El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American countries with about the same area as Massachusetts, yet it packs a lot of geography and history into a mountainous coastal country. The nation does not have the eco-crowds of Costa Rica or the backpackers of Guatemala, but it most definitely still has a rich and friendly local culture. Despite the tumultuous history the country, it remains known for its welcoming people. Although it may be a nontraditional destination, studying abroad in El Salvador will not let students down, especially those eager to learn Spanish and experience the real Central America.
Keep in mind first and foremost that the climate in El Salvador is tropical and hot near the lower coastal region, but generally mild in the mountainous interior.
San Salvador is the capital of El Salvador, it is also the cultural, financial and political center of the country. The capital lacks Spanish architectural influences because of earthquakes over the centuries, but the city has a striking population of over half a million inhabitants. San Salvador has several museums as well as the largest football stadium in Central America. Most study abroad programs in El Salvador are housed in San Salvador, and faculty led programs are often based or begin and end in the capital as well.
Santa Ana is the second largest city in El Salvador and is a hub for coffee production and processing for the region. The city is surrounded by mountains, and over 300 villages. Some of the universities located in Santa Ana include: the Catholic University, the Universidad Francisco Gavidia, and Universidad Autónoma de Santa Ana.
San Miguel celebrates one of the largest festivals in Central America with over a million visitors attending the San Miguel Carnival at the end of November. This eastern city of over 200,000 Salvadorans is home to University of El Salvador and the University Modular Abierta.
Study Abroad in El Salvador
Social Work & Human Rights. El Salvador provides students with the chance to explore the social problems that face local communities through the study of social work as well as human rights. Both subjects are great course options for students of any major who decide to study abroad in El Salvador. Study abroad programs in El Salvador focused on social work will also usually include service learning opportunities, such as the opportunity to work on projects combating gang crime and human trafficking.
Spanish. The local Spanish is called Caliche, which uses voseo or the personal vos instead of tu. Caliche is considered by some to be too informal and may not be used in a business or classroom setting, which means the best way to learn it is by immersing yourself among native speakers. Learning Spanish in El Salvador will surely provide students with a unique educational opportunity.
Alternative Learning Opportunities. The country is still recovering from a long and painful war, which affords students with unique service learning and volunteer opportunities. As mentioned above, opportunities to work with unique urban issues, like human trafficking and gang crime, are commonly available to study abroad students, especially those studying in San Salvador.
Adventure Tourism. Blessed with the coast of La Libertad and Punta Roca, one of the best surfing beaches in the world, tourism has become a large industry in El Salvador. Dormant volcanoes dot the countryside and have left a rich soil perfect for farming coffee and other crops. This varied local geography allows for plenty of adventure, from learning how to surf to climbing volcanoes.
Scholarships & Costs
Students can explore GoAbroad Scholarship directory for available financial support to study abroad in El Salvador, which includes over 120 awards specifically for students headed to El Salvador. Many options are general scholarships, but some are designed for students who choose to study abroad in non-traditional destinations or in Spanish speaking countries.
The cost of living in El Salvador is very low with the per capita income being under $8,000 per year. As a result both study abroad programs in El Salvador and the daily cost of living are very low, even in comparison to neighboring more popular Central American study abroad destinations. Also important to note, El Salvador uses the United States dollar as its currency.
Accommodation & Visas
Some study abroad programs in El Salvador provide homestays, which are one of the best ways to immerse in the local culture, eat local food, practice language skills, and build a local network while studying in El Salvador. Another benefit of staying with a host family is there is always someone to support you while abroad, provide additional orientation information, and give advice on daily needs logistics, like transportation and language tips.
In order to study abroad in El Salvador for shorter semesters, tourist cards can be obtained for 90-day stays. However, to study abroad in El Salvador for full semesters or attend local universities, student visas need to be obtained in advance from an El Salvadoran embassy in your home country.
Benefits & Challenges
- Food. The national cuisine includes pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with beans or local cheese) and Horchata, a drink originating in Valencia, Spain including morrow seed flour, sugar, and milk. Definitely something everyone must try!
- Ethnic Makeup. While the indigenous population is larger than some of El Salvador’s neighbors it is not nearly as visible as Guatemala. The majority of the Salvadorans are mestizo a mix of Spanish and indigenous (Cuzcatlan and Maya) descent.
- History. Unfortunately El Salvador share a less than desirable commonality with Guatemala, a history of civil strife. El Salvador’s bloody history can go all the way back to 1524 and Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. Alvarado expected little resistance when he and his soldiers crossed the Rio Paz. The local population didn’t share the same awe of the newcomers that the Aztecs had demonstrated. Smallpox and ultimate subjugation decimated the local population. Fast forward to 1932 when student and farmer uprisings led to tens of thousands killed by the government. By the 1980s Jose Napoleon Duarte was called back from exile by the U.S. backed coup intended to halt the leftist gains in the country. A war with atrocities from all directions raged on for a decade. The popular voice of the people Monsignor Romero was gunned down while giving mass. Thousands of people went “missing” when massacres occurred and many fled for asylum in other countries. In 1992, a UN brokered peace deal has set the foundation for freely elected government, stability, and the extinction of the Civilian Defense.
- Crime. Today’s threat to tourists are the high crime rates particularly in the cities, so crime in El Salvador’s cities is worthy of extra caution. Students should act the same way they would in a large city in their home country. Drunk, loud foreigners are easily recognized!