Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in San Salvador
Strolling past the grey concrete arch of El Rosario Church, it’s hard to believe that the bleak, hangar-like building is a place of worship, and if it wasn’t for the single, featureless white cross rising from its entrance, you’d likely pass right by. Don’t be put off by its dreary façade, though – step through the church doors and you’ll be confronted by a startling wall of color. The inspired creation of artist Ruben Martinez, the arched walls are adorned with scrap-metal figures and feature dozens of stepped windows made of colored glass, which flood the open, pillar-less hall with a kaleidoscope of light.
Built in 1971, the church was as controversial as it was innovative, and today it remains among El Salvador’s most unique and memorable landmarks. El Rosario Church is also famous as the resting place of José Matías Delgado, or “Padre Delgado,” the father of Central American independence.
The national cathedral of El Salvador may not offer the same old-world architectural charms—like ornate stone work and detailed religious statues—of its European counterparts, but the iconic white Roman Catholic church is still a stunning monument and homage to San Salvador’s deeply religious roots.
Once the site of a violent massacre where some 40 people were killed during a stampede at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero, today the iconic structure offers a bit of peace and tranquility for visitors to this capital city. The white façade gives way to a colorful interior, where images of the Divine Saviour and a four-column bladcchino bless the main altar. Travelers can spend a moment in quiet contemplation, light a candle, and take in the massive paintings that depict moments in the life of Christ while on a visit to the nation’s most famous cathedral.
Built between 1911 and 1917, San Salvador’s magnificent National Theater is not only one of the city’s principal landmarks, but a National Monument and the oldest theater in Central America. Designed by French architect Daniel Beylard, the building is among the capital’s most notable works of architecture, with its stately Neo-classical façade giving way to lavish French Renaissance interiors, including a grand mural by Salvadoran painter Salvador Carlos Cañas.
Today, the 650-seat theater remains the heart of Salvadoran performing arts, hosting an ever-changing schedule of classical concerts, theater, folk music performances and art workshops.
Built to replace the original, which was destroyed in a fire in the late 1880s, El Salvador’s current National Palace offers visitors a look at the politic, historical and national past. It is comprised of four main rooms and more than 100 smaller secondary ones, which provide visitors with a unique look at the historical, political and national past of this small South American country.
Travelers caution that many of the Palace’s rooms are now closed to the public despite the fact government offices haven’t operated here since the mid-1970s. But a tour of this famed landmark is still worth the stop, as the early 1900s furnishings and well-curated historical displays present a grander picture of the city’s colorful past. Be sure to check out the Salon Rojo, where the Foreign Ministry held its elaborate receptions; the Salon Amarillo, which once housed the president; and the Salon Rosado, which used to house the country’s Supreme Court.
A pre-Columbian Mayan farming village dating back to A.D. 600 and El Salvador’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, the impressive ruins of Joya de Cerén were discovered in 1976 and have since become one of the country’s most visited archaeological sites.
Smothered by ash during an eruption of the Laguna Caldera volcano, the buried village was preserved in near-perfect condition, earning it the nickname of the ‘Pompeii of the Americas’ and offering a unique insight into the life and culture of the region’s ancient Mayan communities. Today, the remains of around 70 structures have been uncovered at the site, 10 of which have been excavated and are open to the public, including storehouses, kitchens, workshops, a worship area and a temezcal (ceremonial bath).
With a trio of peaks set around the dramatic volcanic crater of El Boqueron, the wildflower covered slopes of El Boquerón National Park make a scenic hiking spot and at less than 30 minutes drive from San Salvador, it’s a popular choice for a day trip from the capital.
The main highlight of a visit to El Boquerón is the views, which look out over San Salvador and the distant Lake Ilopango and Izalco Volcano, and there are a number of lookout points to choose from. Walking trails run to the summits of El Boquerón, El Jabalí and El Picacho, the highest at 6,430 feet, and it’s also possible to hike down into the crater itself, a 1,600-foot deep caldera, measuring about 5 km in diameter.
More Things to Do in San Salvador
With its trio of volcanic peaks encircled by lush jungle, a vast network of hiking trails and the nearby crater lake of Coatepeque, the Cerro Verde National Park presents one of El Salvador’s most startlingly beautiful landscapes.
The main pastime for visitors to the Cerro Verde National Park is hiking and its three volcanoes, Izalco, Cerro Verde and Santa Ana, are all easily accessible. The highest point is the 2,381-meter summit of Santa Ana, El Salvador’s highest and most active volcano, capped with four craters and a glistening green crater lake, but equally dazzling are the views from neighboring Izalco, nicknamed the “Lighthouse of the Pacific” for its near-continuous eruptions over 160 years. Another highlight is climbing the eponymous peak and hikers scaling the now-extinct Cerro Verde volcano will find the mountaintop cloud forest filled with colorful birdlife, including hummingbirds, jays and emerald toucanets.
A startling blue pool nestled beneath the peaks of the Cerro Verde, Izalco and Santa Ana volcanoes and fringed by sloping sugar and coffee plantations, Lake Coatepeque is among El Salvador’s most enchanting natural attractions, located on the cusp of the Cerro Verde National Park. At almost 6 km in length, this is the country’s largest lake, formed in the crater of an ancient volcano more than 50,000 years ago and nurturing a colorful population of catfish, guapote and zebra fish.
A tranquil holiday destination for both locals and travelers, the most popular activities at Lake Coatepeque are swimming and water sports, with sailing, kayaking, waterskiing and scuba diving all possible. Additional highlights include the hot springs dotted around the water’s edge and the island of Teopan, once an important place of Mayan worship.
Perched on a hilltop, overlooking the glittering waters of Lake Suchitlán, Suchitoto is among El Salvador’s most picturesque towns, a maze of timeworn cobblestones and well-preserved colonial architecture.
Suchitoto’s tranquil surroundings and laid-back pace of life make it a popular retreat for capital dwellers, as well as nurturing a lively arts scene, and the streets are dotted with artist’s workshops, galleries and cozy cafés. The town’s most famous landmark is the striking white Iglesia Santa Lucia, but the area is most celebrated for its natural assets, with the neighboring Suchitlán reservoir sheltering a large variety of migratory birds and nearby sights including the Los Tercios Waterfall.
The largest of El Salvador’s four national parks, El Imposible National Park is also home to one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, offering refuge for a number of endangered animals and plant species. Set on one of the country’s most important historic trade routes, El Imposible (The Impossible) was named for its treacherously steep gorge that claimed the lives of many travellers and mules throughout the years.
Thankfully, since the building of a bridge across the pass back in 1968, exploring the park has been much easier and today the 3,800-hectare parklands are a prime spot for hikers - a sweeping landscape of riverside mangrove forests and rugged peaks soaring to heights of 1,450 meters. Wildlife spotting is another popular pastime with around 250 bird varieties found in the park, including rare species like Great Curassow, King Vulture, Turquoise-browed Motmot and black-crested eagles, as well as pumas, tigrillos, wild boars and a vast array of butterflies.
Easily reached from both Santa Ana and San Salvador, the Guajoyo River is a major tributary of the Lempa River, which runs 422 km through southern Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, before flowing into the Pacific south of San Salvador.
Despite running for less than 15 km, the Guajoyo River is home to one of El Salvador’s four hydroelectric power stations, but it’s best known to tourists as the country’s top destination for white water rafting, with Class II and III rapids open to thrill-seekers all year round.
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