The National Psyche
Salvadorans are strong-willed people who are very welcoming to travelers. With an estimated third of the population residing in the USA, they are nostalgic for their country of birth and often fiercely idealistic about the future. There is at times a palpable frustration with the progress of the nation.
The civil war still looms large in people's minds, as it must – the memories are too searing to forget. At the same time, Salvadorans are genuinely dismayed to learn that many foreigners know little about El Salvador beyond the war. They will eagerly volunteer information and assistance.
Remittances sent home from the roughly two million Salvadorans living abroad, which account for 20% of the national GDP, provide a measure of stability to the economy and greatly influence how people live. Poverty and unemployment persist, with about 35% of the population living below the poverty line, mostly in rural areas. That said, El Salvador enjoys the highest minimum wage in Central America (US$225 per week) and is notably more prosperous than neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua.
Salvadorans generally show more European physical traits than other Central Americans, due largely to the brutal repression of indigenous people and minor Afro-Caribbean influence. Roughly 94% of the population is mestizo (a mixture of Spanish and indigenous) but fair features are not uncommon. Indigenous people are descended from the Pipils, with Toltec and Aztec roots. Government brutality against them has taken its toll, and conservative estimates suggest only 2% of the population are indigenous. While few speak Nahuat or wear traditional dress, recent studies suggest the cultural and ethnic heritage is far stronger than previously believed.
El Salvador is a very religious country. Once staunchly Catholic, like the rest of Latin America, El Salvador is experiencing an explosive growth of evangelical churches. Their fiery services seem to have brought fresh energy to faith. Town-square services with booming speakers are becoming an all-too-typical way of spreading ‘the word.’ Protestant churches now account for almost 50% of believers.
Before and during the war, priests and missionaries were often outspoken critics of government repression – many, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero, were killed for their stands.
El Salvador’s artisanal products can be innovative and high quality. Fernando Llort’s naïve art inspired an industry of brightly painted crafts in childlike motifs in the community of La Palma. Guatajiagua in Morazán produces black pottery with a Lenca influence and Ilobasco is known for its sorpresas, intricate miniatures hidden in ceramic shells.
Poetry is beloved in El Salvador. Iconoclastic poet Roque Dalton was exiled for radical politics. He eventually returned home to aid the guerrilla cause but was executed by his own side due to suspicion that he was a CIA operative. Notable works include Taberna y otros lugares (1969), a political vision in verse, and Miguel Marmol (1972). Progressive poet Claudia Lars wrote spare, bold erotic poetry and is considered one of the country’s foremost writers.
Writing under the pen name Salarrué, lauded writer Salvador Efraín Salazar Arrué published Cuentos de barro (Tales of Mud) in 1933, marking the beginning of Central America’s modern short-story genre. Likewise, Manlio Argueta’s One Day of Life (1980), a tale of a rural family with the backdrop of the civil war, is considered a modern classic. Matilde Elena Lopez is a playwright who wrote a compelling 1978 play based on the life of indigenous leader Anastasio Aquino.
One of the more compelling contemporary Salvadoran novelists is Horacio Casellanos Moya. His translated Senselessness (2004) is a burning black comedy about government-sponsored violence.
Films Romero (1988), produced by Ellwood Kieser, and Salvador (1986), directed by Oliver Stone, offer Hollywood versions of the civil war. Innocent Voices (2004) looks at the civil war from a child's perspective and was nominated for an Oscar.
Behind the Scenes of Naïve Art
Holy scenes, strange birds, unabashed rainbow colors: the childlike images of Fernando Llort have come to symbolize hope in a war-torn Central America. Compared to Miró and Picasso, Llort differs with earnest iconography and flat tropical hues in a style dubbed primitive modern.
Ironically, this strong Latin American identity was forged when Llort went to France to study architecture and then theology. Religious symbols are recurring motifs in his artwork. He prefers the rough and everyday to the exalted.
When Llort returned to El Salvador in the early 1970s, he arrived to the tensions and violence leading up to the civil war. Llort moved to La Palma, a distant mountain town in the north, to take refuge. The apparent simplicity of a life in harmony with nature further informed his style. He started La Semilla de Dios (God’s Seed), a workshop to teach others his craft and professionalize local artisans.
Llort has since lived in San Salvador and abroad, but the workshop is still going strong in his former studio. You can find his work in the White House, MoMA and the Vatican.
Sorpresas (surprises) are little scenes and figures hidden in egg-sized shells, pioneered by folk artist Dominga Herrera of Ilobasco. Underneath a bulbous papaya or white chapel you’ll find a charming microsized scene of village life – usually. One local artist got sassy and sculpted a couple in the giddy throes of sex. The illicit art was condemned by the town priest and briefly removed from stores. But prosperity may have beat out piety. Pícara (sinful) sorpresas, now available as matchbox copulation scenes, continue to sell well. Expect yours to come discreetly wrapped.
Books to Read Before you Visit
Major Salvadoran authors are available in translation. Joan Didion’s Salvador is a moving account of the early days of the war. Nonfiction about the civil war includes Massacre at El Mozote by Mark Danner and Rebel Radio, a fascinating, firsthand account of clandestine radio stations operated by FMLN guerrillas.
Óscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic, by María López Vigil, is a recommended account of the clergyman’s life and political conversion told by those who knew him. When the Dogs Ate Candles, by Bill Hutchinson, is an anecdotal history of the conflict based on interviews with refugees. Archaeology buffs can read about Central America’s Pompeii in Before the Volcano Erupted: The Ancient Ceréen Village in Central America by Payton Sheets.
La Diaspora is an important novel by Horacio Casellanos Moya that communicates the experience of living in exile.
Writing on the Wall: El Salvador's Murals
The murals that grace El Salvador’s many towns and villages are synonymous with the country’s transition to postwar stability. They are both primary and secondary sources of recent historic events and often serve to raise awareness of current social issues.
The destruction in late 2012 of a facade at San Salvador’s Catedral Metropolitana was an unexpected move by the Catholic Church that triggered concerns for the country’s rich artistic heritage. That the facade was created by national icon Fernando Llort only exacerbated the shock.
Passionate local advocacy groups – and increasing international interest in the murals – should ensure their long-term survival as part of the national story. Towns such Perquín, La Palma and Suchitoto boast the best examples outside the capital.
Landscape & Wildlife
The Land of Volcanoes, El Salvador has two volcanic ranges spanning east to west, spicing the views (as well as daily life) with a little drama. Much of the land is deforested, but mountains in the far north are blanketed in pine and oak, jagged rock formations and cloud forests. The Río Lempa bisects the country with a fertile swath of land. While El Salvador is the only Central American country not to have a Caribbean coast, there is over 300km of Pacific coastline bordering mangroves, estuaries and tropical dry forest. Lakes and freshwater lagoons provide drinking water and recreation.
El Salvador was drastically deforested over the 20th century. As a result, many species of plants and animals ceased to exist in the country. However, national parks and protected lands still maintain good biodiversity.
The country has over 800 animal species. Almost half are butterflies; bird species are second in number, with about 330 resident species (and 170 migratory), including quetzals, toucans, herons, kingfishers, brown pelicans, egrets, parakeets and sandpipers. Illegal bird trafficking continues to pose a problem, in particular macaws from Nicaragua.
The remaining mammal species number around 200 and can be seen mostly in reserves. They include opossums, anteaters, porcupines, agoutis, ocelots, spider monkeys and white-tailed deer.
In all about 90 animal species are in danger of extinction, including marine turtles, armadillos and over 15 types of hummingbird.
With so much of the land cultivated, few original plants still exist. Small stands of balsam trees survive along the western Pacific coast (dubbed the Costa del Bálsamo) and mangroves line many estuaries. Parque Nacionales Montecristo and El Imposible offer the widest variety of indigenous plants, and Parque Nacional Los Volcanes offers good vegetation. Plants in these areas include mountain pines, oaks, figs, magueys, ferns and orchids.
National Parks & Reserves
El Salvador has only four official national parks, but there is a number of locally or privately administered reserves.
Barra de Santiago A remote bar of mangrove-fringed estuaries and beaches on the Pacific coast.
Cerro El Pital El Salvador's highest peak. Torogoz (blue-crowned motmots) and quetzals can be observed on its piney slopes.
La Laguna de Alegría An emerald-green lake fed by hot springs, in the crater of dormant Volcán de Tecapa. Ocelots and coatis are among the wildlife inhabiting primary-growth forest surrounding the lake. In 2015 the lake receded to record-low water levels.
Laguna El Jocotal This freshwater lagoon east of Usulután is an important sanctuary for migratory birds from October to March.
Parque Nacional El Imposible Near El Salvador's western limit; one of the country's last remnants of original tropical forest with waterfalls, views and numerous endangered plant and animal species.
Parque Nacional Los Volcanes A volcano-crater forest with amazing views of nearby Izalco and Santa Ana volcanoes. Highlights include emerald toucanets, motmots and hummingbirds.
Parque Nacional Montecristo A mountainous cloud-forest reserve at the borders of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Wildlife includes pumas, spider monkeys and agoutis. Giant ferns, orchids and bromeliads are abundant.
Parque Nacional Walter T Deininger This dry tropical forest on the Pacific coast is the habitat for 87 bird species, deer and pacas.
Deforestation is a major cause for concern, coupled with relatively high population density, which disrupts the regeneration of ecosystems. Today a mere 14% of the country is forested, with only a minuscule 2% to 5% of that primary forest. As a result, many native species have become endangered or extinct.
El Salvador has also copped the brunt of many natural disasters in recent years. Earthquakes in 2001 brought on landslides and destroyed buildings, killing 1159 people; the eruption of Santa Ana volcano in October 2005, coupled with Hurricane Stan’s torrential rains, unleashed scores of landslides, with the largest loss of life occurring in poor areas built on steep slopes or riverbanks. In 2009 massive floods killed 200 people and devastated large tracts of land and housing within 50km of the capital.
Another particularly volatile year for seismic activity was 2012, while 2015 saw the San Miguel volcano spew gas above the second-largest city in the land.
Río Lempa, a crucial watershed for the country, suffers from pollution due to decades of pesticide use and the destabilizing effects of global warming. Community leaders have labeled damage to the protected biosphere around Bahía de Jiquilisco an environmental emergency and a government response is being closely monitored by climate-change watchdogs.
One recent high-profile environmental case in the country concerned an Australian- and Canadian-owned gold-mining operator, Pacific Rim, which attempted to sue El Salvador for US$250 million for refusing to allow it to dig for gold in the country. In 2016 an international tribunal ruled against the mining company and ordered it to pay the Salvadoran government US$8 million in legal costs. The ruling bolstered the cause of community activism across the globe.
Óscar Arnulfo Romero has long been revered as a hero and martyr in his homeland, and now it's official. In 2018, three years after some 250,000 people attended a beatification ceremony in San Salvador, Pope Francis gave his approval for Romero's sainthood. Romero was canonized on October 14, 2018.
A passionate advocate for social justice, Archbishop Romero was shot dead on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass at the Hospital La Divina Providencia in San Salvador. His path to sainthood was previously blocked by conservatives in the church and is viewed by many as long overdue. In El Salvador, confirmation of Romero's sainthood has been received with joy and pride.
No one was brought to justice for Romero's murder, but in 2017 a judge reopened the case. New trials in a number of cases related to the civil war have been made possible by a Supreme Court ruling that overturned the 1993 General Amnesty Law. Another high-profile case recently reopened involves 18 former military officials and their alleged involvement in the massacre at El Mozote.