Rubén Martínez. At barely 30 years old in 1962, he came up with the revolutionary design for the church that would become one of the most significant artistic and architectural achievements of the country. His idea was to create a space that symbolized equality and solidarity of the Roman Catholic Church with the working class. This involved a design that would place the altar at the same level as the congregation and eliminate all private and divisive details such as columns, steps, confessionals, and chapels.
When Martínez presented his proposal to the Dominican priest in charge of the project, Father Alejandro Picador, he was intrigued by the idea—but would the conservative Archbishop of El Salvador approve such a radical design? Father Alejandro did not want to risk rejection, so in an audacious move, he traveled to Rome and went directly to Pope John XXIII himself. Amazingly, the Pope approved the design. It turned out that the young Salvadoran’s ideas coincided with ideas that had just begun percolating in Rome. The Vatican had been rethinking the nature of the church and how Catholicism might become more involved with the struggles of the poor. And so Rubén Martínez set to work, living on-site for the next seven years, designing and directing construction of the first church to be a visual statement against the elitism of the Latin mass.
The design changed many times over the years, but in the end, the church has a breadth and openness similar to makeshift outdoor churches in poor areas. The half-moon shape of the church makes it earthquake resistant (it was the only one left intact after the earthquake of 1986). The different colored glass in the walls creates a beautiful atmosphere, and on the back wall the glass appears to be arranged in the shape of an eye—religious scholars take it to represent the eye of God, all-seeing but not necessarily always seen. The front of the church has an iron image of the Savior, and at the top of the church is a window that lets sunlight filter in over the congregation, which many believe represents the protection of the Holy Spirit. One of the most praised accomplishments of Iglesia El Rosario is how Martínez managed to capture the essence of the holy trinity in such a beautiful and unique way; Martínez claims, however, that none of this design was conscious and that he was merely an instrument of God. Don’t miss the 14 Stations of the Cross, located on the right-hand side of the church, all made from leftover stone and iron and welded into abstract minimalist designs.
Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán (MUNA)
The Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán (Final Av. de la Revolución, tel. 2243-3750, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $3) is a perfect way to escape a sticky, smoggy afternoon in the city. This cool expansive space has five beautifully executed exhibits that chart the course of El Salvador’s history and culture, starting with the pre-Hispanic era of Cuscatlán. Other exhibits focus on the colonial era and contemporary El Salvador, including information about art, agriculture, and early trade. The museum houses many fascinating artifacts dating as far back as AD 900 that have been found at various ruins in the country, most notably from the archaeological site of Cihuatán. Examples include jade jewelry, obsidian pieces, ceramics, tools, and dolls. Learn about the history of cacao or balsam, sacred indigenous sites, land issues past and present, or traditional Salvadoran song and dance. English-speaking guides are available if you ask at the front desk.
The restaurant in the museum is excellent and worth visiting even if you don’t go to the museum. Bistro San Lorenzo (tel. 2243-7566, 10am-10pm daily, $7-16) has a sleek, contemporary design and serves up excellent panini, salads, and pastas. This air-conditioned space is also nice to enjoy a cup of coffee or wine after a tour of the museum.
S Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)
The Museo de Arte de El Salvador (Final Av. de la Revolución, tel. 2243-6099, www.marte.org.sv, 10am-6pm Tues.-Sun., $1.50, free Sun.) showcases past and present Salvadoran art, including an excellent permanent collection from Rosa Mena Valenzuela, one of El Salvador’s most famous artists. Before her death in 2004, she donated her entire collection of art to the museum. Valenzuela was one of the main exponents of expressionism in El Salvador and used a unique combination of materials such as graphite, industrial paint, colored pencils, and even makeup to create gorgeous abstract paintings. Many other Salvadoran artists are featured in this large modern space. The museum focuses on contemporary art, sculpture, and collections of older paintings from the mid to late 20th century that show the subtle entry of the topic of the civil war into art, depicting rivers of blood, religious symbolism, and peasant uprisings.
mosaic sculpture in front of the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)
There is a small shop inside the museum that carries a very nice selection of books, local crafts, and jewelry. The rooftop restaurant in the museum, Punto Café (tel. 2243-7606, noon-11pm Mon.-Sat., $10-20) serves excellent food and is a beautiful spot to enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine after exploring the museum.
Museo de Arte Popular
The Museo de Arte Popular (Av. San José 125, tel. 2274-5154, www.artepopular.org, 10am-5pm Mon.-Sat., $1) is full of surprises—literally. This cute museum houses the permanent exhibition of sorpresas, the famous Salvadoran miniature clay figures that come from the town of Ilobasco, 54 kilometers northeast of San Salvador. First created by artist María Dominga Herrera in the 1940s, a sorpresa is a tiny scene hidden in a small oval about the size of an egg. The original sorpresas were made to look like an egg, but now you can find ones that are in the shape of just about anything (most often fruit and vegetables). When you lift the top and look inside—surprise! There is the miniature scene, most typically depicting daily rural life, such as the harvesting of corn or the preparation of a meal. The museum also has plenty of other traditional art from around the country, including masks, sculptures, jewelry, paintings, and textiles.
S Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (MUPI)
Founded by Venezuelan journalist Carlos Henríquez Consalvi, a.k.a. Santiago, the brain behind Radio Venceremos, the itinerant underground radio station that broadcast guerrilla news and caustic political commentary during the civil war, the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (27 Av. Norte 1140, between 19 Calle and 21 Calle Poniente, tel. 2275-4870 or 2564-7005, www.museo.com.sv, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat., $2)—the Museum of the Word and Image—was set up to honor the preservation of historical memory and the promotion of human rights. Inside you will find rotating exhibits dedicated to Salvadoran activists, writers, and authors such as Roque Dalton, Salarrué, and Monseñor Óscar Romero. There is one permanent exhibit that celebrates the 1992 signing of the peace accords and tracks the history of the civil war on a mural timeline. Other exhibits include personal items such as the journals, clothing, and photographs of famous Salvadoran writers, artists, and activists. There is usually also an exhibit related to Radio Venceremos and the journalists who lost their lives in the name of freedom of information. A visit to MUPI is an excellent way to learn a little more about some of El Salvador’s most important human rights advocates as well as how the civil war influenced the country’s literary culture.
timeline of the civil war on permanent display in the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (MUPI)
Attached to the museum is a small bookstore with excellent books by Salvadoran authors related to national history and culture. There is also a room where you can watch films (some have English subtitles). Films and question-and-answer sessions can also be arranged with Santiago—just call the museum to arrange it ahead of time. You can also call to arrange for an English-speaking guide if they have one available.
Capilla Divina Providencia
Capilla Divina Providencia (Final Calle Toluca and Av. Rocio, tel. 2261-1286, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm daily, free) is the small chapel where Monseñor Óscar Romero was assassinted in 1980. The chapel is located inside Hospital La Divina Providencia, where nuns, doctors, and nurses offer economic, emotional, and medical care to the terminally ill. It was here that Romero took up residence and gave many of his stirring homilies that gave hope and direction to the poor and suffering.
Romero was appointed archbishop of El Salvador in February 1977. Many believe the Vatican chose him because of his status quo personality and conservative ways, guaranteed not to cause any problems between the church and the state; that might have been true if not for the murder of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was Romero’s good friend. On March 12, 1977, less than one month after Romero’s appointment as archbishop, Grande and two other priests were driving in rural El Salvador where they were working with landless campesinos. They were pulled over by government forces and Grande, a very charismatic and outspoken human rights advocate, was shot to death. Romero was deeply moved by this, and many say Rutilio’s death was the turning point in Romero’s life from conservative peacekeeper to radical champion of human rights. He believed that the church had a responsibility to help the poor, and that the teachings of Jesus unequivocally espoused equal rights for all. This landed him on the government’s list of most wanted socialist dissidents.
On March 24, 1980, just after Romero had finished giving his sermon, as he was standing at the middle of the altar, a shot to the chest killed him instantly. He fell to the floor, dying underneath the image of Jesus. His bloodstained robes can be seen here in the chapel, along with the typewriter he used to compose his open letter to U.S. president Jimmy Carter, pleading with him to stop sending aid money to El Salvador, as all it was doing was funding the deaths of innocent people. You can also see the modest room where Romero lived, a display of photos and other memorabilia, and his car.
Centro Monseñor Romero
Centro Monseñor Romero (Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, tel. 2210-6600, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm Mon.-Fri., free) is a small museum located on the UCA campus. It pays homage to Monseñor Óscar Romero, the former Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated while giving mass in 1980, as well as the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her young daughter who were murdered here on campus on November 16, 1989. The murders were part of a larger military campaign that targeted priests all over El Salvador. During this time, many priests were sympathetic to the struggles of the country’s poor, and many used mass as an opportunity to preach about basic human rights. The government saw this as aligned with communist ideals and subsequently took steps to get rid of those they considered the most troublesome. Inside this small museum are graphic photos of the victims and some of their personal effects as well as many of Monseñor Romero’s belongings and photos. There are usually students available to give guided tours. When you go, enter the university through the pedestrian entrance, off Calle del Mediterráneo, near Joan’s Hostel. Make sure you bring photo ID, as you will need it to get onto the campus.
Most of the tour companies in San Salvador offer city tours that hit all of the major attractions. For a fascinating and comprehensive tour of the Centro Histórico, be sure to contact Antonio García Espada of Toony Tours (tel. 7367-8111, www.medievaltraveler.blogspot.com, $20 per hour), a professor at UCA who also works in the Palacio Nacional with the public archives. This English-language walking tour takes you to as few or as many historical sights as you would like, covering everything from the architectural style of the buildings to the history of religion and the civil war, the impact of coffee on the growth of the capital, and the series of popular uprisings and natural disasters that inevitably shaped the heart of the city. Espada leaves no detail undiscovered or story untold. For anyone interested in learning more about the history of San Salvador, this tour is essential.
Adventures El Salvador (tel. 7844-0858, www.wtf-elsalvador.com, 4 hours, Sun. only, $30 from the beaches, $25 from the city) runs another interesting tour in the city that takes you on a short run of the highlights of the Centro Histórico, including Iglesia El Rosario, Palacio Nacional, Teatro Nacional, and Catedral Metropolitana, before heading to the underground world of lucha libre, the gritty and dramatic free wrestling that was first popularized in Mexico in the 1940s. El Salvador soon followed the trend, and to this day it is extremely popular entertainment for regular working-class Salvadorans. Enjoy some cold beer and fried shrimp balls as you watch the masked technicos (the good guys) and rudos (the bad) battle it out in the ring. With stage names like “Father of Death” and “El Diablo,” this is as much a show as it is sport, and after a few beers you just might find yourself screaming along with the rest of the crowd and becoming an unlikely fanatic. Tours are in English and involve both walking and transfer in a vehicle. Pickup and drop-off at your hotel are provided.
Wrestlers battle it out in the underground world of lucha libre in downtown San Salvador.
Zanzibar (Centro Comercial Basilea, tel. 2279-0061, www.barzanzibar.com, 5pm-2am Tues.-Fri., 3pm-2am Sat., no cover) is a popular outdoor bar in Zona Rosa that often has live music. The type of music is very diverse, running the gamut from jazz, rock, grunge, pop, to global groove. Zanzibar is part of Centro Comercial Basilea, a popular complex with shops, cafés, and restaurants. There is outdoor seating and it’s a great central place to start off the night.
The brand-new Vinalia Wine Bar (Av. Dr. Manuel Gallardo #2-8, inside Yemaya, Santa Tecla, tel. 2223-3937, 5pm-midnight Tues.-Sat.) is stylish and sophisticated, but thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is the perfect spot for good conversation with friends or a romantic date over a glass (or bottle) of wine. This intimate, candlelit second-floor space boasts a few beautiful wooden tables and a bar with stools below open windows that look out over Zona Rosa. The menu includes an eclectic international collection of wines that focus on quality over brand, served by a multilingual certified sommelier. Prices range $4-6 for a glass and $19-100 for a bottle. They also serve fresh bread, olives, cured meats, and imported cheese ($10-30). The friendly owners have achieved the perfect balance between casual and refined, and as a result Vinalia’s popularity is quickly gaining momentum.
Los Rinconcitos (Bulevar Hipódromo, tel. 2298-9661, www.losrinconcitos.com, 6pm-2am Mon., 6pm-5am Tues.-Sat., no cover) is a classic bar in San Salvador. Most people will tell you Los Rinconcitos is past its prime, but it still draws crowds due to its location right on the main strip in Zona Rosa. It’s a labyrinth of many bars, starting with a lounge with a pub-like atmosphere, TVs, a long wooden bar, and tall tables, all perfectly designed to have a couple of beers with friends. Once you are feeling good, you can make your way to the next room and belt out a few songs in the karaoke bar. If you dare enter the final door, things get heady with a full-on club atmosphere, complete with lots of cigarette smoke, little ventilation, throbbing cumbia, flashing lights, and a small dance floor that often gets crowded with very good dancers.
Republik (Calle La Reforma 243, tel. 2240-0041, 5pm-2am Tues.-Sat., no cover) is your Irish pub in Zona Rosa, complete with a massive bar with an extensive selection of booze, wooden kegs, old photos on the walls, and a stage for live music (usually ’90s rock). A grand staircase leads to the second floor, which has a smoking section with more tables and cozy corners. It’s the perfect place for getting rowdy with your friends or hiding out in a corner for something more intimate. There is typical pub fare available, with popular chicken burritos and mini chipotle burgers. Guinness lovers should note there is none of the dark stuff on tap; you can buy a can, which will set you back around $10.
Cadejo Brewing Company (Calle La Reforma 222, tel. 2223-3180, www.cervezacadejo.com, noon-11pm Mon.-Thurs., noon-midnight Fri., 9am-midnight Sat., 9am-3pm Sun., no cover) serves locally crafted beer on a small terrace in the heart of Zona Rosa. Try one of the excellent staples, the wapa, wheat American pale ale, or roja, a heartier red ale. Alternatively you could check to see what the seasonal brew is at the moment, or try a sampler of whatever is on tap, for just $1 a glass. This is a great spot to start off the night, sampling beer and watching people go by on the street.
Bar Leyendas (9 Calle 104, between 6 Av. and 7 Av., no phone, firstname.lastname@example.org, 6pm-1am Tues.-Sat., no cover) is where 20-something Salvadorans like to hang out while they wait for the work week to end. Located near the Universidad de El Salvador, it’s a basic, dimly lit space with tall tables, low tables, and a very small bar. Come ready to drink like a champ and rock out to Pearl Jam. If you come on a Saturday night, it’s likely to be dead, as most of the regulars have gone to the beach.
Nearby Café La T (Calle San Antonio Abad 2233, tel. 2225-2390, 10am-9pm Mon.-Wed., 10am-11pm Thurs.-Sat., no cover) is the long-standing favorite for university students, artists, and expat volunteers, who appreciate the fun cultural vibe. This large space has indoor and outdoor seating, colorful campesino murals on the walls, cozy old couches, and candles on the eclectic collection of tables. They often host poetry nights, have live music (rock, jazz, reggae), and every Friday night is salsa night. No matter that you have never danced salsa in your life, the crowd is friendly and you are likely to find a teacher by the end of the night.
Clandestino (Calle San Antonio Abad 2237, tel. 2566-9755, 4pm-2am Tues.-Sat., no cover) is the newest bar on this strip, located just a few doors down from Café La T, and so far it’s drawing crowds. This very long space has made good use of the walls by painting them with interesting murals. There is no stage, but a small space on the floor does just as well for live music (rock, jazz, and reggae). Expect salsa after the live music is done.
In the same neighborhood is La Arpa Irlandés (Av. A 137, just off of Calle Antonio Abad, behind Citibank, tel. 2225-0429, 4pm-1am Mon.-Thurs., 3pm-2am Fri., noon-2am Sat., no cover), the darker, cheaper, more philosophical version of Zona Rosa’s Republik. Expect to find left-leaning university students drinking until at least last call, probably discussing topics like Latin American history, culture, and literature over multiple jugs of beer.
Summer Festivals in San Salvador
Fiestas Agostinas (August Festivals) are celebrated the first week of August in San Salvador. This is when San Salvador’s patron saint, the Divine Savior of the World (a.k.a. Jesus Christ), is celebrated. Expect crowds, parades, fireworks, and more. Most people have at least half the week off and travel to the beaches or mountains for their yearly vacations. The religious events of the week culminate with an evening mass on August 6, celebrating the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Las Bolas de Fuego (Balls of Fire) happens on August 31 every year in Nejapa, a small municipality just north of San Salvador, and is considered one of the best and craziest festivals in the country. The public gathers along both sides of the main street and watches as the people of Nejapa hurl flaming kerosene-soaked rag balls at each other for a couple of hours. The tradition is more than 100 years old and commemorates the eruption of the volcano El Playón in November 1658, when incandescent balls of fire flew into the air. Paramedics and police are on-site in case of injuries and fires, and after the show, a raging party ensues. Yes, this really happens. If you want to check it out, ask at your hotel to arrange transportation with a guide; it’s too complicated to get there and back on your own.
Día de Independencia (Independence Day) celebrates independence from the Spanish and is observed annually on September 15. It is a national holiday celebrated with parades, fireworks, and, of course, lots of food.
Circo Bar (Pasaje Istmania 128, Colonia Escalón, tel. 2298-4911, www.barcirco.com, 7:30pm-2am Mon.-Sat.) is a somewhat exclusive bar where well-heeled 20- and 30-somethings come to see and be seen. Located in upscale Escalón, this circus-themed bar has different events every night, ranging from fashion shows to costume theme parties, live music, and drama. The space is huge, with a stage surrounded by glittering tables and chairs, low-hung glowing red lamps, and red curtains draped from the ceiling, creating a dramatic circus-tent feel. Check the website to find out what’s on. Cover charge varies depending on the show.
Also in Escalón, Bar Bass (79 Av. Norte and 3 Calle Poniente, tel. 2264-1924, 7pm-2am Tues.-Sat., no cover) is the newest hot spot for live music in San Salvador. This small casual-chic space showcases bands that run the gamut from pop, ska, and reggae to heavy metal and rock. Wooden tables are scattered throughout the bar along with cozy cushioned benches, and colorful murals cover the walls. Bar Bass also serves good food, including sushi, pizza, and the popular pulled-pork sandwich.
Most of the nightclubs in San Salvador are quite elitist, meaning that if you go, make sure you are dressed appropriately; if not, chances are you will be turned away at the door. In general, you will need to be dressed formally to enter. For men this means dress pants, dress shoes, and a buttoned shirt. Women should wear skirts or a dress and high heels. All of the clubs seem to be cut from the same cloth, with top 40 salsa and dance music blaring from the speakers, flashing lights, overpriced drinks, and overly drunk patrons. Depending on what kind of a mood you are in, this could be fun. Most people go to the clubs in Multiplaza (Av. Jerusalén and Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2248-9800, www.gruporoble.com), on the way to Santa Tecla. The clubs are located on the rooftop, and there are three primary ones: Stanza (tel. 2243-7153, 5pm-3am Wed.-Sat.) and NVY (tel. 2243-2576, 5pm-5am Wed.-Sat.), both of which charge a cover and draw crowds mostly in their early to mid-20s; and Los Alambiques (tel. 2243-3872, 5pm-3am Wed.-Sat.), which draws a more mature crowd (late 20s to early 30s) and does not charge cover.
El Teatro Nacional (Calle Delgado and 2 Av. Norte, tel. 2222-5731) often has plays or performances by the San Salvador Symphony on the weekends. Costs vary according to the show.
There are movie theaters in Multiplaza (Av. Jerusalén and Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2248-9800, www.cinepolis.com.sv), La Gran Vía (Calle Chilitupán and Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2289-2105, www.lagranvia.com.sv), and Galerías (Paseo Escalón 3700, tel. 2245-0800, www.galerias.com.sv) that normally show family films or action-packed thrillers in English with Spanish subtitles. Galerías mall is located in Escalón, and Multiplaza and La Gran Vía are located between Antiguo Cuscatlán and Santa Tecla off Carretera Panamericana (Pan-American Hwy.).
El Salvador loves malls, and the bigger the better. Metrocentro (Av. Sur and Bulevar de los Héroes, tel. 2257-6000, www.gruporoble.com, 10am-10pm daily) is actually Central America’s biggest mall, and indeed it is easy to get lost for hours inside if you do not have a targeted plan before entering. Located downtown, near Universidad de El Salvador, Metrocentro has multiple parking lots, three floors, and about a dozen wings of shops, where you can expect to find just about anything you need. The much flashier Galerías (Paseo Escalón 3700, tel. 2245-0800, www.galerias.com.sv, 10am-10pm daily) in Escalón offers quality over quantity, providing a smaller number of shops with higher-end clothing and technological gadgets along with cafés.
Between San Salvador and Santa Tecla, you will find the very popular La Gran Vía (Calle Chilitupán and Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2273-8111, www.lagranvia.com.sv, 10am-8pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-9pm Fri.-Sat., 10am-7pm Sun.), a strip of shops and restaurants that line an outdoor pedestrian area. La Gran Vía gets packed on weekends with Salvadorans who come to shop, sit at one of the outdoor cafés, or go to the movies.
Nearby Multiplaza (Av. Jerusalén and Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2248-9800, www.gruporoble.com, 10am-8pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-7pm Sun.) is an unlikely looking mall, with its brutalist cube-shaped architectural style. Inside are two floors of open spaces between the more than 200 shops. Multiplaza is probably best-known for its nightlife on the third floor, where there are various nightclubs that are very popular with Salvadorans on the weekends.
In Zona Rosa, Basilea Centro Comercial (Bulevar Hipódromo, Zona Rosa, tel. 2279-0833, www.ccbasilea.com) is a small, charming commercial center with an excellent artisanal shop inside called Nahanche (tel. 2260-1581, www.nahanche.com, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun.). Basilea is also home to Shaw’s Café (tel. 2223-0959, www.shaws.com, 9am-7pm daily), a café that specializes in locally produced chocolate but also serves snacks and coffee; Bookmarks (no phone, www.bookmarks.com.sv, 9am-6pm daily), a cute little bookstore with mostly Spanish titles; a beauty salon; Zanzibar nightclub; and the popular Oskar Bistro.
The Mercado Central (between Calle Cementario and Av. 29 de Agosto, no phone, 7am-6pm daily) is a sprawling, chaotic market in the Centro Histórico. The streets are literally taken over by vendors—you’ll see elderly women chopping fruit on the side of the road, men pushing around wheelbarrows full of vegetables, pirated DVDs, makeshift pharmacies, live chickens, and secondhand clothing. This is where the locals come to do their shopping, and it is as worth a visit for the cheap necessities as it is to see an unpolished urban Latin American market in full swing.
The Mercado Ex-Cuartel (8 Av. Sur and Calle Delgado, no phone, 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-3pm Sun.) is the tamed-down, more tourist-friendly version of Mercado Central. Contained inside a former army barracks, this large public market houses a rather underwhelming collection of shoes, clothing, textiles, and hammocks. It’s not a bad stop if you are looking for cheap handmade shoes or a local hammock.
The Mercado Nacional de Artesanías (Alameda Dr. Manuel Enrique Araujo, behind the international fair grounds, tel. 2224-0747, 9am-6pm daily) is a convenient place to stop if you have reached the end of your trip and realize you had so much fun sightseeing that you forgot to buy souvenirs. This is your one-stop shop for all things artisanal in El Salvador, including colorful textiles, black pottery, art, jewelry, and clothing. Although many of the goods are from El Salvador, it’s worth noting that a large amount has also been imported from Guatemala, especially the shirts and handbags. Expect to pay a small premium for the convenience.
Sports and Recreation
S PUERTA DEL DIABLO
Legend has it that the Puerta del Diablo (Planes de Los Renderos, daily, free, parking $1) is the result of an earthquake in the 18th century that split one massive boulder into three towering rocks, two of which have staircases carved into them and can be climbed. The hike up either rock is steep but short and takes about 15 minutes. From the top you can enjoy panoramic views of the verdant rolling hills as well as the San Salvador and San Vicente volcanoes, Lago Ilopango, and the Pacific Ocean. It’s cool, the air is clean, and it’s incredibly peaceful.
Puerta del Diablo
You would never guess its dark history, but during the war, La Puerta was used as a body dump site, the extreme cliffs exploited as a method of rapid disposal. There is nothing at the site to acknowledge this vicious past, but you can check out Joan Didion’s chilling account of a visit to this site during the war in her book Salvador.
During the week, the site is popular for couples or close friends seeking a peaceful, private spot to escape the madness of the heavily populated city. It gets busier on the weekend, especially Sunday. At the bottom of the boulders are various comedors and tiendas selling souvenirs and other knickknacks.
To get to La Puerta del Diablo, 23 kilometers southeast of San Salvador, you need to catch bus 12 ($0.50, 40 minutes, runs every 20 minutes) to Planes de los Renderos from the east side of Mercado Central on 12 Calle Poniente. This will take you to Parque Balboa. From there, you can walk the two kilometers south or take bus 12 with the sign “Mil Cumbres” ($0.25, 5 minutes, runs every 30 minutes) to La Puerta del Diablo.
Parque Balboa (8am-6pm daily, $3, $4 with vehicle) is just two kilometers north of La Puerta del Diablo and offers an expansive park with towering trees of bamboo and palms, creating the perfect cool forest getaway. The park is flat, so there is no hiking per se, but walking trails are available. There is also a basketball court, a section for skateboarding, a paved road for biking, and a few pupuserías.
To get here from San Salvador, take bus 12 ($0.50, 40 minutes, runs every 20 minutes) to Planes de los Renderos from the east side of Mercado Central on 12 Calle Poniente, and get off at Parque Balboa.
BALNEARIO LOS CHORROS
Balneario Los Chorros (just west of Santa Tecla on Carretera Panamericana, 8am-5pm daily, $3) is a collection of beautiful sea-green natural pools with cool, clear water to swim in. There are even little fish that will come to nibble at your toes, if you are into that kind of thing. Surrounded by tall boulders covered in greenery and small waterfalls that feed the pools, this is truly a tropical paradise just a 10-minute drive outside of Santa Tecla. The trails on the grounds are chained shut to prevent vandalism, but if you ask one of the soldiers working at the entrance, they will gladly open them up and guide you around the lush area. There are also open-air cafés serving cheap and delicious grilled chicken and beer. Like most other natural attractions in the country, Los Chorros gets really busy on the weekends, so unless you want to be caught up in the crowds, best to go on Wednesday or Thursday.
To get to Los Chorros, you can take any bus going to Santa Ana, Sonsonate, or Ahuachapán (buses 201, 202, or 205, $0.50/10 minutes from Santa Tecla, $0.75/one hour from San Salvador, buses run every 10 minutes) and ask to be let off at Los Chorros.
JARDÍN BOTÁNICO LA LAGUNA
Also called Plan de La Laguna, Jardín Botánico La Laguna (Urbanización Industrial Plan de La Laguna, Antiguo Cuscatlán, tel. 2243-2012 or 2243-2013, email@example.com, 9am-5:30pm Tues.-Sun., $1 adults, $0.60 children), a botanical garden, is an unlikely oasis in an industrial part of the city, located at the bottom of a volcanic crater that offers a cool refuge from the chaos of the city center. Meandering stone paths are flanked on both sides by lush tropical greenery, papyrus trees, groves of towering bamboo, and plenty of bougainvillea. There is also an impressive orchid garden showing off some of the species that thrive in certain parts of the country. The garden has plenty of space to chill out, with pretty bridges covering ponds full of fish and benches throughout, as well as a small cafeteria and library. All of the trees and plants are identified with signs, and there is a nursery where you can buy plants and seeds. Because of its somewhat awkward location off Carretera Panamericana, most people arrive by car. Juan Granados of Juancito’s Mango Inn in Santa Tecla offers great tours to the Jardín Botánico La Laguna.
Lago Ilopango lies about 30 kilometers east of the city. The large, crystal-clear green crater lake is beautiful, and there are areas with hammocks and picnic tables right at the lake’s edge for public use.
Lago Ilopango is great for swimming, boating, and diving (it is 76 meters deep at the center), although diving trips should be prearranged with a provider, as there are no diving offices on the lake. El Salvador Divers (3 Calle Poniente and 99 Av. Norte, No. 5020, Escalón, tel. 2264-0961, firstname.lastname@example.org) does excellent trips to Lago Ilopango. Once here, you can rent a small motorized boat for $10 and get the driver to take you to the Cerros Quemados (Burned Hills), small volcanic islands in the center of the lake where you can walk around and enjoy the tranquility and panoramic views. Some of the small comedors around the lake may also have canoes that you can rent for a few dollars.
Getting here is a bit of a trek, and you must take the bus through the chaotic eastern part of the city, which is rarely frequented by tourists. Take bus 15 from Palacio Nacional (Calle 9 Poniente and 1 Av. Norte) to Apulo. The bus costs $0.40, takes about one hour, and runs every half hour.
S PARQUE NACIONAL EL BOQUERÓN
Parque Nacional El Boquerón (Final Carretera Volcán de San Salvador, tel. 2243-7835, ext. 165, 8am-5pm daily, $1) is about a 30-minute drive west of downtown San Salvador and a beautiful respite from the heat. The park comprises three major peaks that make up Volcán San Salvador: Jabalí, Picacho, and the well-known El Boquerón, meaning “big mouth” because of its steep-walled crater. The volcano has an elevation of 1,800 meters and the crater is 5 kilometers wide and 170 meters deep.
Parque Nacional El Boquerón
There are various hikes you can do once you reach the park. The first is to the lookout point; this 20-minute trek is short but steep, but the spectacular view of San Salvador and the valley below make it worth it. The walk is well signed and easy to navigate. It is also possible to walk around the crater, through the lush vegetation and beautiful flowers, birds, and butterflies. The hike is easy, well signed, possible to do without a guide, and takes about half an hour. For more adventurous hikers, it is possible to hike all the way down into the crater and back up. It’s a pretty trail, peppered with wild berries and flowers, notably the beautiful hydrangeas, begonias, and orchids. You can ask the locals selling fruit at the entrance of the park for a guide, and they will help you find someone who knows the crater well. A guide should charge you around $30. This is not recommended for inexperienced hikers, as it can get quite difficult in some areas, even requiring some free rappelling. This hike takes about four hours round-trip.
If you don’t want to hike at all, there are plenty of roadside restaurants and cafés on the way up to the entrance of the park, where you can sit back and enjoy the cool climate, fresh air, and top-notch view.
To get to the park, you need to first take bus 101A or 101B to Santa Tecla ($0.20, 20 minutes up to 45 minutes with traffic, runs every 15 minutes). Ask to get off at 6 Avenida Sur, and from there you need to catch bus 103 ($0.50, 25 minutes, runs every 20 minutes) to the park. Unfortunately, the bus stops about two kilometers outside the park’s entrance, and the uphill walk is not easy. A taxi from Santa Tecla should cost $10, and from San Salvador around $25.
Most of the city’s best hotels are located in Colonia Escalón and Zona Rosa. Zona Rosa is the flashiest area, with luxury hotels, stylish restaurants, lots of nightlife, and cute cafés. This is also where you will find the city’s two largest museums, the Museo de Arte (MARTE) and the Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán (MUNA). It is walkable and concentrated, with everything you need within a few main streets. Escalón is full of quiet, tree-lined streets with excellent restaurants, malls, and hotels; keep in mind, however, that it is not within short walking distance of San Salvador’s sights, although it is possible to walk to the Centro Histórico in about 40 minutes.
The downtown area around Metrocentro and the Universidad de El Salvador is frankly not that pretty (think heavy traffic and smog), but there are still a few hotels that offer very good value for the money. This area is a good choice if you want to be close to the university bars, the two small but interesting museums—Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen and Museo de Arte Popular—and, for what it’s worth, the largest shopping mall in Central America.
Antiguo Cuscatlán is the neighborhood west of the city center, and it offers some lovely options near the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA), where you will find the Centro Monseñor Romero and the well groomed university grounds, a nice green space to visit. This area is also close to a major bus stop, supermarkets, pharmacies, many budget restaurants and cafés, and also just a short drive to the suburb of Santa Tecla.
COLONIA ESCALÓN AND ZONA ROSA
S Hostal Cumbres del Volcán (85 Av. Norte 637, tel. 2207-3705, www.cumbresdelvolcan.com, $8-10 pp dorm, $35 d private room) is a great option for budget accommodations in the city. Located in the upscale tree-laden neighborhood of Escalón, this new hostel is close to amenities, malls, and Zona Rosa. This large, bright, breezy space has a colorful modern lounge area with a flat-screen TV, a spotless kitchen, and a terrace. There are two dormitories with fans, one of which has bunk beds ($8), the other with regular single beds ($10). Private rooms are simple, with tile floors, a double bed with colorful bedspreads, and large windows that let the light in. Private rooms also have air-conditioning and TV, and the entire hostel has hot water and Wi-Fi.
You would never guess from the outside, but Hostal Verona (11 Calle Poniente 4323, tel. 2264-6035 or 2264-6036, www.hostal-verona.com, $48 s, $55 d, includes breakfast) is an unsung treasure. Unpretentious but full of charming little details, including gorgeous fresh flowers placed throughout, a lush green garden, and a cute little bar, this small, homey hostel is a great mid-range choice in Escalón. The rooms are plain and clean, with neutral colors on the beds and walls, tile floors, gleaming baths with hot water, a minibar, TV and air-conditioning. The location is not the best, as it is right on a busy street, so you can hear the traffic; however, the rooms are on the opposite side, so it shouldn’t be an issue for sleeping.
Hotel la Posada Del Angel (85 Av. Norte 321, tel. 2256-1172 or 2263-2058, www.hotellaposadadelangel.com, $45 s or d) stands out from the rest of the mid-range hotels for its exceptional service, attention to detail, and all-around friendly vibe. A beautiful home with warm terra-cotta colors, wrought-iron furniture, and a lovely garden, this feels more like you are visiting friends or family than staying in a hotel. No request is too much for the staff and very accommodating owners, from preparing food after a late arrival to arranging taxi transportation around the city and keeping a constant flow of coffee and conversation going. The rooms are simple and clean with tile floors, beds with traditional textiles, windows to let in the light, along with TV, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and hot water. Breakfast is included in the price and served on the large beautiful terrace by the garden.
The beautiful S Casa Mía Boutique Hotel (Calle La Mascota 2123, Colonia Maquilishuat, tel. 2263-9502 or 2264-3614, $68 s, $90 d) is San Salvador’s hidden gem. This charming boutique hotel is set back from the street and boasts lots of tranquil outdoor space surrounded by plants, flowers, and towering shady trees. Rooms are large and airy with light colors, cool tile floors, TV, hot water, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and large beds with heavy wooden bed frames, some hand-painted with ornate flowers and vines and others with more modern minimalist designs. All rooms have large windows that open up to the sprawling garden and large outdoor terrace with wicker lounge furniture, where you can relax after battling the mean streets of the city. Cool off in the picturesque swimming pool surrounded by a stone deck, lounge chairs, and umbrellas to shade you from the heat, and atmospheric soft pool lights after the sun goes down. The service is excellent as well.
La Terraza (85 Av. Sur and Calle Padres Aguilar, tel. 2565-7000, www.terraza.com.sv, $82 s, $93 d, includes breakfast) is an elegant business hotel, but you definitely do not need to be on a business trip to appreciate the beautiful details and exceptional service that this hotel offers. The lobby is large, with ornate tile floors, a large chandelier, antique chairs, and a spiral staircase creating a majestic feel. Rooms are simple and lovely with double beds in plain white bedding, complemented by subtle hues of peaches and browns on the walls. Each room has a desk, a TV, air-conditioning, and hot water. The regular rooms have windows that overlook the swimming pool, and the more expensive suites (larger, with a couch, fridge, iron, and coffeemaker) overlook the street.
It’s easy to miss Arbol de Sueños (89 Av. Norte, tel. 2263-2545 or 2264-7200, www.arboldesuenos.com, $55 s, $65 d, includes breakfast), the artsy little gem that is overshadowed by mammoth business hotel Crown Plaza right across the street. But if you find it, you will not be disappointed. This design hotel is small and sophisticated, with modern Salvadoran art on the walls, a pretty little plant-filled terrace, and large, modern, light, and airy rooms that all have an individual touch. Rooms have air-conditioning and hot water.
Villa del Angel Hotel (71 Av. Norte 219, tel. 2223-7171, $64 s, $87 d, includes breakfast) is an excellent choice for those who want luxury hotel treatment with a moderate price tag. This brand-new boutique hotel, with its funky, fresh design and exceptional service, definitely stands out. Tucked away in a great location on a quiet tree-laden side street just around the corner from the Galerías mall, Villa del Angel offers excellent security and service. The style of the decor is contemporary, with spotless white floors and furniture complemented with avocado green and bright blue walls. Rooms have beds with beautiful, thick mattresses, dark wood paneling, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning and hot water. The common area is full of natural light, where there is another larger TV with a collection of DVDs available. Transportation to and from the airport or bus station is provided, and excellent tours around the country are offered.
Hotel Villa Terra (Calle El Mirador 4907, tel. 2536-2000, www.hotelvillaterra.com, $74 s, $83 d, includes breakfast) is a rich red adobe-style building that opens up to a beautiful courtyard space with colorful Salvadoran pottery and paintings alongside fresh flowers and wrought-iron furniture. Rooms are also cute but not as thoughtfully decorated as the common area. Each room has two double beds on wrought-iron bedposts, rich yellow bedspreads, and brown tile floors that create a warm if simple space. TV, air-conditioning, hot water, and Wi-Fi are included.
Despite its very awkward location, right on perpetually busy Avenida de la Revolución, Terra Bella Boutique Hotel (Av. de la Revolución 175, tel. 2133-6900 or 2564-7762, www.hotelterrabella.com, $55 s, $70 d) is worth checking out for its stylish lobby and rooms, and its reasonable price in the flashy Zona Rosa. Furniture and art with earthy tones meet modern industrial design inside the lobby. Rooms are sleek and refined with beige and brown hues, big comfy beds, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning, and baths with hot water, transparent glass shower doors, and vessel sinks.
Hotel Villa Florencia (Av. de la Revolución and Calle Las Palmas, tel. 2243-7164, www.hotelvillaflorencia.com, $55 s, $65 d, includes breakfast) sits right in the heart of San Benito and is a classic, comfortable mid-range stay. Rooms are small but bright with large windows bringing in natural light, light wood bed frames, and light neutral colors to match, along with tile floors, TVs, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and hot water. There is a small cheerful café with plenty of windows and excellent food. The service is top notch. Although there is no swimming pool, the charming garden makes up for it, providing an oasis to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine at night.
Hotel Mirador Plaza (Calle El Mirador and 95 Av. Norte, 4908, tel. 2244-6000, www.miradorplaza.com, $114 s, $120 d, includes breakfast) is a blend of modern and traditional design. The outside of the building sports a sleek, contemporary design with sliding glass doors that bring you into a large lobby with antique light fixtures and furniture, gleaming tile floors, modern art, and traditional Salvadoran handcrafts. The rooms are refined and simple with double beds, TVs, air-conditioning, and (sometimes) hot water. There is a small restaurant, a small gym, and a well-maintained swimming pool on the meticulously manicured grounds. Unfortunately, the staff is not as friendly or helpful as they could be, considering the room rates.
Suites Las Palmas (Bulevar Hipódromo, tel. 2250-0800, email@example.com, $105 s, $115 d) is substantially cheaper than the other high-end hotels in the area and almost as nice. This tall sleek art deco-looking building is surrounded by palm trees and is conveniently located in the heart of Zona Rosa. Rooms are spacious and carpeted with deep red and yellow tones on the walls, lush king beds, desks, and couches. All rooms have TV, Wi-Fi, hot water, air-conditioning, and large windows, some with views of Volcán San Salvador. There is a small gym, a rooftop swimming pool with a spectacular view, laundry service, and room service. Staff are eager to please, and for the rates and location it’s a good choice among the higher-end hotels in Zona Rosa.
Sheraton Presidente San Salvador (Av. de la Revolución, tel. 2283-4000, www.sheraton.com/sansalvador, $109 s, 119 d) is a grand old hotel conveniently located right next to the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) and plenty of great restaurants and cafés. The service is excellent across the board, and all of the amenities you need are right in the hotel, including an excellent business center, a tour company, a café with snacks and coffee to go, a large outdoor swimming pool, a gym, and a spa. Wide mint-green carpeted hallways lead to rooms that are a bit dated but still manage to look fairly modern with their minimalist design and neutral colors. Large, luxurious beds are the centerpiece of the rooms, and some have outstanding views of Volcán San Salvador. All rooms have TV, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, and hot water. An excellent breakfast buffet is included in the rates and is served on the outdoor terrace. Weekend rates ($99 s or d) are cheaper.
The Princess Hilton (Bulevar Hipódromo and Av. Las Magnolias, tel. 2268-4545, www.sansalvador.hilton.com, $175 s, $200 d) is definitely the most grandiose of the high-end hotels. The massive lobby is full of towering columns, ornately designed corners, and beautiful antique furniture and art. The rooms are also beautiful, with modern design, neutral colors, and large windows that offer spectacular views of the volcano. All rooms have air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, TVs, and hot water. There is an outdoor pool, a small gym, and a spa. Breakfast is included in the rates, and the restaurant also offers an exceptional lunch buffet. The staff is extremely helpful, and the hotel is conveniently located right next to Centro Comercial Basilea. Rates are considerably cheaper on weekends ($129 s or d).
The Hotel Intercontinental Real San Salvador (Bulevar de los Héroes and Av. Sisimiles, tel. 2221-3333, $149 s or d) is the most modern of the high-end hotels, and you can feel the difference as soon as you walk in the lobby—sleek design with distinctly Salvadoran touches such as the Fernando Llort art on the walls, modern chairs with retro designs, warm colors, and soft light all come together to create a contemporary comfortable space. Rooms are also modern, with large, flat-screen TVs, very comfortable beds with spotless white linens, large windows that bring in lots of natural light, a desk, hot water, and air-conditioning. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi costs an additional $15 for 24 hours, and breakfast will run you an additional $19. The Intercontinental has three very good restaurants, the most popular of which is Faisca do Brasil, specializing in Brazilian barbecue. Rooms are also cheaper on the weekends ($89 s or d).
Ximena’s Guesthouse (Calle San Salvador 202, tel. 2260-2481, www.ximenasguesthouse.com, $7-10 pp dorm, $25 d) is one of the oldest hostels in the city, and although it is showing its age, it’s the only budget choice if you want to stay in this central location near the Universidad de El Salvador. It’s within walking distance of a strip of university bars, various fast-food restaurants, museums, and Metrocentro, Central America’s largest mall. The dormitories in Ximena’s have mismatched, well-worn beds, ceiling fans, and a cramped shared bath with hot water that sometimes floods. Private rooms are lacking natural light, have ceiling fans, and have small baths with hot water and cracked toilet seats. There is no restaurant, and the kitchen is not for guest use. Wi-Fi costs an additional $2. Ximena’s redeeming quality is the very friendly and efficient staff, who will go out of their way to help you with directions, transportation, and any other practicalities you need help with. They do not speak English, but the owner, Lena, does, and she is also always available, either in person or by phone, to help out.
Hotel Villa Real (Calle Sisimiles 2944, tel. 2260-1579 or 2260-1665, www.hotelvillarealelsalvador.com, $35 s, $45 d) is an excellent choice. This long-standing favorite has been around since 1997, but you couldn’t tell by looking at it. The inside of the hotel is spacious and clean with lots of natural light and common space. Colorful Salvadoran handicrafts, hanging ferns, and iron art make the common area bright and cheerful. The rooms are simple but lovely, with white tile floors, peach walls, TVs, air-conditioning, and hot water. The lobby is big and bright with couches, a vending machine, two computers, and colorful art on the walls. There is a rooftop terrace as well as a small eating area where the included breakfast is served. Free coffee available all day long is also a bonus.
The tastefully designed Hotel Andoria (Calle Los Sisimiles 2946, tel. 2260-8957, firstname.lastname@example.org, $33 s or d) is the other best option on this strip. Cheerfully painted walls, Salvadoran folk art, and antique furniture create a charming, cozy vibe. There is a spacious and bright eating area (although there is no restaurant, you can order food from one of the nearby restaurants and they will arrange delivery), a vending machine selling snacks and drinks, a coffee machine, and a microwave. The rooms are lovely, with TVs, air-conditioning, hot water, and colorful art and sliding glass doors that open up to adorable secret terraces full of plants and sitting areas.
Hostal San José (Bulevar Universitario 2212, between 39 Av. Norte and Av. Izalco, tel. 2226-4603, email@example.com, $30 s, $40 d) is simple, quiet hostel hidden away on a side street near Universidad de El Salvador. There is a common area with couches and chairs, a computer, and a small garden. Rooms are basic, with white tile floors, fans, double beds, private baths, and hot water. Most people don’t know this hostel exists, so it is rarely crowded.
S Joan’s Hostel (Calle del Mediterráneo 12, Colonia Jardines de Guadalupe, tel. 7860-7157 or 2519-0973, $13 pp dorm, $20 s, $36 d) is a small hostel with big personality, owing entirely to the vivacious and gracious owner Ana Luisa Mena, who took her family home, transformed it into a hostel, and opened its doors to travelers seeking a safe budget option in the city. The hostel retains a homey feel but with modern design—including a very cozy area for watching TV as well as a lovely lounge area with couches. There is a small kitchen and a large dining table in the common area as well as a few wrought-iron tables outside in a courtyard. There are two dormitories and two private rooms, all very basic but clean, modern, and comfortable, with fans and hot water. Located right beside UCA, Joan’s is within walking distance of numerous cafés, restaurants, and bars, including very good Greek food and pizza right across the street. It’s also just a short drive to Santa Tecla, where you will find some of the best nightlife in the country, and a short walk to major bus stop La Ceiba de Guadalupe.
Just down the street from Joan’s Hostel you will find Arbol de Fuego (Av. Antiguo Cuscatlán 11c, Colonia La Sultana, tel. 2557-3601, www.arboldefuego.com, $50 s, $60 d), a little-known gem that focuses on being eco-efficient by saving energy and water and using environmentally friendly products. The rooms are lovely and bright, with colorful Salvadoran paintings and bedspreads, fresh flowers, and lots of natural light. All rooms have fans and hot water. Breakfast is included and is served in the bright eating area with a fantastic view of the volcanoes and a garden full of plants and beautiful flowers. Throw in top-notch service and Wi-Fi throughout the property, and this counts as one of the best mid-range hotels in the city.
Alicante Hotel y Restaurante (Calle Las Rosas and Av. Los Laureles, 1, Colonia La Sultana, tel. 2243-0889, www.alicante.com, $55 s, $65 d, includes breakfast) is a good choice if you are looking for something in a low-key area but still close to the city. Tucked away on a quiet side street in Antiguo Cuscatlán, Alicante offers simple, clean rooms with private baths, hot water, TVs, air-conditioning, and Wi-Fi. The service is excellent, and there is a swimming pool and a small garden, making this hotel a comfortable refuge away from the city center, perfect for those on business or with access to a car.
Hotel Bella Luz (3 Calle Poniente 1010, tel. 2222-5178, $10 s, $15 d) is the cheapest option near the bus terminal, and not as bad as you might expect. This tiny hotel has a few small rooms, windowless and waiting for that last residual smell of cigarette smoke to disappear. Each one sports sponge-painted walls in primary colors, a fan, and a private bath (no hot water).
Across the street from Hotel Bella Luz, the entrance of Hotel Villa Florencia (3 Calle Poniente 1023, tel. 2221-1706 or 2564-2514, $15 s, $20 d) is teeming with antiques, dark wood furniture, plants, and spiral staircases with ornate iron railings. Compared to the colonial charm of the lobby, the rooms are a bit anticlimactic but still pretty. They have tile floors, fans or air-conditioning ($5 extra), TVs, and private baths (no hot water). There is no restaurant but there is a comedor right next door.
San Salvador is not known for its restaurant scene, unless you are fond of American fast-food chains. However, as more Salvadorans return home from abroad, they are importing both business savvy and culinary skills. The options are slowly starting to expand. The best restaurants are located in Escalón and Zona Rosa, where you will find creative international fare, while cheaper, more local flavors are located around the university areas. Comedors are located all over the city and can range from a large cafeteria-style restaurant to someone serving meals out of the back of their truck. Of course, in a pinch, you can almost always find a pupusa to tide you over at any one of the endless pupuserías all over town.
The whimsical S Caminito Chocos (Calle La Reforma, across the street from Republik Bar, tel. 2223-6807, noon-2pm and 5:30pm-10pm Mon., noon-2pm and 5:30pm-11pm Tues., noon-2pm and 5:30pm-midnight Wed., noon-2pm and 5:30pm-1am Thurs., noon-2pm and 5:30pm-2am Fri., noon-2am Sat., noon-10pm Sun., $5-15) serves Argentinean food, and does it well. This little second-floor restaurant has colorful wooden window frames that open up to an enchanting view of the twinkling lights of the city below. Caminito serves delicious chorizo, chicken, burgers, and steak, as well as the proper Argentine offerings such as choripáns, empanadas, and homemade chimichurri. Caminitos is a great place for afternoon drinks and snacks, or for a full on carnivorous feast. They also have a good selection of international beers.
Tucked away on a side street in San Benito, S Café El Botón (Av. La Capilla, 210, tel. 2264-9738, firstname.lastname@example.org, noon-10pm Mon.-Sat., $6-12) is definitely the most colorful restaurant in San Salvador. Tables and chairs are painted in cheerful primary colors and surround a garden in the back of a charming old house converted into a restaurant. The food is French-Salvadoran fusion with local favorites being the croque monsieur and specialty quiches. Most dishes come with homemade organic goat cheese, made with love on owner Michel Fouillade’s finca near Concepción de Ataco on Ruta de las Flores. Vegetables are also sourced locally, sustainably, and organically as much as possible. Café El Botón has a dedicated following, and the place can get packed on the weekend, especially when there is live music on Saturday night. Bands usually play trova and there is no cover charge. Try the sangria; you won’t be disappointed.
S Delikat (Bulevar Hipódromo 582, tel. 2124-7657, noon-3pm and 7pm-10pm Mon.-Tues., 8am-11am, noon-3pm, and 7pm-10pm Wed.-Sat., 8am-11am and noon-3pm Sun., $8-15) is a hidden gem, appreciated as much for its ambience as for its popular thin-crust pizzas. The restaurant consists of outdoor seating in a pretty garden in the back of an old house. Plants and flowers are adorned with tiny lights at night to create an intimate, cheerful space. The specialties are salads, pizza, and sandwiches, each with a respective page-long section on the menu, presenting a long list of various possible combinations using ingredients that are hard to find in El Salvador, such as arugula, fresh pesto, brie, blue cheese, and goat cheese. There is also a long wine list including a few nice malbecs, and good desserts, including the popular cheesecake in maracuya (passion fruit) sauce.
Located inside the Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán (MUNA), Bistro San Lorenzo (Final Av. de la Revolución, tel. 2243-7566, 10am-10pm daily, $7-16) combines culture and cuisine with aplomb. This small bistro has a sleek, contemporary design and serves up excellent panini, salads, and pastas. It has excellent coffee, a decent selection of wine, and top-notch service. Even if you don’t have a meal, the air conditioned space is perfect for a beverage after a tour of the museum.
Al Pomodoro (Av. de la Revolución and Calle Circunvalación, tel. 2243-7888, noon-3pm and 6pm-11pm daily, $10-30) is the go-to Italian restaurant in Zona Rosa. Large and beautiful with intimate lighting, exposed brick walls, colorful art, candles, and crayons and paper to doodle while you wait, it strikes the perfect balance between posh and playful. You can choose from different rooms—some are more ample and casual, perfect for group gatherings, and some are small and intimate. The pizza and pasta are consistently good, the wine selection is decent, and the service is top-notch.
Outside on the terrace is where you want to be at El Zocolo (Bulevar Hipódromo 443, tel. 2243-0937, noon-2:30pm and 6pm-10pm Sun.-Thurs., noon-2:30pm and 6pm-midnight Fri., noon-11pm Sat., $10-20), enjoying the lively atmosphere and massive margaritas. Before your meal comes, you will enjoy tortilla chips and a smorgasbord of delicious salsas, ranging from mild to extremely hot. Save room for the main course because portions are big. El Zocolo is famous for its tortilla soup, which is served in a tortilla bowl and drenched in cheese. The burritos are excellent as well.
Oskar Bistro Basilea (Centro Comercial Basilea, tel. 2511-4285, email@example.com, noon-3pm and 6pm-10pm Mon.-Sat., noon-3pm Sun., $10-30) is where discerning foodies lunch, enjoying great appetizers like salmon tartar and baked goat cheese and mains that include delicious thin-crust pizzas, choripáns (Argentine sandwiches made with sausage and baguette), and the signature Bistro Burger with caramelized onions, bacon, and cheese.
The popular La Pampa Argentina (Final Paseo Escalón, tel. 2298-5817, noon-3pm and 6pm-11pm Mon.-Sat., noon-9pm Sun., $10-20) serves excellent steak in a wood cabin with an amazing view of the city. The menu is straightforward with various specials that all provide excellent value for money. Each main dish comes with a small soup and salad to start, tender high-quality meat cooked to your desired perfection, sides of potatoes and vegetables, a drink, and a dessert, all of which are good—but the real reason you are here is the steak. The wine selection is very good and the service is fast and efficient. La Pampa is always busy, especially on the weekend, so it is a good idea to make reservations.
The casual chic S Swagat (3 Calle Poniente and 79 Av. Norte, 4060, tel. 2264-3826, firstname.lastname@example.org, 11am-3pm and 6pm-10pm Mon.-Wed., 11am-11pm Thurs.-Sun., $7-12) opened up recently to the delight of spice-loving foodies all over the city; and so far, El Salvador’s only Indian restaurant is an undisputed success. The main color theme here is a cheerful fuchsia pink, complemented by hints of warm orange, yellow, and brown. The highlight is a Japanese table surrounded by comfy cushions and colorful drapery, creating a romantic bohemian vibe. Friendly owners will check in on you as you dine to old Hindi songs. The food is invariably authentic and tasty, but if you like your food spicy, be warned that all dishes are modified to suit the Salvadoran palate, so they are not as fiery as some might expect.
The modern, minimalist HUMO BBQ ES (79 Av. Sur, Pasaje A 29, tel. 2243-3254, 6pm-10:30pm Mon., noon-3pm and 6pm-10:30pm Tues.-Sat., 10:30am-8pm Sun., $10-20) takes barbecuing seriously. The owners traveled all over the Southern United States schooling themselves on how to prepare the perfect barbecue. The result is a combination of techniques gleaned from North Carolina, Texas, Kansas, and Memphis and a truly a memorable dining experience. Choose your own rub (coffee, sugar, garlic, or oregano, just to name a few), then your meat and cut, and then your salsa (such as vinegar and chilies, mustard, vinegar and spices, or sweet-and-spicy tomato). Slow-cooked over wood fire, the meat is invariably soft, succulent, and delicious, and it’s served with equally delicious sides such as coleslaw, bean salad, and french fries. This is one restaurant meat lovers will not want to miss.
S Esperanto (79 Av. Sur, Pasaje A 27, Colonia La Mascota, tel. 2124-7418, email@example.com, noon-2:30pm and 7pm-11pm Mon.-Fri., 7pm-11pm Sat., $20-40) is one of the few boundary-pushing restaurants in the city. The menu here is always evolving, using local ingredients that are in season to create inventive gourmet dishes. This intimate space has a classic, clean style with dark wood chairs, white tablecloths, and modern art on the spotless walls. Riguas (similar to tortillas but made with sweet corn) stuffed with seafood and the pulled-pork and Cuban sandwiches are all popular favorites. Whatever you decide on, expect impeccable presentation and very attentive service. Save room for dessert—Esperanto’s tiramisu and flan are melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Opa! (79 Av. Norte, tel. 3256-9922, 11:30am-3pm and 6pm-11pm Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-3pm and 6:30pm-11:30pm Sat., $10-30) is the classier big brother to the city’s only other Greek restaurant, Mr. Souvlaki. Opa! has a European flair and romantic feel to it; a clean white-and-blue motif and indoor and outdoor seating provide a candlelit atmosphere perfect for intimate dining. Specialties include the usual souvlaki, grilled meats, and homemade hummus; for a real treat try the excellent moussaka, alongside an authentic Greek salad and one of the many international beers on the menu. The homemade baklava is also delicious.
La Ventana (83 Av. Norte and 9 Calle Poniente, noon-midnight Mon.-Thurs., noon-1am Fri.-Sat., 8am-6pm Sun., $7-15) is laid-back, stylish, and sure of itself, drawing a slightly more sophisticated crowd than the university bars. Inside, rotating monthly art exhibitions adorn the brick walls, and a large, dark wooden bar in the center of it all has an excellent selection of international beers. Outside, there are wrought-iron tables in a lovely terrace with lots of plants. The menu includes a good selection of international dishes that focus heavily on salads, sandwiches, and pastas.
The aptly named S Rústico Bistro (3 Calle Poniente and Pasaje Los Pinos, tel. 2224-5656, noon-3pm Mon.-Tues., noon-3pm and 6pm-9:30pm Wed.-Sat., $10-20) serves the undisputed best burger in town. Enjoy bistro-style food in a rustic space with just a few wooden tables hidden in the garden. The three main burgers are the classic Rústico, Three Cheese, and California, each boasting a heavy grade-A beef patty seasoned and cooked to juicy perfection, served on homemade buns and with a side of hand-cut fries with barbecue or garlic aioli. The burgers are big enough for two, but depending on how long it has been since you’ve found a burger like this, you just might want to go all out. Newer varieties include the Aussie burger with chipotle mayo pineapple and bacon, and if you want to try something different, the pulled-pork sandwich with tamarind sauce gets rave reviews. Oh, did I mention the frosted Mason-jar glasses? They make it hard to resist an afternoon beer.
S Kamukara (93 Av. Norte, tel. 2263-2401, noon-2:30pm and 6pm-10pm Mon.-Sat., $20-40) has been satisfying sushi lovers since 1995, and it just keeps getting better. Stylish and elegant, it is considered the best Japanese restaurant in El Salvador—some say it’s the best restaurant, period. Hidden on a side street one block from the Crown Plaza Hotel, Kamakura has outdoor seating beside a lovely garden with a fountain, and indoor seating in a room with sleek tables and deep-red walls sparsely decorated with simple Japanese art. Everything is very authentic, from the Sapporo beer and imported sake to the excellent miso soup and incredibly fresh sushi and sashimi. If you love sushi and are willing to splurge, this is where you want to go.
Cafeteria-style Típicos Margoth (77 Av. Norte and Pasaje Itsmania, tel. 2263-3340, 7am-7pm daily, $3-6) is where you want to go to eat fast, cheap, delicious Salvadoran food. Proprietor and cook Margoth started off running a tiny pupusería in 1962, and the business eventually became so successful that she opened a proper restaurant—now there are four in the city, but this one is the most popular. Típicos Margoth has one side of the restaurant dedicated to pupusas only, and the other side is for comida típica (typical Salvadoran food) breakfast, lunch, and dinner items, including eggs, plantains, beans, rice, fresh cheese, and a variety of meats in typical Salvadoran sauces.
The Taiwanese Mile Time Café (Paseo General Escalón 3943, tel. 2124-7388, 11:30am-9pm Mon.-Sat., $4-7) serves up some of the best vegetarian food in town at very reasonable prices in a casual contemporary space. Choose from a variety of authentic tasty Taiwanese dishes, including fried noodles, rice and curry, and delicious soups, all made with homemade tofu, savory sauces made from scratch, and fresh vegetables. The portions are big and complemented by an extensive selection of beverages, including bubble tea, ginger tea, and milk shakes.
Kalpataru Restaurante (Calle La Mascota 928, tel. 2263-1204, 8am-8pm Mon.-Sat., $6-12) is a small vegetarian restaurant inside a larger plaza that is dedicated to alternative health and healing. Dine to the sound of relaxing music and in a simple, tranquil outdoor space. The menus offers natural fruit and vegetable juices, vegetarian soy burgers, various soy-based dishes, soups, and salads. There is a daily lunch buffet ($10) that offers soup, salad, a drink, and a variety of main dishes, usually consisting of rice or noodles, some sort of vegetable stir-fry, and a soy-based dish. There is also a small shop beside the restaurant that sells natural products, books, and incense.
S Mr. Souvlaki (Calle del Mediterráneo Casa 26, Antiguo Cuscatlán, 11am-9:30pm Mon.-Sat., $3-6) offers affordable authentic Greek food in this cute little restaurant close to the pedestrian entrance to UCA and just across the street from Joan’s Hostel. A few wooden tables and a small blue bar get packed at lunchtime and in the evening on weekends with regular customers enjoying fresh Greek salads, hummus, and the famous souvlaki, stuffed with real Greek potatoes, homemade tzatziki, pork, and eggplant.
Genzano Di Roma Caffé (Calle del Mediterráneo 36, Colonia Jardines de Guadalupe, tel. 2243-2153, 10am-9pm Mon.-Thurs., 10am-10pm Fri.-Sat., $4-9) is an Italian café with thin-crust pizzas, calzones, paninis, and pasta. The ambience is more café than restaurant, with white walls, tile floors, and uniform wooden tables in a brightly lit space, but the food is good and draws crowds for lunch. There is also a fridge full of readymade desserts to go; the biscotti and tiramisu are both excellent.
Chevy’s (Calle del Mediterráneo 41, tel. 2243-2234, noon-3pm and 5:30pm-10pm Mon.-Fri., noon-10pm Sat., $2-5) serves cheap Mexican food and an especially tasty tortilla soup. Red tile floors, wooden tables, and murals of the countryside on the walls all create a colorful, very authentic experience.
Milburritos (Calle del Mediterráneo, Centro Comercial Plaza de Sol, tel. 2278-5252, 11am-10pm Mon.-Thurs., 11am-11pm Fri.-Sat., 11am-10pm Sun., $3-6) serves up fast, filling burritos, soup, and quesadillas with fresh ingredients, along with tasty salsas and healthy options such as burrito bowls and salads with your choice of brown or white rice.
Los Tacos de Paco (Calle Andes 2931, tel. 2260-1347, noon-3pm and 5pm-10pm daily, $3-6) hosts a popular poetry slam every Wednesday night, and the tacos are great too. Tables sit in front of a stage and beside a garden, where you can peruse used books while you wait for your food; that won’t be long because Paco serves up food furiously fast, making it a great pit stop if you are in a rush.
Las Fajitas (39 Av. Norte and Bulevar Universitario, tel. 2225-3570, 11am-2:30pm and 5pm-10:30pm daily, $5-15) serves up fast, tasty Mexican food in this small, air-conditioned restaurant with flat-screen TVs and an open-concept kitchen.
S El Establo (39 Av. Norte and Bulevar Universitario, tel. 2226-0606, firstname.lastname@example.org, noon-midnight daily, $5-10) is where many Salvadorans go for after-work drinks; with its casual, easygoing vibe, it’s easy to stay all night, and many do. This is where 30-somethings come to unwind after work, enjoying the air-conditioning, flat-screen TVs often showing sports, unpretentious wooden tables, and friendly service. The highlight of El Establo is its extensive menu of bocas, bite-size snacks. There is a full page dedicated to these tasty little treats, such as ceviche, garlic mushrooms, or jalapeño poppers. If you order a pint of beer, you get a boca for just $1 extra.
For pricier comida típica, check out El Sopón Típico (Urbanización Florida, Av. Las Palmeras, Bulevar de los Héroes, 130, tel. 2260-2671, 11am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 11am-8pm Sun., $10-20), where an extensive menu offers Salvadoran favorites such as fried yuca with pork, grilled meats that include rabbit and iguana, ceviche, and as the name suggests, a good selection of soups served in big traditional clay bowls—including the two most popular comida típica soups in El Salvador, mariscada, a creamy seafood soup with prawns and lobster, and sopa gallina india, a free-range chicken soup that is usually only available on the weekend.
Information and Services
The Ministerio de Turismo (MiTur) (Ministry of Tourism, Edificio Carbonel 1, between Alameda Dr. Manuel Enrique Araujo and Pasaje Carbonel, tel. 2241-3200, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.) has an office in Zona Rosa. Although the staff are extremely helpful, there is no information available in English, nor English-speaking staff. Most hotels provide very good information about city tours and things to do around San Salvador.
VISAS AND IMMIGRATION
As part of the CA-4 agreement among El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, travelers are granted a 90-day visa for all four countries. If your 90 days run out while you are in El Salvador, you need to leave the CA-4 area (most people go to Mexico) and reenter after 72 hours. Alternatively, you can go to the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjeria (Department of Immigration, Av. Olímpica and Alameda Enrique Araujo, tel. 2213-7778, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.) and apply for a visa extension. The cost is $25 as long as you go before the day it expires; after that it increases to $50, or potentially the maximum fee of $114, depending on how late you are. Technically, it can only be done one time.
The Ministerio de Turismo (MiTur) (Ministry of Tourism, Edificio Carbonel 1, between Alameda Dr. Manuel Enrique Araujo and Pasaje Carbonel, tel. 2241-3200, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.) has a good selection of free tourist maps for all parts of the country, including a detailed city map. The Museo de la Historia Militar-Cuartel El Zapote (Calle Los Viveros, Barrio San Jacinto, tel. 2250-0000, 9am-noon and 2pm-5pm Tues.-Sun.) has a very interesting outdoor topographical map of the country.
POST OFFICE AND COURIERS
Correos de El Salvador (15 Calle Poniente and Diagonal Universitaria Norte, Centro Gobierno, tel. 2527-7600, 8am-7pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.) is located in the center of the city. There is another office located on the second floor of Metrocentro with the same hours. There are also numerous Fed Ex offices; the main one is located in Escalón (Av. Las Magnolias 130, tel. 2250-8800, 8am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat.).
You will be lucky to find a payphone when you need one in San Salvador. In the age of mobile phones, they are practically obsolete. You can make phone calls at your hotel, but they are likely to charge an exorbitant rate. If you plan on making phone calls during your time in the city, it may be worth the small investment in a cell phone. You can buy a cheap one for about $20 and then purchase prepaid phone cards to load it up and make calls. If you already have an unlocked cell phone, you can just buy a SIM card and use it in your phone. Because of the high numbers of Salvadorans making calls to the United States, you can get very cheap plans for calls to North America.
Although San Salvador is well connected with Wi-Fi in many hotels, restaurants and cafés, finding Internet cafés is not so easy. The area around UCA (Calle del Mediterráneo) has many Internet cafés, but in other tourist areas, including Escalón and Zona Rosa, you will likely have to use the business centers inside hotels for Internet access, printing, scanning, or photocopying.
Banks and ATMs
ATMs for most international systems (Plus, Cirrus, Visa and MasterCard) can be found all over the city.
Major banks include Scotiabank and Banco Citibank de El Salvador, both of which can be found throughout the city. Branches of Scotiabank can be found at 1158 Calle Ruben Daro (tel. 2250-1111, 9am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.) in the Centro Histórico, at Bulevar de los Héroes and Calle Sisimiles (tel. 2250-1111, 9am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.), and near El Salvador del Mundo (65 Av. Norte and Bulevar Constitución, tel. 2250-1111, 9am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.) The main branch of Banco Citibank de El Salvador (tel. 2212-4103, 9am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.) can be found on Avenida Cuscatlán.
Western Union offices are a dime a dozen in San Salvador, as many Salvadorans rely on remittances from the United States. A few of the principal offices are at HSBC on Paseo General Escalón (tel. 2245-2688, 9am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.) and at Alameda Roosevelt and 49 Avenida Norte (tel. 2260-3300, 9am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-noon Sat.). MoneyGram is also popular and can be found throughout the country in various banks and supermarkets.
HEALTH AND EMERGENCIES
There are plenty of inexpensive clinics throughout the city where you can go for basic problems or blood work. Ask your hotel to recommend someone in the area. Pharmacists can also be very helpful in diagnosing simple issues and offering appropriate medicine. Salvadorans are famously concerned about their health, and as a result there are almost as many pharmacies as pupuserías around town. They carry a wide range of antibiotics and other medication that you would normally need a prescription for in your home country, which is very convenient if you know exactly what you need. The downside is that they are not cheap. A round of good antibiotics can cost you up to $60 for a name brand, so always ask for the significantly cheaper generic brands. Farmacia San Nicolás is a ubiquitous and excellent pharmacy, open 24 hours; surprisingly it has a wide selection of homeopathic remedies in addition to conventional medicine.
For emergencies or more serious health issues, it is worth going to one of the better hospitals in San Salvador. Hospital de Diagnostico (Urbanización la Esperanza Segunda Diagonal 429, tel. 2226-5111, www.hospitaldiagnostico.com.sv, email@example.com) is considered the best hospital in town, and prices reflect this. Hospital de la Mujer (Calle Juan José Cañas and 81 Av. Sur, tel. 2265-1212 or 2279-1440, www.hospital-mujer.com) is another excellent hospital that specializes in women’s health. Both of these hospitals have English-speaking doctors available.
If you find yourself in an emergency situation in San Salvador, you will almost certainly be immediately assisted by whomever happens to be in the vicinity at the time. If you have access to a phone, dial 911 for help. If you are robbed or assaulted, go to the nearest police station and file a report. If you are robbed, chances are next to nil that you will recover your belongings, but they may make the effort to find the person responsible for the crime.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY
The Aeropuerto Internacional Comalapa (SAL, tel. 2366-9455, www.cepa.gob.sv/aies) is located 44 kilometers southeast of San Salvador and just 33 kilometers from the beaches of La Libertad. A common misconception is that it is easier to get to the beaches through San Salvador; in reality it makes much more sense to go straight from the airport to the beach. A taxi from the airport to get to La Libertad should cost around $20 and to San Salvador around $30.
To get to San Salvador on the local bus, you can catch bus 138 ($0.70, one hour), which runs every 15 minutes and takes you to the city center. Walk across the parking lot in front of the airport terminal and through the empty building on the other side to reach the highway, where you will find the bus stop.
If your flight arrives before 5:30pm and you are looking for budget transportation, you can take the Acacya Shuttle (tel. 2339-9282 airport, tel. 2271-4937 in town). They have shared taxis that leave the airport at 9am, 1pm, and 5:30pm daily. The cost is $5, it takes around 40 minutes, and they will drop you off at their office in the city center (19 Av. Norte and 3 Calle Poniente). If you want to use the service that runs from San Salvador to the airport, the taxis leave from the Taxis Acacya stand (Alameda Juan Pablo II and 19a Av. Norte, tel. 2222-2158), behind the Puerto bus station, at 6am, 7am, 10am, and 2pm daily.
Major airline offices in San Salvador include:
✵ American Airlines: Edificio la Centroamericana, Alameda Roosevelt, tel. 2298-0777
✵ Copa Airlines: World Trade Center, 89 Av. Norte and Calle del Mirador, Escalón, tel. 2209-2672
✵ Delta Airlines: World Trade Center, 89 Av. Norte and Calle del Mirador, tel. 2275-9292
✵ TACA: Galerias Escalón, 3700 Paseo General Escalón, main level, tel. 2267-8222
✵ United Airlines: Km. 42, Carretera Comalapa, tel. 2366-9455
There are several options for buses running through Central America. Most leave very early in the morning. Make sure you book your tickets at least one day in advance and bring your passport to the office when you buy your ticket.
Transporte del Sol (Av. de la Revolución 159-A, Colonia San Benito, tel. 2243-1345 or 2243-8897, www.busesdelsol.com) has buses that go to Guatemala (7am and 4pm daily, $25) and Nicaragua (6am daily, $50).
There are two offices for the popular Tica Bus (Bulevar Hipódromo, Local 301, tel. 2243-9764; Hotel San Carlos, Calle Concepción 121, tel. 2222-4808, www.ticabus.com). They have buses that run all over Central America; check the website for schedules and prices.
King Quality (Bulevar Hipódromo, Pasaje 1, tel. 2241-8787, www.kingqualityca.com) is a luxury line that offers direct buses to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. See the website for prices and schedules.
There are three main bus terminals in San Salvador.
Terminal de Occidente
Terminal de Occidente (Bulevar Venezuela, near 49 Av. Sur, no phone) is the most orderly of the three, and serves all western destinations in the country. The main tourist destinations from this terminal include:
✵ Ahuachapán: bus 202 ($1, 2.25 hours, every 15 minutes)
✵ Joya de Cerén: buses 108 or 40 ($0.65, 1.75 hours, every 15 minutes)
✵ La Libertad: bus 102 ($0.60, 1 hour, every 10 minutes)
✵ Metapán: buses 201A or 19 ($2.50, 2 hours, every 30 minutes)
✵ Santa Ana: bus 201 ($1.35 especial, $0.80 normal, 1.25 hours, every 10 minutes)
✵ Sonsonate: buses 16, 17, or 205 ($1, 1.5 hours, every 5 minutes)
From Sonsonate you can catch connecting buses to Ruta de las Flores, Los Cóbanos, and Barra de Santiago.
The loud and chaotic Terminal Oriente (Alameda Juan Pablo II, no phone) serves all major eastern destinations. The main tourist routes are:
✵ Chalatenango: bus 125 ($0.90, 2 hours, every 10 minutes)
✵ El Poy (Honduran border): bus 119 ($1.75, 3 hours, every 30 minutes)
✵ Ilobasco: buses 112 or 181 ($0.75, 1.5 hours, every hour)
✵ La Palma: bus 119 ($1.70, 2.75 hours, every 30 minutes)
✵ La Unión: buses 304 or 446 ($3.25, 4 hours, every 30 minutes)
✵ San Miguel: bus 301 ($2.50-5, 2-4 hours, every 10 minutes)
✵ Suchitoto: bus 129 ($0.70, 2 hours, every 15 minutes)
Terminal del Sur
The Terminal del Sur (Autopista a Comalapa, no phone) serves the south and southeastern locations. Its main destinations include:
✵ Costa del Sol: bus 495 ($1.25, 2.5 hours, every 10 minutes)
✵ Puerto el Triunfo: bus 185 ($1.60, 2 hours, departures at 9am, 11am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, and 2pm daily)
✵ Usulután via Jiquilisco: bus 302 ($1.70, 2.5 hours, every 10 minutes)
Rental Cars and Motorcycles
Renting a car can be a great way to see the country, but keep in mind that it might be more hassle than it’s worth for getting around the city. San Salvador’s many one-way streets, insane traffic, and unpredictable drivers might make it difficult to navigate on your own. Parking is difficult, and in certain areas at certain times, break-ins are a legitimate concern. Consider using a taxi to get around the city center and a car for all your other travel.
The most reputable rental car company in San Salvador is National (www.nationalelsalvador.com). They have three offices, including two in the city. One is inside Hotel Princess Hilton (Av. Las Magnolias and Bulevar Hipódromo, tel. 2367-8014), and the other is in Edificio Sunset Plaza (Calle La Mascota and Av. Jerusalén, tel. 2367-8015). There is also an office at the airport (tel. 2367-8015). Second choices include Avis (43 Av. Sur 127, tel. 2261-1212, www.avis.com) and Budget (Calle Mirador and 85 Av. Norte 648, tel. 2263-9777 or 2264-3888, www.budget.com.sv). Budget also has an airport location (tel. 2339-2828, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Many people prefer renting from independent companies in El Salvador. It’s usually cheaper and more reliable. You can contact Ricardo Aramis Artiga Cabezas of Ri-Cars (83 Av. Sur, Pasaje a Casa 11, Escalón, tel. 7925-3301 or 2566-6121, email@example.com) to rent a car or a motorcycle for $20 per day, including insurance.
Buses around San Salvador are cheap and frequent. Most trips cost between $0.25 and $0.50. The most important route you will need is most likely bus 30B, which runs from Metrocentro on Bulevar de los Héroes across the city to Zona Rosa and vice versa. Many other buses can be taken in front of Metrocentro, including bus 34, which goes through Zona Rosa and then to Terminal de Occidente. Buses 101A and 101B run between San Salvador and Santa Tecla. Other major bus stops include Plaza Salvador del Mundo (also called Plaza de las Américas) at Alameda Roosevelt and Bulevar Constitución; and La Ceiba de Guadalupe (Km. 6.5, Carretera Santa Tecla, Antiguo Cuscatlán). La Ceiba de Guadalupe can be especially useful if you are staying at Joan’s Hostel near UCA. The bus stop is within walking distance of the hostel, and almost all of the principal lines pass by here. It is essentially a de facto bus terminal, and catching transportation here can save you the trip to the terminals in the city.
Taxis are all over the place in the city, and any trip within San Salvador should cost $5-10. Generally, you will not have to call for a taxi—just flag one down on the street. Taxis do not have meters, so you need to agree on a price before you get into the car. In general, drivers are fair and haggling will not be very productive. Prices go up marginally late at night. Taxis Acacya (tel. 2271-4937) is a reputable company.
Vicinity of San Salvador
This cool, tiny mountain town, just 15 kilometers southeast of San Salvador, is considered one of the last indigenous strongholds in El Salvador. Panchimalco is where the Pipil people fled during the Spanish takeover of San Salvador during the 16th century. Here they settled with the preexisting Mayan population, and to this day they have preserved much of their indigenous heritage. This is one of the few villages in the country where you will see women wearing traditional clothing and also where you will find the oldest surviving colonial church in El Salvador. The tiny Iglesia Santa Cruz de Panchimalco (town center, 7am-7pm daily), with its classic baroque-style facade, was built in 1725 and retains much of its original materials and design. The inner nave is supported by 16 wooden columns on stone bases that separate the nave from the aisles. The main altar retains its original gold finish, and if you look closely, you will see the image of the Holy Cross of Rome dating back to 1792. The church is considered one of the highlights of Panchimalco.
Although the history, cool climate, and delicious pupusas make Panchimalco a worthwhile day trip any time of year, its real draw is the popular Festival de las Flores y Palmas, which takes place the first Sunday of May. The original meaning of the celebration was to commemorate the beginning of the rainy season, but today the festival honors two Roman Catholic saints, the Virgen del Rosario and the Virgen de la Concepción. If you come early in the day, you will find the women of Panchimalco meticulously stripping palm fronds of their leaves and then skewering them with gorgeous colorful flower blossoms, creating huge flower-laden fronds that they will then carry throughout the town. The procession begins in the afternoon around 2pm and starts with the dance of the Moors and Christians, an unlikely vestige of a tradition brought over by the Spaniards that celebrates a Spanish victory over Muslim invaders during the Middle Ages. After the men perform the dance, women dressed in traditional clothing carry a large altar with the Virgin Mary on top through town. The rest of the day can be spent exploring the town, checking out the artisans and food vendors selling comida típica, and sampling chicha (a fermented drink made of corn and dulce de panela).
Panchimalco is also known for its local art and culture, in particular the portraits you will probably see around the city of children with massive eyes. The Casa Taller Encuentro (Calle Antigua Barrio San Esteban 18-B, tel. 2280-6958 or 7760-3180, www.artpanchimalco.com, 8am-5pm Mon.-Sat., 1pm-5pm Sun., free) is a great place to check out if you are interested in seeing the work of local artists. This lovely home has a small art gallery showcasing local work, a garden with sculptures, and a sitting area. The Casa Taller Encuentro focuses on preserving the heritage of Panchimalco through involving youth in workshops and classes from making art to learning the indigenous Nahuatl language. You could explore Panchimalco on your own, or take a guided tour with Adventures El Salvador (tel. 7844-0858, www.wtf-elsalvador.com) to visit local artists or take a class in traditional textile weaving.
Bus 17, 17A, and 17B all go to Panchimalco from Avenida 29 de Agosto on the south side of Mercado Central in the Centro Histórico. The cost is $0.35, the trip takes about one hour, and buses run every half hour.
If you are driving, take the road toward Planes de Los Renderos until you reach the turnoff for Panchimalco; it is clearly signed. The drive takes about half an hour.
SAN ANDRÉS RUINS
Head west of the city 32 kilometers to find the San Andrés Ruins (Km. 32, Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2319-3220, 9am-4pm Tues.-Sun., $3 foreigners, $1 Central Americans), originally founded by a community of farmers in 900 BC and but abandoned in AD 250 because of the catastrophic eruption of Volcán Ilopango. It was eventually reoccupied from AD 600 to 900, when it became the powerful Mayan administrative capital that ruled over the Zapotitán Valley and the Valley of the Hammocks. The site is expansive, grassy, and peaceful, with a very good museum that includes some English information as well as ceramic artifacts, a photo exhibit about the history of the region, and galleries with both pre-Hispanic and colonial-era exhibits. So far, only a few of the principal ceremonial areas have been excavated, but aerial photos suggest that the site contains up to 1,200 homes. The main and most impressive structure is the Acropolis pyramid, which is surrounded by smaller neighboring pyramids that were likely used for ceremonial purposes.
Incense burners and sacrificial tools, such as stingray spines for bloodletting, have been discovered at the site, and excavated ceramics suggest that the city was an important trade center with links to communities in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. San Andrés was abandoned during the Classic Maya Collapse toward the end of 900 AD, and the settlement remained residential until the Spanish conquest, when it became a center for coffee growing and indigo production. The whole site was buried by volcanic matter during the 1658 eruption of Volcán Playón and not rediscovered until the late 19th century. In addition to the ruins, there is an indigo factory that you can see; it was left nearly perfectly intact from the ashes of the eruption.
Take bus 201 to Santa Ana or bus 202 to Ahuachapán and ask to be let off at the San Andrés ruins. The cost is $ 1.50 and should take about one hour. Buses run every 10 minutes.
If you are driving, take Carretera Panamericana (CA1) toward Los Chorros, and continue as if going to Santa Ana. The entrance is on the right at Km. 35 and is clearly signed. The drive takes about 45 minutes.
S JOYA DE CERÉN
Nearby the San Andrés ruins is Joya de Cerén (Km. 35, Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2401-5782, 9am-4pm Tues.-Sun., $3 foreigners, $1 Central Americans), the most fascinating site in El Salvador and the only one of its kind in all of Mesoamerica. All other archaeological sites provide insight into the lives of the elite; Joya de Cerén, on the other hand, has provided detailed information about the activities of regular run-of-the-mill Mesoamerican farmers, making it a unique example of daily village life in the area. Often referred to as the Pompeii of the Americas, Joya de Cerén was abandoned right before the eruption of Laguna Caldera around AD 600 blanketed the simple farming village in seven meters of volcanic ash. Although a warning earthquake apparently gave residents time to flee, their personal belongings stayed exactly as they were, perfectly preserved in the ash, from garden tools and bean-filled pots to sleeping mats and religious items, essentially freezing the agricultural village in time. The site was later resettled by Pipiles, oblivious to the preserved village under the earth. It was not until 1976 that one of the adobe homes was discovered by a bulldozer during the construction of grain storage silos. Excavation began under the direction of American archaeologist Payson D. Sheets in 1978 and 1980, but was interrupted by the civil war. Work resumed in 1988 and has been ongoing since then. Today, Joya de Cerén is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can see the well-protected ruins from a platform above them. The ruins include a temezcal (sauna), simple adobe huts, and a communal kitchen. There is a small air-conditioned museum with information about the site, and free tours can be arranged. Tour guides speak enough English to get the main points across.
Joya de Cerén
Take buses 108 or 40 to San Juan Opico (there should be one leaving every 15 minutes) and ask to be let off at Joya de Cerén. It costs $0.65 and takes about 1.75 hours.
If you are driving, take Carretera Panamericana (CA1) toward Los Chorros, and continue as if going to Santa Ana. Just before Km. 29, take the right exit marked “Este Panamericana CA1A.” Follow the signs to Joya de Cerén, coming to a traffic stop and carefully going straight through. You will now be on the road to San Juan Opico. Joya de Cerén is six kilometers down from the turnoff (a few kilometers short of Opico). The site is located at Km. 35 on the left side of the road. The drive takes about an hour.
Located at the southern foot of the San Salvador volcano, just 17 kilometers west of San Salvador, the suburb of Santa Tecla is wildly popular with Salvadorans but still relatively untapped by foreign tourists—only because most of them still haven’t heard of it.
S Paseo El Carmen
The main draw in Santa Tecla is Paseo El Carmen (2pm-11pm Fri.-Sun.), a street full of restaurants, bars, and shops that turns into a pedestrian area every weekend. From Friday evening until Sunday night Paseo El Carmen fills up with independent vendors selling local goods such as artisanal chocolate, coffee, indigo-dyed clothing, handmade jewelry, and art. In addition to this, there are various food stalls set up selling typical Salvadoran food, sweets, and drinks, and the Plaza de la Música (a plaza located in the center of Paseo El Carmen) almost always has live music or drumming. The afternoons and evenings around Paseo El Carmen are family friendly and a wonderful way to pass the day if you are around the city. After dark, the bars and restaurants also fill up and the nightlife goes until 2am. Paseo El Carmen has a friendly police presence and a safe, festive vibe, making it one of the most popular places for nightlife in the country. Bars offer live music, salsa dancing, and DJs. The best way to pass the time is at one of the outdoor tables on the street, making new friends and watching the people go by.
Paseo El Carmen in Santa Tecla
If you have some time to spend in Santa Tecla, other attractions worth checking out include the Museo Municipal Tecleño (MUTE) (7 Av. Sur 1-4, tel. 2534-9633, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-5pm daily, free), at the far east end of Paseo El Carmen. This large mint-green neoclassical building was originally built as a prison in 1902. The building was designed with four main cells to hold up to 15 prisoners each, however, records show that each cell held closer to 40 inmates at a time. These four large rooms now serve as excellent galleries for rotating art shows. The museum is a fantastic cultural space where a variety of independent work is regularly showcased, including films, contemporary Latin American art, poetry, and photography. The museum also often hosts lectures and theater productions. There is also a large open-air space in the back where there is a funky, relatively unknown café.
An architectural relic of the 19th century, Iglesia El Carmen sits at the west end of Paseo El Carmen. Although it is not possible to enter (the 2001 earthquake damaged it enough to make it unsafe), the grand neo-Gothic style still makes the facade worth visiting. The church was constructed between 1856 and 1914 and used brick and talpetate (material made from volcanic ash) to achieve the impressive facade.
Typically, most people don’t stay overnight in Santa Tecla; however, with the recent opening of an excellent hostel right beside Paseo El Carmen, and the unique cultural vibe that continues to grow in the area, it’s becoming more of a popular base. It’s very close to El Boquerón, Balneario Los Chorros, and the Jardín Botánico, and is a great launching point for exploring the western part of the country. Both El Tunco and Lago Coatepeque are just a 30-minute drive from Santa Tecla. If you plan on having a night out on Paseo El Carmen, it’s nice not to have to worry about getting a taxi back to San Salvador. Plus, if you spend the night on the weekend, you can get up the next day and enjoy the pedestrian fair during daylight hours.
Hotel Tecleño (1 Calle Oriente, tel. 2228-6482, $12 s or d) is located right on Paseo El Carmen and is the cheapest option. Although this place doubles as a motel, which means it can be rented out by the hour (used by people who are not using the bed for sleeping), the rooms are just fine for anyone looking for budget accommodations for a night. They are small but clean, with white tile floors, comfortable beds, a small TV, a fan, and a weathered but private bath with a cold shower.
S Juancito’s Mango Inn (2 Av. Norte 2-8, in front of the Alcaldía, tel. 7069-6252, $15 pp dorm, $40 d) just made Santa Tecla a whole lot better. Run by Juan, a charismatic Salvadoran, and Jenny, his equally lovely gringa wife, this little hostel is bright and cozy, and the first of its kind in the neighborhood. Conveniently located right off Paseo El Carmen in the heart of Santa Tecla, you’ll be connected to the nearby cafés, bars, restaurants, gift shops, and the food and artisanal fair each weekend. The baths are newly remodeled, and the rooms are impeccably clean and full of beautiful local crafts. All rooms have brand-new beds, hot water, and fans. There is a kitchen for guest use, a patio and common area, a rooftop deck with hammocks, Wi-Fi, a movie library, and quick access to major bus routes, including to El Tunco, and tour services to nearby destinations such as El Boquerón, Los Chorros, downtown San Salvador, and the Jardín Botánico.
Café Hotel El Patio del Don Moncho (1 Av. Norte 2-5, Santa Tecla, tel. 2288-4766, $30 d) also offers decent private rooms on a quiet side street. Rooms are small and simple, with TVs, air-conditioning, and Wi-Fi. Comfortable beds are covered in colorful textiles, and each room has a private bath (which the hotel claims have hot water, but it is lukewarm at best). Located in a secure, enclosed space with an outdoor lounge area surrounded by trees and plants, Don Moncho offers a quiet, charming place that is just around the corner from Paseo El Carmen.
Food and Nightlife
Paseo El Carmen is full of restaurants and bars, and it can be fun just to stroll the strip and decide which vibe appeals to you most. Most establishments have tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk or on the street, making it feel like a giant block party, so it doesn’t make much of a difference where you go if you are looking to have a few drinks and meet people. However, some places do stand out in terms of food or nightlife.
Yemayá (Av. Manuel Gallardo 2-8, across from Iglesia El Carmen, tel. 2288-4095, noon-3pm and 6pm-11pm Tues.-Thurs., noon-3pm and 6pm-midnight Fri. Jan.-Nov., noon-3pm and 6pm-11pm Tues.-Thurs., noon-3pm and 6pm-midnight Fri., noon-5pm Sun. Dec., $7-14) takes El Salvador’s first confident steps into the realm of hipster health in a space that is more Brooklyn, New York, than the suburbs of San Salvador. Off the main strip, Yemayá invites you in with local graffiti art adorning the facade and a front bar that is effortlessly cool with its vintage couches, a small stage for live music, and a gorgeous back garden with minimalist contemporary furniture design. The tagline here is “food from the earth,” and Yemayá makes good on this promise, offering wholesome, healthy dishes that include raw and vegan options. Fresh smoothies are made with your choice of almond, coconut, or soy milk. This is also the only restaurant in the country offering the elusive quinoa grain. The patio in the garden (which is transformed into a yoga space 10am-11:30am Sat.) is a great place to enjoy breakfast or lunch; in the evening the small cozy bar inside serves up locally brewed draft beer as well as a long list of other libations. There is live music most weekends with no cover charge. Expect to hear flamenco, jazz, alternative rock, or reggae.
Cafetería Tin (1 Calle Oriente, no phone, 6:30am-9pm daily, $7-15) is the best and longest standing spot on the strip for local food and desserts. This large cheery restaurant has colorful textiles on tables and fresh flowers all around. Weekend crowds betray its well-earned popularity. Cafetería Tin has daily buffet breakfast, lunch, and dinner offering up delicious salads, grilled meats, vegetarian dishes, pasta, pupusas, and divine desserts. It’s worth stopping by for one of their massive fruit smoothies or a cup of freshly brewed coffee.
Bambas Restaurante & Bar (1 Calle Oriente, between 1 Av. and 3 Av. Norte, tel. 2229-8276, email@example.com, 4pm-2am Wed.-Sun., $6-12) is a typical taste of local Salvadoran nightlife—a large space with plenty of tables and a small dance floor that gets crammed. The food here is OK (meat, pasta, sandwiches), but the real reason people come to Bambas is for the party. Offerings include karaoke, live bands, crowded salsa nights, and the famously wild Wednesday and Thursday “ladies nights,” when $5 at the door will get women into two hours of open bar for rum- and vodka-based drinks.
La Brujula (1 Calle Oriente, between 5 Av. and 2 Av. Norte, tel. 2228-2231, 5pm-2am Thurs.-Sun., $5-10) is the new hot spot on the strip, attracting a good mix of locals and expats. The front part of the bar is right in front of the street and has a contemporary style, with gleaming white bar stools set up around a well-stocked bar attended by a friendly bartender. This is where the drinking and socializing takes place. If you continue to the back, there are more intimate spaces with tables for dining and talking. The food is tasty and portions are big; popular dishes include pizza and pasta. La Brujula sometimes has live music on the weekend and does not charge cover.
The charming Lima Limón Tropical Bistro (1 Calle Oriente 3-6, Local 4, tel. 7069-6252 or 2566-5787, 4pm-midnight Wed.-Sat., $5-10) is small but full of personality. Run by the very friendly Salvadoran-American couple Juan Miguel Granados and Jenny Johnson, Lima Limón offers a menu and vibe that are unique to the strip. Tasty dishes include tamarind ribs, Jamaican chicken with chipotle, and a towering turkey club sandwich. They also serve up one of the best steaks in the country, a large portion of grade-A meat served with a sweet balsamic wine sauce, mashed potatoes, and salad. On weekends they often have drink specials and DJs, and the famous Sunday fundays are not to be missed if you are into electronic music—on the last Sunday of every month, starting in the early afternoon, local DJs set up outside on the street, and Saturday night’s party continues until everybody is finally ready to go home. There is no cover.
Café Caracol (1 Calle Oriente 3-A, tel. 7730-6502, firstname.lastname@example.org, 5pm-midnight Tues.-Sat., $6-12) is a tiny little café with hands-down the best coffee on the strip. One of the only places with both high-quality coffee and an espresso machine, Café Caracol creates beautiful cappuccinos, lattes, and strong americanos. They also serve a variety of gourmet loose tea and a fine chai latte. This intimate, stylish space also serves French-inspired cuisine that includes crepes, thin-crust pizza, fondue, and a variety of desserts. This is the perfect place for a date or after-dinner drinks.
Thekla Pub and Grill (1 Calle Oriente 3-8, tel. 2229-4450 or 7862-5357, email@example.com, 5:30pm-2am Tues.-Sat., $6-12) is just a few doors down from Café Caracol and hard to miss. This large, conspicuously green Irish pub delivers in true Celtic style with more than 40 types of beer to choose from. The menu is full of delicious deep-fried comfort food such as nachos and cheese-laden french fries, burgers, and grilled meats. It’s dimly lit, with dark wood furniture and lots of cozy nooks to hide away and drink in. There is live rock music every night Thursday to Saturday. Expect to hear cover bands covering music from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. There is no cover.
Nearby Jaggers (1 Calle Oriente and 5 Av. Norte, tel. 2563-5075, firstname.lastname@example.org, 5pm-2am Tues.-Sat.) is Thekla’s more sordid younger sibling, with rock-bottom prices on cocktails and shots, encouraging heavy drinking, dancing, and delving into conversations with complete strangers. There are live bands and DJs on the weekends, no cover charge, and every Thursday is “ladies night,” which means women get free drinks all night long.
To get to Santa Tecla from San Salvador, take buses 101A or 101B ($0.40, 15 minutes, buses run every 15 minutes).
A taxi between San Salvador and Santa Tecla should cost $7-13, depending on where you are coming from and the time of day (it might cost more late at night). If you stay at one of the hotels in Antiguo Cuscatlán, near UCA, you will be conveniently close to Santa Tecla; expect to pay around $6-7 for a taxi.