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. Saludos chelita!

    Wow! what a great read.

    You truly capture what El Salvador, it’s landscape, food,
    And people are all about using all the senses to describe
    what you were experiencing.

    I can relate to seeing most of El Salvador while riding
    On the back a pickup Truck.

    Try to visit El oriente on your next trip.

    You will not be disappointed.

    From a expat living in Los Angeles CA.

    -Roger “el zarco”

  2. I loved it! You made an AMAZING job. Congratulations! We hope that you will visit us again soon.

  3. The best article I have ever read about my country, so raw, EVERYTHING she wrote its true. I love it, and thank you for sharing my beautiful country with the world.

  4. Hi Amelia,

    I’m a Salvadorean living in PA for the last 4 years.
    Thank you so much for your article about my beautiful El Salvador! I enjoyed every single paragraph as they kept bringing me back to my life there. I hope your adventure continue to get better and better as you visit the world.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Amelia : thanks for the time you spent in our El Salvador getting to know us the way we really are and the beautiful places we have.
      Please comeback.

      1. Wow, todo la cultura de nuestro pais, en un solo articulo, y el mejor articulo que he leido de nuestro El Salvador. Gracias por esta hermosa publicacion.

      2. I am impressed that in 5 months you were able to capture our cultura salvadoreña it shows that you truly did immerse yourself in it thank you for a realist portrayal of my El Salvador. Happy trails wherever they may lead you

  5. Hi there, I normally don’t read much but this article got so short I can read it all even if it is 1,000 pages long, so glad you enjoyed my country I’m pretty sure all salvadoreans will agreed with you on this one specially the ones who are not living there anymore we feel more identified with this them the ones who live in the country they just just to it I live in Texas now and the state is beautiful but nothing compare to the morning smell of Tierra mojada and pine trees in the country side of el salvador hope I can one day go back and enjoy we in the states have all our hopes and dreams in this new government and hopefully soon we will be able to go back thank you for keeping our hope alive have a bless day
    Pd El Chele pechuga that was my Nick name at school I hated it but you made a good point hacele huevos he dicen

  6. Thank you for the work you put into this and for helping people learn more about El Salvador. Excellent article!

  7. This is a beautiful country with a LOT of problems. Remember WHY the war was fought. Those people are still in power and the dregs they created. However, this is the first time in 90 years that there is hope.

  8. AS an a Salvadorian living in the U.S for the last 6 years. I will tell you you’re a 100% on point. We are polite, work harder and party people. We love the fiesta and pupusas. I can tell you the food tastes better in that little country. Sometimes (most of the times) its hard to recognizance. But, YES. El Salvador its a great destination not only for our amazing views but for the people. Bien hecho cipota!

  9. Thank you for all the beautiful things said about El pulgarcito. It is beautiful to here nice things about it, like you said it’s not just the violence in the country. Glade you was able to enjoy it . The way you wrote about it made me close my eyes and seeing my self behind the pick up truck just enjoying life. Thank you , hope you can go back again.

  10. Thank you for showing a little bit of my tiny country to the world…Great article “Maje”…Please come back to continue learning about this beautiful land!

  11. Thanks for taking the time to write about El Salvador, I am sure many like myself are feeling grateful to read your descriptions of different things occurring in this country. I even read about new things I didn’t know existed, well done!

  12. hello !!
    loved reading your article , you captured what my beautiful El Salvador is, i hope you go back to enjoy what a lot of us left behind with heart broken the day we immigrated.

    wishing you always the best.!!
    Kenny ” el bachi “.

  13. The best description of my country i’ve read in a while. Everything is true in this article, except the part of there not being any beggars or cat calling. But then again this has decreased a lot in the last years, but it still exists.

    I loved this article because it is sincere. It doesnt try to hide the “not so great” parts of my country but it does value to extent the really good parts of El Salvador.
    Ive been living outside of El Salvador for 4 years now, and even though i am in a latin country, there are so many differences. I miss how hardworking, thankful for the little things, polite, and friendly my people are. I miss salvadoreans. I miss how they are so thankful for everything they have even the ones that almost have nothing. I miss how humble salvadoreans can be.

    Thank you for your article Amelia. Spot on!

  14. Than you so much to be in my lovely country, and say so much good things about it. TE ESPERAMOS PRONTO EN SURF CITY(comming soon).

  15. Great article and images. Where can I find the images to use as wallpaper on my computers? Maybe unsplash.com

    Muchas gracias y saludos de este maje que es de Intipucá, La Union.

  16. I’m Glad u enjoyed our country, next time we will go for the pupusa LOCA u’ll be amazed! Hasta luego chelita xD

  17. Wowwww, you didn’t spend much time in my country, but the way you described it, it is amazing, looks like you have lived therefor so many years. I’m very proud of being a Salvadorean and reading your article makes me feel even prouder of my beautiful coutury. While I read your article I remembered so many beautiful memories. Thank you for taking your time to write about my Pulgarcito, hope you go back again.

  18. I loved this read so much. Definitely thinking on moving back to El Salvador soon. Maje este articulo esta bien vergon, but could you write about the best places to live to the bad places, price range, and types of homes/apartments available for rent or to buy.

    Thanks so much for writing this, it truly is a great article.

  19. This was beautiful! As a first gen American with parents from El Salvador, reading this was refreshing. Usually the country gets depicted as poor, violent, dangerous and that’s it. Yet the country is multi dimensional just like any place else! And totally agree that it now has one of the most hopeful political climates in Latin America, and perhaps even globally.

    Thank you thank you! Much love to you!

  20. Recently I visit El Salvador, is a greatfull country, so beautiful where ever you travel, this article described exactly what I I see. , the hard worker people with hambles attitude meke you fell welcome , God Bless EL Salvador

  21. Great post. I was born there but moved to Canada when I was young in 1987. I’ll be going back to visit in January. It was nice to hear such nice things about my home country. Thank you.

  22. Love the Blog Amelia! I was born in El Savlador and recently returned after many years to learn more about the history and reconnect with my family. I filmed the experience for an upcoming documentary. Would love your help in getting the word out.

    Would love to collab with you on some travel content if our paths ever cross. Keep up the great work.


    Let me know what you think,

  23. I really like your article, I was enjoying reading it when I was on the train. You remained me even more about my country thank you so much

  24. For a lack of a better word your article was perfect. We the Guanacos are friendly, proud and hard workers. Our country is beautiful, majestic but we also have dangerous places like every other country. Thank you for writing the true about my country El Salvador

  25. Best article I have ever read about my home country 🇸🇻🇸🇻. We área hard working, kind, polite and love to party.

      1. Thanks for your article.. but I want to correct you little be here.. so that is the problem that many people like you have only gone to places where there is only a city and not to the real worst places in El Salvador. And that is a big mistake to say that there are no traffic rules or drinking beer on streets . Of course there are rules .. that’s why many Central American people when they arrive in the USA or other countries and do not even know how to cross a street and do not mind following the rules of another country’s because of this serious error of lack of education and not wanting to follow the rules of their own country .. many things are thanked in this article because many things are true. but that no rules. 🤔 thanks

      2. Thanks for your comment. I tried to make it clear that I was not discounting that there are severe problems with gangs and violence in El Salvador in those first points. In fact, I’m currently working on a labyrinth of contacts so that I can spend some time in Soyapango and talk with the people there about what they deal with on a daily basis. And I didn’t mean to insinuate that there are no rules, however, especially compared to the U.S., I would say that traffic rules are …very loosely enforced. This wasn’t a conclusion I came to on my own of course, but from talking with all of my Salvadoreño friends. I’m certainly not purporting to have a full perspective on this country as I have only been here for 5 months so far, this is just what *I* have learned in that time. Much love and respect!

  26. I really appreciate your article. There is so much beauty in my country and you have selected some of the best places and spaces. There are many difficult and violent realities in El Salvador and you are not dismissing those but the purpose of your article is to set the record straight…. you can visit El Salvador and have an amazing time.
    I am a missionary and travel to El Salvador often to serve homeless youth that want to break their cycle of poverty and build a better future for everyone. Thanks again and keep writing about El Salvador. I challenge you to discover more places.

    1. Hola Ana! Thanks for your kind words. I am exploring as much as I can, just have to work full time of course 🙂

  27. Your article it’s really on point 🙂
    I just have one comment about the picture of the fried seafood, why not a Pilsener, Suprema or Golden Light instead of a Corona 🙂

    1. Well actually usually I’m drinking Regia, Elsa, but at the beach I sometimes like a Corona 🙂

  28. Wow! What a variety of fascinating shots! From distant mountains to lantern parties, and of course – the people. Yeah, even born & raised in the US, I had some distant relatives that gave me the nickname – Pepper. I didn’t realize how lucky I was it was an “ok” name, lol! 😊

  29. Goodness Gracious! Finally a true testimony about, what EL SALVADOR and citizens are together, that beautiful writing couldn’t be written by an abnormal person…
    Thank you so much for put my Amazing
    Country as a top of incredible place to go for vacation.

  30. Hola, thanks for writing this great article.

    !No words can describe how beautiful and awesome El pulgarcito is!

    I get emotional, and proud to have being born en Sonsonate.

    Desde Alemania.🙂

  31. I I think this article is the best it is the truth by my country that I really love so much now I live in Houston Texas but I always looking for every year to go to see my little country El Salvador thank you Amelia for the article that I think is the best describes my country thank you very much

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