SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR: El Salvador was my first country to visit in Central America. I have to say all of my stereotype opinions about Central America were erased on the very first day in this stunningly gorgeous country.
Although there is nothing much to do or see in the capital San Salvador, it can be a good base to start off the journey in El Salvador. Like any other capitols, this is a big cosmopolitan area with big buildings, crowds, and traffic jam. Downtown is a good place to feel city’s energy and learn about its past, although most of its historic buildings were destroyed or damaged by different earthquakes.
The capital, San Salvador, is surrounded by big and small mountains. It’s beautiful especially when you can see the San Salvador Volcano from distance which you can actually hike for a fantastic view of the city. Don’t worry, it’s been dead for many years…but as the Salvadorans say, no volcanos are dead, they are just sleeping…you never know when they will wake up again.
There is a $10 entry visa that you can get in the airport to enter El Salvador with American passport. US Dollar is their official currency; so foreigners can buy and get change back in USD for any purchases or meals.
TIME of TRAVEL: We went to Central America around my girls’ spring break, Mid-March of 2015. Our first stop was in El Salvador, then to Panama, Costa Rica, and finally to Nicaragua. Within El Salvador, we spent a day in San Salvador, one day in historic town of Suchitoto, and last day in Joya de Ceren, visiting the Mayan ruins. The climate is very tropical here and temperature in El Salvador is usually constant throughout the whole year. We were there during the dry season. You don’t want to come here in the monsoon when you can’t get around as much.
OUR HOTEL: Real InterContinental San Salvador was our hotel and base in El Salvador. We stayed here for 3 nights and everything about this hotel was above average. With courteous staffs, spacious rooms, grand breakfast buffet, and great location, this hotel was nothing less than A+ in every way. It was within walking distance from some fast food places and a mall. Although we booked all of our tours before arriving here, hotel can arrange daily tours with professional guides anytime for its guests.
EATING and SHOPPING: Spanish conquerors ruled this part of the continent for few centuries and left many influences here. But don’t expect to get tapas at every corner, like me. The food is more similar to Mexican, but we didn’t see any tacos or burritos.
Our dinners in the capital were mostly from the fast food restaurants that we had close to our hotel. When we were touring San Salvador in a cab, we had lunch in Marcado de Artisans. There was only one restaurant inside the market complex with cheap but good food. Central Americans eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You will get rice almost with any dish. We had flavored rice with bean and chicken, an interesting chicken soup with rice and chicken gizzards, and bite size tortilla on the side. The food was simple but very tasty. Other than that, San Salvador has all the American fast food places, like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, Popeye’s, and etc. If you want to try a local chain which also serves local dishes, Mr. Donut is a good and clean place. By the way, they don’t only offer donuts, you can get full lunch or dinner with sides…all Salvadoran style.
Marcado de Artisans is probably the best place for souvenir hunters. We didn’t see so many gift shops in one place like Marcado de Artisans anywhere else in San Salvador. Salvadoran gifts are usually brightly colored, mostly depicting rainforest lives. You can find dolls in traditional outfits, different animals and birds, religious items, paintings, and many household items for everyday usage. Hammock is very popular here and all over Central America…you will have plenty of options in this market.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had 3 nights in El Salvador, out of which we spent 1 day in San Salvador, the capital. It’s almost impossible to see the sites on foot, since everything is scattered around the whole town. We rented a cab from the hotel concierge for a day and told the driver, who didn’t speak much English, what we want to see and do. It was $10 per hour for 7 or 8 hours.
We didn’t visit any museums in San Salvador, though the city has lots of them. David J Guzman National Museum of Anthropology is known to be one of the most important ones. We passed by Teatro Nacional in downtown which can be a good place for music and theater lovers.
1) FUENTA LUMINOSA: First thing in the morning, the cab took us to Fuenta Luminosa, or Monument to the Sea. It is a big round-about with a grand water fountain in the middle of a busy intersection. I couldn’t take any picture during the day only because it was hard to stop in the middle of the street, but the fountain supposed to be extraordinary at night with its fantastic lights and colors.
2) IGLESIA CANDELARIA: This church sort of showed up in front of us while we were driving towards Catedral Metropolitana. If it wasn’t for our cabby, we probably wouldn’t have stopped here. He parked by the church, rang a bell, and talked to the lady behind a gated door to make an arrangement for us to go inside.
After passing a small courtyard and some cats and dogs, the lady opened a gate to the church. It’s a 100 years old church and still active. Inside is small and simple but nicely embellished. The altar is nicely curved out of wood and adorned with not-so-overwhelming decorations.
3) CATEDRAL METROPOLITANA: This is probably city’s most important and iconic place of worship. It is big in size, beautified with exquisite wood curved altar, and has beautiful patterns on the ceiling.
The cathedral is located in Plaza Barrios in the city center. Opposite of the cathedral is Teatro Nacional or National Theater. There is a small parking space in front of the church. For $0.50, you can park there for a short-term while visiting the church and surrounding.
4) NATIONAL PALACE: National Palace is right beside the cathedral, within walking distance. After crossing a really crowded and busy street, we climbed the stairs to go inside the palace.
Historically, the first National Palace was constructed in 1870, but it was completely destroyed in 1889. The present building is from 1905 – 1911 by Captain and President Gerardo Barrios. I almost felt like I was in Andalusia while roaming around the rooms and balconies of National Palace. The small museum here can be a good place to learn about the past politics and history of El Salvador.
Square in front of the palace is known as Plaza Barrios. A statue of President Gerardo Barrios stands in the middle of the square. It was $3 per adult and kids were free. Plan to stay here at least an hour to look around the old rooms, balconies, lush Moorish style gardens, and small exhibitions and displays.
5) PLAZA LIBERTAD: We walked from National Palace to Plaza Libertad. It was a nice stroll because we came across some outdoor markets, saw locals doing their daily chores, and a hustling-bustling side of the city. Plaza Libertad is a nice spot with some trees and benches in the middle of all the city chaos. Many old buildings surround the plaza and a tall statue stands in the middle as a symbol of liberty.
6) IGLESIA ELROSARIO: Opposite of Plaza Libertad is Iglesia Elrosario, a modern church in the heart of San Salvador. Built in 1970s, this is an architectural jewel of El Salvador. You may not imagine the stunning beauty this church holds from its outside look. With contemporary architectural design, colorful stained-glass windows, non-cluttered altar, and gorgeous statue of Jesus carrying the cross make this place a must-see in San Salvador.
The church is usually closed during the lunch time. We first tried to go there in the early afternoon but had to come back at the end of the day when it was open again.
7) BOULEVARD de los PROCERES: This is one of the widest boulevards in whole Central America. Ten busts of famous Salvadorans line on the both sides of the streets. It is a busy street and we couldn’t stop nor take any pictures.
8) MERCADO de ARTESANIAS: This is a good place to buy cheap and local crafts, including hammocks and many other colorful items. We bought a small painting of a village scene here for a good price. You do have to bargain to get a good deal. Most of the stores have similar items. But do look around a bit to get the souvenir that you will cherish from El Salvador lifelong.
9) MONUMENTO al DIVINO SALVADOR del MUNDO: “Monument to the Savior of the World” is one of the most recognizable monuments in San Salvador. The Savior is the Patron Saint of San Salvador. This another busy round-about of the city. We had to make few rounds around it to get a clear picture.