When Mayor-elect Norman Quijano announced in 2010 that he was going to beautify San Salvador, he set himself a hard task. This is a frenetic, modern city that suffers from pollution and heavy traffic, and there is a great divide between the rich and the poor, which means there are unsafe, crime-ridden neighborhoods that contrast wildly with luxurious, expensive mall developments. Earthquake damage has taken its toll on older buildings, and the city -- which is Central America's second-most populated, after Guatemala City -- lacks any grand vistas. Instead of pretty architecture, San Salvador's center is a clogged up mess of canvas-covered markets and rickety stalls with what seems to be the highest concentration of fast-food restaurants in the world.
Yet slowly but surely, the mayor is beginning to transform the city. The chaotic stalls and markets that blocked the city center are being cleared away, revealing that this sprawling metropolis does have something to show besides a high murder rate and plethora of fast food franchises. The volcanoes and hills that surround the city provide a picturesque backdrop, and the center, once cleared and seen, is both interesting and historic.
Overall, the city offers one of Central America's most diverse collections of international restaurants. You can sample fusion, Italian, Asian, Brazilian, and other cuisines at restaurants with top-notch service and, at least by North American and European standards, reasonable prices. You can also lay your head on the fluffy pillows of high-end, luxury hotels such as Hilton, Sheraton, and Intercontinental without emptying your bank account and shop at an international collection of designer stores in sparkling new malls such as the Multiplaza and Gran Via. In addition, the city boasts some excellent museums, a world-class art gallery, a nearby international airport, and beach resorts within an hour's drive. It's a city with a lot going for it.
Founded in 1525, San Salvador was the capital of the united provinces of Central America from 1834 to 1839, when the short-lived confederacy broke up into separate states. Its turbulent history has seen countless earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as political unrest and outright war. Tremors destroyed the city in 1854 and 1873. Volcán San Salvador erupted in 1917, and two earthquakes in 1986 and 2001 caused considerable damage. The city suffered enormously during the civil war of the 1980s, with countless assassinations and riots. The government bombed its own people in a crude attempt to wipe out FMLN fighters hiding out in the poorer neighborhoods. Normality returned only with the end of the war in 1992, but the city still bears many scars from this dark period in its history.
If you have limited time in El Salvador, it's best to see San Salvador in 1 or 2 days. That will give you enough time to enjoy its international comforts and to see the main highlights, but leave you ample time to explore the country's smaller, more charming, towns. However, if you have more time on your hands and a reasonable budget that can afford one of the better hotels in the better areas, you will experience a vibrant, emerging city with a lot to offer.
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