The number one question seasoned travelers and tourists alike have about El Salvador- is it safe? Short answer, YES, absolutely.
Long answer, if you look at the US Travel Advisory site for El Salvador, you will see that it is listed as category 3- reconsider travel. The need to reconsider travel can be justified given the country's past, however, it is not an accurate representation of the country's current state. I traveled to El Salvador solo for a week and I never felt concerned about my wellbeing in the slightest. There is no denying that El Salvador has a worse reputation than its neighboring countries in Central America and yes, it has a dark past. Peace came at a cost for every country, and El Salvador is no exception. Given its small size and reputation, El Salvador is often overlooked and many tourists skip this beautiful country during their travels through Central America. As with every country, city, and town, there are good places and places to avoid for both tourists and locals. All that is required is a little bit street smart and awareness of one's surrounding to have an incredible experience.
Travelers only need to pay $10 for a 90day visa at the Salvadorian airport. The customs personnel will add a visa sticker to your passport upon payment. I was given the default 90 day visa even though I was only there for a week. If you have reasons to stay in El Salvador more than three months, you can request an extension and pay the appropriate fee. It is relatively common and easy.
I kept the same accommodation for the duration of my stay in San Salvador at the La Zona Hostel. It is located in Zona Rosa part of San Salvador and it is an awesome place for people traveling solo and in groups. The beds are comfortable. The staff speaks English, and the vibe is chill. They have a bar and options for breakfast with purchase ($3). The lounge areas are very cozy and you will find people hanging out at all times of the day. It is always amazing to see complete strangers become close friends in a matter of hours. Something about sharing travel stories with people of different backgrounds help to create amazing friendships.
La Zona Hostel is also close to a lot of restaurants (Seafood, Mexican, Italian, Salvadorian, Japanese) and tons of food trucks and street food (pupusas!). I will go into more details on food in tip #4.
Is there Uber? YES
Is it safe? YES
Can I use the bus? YES
Is the bus system easy to get around? If you know which bus to take, yes it is quite easy to see the city
How much does the bus cost? 20 cents
How about Taxi? There are taxi, however, it is not as cheap as Uber and there is less accountability. As someone who does not speak Spanish very well or at all, it would be hard to flag down a local taxi driver and explain exactly where I wanted to go. Even if I managed to give them an address, there is a chance that I might be charged more than the locals. Best bet, stick with Uber or use the bus.
Is there any other way to getting around? One other way is to find a Taxi driver who is also a tour guide and speaks English. You can negotiate prices for where and what you want to see. There are some tours that are already priced for one way or round trip, so the more people in your group the cheaper the price will be. Below is a business card of one taxi driver who picked me up from the hostel and we visited four major beaches along the coast for $45 (round trip). My next post (El Salvador II) will have more details on the activities, things to do and see in El Salvador.
El Salvador has fed me well. The food is so cheap there that I was eating all day from the street vendors. They have fruits, fried food, pupusas, drinks, and many other things for less than a $1. Most items are 25-50 cents. You can get three pupusas for a $1 and that is all you'll need for a few hours. There are pupusas filled with black beans, cheese, pork, fish, shrimp, or a combination of two more more of these items. They are filling enough to be had as a meal. I've had breakfast, lunch, and dinner on just pupusas. Eating pupusas and using the bus has helped me save money for more exploring. During tours, we went to designated restaurants but most meals are usually less than $10. Below are several photos of my lunch and dinner when I was not indulging on street food.
Last but not least- what to expect from the Salvadorians once you get there. The locals love to speak to travelers who are curious and want to learn about the country. They are just waiting to show off why El Salvador is just as special and important as its neighboring countries.
Values: Salvadorians are extremely family oriented and respectful to their elders. There is also a great amount of empathy of each other's situations. What I mean by that is people give charity to beggars on the street even when it is obvious that they themselves have close to nothing.
Education is another important piece of the Salvadorian social structure. They understand the need for higher education and strive to get into the best universities in the country, while others who have the means go abroad.
Work: Generally, men and women in the family work together (family business) to make a living. More often than not, it was the women who were selling food, clothes, jewelry, etc. in the streets and the local markets. The children start working at a young age with their parents and older siblings when they can to earn a few extra dollars when school is off. Popular jobs are coffee picking, working in the sugar cane farms, or helping other family members with their food stands on the streets.
Religion:The country has many different religions but Catholicism is the dominant one and that is obvious from the moment you get off the plane. The airport has murals of their beloved Bishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez who was murdered by the government in 1980 when there was unrest between the Church and State. Salvadorians revere him as a saint and his photos and drawings are displayed all over the city. Everywhere you go their solid belief in Catholicism is noticeable.
Politics: El Salvador is a democratic country with deep hatred for communism. In 1932 more than 25,000 indigenous people were murdered when there was an uprising against the government for ill treatment poor indigenous population who refused to let the top 2% enjoy the benefits of their hard work supporting coffee industry. The government categorized them as communists and wiped out about 90% of the population. As a result, the native language is now considered dead and the culture/traditions are no longer practiced. Another tragedy is the Civil Way from 1980-1992, during which another 75,000 Salvadorians were killed. More than 25,000 people were displaced from as refugees by 1992 when the government signed a peace treaty with the UN.
There is a thin line between religion and politics in El Salvador. During these times of unrest, there was very little religious influence in the government. Salvadorians consider the Bishop as a politician who speaks up on behalf of the people and points out right and wrong in the government's actions. With the killing of Bishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdáme, it only helped to incite a deeper hatred for the government and fuel the civil war.
Being that the country is predominantly Catholic, there are many religious holidays throughout the year. These holidays help people forget their dark past and come together to celebrate more joyous occasions. The celebrations are grand and everyone works together to make it as memorable as possible.
Fun: Salvadorians love to eat, dance, sing, and spend time with their family and friends. I would hear people singing, laughing, blasting music, dancing, and children playing late into the night, every night. Doesn't matter if it was a weekend or weekday. Even though the music kept waking me up, their genuine happiness made me smile. It is not something I hear in the US. The locals may not have as much money as the tourists and travelers that visit them, but they make the most of what they have. It's been a long time coming for this kind of peace in El Salvador, and now that they have it, the Salvadorians savor every moment of it.