El Salvador might not boast world-famous ruins like Mexico’s Chichen Itza and Guatemala’s Tikal, but with around a thousand historical sites dotted around the small country, there’s plenty to explore on Salvadoran soil. Populated mostly by Mayan and Pipil tribes until it was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century, El Salvador’s archeological sites hint at a fascinating history of pre-Hispanic occupation and although the main ruins are easily accessible, the lack of crowds makes discovering them all the more special.
Just north of San Salvador is the Joya de Cerén archaeological site and the closest site to the capital is also one of the most unique. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1993, Joya de Cerén is a Mayan farming village dating back to A.D. 600, remarkably preserved by ash from an ancient volcanic eruption, earning it the nickname the “Pompeii of the Americas.”
Close by, the ruins of San Andrés, an ancient city home to around 12,000 Mayans, were also buried beneath ash with remaining structures including ceremonial centers, pyramids and palaces. Further north, the pre-Columbian city of Cihuatán (the ‘land of the woman’) is also worth a visit, an archaeological site dotted with around 100 small buildings, including a pyramid and an ancient ball court.
Not far from the Guatemalan border in Chalchuapa, the ruins of Tazumal are the most-visited of El Salvador’s Mayan sites, a 10-square-km plot home to an impressive array of tombs and pyramids, including a sophisticated water drainage system and a life-size statue of Mayan God Xipe Totec. A day tour to Tazumal often includes a visit to the nearby Casa Blanca ruins too, one of the oldest excavated sites in the country, with pyramids and buildings dating back to the pre-Classic period.