San Salvador Surprises
“El Salvador is a small country,” writes Roving Central America Correspondent Michael Paladin, “wedged between Guatemala to the west and Nicaragua to the east. About the size of Massachusetts or New Hampshire, it is infrequently in the path of hurricanes and subject occasionally to volcanic eruptions from two or three active volcanoes.
“The people here live well. The soil is fertile, the coffee world-class. There are more than 20 volcanoes in all, only a few active, arranged along two east-west mountain ranges. The River Lempa bisects the country.
“Originally settled some 10,000 years ago by Paleo-Indian groups from the north, and then by the Olmecs, considered by some the first Meso-American civilization, the country served as a crossroads for trade from east to west.
“Later, with the demise of the Mayan Empire to the north, small bands of Aztecs and Toltecs migrated south from Mexico, bringing with them 3,000 years of pre-Hispanic culture.
“Next on the scene was Pedro de Alvarado, who, before coming to El Salvador, had already thrown his weight around in Guatemala. Upon his arrival in the country in the early 1500s, things changed. The country became an important exporter of indigo, then coffee. As throughout the region, the land and the power resided with the few, the descendants of the Spanish conquistadores. This remains true today.
“The population of El Salvador is nearing 7 million people, of which 2 million live in the capital city, San Salvador. Another 2 million El Salvadorians live outside the country, mostly in the U.S., sending home several billion dollars a year, or some 15% of El Salvador’s national GDP.
“What about the wars and the gangs? The most recent conflict was settled in 1992, and the guerilla fighters, the FMLN, were admitted into the political process, where they remain today, voting instead of shooting.
“The gangs? The Maratruchas and the MS-13 boys? They were put down with a heavy hand by President Tona Saca, who called his campaign Mano Duro. The present candidate for president has proposed a new slogan: Super Mano Duro.
“There are probably more gang members in the States than in El Salvador, despite the continual repatriation. They’re easy to spot; they sport extensive tattoos and fight a lot.
“Did I feel safe during my recent visit? Yes. You should avoid the barrios in certain parts of San Salvador, especially at night, but that’s good advice for most all Central America. There are guns, cheap liquor, and machismo enough in this part of the world to go around.
“San Salvador boasts two super malls: Metrocentro and the newer Multi-Plaza. These are multi-story fashion-, jewelry-, art-, bookstore-, and food court-laden edifices with anything and everything you could think of. I know of no other malls like these. If you want it, they’ve got it.
“Stick to the better parts of the city for your first visit. The Zona Rosa to the west has the better hotels. The city has two zonas nocturas for bar-hopping, with the Zona Rosa being the better choice.
“There are two seasons in El Salvador, the wet (May through October) and the dry (November through April). Temperatures run from the low 60’s to the 100’s. Along the coast, it gets steamy. I played 15 holes there last week and gave out, in spite of the Gatorade.
“I wasn’t prepared to like San Salvador. I was expecting Guatemala City, and I arrived with an attitude problem, probably aggravated by the five-hour bus ride I took from Guatemala to get there.
“By the second morning, though, I was at ease and impressed with the city, the people, the food, and the climate. The Museo Guzman is a must, and I liked the Holiday Inn for their food and service.
“The countryside is beautiful and well-tended. The highways are the best I’ve seen in Central America. The U.S. has been giving El Salvador a lot of money, and it shows. They’ve spent it well.
“Will I go back? Absolutely…probably not by bus, but I will return. There’s something charming and different about this country. I recommend at least a few days on the ground. Taxis are plentiful and cheap.
“Come visit. You’ll be surprised. I was.”