El Salvador: Natural Landscape

El Salvador: Natural Landscape

Mon, 10/31/2022 - 17:25
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El Salvador is located in northern Central America, where it is both the smallest and most densely populated country. Its geographic landscape features two parallel mountain ranges that cross the country with a central plateau between them and a narrow coastal plain hugging the Pacific Ocean.

The Natural Landscape of El Salvador

El Salvador is located in northern Central America, where it shares borders with Honduras in the northeast and Guatemala in the northwest.

With approximately 307 km (191 m) km) of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Fonseca in the south, El Salvador is the only country in Central America with no shoreline on the Caribbean Sea.

El Salvador's total land area is 21,041 sq km (8,124 sq mi), stretching 270 km (168 mi) from west-northwest to east-southeast and 142 km (88 mi) from north to south. It is the smallest country in Central America and the most densely populated.

The nation's main road is the Pan-American Highway, CA-1, or Carretera Panamericana. The highway links El Salvador with Guatemala in the western part of the country and Honduras in the east.


Along with much of Central America, the country rests on the relatively motionless Caribbean Plate. The subduction of the Cocos Plate, to the west, under the Caribbean Plate to the east accounts for a high frequency of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

El Salvador's territory is situated along the Central American Volcanic Arc, which hosts approximately twenty volcanoes. However, only Izalco, Santa Ana, and San Miguel have been recently active.


According to the Global Biodiversity Index, El Salvador is the 70th most biodiverse country in the world, with 495 species of birds, 30 species of amphibians, 588 species of fish, 156 species of mammals, 135 species of reptiles, and 2,911 species of vascular plants.


El Salvador's climate is tropical, and temperatures vary primarily with elevation, exhibiting only slight seasonal change. However, the wet and dry seasons are distinct.

Map of Central America

Location map of the countries of Central America

Natural Geography of El Salvador

Two parallel mountain ranges cross El Salvador from the west, with a central plateau between them and a narrow coastal plain hugging the Pacific Ocean. These features allow the country to be divided into three geographic regions:

  • the northern lowlands

  • a central plateau surrounded by volcanoes

  • a narrow Pacific coastal belt

Northern Lowlands (La Zona Norte)

The northern range of mountains, the Sierra Madre, form a continuous chain along the border with Honduras. To their south and parallel to them, a broad interior plain is situated at elevations between 400 - 600 m (1,300 - 2,000 ft).

This interior plain was once forested but has now become semi-barren from erosion due to overexploitation. Today, this interior plain is the country's most sparsely populated zone.

Central Highlands (La Zona Central)

El Salvador is dominated by the central highlands, which consists of a largely west-east discontinuous chain of volcanoes crossing the country, some of which are still active, and are clustered into five groups.

This volcanic range includes 20 cones, from the westernmost group near the Guatemalan border, which contains Izalco and Santa Ana, through those of San Salvador and San Miguel, to that of Conchagua in the extreme east.

A series of alluvial basins separate these volcanoes and rolling hills, commonly called El Salvador's central plain. Lying at elevations of between 1,000 - 1,500 m (3,500 - 5,000 ft), these fertile soils have supported the cultivation of crops for centuries.

Coastal Belt (La Costa)

To the south, where the central highlands give way to the Pacific coast, is a narrow coastal plain with average elevations of 30 - 150 m (100 - 500 ft).

This region has a width that ranges from 1 - 32 km (.5 - 20 mi), with the widest section in the east, adjacent to the Gulf of Fonseca.

Topographic map of El Salvador

Topographic map of El Salvador


  • Isla Montecristo: a largely undeveloped island 80 km (50 mi) southeast of San Salvador, where the Río Lempa empties into the Pacific Ocean. The 2.5 sq km (1 sq mi) island supports a small number of fruit farming communities and is a nesting place for pelicans and egrets.

  • Isla Martin Perez: a small island in the Gulf of Fonseca

  • Meanguera del Golfo: an island in the Gulf of Fonseca

  • Isla Conchaguita: a volcanic island in the Gulf of Fonseca

  • Isla Perico: an island off the coast of El Salvador in the department of La Unión

  • Isla Espiritu Santo: an island in Jiquilisco Bay on the Pacific coast

  • Isla San Sebastian: an island in Jiquilisco Bay on the southeast Pacific coast in the department of Usulután

  • Isla La Pirraya: an island in Jiquilisco Bay on the southeast Pacific coast in the department of Usulután

  • Isla Meanguera: a volcanic island in the Gulf of Fonseca

  • Isla Meanguerita: a volcanic island in the Gulf of Fonseca

  • Isla Ilca: a small island in the Gulf of Fonseca

Bodies of Water

  • Gulf Of Fonseca: a sheltered inlet of the Pacific Ocean that is bounded in the northwest by El Salvador, the northeast by Honduras, and the southeast by Nicaragua

  • Jiquilisco Bay: Bahia Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve contains the largest mangrove estuary in El Salvador.

Notable Rivers

El Salvador has more than 300 rivers. The largest, the Lempa River (Río Lempa), flows approximately 240 km (150 mi) from northern to central El Salvador, providing hydroelectric power to much of the country.

  • Lempa River

  • Río Grande de San Miguel

  • Torola River

  • Goascorán River

  • Paz River

  • Goascorán River

  • Cara Sucia River

  • Copinula River

  • Sensunapan River

  • Banderas River

  • Pululuya River

  • Comalapa River

  • Jiboa River

  • Jalponga River

  • El Guayabo River

  • El Potrero River

  • El Molino River

  • Sirama River

Notable Lakes

The Rio Grande de San Miguel system drains the eastern part of El Salvador. Flooded volcanic craters constitute the country's most significant bodies of water: Lakes Coatepeque, Ilopango, and Olomega. In addition, numerous lakes of volcanic origin are found throughout the interior highlands.

  • Lake Coatepeque

  • Lake Ilopango

  • Lake Suchitlan

  • Lake Alegria

  • Lake Olomega

  • Lake Guija

  • Lake Suchitlán (Cerrón Grande Reservoir)

Map of El Salvador

Map of El Salvador

Natural Regions

Flora and Fauna

The country boasts an abundance of flora and fauna, some of which have been classified as either threatened or vulnerable.

Four of the world's eight sea turtles nest on the coast of El Salvador, including the critically endangered hawksbill.

Ecological Regions

The following is a list of terrestrial ecoregions in El Salvador, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

El Salvador is in the Neotropical realm. Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate.

Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests

  • Central American montane forests

Tropical and subtropical coniferous broadleaf forests

Tropical and subtropical coniferous dry forests

  • Central American dry forests


  • Gulf of Fonseca mangroves

  • Northern Dry Pacific Coast mangroves

Vegetation and land use map of El Salvador

Vegetation and land use map of El Salvador

Administrative Divisions

See: Cultural Landscape of El Salvador