Official name : Republic of El Salvador
Area: 21,040 square kilometers (8,124 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount El Pital (Cerro El Pital) (2,730 meters/ 8,957 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Western and Southern
Time zone: 6 A.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 142 kilometers (88 miles) from north to south; 270 kilometers (168 miles) from west-northwest to east-southeast
Land boundaries: 545 kilometers (339 miles) total boundary length; Guatemala 203 kilometers (126 miles); Honduras 342 kilometers (213 miles)
Coastline: 307 kilometers (191 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 363 kilometers (200 nautical miles)
El Salvador is located on the south side of the Central America isthmus. It has a southern coastline along the North Pacific Ocean and shares borders with Guatemala to the northwest and Honduras to the northeast. With an area of about 21,040 square kilometers (8,124 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts. El Salvador is divided into fourteen departments.
El Salvador has no territories or dependencies.
Temperatures in tropical El Salvador vary more with altitude than with season. The average temperature in the central highlands is 28°C (74°F) year round. But along the coast and at lower altitudes, the temperatures tend to be hotter, while in the northern mountains, the climate tends to be cooler. Even at the highest elevations, the climate remains temperate, rarely approaching freezing even in the winter.
Most rainfall occurs during the winter, which runs from May to October. The heaviest rains are along the coast. During the wet season, this region averages 216 centimeters (85 inches), while the drier northwest area averages 150 centimeters (60 inches). Summer is the dry season, lasting from November to April.
Heavy rains have become a hazard, mostly due to deforestation of the countryside. Hurricanes have caused massive landslides, property damage, and loss of life.
El Salvador is divided into three geographic regions: the hot, narrow Pacific coastal belt; the central plateau; and the northern lowlands.
El Salvador is one of the most seismically active, earthquake-vulnerable areas in the Western Hemisphere. The country lies between two areas of active tectonic plate movement. In southern El Salvador, on the Pacific Ocean side, the Cocos Plate pushes itself under the relatively motionless Caribbean Plate (a process called subduction), accounting for frequent earthquakes near the coast. As the ocean floor is forced down, the submerged rocks melt, and the molten material spews up through fissures, producing volcanoes and geysers.
North of El Salvador, the North American Tectonic Plate abuts one edge of the same stationary Caribbean Plate, creating a major fault that runs the length of Río Motagua Valley in Guatemala. Motion along this fault generates earthquakes in both Guatemala and the northernmost part of El Salvador.
El Salvador's southern border is the Pacific Ocean. Off the coast lies a deep ocean valley, called the Middle America Trench, which was created by movement of the Cocos Tectonic Plate.
At its southeastern tip, El Salvador faces Nicaragua across the Gulf of Fonseca (Golfo de Fonseca), with La Unión Bay lying between El Salvador and Honduras, just off the town of La Unión in the northwestern Gulf. Further west is Jiquilsco Bay, a narrow inlet that forms a long westward-reaching finger of water.
The small islands of Meanguera and Meanguerita lie in the Gulf of Fonseca. The coasts of these islands are covered with mangroves.
The area between the coastal range and the shoreline is relatively narrow; it spans about 32 kilometers (20 miles) at its widest point in the eastern end of the country, until it eventually disappears at the western end. The beaches are black volcanic sand with many marshes. Near the small port of La Libertad, volcanoes fall steeply to the sea, leaving virtually no beach.
West of La Libertad is the popular 75-kilometer-long (45-mile-long) beach known as Balsam Coast (Costa de Bálsamo). Remedios Point (Punta Remedios) is near the western-most end of the country.
El Salvador contains hundreds of tiny lakes and a few larger ones. The largest lake, the scenic Lake Ilopango (Lago de Ilopango), lies just east of San Salvador and contains emerald-blue water in the caldera (crater formed by the eruption of a volcano) of an inactive volcano. The lake has an area of about 65 square kilometers (25 square miles). In the late 1800s, an island, Burnt Island (or Islas Quemadas), appeared in the middle of the lake, perhaps as a result of receding water levels or seismic activity.
A second volcanic lake, Lake Coatepeque, is smaller in surface area but it is so deep, its lowest point is unknown. It is located in Cerro Verde National Park, located due north of Lago de Ilopango. A third lake, Lake Guija, lies in the northwest region on the border with Guatemala.
Jocotal Lagoon (Laguna del Jocotal) is really a permanent freshwater lake that covers 1,570 hectares (3,880 acres). The lake is 3 meters (10 feet) deep during the wet season but it recedes to less than 1.1 meters (4 feet) deep during the dry season. The lake is eutrophic (especially supportive of plant life) and much of the surface is covered with floating vegetation. In 1978 a wildlife sanctuary was created at the site. In May 1999, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands registered the surrounding marsh as an internationally significant wet-land. Jocotal Lagoon is located just south of the San Miguel Volcano.
The Lempa River (Río Lemopa) is the longest river in El Salvador. It is also the only navigable river in the country. The Lempa originates in Guatemala, flowing for a short distance through Honduras before entering El Salvador. The total length of the river is 320 kilometers (200 miles). The portion that flows through El Salvador is approximately 257 kilometers (160 miles) long. Once in El Salvador, the river turns east near Lake Guija, where it is fed by a tributary from the lake. From there, the Lempa continues in an easterly direction about halfway across the country, then turns south to empty into the Pacific Ocean. The area around the mouth of the Lempa is known as Montecristo Island (Isla Montecristo). It is undeveloped with lush stands of mangroves. Hundreds of smaller rivers and streams drain from the highlands directly into the Pacific Ocean or are tributaries of the Lempa.
The Río Grande de San Miguel flows in the eastern part of the country, originating north of San Francisco and continuing southward past San Miguel. It joins a tributary that flows from Lake Olomega, and the two combined waterways then meander westward for about 40 kilometers (25 miles) before turning south to the Pacific Ocean. Another river, the Jiboa, flows from Lake Ilopango to the Pacific, where its mouth marks the country's approximate midpoint.
Although there are no true deserts in El Salvador, it has been estimated that half of the land has been severely eroded from deforestation, farming, and development. Much of this land is on the way to becoming desert. This phenomenon, known as desertification, is a worldwide problem.
The plains region of El Salvador is really part of the central plateau (see Plateaus and Monoliths).
The "Ring of Fire" encircles the Pacific Ocean, stretching northward from New Zealand and running along the eastern edge of Asia, then moving across to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and traveling south along the edges of North and South America. This area contains at least 75 percent of the world's volcanoes, and a large number of these are still active. Frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity occurs here as a result of the Pacific Tectonic Plate pushing against other adjacent tectonic plates.
This tiny "Land of Volcanoes" contains more "Ring of Fire" volcanoes than any other Central American country. Two volcanic-formed mountain ranges run roughly northwest to southeast across northern and southern El Salvador, with a broad high plateau between them. The northern Sierra Madre range is a continuous chain, with elevations from 1,580 to 2,200 meters (5,200 to 7,210 feet). The southern coastal range is a discontinuous chain composed of more than twenty volcanoes in five clusters. Near the western end is the Santa Ana Volcano, the highest volcano in the country at 2,381 meters (7,812 feet). Also at the western end is the Izalco Volcano (1,950 meters/6,396 feet), known as "Light-house of the Pacific," which last erupted in 1966, making it El Salvador's most recently active volcano. Other volcanoes in the chain are the San Salvador Volcano northwest of the city of San Salvador, San Vicente Volcano (2,180 meters/7,155 feet) south of the city of San Vicente, and the San Miguel Volcano (2,120 meters/6,957 feet) southwest of the city of San Miguel.
The highest mountain in El Salvador is not a volcano. Mount El Pital (Cerro El Pital) sits on the Honduras-El Salvador border and towers to a height of (2,730 meters/ 8,957 feet).
Some of the country's most spectacular forests are in the mountain regions. In the northwest corner, at the junction of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the three countries have agreed to protect an area called El Trifinio International Biosphere Reserve. The El Salvador portion is named Montecristo National Park. Montecristo National Park is perpetually covered in clouds and mist. It is a spectacular true rainforest, an increasingly rare type of ecosystem. Within the boundary of the park are giant ferns, air plants, and areas near the ground that never receive sunlight, since the foliage is so dense. The park protects a few species of mammals, including endangered jaguars, jungle foxes, tree-dwelling spider monkeys, and opossums.
Near the southwest coast, near the country's border with Guatemala, is the Impossible Forest (Bosque El Imposible) National Park. It is named for a dangerous pass that is part of a traditional mule trail employed to transport coffee to the coast. The park is home to four hundred species of trees and nearly three hundred species of birds, as well as to unique animals such as the Tamandua anteater (antbear), pumas, and hundreds of species of butterfly. Three extinct volcanoes are located within the park boundaries, which is described as one of the last examples of coastal rainforest.
In Morozan, in northeast El Salavdor, the two caves of Espiritu Santo and Cabeza de Duende have well-preserved pre-Columbian paintings on the walls.
UNESCO named the archaeological excavation site of Joya de Ceren in El Salvador a World Heritage Site. Joya de Ceren was a farming community that was completely buried under lava from a volcanic eruption around 600 A.D. The artifacts and fossils found there have provided a great deal of insight into the daily lives of the community's inhabitants.
The central valley, running east and west between the two mountain ranges, is actually a rolling plateau peppered with lava fields, escarpments, and geysers. Comprising most of the land in the country, this high plain averages 50 kilometers (30 miles) in width with an average elevation of 600 meters (2,000 feet). Starting in the early 1900s, forests in the central high plateau have been cleared and farmed, creating large areas of grasslands across much of the country. Coffee, the major natural resource of El Salvador, is grown extensively across this plateau region.
A dam on the Lempa River created the Cerrón Grande Reservoir.
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Brauer, Jeff, and Bea Weiss. On Your Own in El Salvador. Charlottesville, VA: On Your Own Publications, 2001.
Kelly, Joyce. An Archaeological Guide to Northern Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
Towell, Larry. El Salvador. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.
Wild World: Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World. National Geographic . http://www.nationalgeographic.com/wildworld/terrestrial.html (accessed May 17, 2003).