“Blocks of multicoloured light pierced every curve of the stunning church. A complete contrast to its brutalist exterior and a timely reminder never to judge a book by its cover.”
ECTours’ warm welcome on the corner of Parque Cuscatlan immediately made me excited to see San Salvador. All smiles and energy, Edwin and David’s passion for their city was infectious. Although before we started walking, Edwin had a story to tell.
He explained the history behind the buildings we were going to see, the impact of elite society and coffee culture over recent centuries and why his country’s capital is now starting a new era in its story.
We started our walk along one of the cities main streets. Polite students shimmied past us to lectures at one of the countries main universities. Edwin told us that this particular institution is praised for its flexibility – holding classes in the morning and evening to allow students to work while they study. The university is also buying up the crumbling art-deco mansions on the same street for more teaching space. Once the homes of wealthy coffee plantation owners, today they sit unused. What better way to bring them back to life?
Further along, Basilica Sagrada Corazon’s neo-gothic facade loomed much higher than other buildings on the avenue. Inside, Edwin explained that almost every element of the church had come from the Old World: Floor tiles from Italy and stained glass from Spain.
I was starting to spot a theme. Riches from the country’s coffee production over the centuries were gradually ploughed back into European pockets as opulent homes and places of worship were built rapidly for the elite few who could enjoy them. However, what caught my attention most was the exposed wooden structure of the ceiling. Rumour has it that the roofing machine broke before it was completed, but in 2018 many architects would be jealous of this very contemporary feature!
A route through the markets brought us onto the Plaza Gerardo Barrios, named for its statue of El Salvador’s famous president. A few old men and a group of friendly tourist police looked on as Edwin talked us through the plaza’s history. There had been a cathedral on the site since the 1500s but earthquakes and volcanic eruptions had triggered several complete rebuilds over the centuries.
The latest incarnation was finished in 1996 and had been recently renovated. Oddly, an artist’s mosaic that had adorned the facade was recently ripped off and replaced with a statue of Jesus with open arms. Not even Edwin knew the truth behind this sudden alteration. The Palacio Nacional, built by Barrios (whose policies increased coffee production and allowed El Salvador’s economy to boom in the 19th century) dominated another side of the plaza.
The furthest point of our tour, Plaza de la Libertad, was an open square framed by art-nouveau buildings that used to be restaurants for the city’s rich and famous. They now served as shops but I still noticed the coffee wealth in the striking details of their facades. Edwin explained that it was the most important area of the city. Every year since 1821, Salvadoreans have come together annually to celebrate their country’s independence from Spain.
To the east of the plaza, a brutalist building stands out from its surrounds. In 1964 architect Ruben Martinez petitioned the Pope to build the Iglesia de Rosario. Thought to be modern and ugly at the time, it’s now one of the most visited places in the city. I could see the merit of its architecture from the outside but wasn’t convinced. Then Edwin led me in.
I actually gasped as my body immediately cooled under the huge stone arch of Martinez’s design. Blocks of multicoloured light pierced every curve of the stunning church. A complete contrast to its brutalist exterior and a timely reminder never to judge a book by its cover.
The tour finished in the crypt of the city’s cathedral. Modern and minimalist in its design, the centre piece of the crypt is the tomb of priest, Oscar Romero. An advocate of human rights and power for the impoverished people of his country, he spoke out against military brutality during the early years of the civil war. This cost him his life and in March 1980 he was assassinated while giving Mass. No one has ever been prosecuted for the killing, however his death sparked international recognition of the war.
A subtle red bulb inserted into the middle of his tomb depicts the bullet that killed him. As I visited, The Vatican had just approved his sainthood. Perhaps this was an apt ending to my introduction to San Salvador. Sharing a silent moment beside the final resting place of a man that has become symbolic of the good in people. A man who was willing to speak on behalf of an oppressed population and a man who above all, died in the hope of peace for his country.
Edwin was one of the most knowledgeable and open guides I’d ever had the pleasure to meet. Although history and culture aside, there was a more important lesson I took away from my walk through his city:
In the age of social media and fake news, let’s not believe everything we read. Instead, as with my experience in La Iglesia de Rosario, let’s form our own opinions based on first hand experience.
Never judge a book by its cover.
ECTours walking tour was fantastic and they have come up with the hashtag #dontskipelsalvador to encourage more people to visit their wonderful country. Check it out on Instagram for some travel inspiration! Their walking tour is free, so visitors can give whatever they feel it was worth at the end of the walk.