When I arrived in El Salvador — a tiny Central American country many in the U.S. think of mostly in terms of pupusas and immigration — I had no idea what to expect.
But after five months of living in its capital city, traveling across its strikingly diverse landscapes and through its charming towns and villages, I have found it to be one of the richest, most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It feels like paradise, and it feels like home.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
The reputation is unfair. If you Google “travel to El Salvador,” you just might come away with the impression that you simply can’t do it; much is made of the gang presence and violence statistics and it leads to an incredibly one-dimensional portrait of the country. In reality, there are more safe areas than unsafe areas, and as a visitor, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d run into any concerning activity. What’s more, petty crime — such as theft — is very low, making many cities, towns and neighborhoods in El Salvador actually much safer and tourist-friendly than other places in the region. For those reasons and others, I felt safer here than I have anywhere.
It’s still changing. All of that said, it’s necessary to acknowledge that gang violence remains a problem in the country, especially for business owners everywhere and Salvadorans in mara-controlled territories. New president Nayib Bukele has ramped up security forces all over the country and cracked down on many aspects of gang life — and many locals, including those in long-controlled neighborhoods, are feeling the difference already. Still, there is more work to be done.
People have hope. The historic election of Bukele — the young, independent, former mayor of San Salvador — in the spring of 2019 is a topic of conversation all over the country, and most people I’ve talked to have expressed great hope for the future based on a remarkable break from 30 years of a rigid two-party system and changes they’re already seeing. Though it doesn’t get much attention for this in the U.S., the current political situation in El Salvador is perhaps one of the most positive and optimistic in all of Latin America.
And those people are maybe the kindest, friendliest and most generous I’ve ever met. Unlike some Central American countries, there is no culture of cat calling here; and there is no culture of begging. People are incredibly generous with each other, even those who don’t have much. Poverty isn’t a word that is used very much; like my friend Alejandro says “you’re only poor if you don’t share.” Walk down the street and you’re likely to receive genuine greetings of “Buenos días” or “Que le vaya muy bien,” (may you go well) by nearly everyone you pass. If someone walks near you while you’re eating or drinking something, you’ll almost surely hear “Buen provecho” (bon appetit). The phrase “muy amable” (very kind), is used constantly in interactions that might be routine and automatic in other places — such as checking out at a gas station.
Except when vehicle is involved. It’s the truth; all politeness evaporates when behind the wheel of a car or the handlebars of a motorcycle.
The roads might be the best in Central America. So much of the country was destroyed during the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-92), a really tragic period for this country. The upside is this: the infrastructure, especially the roads, is all fairly new since most of it was rebuilt and repaved following the conflict. These days, it’s common to see nice, asphalt roads, even in small villages. Most roads are in relatively good condition.
But road rules do not apply. Turn signal? What’s that. Speed limit? Nope. There is almost no traffic law enforcement and thus people mostly do what they want while driving (amazingly, I have seen very few accidents). Stop signs are routinely ignored, seat belts are rarely worn and round-about are chaos zones. Oh, and forget the concept of the right-of-way, especially as a pedestrian — you are now at the BOTTOM of the totem pole in that regard and if you expect a car to stop at a stop walk or a stop light or a stop sign to let you pass, you just might get your toes clipped.
The vistas do not stop. This country is magnificent, from the black-sand beaches, to the palm-laden jungles, to the rolling hills, towering volcanoes, crystalline rivers and sulfur lakes. You are never *not* in view of the mountains, and a road trip in any direction from San Salvador could leave your jaw on the ground. Prepare for some glorious landscapes and many, many stops.
And they are best enjoyed from the back of a pickup truck. The best seat in the car is untethered in the back — fully immersed in the atmosphere around you. Here, one can purchase a thin mattress at many grocery or department stores for about $10 to make your cruise all the more comfortable. Driving past those aforementioned vistas, up mountains, through sunsets and under brightly burning stars — it’s all better in the back of a truck.
By the way, you can drink a beer there — or anywhere. Yep, El Salvador is staunchly and unashamedly open container. Passengers are welcome to indulge in the car — inside or out (even drivers are allowed two). If you’re leaving a restaurant and you still have a drink, you can take the beer bottle or ask for a to-go cup. I’ve walked through the mall with a beer, through the grocery store with an Aperol Spritz. I take my last drink for the walk, regularly. It’s a game-changer.
Salvadorans known how to celebrate. It doesn’t take too much of an excuse; there are major annual festivals honoring natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcano explosions hundreds of years ago (honestly, it’s still a little confusing to me). But a party is a party, and if it’s in El Salvador, it’s going to involve fireworks, possibly some other kind of fire, street food, dancing, unnecessarily loud music, and alcohol. There are lantern festivals and insane fireball festivals. When it comes to Christmas, there may be no place that goes bigger — most parks in the country dress up with elaborate lights and decorations. In Alegría recently, a friend and I mulled how the massive 50-foot tree had been decorated in a town that surely lacked a crane. In my San Salvador neighborhood of Antiguo Cuscatlán, there are holiday events and concerts in the park every single night — plus ponche, a spiked egg nog of sorts. All in all, you’ll be lucky to celebrate with Salvadorans; they truly are the life of the party.
The etiquette is different. I have a joke with a friend here that U.S. etiquette all revolves around timeliness and Salvadoran politeness all resolves around verbal decorum. While in the U.S. we get straight to the point with our friends and business associates (“Hey. I need….”), here in El Salvador, it’s crude and impolite to start an email or a text or a conversation on the phone or in person without a few minutes of pleasantries. In the U.S., it would be unthinkably rude to show up one or two hours late to a meeting or a friend get-together, but here, that’s really normal, even expected. I’ve learned (somewhat!) to let go of hard-and-fast timelines and go with the flow. I’ve learned to slow it down and take a moment for greeting and small talk, even when the ultimate objective feels urgent. I’ve learned that here, it’s more impolite for someone to say they can’t help or they don’t have a solution than it is for them to promise something they have no intention of doing — so more investigation of assurances is needed. Neither way is good or bad, but the cultures, from an etiquette perspective, are almost opposite, so it’s good to have some understanding of that going in.
It’s best you know the lingo. You know, so you can talk to your best majes (dudes) about la onda (stuff) and know la mera verga (the best of the best) while becoming bolos (wasted). Right? A huevo, cabal (of course, exactly). Que chivo (how cool), that’s vergon (very good).
Don’t forget to fist pump twice. Here, every hand greeting is done twice. It can be any combination of high fives, fist pumps, a high-five, fist-pump hybrid, but it has to be done twice or you will leave someone hanging.
And get a thicker skin. Nicknames are big in El Salvador, and they’re blunt. They often have to do with your physical appearance and can be kind of mean (a comment on your weight, whether you’re bigger or smaller, a remark on your facial attributes or on the color of your skin). It’s the kind of stuff that would get you punched in the face in the U.S. but through many heated discussions with my friends on the subject, they have told me over and over that the culture is different here and people are truly not insulted. I DON’T KNOW, but I was briefly called the Spanish version of “little hunchback” for my bad posture and while I know this sounds like a frustrated Baby Boomer argument, all I’m saying is … toughen up.
Salvadoran food is fresh and delicious. The culture of cuisine, here, is relatively simple and humble. It resolves around vegetables, beans, rice and corn and cheap cuts of meat. But the beauty is in the tradition and technique. Salvadoran foods are flavorful and balanced. There are a variety of delicious fried foods, the best perhaps being the yuca (often topped with chicharrones or dried fish), the delightful pastelitos (beef and vegetable empanadas) and rellenos, which are made with everything from chilies to green beans to cauliflower. The soups (sopa de gallina, sopa de pata, sopa de frijoles) are rich and complex. The seafood and ceviches fresh and flavorful. Salvadorans use a lot of herbs and onions and garlic. They serve simple meals of grilled meat with an incredibly satisfying array of accompaniments (salad, rice, beans, curtido (pickled vegetables), chirmol (pico de gallo) and fresh farmer’s cheese. They create an amazing variety of foods from corn (tamales, riguas, tortillas, pupusas among them). And speaking of pupusas…
Rice pupusas might be the best. If you’ve only eaten pupusas in the U.S., you likely only know the corn masa variety, but here in El Salvador, there are two kinds: those made with corn masa and those made with rice flour. And, hot take, the rice flour version might be better, especially when made very thinly and with lots of crispy edges, such as the ones at the Pupusería Hazel stand in San Salvador.
Naranja con huevo is the best breakfast ever. Fresh-squeezed orange juice, vanilla, a raw egg and ice, this drink is essentially the best Orange Julius you will ever drink. Oasis, my favorite San Salvador juice shop, makes a version that incorporates cold coffee and a frozen banana as well, for a drinkable meal that energizes, fills, and invigorates you all in one fell swoop. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.
Service, everywhere, is excellent. As I’ve mentioned, Salvadorans are unfailingly polite, and that bleeds through into the culture of hospitality. That’s while you’ll find some of the best restaurant and food-stand service in Central America here, but also why you’ll find employees assisting you, carrying things for you and opening doors for you even at gas stations and convenience stores.
Hugo is genius. If you’re in El Salvador, you’re going to want to try all the restaurants, breweries, cocktail bars, bakeries, markets and food stands. But if you’re here, long-term, like me, at some point you’re just going to want to chill and not leave your apartment. That’s where Hugo comes in. With this service, you can get not only a great variety of food delivered, but also groceries, bottled water, hot coffee, beer and liquor, prescription drugs, dry cleaning services, gifts and toys and even cold, hard cash.