20 lessons from El Salvador

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.

A colorful Central American neighborhood overlooks long mountainous views.
Santa Elena, one of San Salvador’s prettiest neighborhoods.

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.

Three young people sit on a dock by a misty lake holding beers and looking across at the mountains.
El Salvador is, by far, the friendliest place I’ve ever been. I made friends here who will last a lifetime.

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.

A man in a blue shirt on a motorcycle whizzes past a lush, hilltop neighborhood in San Salvador.
Salvadorans are all kindness and generosity — except in their vehicles.

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.

A two-lane road in El Salvador cuts thorough jungle-filled vistas

A man and a woman on a motorcycle ride through a small Salvadoran town in the mountains.
Many of El Salvador’s small towns, such as Berlín are charming and picturesque.

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.

The sun sets over three layers of misty mountains in El Salvador.

A young woman rides standing in the back of a pickup truck as it winds up rural mountainous switchbacks.
In the back of a pickup truck is basically my favorite place, especially on this mountains climb in Alegría.

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.

Colorful glass lanterns hang from a bamboo construction in a Central American festival celebration.
The festival of “farolitos” in Ahuachapán is one of the country’s most beautiful events.
A Salvadoran tienda is bedecked with Christmas lights and blow-up Santa Clauses.
Christmas is *BIG* here.

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.

A woman in a frilly apron holds a freshly-made pupusa in her hands.
Pupusas, El Salvador’s national dish, are a source of pride within the country.
A man picks up some large whole-fried shrimps with limes and hot sauce.
Seafood, particularly near the coast, is fresh and flavorful in El Salvador.

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…

A curly-haired woman wearing an apron makes pupusas at a street-side stand in El Salvador.
Don’t sleep on rice pupusas; they might be even better than the corn variety.

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.

A young woman in a tank top and ripped jeans sips juice from a plastic bag at a vine-covered cafe.
San Salvador is home to one of my favorite juice locales — called Oasis.

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.

141 thoughts on “20 lessons from El Salvador

  1. When are you visiting Honduras and the Bay Islands (Roatan, Utila and Guanaja) again? You may wish to tour la Mosquitia and El Naranjo and Copan also…or even La Ciudad Blanca (White City in Olancho).

    1. should go to cuco beaches in san miguel you will like it is great for surfing also in llano muerto morazan we have many tourist centers everyone who loves it is like enjoying the scenery high, gracias por describir el nombre del bello el salvador así God bless you.

  2. Love it great work had a blast reading this article, you made it fun, you didnt make it like some boring article , once againe had a blast reading about my beuatifull El Salvador, te quedo chivo el articulo chela 🤣🤣🤣🇸🇻🇸🇻🇸🇻🇸🇻😉😉😉😉

      1. Very nice article, thank you for sharing with the world
        Eliab Aguilar from Ciudad Barrios El salvador

      2. Thank you for the article, for my beautiful country, you need visit the beach in the oriente of the El Salvador.

  3. I totally agree with this article, a few article describe the truth of a country so perfect like this one

    1. Gracias muchacha, excelente recopilación de mi querido El Salvador. Cuanto te añoro pulgarcito algún día no muy lejano volveré, a escuchar la alegría y ver los rostros de mis hermanos. Siempre estás en mi 💓. Dios te bendiga patria sagrada.

  4. Sabía que había alguien más en el mundo que disfrutaba de los licuados de naranja con huevo!!! I’m from El Salvador, and you’ve described exactly how it is!! I hope you’ve tried the yuca from Salcoatitan!!

  5. Delighted that you liked our country, we surely have a lot to fix in our house, but we have the will and dignity to achieve it. As Nayib Bukele says, we want them to invest in our country, although we need a lot of help, we prefer the other.

    1. Salvadorans are some of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. It has been such a pleasure living in your country!

  6. Thank you Amelia for taking the time to visit my beautiful country ~El Salvador ~ and write such honest and positive article….we need more visitors like you. I am understand that my country has a long way to become a safer and better country, but I am very happy that we are finally heading towards that direction. Thank you again.

    Happy 2020 and applaud your courageous decision of leaving your safety net to travel around the world in order to truly experience other places and it’s people and writing about it 🤙

    Count me in as one more of your fans coming along in your journey!


    Cynthia Tamrazzadeh

    1. Thank you for your comment Cynthia! It has been such a pleasure to live in El Salvador, and I’m happy my article felt true to you!

  7. Precioso!! Nos has descrito muy bien, me ha encantado, nunca me había dado cuenta de como somos los salvadoreños en realidad ( es que es nuestra normalidad) muy buen trabajo te felicito.
    Vuelve cuando quieras, siempre abra un salvadoreño reciviendote con una sonrisa .

  8. I found your post from Nayib Bukele’s Facebook post recommending a great read. Not dissapointed at all. I have not been to El Salvador in about 9 years and from your description it seems like things are changing. Thanks for highlighting the awesome stuff and bringing attention to things that still need improvement. Adios y gracias.

  9. Amelia,
    Im from El Salvador, Usulután. By far this is the most realistic vlog about my country, you made me remember memories with my friends and family while I was living there.

    You described my country exactly the way it is, being honest and seems like you were enjoying living there.

    Thanks for this vlog, it was a very nice pleasure reading it. I was in my country for a few minutes.

    Jalú pue!
    JC Ayala.

    1. Thank you JC! I’m so glad to hear it rang true for you. Your country is so beautiful, I think it’s obvious that I love it very much.

  10. Thanks for visiting El Salvador. I miss those views from Yucuaiquin. La Union
    stop by whe you go To ES again

    1. Great vlog I’ll say one of the best ones I’ve read in a while thanks for sharing your story about my little piece of land hope that next time you get i chance to stop by san vicente and see how beautiful my little town is…

  11. My five day trip to El Salvador was very synonymous of your description. While reading your article, I thought for several moments that Anthony Bourdain was narrating. Thank you for sharing a great story.

    1. Hermoso reportaje que bien que ya se están fijando en el pulgarcito de América por tanta belleza que posee y su gente nuestra gente la generosidad que poseemos es inigualable gracias Amelia Rayno 👍

      1. Thank for the vlog. I left El Salvador as a 10 year old, 30 years ago. I have never wanted to visit El Salvador as I have always heard negative things about it. Plus I don’t speak Spanish well lol.
        But reading your blog made me want to go,so thank you for that.

  12. I have no words that can describe my feelings after reading your article, been born and educated in El Salvador 🇸🇻 is something that make us very proud. I grew up in Los Angeles, CA and I am getting ready to retire in my native country, YOU have no idea how much we appreciate your words and your knowledge of El Pulgarcito de America, thank you 🙏 a million times for sharing your experiences. I don’t know who you are but please allow me to tell you that I love you ❤️ too.

    1. Thank you Milton for your sweet words! You echo everything I’ve experienced: that Salvadoreños are the kindest, warmest, most loving people anywhere!

  13. hi,
    not sure if its a typo when you discussed the lingo: la anda (stuff). Since we usually say “que ondas” which can mean how is stuff going? or what’s up? 🙂 anyways thanks for writing this nice article about our country.

  14. Excellent report, thank you so much for not reporting only about gang violence. Greetings from Canada.

  15. Wow me hiso recordar mucho de mi pais hasta me hiso llorar como lo extraño ami querido pais 😭😭😭 muy bonito articulo.

  16. Muy amable de su parte! Gracias por todo.
    I was laughing when I was reading, so fun to read and also true full.

  17. Saw Bukele,s post on FB. GLAD I clicked it. I immigrated to USA as a 12 year old (1970)and visited only once 25 years ago. Now that I have read your article I will definitely plan to visit my native land soon. Thank you for a great article.

  18. I read this article because of Bukele’s recomendation, it called my attention, and I have to be honest, I didn’t expect too much , But It’s an amazing article, I love it, I spent about 30 minutes reading it. I just can say your article is “la mera verga” 😂
    You make me feel proud to be a salvadorean.
    I hope you will come back soon.

    1. This is probably one of the best articles I have read about El Salvador. You have captured the essence of Salvadorans.

  19. Honestly Anthony Bourdain fell short with the description deep from your heart you just transported my mind to my country and I feel home sick. I moved from ES almost 36 years ago to Las Vegas NV, and planning to go back next year
    to enjoy those beautiful places. Thank you for such a Wonderfull article like no one else have done it before God bless you Amelia.

  20. Simplemente ¡MARAVILLOSO! Es la descripción de mi país mas ecuánime que he podido leer en los últimos 40 años. Muchas gracias Amelia, siempre será bienvenida!

  21. Thank you for your kind words about El Salvador. You are wellcome anytime in El Pulgarcito de America

  22. Thank you for highlighting the good things of the country, we know that there are many bad things and bad people in the country. I hope you come back soon. Thank you so much.

  23. Great article, I see why the president shared it, I laughed at some of the things you described for being so incredibly on point. I loved it and for sure wish you tell all your us friends to come visit sometime.

    So you feel good about yourself, I don’t typically leave comments but yeah, it was that good. I loved it so much it made want to leave a comment.

  24. Thanks for writing this great article about my dear country, it is encouraging us to go back.
    And enjoy the place with my fiancée

  25. I was born in El Salvador, I came to the US when I was 11. Reading your article took me back home. I enjoyed reading it. Beautifully done. Thank you.

  26. Súper entretenido, de verdad Gracias por esa sinceridad en tu artículo es sumamente colorido al ir leyendo…
    Por si no viniste al Puerto de La Libertad te invito y nos comemos una minuta por el muelle Artesanal, con jalea de tamarindo y leche condensada!
    Ajaaaaa así que espero vuelvas pronto, y seguiré leyéndote, por doquier que Andes..

    Me encantan tus artículos!

  27. Excelente Artículo Amelia. Gracias por sus comentarios a cerca de mi pulgarcito. El Salvador is such a beautiful country with so much to offer. The best part is that the country is so small you can get anywhere from San Salvador within a couple of hours. I hope you got a chance to visit my beautiful hometown of Sonsonate. This departmento has so much to offer. From the beaches of Mizata and Acajutla to el volcán de izalco, ruta de las flores and all the little towns in it. You can make a stop at Lago de Cuatepeque and Los Chorros on the way there. Best time to go though is during Semana Santa. Thank you so much for your kind words.

    P.S. You are so on the money on the nickname part.



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