Two day trips in the vicinity of San Salvador stand out: the unique ruins of Joya del Cerén and exploring the suburb of Santa Tecla. It’s easy to spend a few days in Santa Tecla if you have the time, but if you stop by only for a day, definitely aim for the weekend to hit Paseo El Carmen for the street fair.
Joya del Cerén
Nearby the San Andrés ruins is Joya de Cerén (Km. 35, Carretera Panamericana, tel. 2401-5782, 9am-4pm Tues.-Sun., $3 foreigners, $1 Central Americans), the most fascinating site in El Salvador and the only one of its kind in all of Mesoamerica. All other archaeological sites provide insight into the lives of the elite; Joya de Cerén, on the other hand, has provided detailed information about the activities of regular run-of-the-mill Mesoamerican farmers, making it a unique example of daily village life in the area.
Often referred to as the Pompeii of the Americas, Joya de Cerén was abandoned right before the eruption of Laguna Caldera around AD 600 blanketed the simple farming village in seven meters of volcanic ash. Although a warning earthquake apparently gave residents time to flee, their personal belongings stayed exactly as they were, perfectly preserved in the ash, from garden tools and bean-filled pots to sleeping mats and religious items, essentially freezing the agricultural village in time. The site was later resettled by Pipiles, oblivious to the preserved village under the earth. It was not until 1976 that one of the adobe homes was discovered by a bulldozer during the construction of grain storage silos. Excavation began under the direction of American archaeologist Payson D. Sheets in 1978 and 1980, but was interrupted by the civil war. Work resumed in 1988 and has been ongoing since then.
Today, Joya de Cerén is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can see the well-protected ruins from a platform above them. The ruins include a temezcal (sauna), simple adobe huts, and a communal kitchen. There is a small air-conditioned museum with information about the site, and free tours can be arranged. Tour guides speak enough English to get the main points across.
Take buses 108 or 40 to San Juan Opico (there should be one leaving every 15 minutes) and ask to be let off at Joya de Cerén. It costs $0.65 and takes about 1.75 hours.
If you are driving, take Carretera Panamericana (CA1) toward Los Chorros, and continue as if going to Santa Ana. Just before Km. 29, take the right exit marked “Este Panamericana CA1A.” Follow the signs to Joya de Cerén, coming to a traffic stop and carefully going straight through. You will now be on the road to San Juan Opico. Joya de Cerén is six kilometers down from the turnoff (a few kilometers short of Opico). The site is located at Km. 35 on the left side of the road. The drive takes about an hour.
Located at the southern foot of the San Salvador volcano, just 17 kilometers west of San Salvador, the suburb of Santa Tecla is wildly popular with Salvadorans but still relatively untapped by foreign tourists—only because most of them still haven’t heard of it.
The main draw in Santa Tecla is Paseo El Carmen (2pm-11pm Fri.-Sun.), a street full of restaurants, bars, and shops that turns into a pedestrian area every weekend. From Friday evening until Sunday night Paseo El Carmen fills up with independent vendors selling local goods such as artisanal chocolate, coffee, indigo-dyed clothing, handmade jewelry, and art. In addition to this, there are various food stalls set up selling typical Salvadoran food, sweets, and drinks, and the Plaza de la Música (a plaza located in the center of Paseo El Carmen) almost always has live music or drumming.
The afternoons and evenings around Paseo El Carmen are family friendly and a wonderful way to pass the day if you are around the city. After dark, the bars and restaurants also fill up and the nightlife goes until 2am. Paseo El Carmen has a friendly police presence and a safe festive vibe, making it one of the most popular places for nightlife in the country. Bars offer live music, salsa dancing, and DJs. The best way to pass the time is at one of the outdoor tables on the street, making new friends and watching the people go by.
If you have some time to spend in Santa Tecla, other attractions worth checking out include the Museo Municipal Tecleño (MUTE) (7 Av. Sur 1-4, tel. 2534-9633, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-5pm daily, free), at the far east end of Paseo El Carmen. This large mint-green neoclassical building was originally built as a prison in 1902. The building was designed with four main cells to hold up to 15 prisoners each, however, records show that each cell held closer to 40 inmates at a time. These four large rooms now serve as excellent galleries for rotating art shows. The museum is a fantastic cultural space where a variety of independent work is regularly showcased, including films, contemporary Latin American art, poetry, and photography. The museum also often hosts lectures and theater productions. There is also a large open-air space in the back where there is a funky, relatively unknown café.
An architectural relic of the 19th century, Iglesia El Carmen sits at the west end of Paseo El Carmen. Although it is not possible to enter (the 2001 earthquake damaged it enough to make it unsafe), the grand neo-Gothic style still makes the facade worth visiting. The church was constructed between 1856 and 1914 and used brick and talpetate (material made from volcanic ash) to achieve the impressive facade.
To get to Santa Tecla from San Salvador, take buses 101A or 101B ($0.40, 15 minutes, buses run every 15 minutes).
A taxi between San Salvador and Santa Tecla should cost $7-13, depending on where you are coming from and the time of day (it might cost more late at night). If you stay at one of the hotels in Antiguo Cuscatlán, near UCA, you will be conveniently close to Santa Tecla; expect to pay around $6-7 for a taxi.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon El Salvador.