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Before moving (temporarily) to El Salvador, there was one phrase I heard over and over, from strangers and friends alike:
El Salvador, after all, has a gritty, dangerous reputation, especially in the U.S. where you can hardly Google the country without breaking out in hives. Sample headlines describe it as “murder capital of the world,” and lament “life under gang rule.” The majority of U.S. media coverage of El Salvador centers on migration and thus focuses on the country as a place of poverty, crime and desperation.
Several people, this summer, actually urged me not to come — for my safety.
Now, after living here more than three months, I still hear that phrase from people back home all the time, despite trying to show so many wonderful aspects of the country.
Usually, I just shrug.
I know they mean well. But besides not especially caring for the remark, it almost just feels silly.
And that’s because, believe it or not, I feel safer here than I have …maybe anywhere.
The gangs don’t affect me (or any sensible tourist). Yes, the gang problem in El Salvador is real (although many people have told me it’s improving under new president Nayib Bukele). But for the most part, it’s pretty confined. As a visitor, you’re highly unlikely to “stumble” into a gang-controlled neighborhood or town by accident. As long as you don’t decide to rent a car and drive into every sketchy-looking enclave off the highway, you’re probably going to be fine. Talking to locals to understand “off-limit” areas is key, but if you’re only visiting for a couple weeks and want to hit touristy areas …stop worrying.
Crime is not indiscriminate. Most of the worst crime in El Salvador, as most places, is committed between individuals who have some relationship. This makes El Salvador certainly dangerous for people who live in some areas, like those under gang control, and for business owners in general (most are expected to pay a fee to the gangs and face dire consequences if they don’t). That’s an awful reality, and I have no intentions of downplaying it. But getting caught up in any of that is unlikely. What’s more, in most places of El Salvador, petty crime is of little concern. Unlike in other countries, no one here tells me to put away my cell phone when I’m walking around, recording or texting. In most areas of the city, pick pocketing is not a problem. And you can feel that. I’ve never felt threatened, here, while walking on the street.
I live in a GD fortress. Let me tell you, my San Salvador apartment set up is the most secure I’ve ever had. Firstly, the windows and the door are all reinforced with iron bars. The door has two different bolts to lock it from inside. Outside my apartment and beyond my little garden patio, the entire complex (of about eight apartments) is surrounded by a tall brick wall, topped with barbed wire and secured at the entrance by a solid metal gate in view of a security camera. Beyond the gate is the street I live on, a single-block residential avenue with giant metal gates on either end. Beginning around 8 p.m., those gates are closed and locked, and guarded by men toting rifles. You’d have to be downright wealthy to live in a similar situation in the U.S., but here, a similar security setup is typical for many middle class Salvadorans.
There is security everywhere. Beyond the residence security, you’ll also encounter armed guards all over San Salvador and other towns – outside of banks, in the nice neighborhoods where people walk a lot, in public parks, really practically everywhere. If something were to happen, a member of the police force would never be too far away.
Visual cues make it clear that in most neighborhoods I go to, there is inherent trust. It’s pretty easy to tell what locals think about the safety of a given place. If you see people clutching their purses, carrying backpacks on their front or eyeing your cellphone warily, those are pretty good signs to stay alert and hang onto your belongings. Here, in most neighborhoods and towns, it’s pretty clear those aren’t typical concerns. People text while walking. They often leave their wallets on the table while they go to the bathroom. They browse street vendors freely, without eyeing over their shoulders. During my first week here, I saw a woman toss her handbag on the sidewalk after passing a street musician — in order to free her up to dance with her man. I’m telling you, you can feel the freeness. These days, if I’m in a cafe, I’ll actually leave my bag on the table while I go to the restroom …something I would never do in the U.S.
Salvadoran people are some of the kindest I’ve met anywhere. Salvadorans are friendly, genuine and incredibly generous, and even a short stay here would demonstrate how kindest and service to others is simply part of the culture. You can expect nearly every person you pass to smile and say hello to you. Locals are likely to strike up a conversation at a street food stall or at the counter of a tienda. Many people will go out of their way to help you if you need it – to find a bus station, to navigate a government building, to offer directions. Furthermore, there is no culture of cat-calling (a shocking reversal from what I experienced in Honduras and Belize), or even begging. Honestly, you could stay here for months and not run into a single person asking you for money. Respect is built into unspoken community rules. Salvadorans are so above-and-beyond with their graciousness that I firmly believe people would help me out with any trouble I encountered, whether it be on a bus or on the street — which is not something you can say everywhere.
I’m a white U.S. American. Ugly as it is, let’s face it: U.S. Americans, especially white U.S. Americans, enjoy a certain level of international protection that others don’t. This is because anything bad that happens to a U.S. American abroad is BIG NEWS. A single death, even accidental, can affect tourism and international relations. (I remember the panic in Guatemala after a young white woman fell to her death on a Guatemalan mountain earlier this year after it was speculated to be foul play early on.) Once, an Airbnb host in Honduras told me, while giving me the local emergency numbers: “If you have to call, tell them you’re American; they’ll come twice as fast.” It’s additional security that’s rooted in the idea of American exceptionalism, and white supremacy. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is — and if anyone ever worries about me, I always remind them of this fact.
After reading this, would you consider traveling to El Salvador? Let me know in the comments!