Repeat volcanic bursts and civil war have shaped El Salvador, which has more or less subsided and does its best to hold onto its Indian roots. Historic sites are diverse, ranging from Mayan pyramids to colonial Spanish buildings, while towns have burgeoned immensely in recent decades.
The Mayan empire was at their height in the region around 500 AD and left many structures, most notably Joya de Cerén, discovered in ash from a nearby volcano, and the impressive Tazumal pyramid. Pipil Indians settled the area in the 1000's AD and are said to have hailed from the descendants of the Nahuatl people.
The Pipil initially pushed back the Spaniards, though the area that is now El Salvador eventually fell to Pedro de Alvarado in 1525, becoming a colony of Spain until independence in 1821. The Indians were taxed heavily under the hierarchical encomienda system, with Spaniards at the top, followed by locally-born Spaniards and mestizo, "mixed" Spanish. Warring with neighbors and revolutions were the norm for El Salvador post-independence, along with coups and military dictatorships from the 1930's.
The four-day "Soccer War" of 1969 was one of the many violent points of El Salvador’s more recent history, when the country invaded Honduras in retaliation for the deportation of thousands of Salvadorans. Political violence between leftist guerrillas and the right-wing government marred the country from 1979 to 1992, claiming tens of thousands of lives. Fortunately, the country is stable and forward-looking today, realizing its economic and touristic value.
History can best be explored at El Salvador’s main museum in the capital, the National Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropología), which also showcases the Mayans. Joya de Cerén is remarkably well preserved and can be found off the route to Santa Ana, while colonial buildings like the National Theater are best discerned in Santa Ana and colonial-centric Suchitoto.
Locals are friendly and chatty, although don’t like being pointed at with hand or foot. An afternoon siesta is observed though big shops and restaurants in main cities remain open in the afternoon. Despite the often rich religious festivals, there is not much in the way of cultural traditions in El Salvador.
Panchimalco, to the south of San Salvador, is the exception. Here, the locals wear old costumes while curious meringue music floats through the streets in San Miguel during the November Carnival. Locals are big on crafts, with ceramics and wickerwork being especially popular buys.