A perfect introduction to Central America, with my very own personalised walking tour of San Salvador

One of the first first pages that came up when I googled San Salvador was EC Walking Tours and I decided straight away that I wanted to do it. I’ve only ever done one walking tour (Prague 2016) but I loved it and was excited to do another one.

Just to clarify, I’m a fan of the ‘tips only walking tours’ led by students, not the ‘brolly in the air’ officious tours.

So, it’s 9am and I’m meeting Eduardo and the other eager San Salvador sightseers outside the city hospital. Except I’m not, because I’m the only person on the tour, and come to think of it I haven’t seen any other obviously foreign tourists here, apart from the five overeager American missonary girls at my hostel. Wonderful, a whole tour all to myself! Oh dear, now I’m all in a quandry about how much to tip at the end and I struggle to concentrate on Eduardo’s introduction to El Salvador history.

Chicken bus San Salvador
Local buses are known as ‘chicken buses’

In brief, it breaks down as follows:

  • In the 11th century AD, the nomadic Pipils arrived from Mexico. They called their new home Cuscatlan or Land of the Jewels.
  • Four hundred years later, the Spanish arrive to ‘discover’ the country renaming it El Salvador (The Saviour). By 1800 Las Catorce, the 14 largest Spanish families, controlled half the land.
  • Coffee, sugarcane and cotton were the primary crops, with the original population forced to work as peasant labourers in order to survive
  • 1932 saw La Mantanza or the massacre, retaliation by the government after a workers rebellion caused by wage cuts and further land appropriation as coffee prices fell. More than 30,000 people were killed in one week.
  • Successive military dictatorships followed and it was the 1970s before protests and uprisings became effective, with the emergence of the FMLN who sought democracy and land reform.
  • A full-on civil war began with atrocities on both sides.
  • In 1990 UN-led negotiations started, a ceasefire was in place by 1992 with the FMLN now an opposition party, yet it was 2009 before an FMLN candidate won the presidency.
  • Presidential elections are due to take place in February 2019, with four candidates and two new parties with young, innovative candidates, creating a lot of discussion and excitement about the political future.

Phew, Eduardo is definitely comprehensive in his history lesson! Now it’s time to walk towards the Centro Historico, with the first stop being the gothic-style Sagrado Corazon church. Although it looks like a normal concrete building from the outside it’s actually made of metal panels, imported from Belgium.

Sagrado Corazon church, San Salvador
Sagrado Corazon church, San Salvador – made of tin panels!

Next we arrive at the main square, framed by the Metropolitan cathedral and the Palace, orginally the presidents residence but now a dusty museum.

Plaza Barrios is a relaxed place with people sitting quietly under the trees watching the world go by.

A recent mayor banned street vendors from the square in a bid to make it a more welcoming space. A giant gaudy christmas tree was pride of place, with a throne for Father Christmas who apparently visits each evening, sponsored by local businesses.

Plaza Barrios
Christmas decorations outside the San Salvador cathedral

Plaza Libertad is another city square, where we visited the El Rosario church. It looks nothing special from the outside, but once inside it’s breathtaking, with the multiple coloured glass panels beaming rainbows of light across the simple wooden pews. In the wall opposite the altar, glass panels form ‘the eye of god’ which apparently reflects perfectly on the altar wall in the late afternoon sun.

We finished our three hour tour with a look inside the cathedral and a visit to the crypt of Monisgnor Romero, who was canonized by the Pope this year, 38 years after being assassinated while leading mass. Although his killers have yet to be brought to justice, his death was widely assumed to be a reaction by security forces after he delivered a homily appealing to soldiers to disobey their orders (in a time of repression, death squads and the disappearance of thousands of anti-government protesters).

Monsignor Romero outside Metropolitan Cathedral
Monsignor Romero – perfect for selfies apparently!

Wow, what a great first day in El Salvador and a wonderful introduction to the country. Eduardo and I chatted all the way around the Centro Historico and I learned loads about the way of life here. After a quick coffee at a Starbucks-wannabe cafe just off the main square, we said goodbye. He’s off to lectures at the university and I’m off to try the beloved national snack, a pupusa.


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