El Salvador is a country of mind-boggling diversity. Mountain cloud forests and fuming volcanoes, charming colonial towns and broad green valleys, black-sand beaches and some of the world's best surf – they're all here, and chances are you'll have them practically to yourself, as the country remains largely unknown by travelers.
El Salvador is also a land that has suffered through a bloody civil war, devastating natural disasters and a pernicious gang problem. Despite these trials, Salvadorans possess a preternatural resilience, as well as a wonderfully disarming friendliness and hospitality towards visitors.
As their guest, it's worth remembering that this is a conservative culture in which being polite and respectful is paramount for foreigners and locals alike. Here's your guide on how to make a good first impression:
- shake hands and say mucho gusto (nice to meet you) the first time you meet someone
- preface your conversation - even simple requests - with buenos días (good morning) or buenas tardes (good afternoon/evening). It is also courteous to say hello to the person sitting next to you on the bus and to make a general greeting when entering a public place like a restaurant.
- use the formal usted (you) to address locals until they go to the informal address first. In El Salvador, that’s the vos form - the same tense used in Argentina instead of tú. Take the time to learn it before you go. And needless to say, have at least some basic Spanish under your belt.
- bring mementos and souvenirs from home to give as gifts to special folks who have helped you or invited you to their home
- pay attention to your appearance. Salvadorans are very conscious of appearance, grooming and dress. Looking scruffy and unwashed is considered an affront.
- go into shops shirtless or in a bikini. Though the beach may be nearby, wandering around in such skimpy attire is inappropriate. In general, steer toward conservative attire, especially when visiting churches, where you should avoid wearing tank tops, shorts, or hats. No Salvadoran wears shorts outside of the beach and coastal towns.
- refer to indigenous people as indios, which is considered an offensive term. The word indígena for indigenous men and women is widely used.
- expect everything to rush at New York City pace
- take photographs of religious ceremonies or people without asking
- be insulted if people comment frankly on your physical appearance or give you a related nickname (eg El Gordito/Fatty). This is done affectionately and isn't meant to be hurtful.
Find out more about this intriguing country in Lonely Planet's Central America on a Shoestring guide.
Already been to El Salvador? Perhaps you've got some of your own tips that you'd like to add to this list? We'd love to hear them.
This article was refreshed in June 2012