The capital of this tiny central American country is San Salvador; also the largest city in the country. Despite that 300,000 people live here, the city felt more like a giant sprawling suburb to me. There are a few tall building spread out around the capital, but certainly no skyline here! In this photo above you can see the entire city, with the downtown area in the center foreground.
While there aren’t any skyscrapers here San Salvador still has an interesting city center. San Salvador’s reputation has suffered a bit from the drug war, so I was surprised to find some really nice areas in the city center. My favorite was the Plaza of Independencia photographed above. I’m not sure why, but the plaza was actually blocked off and a guard would not let me enter. He was nice enough to at least let me step inside quickly to take this photo. In the background is the National Cathedral, one of the most impressive sights in San Salvador.
Only a few blocks away is the national palace. It’s a fairly large building that had day laborers sitting on all sides. Directly in front of the palace is Plaza Civica photographed below. There was an equal number of people hanging out here. None seemed to mind my photography. The most interesting person here was this pigeon whisperer!
Next to Plaza Civica is El Salvador’s national cathedral, officially known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Savior, or in Spanish Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador. This is the largest cathedral of the capital, and while the outside is beautiful, I found the inside to be much more impressive. There was so many paintings and art work that it was like visiting a free art gallery.
The national cathedral is also famous for having the tomb of Oscar Romero. I’ll explain his story further on this page, but for now just know he is one of the most important and beloved Salvadoreans in the country’s history. He was a Catholic priest who was assassinated early on in the country’s brutal civil war. Romero is on his way to achieve sainthood by the Vatican. Below are photographs at the church that show both his life and death.
Another church nearby in the downtown area is the Rosario Cathedral. The church has one of the most unique designs I’ve ever seen. On the outside it appears as a half circle rising and descending in giant steps on both sides. The exterior looked more like a large factory to me. To be honest I even thought this building may be abandoned when I first laid eyes on it. Inside it’s absolutely amazing. Three sides of the church are covered in stained glass. Like the rest of the country though, the church was also a victim of the civil war. Bullet holes on the outside of the structure are still visible, and some people sadly lost their lives while taking refuge during fighting.
A lot of people asked me if I was concerned about my safety while traveling in El Salvador. Sadly when I visited, San Salvador had earned the title of being the murder capital of the world. At the time of my visit it had more murders per capita than any other city in the world except those at war. Throughout the city you’ll see armed guards both on the streets and in vehicles passing by, so there is at least a lot of security present. Despite the highest numbers of murders in the world however, almost all the violence is internal. El Salvador is famous for its gang problem who battle each other in the most ruthless ways imaginable. As a local of northern Virginia, which is densely populated with Salvadoreans, we all know the stories of El Salvador. The gangs of El Salvador exist not only in the country but also abroad in California and Virginia as well. Someone from El Salvador that I know back home in Virginia told me about a friend who owned a restaurant. Once some members of MS-13 showed up to eat dinner, and left without paying. The owners called the police who were able to make an arrest. Some of them were in the United States illegally and were deported. A year later the owner of the restaurant went back home to visit El Salvador, and after arriving he was almost immediately killed.
These two photos above show parts of the downtown area that aren’t in the best shape, but like most countries the population was extremely nice and I had zero problems traveling in the country.
Some of the stories that come from here are certainly scary. When I was in the city, I saw on the local news that dozens of gang members were killed after trying to launch an attack on the police. Other stories such as gang members beheading their enemies or police officers show how they are as a ruthless as ISIS. Despite the statistics, as a foreigner I was pretty unlikely to get caught up in any gang violence. Clearly if I walked into gang territory, I’d never walk back out again. But by using common sense and by staying in the normal parts of the city you are relatively safe. I think there is an enormous difference between traveling in a country where you’re specifically a target, such as terrorism in Syria, versus a bystander in Latin America. Case in point, I wanted to see the Jesus of El Mundo statue photographed above. I walked by myself for several miles in San Salvador and returned at darkness. Would I ever walk around for miles around Kabul or Baghdad? Never! I didn’t ever feel unsafe and enjoyed the experience. The statue was not nearly as big as I had imagined, but it was packed with people of all ages enjoying a perfect night out.
An interesting place to visit is San Salvador’s Memorial Wall. Its an exact copy of America’s Vietnam Memorial in design. Likewise it also lists many of the names of those who died in El Salvador’s civil war which lasted over a decade. The war erupted between the right wing government and leftists rebels who were angry over the disparity between the rich and poor. El Salvador was one of the poorest countries in the world while the elite enjoyed an easy life with little intention of fixing the country’s problems. During the civil war, an incredible 70,000 people were killed. The UN estimates that about 95% of all civilian deaths were caused by the Salvadorean government at the time. After the government was overthrown they were met by gang violence instead of peace. Incredibly there are more deaths per year from gang violence now than there was during the Salvadorean war. With that said, some locals have told me that the memorial is not yet complete.
I still need to emphasize I don’t think it’s difficult to travel to El Salvador with some common sense. I’ve seen some horrible photos of some of the slums of San Salvador, but since I enjoy being a live I never plan to set foot in any one of them. What I find interesting about San Salvador is that despite its reputation many parts of it look like any city in the United States. This photograph shows one of the main highways entering the San Salvador from the east. For some odd reason its hard to feel like you’re in danger when you’re surrounded by Burger Kings and McDonald’s…
San Salvador still growing, and you’ll find several places that are modernized with shopping plazas or malls. I was surprised to see so many trendy restaurants that are back in the US here as well. I didn’t enter this giant mall above but to my understanding there are places of places like this throughout the city. I did eat some fancy Chinese food at this other outdoor mall below. Most nice restaurants I visited were pretty packed with people. A few times I sat alone with my laptop out and used their wifi while I worked on some things. I normally wouldn’t do something like that in a place I considered dangerous, but there were so many others were doing the same thing I was no different than any other Salvadorean.
While exploring the city I discovered this market. It was absolutely enormous, and at first I figured it’d take up a city block, but it seriously felt like it went on for half a dozen. There wasn’t anything too special here for sale. You get most of your typical city market items like produce, small electronics and clothing. In another part of the city I did come across this Christmas Market below. I had visited right before December so Christmas decorations were out in most of the city.
The markets were definitely like any other third world city market you’d visit. They were full with enough people that it was difficult to walk around. Likewise they also have plenty of modern grocery stores like any other country. In the one that I visited, they even had some samples so I got to try a few interesting mixed drinks using Irish cream they were promoting. I tried to explain the drink called the Irish Car Bomb back home, but my Spanish was pretty terrible. I don’t think she understood what I was saying, and having me talk about a war in Ireland and car bombs and whiskey she probably thought I was ridiculously crazy.
Half the time I walked around aimlessly in the city, but a place I made sure to visit was El Salvador’s national museum. At only $3 per foreigner, the museum is a must see and almost free. It covers their history and culture in several different sections. This mural above shows the entire country’s history from the native Americans, to the Spanish conquest, and all the way up to the assassination of Oscar Romero.
The museum has a large section dedicated to topics such as agriculture and immigration. The photo above shows some of the early contraptions that people used to work in agriuculture. There is also an endless amount of ancient pots and pans in this museum. I had seen my fair share of pots and pans in other museums in the country in places like Joya de Ceren or Tazumal.
I was much more interested in learning about El Salvador’s civil war. There was extensive cover on Romero and his assassination, but not too much on the actual civil war to my surprise. This photo above shows some religious people who were assassinated as well during the war. While Romero is the most famous person to lose his life, many victims were assassinated as well, and their identities remain unknown. This exhibit was titled “The forgot People”. The country actually has two civil war museums. One is in San Salvador and shows the right wing governments perspective. My understanding is it doesn’t cover too much history and mostly shows weapons and vehicles. The best museum that is from the rebel’s perspective is nearly four hours away from San Salvador! Needless to say I didn’t take an entire day trip just to see the museum, but I would really like to visit it one day.
To me the best part of the museum was their coverage on Mayan culture. While the colonial Spaniards will forever be known for their atrocities in the new world, I can’t say the Mayans were much better. Their destruction and loss of culture from the European invasion is definitely a travesty, but they were also responsible for some true horrors in the new world. The Mayans believed that in order to keep the gods happy they had to conduct human sacrifices and torture. It didn’t matter if their sacrifice was a 50 year old man or a teenage girl, they did not make any discrimination. People were led to temples during ceremonies while their hearts were cut out when the victim was still alive, among other horrible ways to die. The painting above shows one of the sacrifices taking place. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d rather be taken hostage by ISIS than the Mayans!
Second to the national museum, I’d recommend visiting this Chapel of the Divine, the location where Romero lost his life. The chapel is still in use today as well as the hospital for cancer patients which Romero had founded.
It was at this exact location inside this chapel where Romero was assassinated. He was delivering a sermon during mass when a car pulled outside and fired a single shot. It’s never been proven but nearly everyone seems to agree it was a sniper from the Salvadorean military that fired the shot. Romero died in front of his people and is forever remembered as a martyr.
Romero was targeted by the right wing military because of his political views. While he was moderate in his beliefs, he was seen by many as a communist or socialist. When he visited the Vatican for example, his beliefs were considered to be extreme enough that he was denied a meeting by the pope. Many leftists disagree that he was a political activist, and maintain that he was simply against the military’s treatment of the poor. Romero lived in a humble house by the chapel which is now a museum. Above is his bedroom which was left as is.
There are photographs of Romero and all his personal belongings in the house, as well as his car outside. The most interesting part of the museum were the clothes he was wearing when assassinated. Above is the blood stained clothing he was wearing when he died. I’ve been to museums and memorials all around the world, but seeing his bloodstained clothing definitely made his story that much more personal.
The chapel is definitely not the happiest place to visit in El Salvador, but I’d say one of the most important. On the happier list of places to visit, I’d say one of my favorites is Puerto Diablo. This is a very short hike right outside the city that offers some amazing views, and a little bit of fun outdoor activities. This large rock above is popular for zip lining, and there is even some light rock climbing available.
The hike to the lookout point on Puerto Diablo is short but very steep. I think it took less than ten minutes for me to reach the top. As you can see it’s very popular with local San Salvadoreans. There were lots of families up here as well as some couples who had ventured off trail to relax on a good vantage point.
The views from Puerto Diablo are some of the best I saw in the country. The first photo I took on this page of San Salvador was taken from here. You get a near 360 degree view and on the opposite side of the city there is some impressive scenery.