San Salvador: noisy, dirty and well worth a visit

If El Salvador has a bit of an image problem in the international community, those negative perceptions nearly always centre on its capital city San Salvador. The common perception to those who haven’t been to the city is one of a crime-ridden lawless place where citizens risk their lives on a daily basis. Guidebooks give added credence to these stories, ensuring that any first time visitor to San Salvador arrives on edge and in a state of certain fear.

While San Salvador clearly has an undeniable edginess to it, provided you go downtown in the daytime and avoid displaying your flashy gear to any interested thieves you will be as safe as anywhere else. We had a full day in the capital and chose to arrange a guide to show us around, partly because of that aforementioned sense of fear but mainly because we wanted to make the most of our single day in town.

Fernando met us at our hotel in the suburbs for breakfast and soon enough we were heading into the centre of the city. He is a locally-based tour operator and had offered us the option of travelling around the city on public transport ($35 for the day tour) or in his car, allowing us to extend our tour to include places out of the city ($65). Having spent the last four days on El Salvador’s finest chicken buses the chance to sit a comfortable car with AC was too tempting to refuse.

San Salvador is lacking in world famous sights, but perhaps the one spot where visitors are most drawn to is the metropolitan cathedral. It houses the tomb of national hero Archbishop Romero and as a result draws crowds of pilgrims who come to pay their respects. The cathedral was actually built since Romero’s assassination and its modern design is a colourful contrast to the more austere Palacio Nacional that spans the adjacent side of the Plaza Barrios.

Away from the Plaza, the central market spreads in what seems to be a chaotic sprawl through the city’s streets. Pretty much anything you can think of is for sale in these streets, and while fresh produce and household items fill the majority of the stalls, Fernando also led us past the sorcerers, the live animal stalls and the chocolate sellers. It was a real blast of the senses, yet this was no place to drop your guard as I found when a trader’s trolley rammed into my ankle when I stopped for a brief moment to admire a stall.
After a couple of hours in the centre we edged out to the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (words and images), one of those rare little gems of a museum that told the story of Radio Venceremos, the pro-guerrilla radio station that managed to stay on air by constantly moving its broadcast equipment while being chased down by the army.

We stopped briefly at the Botanical Gardens, a pleasant respite from the city’s fumes and endless noise, before heading into the surrounding hills. The road climbs steeply to Los Planes de Renderos, passing the impossibly large American embassy before eventually emerging at the Devil’s Gate (La Puerta del Diablo). From here, a short climb to the nearby summit provides spectacular views to the Pacific Ocean to the south and to the city and the long chain of Salvadorian volcanoes to the north.

A day is not long to visit such a large city, but given El Salvador’s many natural attractions it was as much as we could afford given our limited time in the country.

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2 Responses to “San Salvador: noisy, dirty and well worth a visit”

  1. Sorcerers in the market? Awesome! Now I can do my grocery-shopping and fortune-telling all in one visit!

    February 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm
  2. Some great places indeed to see while in El Salvador. San Salvador is not a capital city typicaly thriving with glorious monuments and must-see tourist spots. There are some other pretty great things to check out though: The J DeGuzman museum in the Zona Rosa ( ) is actually pretty darned cool and tells the long history of the area. And nearby that is the famous “giant naked guy” at the Museo De Arte, (

    May 23, 2011 at 5:36 am