You will be warned not to stop in San Salvador. These warnings may even come from Salvadorans. You will be tempted to heed them. Don’t–just pack your common sense and read our city travel guide.
The capital of El Salvador does have a gang problem. Newspapers sometimes refer to the victims of gang violence as “the new disappeared” in an eerie, fear-inducing flashback to the country’s not so distant civil war. Some areas of the sprawling city really are seriously sketch to travel through (looking at you, Soyopango area), but we stopped in San Salvador anyway. And we stayed. And we found that the city is really not so scary. Here’s what else we found.
What to do in San Salvador, El Salvador
We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is in the middle of San Salvador. The irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario) was created in 1971 by artist and architect Rubén Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America.
The exterior looks like a derelict airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews.
To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadoran independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia de Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this church.
Just a few blocks from Iglesia el Rosario is the Metropolitan Cathedral which was recently rebuilt then renovated. Honestly, it looks like a mash-up of a church and the conference room in a Marriott hotel and is weirdly modern and bland inside.
The cathedral is home to a (well) hidden site, however. Go to the right side of the cathedral and walk into an unmarked door. Go down a flight of stairs and you will find yourself in the final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The priest’s assassination by death squads in 1980 tilted El Salvador into civil war and the sanctuary around his tomb is a serene, reverential area that’s been set aside for personal reflection. Do not miss it.
Some very moving monuments
El Salvador was in a bloody civil war from 1980 to 1992, the second longest civil war in Central American history. During that time at least 75,000 people died and many, many more “disappeared” and pre-war massacres killed many, many more o top of that. The war may be over, but the remembering is not.
Monuments large and small commemorating the war and the fallen can be found all over El Salvador. The situation between the military backed Salvadoran government and the country’s poor was already bad by March 24, 1980, the day Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by government death squads while performing mass. His assassination, proceeded by the Archbishop’s request that US President Jimmy Carter stop backing the Salvadoran military and a call for members of the military to defy their orders and stop massacring villagers, tilted the country into outright civil war.
The chapel at Divine Providence Hospital (Hospital la Divinia Providencia), where this tireless defender of the rights of the common man was killed with a single shot to the heart while standing at the pulpit, is surprisingly modern and bright and serene. It’s still in use.
Much more intimate and moving was a visit to the humble house near the chapel where the Archbishop was living at the time of his death. His beloved Toyota Corona is in the carport (the owner’s manual is also proudly displayed). His monogrammed towels are hung neatly in the bathroom, as if he’s due back soon. His typewriter, used to compose sermons, is on his desk. His passport and a collection of oddly hippie-ish rings are on a table. His blood stained vestments are in a glass case.
Many horrific things happened between the day the Archbishop died and the day the peace accords were signed in 1992. While the country struggles to come to terms with the atrocities of war, a monument to those who died has been created.
The Monument to Memory and Truth (Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad) in Cuscatlán Park is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Completed in 2003, this 300 foot (85 meter) black granite wall has been engraved with the names of nearly 30,000 people who died or disappeared but that’s less than half of the estimated total body count.
The wall is also engraved with the town names in which massacres took place leading up to and during the civil war. There are so many of them that they had to be organized by year. Some village names turn up more than once. The wall does not include the 30,000 plus Salvadorans killed during genocide that took place in the country in the 1930s, but sometimes it takes baby steps to get to the truth. It’s a start.
The park is a calm, relatively green oasis in the middle of San Salvador, and it’s an appropriate place to visit and reflect on what happened in El Salvador and continues to happen around the world today.
Eating in San Salvador
Take a palm-full of masa (corn or rice paste), form it into a ball, spoon in a dollop of filling, then flatten it and grill it on a hot griddle and you’ve got yourself a pupusa, the national dish of El Salvador. Pupusas are usually filled with chicharron (fried pork), beans, cheese, loroco (the flower bud of a vine which tastes like asparagus and is said to be an aphrodisiac), shredded squash called ayote, or any combination of those ingredients. But there are creative alternatives if you know where to look.
Though pupusas are available everywhere in El Salvador, perhaps the best place to sample them is a neighborhood of San Salvador called Antigua Cuscatlán. Salvadorans come from miles around to feast on pupusas here and everyone seems to have a favorite pupuseria among the dozens or so that have set up shop in this part of town.
In our humble opinion the best made, best priced examples of this ubiquitous food are found at a pupuseria called La Unica, a large, bustling, bright little eatery which hunkers down behind the church in the square in Antigua Cuscatlán. Many swear by a nearby much fancier pupuseria that is certainly the place to go if you want ingredients that go beyond the usual suspects (like jalapeños and mozzarella cheese). They’ll even give you a knife and fork (!?!?). However, we’re traditionalist who prefer the classic ingredients and we like eating with our hands.
A great meal of a very different kind can be had at the on-site Italian restaurant at Casa ILB boutique hotel (now called Nico Urban Hotel). Il Bongustaio is an iconic restaurant which the owner has run for more than 10 years using family recipes to create authentic Italian dishes from scratch. The handwritten menu is extensive and traditional. Your fellow diners will likely include ambassadors, socialites and heads of industry.
In the same swanky neighborhood is Restaurante Citron. Opened in 2006, this hip/chic restaurant is helmed by chef Eduardo Harth a Salvadoran who was raised and trained in the US where he was sous chef at the award-winning Grapeseed Bistro in Bethesda, Maryland. Then he decided it was time to bring his talents home.
Now chef Harth prepares daring dishes in a house that’s been converted into a restaurant. He bakes his own bread, makes his own cheese, kills his own farmed venison, and changes the menu more or less monthly. We loved the rich/sweet/salty house-cured duck prosciutto with maple syrup, venison loin so tender we didn’t need a knife, and giant squid on a bed of grilled asparagus and radicchio with a complex sour orange and cinnamon glaze. Eat at the bar in front of the small, open kitchen and you get a free show with your meal.
One regret: we never made it to a coffee shop called Viva Espresso to sample coffee made by Alejandro Mendez, the 2011 World Barista Champion.
Hotels in San Salvador
We’d gone to Antigua Cuscatlán to check out an eco hotel called Arbol de Fuego. The hotel has implemented all the usual eco measures including long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives.
There are low-flow showers (using a simple adaptions dreamed up by her handyman), a greenhouse created for drying laundry which is washed using EPA approved detergents, all appliances are unplugged when not in use, and all garbage is sorted so that local collectors can pick up pre-sorted bags to recycle without the indignity of digging through the hotel’s garbage looking for tin cans or glass bottles. The result of many small, smart steps has been an epic reduction in energy use, water consumption and pollution.
The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of all those pupuserieas.
Opened in 2011, Casa ILB (now called Nico Urban Hotel) is a minimalist and elegant boutique hotel in a city not exactly bursting with such things. Check out our full review of Casa ILB for iTraveliShop.
When it was time to leave that lovely haven, we embarked on the hunt for our more normal level of accommodation. We found Villa Florencia Centro. At US$13 a night for a clean double room with a fan, private bathroom, and Wi-Fi plus secure, enclosed parking big enough for our truck we were sold. The only bummer is that Villa Florencia is located in the depressing, neglected downtown area. While not exactly unsafe, downtown is certainly not interesting unless you’re into dirty streets and decaying buildings.
We also found many ways to amuse ourselves with day trips around San Salvador.
Read more about travel in El Salvador