Moon El Salvador (Moon Handbooks) - Jaime Jacques (2014)
indigo-dyed clothing for sale in Juayúa.
El Salvador is geographically small—at 21,000 square kilometers, about the size of Massachusetts—but diverse. In one day you can see mountains, hike through cloud forest or climb a volcano, swim in the Pacific Ocean, and sleep in the valley of San Salvador. It is the only Central American country without a coastline on the Caribbean Sea, but it makes up for it with 300 kilometers of scenic, rugged Pacific coast. El Salvador is one of the most seismologically active regions on earth, straddling three of the large tectonic plates that make up the earth’s surface. The motion of these plates causes frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. The country is home to 23 active volcanoes and many more dormant, inactive, or extinct ones; in fact, 90 per cent of the country was formed by volcanic materials, creating the fertile soil that El Salvador has been built on.
Land issues have played a pivotal role in the history of the country, dating back to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and their expropriation of land for the commercial cultivation of cacao, balsam, indigo, and most significantly, coffee. Coffee is still grown in the western part of the country but is no longer the main product driving the economy. Land issues these days consist of overcrowding in the urban areas, overconsumption of the land’s natural resources, and climate change threatening the coastline.
El Salvador can be split into three geographical zones: the mountain regions, which are two parallel ranges that cross the country east to west: the northern Sierra Madre (which includes the scenic Apaneca-Ilamatepec mountain range in the western region of the country) and the coastal range in the south; the central plain, which sits between the two ranges; and the coastal plain, which is long and slender, running 300 kilometers along the Pacific (the widest part is in the far east, beside the Golfo de Fonseca). The mountain chains consist mostly of temperate grasslands and oak and pine forests (or what is left of them). The central plain is home to many small bushes and subtropical grasslands as well as savanna and large swaths of deciduous forests. The coastal plain, which is also referred to as the Pacific Lowlands, extends from the coastal volcanic range to the Pacific Ocean. Vegetation here includes tropical fruit trees, including plenty of mango and coconut trees, as well as cashew fruit, tamarind, and jocote (similar to a plum) trees. The fact that the ocean is so close to the southern chain of volcanoes makes for some pretty spectacular scenery along the coast, especially around the area of La Libertad, where at some points the slopes of the volcanoes jut down directly into the ocean. This southern range of mountains is actually an intermittent series of more than 20 volcanoes clustered into five groups. The westernmost group, near the Guatemalan border, includes Izalco and Santa Ana, the highest volcano in the country at 2,365 meters. The land between these volcanoes is some of the best for coffee growing due to the rolling hills and rich volcanic soil. The northern range of mountains is part of the Sierra Madre and forms a continuous chain along the border with Honduras. Elevations in this region range 1,600 to 2,700 meters. This part of the country suffers from erosion as a result of deforestation. As a result, it is the country’s most sparsely populated zone, with very little farming or other development.
In the middle of all this seemingly uninhabitable land, one might wonder, where do all the people live? Considering this is the most densely populated country in Central America, it’s a good question. The central plateau between the two mountain ranges constitutes only 25 percent of the land area but contains the heaviest concentration of population and the country’s largest cities. This plain is about 50 kilometers wide and has an average elevation of 600 meters. Terrain here is rolling, with occasional escarpments, lava fields, and geysers. The cities in El Salvador are under constant threat of earthquakes due to their location between these volcanic ranges, but the lack of other inhabitable areas for large settlement means they simply have to accept the looming possibility of unannounced natural disasters.
RIVERS AND LAKES
El Salvador is home to more than 300 rivers, the most important of which is the Río Lempa. It is El Salvador’s only navigable river, and its tributaries drain nearly half of the country. Starting in Guatemala, the Río Lempa is 422 kilometers long and provides water for several hydroelectric dams, including the Cerrón Grande reservoir in Suchitoto, more commonly referred to as Lago Suchitlán. The river cuts across the northern range of mountains, continuing along much of the central plateau, and finally flows through the coastal volcanic range to empty into the Pacific. Other rivers are generally short and flow from the central plateau through gaps in the southern mountain range until they empty into the Pacific. Numerous lakes of volcanic origin are found in the interior highlands; many of these lakes are surrounded by mountains and have high, steep banks. The largest lake, Lago de Ilopango, lies just to the east of the capital. Other large lakes include the Lago de Coatepeque in the west and the Lago de Güija on the Guatemalan border.
El Salvador is known as the Land of Volcanoes, and it’s pretty obvious why once you are here. The southern part of the country consists of a string of volcanoes that span the country from east to west. Mighty jade-green cones create the most magnificent backdrop throughout the country, but these beauties are also responsible for a history of destructive geological activity. El Salvador sits on the Ring of Fire, a 40,000-kilometer line that is the most volcanically active area on earth. One of the most seismologically active regions in the world, situated atop three of the large tectonic plates that constitute the earth’s surface, El Salvador experiences earthquakes on a regular basis. Most of these are referred to as tremors—enough of a shake to stir everybody up, but not enough to cause any real damage. However, when the strong quakes do hit, they can be deadly. Some of the most notable were the January and February 2001 earthquakes that killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. There were also significant quakes in 1951, 1965, 1982, and 1986.
With more than 20 active volcanoes in the country, volcanic eruptions are always considered a threat. The most active volcano has been Volcán Izalco. Izalco erupted at least 51 times from 1770 to 1966, earning it the nickname “Lighthouse of the Pacific” because the flowing lava created a bright-orange luminous cone visible to seafarers. Thankfully its frequent eruptions were never deadly. In contrast, Volcán Ilopango has erupted only twice in recorded history, but its first eruption, around AD 500, was so powerful, according to American paleoecologist Robert Dull, it may have been the catalyst for the Dark Ages, sending a thick dust and ash cloud over the northern hemisphere, cooling parts of the earth, and resulting in millions of deaths. Its effects at home were especially catastrophic. It blanketed much of central and western El Salvador with pumice and ash and decimated the early Mayan cities, forcing inhabitants to flee. Trade routes were rendered inaccessible, and the centers of Mayan civilization shifted from the highland areas of El Salvador to lowland areas to the north and in Guatemala. Most recently, while Hurricane Stan dumped record levels of rain on El Salvador in 2005, Volcán Santa Ana decided to erupt—adding to the chaos and mudslides. Volcán San Miguel, also known as Chaparrastique, is one of the most active volcanoes in the country and has erupted half a dozen times since 1994, most recently in 2013.
El Salvador has a tropical climate with distinct wet and dry seasons. The wet season is referred to as invierno (winter) and typically runs from May to October. The dry season is known as verano (summer) and runs from November through April. The Pacific lowlands are the hottest region, with annual averages ranging from 25°C to 29°C. San Salvador and the rest of the central plateau has an annual average temperature of 23°C. The mountain areas are the coolest, with annual averages from 12°C to 23°C, and minimum temperatures sometimes approaching freezing. At the highest point in the country, El Pital, sometimes there is even snow.
Almost all of the annual rainfall and humidity happen during the wet season, with southern-facing mountain slopes the hardest hit and the central plateau receiving the least amount of rain. The average annual rainfall in El Salvador is 183 centimeters in the coastal areas and up to 203 centimeters in the central plateau. During the wet season, there is a tendency for the rain to come every afternoon around 3pm and continue throughout the evening. As a result of climate change, hurricanes are more frequent in El Salvador, usually accompanied by heavy rains that can result in floods and mudslides. The year 2009 was especially destructive in terms of extreme weather. Heavy rains caused floods and mudslides that killed hundreds and displaced approximately 15,000 people. Hurricane Ida hit that year, and mountainsides collapsed after the relentless rain, killing 124 people and cutting off mountain communities from the rest of the country.
When traveling in El Salvador, it is not uncommon to spot large belts of land peppered with the stumps of trees that have been burned or cut down. Deforestation is a problem here and highlights the biggest environmental threat that faces El Salvador today: the growing number of people and the limited amount of land. This tiny country has the highest population density and the smallest amount of primary forest remaining in Latin America. The demand for firewood is outpacing the number of trees, but people need to eat, and wood and charcoal are their primary source of energy for cooking food. Charcoal is produced by heating wood in makeshift kilns and reducing it. This process is one of the most environmentally destructive, and the emissions created are detrimental to human and environmental health. Thankfully, the number of people burning wood to make charcoal has decreased in El Salvador, but it is still common in some areas.
The long-term impacts of deforestation are varied and serious. When forests are logged or burned, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and accelerating the rate of climate change. Erosion results in reduced soil fertility and sediment deposition in streams and rivers causes an increased risk of floods.
The government has halfheartedly tried to control trees being cut down, but with the growing number of people in need of energy sources, this is becoming increasingly difficult. One point of interest is that the strongest advocates of forest preservation are ex-guerrillas. Many of them say that the trees protected them during the civil war, and now it is their turn to protect the trees. Cinquera in Las Cabañas is a wonderful example of a place where the protected forest is monitored by ex-guerrillas who make sure that no more trees fall victim to human needs.
Some people cut down trees to supplement their income and some do so simply to be able to feed their families. Either way, the underlying issue is poverty, and the problem of deforestation cannot be solved without also addressing the root issues that drive people to short-term solutions with long-term consequences.
The high level of deforestation in El Salvador has contributed to its second-biggest environmental challenge: climate change. El Salvador is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change, not only because of its location but because of its small size and dense population. The primary effects of climate change include rising sea levels and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as tropical storms, hurricanes, and floods. El Salvador’s coastal areas are especially vulnerable and have already seen an increase in hurricanes and floods in recent years. Areas such as the Lower Río Lempa and Bahía de Jiquilisco are especially at risk, as the sea rises and submerges the mangroves that sustain villages in these regions. The mangrove forests provide the only source of livelihood for these impoverished communities, who make a subsistence living from fishing and crabbing. If sea levels continue to rise, soon it will not just be their livelihoods but their homes as well that will be swallowed up by the ocean.
Another potential environmental threat to the mangroves in this region is the recent proposal for the development of high-end resorts. Plans for these resorts are in the works with the help of money from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a bilateral American foreign-aid agency established by Congress in 2004. The program strives to donate aid money to country-led projects that target problems specific to that area. In El Salvador, the proposal is to improve the economy through tourism in one of the country’s most beautiful and undeveloped areas. Some people believe that the project will bring revenue to the area, providing jobs and much needed income, but environmentalists and those in local communities fear the worst. They say the effect this kind of heavy development may have on the fragile ecosystem and the people who coexist with it will mostly likely be grim. Local communities are populated by subsistence farmers who largely want to continue this kind of work, rather than seeking employment as cleaners or cooks in hotels. They also want to protect the bay and mangrove forests and fear that development will jeopardize the biodiversity. Government officials do require that developers meet minimal environmental standards, but considering El Salvador’s track record on enforcing environmental laws, whether or not this will be honored remains unknown.
Another major environmental issue in El Salvador is the problem of toxins in the soil. All of the land is aggressively farmed, even on the steepest slopes, and the volume of agrochemicals leaching into the soil is building. In recent years, a number of farmers across Central America have mysteriously fallen victim to kidney diseases. Studies have shown a strong correlation between the illness and the amount of pesticides being used by farmers. A study by the El Salvador Health Ministry shows that the rate of kidney failure in El Salvador is significantly higher than in neighboring countries, and most of it is concentrated in one part of the country, Bajo Lempa in the eastern department of Usulután. This is likely largely due to the heavy exposure to pesticides and herbicides in this area during the cotton boom period, when chemicals like DDT—an insecticide that is now illegal—were heavily used. There is still residual DDT in much of the soil, and although DDT is now banned, highly toxic agrochemicals continue to be used. Most of the pesticides are sold by foreign companies, and under a 2004 executive order, sellers, crop owners, and importers were held responsible for ensuring that the people who handle the agrochemicals receive training and use appropriate safety gear; sadly, this is not enforced. In fact, if you travel to this region, you are likely to see farmers working with little more than a bandana around their faces.
It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to the environment in El Salvador. This country has many dedicated and qualified people working toward building a sustainable future. EcoViva (1904 Franklin St., Suite 902, Oakland, CA 94612, tel. 510/835-1334, www.eco-viva.org) is an organization that is spearheading a community movement to protect people and the land from environmental degradation. They work mainly in the Bajo Lempa area and focus on community empowerment and “climate-proofing” local agriculture. Methods for doing this include the increased use of agroforestry, specifically the intercropping of trees to prevent soil erosion and increase biodiversity; adaptation of native seeds to weather extremes; installation of drip-irrigation systems for the dry season; and crop diversification, so that no single crop is wiped out completely by a drought or flood. However, they also believe it is important to be realistic, and as climate change shows no signs of slowing down, and agricultural damage continues, it is becoming more critical for local communities to have other sources of income besides subsistence farming. EcoViva is helping communities build a green economy through the implementation of small livestock projects, ecotourism, and sustainable fisheries.
SalvaNatura (33 Avenida Sur, Colonia Flor Blanca, San Salvador, tel. 2202-1515, email@example.com, www.salvanatura.org) administers Parque Nacional El Imposible and partners with the Rainforest Alliance, an international NGO that works to preserve biodiversity, to protect coffee forests and curb deforestation. The project works by providing information and tools to coffee growers to improve their management practices and make them more responsible toward the environment; this focuses on, but is not limited to, the practice of cutting down trees to make room for coffee. The project works in all coffee-growing areas of the country.
Voices on the Border (4000 Albemarle St. NW, Suite 200A, Washington DC 20016, tel. 202/505-2850, firstname.lastname@example.org) is another excellent organization that strives to promote sustainable development in El Salvador. Over the course of the last few years, they have worked hard to protect a section of forest near the community of Amando López beside the Río Lempa. They have raised awareness about how valuable the forest is to the community and secured protected status from the government. Through grants and the support of El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment, they now provide salaries to a team of local forest rangers and run energy forests (stands of fast-growing trees planted specifically to provide quick sources of firewood). The benefits of this project were seen in October 2011 when other communities in the same region suffered the worst flooding in the region’s history. Amando López, however, escaped with only minor damage. Community members thank the forest for absorbing the majority of floodwaters from the Río Lempa.
Ecotourism has caught on in theory but unfortunately not in practice in El Salvador. Many tour companies or hotels tag the word “eco” onto their names, but all it really means is that the tours take place outside in a natural setting, or that the hotel is built with natural materials. For example, it is not uncommon to find a hotel with wood cabins, bars, and furniture calling itself eco-friendly, but considering the problem of deforestation in the country, the use of more wood should be a red flag rather than a sign of sustainability. For information on how to organize a truly eco-friendly trip in El Salvador, you can contact SalvaNatura (33 Av. Sur, Colonia Flor Blanca, San Salvador, tel. 2202-1515, www.salvanatura.org, email@example.com).
For true community tourism, contact Green Trips (tel. 7943-5230, firstname.lastname@example.org), where English speaking bird aficionado Benjamin Rivera organizes tours that focus on community development. The tours include sleeping and eating with local families, fishing trips in nonmotorized boats, and visiting local NGOs and women’s groups. El Gringo Tours (Calle Francisco Morazan 27, Suchitoto, tel. 2327-2351, email@example.com), run by the very sociable transplanted Californian Robert Broz, also offers unique tours that focus on bird-watching and local community development, specifically in the artisanal areas of San Sebastián and Ilobasco.
For volunteer tourism that is eco-oriented, contact Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO) (www.hawksbill.org) and EcoViva (1904 Franklin St., Suite 902, Oakland, CA 94612, tel. 510/835-1334, www.eco-viva.org). Both offer programs in the Bajo Lempa area that focus on environmental projects, sustainable development, and preservation of the endangered hawksbill turtles.
Plants and Animals
El Salvador’s flora and fauna can generally be split into three regions: the interior plateau (the massive Parque Nacional El Imposible provides the most biodiverse representation of this region), the coast, and the cloud forests of the highlands. However, it is also worth noting that the type of flora and fauna you will see in El Salvador has more to do with the altitude rather than the region. For example, Cerro Verde is technically located in the interior part of the country, but because of the high altitudes, it has the same flora and fauna as the cloud forest region of the country.
One constant in El Salvador are the gorgeous flowering trees, in particular the maquilishuat (Tabebuia rosea), the pink-tufted national tree; the beautiful roble colorado (Tabebuia schumanniana), with its fuchsia flowers and dark-gray branches; and the árbol de fuego (Delonix regia), a tree with brilliant orange flowers, all of which flower in the spring. Mango and coconut trees can also be found all over the country, especially along the coast.
PARQUE NACIONAL EL IMPOSIBLE (INTERIOR PLATEAU)
Located in the coastal elevations of Ahuachapán, Parque Nacional El Imposible is the largest and most biologically diverse protected area in the country. Given the size of El Salvador, though, it is still not a large enough area to guarantee the survival of its species. Pressure from surrounding communities encroaching on the land has diminished the amount of space in the park, affecting many species, most notably the puma. Pumas used to roam freely in the area, but now there is only space in Imposible for one family of pumas. Lack of genetic variation, vulnerability to natural disasters and disease, and illegal hunting have seriously threatened the possibility of the species’ long-term survival. Unfortunately, pumas are not seen in the park anymore; they are likely to have migrated to neighboring Guatemala, where there is more space. Although you won’t find large mammals, the biodiversity of flora and fauna is still impressive, and a hike through the mosaic of different ecosystems is one of the highlights of a visit to El Salvador.
The first thing you will notice in Imposible are the towering trees with massive trunks and roots. The giants that dominate the lowlands of Imposible are the conacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) and the much revered ceiba (Ceiba pentandra), which can grow up to 70 meters tall. The ceiba was sacred to the Maya; its roots were believed to go to the underworld. The conacaste fruit could come in handy if you are camping in the park and have some washing to do. It is one of the best natural soaps found in the region; simply add a little water and friction to produce a sweet-smelling white foam.
Palms and tree ferns abound in Imposible, including the pacaya (Chamaedorea tepejilote), which flowers in the beginning of the rainy season in May and June. It produces edible florets that Salvadorans enjoy in savory tomato sauces.
A number of plants valued in El Salvador for their medicinal properties are found in Imposible. One of the endemic plants you will likely see is called guaquito de tierra (Aristolochia salvadorensis), which can be found along most hiking trails. It is distinguished by its beautiful burgundy-colored flowers with white spots and grows on trees near the base of their trunks. Its roots are used for healing stomach problems. Some other important medicinal plants that can be found in the forest include ujushte (Brosimum alicastrum), referred to as ramón in other Latin American countries; in El Salvador the plant’s name has retained a connection to the Mayan root ox, which means corn. The towering tree can grow as tall as 37 meters, and the sprawling roots extend as far as 1.5 meters. The nutrient-rich seeds can be dried and ground into flour and are capable of being stored for long periods of time, making them an important supplement to corn in the Mayan diet. The bark of the fruit-bearing sálamo tree, recognizable by its broad crown and multicolored bark, is used for snake bites, and the red flowers of the chichipince plant are prepared to prevent infections and skin problems, inflammation, menstrual pain, and insect bites.
More than 40 species of orchids have been identified in Imposible, but the most aromatic and lucrative of these is vanilla, a succulent vine originally used by the Aztecs.
El Imposible is one of the most interesting places in the country for bird-watching. It has more bird species than any other park in the country, and of the 282 species reported, six occur nowhere else in El Salvador. These include the white hawk, crested guan, great curassow, ruddy quail dove, tody motmot, and green shrike vireo. Sadly, all of these birds likely inhabited the entire country at one point, but high levels of deforestation left them homeless and restricted to the forest of Imposible. The best time to look for the park’s resident birds is April to June, when the rain begins to fall and breeding season begins.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The extra-long dry season in El Salvador is especially hard on amphibians and reptiles, and most species estivate (spend the summer in torpor, similar to hibernation) during the dry season, making it very hard to spot them during these months. Similar to all seasonally dry environments on the Pacific coast of Central America, the species diversity of amphibians and reptiles is quite low. In total, there are 53 known species in the park, and they are mostly drought-resistant.
Most of the amphibians in the park are frogs and toads. Four species of frogs and seven species of toads have been found. The most common are aquatic frogs, not surprisingly, as Imposible is full of streams and ponds that act as the watershed that feeds into Barra de Santiago. These frogs have long, powerful legs for jumping and intricate webbing between their toes for swimming, and they can often be seen during the day, unlike most other amphibians, which are typically nocturnal. Leaf litter frogs have varied patterns and colors that blend in with the leaves on the forest floor. They lack adhesive pads on fingers and toes and do not have webbing between their toes. They can usually be found hanging out in piles of leaves in the more humid parts of the forest.
You are likely to see lizards darting around the forest floor while hiking in Imposible, scurrying through the leaf litter in open spaces. The largest species of lizards are iguanas—the black-tailed spiny iguana and the green iguana, which are misnomers as both can range in color from green to dark gray. Not so conspicuous are the 21 species of snakes known to exist in the park, three of which are venomous: the Central American coral snake, jumping pit viper, and the neotropical rattlesnake.
El Salvador is teeming with beautiful butterflies, and Imposible is a particularly popular hub for these colorful creatures. There are at least 5,000 species in the forest, and most of them like to flutter around the lower zone of the park. This is the part of the forest where there has been the highest degree of disturbance. In the parts that have been cleared, wildflowers have taken up residence, attracting the butterflies into these wide-open spaces. Some of the most common butterflies found in the park include the white morph, great prepona, bluish wanderer, and the torquatus swallowtail.
El Salvador is teeming with butterflies.
The largest species that historically inhabited the El Imposible forest are in danger of extinction, and sadly, visitors have little chance of seeing them. The majestic puma that once roamed the forest has likely relocated to neighboring Guatemala, where there is more space. For more than 50 years it was believed that the Baird’s tapir was extinct in El Salvador; however, the skull of a tapir was found in 1987, and in 2002 the tracks of this large mammal were identified in the low-lying humid area of the park, suggesting that the tapir has possibly reappeared. It is unknown whether the tracks were made by one of the original inhabitants of the forest or if tapirs from Guatemala have recolonized the area; either way, it is promising news. Mammals you are more likely to see while in the forest include armadillos, foxes, and pacas, similar to guinea pigs, with small forelimbs, large hind limbs, a cone-shaped body, and pretty white spots like those of a deer that run the length of its body.
Where the land meets the sea, the roots of the mangroves rise up out of the saline water in strangely beautiful twists and turns. There are two major mangrove forests on the coast: Barra de Santiago in the west, and Bahía de Jiquilisco in the east. The flora and fauna of these two forests are similar, with more species variety in Bahía de Jiquilisco, where the lower Río Lempa estuary covers an area of 63,000 hectares, making it the largest remaining mangrove forest in Central America.
The mangroves are one of the most biologically complex ecosystems on earth. Fish (common species include snook, red snapper, and corvina) and shellfish such as crabs and shrimp all depend on mangrove roots for their nesting grounds, and the trees also provide habitat for thousands of marine and coastal birds as well as a refuge for several endangered species, among them the spider monkey, the hawksbill sea turtle, and crocodiles. In Bahía de Jiquilisco, there are three additional species of sea turtles: olive ridley, leatherback, and green.
One of the most important functions of the mangrove forests is that they are highly effective carbon sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide, taking carbon out of circulation and reducing the amount of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Coastal wetland areas like Bahía de Jiquilisco can sequester up to four times more carbon dioxide per hectare than rainforests, making them one of the earth’s best carbon storage facilities, a major natural bulwark against worldwide climate change. Their location on the coast, however, also makes them one of the most vulnerable areas in terms of the effects of climate change. As climate change accelerates, more and more natural disasters are hitting coastal areas, including hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, and landslides. Longer periods of drought, coupled with storms that are more intensive during the rainy season, threaten to wipe out crops each year. Half of the world’s mangroves have disappeared in recent history, and with the current global rate of greenhouse gas emissions, their protection is especially critical, not only for people but for all the other species who thrive in this habitat.
HIGHLAND CLOUD FORESTS
The highlands are cool, misty, verdant, and ideal for hiking. These areas offer a great array of natural vegetation, ranging from semideciduous tropical forest at lower altitudes, pine-oak forest at middle altitudes, and the misty cloud forest at the very top.
The cloud forests of El Salvador are full of epiphytes, plants that survive from moisture in the air and depend on other plants for structural support. Epiphytes include the mosses, lichens, and brackens that cover the forest floor as well as lush green tree ferns that can grow as tall as eight meters. The cloud forests also have an enormous array of gorgeous orchids, which thrive in the moist highlands.
Flowers abound in the damp, mountainous regions of the country.
Chances of seeing the elusive green and red quetzal are highest in the cloud forest regions of the country. The best time of the year to see the bird is during the March-June mating season, and the best time of day is at sunrise.
Other colorful birds found in the highlands include the blue-throated motmot, a beautiful green bird with a teal throat and tail, and the collared trogon, with its green and teal head, striking red body, and black- and white-striped tail.
The highlands of El Salvador are also visited by migratory species such as the globally threatened golden-cheeked warbler, a small, dainty bird with distinctive mustard-yellow cheeks.
Some mammals that you might spot while in the highlands include red and gray squirrels, porcupines, and agoutis.
There is a gap in the knowledge of prehistoric activity in El Salvador, most likely due to the poor conditions of preservation at the populated sites and the fact that most of the remains from that time have been buried deep in the ground, making it hard to recover them. However, considering its location on an isthmus and the wealth of natural resources, it is almost impossible that the area wasn’t inhabited, or at least occupied temporarily by people in transit, very early on. The earliest evidence of human activity in El Salvador can be found in the eastern part of the country in the form of cave art; the most popular and accessible site is Cueva del Espíritu Santo in Corinto, where the drawings are estimated to be 8,000 years old.
The first known inhabitants of what is now El Salvador occupied the coastal plain, an area that proved to be strategically important. It was narrow enough that they could easily walk to the mountains to hunt animals or gather plants, but also close enough to the sea to take advantage of the marine life, so they never had to spend long periods of time away from the settlement. This access to ecological diversity led to a high-protein diet rich in fish and meat, and the fertile plain provided an opportunity for agricultural development.
By 1500 BC the inhabitants had created new tools such as projectile points for hunting as well as knives for skinning animals, and they had established small villages where they lived in simple adobe huts. Soon after, the appearance of pottery helped advance the society, as they were able to store and transport food. The small villages grew until an elite emerged that took over key roles in the development of these communities, and what had been a community without social stratification became a chieftaincy with a powerful ruling class.
From 900 BC onward, the population of farmers grew rapidly. New settlements began to appear throughout the west and in the center of the country.
THE MAYA AND THE LENCAS
Around 500 BC, there was a major population explosion coupled with an expansion of settled land, especially in the lowlands of the country. Important sites of this time include Santa Leticia in Apaneca and Tazumal in Chalchuapa. Although the Mayan sites in El Salvador in general were not as grandiose as the sites in Guatemala or Mexico—El Salvador was a bit of a backwater—the area of what is now Chalchuapa was culturally important. Evidence from Tazumal suggests a strong relationship with the Olmec Empire in Mexico. The Maya who lived there produced major ceramics and controlled the obsidian trade with Guatemala. Additionally, glyphs found in the tombs of Tazumal suggest that important knowledge originated in this area with regard to the calendar and writing systems.
The settlement of Santa Leticia began around the same time and was located in the foothills of Apaneca; it covered about six hectares of very fertile land. In addition to being an agricultural settlement, it was also thought to be an important ceremonial and religious center because of the large round female sculptures that were discovered there. The two sculptures weigh 7 and 12 tons and can be seen at Hotel Leticia. More than 70 similar sculptures have been found in other significant archaeological sites in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mystery shrouds the figures found at Santa Leticia, but it is thought that they date from the early pre-classic period and have Olmec influence.
Santa Leticia also provided important information for the reconstruction of daily life during this time. The variety of corn that was cultivated here was common among classic Mayan populations in Belize and Mexico. The discovery of bell-shaped holes in the ground known as chultunes were used to store grains or water and were also found in other Mayan settlements.
Around the same time, in eastern El Salvador, the site of Quelepa was being developed. Located in the valley of the Río Grande beside San Miguel, this land was used for the cultivation of maize, beans, cacao, and cotton. The Quelepa population maintained relations with the Maya in western El Salvador; this is evidenced by discovery of ceramics likely to have come from Chalchuapa as well as a jaguar head very similar to another found in Cara Sucia in the west. Despite this evidence of contact with the Mayan west, all other cultural features were similar to their Honduran neighbors, the Lenca, and as such it is generally assumed that this was a Lenca settlement.
There was also a settlement in the center of the country where the artificial Lago Suchitlán now is, but very little is known about it other than that the land was fertile and likely used predominantly for maize cultivation. The people who lived here were Lenca, but findings in these sites also indicate trade and contact with the Maya in the west.
ILOPANGO BLOWS, AND EVERYBODY FLEES
The eruption of Ilopango volcano around AD 500 completely changed the distribution of people in El Salvador. It sent large amounts of volcanic ash flying over an area of 10,000 square kilometers, forcing everyone within that range to flee and relocate. Many large and small population centers were completely abandoned, and most people moved to the mountains of Apaneca, where the land was high enough to avoid the flooding caused by large amounts of ash blocking the channels of the rivers.
The centuries after the eruption are known as the classic period (AD 250-1000). During this time, Chalchuapa was eventually repopulated, but it never returned to its former prominence. Cara Sucia reached its peak during this time, becoming wealthy from the salt trade between 650 and 950. The central region was completely abandoned after the eruption, and small communities did not return to the area until about 200 years later, when San Andrés eventually became the Mayan administrative capital of the region, with a large central settlement surrounded by many smaller villages.
But as luck would have it, just as the Maya had returned and resettled, another volcano, called Laguna Caldera, located in the department of La Libertad, erupted around 600. Thankfully this was not nearly as catastrophic as Ilopango, but still managed to decimate some villages. Fortunately for archaeologists, many of the buildings in the small Mayan village Joya de Cerén were perfectly preserved by the ash, and because of this, important information has been discovered about the daily life of the inhabitants. A wide variety of wildlife was also preserved, including a dog’s tooth, two species of ants eating beans inside pottery bowls, a duck, and some bones, probably of a deer, that appeared to be cooking instruments similar to spatulas.
Beginning in 800, there was a process of destabilization in the Mayan areas, during which large centers were abandoned. This phenomenon, known as the collapse of classic Mayan civilization, ended around 1000, and produced a complete reorganization of society in the Americas.
ARRIVAL OF THE PIPILES
It was not until 600 years after the Ilopango eruption that the western part of the country was resettled. The new inhabitants, the Pipil people, are thought to have migrated from central and southern Mexico. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first migration of Pipiles to El Salvador was sometime between 900 and 1200.
The Pipiles established themselves in the central and western part of El Salvador and called the land Cuscatlán: the land of precious jewels. They cultivated cacao and established trade with the Lenca in the east.
THE SPANISH CONQUEST APPROACHES
During his last voyage in 1502, Christopher Columbus found a Mayan trader’s canoe off the coast of Honduras. It was full of gleaming goods never before seen by the Europeans in the Caribbean—obsidian weapons, shiny copper axes, and colorful fine fabrics. His interest was piqued; it was clear that this canoe belonged to a people completely unknown to the Spanish. No one could have imagined that the few goods on this canoe were just a sample of what was about to be discovered.
In 1519 Hernán Cortés led his troops into the Yucatán in Mexico. After consolidating control of the Aztec Empire, the Aztecs told him of the area to the south, in the Guatemalan highlands, where a group of people called the Kaqchiquel lived. To lead the conquest of the land to the south, Cortés chose his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado.
Alvarado’s group set out on their mission in 1522 and succeeded. Once the Kaqchiquel were under the control of the Spanish, Alvarado used them to help conquer their enemies in the east, the Quiche. After the successful conquest, he asked the Quiche who their enemies were to the south; they said it was the Pipiles. Armed with this information and his retinue of recruits, Alvarado set his sights on the newest mission: to find out who the Pipil people were, what they had, and how they could be conquered.
CONQUISTADORS ARRIVE IN EL SALVADOR
In June 1524, Alvarado led the first effort by Spanish forces to extend their dominion to the nation of Cuscatlán (now El Salvador). Alvarado left for Cuscatlán with 250 Spanish and nearly 6,000 indigenous recruits from Mexico and Guatemala. They made their way down to the Pacific coast and entered modern-day Salvadoran territory via the Río Paz on June 6, 1524.
On June 8, they reached the port of Acajutla, where they were faced with thousands of Pipil warriors who had gathered there to meet the Spanish, presumably to prevent their entrance into the Río Grande valley of Sonsonate, which led directly into Pipil territory. The defenders were dressed in thick cotton padded armor, referred to in Mexico as ichcahuipilli. The ichcahuipilli offered excellent protection against arrows but were cumbersome and prevented the Pipiles from moving quickly. As a result, many fell and became easy prey for the Spanish. They were defeated, but the Spanish did not escape casualties. Most notably, during the Battle of Acajutla, Alvarado was hit with an arrow that fractured his femur and left him with an infected wound for eight months. The injury would remain with Alvarado for the rest of his life, a reminder of the fearlessness of the people of Cuscatlán. After their victory, the Spanish rested in Acajutla for five days, nursing their injuries and planning the rest of the conquest.
The next battle, in Tacuzcalco, was led by Alvarado’s brother due to Alvarado’s leg injury. Alvarado watched the battle from the hills and was pleased to see an easy victory. After defeating the Pipil population here, they moved on to Miahuatlán, which had been abandoned by its inhabitants fleeing in fear. Alvarado was renowned for his skill as a soldier, and also for his cruel treatment of the indigenous people. Word had spread about the mass murders committed in subjugating the indigenous people in Mexico. Finally, the army reached Atehuan, where the Spanish received the good news they been waiting for—an invitation from the rulers of Cuscatlán to enter the main city.
On June 17, 1524, Alvarado’s army came to the city of Cuscatlán, where they were received by the spear-wielding population, who tenuously granted them entrance to the political and cultural center of the Pipil people. However, as soon as the Spanish made themselves comfortable, most of the indigenous population abandoned the city. When Alvarado took some Pipiles as servants and put them to work panning for gold, his intentions to subjugate the local population became clear, and any indigenous people who were left fled to the nearby mountains.
Alvarado sent messengers to the mountains to convince the leaders of Cuscatlán to come back and negotiate, but the messengers returned with the news that if he wanted to talk, they would be waiting for him in the hills with their weapons. Alvarado attempted once more, sending a new group of messengers up to the hills, but they never returned. He then commanded his army to attack several hills where the indigenous people were hiding. During the attacks, many people were killed on both sides, but the Pipil warriors had cleverly put themselves in a position of power, as they were familiar with the terrain up in the hills. Defeated, Alvarado abandoned the attack and returned to Guatemala on July 21, 1524, with the news that the Pipil people were a force to be reckoned with.
In 1525 they returned with reinforcements, more weapons, horses, and dogs. The conquest of Cuscatlán was completed, and the city of San Salvador was established. Over the course of the next few years the conquest continued with a scorched-earth strategy, as homes were burned and the population was murdered en masse. In eastern El Salvador the Lenca people also fiercely resisted the Spanish, but by the late 1530s a smallpox epidemic had hit, killing much of the indigenous population. Alvarado saw this as his chance to strike. He invited the leader of the Lenca people, Lempira, for peace talks in 1537, and when he arrived, Alvarado shot him dead. With this, the ruthless conquest of El Salvador was complete.
THE COLONIAL ERA
In the eerie calm after the battles, the colony was born, and Cuscatlán—the land of precious jewels—ironically became El Salvador, “the Savior.” During the two decades following the conquest, Spanish settlers began exploiting the local resources, hoping to get rich quickly, as they had in Mexico and Guatemala. Their thirst for gold was insatiable. They were disappointed, however, to find only negligible amounts of gold that was accessible only through the laborious and time-consuming method of panning. The Pipil were put to work delivering cargo and panning for gold in the riverbeds; this was the primary economic activity for the first two decades of the conquest. Panning for gold eventually took its toll on the indigenous population: It took the men away from their traditional roles as providers, and the fact that they could not cultivate corn the way they had before disrupted the family routine and exhausted the men. Feeling demoralized after the violent conquest and decimation of their culture, they were reluctant to have children and subject them to the same oppression. As a final blow, plagues of European origin began to affect the indigenous population throughout the 16th century. The labor force was dwindling, and the Spanish were forced to look at alternative sources of income that did not require so many laborers and so little return. They eventually realized what the Pipil already knew: The real economic potential was in the soil. This discovery would irrevocably change the course of El Salvador’s history.
Large tracts of land were granted by the crown, much of it preexisting cacao plantations that had been there since pre-Columbian times. As the Salvadoran population decline was already considerable, Guatemalan workers were brought in, and as many as 1,000 enslaved Africans were brought to live on the haciendas and provide manual labor. They cultivated cacao, cotton, and balsam, but they discovered that the most lucrative crop was indigo. Indigo produced tremendous profits during the 18th century. Largely as a result of the importance of the indigo trade, by the turn of the 19th century the colonial capital of San Salvador had come to be the second city of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, the Spanish administrative unit that encompassed most of Central America during the colonial period. Things were looking good for the Spanish in El Salvador, but events were about to take a turn for the worse.
THE ROAD TO REVOLUTION
By the early 19th century, the political landscape in Europe was deteriorating. The Peninsular War, a military conflict between France and the allied powers of Spain, Britain, and Portugal, destabilized Europe and by extension its colonies. The war was fought for control of the Iberian Peninsula and started when French and Spanish armies occupied Portugal in 1807, escalating in 1808 when France turned on Spain, its ally until that point. The result was a major shift in power in Europe that would have widespread reverberations in the Spanish colonies. The worldwide Spanish Empire began to unravel as French occupation of Spain weakened Spain’s hold over its colonies, providing an opportunity for nationalist revolutions in Latin America.
This chaos in Europe, coupled with economic hardship due to a chapulin plague that destroyed indigo crops in 1802 and 1803, created an increasingly tense atmosphere in El Salvador. The people of San Salvador had been hit hard by the economic crisis and were fed up with the fractured and weak leadership from Spain. The success of the American and French Revolutions had changed perceptions about who should control government, and movements began to form in the Spanish colonies. The seeds of revolution had been sown.
INDEPENDENCE FROM SPAIN
On November 5, 1811, Salvadoran priest José Matías Delgado rang the bells of the Iglesia La Merced in the center of San Salvador and called for insurrection, in what would become known as the primer grito de la independencia, Central America’s first shout of independence. It had been brewing for a long time and was primarily the result of ever-increasing discontent in the middle classes, specifically a class of people called criollos. The criollos were people of Spanish descent born in the Americas; they had grown tired of being governed by their equals from afar.
The rebels assembled in the town square outside the church, where one of the independence movement’s most passionate leaders, Manuel José Arce (son of Spaniard Bernardo José de Arce, the colonial intendant of San Salvador from 1800 until 1801), famously proclaimed: “There is no king, nor intendant, nor captain general. We only must obey our alcaldes”—meaning that since Ferdinand VII of Spain had been deposed, all other officials appointed by him no longer held any legitimate power.
The protest was dramatic but short-lived. The insurrection was suppressed, and many of the participants were jailed. Another protest took place in 1814 but again the participants were jailed. After this, however, many groups began meeting secretly and strategizing about how to successfully untether the country from Spain. Finally, on September 15, 1821, in light of unrest in Guatemala, Spanish authorities conceded and signed the Acta de Independencia (Deed of Independence) that released Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Mexican state of Chiapas from Spanish rule and declared the region’s independence.
The following years would entail numerous power struggles among the various actors in the fledgling nation. In the beginning, Mexico took over rule of the region and founded the First Mexican Empire, led by Emperor Agustín de Iturbide, despite strong resistance from El Salvador. In 1823 a revolution in Mexico ousted Iturbide, and a new Mexican congress voted to allow the Central American provinces to decide their own fate. El Salvador declared independence from Mexico together with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The United Provinces of Central America was born under the leadership of General Manuel José Arce.
The federal republic was short-lived and marked by power struggles between liberals and conservatives. This infighting, coupled with the government’s lack of resources, made the federation extremely unstable. In order to raise money to support the federation, a number of new policies were implemented, most notably the expropriation of uncultivated land. Previously, land that was not being used as haciendas was considered communal and was available for indigenous people to practice subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture. Now the haciendas expanded, usurping the communal land. Circumstances for the poor, mostly indigenous peasants became even worse than they had been during Spanish rule.
Several popular uprisings took place in the major agricultural areas of San Miguel, Chalatenango, Izalco, and Sonsonate, but they were all suppressed. The most famous of these was the peasant uprising of 1832, led by Anastasio Aquino, a fiery worker on an indigo plantation. He organized other peasants and began a campaign of attacking army posts, recruiting the indigenous conscripts and burning haciendas. Legend has it that the spoils were collected and given to the poor. By the end of January 1833 Aquino had managed to assemble an army of between 2,000 and 5,000 men, armed mostly with spears. They headed to San Vicente, where many of the exploitive landowners lived.
His army sacked the city, but soon Aquino was talked into peaceful negotiations by a former boss. The rebels took control of the town and proclaimed the famous Declaration of Tepetitán on February 16, 1833, in which, among other things, they demanded the abolition of forced labor. After several failed attempts by the government to negotiate with Aquino, they finally approached San Vicente with an army. Although Aquino initially escaped, the government offered to spare the life of anyone who would divulge the location of the rebel peasant. After somebody revealed Aquino’s location, he was found and executed by firing squad. His head was cut off and put on display in an iron cage, with the message written on a sign: “Example for Rebels.”
THE COFFEE REPUBLIC
By 1840 the Central American republic had collapsed and newly independent El Salvador made a crucial discovery. The mineral-rich volcanic soil in the mountainous parts of the country was perfect for growing one of the world’s most coveted crops: coffee. Coffee would soon replace indigo as El Salvador’s commercial crop of choice, and as the world’s thirst for the addictive elixir grew, so did the economy of tiny El Salvador. Sadly, only a small segment of society reaped the benefits. The introduction of coffee would prove to be a continuation of the colonial paradigm that set the elite in charge of large tracts of land and forced the indigenous to work it. By this point the country was being run by an oligarchy that consisted of a small group of wealthy families who were inextricably linked with the government. A series of presidents throughout the last half of the 19th century supported the seizure of communal land so that it could be used for coffee production. In addition, an antivagrancy law was passed, leaving the displaced campesinos with no other option than to work for a pittance on the new coffee plantations.
Although the coffee industry itself was not taxed by the government, ample revenue was raised indirectly through import duties on goods purchased outside the country with the money earned from coffee sales. From 1870 to 1914, more than half of government revenue came from coffee. The campesinos who worked the land did not see any of the profit, and as rural discontent grew, the fledgling Salvadoran armed forces shifted its focus from external defense to maintaining order within the country.
Between 1907 and 1911, President Fernando Figueroa gave special attention and increased funding to the army, and foreign military advisors were hired to educate and train Salvadoran officers. In 1912, President Manuel Enrique Araujo won the presidency with the support of outgoing Figueroa. Under his presidency, the Guardia Nacional (National Guard) was created. Trained by former officers of the Spanish civil guard, its sole purpose was to provide security on the coffee fincas. Most fincas enjoyed the services of their own Guardia Nacional units posted on their property; and regional commanders were compensated by the finca owners to ensure the continued loyalty of the guardsmen. Of course, this internal repression only served to foment tension between landowners and peasants.
On February 9, 1913, during a concert in San Salvador’s Parque Bolívar (now Plaza Barrios), two farmers attacked President Araujo with machetes. He was critically wounded and died five days later. The motives of the attackers, who were executed after a military trial, were never investigated.
Araujo’s death was followed by the Meléndez-Quiñónez dynasty. The Meléndez and Quiñónez clans were two of the most powerful families among the Salvadoran oligarchy, and their unquestioned rule lasted from 1913 to 1927. After this, Pío Romero Bosque, former Minister of the Government and a trusted collaborator of the dynasty, succeeded President Jorge Meléndez and in 1930 finally announced free elections.
On March 1, 1931, in what was considered the country’s first freely contested election, Arturo Araujo came to power. His presidency did not last long; Araujo faced general popular discontent from people expecting economic reforms and redistribution of land. When it became clear that he had no intention of broaching either of these subjects, there were demonstrations in front of the Palacio Nacional from the first week of his administration. The unrest spread among military officers, and in December 1931, with the collapse of coffee prices, the military’s dissatisfaction peaked. A group of young officers, led by vice president Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, staged a coup d’état and ousted Araujo. Araujo fled the country, and Martínez assumed power.
The presidency of Martínez would be the first of a succession of military dictators who sustained the status quo through swift and savage suppression of any kind of dissent. A vegetarian fascist, he was famously quoted as saying that ants do not reincarnate but people do, so it’s better to kill a human than an ant. He certainly proved loyal to these words, ending his presidency with more than 30,000 deaths at his order. He is legendary among the extreme right, and had one of the deadliest death squads of the civil war named after him. His personal quirks are also legendary; a believer in mystic creeds, he is often remembered for once having strung colored lights throughout San Salvador in an effort to ward off a smallpox epidemic.
THE 1932 PEASANT REVOLT AND MASSACRE (LA MATANZA)
When the Great Depression hit, coffee sales started to drop dramatically. Plantation owners were no longer able to pay their workers. Desperate, many peasants begged for work in exchange for food alone. Eventually, not even that was available, and thousands of landless peasants were left unemployed and starving. All of the arable land had been taken up to grow coffee, so food shortages also came.
Rural discontent was widespread, but rural people lacked a leader who could really galvanize the masses, until Agustín Farabundo Martí appeared. Martí was the son of wealthy landowners. As a child he had recognized the exploitation of the country’s poor and decided he wanted to do something about it. Sharp, passionate, and hardworking, he fit the profile of the people’s voice, and appeared just when he was needed. Martí was strongly influenced by the socialist movements of Cuba and Nicaragua, and even though his purpose was to turn Salvadorans onto communism, most of the peasants only started to listen to him out of desperation. The movement was fueled by hunger, not ideology.
Martí studied political science at Universidad de El Salvador, but dropped out so that he could dedicate his time to working with landless peasants in rural El Salvador. After being expelled from the country and spending time in the United States and Mexico, including time spent working closely with Augusto César Sandino of Nicaragua, he returned to El Salvador to help organize and lead what would become known as the peasant revolt. On January 22, 1932, led by the communist leaders, thousands of rebels, mostly disenfranchised indigenous Pipil people in the western coffee-producing part of the country, attacked government forces. Within three days, they had succeeded in taking control of several towns, disrupting supply lines to many of the country’s towns and villages, and attacking a military garrison. The military reacted swiftly and mercilessly. Promising open discussion and pardons for those involved in the uprising, they called all the rebels to a large public square. As thousands of people gathered in the square, waiting for negotiations, they were brutally slaughtered. Estimates are that 30,000 indigenous peasants were killed that day, and in addition, the towns of Nahuizalco, Juayúa, Apaneca, and Izalco were all attacked by the military. Feliciano Ama, an indigenous leader, was hanged, and an image of the execution was printed on postage stamps of the time. After this, indigenous people abandoned their clothing, last names, and any other signs that betrayed their heritage.
GUIDED REFORM UNDER MILITARY RULE
From the 1930s to the 1970s, El Salvador was led by authoritarian governments who maintained power through very limited reform and political oppression. The status quo under all of these regimes was keeping the majority of the land in the hands of the elite and quashing any kind of dissent. Among the military there was a divide between the older, more conservative military leaders and the younger generation, who pushed to loosen up the system and enact limited reforms to lessen the likelihood of another violent disruption like that of 1932.
The practice of guided reform, instituted and controlled from above, generally came to be accepted as the best course for the military to maintain the status quo and avoid radical movements. Guided reform emphasized economic development, public works, and social security (including medical and hospital care). However, no steps were taken to threaten the elite-dominated system. Agrarian reform was still out of the question. The country coasted along without any major outbreaks of violence, doing just enough under guided reform to keep popular dissent at bay.
This all changed in 1959, during the presidency of José María Lemus. The name Fidel Castro was gaining a reputation, and news of a popular revolutionary movement in Cuba began to spread throughout Latin America. Student groups in El Salvador were particularly inspired by the example of Castro and his revolutionaries. Public demonstrations in San Salvador called for Lemus’s removal and the imposition of a truly democratic system. All earlier attempts at reform were quickly jettisoned in favor of increased repression. Public protests were prohibited, and political dissidents were summarily detained. The country was in chaos, and the middle class began to worry. Lemus was deposed in a bloodless coup on October 26, 1960. The junta who overthrew Lemus was soon overthrown by a group of young military officers who promised a proper election.
In March 1964 the first election took place under the new system. The main contenders were the Partido de Conciliación Nacional (PNC), a conservative political party closely associated with the Salvadoran military, and the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC), which sought to find a middle ground between extreme right and extreme left. Although the PNC retained an unchallenged majority in the Asamblea Legislativa, the PDC won a significant victory in the election of José Napoleón Duarte as the mayor of San Salvador.
Duarte built a strong base of popular support in this post through improvements in municipal services and the organization of local self-help groups to promote small-scale civic improvements such as school renovations, establishment and maintenance of parks, and adult education programs. He was reelected in 1966 and 1968, and his successful leadership of the capital city strengthened his political profile and made him a well-known national figure.
THE SOCCER WAR
Although social progress was being made in the capital under Duarte in the late 1960s, the rest of the country was in turmoil. To make matters worse, tensions were growing between El Salvador and neighboring Honduras. As a result of the lack of arable land in El Salvador, hundreds of thousands of people had drifted over the border to the much less populated Honduras, squatting on small plots of land while providing much-needed manual labor for United Fruit Company’s banana plantations. However, things turned sour when Salvadorans, being the industrious business-savvy people that they are, established many successful businesses, most notably a multitude of shoe stores. Although the economic situation in El Salvador was dismal, it was still quite enviable by Honduran standards, and many Hondurans were put off by the influx of successful Salvadoran businesses on Honduran soil. Tension between the two countries grew as Hondurans suffered economic stagnation while Salvadorans thrived. The Honduran government decided to kick the Salvadorans out under a land reform law that gave the central government and municipalities much of the land occupied by Salvadoran immigrants and redistributed it to native-born Hondurans. Thousands of Salvadoran laborers were expelled from Honduras, including both migrant workers and longer-term settlers.
Images of displaced refugees appeared in the press, and as the stories of violent treatment of Salvadorans by the Honduran military reached home, anger escalated. Tension between the two countries continued to build until it reached a breaking point during the North American qualifying round of the 1970 FIFA Cup soccer game between the two countries in San Salvador in June 1969. During the game, rowdy fans from both nations taunted each other until full-blown riots broke out. On July 14, 1969, Salvadoran planes dropped bombs on the airport in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, effectively declaring war. Four days later, most of the fighting in the “100 Hours War” was over, and as many as 2,000 people were dead. In the aftermath, an influx of returnees landed on Salvadoran soil only to find their homeland was even more hostile than it was before they left. There was no available land and little assistance from the government, and the country was increasingly plagued by overpopulation and extreme poverty.
THE 1972 ELECTIONS
The returnees only placed more pressure on the government for some kind of land reform. The PDC took this as their opportunity to turn unfair land distribution to its political advantage. They began to push the idea of full agrarian reform, calling for the expropriation and redistribution of land. Not surprisingly, this quickly gained popular support. In the lead-up to the 1972 legislative and presidential elections, the PDC stood a chance at chipping away at the long-running PNC majority, but the presidential election results were in the favor of Colonel Arturo Armando Molina, the PNC candidate. The election results were widely contested as blatantly fraudulent. Once again, Salvadorans were left feeling angry and disillusioned. One faction of the armed forces was outraged by the fraud and launched a coup led by Colonel Benjamin Mejia on March 25, 1972. The officers were in favor of installing Duarte, the popular PDC mayor of San Salvador, as president.
Some residents of the capital took to the streets in support of the young officers, but not long after that, the thunderous sounds of aerial bombardment reverberated throughout the capital as the air force demonstrated its loyalty to the government. Once again, the military maintained power through brute force. Duarte was soon tracked down by government security forces, who detained him briefly, before he was beaten, interrogated, then dispatched to Guatemala. From there, he flew into exile in Venezuela. He left behind a country teeming with widespread discontent and inequality.
BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR
The government of President Molina used the usual coercive control that had become the norm in El Salvador, but a new, dark element was introduced: Organización Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN), the eyes and ears of the security forces in the rural areas. ORDEN provided counterinsurgent training to commandeered peasants throughout the country, and by the late 1970s its membership reportedly totaled 100,000. While this was happening in the countryside, left-wing terrorism was growing in the city: Kidnappings for ransom and hit-and-run attacks on government buildings and other targets became increasingly common in San Salvador.
The groups who claimed responsibility for these actions were the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) (People’s Revolutionary Army) and the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación Farabundo Martí (FPL) (Farabundo Martí Popular Liberation Forces). Popular support for radical leftist groups was quickly growing, and these organizations drew much of their leadership from radical Roman Catholic groups known as Comunidades Eclesiasticas de Base (CEBs) (Christian Base Communities) that had been established by activist clergy throughout the country.
President Molina tried to quell activism with land reform, but it proved to be too little too late. He passed a law in 1974 calling for the forced rental or potential expropriation of inefficiently used land, but the law was never enforced. Two years later, he declared that 60,000 hectares of land in San Miguel and Usulután departments would be split up among 12,000 peasant families. This did not sit well with the large landowners, who created a delegation to meet with the president. It likely did not take much arm-twisting to get Molina to agree to exempt lands serving a “social function,” which essentially could apply to all the land in question, and the plan never came to fruition.
Fear of losing control became a real issue for the military and landowners, and as a result, a deadly right-wing force was taking shape: the Escuadrón de la Muerte (Death Squad). Funded by landowners and businesspeople in the oligarchy, the squad specialized in assassinating subversives. The government considered the CEBs to be the most dangerous threat and increasingly targeted outspoken religious leaders. The run-of-the-mill repression also continued with deadly crackdowns on public protests in the center of San Salvador, the worst of which happened after the 1977 election of Carlos Humberto Romero. Once again, electoral fraud was obvious and rampant. Thousands of angry protesters gathered in Plaza Libertad in the center of San Salvador and as many as 50 of them were killed by security forces. It seemed things couldn’t get any worse, but sadly the worst was yet to come.
Under the new presidency of Romero, the government dropped its charade of reform and unapologetically increased politically motivated violence. In response, the leftist guerrillas also stepped up their game. Bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations continued to rise. At this point the church was also getting involved. Many priests, including Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, were followers of liberation theology, a Roman Catholic school of thought that had its origins in Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s. It advocated taking action against oppression and addressing the immoral factors that lead to injustice and poverty.
Archbishop Romero was deeply disturbed by the brutality employed by government forces against innocent civilians as well as the clergy. As the suffering of the poor worsened, Romero became an outspoken activist, using his status to try effect social change. He frequently called on his congregation to take action against injustice and urged soldiers not to carry out their orders to kill. He argued against U.S. military aid and wrote an open letter to Jimmy Carter asking him to stop aid to the Salvadoran government as it was only fueling the war and stripping innocent people of basic dignities. This kind of social activism was too close a cousin with communism in the eyes of the military, and on March 24, 1980, Romero was shot dead while giving mass at a small church in San Salvador. For many civilians, this was the pivotal point at which real terror set in. If the archbishop could be so ruthlessly eliminated, was anybody’s life considered sacred?
SALVADORAN CIVIL WAR (1980-1992)
As government-sanctioned violence increased in both rural and urban settings, previously nonmilitant mass political groups metamorphosed into guerrilla fronts. In May 1980 the Salvadoran revolutionary leadership met in Havana, where they were advised by Fidel Castro to unify into one guerrilla group. In October they founded the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), honoring insurgent hero Farabundo Martí, who was killed by the military while leading the peasant uprising of 1932. In late 1980 the FMLN announced plans for an insurrection against the government of El Salvador, and on January 10, 1981, the FMLN launched its first major attack. The guerrillas quickly established control of most of Morazán and Chalatenango departments, and would remain in control of these areas for the rest of the war.
civil war memorial in Cinquera
Some of the worst massacres would take place in these areas of the country as the military forces sought to eliminate the guerrilla forces living in the mountainous region. In December 1981 the Alacatl battalion began its Operación Rescate (Operation Rescue) in Morazán, an attempt to systematically destroy all support that enabled the guerrillas to survive. This included one of the most violent massacres of a civilian population in Latin American history, the El Mozote massacre, in which 800 people, including noncombatant women and children, were murdered. Despite these gross violations of human rights, the Carter and Reagan administrations continued to send millions of dollars in military aid to the government. The fear of communism took precedence over concern for human rights.
The fighting continued for 12 years and cost close to 70,000 lives, forcing thousands of Salvadorans to flee to refugee camps in Honduras or to try their luck in the United States. Children were used by both the military and the guerrillas, and once boys reached the age of 12 they were conscripted into the national army. Many women joined the FMLN and fought in the war as well, and many civilians supported the guerrillas for no other reason than that they were hungry and tired of being poor and landless.
The violence was not restricted to rural areas, and although many tend to romanticize the revolutionary movement, there was plenty of innocent blood on the hands of the guerrillas as well. The people of conservative towns such as San Salvador and Suchitoto also lived in terror and were victims of frequent guerrilla attacks that involved stealing cars, breaking into homes, dropping bombs, and killing civilians.
A UN-backed peace process began in 1990. The Chalpultepec Accords called for a 70 percent reduction of the armed forces, the dissolution of the Guardia Nacional and the Policía Nacional, the end of military dictatorships, and the transfer of the state intelligence agencies to the presidency of the republic. All armed FMLN units were also demobilized. A nine-month cease-fire took effect on February 1, 1992, and has not been broken since.
POSTWAR TO PRESENT DAY (1992-2014)
In the years following the signing of the Chalpultepec Peace Accords, Salvadorans went to work rebuilding their country. In 1994, El Salvador held its first election that included candidates of the FMLN and other parties. The conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party, originally formed by rightist military officers and landowners, won the presidency, as well as the next two presidential elections after the war. The ARENA leadership put rebuilding the country at the top of its agenda, investing in basic infrastructure, most notably constructing an excellent highway system that remains the best in Central America.
Many Salvadoran entrepreneurs returned from the United States, eager to invest in their home country now that there was peace. The colón was replaced by the U.S. dollar, and the economy started to flourish. However, the same underlying issues were at play, the same people were in power, and there was a huge discrepancy between the rich and the poor. Land reforms did finally happen, but many people were given small plots of land in the most untenable parts of the country, susceptible to flooding and other natural disasters. A middle class was virtually nonexistent.
In the 2009 presidential election, the people of El Salvador elected the first left-leaning president, Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and member of the FMLN party. His presidential campaign was driven by the slogan “safe change,” and he was careful to endorse moderate political policies. Conservatives voiced concern that Funes’s election would mean a turn toward Venezuelan influence, but he insisted that strengthening relations with North America was a touchstone of his foreign policy.
The FMLN party has implemented social reforms designed to combat poverty and inequality, some of which include free health care, the distribution of property titles to hundreds of families, monthly stipends and job training for those who live in extreme poverty, and pensions for the elderly.
a sign of support for the FMLN outside a home in Cinquera
These were all positive steps, but the biggest concern for all Salvadorans today is security, and some say Funes did not do enough to fight crime. The brutal past cannot be erased from the national psyche, and violence and crime continue to plague the country. Many Salvadorans live in fear due to the heavy presence of gangs throughout the country. In March 2012 a truce was reached between rival gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. The truce saw the transfer of many high-profile gang members to a luxury prison with access to conjugal visits, phones, TVs, and other amenities. Rumors that the government granted gang members these and other concessions in exchange for a drop in crime circulated around Central America, but they were flatly denied by Funes.
There was a drop in crime for the first year, but in mid-2013 homicide rates started looking more like they did before the truce. The reality is that the culture of violence is so deeply embedded in El Salvador that it could take just as long to dissipate as it took to cultivate. Most Salvadorans limit their entertainment outings to secure places such as malls, movie theaters, and pedestrian areas that are guarded by police. The government has done a good job of creating more of these spaces, notably Paseo El Carmen in Santa Tecla. As for the future of El Salvador and its gangs, only time will tell if the collective fear continues to grow or if this relatively new democracy can finally overcome the vicious cycle of violence.
Government and Economy
After a series of coups, military repression, and a 12-year civil war between the military-led government and left-wing guerrilla groups, the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords marked the official end of the war. The Chapultepec Accords called for a ceasefire, a reduction of the armed forces, as well as demobilization of guerrilla units and the creation of a new civil police force. The Comisión de la Verdad para El Salvador (Commission on the Truth for El Salvador) was created to investigate serious acts of violence during the civil war as well as to identify methods of reconciliation. This Truth Commission delivered its human rights violations findings for both sides in 1993, but an amnesty law for all acts of violence committed during the civil war was passed five days after the report’s release.
El Salvador held its first democratic elections in 1992. The right-wing ARENA party won the country’s first election and stayed in control until March 15, 2009, when the election of FMLN candidate and former journalist Mauricio Funes as president of El Salvador broke the 20-year hold on power.
Funes began his five-year term emphasizing his centrism, identifying himself as neither a Marxist nor a Socialist. Significant emphasis was placed on implementing wide-reaching social reforms and poverty-alleviation initiatives. A notable achievement during Funes’s presidency was a temporary decline in the country’s homicide rate as a result of a controversial gang truce. However, Funes left office with a mixed legacy on economic and political fronts, contributing to a disenfranchised middle class.
Politics in El Salvador remains a polemic topic and fanaticism runs deep, which was reflected in the country’s 2014 elections, in which the country was almost evenly split between conservative ARENA and the leftist FMLN party. In March 2014, former Marxist guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the FMLN won El Salvador’s presidential election by a slim margin, demonstrating the country’s continued political divisions. Sánchez Cerén is the country’s first ex-rebel president.
The country’s economic growth and crime rates are issues that most concern and affect Salvadorans. The FMLN has a stronghold with poor working-class citizens who still hold strong revolutionary associations with the party. However, many also believe that the administration has lost its loyalty to the poor working class.
In short, Salvadorans are becoming increasingly disenchanted with politics, which is often reflected in conversations. Much of the real, lasting development that happens in the country is a result of remittances sent from abroad, which account for about 20 percent of GDP. The Salvadoran diaspora remains strongly connected to their roots and involved in the country’s politics.
El Salvador is a democratic republic governed under the constitution of 1983. The president, who is both head of state and head of government, is popularly elected by universal suffrage by absolute majority vote and serves for a five-year term. A second-round runoff is required in the event that no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-round vote. The members of the 84-seat unicameral Asamblea Legislativa are elected based on the number of votes that their parties obtain in each department, and members serve for three-year terms. The country has an independent judiciary and Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court). The country is divided into 14 departments, which are similar to U.S. states. Each department is headed by a governor appointed by the president. Mayors control individual municipalities and are elected.
Compared to other developing countries, El Salvador has experienced relatively low rates of GDP growth, and the trade deficit is one of the highest in the region, at almost 20 percent of the GDP, in comparison to the size of its economy.
In 2004, El Salvador’s original currency, the colón, went out of circulation and was replaced by the U.S. dollar. The price of everything went up, yet wages stayed the same. Many blame this as the nail in the coffin of an already failing economy due to years of war and natural disasters that had stripped the country of its farmland and infrastructure. Today, 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the richest 10 percent of the population receives approximately 15 times the income of the poorest 10 percent.
A Free Trade Agreement signed with the United States in 2006 resulted in job production in the manufacturing industry, which created jobs cutting and assembling clothes for export to the United States, but one of the highest crime rates in the world and corruption still deter direct foreign investment.
Most experts agree that this lack of investment is the number-one reason the economy of El Salvador has not been growing. Investment has never been high, but in recent years it has taken a turn for the worse. Gang violence and negative media coverage continue to deter foreign investment, and the basic costs of running a business are high.
In addition to the lack of foreign interest, new growth sectors for a more diversified economy have not been developed. For many years, El Salvador was considered a monoexporter, an economy that depended heavily on one type of export, initially indigo, then coffee. When the demand for both of these products petered out, tourism became the next logical next step in building the economy, but negative media images of the country and lack of infrastructure have prevented many possibilities from being properly exploited.
The return of Salvadorans who have inherited the consumerist ideals of the United States has created a strong market for fast-food chains as well as other international goods. One only needs to head to one of San Salvador’s famously carnival-like malls for proof of this. The upper echelon of Salvadoran society is obsessed with shopping, name brands, and the newest technology.
Instead of choosing an investment path and creating incentives in sectors like alternative energy or technology, what is growing in the country are commercial centers, car sales, and cell phone consumption. An estimated 20 percent of El Salvador’s GDP is made up of remittances from abroad, and according to the Migration Policy Institute, 1 in 5 Salvadorans live in the United States.
People and Culture
El Salvador’s population currently stands at 6.2 million, making it the most densely populated country in Central America. Most people are of a mixed European and indigenous background, with small pockets of indigenous people concentrated mostly in Izalco and Nahuizalco in the west, Cacaopera in the east, and Panchimalco, just outside of San Salvador.
Due to the abundance of volcanoes and mountains, habitable areas are limited, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on urban spaces. Rush-hour traffic in San Salvador is a good indication of the ever-growing urban population; traffic after dark, however, tells a different story—this is when everyone has retreated to their homes, nervous about crime and violence. Some of these homes may be luxurious, on the outskirts of the center near the volcano, where the air is clean and security is provided 24 hours daily, but the majority head to one of the many sprawling shantytowns or apartment buildings teeming with families living in tiny, claustrophobic spaces. El Salvador’s population continues to grow and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down anytime soon—many people joke that Salvadorans are just as fertile as their soil. One in every three babies is born to a mother under age 18. It is the norm for teenagers as young as 15 to have babies, and often the young mothers work while the grandmothers take care of the children. Only in the upper classes are women waiting longer to have children, focusing on education and career first.
The majority of Salvadorans are devoutly Roman Catholic. Religious idols adorn most people’s homes, and it is normal to see rosaries hanging from rearview mirrors in cars and crosses worn around the neck. A belief that the events of one’s life are God’s will is prevalent and is demonstrated in the frequent usage of term Ojalá, which finds its root in the Arabic Insha’Allah, meaning “God willing,” and is used mostly to express a want or desire for something to happen in the future.
All indigenous religious practices were pushed underground after La Matanza in 1932 and never openly reappeared, but that does not mean they do not exist. There are still people who practice indigenous religions, most notably in the primarily indigenous areas: Izalco in the west, Panchimalco in the center, and Cacaopera in the east. This is most evident during festivals or religious holidays, when there are elements from both Roman Catholicism and indigenous traditions.
In Panchimalco, for example, during the Festival de las Flores y Palmas (Festival of Flowers and Palms) in May, the town celebrates its two patron saints with a spectacular festival. The origin of this event is in pre-Columbian Mayan culture, when it was used to commemorate the start of the rainy season. Women strip the palm branches of their leaves and replace them with colorful flowers, creating huge fronds that they then carry through the town. In the afternoon, a group of boys and men perform a religious dance drama that reenacts the Spanish conquest, and afterward a large altar to the Virgin Mary is adorned with flowers and carried through the town by women dressed in traditional clothing.
Spanish is the official language of El Salvador and is spoken by virtually all inhabitants. The local Spanish vernacular is called caliche and is considered informal slang. Like most other Latin American countries, Salvadorans have an extensive list of words that are not used anywhere else. That is why even visitors who speak Spanish may have a hard time understanding the lively banter among Salvadorans.
The indigenous language is Nahuatl and is only spoken by about 1 percent of the population. The language was all but eradicated when most of the indigenous population was killed in 1932, striking terror into those remaining. They spoke only Spanish in order not to betray their indigenous roots and risk being murdered. However, there is a movement to revive the language, and young people are spearheading it. They call themselves neohablantes, which refers to someone who is not indigenous but has studied Nahuatl with indigenous teachers.
Many Salvadorans speak English, and not just in the city. This is because of the large numbers of people who emigrated to the United States during the war and later returned of their own accord or were deported. In the upper classes, pretty much everybody speaks English, as they attend private bilingual schools. For those who study in the public system, primary and secondary education involves English classes, so they usually have basic English skills. Many Salvadorans prefer not to speak English unless they absolutely have to, either as a point of national pride or personal modesty. Oftentimes someone will tell you they don’t speak English, but when the pressure is on, they perform like a pro.
The government provides free education up to grade 9, but only 82 percent of children in El Salvador make it this far. School is mandatory from the age of 7 to age 15, but in many rural areas, choosing between getting an education and helping your family survive is all too common a dilemma. The FMLN government has been responsible for some notable achievements when it comes to education, including government provision of uniforms, shoes, and supplies to public school children, as well as financial assistance to low-income people. These strides have definitely marked some education reform, but several problems remain. In rural areas, many students must walk for hours just to get to their school, sometimes not returning home until after dark. There are many cases when children work instead of going to school, to supplement the family income. It is very common to see young children selling food on the bus or washing windshields in the city. In addition, young boys are often recruited by gang members whose method of operation is to go to school grounds throughout the country and talk kids into joining the gang. For young people living in a cycle of poverty and domestic instability, the feeling of being part of a group and being taken care of is sadly sometimes a more attractive option than going to school.
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Music was often suppressed during the civil war and maybe this is why many Salvadorans seem to be stuck in the 1990s when it comes to their musical preferences. The most popular radio stations lean toward ’90s grunge and rock music.
Traditional music in El Salvador uses marimba, flutes, drums, scrapers, and gourds as well more recently imported guitars and other instruments. On the weekend it is not uncommon to see a group of men traveling on foot with a combination of these instruments and performing in restaurants. Sometimes it is upbeat and fun, but Salvadorans, especially the older ones, seem to love a sad love song, full of longing, with lyrics about lost or unrequited love. Marathon drinking sessions are often fueled by such melancholic music.
Colombian music has also influenced El Salvador, especially salsa and cumbia. The famous La Sonora Dinamita is a Colombian salsa group with Salvadoran vocalist, Susana Velasques. Many nightclubs throughout the country have salsa or cumbia nights, and even if they don’t, by closing time it’s usually salsa or cumbia that ends up being played for the stragglers.
Live reggae and funk bands can always be found at La Guitarra in Playa El Tunco or Trenchtown Rock in Santa Ana, and the younger generation has found its voice in the gritty social commentary of the popular hip-hop group Pescozada.
Finally, El Salvador’s National Symphony Orchestra often performs in the national theaters in San Salvador and Santa Ana. The cost is usually around $2, and it is a wonderful way to take in the theaters as well as some beautiful classical music.
El Salvador’s literature is full of interesting characters. Front and center is Roque Dalton, the revolutionary poet who was assassinated in 1975 by his own compatriots when the paranoia of the war spun so out of control that they turned on him when they thought he was a spy. Dalton is one of Latin America’s most compelling literary figures. His poems were equally political and deeply romantic, and are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s.
Salvador Efraín Salazar Arrué, known simply as Salarrué, was a painter, writer, and diplomat who wrote Cuentos de Barro (Tales of Clay), a series of short stories that provide an intimate window into idealized rural life in El Salvador. Published in 1933, it became one of El Salvador’s best-known literary works and made him one of the founders of the new wave of Latin American folkloric narrative called narrativa costumbrista.
Alfredo Espino wrote one of the most published books of poetry in El Salvador, Jícaras Tristes (Sad Vessels), a collection of simple poems about love and life in rural El Salvador that was published in 1977. The more sophisticated Alberto Masferrer claimed he was never formally educated and instead attended the “university of life.” He was a well-known and well-liked essayist, fiction writer, and journalist. In 1928, Masferrer founded and directed the newspaper Patria, which published social criticism and called for justice for those most in need in the context of widespread poverty in the country. After La Matanza in 1932, Masferrer was exiled to Honduras and never returned.
If you happen to feel like the scenery in El Salvador conjures images of the classic allegory of love and friendship The Little Prince, you are onto something. The rose in the story represents Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, the Salvadoran wife of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer who penned the famous novella in 1943. The two met in Buenos Aires in 1931 and were married shortly after, only to have a long and tumultuous relationship marked by fighting and extramarital affairs. During the course of their marriage they frequently visited the family home of Consuelo in the small town of Armenia in Sonsonate. From that home there was a view of three prominent volcanoes in the Ilamatepec range, inspiring the backdrop for the novella. Consuelo de Saint Exupéry was also a writer and penned her own memoir of their life together called The Tale of the Rose, which was published posthumously in 2000 and became a national sensation in France.
Holidays, Festivals, and Events
Salvadorans are festive folk and celebrate a number of holidays during the year. Depending on how you feel about crowds, you might want to plan your travels to coincide with holidays and festivals or to avoid them. For a moderate taste of Salvadoran party culture, you should try to make it to at least one of the fiestas patronales. These parties last several days and celebrate each town’s patron saint. They are generally religious in nature and involve special masses and processions as well as carnival rides, beauty contests, live music, and general levity.
For a more debauched holiday, the Carnaval de San Miguel tops the list with a weeklong party the last week of November that includes live music, heavy drinking, and dancing. Santa Ana’s Fiestas Julias celebrate patron saint Santa Ana and take place during the last week of July. Events include carnivals, sporting events, live music, rodeos, parades, and masses. Semana Santa is the week leading up Easter and is when you want to go or stay away from the beach depending on your mood. It seems as if the entire country migrates to the coast to drown themselves in ceviche and cerveza for the duration of the week. Finally, San Salvador celebrates its patron saint, the Divine Savior of the World (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) during the Fiestas Agostinas in the first week of August. Although the holiday is religious in nature, many Salvadorans take this time as their annual vacation, and many businesses shut down for the week. Again, the beaches get crowded, and there’s live music accompanied by heavy drinking, while parties take place throughout the capital.
FOOD AND DRINK
Comida típica (typical Salvadoran food) involves a lot of rice, tortillas, beans, cheese, and grilled meat. Comedors (small, inexpensive eateries) are found everywhere throughout the country and have set menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with rock-bottom prices of $1.50-3. All meals are served with tortillas or bread and a small side salad of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. Some of the better comedors have more variety, including steamed vegetables, pasta, or pizza, with a slightly higher price of around $4 or $5 for a plate.
First things first: The pupusa. Anywhere you go in the country, no matter how remote or how elite, you will be able to find this delicious national favorite. Pupusas are eaten in pupuserías, very basic restaurants consisting of a few tables and a grill behind which two or three women expertly shape the corn dough into a bowl shape and then fill it with cheese, beans, or meat and then slap it all together into a small pancake and grill it. Staple fillings include beans, cheese, chicharrón (pork), and loroco (an edible flower). Vegetarian pupusas include the traditional beans and cheese that are available everywhere, but depending on where you go, it is also possible to find pupusas filled with ayote (a type of squash) or garlic. Cutting-edge pupuserías have fillings that run the gamut from spinach to seafood. Pupusas are served with salsa roja (a simple yet flavorful tomato sauce) and curtido (a pickled cabbage slaw). They are very cheap and filling and an amazing boon to backpackers sticking to a budget; a meal of two or three pupusas will cost about $1.
A desayuno típico (typical breakfast) consists of huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) or huevos picados (scrambled eggs with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, and green peppers), queso duro (a hard white cheese similar to feta), or queso crema (essentially a dollop of cream), mashed beans, boiled or fried plantain, and tortillas. Breakfast beverages include refrescos, hot chocolate, and coffee.
Lunch and dinner options include some type of meat, usually chicken, beef, or fish, served with plain rice or casamiento (a combination of beans and rice), salad, and tortillas. In some of the more rural areas, it is common to eat some combination of beans, eggs, cheese, and tortillas for dinner as well.
Meat can be prepared with a variety of sauces. Al ajillo is garlic sauce and is often served with seafood. Encebollado is a preparation in which the meat (almost always chicken) is simmered and smothered in onions. Alguashte is a seasoning typical of Salvadoran cuisine made from ground pumpkin seeds and is used on both sweet and savory dishes.
Salvadorans are full of the entrepreneurial spirit and as a result, there is no shortage of delicious snacks being touted at nearly every street corner. Among the most common is yuca con chicharrón (cassava with pork); a starchy root vegetable similar to a potato is served fried or mashed, sprinkled with fried pork, and topped with salsa roja and curtido. Vegetarians can simply ask for their yuca sin carne (without meat).
Panes rellenos or tortas are another favorite. These are basically hot submarine sandwiches filled with chicken or turkey. Soy meat is also available, making them another vegetarian option. Tacos are the popular late-night snack around the major cities, with thin corn tortillas topped with meat, cheese, and chirmol, a mild salsa made of diced tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican food that are made with a corn based masa (dough). Filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables, they are steamed or boiled after being wrapped in a banana leaf.
Soups are quite popular in El Salvador and are eaten frequently for both lunch and dinner. If the thought of eating feet and innards puts you off, stay away from sopa de pata, a hearty Salvadoran soup that is made with cow’s feet, tripe, yuca, chayote (a green squash-like vegetable), sweet corn, bananas, and green beans, and seasoned with coriander, lemon, and chilies. Mariscada is a seafood soup that can be ordered as a creamy chowder or as a caldo (broth). It comes with mussels, prawns, crab, and often lobster—all with bones and shells. Expect it to get messy.
Sopa de gallina india is probably the most popular soup in El Salvador. It is a chicken soup that comes with vegetables and herbs, made special by virtue of the fact that the hen is free-range. Unless you go to a restaurant that specializes in it, it’s usually only available on the weekend, and it’s a very popular hangover cure on Sunday. Sopa de res is a beef soup that comes with vegetables and corn, topped with cilantro and chilies. Sopa de frijoles is a simple black bean soup. Sopa de tortilla is a Mexican soup but tastes so good that it has made its way to many menus in El Salvador. It has a creamy tomato-chipotle base with chicken, tortilla chips, cheese, and avocado.
Gallo en chicha is definitely not fast food, but it is worth the wait. The best of its kind usually take about two days to prepare, and this is why Salvadorans only have it for special occasions. It is a rooster stew similar to coq au vin, except instead of wine it’s made with Salvadoran chicha (a fermented drink made of maize) and panela (unrefined whole cane sugar). Making excellent gallo en chicha is a point of culinary pride for Salvadorans, and many claim to have “the best in the country.” The official best remains to be determined, but the unofficial best can definitely be found at La Lupita del Portal in Suchitoto.
Refrescos are cold drinks made with local fruits and spices, and are often included with comida típica. The most ubiquitous refresco is horchata. Although every Latin American country has its own particular brand of horchata, the exact ingredients vary. The Salvadoran version of this drink includes peanuts, moro seeds, sesame seeds, cacao, cinnamon, and rice, all ground into a powder and then blended with water or milk and sugar to create a delicious beverage. Other popular refrescos include rosa de Jamaica, a striking red juice made from hibiscus flowers. It is extremely high in vitamin C and cooling for the body on a hot day. Jugo de tamarindo (tamarind juice) is known for its distinct sweet and tart flavor, and cebada is a sweet drink made from barley and sugar. Sometimes you might find a pinch of tiny gray seeds in your refresco; these nutritional powerhouses are chia seeds and they are full of protein, fiber, and omega-3s, making them a great energy fix.
El Salvador’s Best Coffee
Considering El Salvador is a coffee producer, it’s disappointing how variable the quality can be—although it’s always easy to find a cup of coffee, how good it’s going to be is unpredictable. For coffee aficionados, these are the places where you are guaranteed to find the best coffee in the country.
✵ Viva Espresso (La Gran Via, San Salvador, tel. 2289-5052) serves the best coffee in the big city in a tiny, contemporary space in La Gran Via shopping mall.
✵ On Ruta de Las Flores, the best coffee is at El Cadejo Café (Calle Monseñor Romero, Juayúa, tel. 7536-9334 or 7528-6848) in Juayúa and at Jardín de Celeste (Km. 94, Carretera Ataco-Apaneca, tel. 2433-0281) between Concepción de Ataco and Apaneca.
✵ In Suchitoto, La Lupita del Portal (parque central, Suchitoto, tel. 2335-1429) serves a big, strong cup of excellent brew. Farther east, the small mountain towns of Alegría and Berlín both have very good coffee, with Casa Mía (2 Av. Norte 10, Berlín, tel. 2643-0608 or 2663-2027) standing out in the crowd.
Hot drinks are just as common as refrescos and can be found early in the mornings and in the evenings, especially in the cooler areas of the country. Atol is a very popular beverage in El Salvador with roots in Mayan cuisine. It is a thick, hot, sweet drink often eaten with a spoon. Atol de elote is the most common and is made with fresh corn (elote) and traditionally served in a bowl made of a dried calabash gourd. Even better is chilate, which is atol with cacao added to it. Atol de marañon is made with cashew nuts instead of corn. It’s harder to come by but is especially delicious. Atol de chuco is made with purple corn and ground pumpkin seeds, giving it its dark color, which is why it’s called chuco, which means “dirty” in Salvadoran slang.
Hot chocolate is available anywhere pupusas are sold, which is basically everywhere. The hot chocolate in El Salvador is always good; it’s made from ground cacao beans, sugar, and cinnamon. Keep in mind that pupusas and hot chocolate are considered morning and evening fare, and lunch time is for platos fuertes (main plates that include meat, rice, and salad) and refrescos.
Chicha is a fermented beverage made from corn, and can be alcoholic or not. If you want the nonalcoholic version, ask for chicha sin alcohol. It is usually very sweet, and if it does have alcohol, it’s strong. Proceed with caution, as it is impossible to know exactly how strong until it may be too late.