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El Salvador

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San Salvador: A Small Giant

Panorámica del Salvador del Mundo en San Salvador

In 1946 the Salvadoran writer Julio Enrique Ávila mentioned in one of his essays that El Salvador was "El pulgarcito latinoamericano" ("Latin America's Thumbelina"). He was referring to its tiny geography, clustered in a bend of the Pacific coast in the center of the continent. It comes as no surprise, then, that Salvador is the smallest country in continental America: its area is 21,041 square kilometers (88,124 square miles) and it can fit 475 times on the map of Canada, its antipode in terms of size.

However, despite being seemingly small, El Salvador is a nation of historical and cultural greatness. Its capital, for example, is the oldest in Central America: San Salvador, founded in 1525, 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 (6210 feet) high, taking a bite out of the horizon. This is a view that, day after day, accompanies the 316,090 citizens of San Salvador.

Atardecer en San Salvador con la vista del volcan

Its vigilant volcano has shaped society's evolution: it carries the stories of eruptions that have destroyed houses, buried streets and fell trees over and over again. But the stubbornness of the Sansalvadoreños has prevailed; they have built a city of 72.5 square kilometers (28 square miles) with 667 buildings declared by the Government as of National Interest (such as the National Theater and Plaza Libertad).

San Salvador is the starting point to understand the national geography. The beaches of La Libertad and El Tunco, two departments approximately 38 kilometers (23.6 miles) 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 that, after an eruption of the Laguna de Calderas, was abandoned and preserved. Today, its archaeological remains (which are 35.5 kilometers / 20.8 miles from the capital) are known as the "Pompeii of America" ​​and are a World Heritage Site according to UNESCO.

San Salvador is the place where the spirit of the country and the continental echoes are brought together. Its cry for independence, on November 5th, 1811, was the first in Central America. Furthermore, in 1935, San Salvador was the first Central American city to host the Central American and Caribbean Games and, on February 2nd, 1992, it was the location where the peace treaty that ended the twelve-year Salvadoran civil war was signed.

San Salvador's Three C's

Commerce: A vibrant Sector

Panorámica del Salvador del Mundo en San Salvador

San Salvador has a varied offer of shopping centers. In the eastern area, visitors can find Plaza Mundo, in the district of Soyapango: a 149,000 square-meter (17,820 square-yard) complex with 250 shops. There, the first Metrobus station was inaugurated in 2013, becoming the central axis of the city's integrated transport system.

The Metrocentro shopping center was the first to open in the city. Its doors opened for the first time in 1971 and today it has almost 500 stores that host 2.4 million people per month.

There is also Galerías, a striking building very close to the Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo in Colonia Escalón, in the northwest of the city. As part of this shopping center there is a colonial house known as La Casona, built in the 50s.

To the west, and around the city of Santa Tecla, you can find Multiplaza and Gran Vía, which have large terraces with cafes, bars and almost 300 shops.

Cuisine: Eating Pupusas (and Something Else)

Fotografía de plato típico en San Salvador

San Salvador offers exclusive restaurants in Zona Rosa, located in Colonia San Benito, as well as in the area of ​​Santa Elena—where the Embassy of the United States is located—in the southwest, on the limits of the Antiguo Cuscatlán jurisdiction.

In the west there's the Plaza Futura complex, in Colonia Escalón, where you can find a great variety of international restaurants with franchises such as Bennigan's and Ruth's Chris, among others.

The Salvadoran gourmet flavor is also the protagonist in restaurants like A Lo Nuestro or Típicos Margoth, where you have to try the star of the local dishes: the pupusa (corn tortillas traditionally stuffed with cheese, but which are also filled with a wide variety of ingredients, such as beans or pork rind).

Culture and Adventure: A Part of Salvadoran’s Lifestyle

Vista de Artículo histórico en San Salvador

Life in San Salvador is defined between these two aspects. The National Museum of Anthropology David J. Guzmán (MUNA) has five permanent exhibition halls and a temporary room to show the history of the country; there is also the Art Museum (MARTE), which has exhibitions and outstanding collections not only from Salvador, but also from all of Central America since 2003.

The National Theater, the oldest in the region, is located in the historic center, and is recognized above all for its Symphonic Season, which has four monthly performances and ends with the great Christmas concert by the National Choir of El Salvador.

To the southwest, half an hour from Santa Tecla, is Comasagua, a place that has become a destination for natural tourism and night tours, given the beauty of its historic center. Some of the coffee farms are open for visitors and eco-tours of its surroundings are also available.

For the adventurers, on the other hand, an unforgettable experience is to climb the San Salvador Volcano and enjoy the panoramic view of the city, along with a cup of the best varieties of Salvadoran coffee. When climbing the volcano, you can visit the Lake of Coatepeque, known for its crystal clear waters where you can practice skiing, Jet Ski driving or diving.

What to do in San Salvador

A Walk Through the Historic Center

Although the city was founded in 1525, the first buildings date from 1546, including Plaza Mayor (now Plaza Libertad) and the church devoted to the Santísimo Salvador del Mundo (the religious symbol of the country). In 2015, to protect its historical relevance, the municipality declared 203 blocks as the historic center.

National Theater of San Salvador

Vista interna del Teatro Nacional en San Salvador

When the city's first Fine Arts Theater was destroyed by a fire in 1910, the Salvadoran poet Arturo Ambrogi wrote: "Italian operas, zarzuelas, dramas and prestidigitación, scientific conferences, concerts of charity and cinematographic films ... everything becomes a smoky dream." 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.

Club la Dalia

Vista interna de billar la Dalia en  San Salvador

When the Mexican ranchera singer Pedro Infante traveled to the city in the 1950s, 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 was originally intended to be 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.

Plaza La Libertad

Vista diurna de monumento en la Plaza la Libertad en San Salvador

Every story has a beginning, and San Salvador's, inescapably, begins with this square: built in 1546, its grid (in the Spanish style) established 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 Salvadoran independence, the first in Central America, which took place on November 5th, 1811. To commemorate the heroes of the independence rebellions, in the center of the square stands the Angel of Independence: a 16-meter (54.2-feet) monument designed by the Italian architect Francisco Durini in 1911.

Archaeological Route

Before the Spanish arrived to the continent in 1492, a flourishing geographic, cultural, political and economic region extended from what is today the south of Mexico to the north of Costa Rica. This territory was the home of the Mayan, Mexica, Zapotecan and Olmec cultures, among others.

At the heart of this blooming land was the current territory of El Salvador. From its capital you can tour the 'Mayan Route': a journey through archaeological sites that have unearthed pyramids, ceremonial temples, sports fields, economic centers and pre-Hispanic relics. The sites are located in departments near San Salvador, such as La Libertad and Santa Ana.

Cihuatán Archaeological Park

Panorámica de parque Cihuatan en  San Salvador

In a valley crossed by the Acelhuate and Lempa rivers, is where the largest archaeological site in the country is located. 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. In this archaeological site you can visit the Antonio Sol Museum (named in honor the man who discovered the ruins in 1929), where photographs, drawings and texts on the commercial, cultural and religious history of Cihuatán are displayed.

Casa Blanca Archaeological Site

Panorámica de rutas arqueológicas Casa Blanca en  San Salvador

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 architectural structures that survive: six pyramids, most of them partially buried.

The site also has an archaeological museum (which displays vessels, tools and ceramics found in the excavations) and an indigo workshop: a place supported by the government of Japan that manufactures garments which are dyed blue using one of the most important products of Colonial El Salvador: the indigo.

Ruins of Tazuma

Panorámica de Tazumal en San Salvador

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 (8.7-feet) high sculpture that represents a woman dressed in ceremonial clothing.

San Salvador Through its Museums

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 thanks to governmental, private and mixed efforts.

Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen

Vista interna de museo en San Salvador

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, 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 also have a leading role. Through material collected to reconstruct the Salvadoran memory, events of the country such as the peasant uprising of 1932 or the ecclesiastical career of human rights defender Óscar Arnulfo Romero are presented and explained through timelines.

Museum of Popular Art

Vista de arquitectura artística en San Salvador

The town of Ilobasco, 57 kilometers (35.4 miles) from San Salvador, is recognized in the country for its pottery tradition: about 80 artisan families create clay vases, pots, statues and masks. However, the most precious objects made by these artisans are their miniatures.

The Museum of Popular Art exhibits 4,000 of these pieces (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 the United States.

Museo Forma

visualización interna del museo la forma en San Salvador

This place is the flagship of national museography. It was the first space of its kind in the city and its history dates back to 1983, when it was founded by the Salvadoran artist Juliana Díaz (whose paintings are part of the collection’s approximately 90 works). 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.

A Journey Through the Colors of El Salvador

70 kilometers (43.4 miles) to the west of San Salvador is Nahuizalco, the first stop of the Ruta de las Flores, a route that explores the rural world of a country in which its traditions flourish in markets and festivals.

"I've drank coffee from my 'pacha' (as they call a baby's bottle)" is a common saying in El Salvador. This is no exaggeration: the country's culture and economy have historically revolved around the cultivation, processing, trade and, of course, consumption of this grain, at least since mid-19th century.

This is one of the main attractions of the Ruta de las Flores, which crosses a traditional coffee-growing area in the west of the country: a region bordering Guatemala a couple of hours from San Salvador, between the departments of Ahuachapán and Sonsonate.

Coffee is just one of the reasons why more than a million people each year travels the Route, which owes its name to its colorful landscapes, adorned by flowers, that can be seen in the municipalities of Nahuizalco, Salcoatitán, Juayúa, Apaneca, Ataco and Ahuachapán.

These villages are famous for their productive activities with indigenous techniques, such as textile manufacture, the cultivation of ornamental plants, woodcrafts and coffee production.

In Nahuizalco, the first stop from San Salvador, there are places that sell palm-based crafts: from hats, fans and baskets to purses and handbags. This town, important for its indigenous tradition, is also famous for its native weavings, which are hand made on wooden looms.

Fachada de iglesia en San Salvador

There are also cultural events such as the Festival de los Canchules (or 'beggars', in Nahuatl, which is also 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.

Children and adults go out at night carrying religious cards of saints and, to the ring of the bells of the Church of St. John the Baptist, they walk through all the altars reciting in unison: “Ángeles somos y del cielo venimos, Canchules pedimos para nuestro camino” ("We are angels and we come from heaven, Canchules we ask for the road.")

The tradition does not end when they receive these Canchules, sweet ayotes, fruits, bread and even chicha: in exchange for the gifts, they must recite a Hail Mary or the Lord's Prayer as a sign of gratitude.

The route continues to Salcoatitán, 79 kilometers (49 miles) from San Salvador: a municipality as skilled in the art of handicraft making as Nahuizalco, but better known for its gastronomic festival that happens every weekend.

The fried yuca, the flagship product of this town, accompanied by chicharrones 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.

24 Hours in San Salvador

Panorámica del atardecer en San Salvador

"Is it far away?" is a tricky question for Salvadorans. The beach farthest from the capital is three and a half hours by car; reaching a misty mountain forest can take up to 40 minutes and visiting typical cities or towns does not require driving more than three hours.

Sure, for a Salvadoran a 90-minute travel may be far, and three hours is definitely too far. Yet, any visitor coming from a country of more than 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) will know that a beach 40 minutes from your hotel in the capital is practically in the same neighborhood.

To make the most of a day in El Salvador, you have to get up early. San Salvador offers good breakfast options, both in hotels and in small neighborhood 'comedores', where they offer dishes like frijoles volteados, fried sweet plantains, scrambled eggs, fresh cheese and cream.

At the capital you can find a wide variety of fresh fruits, such as annona, jocote and mangoes, as well as juices. A cup of Salvadoran coffee—one of the most important agricultural products in the country—, goes really well with every option, particularly with the traditional 'pan dulce' (sweet bread), made with panela honey or jelly.

Leaving the city through Calle del Puerto, 32 kilometers (19.8 miles) to the south, you will find the beach of La Libertad. It is a journey of almost an hour through the forest, and from time to time you will be able to take a glimpse of the valley or the Cordillera del Bálsamo.

Puerto de La Libertad was key to the international indigo and coffee trade since 1869, when the original pier was built. Today, it is dedicated to artisanal fishing and hosts a market where freshly harvested seafood is offered.

Sellers are friendly and often teach visitors about fish species; they even share typical recipes such as the mariscada, one of the most popular dishes in this region.

Surfers come from all over the world to ride the Pacific waves at La Libertad. Those who do not practice this sport can also watch the show from the long pier while having a ceviche with a beer in one of the nearby shops, like Baldizón, for example, which has been operating in the area for 19 years.

Panorámica nocturna de la ciudad de San Salvador

20 minutes from La Libertad you will find the typical Pacific black sand beaches of El Zonte or El Sunzal. The landscape is composed of small chalets on the edge of the cliffs or by the beach.

There you can enjoy great seafood in places such as Café Sunzal, Betos's and La Casa de Frida, and explore tourist corridors such as the El Tunco beach, where you can choose between Boca Olas, Tekuani-Kal, Monkey Lala and La Guitarra resorts, to name a few.

Starting from El Sunzal, on the way back to San Salvador, a short 50-minute detour to the east will take you to Comasagua. This small town is ideal for grabbing a coffee with chocolate fondue and fruits at El Mirador de Giralda, where you have an outstanding view of the impressive Cordillera del Bálsamo.

Once you reach the highlands, between Comasagua and the capital, you will cross Monseñor Romero Boulevard to take the Calle al Volcán for 25 minutes, until you reach dozens of farm terraces turned into cafes, bars and restaurants like Las Brumas, San Fernando Café or La Plaza Volcán, all of them 20 minutes away from San Salvador.

At the end of the day, a good plan is to walk along the edge of the Boquerón crater, the mouth of the volcano located next to the capital, which is one and a half kilometers (0.9 miles) in diameter and 1,800 meters above sea level. From there you can gaze at much of the Salvadoran territory, including the highest and closest mountains of Guatemala and Honduras.

Back in San Salvador, at dinnertime, look for pupusas—handmade corn tortillas that are usually stuffed with cheese and other ingredients, such as refried beans or pork rinds—and other typical dishes in the municipality of Antiguo Cuscatáln, near the Botanical Garden.

Those with a more refined taste can either find gourmet cuisine in restaurants such as Benito, la Gastroteca or II Bongustaio, or enjoy German ribs or sausages with craft beer in Cadejo.

If you enjoy a good party, a nice way to end the day is to make the most of the nightlife at the Salvadoran capital in the bars of Zona Rosa, Multiplaza, La Gran Vía or Paseo el Carmen, in Santa Tecla.

Where to Eat

Plaza Futura, at Paseo General Escalón and near the World Trade Center, has 17 stores including restaurants and cafes. Another option is Calle del Boquerón, located 20 minutes from the city center, near El Boquerón National Park. A stretch of 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) where you can stop at several viewpoints to get one of the best views of the San Salvador Volcano or enter one of the eight cafes and restaurants in the area. Here, the offer includes traditional Salvadoran dishes and locally produced coffee.

The Coffee Section of the Route

The following municipalities are Juayúa, Apaneca, Ataco and Ahuachapán. They are the crown jewels of the Salvadoran coffee industry, famous for producing a much less acid coffee than others considered gourmet around the world.

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. There you can also practice hiking and horseback riding, do a high rope circuit or take a mountain bike excursion.

Chorros de la Calera, a colorful waterfall in Juayúa; canopy routes and 4x4 vehicle trips to Laguna Verde and the Ninfas in Apaneca; the thermal 'ausoles', the colonial church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and La Concordia pedestrian walkway in Ahuachapán are just some of the outstanding attractions these regions have to offer.

Restaurants

Tipicos Margoth

Restaurante colorido, Típicos Margot en San Salvador

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).

In addition to the pupusas, the menu includes pastries (wrapped corn dough stuffed with beef or chicken with vegetables). Other options are fried plantains, Salvadoran tamales (wrapped in banana leaf, and made of white corn dough with achiote, chicken or pork meat, green beans and potatoes in the center) and nuégados (dough meatballs made of flour, fried and served with sugar cane sauce) with chilate (a dink made of chilli, toasted corn, cocoa, anise, pepper, ginger and cinnamon).

Restaurante Raíz

Vista de restaurante Raiz en San Salvador

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 are the creators of Raíz, a restaurant that originates from the concept of the '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, that is the 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.

Typical dishes

  • Pupusas: corn or rice handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese or pork rinds, beans, shrimp or fish.
  • Tamales: wrapped corn dough stuffed with chicken, pork and cochinita pibil (shredded pork meat marinated with achiote) and elote (corn or 'choclo')
  • Gallo en chicha: rooster or chicken soaked in Salvadoran chicha (drink based on fermented of corn grains, pineapple peels and ginger) and panela.
  • Nuégados: meatballs made of flour dough, fried and served with a sugar cane sauce.

A chef: Lorenzo Álvarez

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.

A Recipe: elotes locos

Elotes locos, comida típica de San 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 most of the street stalls or traditional food fairs of the city.

For 2 servings
Ingredients:

  • 1 corn (tender corn cob)
  • 1 skewer
  • Mayonnaise
  • Tomato sauce
  • Mustard
  • 1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preparation:

  1. Cook the corn in boiling water until tender.
  2. Insert a skewer in the corn to hold it.
  3. Cover the corn with mayonnaise.
  4. Apply a few lines of tomato sauce and mustard around the corn.
  5. Cover everything with grated cheese.

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Relevant data

Airport

Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez International Airport

Language

Spanish

Currency

United States dollar

Average temperature

74.3ºF

Transport

Every day from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. To enter the system, you need a prepaid electronic card called "Subes". Each ticket costs 0.33 USD.

Taxi

Minimum rate: 5 USD. Rate to the airport: 25 USD. Hourly rate: 12 USD.