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El Salvador: Five Days in ‘The 30-Minute Country’

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Most of the American tourist dollars going to Central America often end up in Costa Rica, where coffee junkies and surfing students like to hang out. But many of Costa Rica’s neighbors offer some of the same experiences for a fraction of the price – and it’s also more likely that you’ll be the only tourist in sight. Contributor Lilit Marcus takes five days to do just that, follow along on her adventures in El Salvador.

El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, is one of these places tourists often overlook. After a brutal civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s, El Salvador has rebuilt itself and is now starting to actively court visitors. The good news is that there are plenty of wonderful things to see and do, from museums and shops to UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here’s how you should spend five days in Central America’s smallest, but scrappiest, country.

Day One: San Salvador City Center

El Salvador’s capital is the best place to start your journey, purely because of convenience – it’s where the airport is. But it’s also an emerging city and worth checking out because of its eclectic mix of Old World traditions and New World Internet cafes. Several years ago, El Salvador switched its currency to the U.S. dollar, which is great news for people who don’t want to have to switch their money at the airport. However, stuff is definitely less expensive here, so those dollars will go a long way.

Begin in the heart of the city – literally. You might have looked at the address of your hotel and thought it sounded a little strange, and that’s because all addresses in San Salvador are numbered from their distance from a red tile circle in the center of the city. It’s almost impossible to get anywhere in town without driving or walking over this circle, but the constant flow of traffic will make it a challenge to snap a good photograph.

The main attractions downtown are the Palacio Nacional, a gorgeous old mansion that used to house all three branches of the country’s government, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, where local hero Archbishop Romero is interred. It’s worth checking out the Palacio just from a design perspective, and don’t forget to look down – every room has a different cool tile pattern on the floor. From the outside, the nearby Iglesia El Rosario (Church of the Rosary) doesn’t seem that impressive, but once you walk in you’ll be stunned by the gorgeous architecture, which plays with light and color. It’s almost like walking inside a kaleidoscope.

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