About the size of Massachusetts, El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and most densely populated of the Central American countries. Now, only four years after a U.N. sponsored peace treaty ended the country's eleven year bloody war, El Salvador is considered to have the most dynamic economy in the region.
Thought to be the most industrialized nation in Central America, the country's hard working people, and improving economic indicators provide the investor with some of the building blocks for a successful venture.
Most expatriates live in San Salvador, where you can find shopping malls stocked with the latest of U.S. goods, movie theaters that show first run movies in english, and many good restaurants with reasonable prices.
By North American standards, real estate prices are low but are considered high for Central America. This is mainly due to the small size of the country, where more than five million people compete with industry and many natural obstacles, such as volcanoes, for the limited space. Middle class homes cost around $50,000, compared to $25,000 in other Central America.
If the peace holds, and the economic reform of the current president succeed in jump-starting the economy, El Salvador will offer new and interesting possibilities for the visitors, as well as opportunities for the business sector.
El Salvador's rugged, striking beauty is epitomized by a string of volcanoes that have formed a series of high lush green valleys and crater made lakes down to the sparsely populated beaches on the Pacific Coast. This tiny country has the largest surfing waves in Central America.
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A high volcanic mountain range serves as El Salvador's rugged backbone, along which many of the most important urban centers are located. The slopes of the country's many volcanoes became the first agricultural centers due to their rich, volcanic soils. These agricultural centers, Santa Ana, San Salvador, San Vicente, etc. have become the country's major cities and towns today, which share the names of their corresponding volcanoes.
While the country coastal areas and lowlands are typically hot, San Salvador enjoys an average, almost unvarying, temperature of 82 degrees ferenheit, 28 degrees Celsius. The rainy season last from May to October. The best months for traveling are usually November through January.
El Salvador, the smallest Central American nation, is bordered to the west by Guatemala, to the north and east by Honduras and to the south by the Pacific ocean. Its Pacific coastline is 320 km long. Aside from Belize, El Salvador is the only Central American nation that does not have both Pacific and Caribbean ports.
El Salvador's rich, volcanic soils have been the home to the indigenous people since the prehistoric times. At the time of the Spanish conquest, the heavily Mayan and Aztec influenced Pipil indians were predominant.
When Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in El Salvador in 1524, the Pipil's put up a fierce resistance that lasted more than 15 years, but by 1540 the region was brought under Spanish control and incorporated into the "Captaincy of Guatemala."
In September 1821, El Salvador declared independence from Spain and joined Central American Federation along with Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, but the Federation dissolved by 1840 embroiled in ideological differences among the various regions. In 1841, El Salvador became a sovereign nation.
The majority of the land was divided among the now infamous "14 families", who subjugated the indians, forcing them to work for little or no wages on the large Spanish plantations. Under the motto, "Land for those who work it", Anastasio Aquino staged an unsuccessful indian rebellion in 1833. Today, he is still considered a national hero.
The unfair distribution of the land triggered a pleasant uprising in 1932 that was brutally crushed by then dictator General Maximiliano Hernandez. A series of military coups ensued the coming years, and each new dictator staunchly protected the monopoly of the ruling land oligarchy.
Following the country's most recent military coup in 1979, a newly appointed military/civilian junta promised far-reaching reforms. But when these long awaited reforms went unfulfilled, a broad based opposing coalition was formed, and named the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as its armed fraction.
When Jose Napoleon Duarte was named as the head of the junta in 1980, the conflict had reached the proportions of a full blown war.
The bloody civil war raged to a stalemate in 1989, claiming an estimated 70,000 victims, with many atrocities committed by both sides. The governing junta was unable to end the war in spite of massive U.S. military aid and attempts at free elections, in which the FMLN rebels were not allowed to participate.
Finally, after considerable assistance from the United Nations, a peace accord was signed in 1992 with provision of the demobilization on the FMLN and the division of land to the former combatants. With the peace, came the U.S. decision to forgive a large portion of the country's $2 billion debt.
The peace talks lasted two years and were designed to allow the FMLN to disarm and become a legitimate political party. The accord also called for a reduction in the size of the military and an effective procedure for verifying and prosecuting human rights abuses.
Although the "14 families" have now grown to around 250, unequal distribution of the land and the enormous social lower class have remained unchanged. An estimated 2 percent of the population controls around 60 percent of the land, while around 90 percent of the Salvadorians can barely make a living. Only about 8 percent of the country'speople are considered middle class.
The government of El Salvador is divided into Executive, Legislative branches and the Supreme Court. The president is freely elected to a five year term. The Legislative branch, called the "National Assembly", is comprised of 60 members who serve three year terms, and the 13 member Supreme Court is appointed by the National Assembly.
The country is divided into 14 districts, called "departments". Major political parties include the right-wing ARENA party, the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Christian Democratic Convergence Party and the National Conciliation Party.
Agriculture accounts for 75 percent of El Salvador's exports and 25 percent of the GNP. It employs around 40 percent of the workforce. The country's principal export crops of coffee, cotton, corn, and sugar cane thrive in the nutrient rich volcanic soils.
Manufacturing ranks as the second most important economic sector, employing 22 percent of the workforce and accounting for 22 percent of the GNP.
The majority of export generated wealth remains in the hands of the country's few land owning and manufacturing families. The gap is large between the rich and the poor and a struggling middle class accounts for only around 8 percent of the population.
El Salvador receives one third of its imports from the U.S., and the country is very receptive to U.S. goods. Around 1 million Salvadorans live in the U.S., so news of the latest business news arrives quickly. No expropriation cases are pending. An estimated $40 million dollars in new foreign investments entered the country in 1993 alone.
With the signing of the U.N. sponsored peace pact in 1992 have come some positive economic indicators. The country's GNP has grown an average of 5 percent over the last three years, international commerce has grown at least 20 percent, and inflation is expected to drop to around 6 percent.
Thanks, in part, to the U.S. "forgiveness" of a large part of El Salvador's external debt, the nation now owes a relatively low $100 million to international financial institutions. The figure is expected to drop to $50 million in the coming years.
Coffee, textiles, and contributions of the Salvadoran labor force working in the U.S. are the country's major generator of foreign revenue.
El Salvador's per capita income is actually higher than Nicaragua, but while an estimated 8 percent of the population enjoys the fruits of the expanding economy, the majority of Salvadorans still live in poverty.
Salvadorans have been hardened by years of violence, but their hard working nature and inherent helpfulness has endured and prospered. In spite of the noise, crowding and traffic that make up the daily urban way of life, Salvadorans will offer advice and assistance to the newcomer, and often demonstrate a healthy curiosity in the outside world. One message is clear: El Salvador is anxious to put the years of violence, death squads, corruption and military rule behind it.
Because the country lacked gold and other precious minerals in sufficient quantities to attract greedy Spanish conquerors, El Salvador remained largely unsettled throughout the colonial period. The few Spanish settlers that stayed there, became farmers and married the natives. Even today, the country remains largely homogenous, with approximately 5 percent of the population represented by indigenous people and an additional five percent of unmixed Spanish decent. All the rest are of mixed origins.
When coffee was introduced, the population quickly outgrew the capacity of the limited land. Widespread immigration to the U.S. and neighboring countries has been a result of limited land ownership possibilities and in the 1980's, because of the war.
Unfortunately, this small country's most serious problems didn't end with the war. An estimated 90 percent of the nations population is considered poor and clamoring for land. Only 2 percent of the country's population can be considered wealthy, while an additional 8 percent from a struggling middle class.
The government's planned aggressive economic reforms should help cut an already low import tariff that will result in lower retail prices for the consumer on a variety of items from candy bars to expensive televisions.
San Salvador's three modern shopping malls are well stocked with almost all merchandise found back home. Exclusive boutiques in the more affluent Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalon cater to the more discriminating taste.
If your looking for the latest entertainment, San Salvador's theaters show first run movies for around $2.50.
Prices vary at supermarkets and local farmers' markets, but like in all Central American countries, consuming local produce and meat could cut your grocery bill in half.
Many small restaurants specialize in "pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran fast food made of a folded soft corn tortilla filled with cheese, sausage or beans, for around $.030 each. A tamale or steak with rice, beans and a beer, sells for around $3.00 Most foreigners frequent the city's more sophisticated western suburbs, where you can find well known franchises like McDonalds and Pizza Hut, as well as a variety of other restaurants ranging in price from $3.00 to $20.00.
Real estate is considered reasonable to rent or buy. Middle class homes range from $40,000 to $250,000 for homes in exclusive areas. Rentals go between $200 and $1,500 for a larger house. Most middle to upper class families have maids who are paid around $140 per month.
Many of the country's foreigners report that a couple can live comfortably on $1,000 to $1,200 per month , if they own their home.
Salvadorans, in general, can be some of the least punctual people in Central America. The business community however, does tend to be somewhat more conscious of the clock.
A handshake is always offered as a greeting. Man and women who already know each other or who would like to become aquatinted will usually greet each other with a kiss on the cheek.
Winter, or the wet season, runsfrom May to October, while summer, or the dry season, runs between November to April. Refreshing, wet season rains usually fall hard for about an hour after sundown, but may last all night. The rest of the year is generally dry and dusty.
El Salvador, at an altitude of 680 m. (2,230 ft.), has a moderate, year round climate. Maximum daytime temperatures in the capital hover around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees ferenheit) in November to 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees ferenheit) in March and April. Nighttime temperatures range between 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees ferenheit) and 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees ferenheit) all year round. Coastal lowlands are much hotter.
Commercial hours usually run from 8:00 A.M. to noon and from 2:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. or 5:00 P.M.. The traditional siesta, from around noon to 2:00 P.M., is still popular here. Breakfast meetings are common and usually begin as early as 7 - 7:30 A.M.. Dinner meetings could begin around 9 - 9:30 P.M.. Lunch meetings are also frequently scheduled.
Mail in El Salvador is totally unpredictable. Air mail letters usually take about two weeks to reach the U.S. or Europe. Packages take about the same time, but stand a good chance of being lost.
Post office hours are from 8:30 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., Mon. through Fri. The main branch is in the Centro de Gobierno. You can also receive mail there, addressed to the poste restante or Lista de Correos.
Offices of the country's state owned telephone service, ANTEL, offer long distance telephone service, telegraph, telex, and fax services. The main office is in downtown San Salvador is located on the corner of calle Ruben Dario and 5a avenida sur. It is open from 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M., Mon. through Sat.
The prolonged civil war has taken its toll on public telephone poles and equipment, but the service remains amazingly efficient. Direct long distance dialing is available to almost anywhere in the world.
As in most of the Central American countries, acquiring a private telephone line can be a hectic process that could easily take months. It is more expensive, but much faster to buy one from a private seller at around $300 each. Pay phones cost 10 centavos.
The currency in El Salvador is called the colon, which is expressed by a cent sign. before the amount. There are 100 centavos to one colon. Coins are minted in 5, 10 25, 50, and 100.
Money can be changed at all banks and casas de cambio in downtown San Salvador's. It is also possible to change money at the airport, although better rates are available downtown. U.S. dollars are the most accepted currency, but banks will also exchange the currency of Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and some other Central American currencies.
Black market money changers operate outside the post office and sometimes the international bus terminals, at the same rate, or sometimes less than the banks.
The Banco Salvadoreno, a block from the tourist office, and the Banco Hipotecario on Plaza Barrios will both accept travelers checks. The latter will also give Visa and Master card advances at no additional fee.
Spanish is the official language of El Salvador, and the language of all business correspondence. English is widely understood in business, academic, and political circles only. Nahua, the native indian language of the Pipil tribe is only spoken in a few indian villages.