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Writer Julio Enrique Ávila called El Salvador "El pulgarcito latinoamericano" ("Latin America's Thumbelina"), since it could fit five times on the map of Honduras, its most important neighbor. Yet, the surprises the country bears within are anything but small.
San Salvador, its capital, is the oldest in Central America. Founded in 1525, it has been the political and economic epicenter of the Salvadorans since the Spanish colony.
To the west of the capital, like the green and sharp teeth of a giant, the summits of the San Salvador Volcano stand 1893 meters high, taking a bite out of the horizon.
Its vigilant volcano has shaped society's evolution, carrying the stories of eruptions that have destroyed houses, buried streets and fell trees over and over again. But the stubbornness of the San Salvadorans has prevailed: they have built a city of 72.5 square kilometers with 667 buildings declared to be of National Interest.
San Salvador is the starting point to understand the national geography. The beaches of La Libertad and El Tunco, two departments approximately 40 kilometers from the city, are visited annually by thousands of tourists who want to surf.
There is also Joya del Cerén, a town built 1,400 years ago, which was preserved after an eruption of the Laguna de Calderas. Today, its archaeological remains (which are 35.5 kilometers from the capital) are known as the "Pompeii of America" and are considered a World Heritage Site.
San Salvador was founded in 1525 and, like many cities in Latin America (particularly in their historic centers) is linked to Christian tradition. In this case, at Plaza Libertad there is the church consecrated to the Santísimo Salvador, the country's religious symbol. There are also 203 blocks of protected historic buildings. This is a patrimonial tour.
The city's first Fine Arts Theater was destroyed by a fire in 1910. In order to recover the city's cultural epicenter, and to dissipate the smoke of destruction, the current theater was built between 1911 and 1917. It was considered a national monument for its Renaissance architecture and because many Salvadorian personalities such as the poet Juan José Cañas and the writer Francisco Gavidia stood on its stage.
When the Mexican ranchera singer Pedro Infante traveled to the city in the 50s, he used to visit this billiard hall, the oldest in San Salvador. The building in which it is located, with square columns decorated with Corinthian and Ionic capitals, was built in 1917 and is part of the historical heritage of the city center for its Art Nouveau architecture. What began as an Italian trading house was transformed, in 1937, into the most renowned pool hall in the city for its longevity, but also for its parties.
Every story has a beginning, and the history of San Salvador inescapably begins with this square. Built in 1546, its grid (in the Spanish style) determined the shape of the city, the layout of its streets and the organization of its buildings until the 19th century.
Its name is a tribute to the cry of independence, the first in Central America, which took place on November 5th, 1811. To commemorate the country's heroes, in the center of the square stands the Angel of Independence: a 16-meter tall monument designed by the Italian architect Francisco Durini in 1911.
For 12 years, El Salvador experienced a civil war that left around 75,000 people dead, half a million displaced and 6,000 disappeared. Here, the citizens of San Salvador congregated to celebrate the treaty that put an end to the armed conflict on January 16th, 1992. Inaugurated in 1909, this place pays tribute to a bronze statue to President Gerardo Barrios who, at the end of the 19th century, drove the country's economy forward through the export of coffee.
Like many other buildings, this cathedral has a history of destruction and rebirth. The building process was finished, after four decades, in 1999; however, its 45-meter facade still keeps the echo of past temples. The first one, the church of Santo Domingo, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1873. Inside the cathedral lies the tomb of Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, one of the martyrs of the Salvadoran civil war for his defense of human rights in the country, canonized in 2018 by the Catholic Church.
San Salvador is another starting point for the 'Mayan Route': a trail of archaeological remains that preserve pyramids, temples, sports fields, economic centers and pre-Hispanic relics. Several stops in the route are located near the capital, at La Libertad and Santa Ana.
In a valley crossed by the Acelhuate and Lempa rivers stands the largest archaeological site in the country. Its 71.8 hectares keep the architectural vestiges of what used to be the city of Cihuatán for 300 years.
This town, which prospered between the years 900 and 1,200, was made up of eight neighborhoods, an acropolis that faced east and a ceremonial center built to the west.
From 250 BC to 250 AD, in this place there was a Mayan settlement that traded obsidian, ceramics and jade with other cities of the time such as Kaminaljuyú and Tazumal. Today, its six hectares of archaeological conservation protect the six surviving pyramids, which are partially buried. The site also has a museum and an indigo workshop.
Its recovery was a race against time, since the locals of the nearby town of Chalchuapa extracted earth, sand and stones from this settlement to make bricks. It was in the 1940s that the American archaeologist Stanley Boggs began the exploration, research and conservation plan in what was one of the most prosperous Mayan settlements in El Salvador for a millennium.
One of the most valuable objects found in this place is the Tazumal Stele (which in the Nahua-Quiché language means "Place in which souls are consumed"): a 2.65-meter high sculpture that represents a woman dressed in ceremonial clothing.
Inaugurated in 1996, this archaeological site preserves what used to be a Mayan settlement that flourished in the Zapotitán Valley for some 300 years. In its heyday, it had about 200 buildings and was a Mayan seigniory; therefore, it had political and economic power over smaller towns in its vicinity
This Mayan settlement was abandoned approximately 1,400 years ago and rediscovered by accident in 1976. What at first seemed like a single house, turned out to be part of a pre-Columbian town.
The eruption of the Ilopango volcano forced its inhabitants to flee, leaving their homes, tools, food and animals behind. The volcanic ash preserved the structures of the city. As a result, the archaeological remains are also called "The Pompeii of the Américas". The site’s ten recovered buildings (which include houses, warehouses and divination places) are considered World Heritage by Unesco.
The museographic history of El Salvador is relatively young: the first museum in the country was founded in 1983 in the capital. Since then, around a dozen establishments have been founded.
For eleven years, three times a day, Radio Venceremos secretly broadcasted the comings and goings of the Salvadoran Civil War. A replica of this radio station, a Latin American symbol of resistance and struggle, is exhibited in the museum (founded after the peace agreement by the Venezuelan journalist Carlos Henríquez Consalvi, who was also the founder of the station in 1981).
In this place, photographs have a leading role. Important Salvadoran milestones such as the peasant uprising of 1932 or the ecclesiastical career of human rights defender Óscar Arnulfo Romero are presented and explained through timelines.
The Museum of Popular Art exhibits 4,000 pottery miniatures (some measuring only one centimeter) in its Dominga Herrera room, named after the Salvadoran ceramist who exhibited her work in countries of Central America and in the United States.
This place is the flagship of national museography. It was founded by the Salvadoran artist Juliana Díaz (whose paintings are part of the collection’s approximately 90 works) in 1983. The house in which the museum operates is considered a cultural heritage of the nation for its neocolonial architectural style. It was built in 1920 and is the work of architect Armando Sol Estévez.
The name of this museum pays tribute to the composer of one of the national symbols of the country: “Oración a la bandera salvadoreña”. Through its five rooms, the museum traces a route of the history of El Salvador.
In its fifteen years of existence, MARTE (as the museum is called) has become one of the city's most important cultural spaces for its collection of Salvadoran art. With 331 works by artists such as Rosa Mena Valenzuela, José Mejía Vides and Carlos Cañas, this museum hosts one of the largest national art collections in the country. In the vicinity of the Museum, you can also visit the monuments to the Revolution and to the Constitution.
70 kilometers to the west of San Salvador begins a route that explores the rural world of a country in which its traditions flourish in markets and festivals. Here you can trace its main stops and learn some fun facts on the Route of Flowers.
Here you will find places that sell palm-based crafts: from hats, fans and baskets to purses and handbags. This town, the most renowned for its indigenous tradition, is also famous for its native weavings, which are hand made on wooden looms.
It is also the home of the Festival of Canchules (or 'beggars', in Nahuatl, which is another way of calling the tamales), every November 1st. For the occasion, villagers decorate different types of altars with fruits and flowers, and then a jury decides which is the best.
A municipality as skilled in the art of handicraft making as Nahuizalco, but better known for its gastronomic festival that takes place every weekend.
Fried yuca, the flagship product of this town, accompanied by pork rind or pepescas (small fried river fish), is a true royal feast. These dishes are worth trying at one of the yuquerías on Salcoatitán's central park, where you can also buy some sweets at the nearby snack stalls.
It is the first of the three Jewels of Salvadoran coffee on the route. This product is famous for its much less acid taste than other gourmet coffees in the world.
Apart from coffee, the town is recognized by the Chorros de la Calera, a colorful waterfall that bathes its territory.
You can enjoy a cup of Salvadoran coffee in a colonial house, where you will find cafes and restaurants that will make you feel like you have travelled back in time.
In addition, there is the offer of canopy routes and 4x4 vehicle trips to lakes Verde and Ninfas.
Apart from being a coffee zone, it is a destination for outdoor activities such as hiking, horseback riding, high rope circuits and mountain bike excursions.
The thermal 'ausoles', the colonial church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and La Concordia pedestrian walkway are some attractions worth visiting.
Specialty: salvadoran typical food.
In a small house in the municipality of Santa Tecla, in the area of La Libertad, 56 years ago, Margoth Portillo de Castellanos founded the first of five restaurants of the same chain that operate in the metropolitan area of San Salvador.
Over time, the place became one of the best "pupuserías" (a place where you can eat pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran dish that consists of a tortilla made of corn or rice and stuffed with cheese, pork rinds, beans, shrimp or fish). The place is famous for its typical pastries, Salvadoran tamales and nuégados.
Specialty: salvadoran fusion food.
Alexander Herrera—recently appointed Chef Innovación 2018 by the largest food festival in El Salvador—, along with the cook and pastry chef Grace María Navarro and the chef Gerardo Segovia, created Raíz, a restaurant that originates from the concept of pop-up: something that does not have a fixed place or a defined service schedule. For example, this year the restaurant "opened its doors" only four times and offered a menu of contemporary Salvadoran food.
These three chefs are inspired by the country's forests, culture and history to develop the restaurant’s gastronomic proposal, as a result of an arduous field work. "What we do is create a cultural chain: we gather information and we look for ways to tell Salvadoran stories through techniques that we apply to our dishes. The result is a fusion," says chef Alexander Herrera.
Specialty: spanish food.
Founded on February 14th, 1969 by the Spanish chef Ángel García and his wife Marta Elena Barrientos, El Bodegón has been managed for 20 years by their daughter, the Salvadoran-Spanish cook Marta Elena García.
The place offers traditional European dishes such as chipirones (small squid) in their own ink, seafood and a variety of meats.
Its chef studied hotel management in Lausanne, Switzerland, and at the Green Hotel in Spain. She also worked at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Furthermore, for the past three years, she has been one of the juries of the reality show Top Chef El Salvador.
Corn or rice handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese or pork rinds, beans, shrimp or fish.
Wrapped corn dough stuffed with chicken, pork and cochinita pibil (shredded pork meat marinated with achiote) and elote (corn or 'choclo').
Rooster or chicken soaked in Salvadoran chicha (drink based on fermented corn grains, pineapple peels and ginger) and panela.
Meatballs made of flour dough, fried and served with a sugar cane sauce.
He was born in the United States but grew up in El Salvador. He is currently one of the most important exponents of the country's cuisine. His passion for experimenting and innovating has led him to be recognized as one of the most creative chefs in the country.
In his restaurants, Mandala Seafood and El Encanto Country Club, Lorenzo prepares food that explores local flavors, but also gives space to international dishes. His experience led him to be a judge in one of the most important kitchen reality shows on Salvadoran television in 2016: Top Chef El Salvador.
The pupusas are the most iconic dish in El Salvador, but the elotes locos (crazy corn cobs) are a close second. This dish can be found in many street stalls or traditional food fairs in the city.
For 2 servings:
X Congreso Latinoamericano de Paleontología El Salvador 2019
From february 4 to february 8.
Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán.
Fiesta de los historiantes
From july 26 to august 6.
Centro Internacional de Ferias y Convenciones de El Salvador (CIFCO)
From august 1 to august 6.
XXXI Congreso Centroamericano y del Caribe de Dermatología en El Salvador
From november 5 to november 9.
Hotel Crowne Plaza, San Salvador.
Monsenor Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez International Airport (Comalapa), 30 minutes from downtown San Salvador.
US Dollar (USD), since 2001.
25 °C (77 °F)
Buses (SITRAMSS): every day from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Price: 0.33 USD per ticket. Taxis: minimum Rate: 5 USD.
3-star hotel: 75 USD per person. 5-star hotel: 120 USD per person.