El Salvador, whose capital is San Salvador, is nestled amidst the larger counties of Honduras and Guatemala. The Gulf of Fonseca separates El Salvador from Nicaragua. Most travelers bypass this small country in Central America but despite its size, it offers travelers with so much to see and experience. El Salvador is rich in history and the volcanic activities in the past, particularly in Joya de Cerén earned it the nickname Pompeii of the Americas. The incredibly well preserved ancient site was buried in layers of lava when the Loma Caldera erupted in 595 AD. The country may have had a violent past, but its natural wonders make up for it. Travelers will get to see the sparkling waters of some of the 14 lakes in the country and be enthralled by the wonders of its forests, its beautiful beaches suitable for surfing, galleries, museums and exciting nightlife.
El Salvador has a true rainforest, the Montecristo National Park that is forever covered in mist and clouds. Such areas are getting extremely rare and in this park you will be greeted by air plants, giant ferns and cool areas that have never been touched by sunlight. Bosque El Imposible or the Impossible Forest National Park will present you with other surprises. You will find nearly 300 species of birds and unique animals, butterflies belonging to several hundreds of species and about 400 species of trees. You may want to look for El Salvador’s national bird, the turquoise-browed mormot, related to the kingfisher. Its colorful plumage is truly attractive and its unique tail feathers are decidedly fantastic. Two tail feathers are extended with elongated shafts that are featherless and end with colorful feathers shaped like rackets.
After all the activities you can do in El Salvador, end your day sitting quietly in a café for a cup of locally grown coffee that can be a local respite. For you see, coffee is one of the major produce and export products of El Salvador.
In this Country Profile
:: Background of El Salvador ::
At least three early civilizations were the first peoples that inhabited the region that is now known as El Salvador. The Olmecs predate the Mayans and the Aztecs and were Mexico’s first prime civilization. The Olmecs were believed to have migrated to El Salvador around 2000 BC. There were also excavated ruins that proved that Mayans also inhabited El Salvador. Aztec descendants called the Pipil Indians came to stay in the region around the 11th century. They were believed to have come from the Nahóa tribe that spoke the Náhuatl dialect. While the Olmecs were descendants of the Aztecs, they also had Mayan influences and their agriculture was also centered on the production of maize. They knew hieroglyphics and were very well acquainted with mathematics and astrology.
The Pipil Indians were the inhabitants of the region when Spanish explorer Andrés Niño arrived on the coast of Conchagua in 1522. He named the area he saw as Golfo de Fonseca. Hernán Cortéz sent Don Pedro de Alvarado to conquer the region in 1524 but was repelled by the forces led by Indian Chief Atlacatl. The Spanish were able to succeed when they again invaded the region the following year. While Chief Atlacatl continued to resist the invaders, he was overpowered later and was put to death. The Indian Chief was considered a local hero and a monument dedicated to the Chief was erected in Antigua Cuscatlán in La Libertad.
Even before the Spanish came, or about 3,000 years prior to their arrival, El Salvador was already a prime trading location and archeological finds indicate that the native inhabitants of the region were trading with the Pipil Mayans, Lenca, Pok’omama, Chorti and Teotihuacán. When the Spanish settled, they introduced cotton, indigo and balsam, thus increasing the agricultural production of the region until the 1700s, with indigo as the prime export product. However, the farmers remained poor because land ownership belonged to a few elites.
Father José Matías Delgado, a very outspoken priest organized an uprising against the Spanish in 1811. Even if it was short-lived, it became inspirational for the revolt in 1821 that led to the independence not only of El Salvador but also other colonies in Central America that were ruled by Spain. September 15, 1821 became the independence day of El Salvador. Initially the Central American colonies formed an association with Mexico but two years later, in 1823, the colonies withdrew from Mexico and formed the Federal Republic of Central America. Father José Matías Delgado wrote El Salvador’s constitution and Manuel José Arce got elected as its president.
Even if the colonies were all located in Central America, each one had its own regional and cultural characteristics and traditions that did not match the rest of the regions and led to tension. The wealthy landowners remained and the poor were still penniless, even if their new constitution provided for the abolishment of slavery. A civil revolt was led by Anastacio Aquino in 1833. He was eventually captured and sentenced to death. Finally El Salvador left the Central American Federation but retained their date of independence from Spain.
The production and widespread use of synthetic dyes toward the latter part of the 19th century crippled the indigo market and El Salvador began to produce coffee, which became their prime cash crop. It opened a huge market for El Salvador and 95% of the country’s income depended on coffee revenues by the 20th century. Still, only 2% of the population of El Salvador at the time really benefited from coffee growing and sales.
Social unrest was inevitable and Augustín Farabundo Martí, founder of the Central American Socialist Party or the Frente Martí Liberación Nacional (FMLN) in Spanish, led the indigenous people and peasants of the country to an uprising on January 1932. It was a bloody revolt that led to the killing of 30,000 people. It became known as La Matanza or The Massacre. The leader of the revolt was sentenced to die by firing squad. The nation was placed under military control and soon military officers were forming alliances with the wealthy landowners and the farmers and peasants continued to be oppressed.
El Salvador’s economy went on a slow decline from the 1950s up to the 1970s and these years were very unsettled times for the country, when numerous pockets of civil uprisings occurred. It was not only the people who were suffering. Even the members of the clergy were already disgruntled by the turn of events and one outspoken priest, Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated while saying mass on the 24th of March 1980. This act led to an all-out civil war in El Salvador. The civil unrest further lowered the population of El Salvador, with over 300,000 inhabitants electing to leave their country to escape the civil war. Several factions, particularly the FMLN, were engaged in the revolt.
The United Nations finally mediated in April 1990 and talks between the FMLN and the government of El Salvador began, with human rights violations taking top priority. It was only on the 16th of January 1992 that a compromise agreement was signed by the two parties. The government agreed to put in place various reforms including the removal of the death squads and paramilitary groups. These were replaced by the national police force composed of civilians. Human rights violations were investigated and land was distributed. It was estimated that about 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in the 12-year uprising and the United States sent over US$6 billion to El Salvador. Land distribution also came at a price because that was done via loans that passed through USAID, for which the unpaid loans were erased in 1997.
Economic, political and social recovery is slow but continues to gain ground in El Salvador. They now employ foreign workers in the sugarcane and coffee plantations.
:: Geography of El Salvador ::
El Salvador is located in Central America’s west coast, nestled between the countries of Honduras on its northern section and Guatemala on its northwest section. The southeastern part of the country is bounded by the Gulf of Fonseca while to the south of the country is the Pacific Ocean. It is the only country in Central America that does not have a coastline along the Caribbean Sea.
Located on Central America’s Pacific Coast, El Salvador’s latitude is 13° 50’ 00” north of the equator. Its longitude reading is 88° 55’ 00” west of Greenwich.
El Salvador is the smallest country belonging to the Central American region. Its total land mass measures only 21,041 square kilometers. Out of the total country size, the land surface covers an area of 20,721 square kilometers, leaving only a small water surface measuring 320 square kilometers. In comparison with other areas, El Salvador is just a tiny tad smaller than the State of Massachusetts.
Being such a small country, its total land boundary only measures 545 kilometers with the larger portion or 342 kilometers shared with Honduras. The balance of 203 kilometers is shared with Guatemala. It is interesting to note that the tension and rioting during a tightly-contested football match between Honduras and El Salvador in the second qualifying round of the 1970 FIFA World Cup in North America will trigger a border dispute between the two nations. The four-day war occurred when the army from El Salvador attacked Honduras on July 14, 1969. It became known as the Soccer War. A ceasefire was negotiated by the Organization of American States on July 20, 1969 and El Salvador withdrew its troops the following month. The two nations only signed a peace treaty on the 30th of October 1980, eleven years after the Soccer War. Five sections of land boundary and disputed territory over the Gulf of Fonseca were mostly awarded to Honduras only in 1992 by the International Court of Justice and the border demarcation treaty signed six years later.
The country is almost embraced by its two neighbors, Honduras and Guatemala, leaving El Salvador a very short coastline that measures only 307 kilometers long.
Under the law of the sea the country has a territorial sea claim that measures 12 nautical miles and a contiguous zone of 24 nautical miles. El Salvador also claims an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles.
The prevailing climate in El Salvador is tropical and the country has two distinct seasons. Specifically, El Salvador has tropical climate near the coast while the rest of the country has temperate climate. The dry season, sequía in Spanish corresponds to summer or verano, which is warm and dry. Summer is from November to April. Light rainfall can occur during the summer months. The wet season or invierno, when the country experiences heavy rainfall or temporales starts in May and ends in the month of October. Annual maximum temperature in the country is 30 °C or about 90 °F, while the average minimum is about 18 °C or 64 °F. In the country’s capital, San Salvador, the average temperature in January is about 22°C or 72 °F and only goes slightly higher in July.
From east to west two mountain ranges run parallel across El Salvador. These are the Cordillera Apeneca and the Southern Coastal Mountain Ranges. The southern mountains are made up of five clusters of about twenty volcanoes in a discontinuous chain. The mountain ranges effectively divide the country into three regions – the northern lowlands that are formed by the valleys of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas that originates from Mexico and the Lempa River; the coastal flat plains in the south, often referred to as the Pacific Lowlands and the central plateau that are dotted with volcanoes, several valleys and mountains.
The Pacific Ocean is the lowest point in El Salvador. Although there are 25 active and extinct volcanoes in El Salvador as the country lies in the Ring of Fire, the highest point in the country is not a volcano but a mountain, Cerro El Pital, which rises to a height of 2,730 meters or nearly 9,000 feet. It is located on its border with Honduras.
El Salvador is a country whose major source of income is derived from its fertile lands. Other natural resources in the country are petroleum and hydropower and geothermal power due to the presence of several volcanoes in the country.
Over one-third of the land in El Salvador is allocated for agriculture. Nearly 12% of the land is planted with permanent crops while the rest is divided into forested areas, permanent pasture and other uses.
El Salvador is sometimes called the Land of Volcanoes, with the number of active volcanoes in the country. It is also located over a geographically unstable location, as El Salvador lies between active tectonic plates, the Cocos Plate under the Caribbean Plate and the North American Tectonic Plate. These tectonic plates cause frequent earthquakes to occur in El Salvador. The country is also vulnerable to hurricanes and volcanism. Some of the more active volcanoes are San Miguel that last erupted in 2002; San Salvador whose last eruption was in 1917; Izalco, Santa Ana, Ilopango and Conchaguita.
Current Environmental Issues
Industrialization and commercialization have downsides that bring environmental problems to a nation. El Salvador is not immune to these environmental issues and faces soil contamination due to the improper disposal of toxic wastes. The country is also susceptible to water pollution, soil erosion and deforestation.
International Environmental Agreements
El Salvador has signed the international environmental agreement regarding the law of the sea but the country is yet to ratify the agreement. It has also entered into agreements pertaining to endangered species, ozone layer protection, hazardous wastes, wetlands, desertification and biodiversity. The country also is part of the international discussion on climate change as well as the climate change-Kyoto protocol.
:: People of El Salvador ::
The inhabitants of El Salvador are called Salvadorans.
90% of the population of El Salvador is mestizo. They are the group who are of mixed AmerIndian and Spanish descent. Those who are mainly Spanish belong to the white ethnic minority, which accounts for 5%. Only a few of the ethnic native groups, majority of which are Lenca and Pipil AmerIndians are left and they are now considered a minority. Some Swiss, Syrians, Chinese, Germans, Turks and Lebanese have elected to make El Salvador their home.
Spanish is the official language in El Salvador and spoken nearly by all of its inhabitants. Náhuat or Izalco is still spoken by the AmerIndians (Pipil) in selected regions. English is also widely spoken.
Roman Catholic is the dominant religion in El Salvador. The country is tolerant of other religions so there are several other followers of other religious faiths in the country, including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Pentecosts and Protestants.
According to estimates done in July 2011, the population of El Salvador has reached 6,071,774, with about 64% living in urban areas. Net migration is quite low, estimated to be around -8.95 for every one thousand inhabitants. The population growth is estimated to be just 0.318% while the fertility rate of women is placed at 2.08 children.
The majority of the population belongs to the 15 to 64 age group, accounting for 63%, with more females, numbering about 2 million against the 1.8 million males in this age bracket. In the 0- to 14-year group, which is 30.6% of the population, the males make up a larger number with over 950,000 while the females only account for slightly over 900,000. Those who are 65 years and over account for 6.4% of the population; again with the females registering a higher number at more than 215,000 while the males only account for 173,000.
Out of the total population, there is only 0.93 male born against one female according to 2011 estimates. The figures vary just slightly according to age brackets. At birth the ratio is 1.05 male over female, and the ratio remains the same in the under 15 age group. The ratio goes down slightly at 0.89 in the 15 to 64 age group and goes lower still at 0.81 for every female in the 65 years and over age category.
El Salvador’s median age is 24.3 years. In terms of gender segregation, the median year for females is estimated to be 25.7 years in 2011 while it is 24.3 years for the males.
Birth and Death Rates
Based on the estimates for 2011, the birth rate in El Salvador stands at 17.75 births for every 1,000 inhabitants while the death rate is estimated to be 5.62 deaths for every 1,000 members of the populace.
Maternal and Infant Mortality Rate
Maternal mortality rate according to 2008 estimates is around 110 deaths for every 100,000 live births. On the other hand the infant mortality rate, based on 2011 estimates is 15.15 deaths for every 1,000 live female children born. The rate is higher for the males, estimated to be 22.36 deaths for every 1,000 live births.
Life Expectancy at Birth
Females outlive the males by a few years in El Salvador. Life expectancy at birth for the males is just 70.16 years while it is 76.87 years for the females. Overall, the average for the country is 73.44 years, according to 2011 estimates.
Adult prevalence of HIV/AIDS in El Salvador is a low number, estimated in 2009 to be around 0.8% only. According to the same estimates, there are about 34,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country while deaths resulting from the disease are estimated to be around 1,400.
Literacy in El Salvador is not overly high, which is only about 81.1%, although those aged 15 and over can read and write. According to the 2007 census, female literacy is about 79.6%. It is slightly higher in the male members of the population, which is around 82.8%. School children stay in school for 12 years.
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