Things to Do in El Salvador
The star attraction of the Cerro Verde National Park is also its most menacing – the Santa Ana Volcano (Volcán Ilamatepec), El Salvador’s biggest and most active volcano, last erupting as recently as 2005, when the force of the eruption flung car-sized rocks for more than 1.5 km.
Scaling the 2,381-meter peak of Santa Ana is a popular challenge for hikers, a 1.5-hour trail climbing up from the scenic San Blas Plateau and affording spectacular views of the neighboring Coatepeque caldera and Izalco volcano. From the summit, the views span the entire National Park, but equally impressive is the otherworldly terrain found at the top of the volcano and hikers can walk around the rim of the crater, looking out over the four nested calderas and an emerald green crater lake.
A startling blue pool nestled beneath the peaks of the Cerro Verde, Izalco and Santa Ana volcanoes and fringed by sloping sugar and coffee plantations, Lake Coatepeque is among El Salvador’s most enchanting natural attractions, located on the cusp of the Cerro Verde National Park. At almost 6 km in length, this is the country’s largest lake, formed in the crater of an ancient volcano more than 50,000 years ago and nurturing a colorful population of catfish, guapote and zebra fish.
A tranquil holiday destination for both locals and travelers, the most popular activities at Lake Coatepeque are swimming and water sports, with sailing, kayaking, waterskiing and scuba diving all possible. Additional highlights include the hot springs dotted around the water’s edge and the island of Teopan, once an important place of Mayan worship.
Located within El Salvador’s Cerro Verde National Park (Parque Nacional Cerro Verde), the Izalco Volcano is the highest in the country and the park’s most visually beautiful peak. It’s also one of the most challenging treks in the park; it takes visitors an average of three hours (one way) to reach the summit at 6,404 feet (1,952 meters).
A baby when compared to other Central American volcanoes, Izalco only formed in 1770 and didn’t stop erupting until 1966. It’s violent eruptions made the volcano a natural beacon for sea farers off the Salvadoran coast, earning it the nickname Lighthouse of the Pacific. These same eruptions were also responsible for sculpting the volcano’s near perfect conical shape, lunar-like and unvegetated, with a 820-foot (250-meter) wide crater at its summit.
With a trio of peaks set around the dramatic volcanic crater of El Boqueron, the wildflower covered slopes of El Boquerón National Park make a scenic hiking spot and at less than 30 minutes drive from San Salvador, it’s a popular choice for a day trip from the capital.
The main highlight of a visit to El Boquerón is the views, which look out over San Salvador and the distant Lake Ilopango and Izalco Volcano, and there are a number of lookout points to choose from. Walking trails run to the summits of El Boquerón, El Jabalí and El Picacho, the highest at 6,430 feet, and it’s also possible to hike down into the crater itself, a 1,600-foot deep caldera, measuring about 5 km in diameter.
Between 600 and 900 AD, some 12,000 Mayans inhabited a city in the Valle de Zapotitán dominated by a step pyramid. The grass-covered ruins of the pyramid and a large courtyard were discovered in 1977, and excavation of the site continues to this day.
The archaeological evidence suggests that San Andrés was a trading city, as well as the provincial capital. Goods from as far as Honduras, Belize and Mexico passed through the settlement. Residents remained in San Andrés to as late as 1200, and in 1658, the abandoned city was covered in volcanic ash from El Playón, preserving many of the site’s original structures.
Today, the archeological park includes a museum showcasing artifacts from pre-Hispanic and Colonial eras.
With its trio of volcanic peaks encircled by lush jungle, a vast network of hiking trails and the nearby crater lake of Coatepeque, the Cerro Verde National Park presents one of El Salvador’s most startlingly beautiful landscapes.
The main pastime for visitors to the Cerro Verde National Park is hiking and its three volcanoes, Izalco, Cerro Verde and Santa Ana, are all easily accessible. The highest point is the 2,381-meter summit of Santa Ana, El Salvador’s highest and most active volcano, capped with four craters and a glistening green crater lake, but equally dazzling are the views from neighboring Izalco, nicknamed the “Lighthouse of the Pacific” for its near-continuous eruptions over 160 years. Another highlight is climbing the eponymous peak and hikers scaling the now-extinct Cerro Verde volcano will find the mountaintop cloud forest filled with colorful birdlife, including hummingbirds, jays and emerald toucanets.
A pre-Columbian Mayan farming village dating back to A.D. 600 and El Salvador’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, the impressive ruins of Joya de Cerén were discovered in 1976 and have since become one of the country’s most visited archaeological sites.
Smothered by ash during an eruption of the Laguna Caldera volcano, the buried village was preserved in near-perfect condition, earning it the nickname of the ‘Pompeii of the Americas’ and offering a unique insight into the life and culture of the region’s ancient Mayan communities. Today, the remains of around 70 structures have been uncovered at the site, 10 of which have been excavated and are open to the public, including storehouses, kitchens, workshops, a worship area and a temezcal (ceremonial bath).
Strolling past the grey concrete arch of El Rosario Church, it’s hard to believe that the bleak, hangar-like building is a place of worship, and if it wasn’t for the single, featureless white cross rising from its entrance, you’d likely pass right by. Don’t be put off by its dreary façade, though – step through the church doors and you’ll be confronted by a startling wall of color. The inspired creation of artist Ruben Martinez, the arched walls are adorned with scrap-metal figures and feature dozens of stepped windows made of colored glass, which flood the open, pillar-less hall with a kaleidoscope of light.
Built in 1971, the church was as controversial as it was innovative, and today it remains among El Salvador’s most unique and memorable landmarks. El Rosario Church is also famous as the resting place of José Matías Delgado, or “Padre Delgado,” the father of Central American independence.
Built between 1911 and 1917, San Salvador’s magnificent National Theatre of El Salvador (Teatro Nacional de San Salvador) is not only one of the city’s principal landmarks, but a National Monument and the oldest theater in Central America. Designed by French architect Daniel Beylard, the building is among the capital’s most notable works of architecture, with its stately Neo-classical façade giving way to lavish French Renaissance interiors, including a grand mural by Salvadoran painter Salvador Carlos Cañas.
Today, the 650-seat theater remains the heart of Salvadoran performing arts, hosting an ever-changing schedule of classical concerts, theater, folk music performances and art workshops.
The national cathedral of El Salvador may not offer the same old-world architectural charms—like ornate stone work and detailed religious statues—of its European counterparts, but the iconic white Roman Catholic church is still a stunning monument and homage to San Salvador’s deeply religious roots.
Once the site of a violent massacre where some 40 people were killed during a stampede at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero, today the iconic structure offers a bit of peace and tranquility for visitors to this capital city. The white façade gives way to a colorful interior, where images of the Divine Saviour and a four-column bladcchino bless the main altar. Travelers can spend a moment in quiet contemplation, light a candle, and take in the massive paintings that depict moments in the life of Christ while on a visit to the nation’s most famous cathedral.
More Things to Do in El Salvador
Built to replace the original, which was destroyed in a fire in the late 1880s, El Salvador’s current National Palace offers visitors a look at the politic, historical and national past. It is comprised of four main rooms and more than 100 smaller secondary ones, which provide visitors with a unique look at the historical, political and national past of this small South American country.
Travelers caution that many of the Palace’s rooms are now closed to the public despite the fact government offices haven’t operated here since the mid-1970s. But a tour of this famed landmark is still worth the stop, as the early 1900s furnishings and well-curated historical displays present a grander picture of the city’s colorful past. Be sure to check out the Salon Rojo, where the Foreign Ministry held its elaborate receptions; the Salon Amarillo, which once housed the president; and the Salon Rosado, which used to house the country’s Supreme Court.
This bustling urban center named after the famous 2nd century hero, Saint Thecla, is home to roughly 133,000 residents. Travelers to this thriving metropolis, which is tucked at the foot of San Salvador Volcano, can explore the nation’s unique arts, rich culture, deep-rooted religion and eclectic local life while wandering the streets of Santa Tecla.
From the famed halls of the Santa Tecla Museum—built as a prison in 1902—to the neo-classical architecture of the Municipal Palace, to the iconic El Carmen Cathedral, it’s the historical landmarks of Santa Tecla that make this city truly worth a trip.
After exploring the history and architecture that makes Santa Tecla famous, visitors can unwind in Daniel Hernandez Town Square, where locals lounge on grassy patches of land under shaded trees to escape the heat. Travelers will find the three malls that make up Plaza Merliot to be the perfect place for purchasing local food, handicrafts and even designer items.
Construction on the Santa Ana National Theater (Teatro Nacional de Santa Ana) began in 1902, partly because the city lacked adequate entertainment options and partly — and perhaps more importantly — due to a rivalry with San Salvador, the nation’s capital. Whatever the reason, area coffee growers imposed taxes on themselves to raise money for the project, which opened its doors in February of 1912. It’s first production was of the Italian opera Rigoletto.
Located along Avenida Independencia in the old part of Santa Ana, the three-tiered theater has been marvelously restored and stages performances almost nightly throughout the year. Architectural and decorative elements were brought in from around the world, including sculptures on the facade from Italy; furniture from Austria, England and the US; and marble, mirrors and lamps from Belgium and Italy.
Probably the city’s most notable landmark, the Santa Ana Cathedral (Catedral de Santa Ana) was completed in 1913 after eight years of construction. Where many of El Salvador’s churches and cathedrals were build in the Spanish Colonial style typical of Latin American religious architecture, the Santa Ana Cathedral was inspired by the neo-Gothic cathedrals of Europe; today it’s considered among the most beautiful in Central America.
A statue of the Virgin of Santa Ana, the city’s patron saint, sits just within the cathedral’s entrance. Santa Ana is also considered the patron saint of difficult labor, and expecting women often come to pray to the saint. Newborn children are brought back to the virgin forty days alter as a symbol of thanks.
The Monument to the Divine Savior of the World (Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo) is a monument located on Plaza El Salvador del Mundo (Savior of the World Plaza) in San Salvador City, El Salvador’s capital city. The monument is composed of a tall, four-sided concrete base pedestal that supports a statue of Jesus Christ standing on top of planet earth. The structure was designed by José María Villaseñor. This monument is a symbol that identifies and represents El Salvador and Salvadorans throughout the world—after all, the country’s name translates as “The Savior,” and Jesus Christ is its patron.
To study the sculpture in more detail, bring a pair of binoculars or a camera with a good zoom function. It’s hard to get to the sculpture directly, as it’s located in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout with no pedestrian crosswalk leading up to it. Once you’ve made it to the monument, taking a seat on the steps at its base is a nice way to relax from sightseeing and watch the city buzz by. You can also see the monument featured on the back of old banknotes and vehicle license plates.
Suchitlan Lake, the vast body of water created by the Cerron Grand Dam, is the largest fresh water reserve in the county. Visitors flock to this protected wetland in hopes of spotting some of the diverse species of birds and fish that call Suchitlan home.
Built in 1973, the reservoir supplies energy to nearby towns, as well as water for irrigation, livestock and local residents. The dam stretches some 90 meters high, across nearly 800 meters, providing travelers with uniterrupted 306-degree views of incredible El Salvador landscapes.
Founded in 1976, La Laguna Botanical Garden sits within a volcanic crater just outside the city of San Salvador. The sprawling gardens display more than 3,500 species of native and exotic plants, including 35,000 specimens inside the garden’s herbarium. The 7.5-acre (3.15 hectare) gardens are divided into 32 themed zones, with well-labeled collections including medicinal plants, ferns, orchids, desert plants and native vegetation.
The grounds also include a large playground for children and a cafeteria selling refreshments. Seating areas scattered around the gardens are perfect for picnicking or simply enjoying the fresh air and quiet — a welcome break from the noise of San Salvador. Keep an eye out for animal residents, including huge iguanas, fish, turtles and a variety of birds.
The largest of El Salvador’s four national parks, El Imposible National Park is also home to one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, offering refuge for a number of endangered animals and plant species. Set on one of the country’s most important historic trade routes, El Imposible (The Impossible) was named for its treacherously steep gorge that claimed the lives of many travellers and mules throughout the years.
Thankfully, since the building of a bridge across the pass back in 1968, exploring the park has been much easier and today the 3,800-hectare parklands are a prime spot for hikers - a sweeping landscape of riverside mangrove forests and rugged peaks soaring to heights of 1,450 meters. Wildlife spotting is another popular pastime with around 250 bird varieties found in the park, including rare species like Great Curassow, King Vulture, Turquoise-browed Motmot and black-crested eagles, as well as pumas, tigrillos, wild boars and a vast array of butterflies.
Located in Los Planes De Renderos, Puerto del Diablo, or Devil’s Door, is made up of two striking boulders that reach for the sky. Looking between them gives the viewer a panoramic vista over the sights of El Salvador all the way to the Pacific. Devil’s Door is one of El Salvador’s most popular rock-climbing sites, with dozens of established routes for all levels of climbers. For the best views, climb the rock stairs to the top, where you'll rewarded with sights like the red-tiled roofs of the indigenous town of Panchimalco, Lake Ilopango to the left, the double peaks of the San Vicente volcano straight ahead, and beyond it, the Pacific Ocean (if you bring binoculars).
Visitors to Devil’s Door can opt to take a canopy tour, go zip-lining, explore the nearby caves, or even rappel down the cliff’s face. A visit to Devil’s Door is an easy way to escape the city noise of San Salvador for a half day, as it’s only a short bus trip to and from El Salvador’s capital city.
Opened back in 1883, the National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzmán) is a fascinating stop for understanding the history of El Salvador and its people. Spread out over five different halls, the museum—also known as MUNA—holds the treasures and ancient artifacts of pre-Columbian settlers, from the Maya and Olemec to Pipil tribes who inhabited the jungles and coasts. The halls are separated into five different categories, from agriculture and human settlements to religion, arts, and trade. See how native Salvadoran people once farmed and worshipped their gods, including an ancient altar of stone and petroglyphs carved into rocks. If you plan on purchasing local crafts when venturing outside the capital, this is a good spot to learn the facts behind traditional Salvadoran crafts, and gain an idea of what to look for when shopping in local villages. Arguably El Salvador’s most popular museum, the National Museum of Anthropology is a must for travelers in the city.
Perched on a hilltop, overlooking the glittering waters of Lake Suchitlán, Suchitoto is among El Salvador’s most picturesque towns, a maze of timeworn cobblestones and well-preserved colonial architecture.
Suchitoto’s tranquil surroundings and laid-back pace of life make it a popular retreat for capital dwellers, as well as nurturing a lively arts scene, and the streets are dotted with artist’s workshops, galleries and cozy cafés. The town’s most famous landmark is the striking white Iglesia Santa Lucia, but the area is most celebrated for its natural assets, with the neighboring Suchitlán reservoir sheltering a large variety of migratory birds and nearby sights including the Los Tercios Waterfall.
Even though the Civil War in El Salvador ended in 1992, it still feels current, ongoing, and real, at Perquín’s Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución Salvadorena). For one thing the guides who work the museum were onetime guerilla fighters—risking their lives in tunnels and jungles to fight for the rights of the poor. When visiting this moving, informative museum, see remains of the downed helicopter that killed Colonel Monterossa—the leader of the Atlacatl Battalion responsible for the El Mozote massacre. You’ll also find craters created by bombs supplied by the US military, as well as weapons used by guerrillas to battle the government army. As this section of country was pro-FMLN, it also housed the influential Radio Venceremos, which helped to spread the leftist message throughout the rural communities. Nearby, another site has hand-dug tunnels where guerrillas would hide in the hills, and visitors are welcome to climb in the tunnels to feel the cramped, dark sense of space guerrillas endured every day. While the drive from San Salvador to Perquín is lengthy—over three bumpy hours in total—it’s a journey that’s more than worth the reward for learning these tales from the war.
December 11, 1981, is a day El Salvador will never forget. That was the day when American trained soldiers marched into the town of Mozote, and massacred over 800 civilians—half of which were children. As part of El Salvador’s brutal Civil War, the massacre was simply written off as a tragic byproduct of conflict, where leftist guerrillas must be suppressed, regardless of what it might cost. Today, the world has come to realize the slaughter was only of innocent civilians, and had no bearing, and nothing to do with, the rebels the government was fighting. When touring El Mozote Monument today, hear the stories of the lone survivor who escaped the village alive, and see the church where dozens fled just be to shot while inside. Outside the church is a powerful memorial with the names of those who were killed, and a silhouette statue of a family holding hands that rests in the “Garden of the Innocents.” A second memorial sits atop a hill just half a mile from town, where the same silhouette of the family holding hands is which looks out over the forests and valleys that housed such senseless slaughter.
Easily reached from both Santa Ana and San Salvador, the Guajoyo River is a major tributary of the Lempa River, which runs 422 km through southern Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, before flowing into the Pacific south of San Salvador.
Despite running for less than 15 km, the Guajoyo River is home to one of El Salvador’s four hydroelectric power stations, but it’s best known to tourists as the country’s top destination for white water rafting, with Class II and III rapids open to thrill-seekers all year round.
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