This is What Life is Like in Urban and Rural El Salvador

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. Located between Guatemala and Honduras, it possesses 21,041 square kilometers (about the size of Massachusetts) and is tropical, with an average temperature of 30° to 35°C (80°to 95°F). The land is mostly mountains covered with tropical rainforest, with its highest peak being El Pital at 8,957 feet.

San Salvador, the capital city, is 2,162 feet above sea level. This small Central American country is divided into 14 departments: Ahuachapan, Cabanas, Chalatenango, Cuscatlan, La Libertad, La Paz, La Union, Morazan, San Miguel, San Salvador, San Vicente, Santa Ana, Sonsonate and Usulutan.

Since achieving its independence on September 15, 1821, El Salvador has been a homogeneous mix of the descendants of European conquerors and the native people, with a mestizo population representing 86.3 percent, white 12.7 percent, and Amerindian 0.2 percent. The population estimate is 6,187,271 (July 2018).

Three Salvadoran children smile at the camera.

The official language spoken is Spanish, with a few Salvadorans still sharing the Mayan Nahuatl language to keep alive the tradition and the historic value of the language.

Due to the homogeneous composition of the Salvadoran society in terms of culture, language and ethnicity, it is usually divided into three regions — east, west and central — but all three regions consist of temperate and warm lands, and most vegetation is tropical jungle, except for the northern parts of all three areas, which are more mountain-like with pine forests.

All three areas have main urban cities, such as Sonsonate and Santa Ana in the west, San Salvador in the center, and San Miguel in the east. Surrounding these main metropolitan areas are smaller towns and villages, which also are surrounded by states or homesteads (small groups of houses in a rural environment).

Rural Facts and Issues

A mom and boy stand in front of a home made from corrugated metal sheets in rural El Salvador

A home made from corrugated metal sheets in rural El Salvador.

According to the World Fact Book, the rural population in the country represents 27%. The western region is made of the departments of Santa Ana, Ahuachapán and Sonsonate. The central region owns La Libertad, San Salvador, Chalatenango, Cabañas, La Paz, San Vicente and Cuscatlán, and the eastern region holds Usulután, San Miguel, Morazán y La Unión.

One of the country’s worst natural crises was Hurricane Ida in 2009, which left an estimated 125,000 in worsened states of poverty and caused thousands of dollars in material losses. Concerns raised by this last crisis were the excess of water for the crops that were ready for harvest in some areas, and the irregularity of the rains in other rural areas. Since a big percentage of the people in rural areas survive from what they plant, or work at plantations as day laborers, this produced uncertainty about getting food in the future.

The Ministry of Agriculture estimated a loss of $70 million dollars in crops after the hurricane, the most affected being beans with $20 million and corn with $5 million in losses.

Typical Rural Home Life

A family stands in front of a mud home in rural El Salvador

A mud and wood home in rural El Salvador.

A cement block home in rural El Salvador

A cement block home in rural El Salvador.

In rural areas, homes are “mixed” construction. Most houses are made of mud or adobe bricks. Many times the structure is reinforced with pieces of wood as columns on the corners, and the roof is usually straw or aluminum if the family manages to get used aluminum sheets.

The constructions are usually a square of about 20 feet by 20 feet, and sometimes they make a division in the middle to get two bedrooms or a bedroom and a living area. This is not always the case, since if needed, there is no living room area and people reunite on the outside of the home. Lack of a sewage system is usual, so pit latrines are common.

Urban Facts and Issues

Children run on the streets of urban El Salvador

According to the World Fact Book, the urban populace represents 72.7 percent of the people, the largest areas being the San Salvador Metropolitan area, and the cities of San Miguel, San Vicente (east), Santa Ana, and Sonsonate (west).

Extortion is a big problem for people living in metropolitan areas. This activity is particularly attributed to the gangs, but the practice is not exclusive to them. Some criminal bands based in Guatemala also practice extortion. Many people, especially those of middle to low income, suffer from extortion.

The modus operandi of the extortionist or gang member is to make a phone call or leave a note, and tell the victim that they have been watching, and know their usual moves during the day. People exposed to the threats express that the extortionists usually know about their work, their children and places they go.

The amount of money extorted may be a “small” amount of $50 to $100 per week, to hundreds or thousands of dollars, with the threat to murder or kidnap of a family member if the request is not fulfilled.

The extortion affects small stores located in commercial downtowns in the big cities, as well as the public transportation business. For them, the amount required to provide “protection” reaches to the thousands of dollars a week. In the past months, newspapers announced the murder of a bus driver or a transportation unit burned because the owner refused to pay the “rent” imposed by the street gangs.

In part, gang violence has led to emigration. Twenty percent of the population lives abroad, with 2.3 million Salvadorans in the United States, especially clustered in Los Angeles. The Salvadoran diaspora is also in many other countries in Latin America. However, homicides are dropping sharply. Since the government employed police and soldiers to fight extortion, the murder rate in 2019 was the lowest since the country’s civil war that ended in 1992.   

Typical Urban Home Life

A family sits in front of a brick home painted green.

A family in front of a brick home in urban El Salvador.

In urban settings, the typical materials are bricks and cement. However, in the urban settings where our centers are located, there are two common methods of construction. The first is called “casa de pasaje” or alleyway houses. These are the houses for low-income families. They are small, about 480 square feet, and the rest considered a patio or open area.

Half the space is considered the living room/dining room/ kitchen. The other half accounts for the two bedrooms and a bathroom. These types of homes have only one floor, and are inexpensive to build, since two houses share just one, thin brick wall, which divides them.

The other type of house setting for our children living in urban areas is slums. In El Salvador, these are called “zonas marginales,” or excluded zones. In this type of setting, most houses are huts made of aluminum sheets, plastic, and cardboard.

Church and Religion

The main religion is Catholicism, particularly due to the influence of the Catholic Church during the conquest era. The Protestant evangelical church has reached 36 percent of the population.

  • Catholic: 50%
  • Evangelical: 36%
  • No religion: 12%
  • Other: 2%

Popular Local Dish:

Quesadilla Salvadoreña (Salvadoran sweet cheese poundcake)

Unlike the Mexican snack of the same name, Salvadoran quesadilla is a rich, sweet dessert cake often found in local panaderías, or bakeries. The queso in quesadilla is traditionally unsalted Salvadoran queso fresco, a fresh farmers-type cheese. But parmesan cheese is often substituted.

  • All-purpose flour — 2 cups
  • Baking powder — 2 teaspoons
  • Grated queso fresco or parmesan cheese — 1/2 pound
  • Sugar — 2 cups
  • Eggs, beaten lightly — 4
  • Whole milk — 1 cup
  • Butter, melted — 2 sticks (1/2 pound)
  • Sesame seeds (optional) — 2 tablespoons

Preheat oven to 350°F. Sift the flour and baking powder together into a bowl. Add the cheese, sugar, eggs and milk to a large bowl and beat until smooth. Stir in the melted butter. Slowly stir the flour mixture into the cheese mixture until fully incorporated and a smooth batter is formed.

Pour the batter into two well-greased loaf pans, filling them only halfway. If using sesame seeds, sprinkle them over the top of the batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Set on racks and allow to come to room temperature before slicing and serving.


  • Try using different types of cheese for your quesadilla: grated cheddar, Monterey jack, or grated feta cheese
  • Many Salvadoran cooks substitute rice flour for the regular wheat flour.
  • Instead of milk, use crema agria, or sour cream thinned with a little half and half.
  • Bake in round cake pans or in muffin tins.

Commonly Used Phrases

  • “Que Chivo!” the Salvadoran equivalent to “how cool!” It usually expresses happiness or surprise for something.
  • “Que ondas!” is the most common Salvadoran greeting. It can be translated to “How you doin?”
  • “Chuchito” is translated as “puppy.” If you say “chucho,” it means dog. Children would usually call their dog pets chucho – or chuchito if it is little. You can ask if the children have a puppy by asking if they have a “chuchito.”

Poverty in El Salvador

Children in blue shirts sit on a porch together.

This small country has the fourth largest economy in Central America. But about one of every three Salvadorans lives below the poverty line. Learn about our work in El Salvador to help impoverished Salvadoran children gain access to the care they need to thrive. Sponsor a child living in poverty in El Salvador to bring them vital care!

This article was originally published December 3, 2010. Numbers were updated in January, 2020. Additional photos by Nora Diaz.

16 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Juliana Witmer October 8, 2017

    I’m writing a story that will take place in El Salvador. This really helped me to get a glimpse of what life is like there.

    1. irene October 21, 2017

      what’s the story about?

      im a salvadorean, currently living in el salvador 🙂

  2. Rory Myles May 12, 2017

    I am doing a project on El Salvador It Helped Thanks for Helping me 🙂

  3. Amina Berry December 6, 2016

    Thank you so much! This glimpse into daily life in El Salvador helped me with my project for this multi-cultural fair coming up at my CPS School.

  4. Marcia Plascencia October 7, 2015

    How can I become a sponsor for a child?

    1. Emily Vanhoutan October 8, 2015

      Marcia, Thank you so much for your heart to help change the story for a child in our program!

      To sponsor a child you simply need to visit and select a child you are interested in sponsoring. Once selected, the webpage will walk you through step by step on setting up your sponsorship account. Our sponsorship program is a monthly commitment of $38. We take all forms of US methods of payments including debit/credit cards and checking account information.

      After you choose a child to sponsor, you will receive a welcome packet in the mail within 15 days along with your sponsor number. Our program is a writing program so we encourage you to send off a letter to your child soon after sponsoring them! You’re so important to this ministry and have the opportunity to give hope, encouragement and love to a child who may not otherwise receive it! Our experience has shown that children who receive consistent encouragement from their sponsors tend to set higher goals for themselves, which is what helps break the cycle of poverty in their lives.

      Let me know if you have any other questions!

  5. Patrick December 6, 2010

    Thanks for this! Our little guy is in ES-730. Now I know what to ask him in the next letter!

  6. Joy December 3, 2010

    Thanks for publishing the article about El Salvador. The precious little girl we sponsor lives there. Knowing more about her homeland allows me to pray for specific things for her and her family.

  7. Peter Cook December 3, 2010

    As someone who sponsors a little girl in Moncague in El Salvador, this article has given me a new insight into this country.Thank you.

  8. pendy December 3, 2010

    Thanks for this article about the country of my sponsored child.

  9. Megan December 3, 2010

    Is it known where that first photograph was taken? The little girl resembles the girl we sponsor.

    P.s. How often are the children’s photographs taken and updated with the sponsor families? We’ve sponsored for a year now & I’m hoping we get to “see” our girl in pictures again soon.

    1. darrenthornberry December 6, 2010

      Megan, I now know that these children are from the ES-739 center. Thanks – Darren

    2. darrenthornberry December 3, 2010

      Sponsors get updated photos of the children approximately every two years. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly where that picture was taken. Thanks for your comment and have a great weekend. – Darren

      1. Kees Boer December 4, 2010

        I’ve seen them take those pictures several times. Most of the time, the pictures are taken near that Compassion center or maybe even in the center. A popular place seems to be accross the street.

  10. JD December 3, 2010

    What a fantastic post on El Salvador, so informative, such a great glimpse into what life is like there.

    Will you be doing these types on posts on other Compassion countries as well?

    1. darrenthornberry December 3, 2010

      Thanks for your kind words! Yes, we will do more and have done numerous ones already. See them here. – Have a great weekend. – Darren

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