The History of El Salvador is the history of endless struggles to attain power.
The image above is an ancient painting that was made 7 to 8 thousand years ago and is the oldest cultural remain found in El Salvador. The pictogram is inside a cave called the Holy Spirit Grotto (La Gruta del Espíritu Santo in Spanish). This cave is in the province of Morazan, near the town of Corinto. From archaeological investigation we know the first settlers were hunters, gatherers and fishermen. The first salvadoreans loved living near the beach and they used to eat lots of fish, shells and oysters...they had an awesome life...we have to remember at that time there were no cows, chicken or pigs around, those where all brought by the spanish in the 16th century.
Agriculture appears around the year 5000bc and pottery appears around the year 2000bc. Several figurines similar to the Venus of Woldenworf have been found from that period. Around the year 1000bc, big cities start to appear in the western side of El Salvador. There is a famous carved rock called "La Piedra de las Victorias" (rock of the victories), and it shows 4 individuals that could be 4 different governors. The rock was found in the western side of El Salvador, near the archaeological site of Tazumal, but we dont know exactly where. The most important thing about this rock is its artistic style, its very similar to the Olmec style.
La Piedra de las Victorias is now in the archaeological park of Tazumal in Chalchuapa. The site has the biggest Mayan pyramid in El Salvador a small, interesting museum and also hosts the famous rock. Mayan civilization starts migrating to salvadorean territory around the year 1500bc. The Mayan societies lived in the western side of El Salvador and inhabited the area for more than 2000 years. Currently, you can visit the archeological Mayan sites of Tazumal and Casa Blanca in Chalchuapa and San Andres and Joya de Ceren. The latter is the only UNESCO protected in El Salvador. Joya de Ceren is the only preserved mayan site that shows how commoners lived. Joya de Ceren is unique in the Mayan world, locals consider it the Pompey of El Salvador because the original mayan village was abandonded due to the eruption of a nearby volcano. In fact, Joya de Ceren was preserved in time under the several layers of ash that fell over the structures for several days. This event happened around the year 650ad.
Joya de Ceren has a small museum that you can visit and where you can see the remains found in the village, grinding stones, pottery, ritual shamanic objects, and you can even see the mold of a footprint preserved in the ash. Joya de Ceren was located very close to the archaeological site of San Andres, which was the biggest city in the area. It is thought that villagers of Joya de Ceren fled towards San Andres for cover. San Andres is also open to the public and it hosts 5 pyramids of different sizes. At the moment the Archaeological department of El Salvdor is working in the restoration of one of its pyramids. Probably the most interesting thing about San Andres is its relationship with the Mayan City of Copan in Honduras. A pyramid of San Andres was excavated years ago and the investigators found a carved flintstone that seems to have been manufactured in Copan. Archaeologists called this carved flint "excentrical flint", and others of this stones have been found in Copan, very similar to the one found in San Andres. The interpretation is that the "excentrical flint" was a gift from a governor of Copan to the governor of San Andres.
The Mayan Civilization inhabits the area until between the 10th and the 12th century, when the Mayan Collapse happens and several cities in Mexico and Central America were misteriously abandoned. Tazumal, San Andres, Casa Blanca and other sites were abandonded and other ethnical groups lived there for centuries. Other big cultural group that migrated to salvadorean territory is the Nahuat family. Originally from the center of Mexico, this groups migrated to the territory for several centuries...oldest nahuat remains in El Salvador are from around the year 500ad. The Nahuas family also includes the Mexicas (called Aztecs) and the Toltecs. The Nahuat Culture is very different from the Mayan Culture but still, they both shared things in common: the ritual ball game, some gods in their mythologies were the same but with different names or sometimes they were even the same in both cultures. The artistic style is significantly different, the phisionomy is also different and of course the language. Many of the names of locations in El Salvador still have a nahuat origin. Coatepeque, Quetzaltepeque, Ilamatepeque, Cojutepeque, Tonacatepeque, Chincontepeque and others...they all share the same suffix -tepeque- which comes from the Nahuat tepectl, which means "mountain". Thats why there are many places in Mexico and El Salvador with the same same. Coatepeque for example, exists in both countries...it comes from "Coatl", which means "snake" and "tepectl" which means mountain.
Nahuas and Mayans coexisted in the same territory, in the same historical period. We dont know if they fought against each others, probably they had already agreed in their own borders. In the Anthropology Museum of El Salvador you can appreciate both artistic styles.
The first contact in El Salvador between american and spanish occurs in 1522. Expeditions lead by spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado came to El Salvador looking for precious metals, stones, fur, slaves and other valuables. The next years were of fighting between the locals and the spanish. It took around 10 years for the Spanish to conquer the whole salvadorean territory. Diseases brought by the europeans killed thousands of indigenous in the territory. By the way, the western territory of what we now know as El Salvador was a whole cultural-political region called "Cuzcatan", according to some scholars "Cuzcatan" meant "land of the precious things" and its capital was located in the area now known as Antiguo Cuscatlan. According to tradition, Pedro de Alvarado was severly wounded by an indigenous hero called "Atlacatl"...still, the territory was completely conquered by the Spanish in a few years. The european version is that the white man brought Christianity and Civilization to the New World. The indigenous version of history is that the Spanish brought diseases, violence and oppresion to the people...I agree with the second version.
In school I was taught that colonization in the US and colonization in Central America had big differences that could explain our present situation: the europeans that colonized North America came with their families, the europeans that colonized Central America were only men thirsty for satisfying their needs with the local women. North America was first colonized and then indigenous were forced into reserves, in Central America colonization happened after the Indigenous were violently repressed. The reality is that the current salvadorean society is a product of this contact between Spanish and indigenous and our current rivalries and political differences have an origin in this antagonic relationship between european and american. Most of the rich people in Central America are descendants of the european conquerors and most of the poor people are either indigenous or descendants of indigenous.
The territory that used to belong to the indigenous communities was "stolen" by the spanish authorities and it was divided amongst the spanish that had accompanied the conquisadors that "brought civilization" to the savages. Catholisism was established as the only religion allowed and this is the story of how indigenous people changed from living in their country to living as slaves in a country that wasnt theirs anymore. The indigenous people in the divided territories were also private property and now belonged to the spanish lord. Cocoa, tobacco, indigo blue natural tint and balsamic oil were the main exports from El Salvador sent to Spain for commercialization. Independence from Spain was signed in 1821, representatives from the 5 original provinces of Central America united in Guatemala to sign this Declaration. Basically, the rich spanish of the provinces wanted to stop paying high taxes to the Spanish Crown. After the independece was signed, the provinces were briefly anexed to Mexico. Several liberal movements wanted to unify Central America into one, this moment in time was extremely unstable politically speaking. Several battles to attain power happened in all of the central american territory.
1821 is considered the year when the era called "Republican" starts in El Salvador. The conservatives and the liberals were in constant struggles to control the government. In the late 1800, coffee was succesfully introduced in El Salvador. In the early 1900, bananas and other fruits were started to be grown massively. The late 1800 and the early 1900 until around the years 1960 are known as the golden era of El Salvador. The prices for salvadorean coffee went up around the world, creating big fortunes for local landowners. The government passes several laws to promote growing coffee, bananas, pinaples; these laws included taking big communal lands and granting them to private rich landowners. This was one of the causes of the civilian unstability of the 20th century, "land problems". Several civilian revolutions in the countryside led the government to create a special force of repression for any of these civilian demonstrations. This special force was called "Policia de Hacienda" or "Ranch Police". The landowner was the commanding voice of this "Ranch Police" and the government granted autonomy to this force allowing them to use any force necesary to "keep control". Indigenous leaders were tagged as communists and later persecuted and hanged by the authorities. The indigenous people stopped speaking their language and wearing their traditional dress afraid that the "Ranch Police" would tag them as communists and then dissapear them. This is how the indigenous culture of El Salvador was lost over the years. Its very rare to find people that still speak indigenous languages in El Salvador.
In the 1930s, General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez becomes the "democratic" president of El Salvador. He will be remembered as a tough man who ruled with an iron fist. There are salvadoreans that feel some nostalgia for this period. It is said that Hernandez Martinez passed a law that punished thiefs by cutting the pinky finger of their right hand. If the thieves were released and again captured for the same reason, the police would then chop off the whole hand. This served as a punishment and also to warn others about the habits of this individual. Salvadoreans will say that in the time of Hernandez Martinez, you could sleep with the doors of your house open and no one would come in. Hernandez Martinez is also remembered because of the various violations of the civil rights and multiple massacres against the indigenous leaders. It is estimated around 20,000 indigenous people were assassinated during his term. Many of these indigenous had voted for the opposing party so Hernandez Martinez could sistematically search for them and then dissapear them.
The following years after Hernandez Martinez were of extreme political unstability. Coup after Coup, military government after military government. The country was also manipulated by the USA and USSR political ideologies. The USA government intervened several times to stop an advance of communist groups that were financed by the USSR and Cuba. In 1980, archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero is assasinated during mass. A day before he had ordered the army soldiers to "stop the killing, in the name of God". Romero had been threatened several times before and he knew his death was near. Romero was originally a friend of the government and opposer to the communist movements. Everything changes when he finds out the government army had ordered the assasination of his closest friend, Rutilio Grande-also a catholic bishop. The catholic bishops were supporting civil right movements in El Salvador, this was part of the Theology of Liberation that was born in Latinamerica in the mid 1900's.
The civil war in El Salvador doesnt have an official begining. But the assasination of Romero was probably the trigger. In 1981, guerrilla groups that had previously formed the Communist Party launched an attack against the capital city of San Salvador. The guerrilla groups called this "the final offensive" because they thought they could win easily, they didnt...more than 10 years of armed conflict ended in 1992 when peace was signed in Mexico. More than 70,000 casualties, most of them civilians. Who won the war? There was no winner, many people lost everything they had and others took advantage of this confusing time to steal cattle and lands from others. We dont really know how much money was deviated into private accounts of politicians and army personnel. The guerrilla groups also caused violations to civil rights in communities that didnt support them. Guerrilla groups and the government army both raped young girls and recruited by force young boys to join their side. When peace was signed, another document was signed declaring that the crimes of war commited by either side were pardoned and no further trial was going to happen. There were 2 major massacres in the country side of El Salvador: El Mozote and Rio Sumpul, it is estimated that more than 1000 civilians were sistematically assasinated in this massacres. Also, 4 american nuns were raped and assasinated by the army soldiers and a 5 Spanish Jesuits were also assasinated by the army because they would criticize the government in their books, their radio station and their Jesuit University in El Salvador.
The UN Commision of Truth determined Romero's intelectual assasin was Roberto Dabuisson, Army high ranking officer trained in the US to strategically defend the country against communism. Mayor D'abuisson was also the founder of the right wing party ARENA, which governed the country from 1990 until 2010. There is also a story that salvadoreans like to talk about (specially left wing symphathizers), its the story of Radio Venceremos. This was a radio station that worked under the shadows, until this day no one knows where was the radio station located. It is known the radio was moved from place to place probably in the northeastern part of El Salvador. The radio would broadcast antigovernment propaganda, antigovernment and communist songs and would denounce army and police violations of civil rights. The army tried with a lot of effort but was unable to locate and shut down the radio. Commander Domingo Monterrosa was the Aquiles of the Salvadorean Army, he was an example for all the young soldiers and the government would use him for his propaganda, showing him as a real patriot. Monterrosa was obsessed with finding the Radio Venceremos, he took this as his mission. There was a report they had found it in the mountains of the northeast he had to personally go and check. The commander found an artifact that looked like the radio transmitter and they all shouted in joy. Monterrosa and his crew put the transmitter in a helicopter to bring their trophy to the capital. As the helicopter was ascending, the radio transmitter exploded, it was a bomb! Everbody in the helicopter was killed, Monterrosa was one of them. The guerrilla went crazy with this story...it was a joke for them. There are several versions of this story...
The years following the signing of peace were of very slow economic growth, it probably didnt help the heads of state were all involved in big corruption scandals. It was 20 years of right wing ARENA political party in power. Antonio Saca, president from 2005 to 2010, is currently in jail for deviating around 100 million dollars to his personal accounts, and his friends'. Francisco Flores, president from 2000 to 2005 was under house arrest for deviating 10 million dollars when he suddently died in 2016. In 2010, Mauricio Funes, the first left wing president was elected, his slogan was "Im the change". He is probably the most elocuent president the country has had, probably the most charismatic and with the highest IQ. He was also involved in scandals, but more like romantic scandals. He was also involved in some minor corruption scandals and flew to Nicaragua before the government could take him to trial. In Nicaragua, socialist president Daniel Ortega gave him asylum and he is still living there. Probably the biggest flaw in his presidency was the scandal that involved politicians negotiating with gangs to lower the number of homicides. For about a year, the homicides came down 70% which looked good for the government. But it is now known, government representatives were literally paying the gangs to lower the homicides. Now the gangs handle millions of dollars that came from people's taxes. This is still under investigation in the country.
In 2015 another left wing president was elected and its still soon to judge his term. This is the history of El Salvador.
The first and most common question for potential tourists coming to El Salvador is: "how safe is it?"
My first statement is this: "tourists are not a target for gangmembers or other bad people." All the negative comments about El Salvador are internal conflicts between locals. We cannot deny everyday we hear and see the sad news about our country's reality. For all the people that want to know whats going on, this is the explanation.
There was a Civil War from 1980 to 1992. When foreign people hear the name El Salvador, their mind will immediately link El Salvador to all the atrocities mentioned on the international news that happenned during those difficult years. So the first thing that comes to people's minds is insecurity, violence, unstability...fear. Many people are afraid of coming here, thinking its still the same way it was 30 years ago.
Whats the reality of El Salvador? Plain and simple: Come, its amazing, but KNOW where to come. There are neighborhoods that I wouldnt dare to get close to. There are entire streets controlled by specific gangs. There are areas in San Salvador that you shoudnlt go. Its very easy to get in the wrong bus that can take you to a gang controlled area. But I also need to make a clarification, they wouldnt treat me the same way they would treat a white person. Unfortunately, us Centralamericans(except for Costa Rica), have a very low national self-esteem. We consider our countries the worst countries in the world (just above African countries), the most corrupt, the most underdeveloped, the people with the lowest IQs, etc. etc. Of course its a very wrong way to see the world. But its our reality, locals dont feel proud about their country and the majority of the people think there is no special reason to come to El Salvador. This idea was probably born during the spanish colonial times when the colonizers established the idea that local indigenous culture was retarded, wrong in their religous and traditional beliefs and that the white culture was superior. Since then, the Central American countries became lovers and followers of the european cultures. The traditional indigenous art, dress, language were seen as primitive and less evolved than the european rich culture.
All this previous parragraph had the purpose to explain you something, we still see the white man as being a ladder above our own salvadorean ethnicity. Shooting a salvadorean person in a gang controlled territory is something normal, but shooting a white person would be seen as a "real" crime. Plus, the US would put pressure in the case and the local police would have to take it as a "real" crime and would actually investigate it. In El Salvador, according to an investigation done in 2015, only around 5% of the homicides end up with a person found guilty and sent to jail. But, a white person shot would be a big scandal. I have only heard of one case when a white tourist was shot, around the year 2005 in the neighborhood of San Luis in San Salvador. This area used to host bad reputation bars at the time. Apparently the toursit refusted to give his camera away. Maybe other things could have happenned to tourists that I havent heard of...
What to do in the event of a robbery? Easy! Give your stuff away, DONT REFUSE! 200% of the people that have been fatally injured during a robbery is because they refused to give their stuff. You can easily get another Iphone, another cool camera or any possession but you will never get your arm back, you will never get your life back. To my groups touring through El Salvador, I always recommend taking only the necessary things for the day. Maybe $50 is enough to do almost anything in a day in El Salvador. You dont need to take your passport with you, you dont need to take all your credit cards with you or your super expensive phone. Bring the money you need, a cheap phone and thats all you need! Thiefs are nervous and they want to get out as fast as possible. Dont take their time, dont negotiate with them, just give your stuff and that will guarantee your safety.
Thiefs look for cash or objects to steal. They also look for social status. A nicely dressed, clean person is much more likely to be robbed than an individual that looks like hasnt showered in days. No offense, but foreign hippies with dreads will most likely left alone, while a fresh, clean person could look more like a target for thiefs, no matter if the person is white or not. No offense, Im just explaining the local point of view.
Which areas are safe, which ones arent. This is a map that I consider is accurate in regards to safety. Very easy to understand. Basically, dont go to Ilobasco, Ilopango, Apopa, Soyapango, etc. San Salvador and Santa Ana are the biggest cities in the country so it would be considered normal that they also have high homicide rates. Lately in my City Tours, I drive around downtown San Salvador, maybe part in the Cathedral or El Rosario Church and then drive to the nearby municipality of Santa Tecla and walk inside its market. In my point of view, Antiguo Cuscatlan is the safest municipality in the Urban Area, the place that I can recommend walking on the street.
Public buses? Taxis? Walking? Again, it all depends on this factors: WHERE are you going, what is your LOOK. Dont get in the wrong bus, dont look rich. Honestly, I cannot recommend public buses in El Salvador but for foreigners it would be a great experience to get it in and feel the looks from the people who think: "what are these gringos doing here?" But there are some routes that I would consider "safish". I used to take the 42d from Antiguo Cuscatlan to downtown San Salvador everyday to go to university and I must say I never felt unsafe. I used to take my tour groups from Ataco in the Route of the Flowers to the town of Juayua using a 50 us cent chickenbus and it was a great experience. Nobody ever felt unsafe.
White girls get lots of attention in El Salvador. White boys too but for girls could be a little too risky to dress like usually white girls dress in hot countries. For some reason, white girls tend to use extra small shorts and tank tops. That is not normal for the girls in our culture, local girls tend to dress much more conservative than white girls. So its completely natural that they will get extra attention when travelling in Central America. Remember its better not to draw attention. Dont dress like that if you are going to do a solo walk in downtown San Salvador, or taking the public bus. Local girls dont do it...for a reason. I dont want to sound sexist but travelling with a man in Central America is recommended. It doesnt matter if you love him or not, its about LOOKS. In our culture, there is much more respect to a girl if she is with a man. It doesnt mean its like those stories of middle eastern countries where women must walk behind the man, we have nothing against women. But thiefs will see alone girls as an easier prey. BUT remember, even if you are black belt ninja, nothing can heal a bullet in your body.
Local Recommendations: Dont be in Lonely places, I have heard of tourists getting mugged in viewpoints in the Route of the Flowers, dont stop at this viewpoints. If you have to stop in the middle of the road, be quick. Never leave your stuff unattended, never. Dont carry your passport everywhere. Carry the necessary money. Almays carry some cash in case you get robbed, its better to give something. I always carry a $20 in case of anything. Ask the local tourguide or a person of your trust how safe is it to take your camera out. Dont look extra scared when walking in the streets, you will draw more attention like this. Women shouldnt walk alone in the streets of El Salvador. Dont look rich or too clean if you are taking public transportation. I need to make a final recommendation. The Juayua Waterfalls, I have heard stories of a man who mugs the tourists when they are alone. The waterfalls are very isolated so this guy takes advantage of this. Dont go alone. The local police can escort you for no extra cost, you just need to go to the police office in Juayua and talk to them. Come to El Salvador, dont be afraid, take a private tour if you feel safer. You will never see a gangmember on the public crowded areas, I can guarantee you its not as on the TV. We live happy lives with our families here.
If you come to El Salvador, you should visit at least one Volcano.
El Salvador is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire making it a very accesible for a person to pay a visit to one of the active or dormant volcanoes we have in our territory. We have a volcano that anyone can visit, right in the city of San Salvador, El Boqueron Volcano is dormant and very accesible for every type of person. El Boqueron Volcano is included in our city-tours and its our recommendation for people with very short time in the country or elder visitors. The walk up the crater is of aproximately 20 minutes at slow pace. The Boqueron Park has a small interpretation center to help visitors understand the effects of the last eruption in 1917. There are documentaries shown there with interviews to the witnesses of the 1917 eruption.
Our Top Recommendation for people that are spending one night or more in El Salvador is a hike to the Santa Ana Volcano Crater. I consider this a perfect hike for amateur-intermidiate hikers. If have never done a Volcano hike in your life, this is probably the best option for you. The hike up the crater is only 2 hours, its not too steep and not too hard but it still makes you feel the work on your legs and knees.
The El Salvador Volcano Complex is composed of two active volcanoes: Izalco and Santa Ana, an inactive Volcano: Cerro Verde and the Lake Coatepeque. A couple of years ago, salvadoreans voted for it as the most impressive natural wonder of the country. The Volcano Complex has been declared a protected area very important for the biodiversity that lives in the area. The average temperature during the day is 16 to 24 degrees celsius, making it very pleasant to do a hike in this conditions.
The Izalco Volcano is the youngest active volcano in El Salvador. Its birth in 1770 was documented by the spanish colonizers. They were extremely scared because of the multiple earthquakes felt for several days. The Izalco made eruption continously from 1770 until 1966 when it completely stopped erupting. In 1926, there was an eruption that buried the nearby town of Matazano, this event left 56 people dead. The Izalco Volcano was called the "Lighthouse of the Pacific" because sailors could see the lava from the ocean and that would help them locate themselves and navigate along the coast.
Currently, the height of the Izalco Volcano is 1952 mts above sea level (6400 feet). Its cone is 650mts above the ground level of the area (around 2000 ft). There are several fumes in the inside of the Crater, its one of the few volcanoes in the world where you can actually walk inside the crater safely. To hike the Izalco Volcano, you have to show up at Cerro Verde around 10:30am and report yourself with the local park tourguides. Usually, hikes to the Izalco Volcano are ONLY on weekends, but you have to speak to the local tourguides.
The hike up the Volcano is hard. At least harder than the Santa Ana Volcano. The hike starts at Cerro Verde, you have to descend 1300 stairs to get to the base of the Cone and then start ascending. Its around 2 hours to get to the summit and you have to use your hands in several parts. I would recommend this hike for medium-advanced hikers, as the hike turns into a very steep climb. Honestly, if you are not careful, you can lose your life here. Its not a place for games, its a serious hike not recommended for kids or people in bad physical shape. The views are similar to the views from the Santa Ana Volcano, you can walk around the rim of the crater and in a clear day see the Pacific Ocean from the summit. The way back is as hard...slippery, a lot of loose rocks, pebbles and volcanic sand that will make the descend very hard...once you descend to the bottom of the cone you have to climb the 1300 stairs again...thats the hardest part. In total, the hike takes aproximately 5 hours. You finish at Cerro Verde.
As mentioned before, the Santa Ana Volcano, in my opinion, is the best opportunity for a volcano-hike virgin. The hike is not as exhausting as the Izalco but puts a little challenge on your physical condition. The Santa Ana Volcano was born around 2 million years ago. Currently, is the third highest point in El Salvador, its altitude is 2381mts or 7812 feet above sea level. The Santa Ana's last eruption was in 2005, it threw lots of ash into the atmoshpere and killed 2 people in the surrounding areas.
The hike starts at around 11am, you have to speak with the tourguides at Cerro Verde to coordinate the hike. It takes aproximately 2 hours to get to the summit. The crater of the Santa Ana Volcano features a turquoise lagoon which is, of course, unaccesible to the public. The water has large amounts of sulphur in it. The hike is sometimes steep but nothing extraordinary. The first hour of the hike you are under the shade of the cloudforest but the next hour is completely uncovered. Usually the sun hits you straight in a 90 angle degree, so its recommended to appy lots of sunscreen. Once you get to the summit, the guides guive you aproximately 20 minutes to eat something there, enjoy the views, take lots of pictures of the crater and the surrounding valleys. Then you start the walk back down the volcano and up Cerro Verde. The last 20 minutes are the hardest of this hike as you are returning to Cerro Verde's parking using the paved road which is steep and with lots of turns, just take your time to get back to the parking, there is no rush...