What would you do if your city kept being destroyed by earthquakes? Not just earthquakes, it also gets hit by hurricanes and violent tropical storms, it’s prone to landslides, and it’s ringed by active volcanos that periodically erupt, forcing the city’s citizens to evacuate. You’d move, wouldn’t you? Well that’s a consideration the residents of San Salvador, capital of the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador, are faced with each and every day, and they’ve elected to stick it out.
The city of San Salvador is built on the ruins of the indigenous city of Cuzcatlan, capital of the Pipil people. The Pipil people fought off the Spanish conquistadors at first contact, but the conquistadors returned with more men, more arms; defeat was inevitable. The Pipil people quit the city, and conquistadors moved straight in.
It was conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, known as the conquistador of Central America – he presided over the Spanish conquest of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – who officially founded San Salvador in 1525.
The city grew but did not become established as a major hub until the early 20th Century. Plus, whenever the city folk went to the effort to put up something nice, it wasn’t long before an earthquake would take it back down.
Major earthquakes struck the city in 1576, 1593, 1625, 1650, 1707, 1719, 1776, 1859, 1862, and 1965.
The San Salvador volcano erupted in 1917, which, combined with the ensuing earthquakes the eruption triggered, forced the government to relocate temporarily to Santa Tecla.
An earthquake in 1986, known as the San Salvador earthquake, resulted in 1000 – 1500 deaths and left 200,000 homeless.
The 2001 El Salvador earthquake left more than 1000 dead, although most of the casualties were from outside of the capital.
Hurricane Ida hit San Salvador in 2009; Tropical Storm Agatha hit in 2010.
Built in 1950, the Metropolitan Cathedral was the site of a tragedy on 31 March 1980 when, during the funeral of the assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero, a gunman opened fire, triggering a stampede inside the cathedral resulting in the death of 44 people.
Is it safe?
Gang violence is a serious problem for residents of San Salvador, with a murder rate that averages around 90 murders per 100, 000 people, it is up there with the most violent cities in the world (in 2016 it had the 7th highest murder rate in the world). Fortunately tourists are not specifically targeted, and if you are sensible you should be fine. The Colonia san Benito district and surrounds, where there are many accommodation options, is safe. The city centre is safe during daylight hours. Elsewhere, and after dark? Best to ask around before going.
Is San Salvador worth a visit?
It isn’t a Central American colonial capital to rival Granada, Nicaragua, or Antigua, Guatemala, or even Guatemala City for that matter. But there are some interesting day trips to be had from San Salvador, including to the archaeological site of Joya de Ceren, and to Parque El Boquerón, from where you can admire the crater of Volcan San Salvador, that make a visit worthwhile.
Also, if you are hankering after a meal at an American fast food franchise, such as Wendy’s, or Denny’s, or Tony Roma’s, then you’ll find what you need in San Salvador.
Practical information and how to reach San Salvador:
San Salvador has an international airport with direct flights to destinations throughout Central America, the United States, Colombia, and Peru. Public buses connect with Guatemala City (trip time = 5 hours). Private shuttles (when they run) connect with Léon, Nicaragua, and Copán, Honduras. More transport info here.
Or visit my crappy capital cities page.