Volcano, Izalco, Sonsonate

Introduction

The smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, El Salvador is also the region's least visited nation. Known less for its world-class surf and stunning forest reserves than the vicious civil war it suffered through in the 1980s and built-up gang violence that occurred in the 1990s, the country has long struggled to gain tourists' trust. Those who do make it here, however, are well rewarded by the hospitality of its proud inhabitants and the sheer physical beauty of the place. Almost every journey in El Salvador yields photogenic vistas: majestic cones of towering volcanoes, lush lowlands sweeping up through fertile hills, coffee plantations, rugged mountain chains – you'll see them all.

Facts

  • Security warning: though largely exaggerated and not as much of a problem as in the past, travellers should remain vigilant towards theft and mugging, especially in urban areas.
  • Currency: US dollar (US$)
  • Language: Spanish
  • Population: 6.9 million
  • Location: Central America
  • Dialling code: international access code + 503
  • Time zone: 6 hours behind GMT
  • Electrical current: 110/120 volts; US flat-pin plugs are used.

When to go

The dry season (Nov– March) is the best time to visit El Salvador: northeasterly winds make for less humid air, more accessible dirt roads, sandier beaches and less daunting waves. Humidity builds throughout late March and April into the wet season (May– Oct), which is fed by Pacific low-pressure systems and sees clear mornings cloud over to late afternoon and overnight downpours. This is the season for big waves, flowering orchids and spectacular lightning storms, but travel can be difficult and flooding and hurricanes are not unknown. Temperatures are always regulated by altitude.

Transport

Visitors flying to El Salvador will arrive at Comalapa International Airport (SAL), about 50km outside San Salvador. The only international boat runs from the Honduran and Nicaraguan islands in the Golfa de Fonseca to La Unión. There are at least two land crossings to each of the neighbouring countries of Honduras and Guatamala. El Salvador's bus network is without doubt the best way to travel within the country. The size of the country, and the efficient road layout around the Carretera Interamericana, mean that budget travellers can get from one point to another within the country in less than a day. Licensed taxis in El Salvador are yellow and black. They can be hailed or found in large towns and cities around the main squares, shopping centres or bus stations. There are no meters, so fares should be agreed before you set off. As far as car rental goes, Western companies rent at Western prices; local garages often charge a quarter of those rates.

Places of interest

El Salvador offers a mixture of mostly Spanish colonial and civil war history in its museums, with some on the indigenous peoples, and natural grandeur in its lush scenery.

Museo de Historia Natural

Calle los Viveros, San Salvador. Wed– Sun 9am–4.30pm; US$0.60. This modest museum has some interesting exhibits on the animals and plants to be found in the region and displays on the country's geological development, as well as a relaxing little botanical garden.

Museo de la Palambra y la Imagen

27 Av Norte, San Salvador, http://www.museo.com.sv . Mon– Fri 8am– noon & 2–5pm, Sat 8am– noon; US$2. The exhibitions and installations here focus on the civil war (from a leftist viewpoint) and indigenous culture. The war photography regularly on display is moving, shocking and excellent. There's a recreation of Radio Venceremos, the clandestine guerrilla radio station that counterbalanced government media propaganda during the civil war.

Joya de Cerén

9km northwest of Los Chorros. Tues– Sun 9am–4pm; US$2.85. This UNESCO World Heritage Site houses the remains of a village buried under more than six metres of volcanic ash at the end of the sixth century and left untouched until its accidental discovery in 1976. Finds here, including utensils, ceramics, jars containing petrified beans and organized gardens, have helped confirm a picture of a stable pre-colonial society. A small, Spanish-language museum at the site details the development of the Maya culture and the excavation project itself.

San Andrés Maya ceremonial centre

A few kilometres southwest of Joya de Cerén. Tues– Sun 9am–4.30pm; US$2.85. This is one of the largest pre-Columbian sites in El Salvador, which had a population of about 12,000 at its peak around 650–900AD. Only sections have been excavated, revealing seven major structures, including a temple, altar and indigo works. You can climb freely around the site and visit the small, well-curated museum (Spanish only); there is a good model of what the site would have looked like in the late first millennium.

Grutas del Espíritu Santo

Corinto. Tues– Sun 9am–4.30pm; US$2. Here you can admire a series of caves bearing pre-Columbian wall art, located about fifteen minutes north of the village on foot through some pleasant scenery. Though faint, the art is said to date back some 10,000 years, and the whole area makes a very pleasant stroll.