El Salvador, officially the Republic of El Salvador, is a country in Central America. Arguably Central America’s most underrated nation, El Salvador is replete with ancient Mayan ruins, dark-sand beaches, sublime national parks, breathtaking volcanic landscapes, and large plantations of sugarcane and coffee beans. Poorly understood and often in the news for the wrong reasons, El Salvador is a country worth getting to know. Here are some interesting facts about El Salvador.
Facts about El Salvador
1. El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America.
El Salvador has a total area of 21,041 km² (8,124 sq mi), and slightly pips Belize as the smallest Central American country. Comparatively, it is about the same size as Israel and slightly smaller than the US state of New Jersey.
2. El Salvador is the smallest most densely populated nation in the mainland of the Americas.
With a population of over 6.5 million, El Salvador is by far the most densely populated country in the mainland of the Americas (North America, South America, and Central America).
El Salvador has a population density of 315/km² (815.0/sq mi). Only some Caribbean nations in the Americas have a higher population density.
3. El Salvador shares a land border with two countries.
4. El Salvador is the only Central American country that has no Caribbean coastline.
All of El Salvador’s 307 km (191 mi) long coastline lies along the Pacific Ocean in the south of the country.
5. The highest peak in El Salvador is Cerro El Pital.
Located on the northern border with Honduras, Cerro El Pital is the tallest mountain in El Salvador and rises to an elevation of 2,730 m (8,957 ft).
6. El Salvador has two distinct seasons.
Located in the tropical region, El Salvador has two distinct seasons: the dry season, from November to April, when light rains occur, and the wet season, from May to October, when the heavy rains take place.
7. Before the arrival of the first Europeans, El Salvador was the land of several Mesoamerican groups, including the ancient Maya.
The first major Mesoamerican civilization to develop in present-day El Salvador were the Olmecs, who moved into the region around 2000 BC. The Olmecs held power until roughly 400 BC when they were largely replaced by the Maya.
El Salvador was inhabited by the Mayans for roughly 750 years from around 100-200 AD to 600-900 AD. The most famous Maya ruin in El Salvador is at Tazumal which includes a temple pyramid and ball court
Around the 11th century, the Maya dynasty was replaced by the Nahuat speaking
Pipil people, who were part of the nomadic Mexican Nahua tribe. The Pipil are one of the more interesting if little-known, civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas. Around the same period, the Aztec Lenca tribe settled into the eastern part of El Salvador
8. El Salvador was colonized by Spain.
Both the Pipil and Lenca dynasties held power until the arrival of the Spanish in and both waged ultimately futile efforts to repel the invading conquistadors. El Salvador came under the control of Spain after explorer Pedro de Alvarado conquered the area in 1524.
For nearly the next 3 centuries, El Salvador remained under Spanish control. In the early 17th century, it was incorporated into the Captaincy General of Guatemala by the Spanish.
Agriculture became the main source of wealth for the settlers in El Salvador, with its fertile cotton plantations, balsam, and indigo fields. The vast majority of the population lived as indentured peasants working for landowning oligarchs, often referred to as “the fourteen families.”
9. El Salvador is named after Jesus Christ.
One of the interesting facts about El Salvador is that it is one of the few countries in the world named after a person. When Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado claimed the country for Spain, he named it “El Salvador” which means ‘the Savior,’ referring to Jesus Christ.
10. El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821.
By the early 19th century, inequality between the elites and the commoners in El Salvador had sowed the seeds for independence. In 1821, El Salvador, along with four other Central American countries, declared its independence from Spain.
11. El Salvador was part of the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America.
In 1823, El Salvador, along with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, formed the Federal Republic of Central America.
However, the federation was plagued by perpetual infighting between the liberals and conservatives. From 1838 to 1840, the federation descended into civil war and was soon dissolved in 1841 after a series of bloody conflicts, and El Salvador became a fully independent country.
12. In the late-19th century, El Salvador was part of the ephemeral United States of Central America.
From 1896 to 1898, El Salvador, along with Honduras and Nicaragua, formed a political union in an attempt to revive the failed Federal Republic of Central America that existed earlier in the century.
13. The national flag of El Salvador has a depiction of its flag within the flag itself.
One of the lesser-known El Salvador facts is that its national flag is one of only eight national flags which has a depiction of its flag within the flag itself. Five flags can be seen on El Salvador’s coat of arms which are present on the central white stripe of the country’s national flag.
14. The capital and largest city of El Salvador is San Salvador.
Founded in 1525 by the Spanish, San Salvador is El Salvador’s bowl-shaped capital city that is surrounded by green-tipped volcanoes and hills.
15. El Salvador was involved in the infamous “Football War” with Honduras.
From 14 July to 18 July 1969, El Salvador was engaged in a short five-day war with Honduras, which is often referred to as the “Football War” or the “Hundred Hours’ War.” Although the name “Football War” implies that the conflict was due to a football match, the root causes of the war involved land, finances, and immigration.
Honduras is more than five times the size of El Salvador. From the early 20th century landless Salvadorans had begun migrating to Honduras for economic reasons.
In 1969, more than 300,000 undocumented El Salvadorans were believed to be living in Honduras (about 15% of Honduras’s population at the time). Beset by economic woes, the Honduran government and private groups increasingly sought to make the Salvadorans scapegoats for their problems.
During a World Cup qualifier in Tegucigalpa, a disturbance broke out between fans on both sides. This followed by even greater violence during the next game in San Salvador after Salvadorans defiled the Honduran flag and mocked the national anthem.
In retaliation, El Salvadorans living in Honduras began to be harassed and even killed, leading to a mass exodus from the country. On 27 June 1969, Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with El Salvador, and on 14 July, the El Salvadoran air force attacked targets inside Honduras.
Though the war lasted only five days and ended in a stalemate of sorts, between 60,000 and 130,000 El Salvadorans were expelled or fled from Honduras. More than 3,000 people, mostly Hondurans, were killed.
16. The currency of El Salvador is the US Dollar (USD).
In 2001, El Salvador abandoned its currency, the Salvadoran colón, and adopted the US dollar, in an attempt to curb spiraling inflation with the U.S. currency.
17. In 2021, El Salvador became the first country to adopt Bitcoin as an official currency.
On 7 September 2021, El Salvador became the first country to adopt Bitcoin as a legal tender. The cryptocurrency is now an official currency of El Salvador alongside the US dollar.
The Salvadoran government said adopting Bitcoin as a legal tender would help attract investment and save Salvadorans money when they transfer remittances back home to relatives in El Salvador.
18. Spanish is the official language of El Salvador.
Salvadoran Spanish shares many similarities to that of its neighbors in the Central American region, but it has its stark differences in pronunciation and usage. A few Amerindians continue to speak Nahuatl.
19. El Salvador is vulnerable to natural hazards.
Probably one of the more well-documented facts about El Salvador is that the nation is prone to natural hazards. The country’s location in the subtropical hurricane area makes it susceptible to harsh weather conditions, including heavy rainstorms and severe droughts, both of which may be made more extreme by the El Niño and La Niña effects.
In 1998, El Salvador was hit by catastrophic Hurricane Mitch, which killed over 350 people, left 55,000 homeless, and stalled the nation’s economy. In the summer of 2001, a severe drought destroyed 80% of El Salvador’s crops, causing famine in the countryside.
El Salvador lies above the convergent boundary where the oceanic crust of the Cocos Plate is being subducted beneath the Caribbean Plate. It is thus subject to significant tectonic activity, including frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. El Salvador is home to over 20 potentially active volcanoes and as such, it is known as the “Land of Volcanoes”.
Some of the most devastating earthquakes struck the country in 2001 killing over 1,200 people and rendering another one million homeless. In fact, during the last century, El Salvador has been struck by a major quake, on average, once every ten years.
20. The national bird and animal of El Salvador is the turquoise-browed motmot.
The Turquoise-browed motmot is a colorful, medium-sized bird (adults are approximately 34 cm/13.5 in and weigh 65 gm) of the motmot family. The name of this tropical bird originates from the turquoise color of its brow.
21. The national dish of El Salvador is Pupusa.
Pupusa is the national dish of El Salvador and is so popular in the country that every second Sunday in November is National Pupusa Day. This stuffed tortilla or griddle cake can be filled with a variety of different savory fillings, like cheese, beans, chicken, beef, pork, or veggies.
22. The biggest ethnic group in El Salvador is the mestizos.
Mestizos (people of mixed indigenous and European descent) constitute the single largest ethnic group in El Salvador, with over 85% of Salvadorans identifying as Mestizos.
White Salvadorans (≈12%) are mostly of Spanish descent from the early settlers, but also those who arrived in the last 150 years from places like Germany, France, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Amerindians and blacks make up less than 0.5% of El Salvador’s population.
23. Christianity is the major religion in El Salvador.
El Salvador is a predominantly Christian country. The majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic (≈50%), while approximately 35% identify as Protestant. The remainder of the El Salvadoran population is either irreligious or belongs to other religions.
24. El Salvador is the second most deforested country in Latin America.
El Salvador has lost about 85% of its native forests since the 1960s (only Haiti has lost more), outpacing the global rate of deforestation.
25. El Salvador is the most water-stressed nation in Central America.
Already being threatened by the effects of climate change, one of the most worrying facts about El Salvador is that it is the most water-stressed nation in Central America. In rural communities across El Salvador, more than 600,000 people have no access to drinking water, and a plethora more experience intermittent access.
While Central America has copious water resources in general, El Salvador’s small land area relative to its population size puts tremendous strain on demand. Decades of mismanagement by the El Salvadoran government to adequately regulate water use in the country have also led to overexploitation and water contamination.
26. El Salvador is a world-class surfing destination and has hosted world surfing events.
El Salvador sees some of the longest and most perfect waves in all of Central America. It is known as the land of the right-hand point break (a wave that breaks to the right from the surfer’s vantage point) in Central America and is home to world-class surf spots like Punta Roca and Punta Mango. Punta Roca even featured in the 1978 cult Hollywood surf movie Big Wednesday.
27. El Salvador was the only country to sponsor Tibet’s plea at the UN in response to the annexation of Tibet by China in 1950.
In November 1950, El Salvador was the only nation in the world to sponsor Tibet’s plea to stop China’s annexation of Tibet. El Salvador requested the UN Secretary-General to list the Tibetan appeal on the agenda of the General Assembly.
However, with no other countries in support, the issue was not debated, and the UN unanimously dropped the Tibetan plea from its agenda.
28. In relation to its size, El Salvador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
Perhaps its unique location between both North America and South America explains why El Salvador is so rich in terms of biodiversity. It is estimated that there are 500 species of birds, 1,000 species of butterflies, 400 species of orchids, 800 species of trees, 150 species of mammals, and 800 species of marine fish in El Salvador.
29. Abortion is completely illegal in El Salvador.
One of the most shocking facts about El Salvador is that it is one of six countries in the world where abortion is illegal under all circumstances. This means that El Salvador outlaws abortion completely, even in circumstances of rape or incest, or where the health of the mother or child is at risk.
El Salvador’s abortion laws are so strict that even a miscarriage can be considered an aggravated homicide. Severe penalties against abortion are enforced in the country, ranging from two to 50 years in jail!
30. Football is the most popular sport in El Salvador.
Football (Soccer) is undoubtedly the most popular sport in El Salvador. However, major success has eluded the Salvadoran men’s national football team.
El Salvador has made two FIFA World Cup appearances: first in 1970 and again in 1982, but have never progressed beyond the first stage of a finals tournament. In fact, El Salvador’s 10-1 loss against Hungary in the 1982 World Cup still remains the biggest defeat in World Cup history.
31. El Salvador has never won an Olympic medal.
Despite having competed at the Summer Olympic Games since 1968, El Salvador has never won a medal. It has also never participated in the Winter Olympics.
32. El Salvador is home to only one UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The one and only UNESCO World Heritage Site in El Salvador is Joya de Cerén—an archaeological site containing the remains of a pre-hispanic farming village that was buried beneath a volcanic eruption in AD 600.
33. El Salvador experienced a bloody civil war from 1979 to 1992.
Between the 1930s and the 1970s, El Salvadorans suffered under a continuation of authoritarian presidents selected from the elite families of oligarchs. These events eroded hope of reform through democratic means and as a consequence, leftist groups in the country began rapidly gaining power by capitalizing upon social discontent.
By 1979, leftist guerrilla warfare had broken out in the cities and the countryside, launching what became a 12-year civil war. The Salvadoran Civil War raged on and off with international powers viewing the battle as an ideological struggle between democracy and communism. The Soviet Union (allegedly) and Cuba supported the guerillas, and the United States—to a total of $7 billion USD supported the El Salvadoran military government.
More than 75,000 people were killed during the war’s bloody run, including many who were executed and mutilated by government death squads, who then dumped the bodies near town squares in order to intimidate against terrorism. The fighting finally halted in 1992 when the government and leftist rebels signed a treaty that provided for military and political reforms
By the war’s end, more than 20% of El Salvador’s population was displaced by the war, triggering an explosion of Salvadoran refugees to other nations. The social and economic damage to El Salvador as a result of the Salvadoran Civil War is indescribable.
34. El Salvador leads Central America in remittances per capita.
El Salvador leads Central America in remittances per capita and remittances from Salvadorans living abroad are vital economic resources. Remittances from Salvadorans abroad account for 15-20% of the country’s GDP and more than 90% of the amount received in remittances comes from the estimated 1.5 million Salvadoran immigrants living in the U.S.
35. El Salvador is wracked by chronic spasms of gang warfare and has among the world’s highest homicide rates.
A rather unsavory fact about El Salvador is that since the mid-1990s its homicide rate has consistently ranked among the top three in the world (excluding countries in an armed conflict). Indeed, few places in the world are as deadly as El Salvador, which are not a war zone.
It is estimated that as many as 500,000 Salvadorans are involved one way or the other in gangs—a staggering number for a country of 6.5 million. Together, the rival gangs MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and the two factions of the 18th Street Gang, the Southerners and the Revolutionaries, control or influence virtually every facet of life in El Salvador.
Ironically, these gangs which originated as self-defense groups were either formed or influenced by Salvadorans in the US, most of whom had fled the Salvadoran Civil War as refugees. With the ending of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992 and stricter US immigration policies, Salvadoran migrants who had been convicted of crimes were deported to El Salvador, bringing gang culture and violence to an already struggling country.
Through recruitment and coercion, the gangs continued to grow in number and influence. They now concentrate on street-level drug sales, extortion, arms trafficking, murder for hire, carjacking, and aggravated street crime. Overall, gang violence costs the El Salvadoran economy $4 billion USD a year.
36. El Salvador doesn’t observe daylight saving.
Daylight saving hasn’t been observed in El Salvador since 1989.