HISTORY LESSON SALVADOR

El Salvador's name still evokes images of the brutal civil war fought throughout the 1980s in the tangle of mountains and farmlands that quilt the smallest country in Central America. The war, however, is over and the most turbulent aspect of El Salvador today is thankfully just its volcanic landscape.

Unlike its neighbors, El Salvador is not geared to independent travelers. What it does offer is a whole new experience of watching a country strive to redefine itself. Organizations from the US, Europe and Australia are helping to rebuild El Salvador through programs devoted to education, agricultural reform, reforestation, human rights and health care. Participating in these developments and talking to the locals about their experiences and hopes is one of the most productive ways to visit.

 Map of El Salvador

 

History

The Olmec Boulder, a stone sculpture of a giant head found near Chalchuapa in western El Salvador, is evidence of Olmec presence in the region from at least 2000 BC. The step-pyramid ruins at Tazumal and San Andrés show that the Maya also lived in western El Salvador for over 1000 years. Groups that inhabited the eastern part of the country included the Chorti, Lenca and Pok'omame.

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the country was dominated by the Pipil, descendants of Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs and Aztecs, both Mexican tribes. The Pipil probably came to central El Salvador in the 11th century just after the Maya dynasty collapsed. Their culture was similar to that of the Aztecs, with heavy Maya influences and a maize-based agricultural economy that supported several cities and a complex culture including hieroglyphic writing, astronomy and mathematics.

Spain's claim was staked by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who arrived in the area in 1525. The Spanish developed plantations of cotton, balsam and indigo. Throughout the 1700s agriculture boomed, but a group of 14 elite European families maintained control of most of the land, which was farmed by enslaved indigenous people or slaves imported from Africa.

Father José Matías Delgado organized a revolt against Spain in 1811, but it was quickly suppressed. Napoleon's invasion of Spain the following year increased the impetus for reform, and El Salvador eventually gained independence in 1821. This did not alter the dynamics of land ownership, an issue at the core of an unsuccessful Indian rebellion in 1833, led by Anastasio Aquino. In 1841, following the dissolution of the Central American Federation (formed between El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), El Salvador became a sovereign independent nation.

In the second half of the 19th century, synthetic dyes undermined the indigo market, and coffee took main stage in the economy. By the 20th century, 95% of El Salvador's income came from coffee exports, but only 2% of the population controlled that wealth. Intermittent efforts by the poor majority to redress El Salvador's social and economic injustices were met with severe repression. The first popular movement for change followed on the heels of the stock-market crash of 1929 and the subsequent plummeting of coffee prices. In January 1932, Augustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Central American Socialist party, led an uprising of peasants and Indians. The military responded by systematically killing anyone who looked Indian or who supported the uprising. In all, 30,000 people were killed. Martí was arrested and executed by firing squad; his name is preserved in the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional).

By the 1960s El Salvador's failing economy and severe overpopulation drove hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to cross illegally into Honduras seeking work. In 1969, allegations of Honduran mistreatment of Salvadoran immigrants were raised just as a World Cup soccer match between the two countries was being played. National rivalries and passions escalated to a ridiculous level that resulted in El Salvador invading Honduran territory and bombing its airports. The conflict lasted less than 100 hours, but relations between the two neighbors were hostile for over a decade.

During the 1970s the population suffered from increased landlessness, poverty, unemployment and overpopulation. Political parties became polarized and fought for power largely through coups and electoral fraud. In 1972, the military arrested and exiled the elected president and installed their own candidate in power. Guerrilla activity increased, and the government responded by unleashing 'death squads' who murdered, tortured or kidnapped thousands of Salvadorans.

In 1979, a junta of military and civilians overthrew the president and promised reforms. When these reforms were not met, opposition parties banded together under the party name Federación Democrático Revolucionario, of which the FMLN was the largest group. The successful revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 encouraged many Salvadorans to believe that armed struggle was the only way to secure reforms. When popular archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated saying mass in 1980, his death sparked an armed insurrection.

FMLN guerrillas gained control of areas in the north and east of El Salvador and blew up bridges, destroyed power lines and burned coffee plantations in a bid to stifle the country's economy. The Reagan Administration, unnerved by the success of Nicaragua's socialist revolution, donated huge amounts of money to the Salvadoran government, and the military retaliated by decimating villages, causing 300,000 citizens to flee the country. In 1982, the extreme right ARENA party took power and death squads began targeting trade unionists and agrarian reformers.

In April 1990, United Nations-mediated negotiations began between the government and the FMLN, and finally, on 16 January 1992, a compromise was signed and a ceasefire took effect. The FMLN became an opposition party, and the government agreed to various reforms, including dismantling the death squads and replacing them with a national civil police force. Land was to be distributed to citizens and human rights violations to be investigated. During the course of the 12-year war, an estimated 75,000 people were killed, and the US government donated a staggering US$6 billion to the Salvadoran government's war effort, despite knowledge of atrocities carried out by the military. In March 1994, ARENA member Calderón Sol was voted president, amid allegations of electoral fraud.

While some of the reforms outlined in the peace accords have been implemented (most notably the land-transfer program), many Salvadorans consider the current situation to be no better now than it was before the civil war. Unemployment, poverty, disgruntled ex-combatants and a proliferation of guns in the country has led to high homicide rates - just one of the reasons why approximately 20% of Salvadorans now live abroad. In March 1997, the FMLN won elections in the cities of six of the 14 departments; it now governs a greater percentage of the population than ARENA. Presidential elections are scheduled for 1999.

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of El Salvador
Area: 20,752 sq km (8093 sq mi)
Population: 5,900,000 (growth rate 1.8%)
Capital city: San Salvador (pop 493,000)
People: 94% mestizo (Spanish-Indian), 5% Indian, 1% European descent
Language: Spanish, some Nahua
Religion: 75% Roman Catholic, 20% Protestant
Government: Republic
President: Armando Calderón Sol

Environment

El Salvador is a tiny country, about the size of the US state of Massachusetts, located on the Pacific coast of Central America. It's bordered by Guatemala to the west, Honduras to the north and east, and the Pacific Ocean to the south.

For the most part, El Salvador is lush, green and surrounded by cloud-misted hills. More than 25 extinct volcanoes dot the country, the largest being San Salvador, San Vicente, Santa Ana and San Miguel. Only 6% of the country remains forested since the land is intensively cultivated; coffee predominates in the highlands, sugar in the lowlands and cotton on the coastal plains. However, with the highest level of environmental damage in the Americas, El Salvador runs the risk of losing its beauty, especially since it's the only country in Latin America without environmental protection laws. Many of the country's river systems suffer from pollution, and some fear that at the current rate of destruction the country will run out of drinking water in 10 to 15 years.

Although industrial development and hotel construction are major threats to the environment, the most visible problem is trash. A circle of soaring vultures usually indicates where a new load has been dumped by the side of the road. Other fauna that has survived this onslaught includes quetzals, toucans, monkeys, white-tailed deer and zillions of butterflies. There are, however, 90 endangered species in El Salvador, including marine turtles and armadillos.

A wet and a dry season dominate El Salvador's climate. During the wet season (May to October), there's generally a downpour every evening. Between November and April the country is dry and dusty. Daytime temperatures vary little, reaching around 30°C (86°F) in November and 34°C (93°F) in March and April. The coastal lowlands are much hotter than the rest of the country. San Salvador is 680m (2230ft) above sea level, so it has a moderate climate compared to other parts of the country, but it's still pretty sweaty.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$11.4 billion
GDP per head: US$1950
Inflation: 11%
Major industries: Textiles, coffee, sugar, cotton
Major trading partners: US, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Germany

Culture

El Salvador is predominantly a Roman Catholic country. During the war the government assumed that the Catholic Church supported communism because it sympathized with the poor, and it targeted the Church for violence. Many fled the religion either because they feared for their lives or because they were unhappy with the Church's affiliation with the opposition. Protestantism, especially Evangelism, offered a welcome alternative. Other churches include the Baptist and Pentecostal.

Spanish is the national language. Many men, mainly between the ages of 20 and 40, learned some English in the US during the war. Indigenous languages have died out in daily use, but there is some academic interest in preserving the Nahua language of the Pipils.

Most of the music on Salvadoran radio is standard pop fare from the US, Mexico or other parts of Latin America, but there's a small underground movement of canción popular (folk music), which draws its inspiration from current events in El Salvador. Poetry is popular, and well-known writers include Manlio Argueta and Francisco Rodriguez.

The village of La Palma has become famous for a school of art started by Fernando Llort. His childlike, almost cartoony, images of mountain villages, campesinos and Christ are painted in bright colors on objects ranging from seeds to church walls. The town of Ilobasco is known for its ceramics, while San Sebastián is recognized for its textile arts.

El Salvadorans chow down on a standard daily fare of casamiento, a mixture of rice and beans. Another mainstay is pupusas, a cornmeal mass stuffed with farmer's cheese, refried beans or chicharrón (fried pork fat). Licuados (fruit drinks), coffee and gaseosas (soft drinks) are ubiquitous. Tic-Tack and Torito are vodka-like spirits made from sugar cane and are not for those who cherish their stomach lining.

Events

The festival day of El Salvador del Mundo, patron saint of El Salvador, is on 6 August. Celebrations in San Salvador begin several days in advance and include a fair and big parade. Other celebrations are held during Semana Santa (the week preceding Easter) and on 12 December, the day of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Each town also has an annual festival to honor its patron saint.

Facts for the Traveler

Visas: US and Canadian citizens do not require a visa but must buy a US$10 tourist card upon arrival. The card is valid for 90 days. Citizens of Australia and New Zealand need a visa; citizens of most Western European countries do not require a visa or tourist card.
Health risks: Cholera, hepatitis, malaria, rabies, typhoid
Time: GMT/UTC minus 6 hours
Electricity: 110V, 60 Hz
Weights & Measures: Metric (see the conversion table)

Money & Costs

Currency: Salvadoran colón

Relative costs:

  • Budget room: US$5-10

  • Moderate hotel: US$10-15

  • Top-end hotel: US$15 and upwards

  • Budget meal: US$3-8

  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$8-15

  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$15 and upwards

You'll pay more for accommodation and food in El Salvador than in neighboring countries, but at least bus transportation is cheap. Budget travelers willing to be resourceful should be able to live on US$10 a day; travelers wanting more comfortable accommodation and a few sit-down meals should expect to spend US$20-25 a day; and anyone in search of the finer things in El Salvador should budget over US$30 a day.

It's best to bring US dollars - the only currency that you can be sure of exchanging. Few banks change travelers' checks readily and easily, and the policy seems to differ not only between banks but between branches as well. Be sure to change any leftover colones before you leave El Salvador.

A value-added tax (IVA) of 10% is applied to all goods and services in El Salvador; make sure you know whether it's already included in the listed price.

When to Go

The dry season (November-April) is the easiest time to visit: roads are in better condition, you won't get drenched every evening and more cultural festivals take place. The biggest holiday periods are from Christmas through mid-January; during Semana Santa, a week-long festival before Easter; and during the first week of August when San Salvador holds its annual festival. Many services shut down during these periods and hotel prices can rise up to 50%. In the rainy season (May-October), prices are lower, beaches less crowded and the evenings slightly cooler after the rainstorms.

Attractions

San Salvador

El Salvador's capital and largest city lies in a valley at the foot of the large San Salvador volcano. It's not the prettiest place in the world since the valley is a pollution trap which perfectly captures the city's horrendous traffic effluvium. The rural migration and the declining economy during the war expanded the urban poor, and unemployment is still around 50%. Shanty towns abound and the streets are lined with people selling everything from bruised fruit to Velcro gun holsters just to get by.

San Salvador was founded at its present site in 1546 and has been the capital of El Salvador since 1839. Despite its long history, there are no old buildings to see since the accident-prone city has been destroyed many times - by earthquakes in 1854 and 1873, by the most recent eruption of the San Salvador volcano in 1917 and by floods in 1934. An earthquake in 1986 caused considerable damage, and reconstruction is still going on.

The city's central landmark is the domed Catedral Metropolitana, where Archbishop Oscar Romero is buried. The cathedral faces onto the principal plaza, the Plaza Barrios. Nearby, the red-velvet opulence of the Teatro Nacional dates from 1917. Its sensuous ceiling mural is continued into the nearby Teatro Cafe. The city has two markets, the Mercado Ex-Cuartel for handicrafts, handwoven textiles and ceramics, and the Mercado Central for daily needs. The Museo Nacional Davíd J Guzmán holds most of the country's notable archaeological finds, and the Jardín Botánico La Laguna is an attractive garden built on what was once a swamp at the bottom of a volcanic crater.

Accommodation is concentrated near the eastern and western bus stations, but these neighborhoods are not safe, especially at night. You can find better service and safety in a few places near the center and a whole slew of guesthouses on the city's western edge. The Zona Rosa is the ritziest and most exclusive restaurant and nightlife district.

La Libertad

This is a 'been there done that' surfer destination with some of the best waves rolled out by the Pacific Ocean. If you don't surf, there's not much else to do in this small seaside town full of dried, diced and just plain dead fish - all emitting a pungent, salty smell. The closest beach to the capital, La Libertad swells with city folk on weekends. If the crowds get to be too much, head to one of the many beaches along La Costa del Bálsamo, 75km (46mi) of surfable coast stretching west from La Libertad to Acajutla.

La Libertad is 37km (23mi) south of San Salvador, about an hourlong trip by bus.

Montecristo Cloud Forest

The area where the borders of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala converge receives 200cm (80in) of annual precipitation, experiences 100% humidity and rises to an elevation of 2400m (7900ft) - ideal conditions for a cloud forest. In the Montecristo cloud forest, oak and laurel trees grow to 30m (98ft), and their leaves form a canopy impenetrable to sunlight. Ferns, orchids, mushrooms and mosses coat the forest floor, and the local wildlife includes rare and protected spider monkeys, two-fingered anteaters, pumas, agoutis, toucans and striped owls.

The cloud forest is in the Parque Nacional Montecristo-El Trifinio, northeast of sleepy Metapán, a four hour bus ride due north of San Salvador.

Ruinas de Tazumal

The Maya ruins of Tazumal, considered the most important and best preserved in El Salvador, are in the town of Chalchuapa. In the Quiché language the name Tazumal means 'Pyramid where the victims were burned.' The excavated ruins on display here are only one part of a zone covering 10 sq km (4 sq mi), much of it buried under the town. Archaeologists estimate that the first settlements in the area were around 5000 BC. The excavated structures date from a period spanning over 1000 years. The artifacts found at Tazumal provide evidence of ancient and active trade between Tazumal and places as far away as Panama and Mexico.

Chalchuapa is 76km (47mi) northwest of San Salvador, about a two hour ride by bus, usually via the town of Santa Ana.

Off the Beaten Track

Cerro Verde

Cerro Verde national park has two incredible views: the first is the still steaming and impressive Volcán Izalco; and the second is of the blue volcanic crater lake Lago de Coatepeque on the eastern slope of the Volcán de Santa Ana, the highest volcano in El Salvador. Volcán Izalco 200 years ago was nothing but a hole in the earth from which columns of black sulfuric smoke would rise. Then a cone began to form and within a short time it grew to is present size of 1910m (6265ft). Izalco continued to erupt into this century, sending out smoke, boulders and flames that became such an impressive sight by night or day it earned the reputation as 'the lighthouse of the Pacific.' Though still classified as active, Izalco hasn't been heard from since 1966. A marked path leads to the top, about a 3-hour hike.

Cerro Verde is a 2-hour drive south of Santa Ana and is best reached by bus. If coming from San Salvador, Santa Ana is 63km (39mi) northwest, and a bus trip takes about 90 minutes.

Ilobasco

The name Ilobasco is Nahua for 'Place of much corn fields,' though today it's a town known for ceramics rather than cereals. It's especially famous for its sorpresas (surprises), tiny, detailed scenes and figures enclosed in egg-shaped shells about the size of a walnut. The scenes often depict innocuous events in daily village life, though one Ilobasco artist cheekily added a new dimension by enclosing a naked couple in the throes of sexual passion. The local priest attempted to confiscate these sinful sorpresas but they still sell, albeit tightly wrapped in paper. A string of artesanía shops on the main drag sells the local ceramics.

Ilobasco is 54km (33mi) northeast of San Salvador and is well served by bus.

Isla Montecristo

Where the Río Lempa meets the Pacific Ocean, mangroves flourish, egrets pose and fish frequently break the river's surface. Despite El Salvador's poor environmental record, the area known as Isla Montecristo is still undeveloped and pristine. Getting to this spot takes some planning, but you'll be rewarded by the natural scenery and wildlife, and welcomed by the small community who live here. Local families provide food and lodging in their homes and will take you on boat tours of the river and mangroves. Lodging is very rudimentary; it's a good idea to bring some food to share around. Pigs, chickens, dogs and tons of kids add to the atmosphere.

Isla Montecristo is about 80km (50mi) southeast of San Salvador. The bus journey involves multiple changes (usually at Zacatecoluca or San Nicolás Lempa). When you reach the coast, you'll need to get familiar with a paddle to reach the island by dugout canoe.

Northern El Salvador

The districts of Chalatenango and Morazán were the principal areas of warfare between the government army and the FMLN guerrillas. One of the many tactics used by the military was called tierra arrasada (scorched land), which basically involved burning crops and slaughtering cattle. The people who fled the area during the war have now returned, and a visit here provides a fascinating opportunity to witness the process of reconstruction. Buildings (and residents) bear the scars of battles, and land mines are an unpleasant feature of what is otherwise the gentlest scenery in the country.

The village of La Palma, held by the FMLN during the war, is known for its wooden handicrafts, flowering plants, storming rivers and beautiful mountain scenery. It's 84km (52mi) north of San Salvador, a 4 hour ride by bus. Perquín was the FMLN headquarters and now houses the poignant Museo de la Revolucíon Salvadoreña. The museum charts the causes and progress of the war with photos, posters, weapons and the histories of those who died in action. Weapons range from hi-tech hardware to homemade bombs.

Perquín is three hours north by bus from San Miguel. There's rarely anywhere to stay in the smaller villages, though you may be able to stay overnight in a family home if you ask around. If there are Western volunteers in the area, they're normally happy to help. Food is basic and public transport can be infrequent.

Activities

There are a lot of different ways to volunteer in El Salvador, and many organizations exist to help. Centro Internacional de Solidaridad (CIS) runs language schools in San Salvador that take English teachers as volunteers. CIS can also arrange volunteer work with any number of political and cultural groups in the country. Green Arrow's Conservation Connection Placement Program, based in Costa Rica, places volunteers in work positions throughout Central America. CISPES (Committee for Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) is a long-standing activist organization affiliated with the FMLN that places volunteers in programs dealing mostly with workers' rights.

Also good for the heart, El Salvador's volcanic terrain provides plenty of opportunities for hiking. You can trek around the rim of San Salvador's Boquerón volcano or follow a trail down into the crater itself. Other nifty hiking spots include the Cerro Verde national park, Montecristo cloud forest and around La Palma and Perquín.

You can catch excellent waves surfing off the beaches of Playa del Costa, La Libertad and points west along La Costa del Bálsamo. The islands in the Golfo de Fonseca offer a good excuse to go boating, and you may well encounter dolphins and sea turtles along the gulf's black sand beaches. Rougher waters await down the Lempa, Paz and Torola Rivers, all good for rafting and kayaking. The country's 14 Turicentros are popular recreational and camping parks usually located at beaches, lakes or natural springs.

Getting There & Away

El Salvador is a hub for Central American air transport: it has connections to all major cities in the region, plus flights to US cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco. Taca is the national airline; American, Continental, Delta and United airlines are also active in the country. International flights arrive at Comalapa International Airport, situated on the Pacific coast, 44km (27mi) south of San Salvador. There's a departure tax of US$23 on international flights.

San Salvador, Santa Ana and San Miguel are linked to Tegucigalpa (Honduras) and Guatemala City by bus. You can cross the border between El Salvador and Guatemala at Anguiatú, Las Chinamas, La Hachadura and San Cristóbal. The main crossings to Honduras are at El Amatillo and El Poy. A token departure tax is payable to border guards. There are also buses to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama.

Getting Around

El Salvador is a tiny country, so it takes only a few hours to get from the capital to any point in the country by car or bus. The country's bus system is excellent; vehicles may be crowded, but they're cheap and run frequently. Most towns in El Salvador have taxis; fares are negotiable.

There are car rental agencies at the airport and in San Salvador. Drive on the right and keep in mind that only a small percentage of the country's roads are paved. Carjackings and car theft are not uncommon, but you're more likely to fall foul of locals' erratic driving habits and animals who think the highway is a fun place to graze.

From Comalapa International Airport, it's a 45 minute drive north to San Salvador on a well-maintained highway. It's best to catch a taxi or a colectivo van. There are some domestic flights in El Salvador, but it's absurd to spend large sums of money on puddle-jumps. Domestic airlines use Ilopango Airport, 13km (8mi) east of the capital.

Recommended Reading

  • El Salvador: The Face of Revolution by Robert Armstrong & Janet Shenk is a very readable history of the country, focusing on the roots and reasons behind the recent civil war.

  • I Was Never Alone: A Prison Diary from El Salvador is a first person account of life in a women's prison during the war, written by Nidia Diaz, a guerrilla commander shot and captured by the military in 1985.

  • Joan Didion's Salvador is a laconic, piercing portrait of El Salvador in 1982, which avoids breast-beating its way to the moral high ground by using well-honed skills of allusion and irony.

  • Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Soccer War is a brilliant report of the 1969 conflict between El Salvador and Honduras which captures both the farce and the atrocious historical causes of the conflict. The article is included in the anthology of Best of Granta Reportage.

  • So Far From God by Patrick Marnham is an unflinching and lucid appraisal of Central America, its Spanish legacy, its current problems and its troubled relationship with the US.

  • PJ O'Rourke is more blunt and much more funny in Holidays in Hell.

  • Exiled novelist and poet Manlio Argueta is one of El Salvador's finest writers. His banned novel One Day of Life is a down-to-earth portrayal of peasant life in the country.

  • One of the country's most influential poets is Roque Dalton, whose works include Poemas Clandestinas.

  • Cuentos de Barro by Salvador Salazar Arrué (writing under the pen name of Salarué) marks the beginning of the modern Central American short-story genre.