San Salvador is not only El Salvador’s capital city, formally known as La Ciudad de Gran San Salvador, but home to nearly half of El Salvador’s 6 million inhabitants. Nestled in El Valle de las Hamacas (The Valley of Hammocks) and surrounded by active volcanoes, it is the epicenter of El Salvadoran business, culture and politics. Though overwhelming at times and off the beaten trail for many travelers, San Salvador has lots to offer business and leisure visitors alike.
1. Hike Up a Volcano. San Salvador’s nearest volcano is located in the Parque Nacional el Boquerón. The crater is 4,920 feet (1,500 meters) wide, situated 5,905 feet (1,800 meters) above sea level. Hikers reaching the top are rewarded with dramatic city views. Open Monday–Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For help try Eva Tours at www.evatours.travel/en.
2. Catch a Free Movie. A favorite of San Salvadoran cinema-goers for decades, El Atrio, located a few blocks east of nightlife area La Zona T, shows free flicks Monday–Wednesday at 7 p.m. The screenings range from classic Latin American favorites to Hollywood blockbusters. Av. Alvarado 30 at Boulevard de los Heroes.
3. Check out Local Art. El Museo de Arte de El Salvador, founded in 2003, showcases an extensive collection of Salvadoran art from the mid-eighteenth century to the modern day. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays. $1.50 admission for adults.
4. See the Daily Catch. A trip to the market at the bustling port city La Libertad is a fish-lover’s paradise. Small fishing boats unload their catch day and night at the pier, and you can get a taste of freshly prepared red snapper and mahi mahi at a string of restaurants lining the boardwalk. Thirty minutes from San Salvador by taxi ($25) or $1 by bus.
5. Ride the Waves. After you’ve eaten, work it all off on the boards. A 10-minute drive from La Libertad will take you to Tunco, the weekend mecca for surfing Salvadorans. Surfboard rentals and lessons are available throughout town for around $15 a day. On Friday and Saturday nights, enjoy live music and dancing.
6. Fill Up on Pupusas. The corn-based pupusa is El Salvador’s most delectable contribution to regional cuisine and the specialty of every Salvadoran mother. Have it filled with cheese and limitless fixings at Senkali in Southwest San Salvador’s Antiguo Cuscatlán district. Eat to your heart’s content for under $10.
7. Walk Historic Streets. San Salvador’s downtown is an eye-popping mix of colonial architecture and street vendors selling everything from pupusas to pirated DVDs. It’s pulsing with crowds every day except Sunday, but avoid the area at night.
8. Visit El Mozote. El Salvador’s bloody 1980s civil war touched nearly every family and shaped modern-day Salvadoran politics. Day hikers to Cerro el Pericón often stop by El Mozote on the way down, where visitors can pause to reflect at the memorial for those who died in a massacre in the town’s church in 1981.
9. Explore a Mayan City. El Salvador’s most important (and best preserved) ancient Mayan ruins, Tazumal, are located 20 minutes by car from the capital. The name in the Indigenous Quiché language roughly translates as “pyramid where victims burned.” The earliest structures here date from around 5000 B.C.E.
10. Watch Fútbol. Soccer is a national obsession (it even sparked the so-called “100-hour Fútbol war” with neighboring Honduras in 1969). San Salvador Fútbol Club plays at the 80,000-spectator arena Estadio Mágico González—named after El Salvador’s most famous sports star. Tickets cost as little as $2—if you can get them.