Planning a Trip
By Plane -- El Salvador International Airport, also known as Comalapa or Cuscatlán International Airport (SAL; tel. 503/2339-9455; www.cepa.gob.sv/aies/index.php) is 44km (27 miles) and a roughly 45-minute drive from San Salvador. Cuscatlán International is serviced by major North American carriers such as American, Delta, and Continental as well as Latin American carriers Copa and Mexicana. It's also a major hub for Taca airlines with direct flights to major American cities.
To get to the capital from the airport, take bus no. 138, which costs $1.75 (90p). Alternatively, you can arrange transportation with your hotel or pay $25 (£13) for one of the taxis waiting by the airport exit.
By Bus -- You can catch national and international buses at Terminal de Oriente (Final de Av. Peralta and Boulevard del Ejército; tel. 503/2271-4171) in the east, Terminal de Occidente (Boulevard Venezuela, Colonia Roma; tel. 503/2223-5609) in the west, and Terminal del Sur, also known as Terminal San Marco (Carretera a Aeropuerto; no phone) in the southern part of the city.
You can take Tica Bus (tel. 503/2243-9764; www.ticabus.com), which is one of Central America's largest and most luxurious carriers with destinations throughout Central America, from the San Carlos Terminal (Calle Conception No. 121 at the San Salvador Hotel; tel. 503/2243-9764) and San Benito Terminal (Boulevard del Hipódromo; tel. 503/2243-9764).
San Salvador is Central America's largest city in terms of size, sprawling 570 sq. km (220 sq. miles) east from the base of Volcán San Salvador. The three main tourist zones are El Centro in the east, and the Escalón neighborhood and Boulevard del Hipódromo in Zona Rosa in the west. All three neighborhoods are connected by the city's main east-west highway, known as Alameda Franklin Delano Roosevelt, east of the Plaza de Las Américas and Paseo General Escalón west of the plaza. El Centro includes the city's traditional square, national cathedral, and theater and is a crowded, urban area. It's safe during the day, but best not visited at night. Zona Rosa and Escalón are more upscale residential neighborhoods, and offer some of San Salvador's top restaurants, nightclubs, and shops. Adjacent to Zona Rosa to the west, you'll find the Colonia San Benito neighborhood, home to the Museo Nacional de Antropología Dr. David J. Guzman and Museo de Arte. It's not a good idea to stray too far from these three areas without local knowledge or a guide.
Though most of your travel in San Salvador will be east-west along Roosevelt/Escalón, the city also has a couple of key north-south routes. The main north-south route through the El Centro section is known as Avenida España north of Plaza Barrios and Avenida Cuscatlán south of the Plaza. Avenida Norte, which becomes the Boulevard de Los Heroes, splits the middle of the city; to travel south to the Zona Rosa and Colonia San Benito neighborhoods from the Paseo General Escalón, follow Avenida Manuel E Araujo to Boulevard del Hipódromo.
By Bus -- Buses rule the road in San Salvador and are a great way to see the city, since they stop frequently and go just about everywhere. Bus no. 30b is the line you'll most need to remember. The 30b will take you from Metrocentro (Boulevard de Los Héreos and Calle Sisimiles) across town to Zona Rosa and within walking distance of the city's two major museums. Most intercity buses can be taken from in front of the Metrocentro mall. To travel across the city from El Centro, take bus no. 101 to the Plaza de Las Americas, where you can hop on no. 30b.
Most buses cost 25¢ to 35¢ (15p-20p) and run between 5am to 7:30pm daily, with less frequent service on Sundays. The CORSATUR tourist office can provide additional bus route information.
By Taxi -- You might want to consider using a cab instead of the bus, depending on how far you're traveling -- it costs only about $3 (£1.50) to take a cab many places in the city. Exact fares range depending on your negotiating skills, the driver, and whether or not the cab has a meter. If you speak Spanish, you'll get the best deal by finding a cab without a meter and negotiating a price before getting into the cab. If the taxi has a meter, demand at least an estimate of the cost before agreeing to the trip.
San Salvador has numerous taxicab companies, any of which can be safely hailed on the street during daytime as long as you use a traditional looking taxi (yellow with a little taxi sign on top).
By Car -- Getting around by rental car is a great way to see El Salvador and a horrible way to see San Salvador. The city's roads are packed and not well marked. A wrong turn can also send you into a neighborhood you'd rather not visit or into the midst of a bustling street market. Since taxis are relatively inexpensive and easy to grab, and local buses are cheap and numerous, I recommend leaving your rental at your hotel or renting a car on your way out of the city.
San Salvador offers plenty of local and international rental agencies. Avis tel. 503/2339-9268), Budget (airport office tel. 503/2339-9942; city office tel. 503/2264-3888), Hertz (tel. 503/2339-8004), Thrifty (tel. 503/2339-9947), Alamo (tel. 503/2367-8000), and National (tel. 503/2367-8001) all have airport and downtown San Salvador locations. Locally, Brothers Rent A Car (Centro Commercial Feria Rosa bldg. H, local 208, in front of Casa Presidencial; tel. 503/2218-1856) offers the best deals. Rates range from $40 to $150 (£20-£75) a day with taxes and insurance.
On Foot -- Both of San Salvador's main tourist centers, El Centro and Zona Rosa, are highly walkable. It's in between those neighborhoods where you'll need transportation. El Centro's attractions are centered around the main square Plaza Barrios, and most of Zona Rosa's sights are along walkable Boulevard del Hipódromo. The city's major museums in the Colonia San Benito neighborhood are also within walking distance of each other.
San Salvador's national tourism bureau (CORSATUR) office is located at Alameda Dr. Manuel Enrique Araujo, Pasaje and Building Carbonel No. 2, Colonia Roma (tel. 503/2243-7835), and is open Monday through Friday 8am to noon and 1 to 5pm. The airport also offers a tourism office (tel. 503/2339-9454) with English-speaking staff that's open Monday through Friday from 7am to 6pm.
Fast Facts -- San Salvador offers a plentiful supply of the nation's major banks, and ATMs here accept most common international cards. A Banco Cuscatlan (tel. 503/2212-2000) is in the Galarias Escalón mall along Paseo General Escalón.
Ambulances can be reached directly at tel. 503/2222-5155 and the fire department is at tel. 503/2555-7300. The best medical care can be found at the modern Hospítal de Diagnóstico Escalón (99 Av. Norte, Plaza Villavicencio; tel. 503/2264-4422).
San Salvador's main post office is at 15 Calle Poniente and 19 Av. Norte, El Centro (tel. 503/2555-7600). Internet access can be found for about $1 (50p) an hour at one of San Salvador's numerous InfoCentro (www.infocentros.org.sv) locations.
The Festival of El Salvador in early August marks a nearly countrywide vacation during which everyone who can heads to their vacation spot of choice. Schools and businesses close so that communities throughout the country can host parades, celebrations, and religious processions honoring Jesus Christ ("El Salvador'') as the patron saint of the country. The largest celebrations are here in the nation's capital.
Traveler safety is a hotly debated topic among travelers and residents in El Salvador. And though everyone has his own take on the subject, the short answer is that El Salvador is a much safer country in which to travel than you probably have heard. However, El Salvador does have its issues and dangers and those should be taken into account. The street gang Mara Salvatrucha, which has members throughout the country, is considered to be among the most violent in the world, and El Salvador has one of the planet's highest homicide rates. Street and bus robberies in bad neighborhoods are also not uncommon -- it's foolish to deny these conditions exist. But if you follow a few simple rules, you should have a safe and enjoyable trip.
Among the most important things to consider when traveling in El Salvador is not to stray too far off the travelers' path without knowledge of the area or a guide. Neighborhoods can change quickly and it's often difficult to distinguish between safe and unsafe areas by appearance alone. Some of the leafier, residential neighborhoods immediately outside larger cities are among the most prone to robbery. The main tourist areas of the bigger cities, however, are usually filled with people and are among the most heavily patrolled.
Small-town squares are also usually filled with locals into the evening and are among the safest places you're likely to visit. Don't be spooked by the presence of heavily armed police and private security guarding many of the country's banks, businesses, and tourist areas: El Salvador has a turbulent history and the seemingly ominous presence of armed guards -- even in small towns -- has simply become part of the culture. Heavy firepower does not mean an area is particularly dangerous.
Avoid traveling between towns or walking away from main squares at night; if you must venture out, always take a cab at night in bigger cities. It's also a good idea not to hike in rural, isolated areas without a guide.
Don't carry or display items of obvious value such as jewelry or expensive cameras; if you don't look like you have anything worth stealing, you're less likely to be robbed. Get in the habit of looping an arm or leg through the strap of your bag when you sit in a restaurant or bus depot, and don't leave bags unattended even for a moment. Simply being aware of what is around you helps: If someplace doesn't feel safe, it probably isn't. Just walk away.
Perhaps the most important safety tip, stressed to me by many El Salvadoran friends and provided as standard advice by government agencies, is to give up your valuables immediately if robbed. El Salvador's criminals are known to turn quickly violent when resisted. So if you're confronted, don't try to reason and don't bargain for your laptop.