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Introducing San Salvador

At first glance San Salvador feels like any midsized American city, with its wide boulevards prey to chain stores, gas-guzzling 4WDs and endless fast-food joints. But lift your head above the consumerist, smog-filled haze, and you’ll find a lush volcanic skyline, the finest nightlife in Central America, a vibrant arts scene leaning hard left, and a centro crackling with friendly, market-driven chaos.

Delaying your jaunt to the countryside will ensure encounters by the barload with straight-talking, hard-working locals who practice a unique blend of reconciliation, resilience and civic pride. This is an open-hearted city: the taxi driver talks of his two decades in Melbourne; the guerrilla-turned-barber is obsessed with telenovelas; the poets, painters and engineers dance all night to heavy metal, reggaetón and cumbia, and gossip all morning in a tree-lined city park, fine museum, mall or restaurant. There’s enough going on here to extend a trip a day or two – like day trips to the festive Pipil neighborhood of Panchimalco or to El Boqueron – especially if you befriend a few guanacos (a nickname for salvadoreños).

Known as la ciudad de las dos caras de la moneda (the city of two sides of the coin), San Salvador’s huge wealth gap means that crime is a reality. But the hard-core violence is limited to a few neighborhoods east of town, like Soyopango, which is of no interest to most travelers. Follow the lead of locals and move with purpose, which won’t be hard when your next brightly painted microbus whizzes around the corner at full throttle.