Venture deep into El Salvador, the heart of Central America, and you’ll discover the remnants of a long lost Mayan civilization. This small and densely populated country is home to ruins dating back thousands of years. These ruins often get overlooked, as what is now El Salvador was not used as the core location to house the Mayan Empire. Nevertheless, these ancient landmarks clearly evidence what was once an advanced society, and are an ideal spot for anyone wishing to walk in the footsteps of a distant culture.
While the ruins on display in El Salvador may not seem as grand as those found in countries such as Mexico or Honduras, they supply a certain charm, gazing upon their remains in a more peaceful part of the world. The three core sites of these remains are found at the archeological sites of Tazumal, Joya de Cerén, and San Andrés. The contrasting environments surrounding these historical marvels are even more astounding when compared to the vibrant capital city of San Salvador.
San Salvador is likely to be the starting point of your journey, with a plethora of activities and hotels to choose from, and close to Joya de Cerén. However, to get a true feel for the country, we’d also advise traveling to the city of Santa Ana, an equally stunning locale 40 miles west of San Salvador. On the way you’ll be able to stop off at San Andrés, exploring the valley of Zapotitán. And for those who enjoy hiking, the Tazumal site is relatively easy to access from Santa Ana by foot.
While the Mayan ruins are truly a sight to behold, El Salvador can often get bad press due to the crime which occurs frequently in the east of the city. Nevertheless, do not let this deter you; San Salvador welcomes many tourists every year, and staying in the heart of the city is as safe as any other metropolitan area. With excellent eateries, museums, close accessibility to a range of diverse landscapes – from trekking up volcanic mountains to sandy beaches on the blue Pacific – San Salvador is a city worth getting to know.
With its blend of modern inner cities and a historic past, El Salvador and the Mayan ruins within is a dream for any kind of intrepid wanderluster. To make your trip as unforgettable as possible, please take a look at our guide for what to see and do while you’re there. Make sure to note down your favorite places in your BUCKiTDREAM planner.
This is the most restored and important archaeological site in El Salvador. The excavated remains of this pre-Colombian settlement span a time period of over 1000 years, with most of the construction taking place around 500 AD. At the center of the site is Structure I, a large pyramid with numerous tiers. Unfortunately, due to an earthquake occurring in 2001, visitors are no longer allowed to climb on the pyramid for their own safety, as well as the integrity of the structure.
All of the buildings in Tazumal face west, with Structure I measuring 240 by 285 feet. This grand masterpiece was built over the course of many years but is not the only remain of note, with a stretch of significant artifacts spanning an area of 6 miles². Close by you can travel to Casa Blanca, a six-structure settlement with the tallest standing 50 feet high. Adjacent to the inspiring monuments is an onsite museum housing relics, sculptures and burial objects excavated from the site (closed on Mondays).
These ruins once reigned over the smaller settlements across the Zapotitán valley as the capital, and have been excavated several times over the years after being buried by the aftermath of two separate volcanic eruptions. Surrounded by small farms and thick jungles, the centerpieces of the site are the Acropolis and Great Plaza, which are now open to visitors.
The Acropolis is linked to the South Seat, where Mayan lords used to rule over their people. Ceremonial pyramids and palaces have also been revealed through excavations; however, the residential portion of the site has yet to be fully studied. San Andrés is a popular picnic spot for tourists, and also offers a museum with three individual galleries each showcasing numerous artifacts and exhibits.
Joya de Cerén
This UNESCO World Heritage site is commonly referred to as “The Pompeii of the Americas”, due to an extensive and impressively preserved farming community that was buried for centuries under dense layers of volcanic ash. Two separate volcanoes erupted to destroy the communities, but unlike the disaster in Pompeii, the inhabitants had enough warning to evacuate their homes, which then proceeded to lay abandoned for centuries.
18 structures, 10 of which have been either completely or partially excavated, are now found at this extraordinary archaeological park, which itself was stumbled upon by accident via a bulldozer in 1976. From workshops and temples to homes and gardens, this once agricultural village is entirely open for visitors to walk around, with the option of taking a guided tour. These remains, now frozen in time, will give you a glimpse into the lives of the former rural Maya.
If you’re planning to travel the majority of your journey by car, it is recommended to stick to the main highways, as secondary roads are usually unpaved; depending on the weather, it can make for a difficult cross-country trip. Fortunately, straying off the beaten path and discovering every nook and cranny of the country is easy to do by bus. There are few places that cannot be reached by one of these brightly painted buses and don’t be surprised if a friendly vendor hops on peddling his wares.
Within larger cities such as San Salvador, taxis are prevalent. Until sundown, taxis are able to be hailed on the streets and are easy to catch around any of the main squares. Throughout the smaller towns and villages, you’ll find tuk-tuks. These moto-taxis come in the form of canvas-covered three-wheeled bikes. They are often much cheaper than standard taxis and possess the added benefit of being at one with the outdoors.
Where to Stay
High-end If it’s an unforgettable vacation in the lap of luxury you’re after, look no further than Barceló Hotel. With unique views of the city coupled with the backdrop of San Salvador volcano, it’s an indulgent stay that you won’t want to miss out on.
Mid-level For an affordable stay in your own private suite, María José Suites is the place to be. Located in a prime spot in the city center, this accommodation is renowned for its friendly service and delicious breakfast.
Budget For those seeking a comfortable bed without breaking the bank, Hotel Nueva Villa Santander is an ideal candidate. Clean and spacious rooms come equipped with a TV and air conditioning, this is perfect for backpackers on the move.
Food and Drink
El Salvador is quickly becoming famous for many of its delectable dishes. A staple of the country is pupusas, a flat savory cake filled with various fillings such as beans, cheeses, and meats. Pastelitos de Pollo is another local favorite; these small turnovers filled with chicken and vegetables are fried until golden brown and served with a side of curtido, seemingly getting better with each bite.
In terms of nightlife, La Zona Rosa is the essential area to visit. It’s here where you’ll find most of San Salvador’s trendiest restaurants, bars and clubs. Although it doesn’t cover a large area, La Zona Rosa is bursting with life and the best place to spend an evening for those wanting to enjoy a drink or three.
After you’re done exploring ancient ruins and experiencing the many delights of El Salvador’s cities, El Boquerón National Park is the must-see place to journey. Leave behind the buildings from the past and present and head deep into nature, hiking through lush jungles and trekking up a dormant volcano. Private and group tours are available, which include pickup and drop-off at the hotel.
The scent of fresh pine will stay with you long after you’ve journeyed down your final trail. Venturing around the park, you’ll discover its main attraction: the eponymous El Boquerón. Getting to this three-mile crater can be a challenge, but for nature lovers it’s worth every second. Just 25 minutes away from the capital city, this is an adventure you will not want to miss out on.
El Salvador and its Mayan ruins deserve to be at the top of any cultural wanderluster or history enthusiast’s bucket list. So, start on those plans in your BUCKiTDREAM planner, and don’t forget to share your experiences on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.