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GUIDE TO EL SALVADOR, CENTRAL AMERICA:
Salvador, Part 1: The Trip by Alex
Out of the way, with nothing
extraordinary for the camera, and with a marred reputation, El Salvador
remains one of the least travelled Latin American destinations. A perfect
place to go off the beaten track?
Salvador was almost an accident. I was on my way from the South to the
North of Mexico when the proximity of the Guatemalan border sucked me in.
Guatemala was nice but my time was very limited and the terrain didn’t
allow to go too far off the Great Central American Dope Trail. The Lonely
Planet felt particularly evil on that trip. Everyone was on the way to
that village where turtles lay eggs, their noses buried in the book. I
suddenly realised that I don’t know a single person at home who has ever
considered watching turtles lay eggs. This abnormality, plus Bob Marley,
the stench of dope and fashion cult of the indigenous made me dizzy. Luckily
I met Luke and we decided to escape to El Salvador. Because no one else
Why? There are a few reasons.
Some people read in the Lonely Planet that there isn’t that much to see.
In addition, it’s way too off the main drag – Guatemala to Utila, North
Honduras, where everyone has to scuba dive. Yet others feel nervous. In
case you were not aware, the civil war in El Salvador finished in 1992,
after 12 years of brutal carnage. But people got so used to sleeping with
firearms that the country is still armed to the teeth. For many years after
the war the streets remained violent and gangs multiplied. All in all,
El Salvador has a reputation of a small, out of the way, dangerous country
with not much too see. Great, more for us.
We met a couple of people
who had been to San Salvador airport and then jumped onto a bus straight
to Guatemala, but we failed to meet anyone who had actually seen the country.
So we didn’t know what to expect and we were nervous too.
It was a pleasant ride, with
plenty of coastal colours. In 2 hours we had already crossed a third of
the country and arrived to the capital. San Salvador immediately charmed
us with its phlegmatic and strong presence. For a capital, and after Guatemala
City, there was quite a sense of order, a sense that things have a direction
and are more or less under control. Although it is a city where edges are
in all respects sharper, a city that may show you teeth from time to time,
chaos definitely would not be part of the description.
The scars of the war appeared
immediately, however. There were no ruins but as we were checking into
the hostel we were received by a one-armed lady and as soon as we walked
out we bought a coconut from a one-legged old woman.
As for danger, we didn’t
feel it. But that day we did stay in a heavily protected part of the city.
Over time I decided that El Salvador was only slightly more dangerous than
Guatemala. It is one of those countries, like Colombia, great to visit
while everyone still thinks it is unsafe. The shotguns were indeed numerous:
at a pharmacy, at an internet-café, at McDonalds. You would see
one every 50-100 metres. But they were all security. Normal people kept
guns at home and walked around with machetes. Those were everywhere. I
still don’t know if it’s just a universal household item, or a poor man's
However, for Luke this was
a disappointment. Guns were the reason he came to El Salvador. He had read
in his Lonely Planet that you could buy them on a market. So we spent the
whole first day trying to do that, he would just come up to the stalls
and ask if they sell shotguns. Eventually we realised that LP betrayed
us. Again. We did find lots of holsters though and bought two huge machetes,
just to blend in.
Next day Luke remembered
that in Cambodia (another everyone-has-a-gun country) they had shooting
ranges. So we had a drink in the evening and decided to ask the girl at
the hostel reception if there is one around here. But all we could manage
in our broken Spanish was "donde es possible alquiller armas?". The worried
girl dialed the manager's home number and said that two drunk gringos are
asking where they can hire guns right now. We had lots of explaining to
do in the morning and I began feeling stupid.
was running out of options. Throughout the next day he kept coming up to
security guards on the streets and leech them with "I want to play with
you gun. Let’s go to the field. I'll pay you". Some politely shook their
heads, some frowned (naturally, the phrase could be misinterpreted). The
following morning destroyed Luke decided that enough is enough and crossed
over to Honduras.
If you stay in El Salvador
for a while, you do tend to spend a lot of time in the capital. It is not
that San Salvador is that fascinating. It is quite low on things to see,
in fact, seeming more residential. Particularly unpleasant is the stuffed
centre, which has turned into one dirty market. But the country is so small
and the travel arranged in such manner, that it is much more practical
to venture to and fro the capital, wherever you go, unless you get far
East. However, the city is fairly pleasant and has decent places to go,
both in the day and at night, and a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. Besides,
tourism there is still new and it is mainly the capital that can offer
decent hostels (even there you will find only a few).
The most travelled route
here is south to the coast. Beaches like El Zonte and El Sunzal are considered
the best surf in Central America and it’s such a large chunk of the (tiny)
tourist economy that you are likely to be approached in San Salvador with
“Are you a surfer”? La Libertad is the coastal hub town that serves as
a portal for the string of those beaches. By day everyone in that town
looks like a pirate and by night they still do, but spun out on crack.
It was a hot and stuffy town and, to be honest, only good for buying some
fruit, so there’s just no reason not to make the extra 10km down the line.
I say this because I met a few people who didn’t bother. Those beaches
are not great but they are ok and convenient so most Salvadorians from
the capital go there. Entirely volcanic, they make you totally black. A
storm in El Salvador, viewed from those beaches, is really something special,
with spectacular thunder and lightening.
My friend Maria also took
me to El Cuco beach, in the East of the country. Another popular spot,
it was again ok, but nothing fantastic. The amazing thing though was that
this well-known beach was entirely domestic, with no thought given to (non-existent)
tourists. To get there we had to cross river Lempa on a newly constructed
bridge. The previous one was destroyed during the war and a third of the
country had been almost entirely isolated for many years. The East has
always been poorer and suffered more in that war, it is still slightly
more edgy. San Miguel, the major city of that area, is a Dusk till Dawn
haunt. Once the darkness comes people seal themselves in and the beasts
walk the streets.
Maria gave me a little tour
of the country, through places like L’Herradura, Zacatecoluca and Usulutan.
It was an off the beaten track dream. The little tourist awareness that
the West of the country has was entirely absent here. A virgin land, free
of any pretence. A pure and genuine welcome.
Santa Ana, a major Western
city was quite sleepy but it had a lot of clowns. Don’t ask, I know it’s
bizarre. I had a clown in my pizzeria, a clown in my hostel and I even
ended up going for drinks with a bunch of clowns. You could say it was
a fun night. By the way, make sure it is a hostel, not a “hostel”, unless
eavesdropping on cries of passion is your thing – the Lonely Planet should
do a more thorough research there.
The centre of the country,
around the capital and to the north is very cosy and modestly lush. There
are some very pleasant routes amongst hills and lakes. Then, there is Perquin
– a place scarred by the history of the war. Ex-guerrillas will show you
around the civil war museum.
El Salvador is not famous
for any of its attractions. It doesn’t have anything particularly special
but it does have the usual set of things that could occupy you. Bohemia
and nightlife in San Salvador, acceptable beaches with a famous surf, volcanoes
(one of which is a pure mountain of ash) where you can do scuba diving
in the lakes, a national reserve El Impossible with rich wildlife, colonial
towns like Suchitoto, Mayan ruins like Joya de Ceren. It is a pleasant,
aesthetic country to see from a bus window, with many charming corners.
And I don’t want to be cheesy
but I did go to El Salvador in the first place to just meet some regular,
genuine people and I do like the Salvadorians a lot. Generous, friendly,
tranquil, they also had this hard inner core, this dignity and respect
for themselves and others. Many had scars of sadness in their eyes, they
have had a difficult life, and it is their inexplicable strength, discipline
and a sense of quiet pride that raised the country so fast from the ruins.
They were really easy to relate to, it is a place where the culture gap
is not as sharp as in many other places. But this article is about the
country, I will tell you about the people in the next one.
El Salvador doesn’t have
Machu Pichu or Foz de Iguacu. You can easily skip it if you are after high
impact photos. But for someone who just wants to get away from the industry
and wander around an unpolluted social landscape, this is one of the last
places in the Latin America. I didn’t want it to be great, just genuine
and good, and it was really good.
As for the safety, I found
nothing out of the ordinary (by Central American standards) apart from
a few more shotguns than in Guatemala. Normal precautions apply. Buses
don’t go after dark, guns are not allowed in bars and everyone talks about
violence. On that last point – myth or reality? I would say that some bodies
have now become ghosts.
Alex is the webmaster of
City Guide - an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain.
Salvador, Part 2: The Thoughts by Alex
Nothing changes a country
like a war. That which is history books for many nations, is a yesterday’s
memory for this one. I realised that all of the things that struck me as
unusual about El Salvador have to do with those 12 years
end of 1970s was a turbulent period in Salvadorian politics. Various juntas
formed and collapsed, tension soon spilled indo an epidemic of underground
political violence and murders, until at some point a war against the government
was declared by a leftist coalition (FMLN). After a 12-year carnage peace
was finally struck in 1992, with the government taking necessary reforms
to stay in power, and the FMLN re-organising into a political party.
It was not your normal war,
even as far as civil wars go. There were bombings by the government and
battles between fronts, but most of it was the constant undercurrent of
vigilante death squads, punitary expeditions, vendettas and tortures, which
targeted the population even in times of relative calm. Some fighting units
never even faced an armed enemy, “specialising” instead in civilian targets.
El Salvador is scarred not as much by violence as by terror.
Whether you cross over from
Honduras or Guatemala, the first thing that strikes you is a deficit of
indigenous physical features. Although most people are, of course, meztiztos,
El Salvador is one of the most European-looking countries in Latin America.
The indigenous population (the poorest and most abused) was always on the
receiving end of the repression, not just in the war, but also in all of
the uprisings of the XX century. El Salvador does have a very poor human
The second thing you notice
is how Americanised the country is. El Salvador is one of the places where
US Latin American foreign policy fully succeeded. I had never seen so many
US fast food chains, shining shopping malls and advertising boards in one
place. The full-blown capitalism creates an impression of prosperity and
affluence. Yet once you look into El Salvador’s rural areas and find out
a thing or two about Salvadorian economy, destroyed by war, you realise
who is profiting. Unprotected markets, no questions asked.
While this is the stuff that
drives Castro, Chavez and Morales insane, there seems to be no grudge in
El Salvador. First, I think there is an element of gratitude. US involvement
in the war might have been controversial, but they also accepted masses
of refugees. El Salvador has a population of just under 7 million people.
The US is estimated to have 2 million resident Salvadorians. Many are well
settled and the links are strong. Some say the economy survives thanks
to the money some family members earn in the States. And, whether for their
own profit or not, the US did invest in the post-war reconstruction.
Secondly, this migration
has almost made the country the States’ little cousin. With so many families
communicating over the borders and visiting each other regularly, there
is almost a sense of belonging. It’s not uncommon to hear “New York” when
you ask a Salvadorian where he is from. Neither it is uncommon to hear
“Hey, man, got a nickel or a dime?” from a beggar on the street. If your
Spanish is bad, this is one of the easiest countries in the region to travel
in. Apart from the fact that you have to use US dollars – I always find
it difficult to quickly tell how much money I have in my wallet if all
notes are of the same colour.
And lastly, such close ties
slowly but surely converted the Salvadorians. I found they generally like
all kinds of American things. Consumerism is high and the cultural influence
is huge. When I expressed my infuriation at the fact that the US government
pressured the country’s structures to make it impossible for the now political
leftist FMLN to win the last elections, I was told the results reflected
general opinion. “If you are jealous, marginalized and have nothing to
lose”, I was told, “you will join the FMLN to take what other people have
earned, but if you are even the smallest business owner, the FMLN is a
Yet, this pro-US sentiment
is, naturally, counteracted by some anger. The United States backed the
Salvadorian government during the war. Even when the death squads and human
rights abuses came to light, Reagan kept sending money and army trainers.
Experts agree that most Latin American conflicts are uprisings against
class injustice and abuse, yet he was waging his Star War in a Red Alert
fostered by the Evil Empire. In the end, the profits have been reached.
And 22 of those troops, who were meant to only train government soldiers,
died in combat missions.
The Salvadorians are sturdy
people with their heads straight. Many know what’s going on and a few find
it hard to hide their anger. It is a complex relationship.
As for the war, there seems
to be little physical sign of it 13 years later. As I said, it wasn’t a
war of carpet bombings and acres of minefields. The only building I saw
that bears that history is the San Salvador University – one of the usual
epicentres of the leftist resistance (as everywhere else), - covered in
socialist graffiti with the usual set of actors – Castro, Guevarra, Arafat,
etc. Looking at it you understand that the idealism in that war was no
joke. However, it is the people who bear the scars. Those who were killed
were buried. The rest have agreed that it is time to forgive. There seems
to be a pact of silence, I didn’t see any animosity. Two 30 year-old brothers
cuddling a 10 year-old sister, a generation of war between them. Amputees,
disabled, orphans. I am not usually very sensitive to street kids but there
they were something else. They wept alone, oblivious to the people they
were meant to ask from, smudging years of smog over their faces, their
insanity was too distant from this world to touch anyone, and they didn’t
even walk off the road to fall asleep.
was it about? We have our theories and we operate with concepts of right
and wrong. But many Salvadorians simply don’t know. Francisco, a boatman
with 7 years of fighting and three bullet holes in him, is not pondering
the philosophy of righteous and unrighteous wars, when he says he has no
idea. “They recruited me and send me to shoot the other guys. If I hadn't
they would have killed me.” In many places 13 was the recruitment age,
and both sides did it.
The real scars are in the
psyche. The Salvadorians are friendly but many are somewhat quiet. They
seem to be often happy, but it feels like the happiness of relief. They
are welcoming but it is written all over their foreheads that you shouldn’t
mess with them. They are disciplined and tough, they didn’t dwell on the
wounds, they just went straight to work and rebuilt the country.
But one thing where the trauma
of the terror is most apparent is their obsession with security. The English
talk about weather, the French about wine and the Salvadorians about violence.
All the time.
The violence did not finish
with the war. Unemployment, devastation and proliferation of weapons drove
huge numbers onto the streets. To this day, the two most numerous and vicious
gangs in Central and North Americas are from El Salvador. Things have got
a hell of a lot better recently, it’s just… no one seems to notice.
Don’t go here, you’ll get
killed. Don’t go there, you’ll get killed. Don’t get a bus after dark (if
there a silly one that will go, that is), if you get a punctured wheel
you are sitting ducks. Don’t leave the door open even in daylight, etc.
To be fair, El Salvador can be edgy, and a couple of times I came to an
invisible line where things would spin totally out of plan one step further.
It kinda creeps up on you. But much of it sounded (and turned out to be)
There are shotguns every
50 yards. Half of the nation is employed as security guards. There aren’t
even enough uniforms for everyone, a white shirt means a good guy, like
in a spaghetti western. And they all kept asking me if I can help them
find work in UK. I had to repeat over and over again that the demand for
skilled shotgun workers is currently low there.
Security is a commodity everywhere.
I am not even talking about house alarms and garden walls. Even a club
night flyer will say: “International DJs, discounts on drinks, light show,
secure site with security guards”.
Especially paranoid are the
upper classes. Not only they live in fortresses with a 7 – metre wall crowned
with an electric barb wire, they simply refuse to walk out of the house
unless it is in a car. They never take buses. They say, in a country so
small everyone knows who everyone is. I simply couldn’t believe that, and
they gave up on trying to explain.
The moment of truth came
when a guy gave me the usual hour-long tirade about violence, at 11 o’clock
at night, well after dark, then opened his front door for some fresh air
and calmly sat down for another hour. I concluded that he wasn’t really
afraid, the whole talk is a habit.
Perhaps El Salvador is by
no means safe, but neither is Guatemala, yet families go there all the
time. I saw more violence in both Guatemala and Mexico, yet I spent less
time in the two of them put together than in En Salvador. It is a beautiful
country with beautiful people, and it just doesn’t help tourism when everyone
is told that they will be shot. Old habits die hard and I really think
the habit is mostly all there is to it now.
Alex is the webmaster of
City Guide - an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain.
SALVADOR HOTELS, EL SALVADOR
browsing San Salvador hotels
Princess San Salvador, San Salvador
Enjoy volcano and city views
from the Hilton Princess San Salvador hotel, situated in the bustling district
Zona Rosa. Work out in the gym or relax in the outdoor pool or spa with
a sauna and Jacuzzi at the Hilton Princess San Salvador hotel. Dine
at the Garden Court restaurant, enjoy live music at La Rotonda Lobby Bar
or a drink at Churchill’s Bar at the Hilton Princess San Salvador hotel.
Close by are San Salvador attractions, such as Marte art museum, the Presidente
theater, San Salvador Guadalupe Basilica, Ruinas de Tazumal Mayan ruins
and Izalco volcano. Just 4 blocks from Feria Convention Center and
40 minutes’ drive from San Salvador Airport.
Inn San Salvador
Set in the heart of San
Salvador, this hotel is close to La Gran Via Shopping Center. Additional
attractions include Estadio Cuscatlan. Dining options at Holiday Inn San
Salvador include a restaurant and a bar/lounge. Room service is available
during limited hours. Recreational amenities include an outdoor pool and
a fitness facility. This 3.0-star property offers meeting rooms for small
groups, audio-visual equipment, and business services. Wireless Internet
access is available in public areas. This San Salvador property has event
space consisting of banquet facilities and conference rooms. The property
offers an airport shuttle (surcharge). Guest parking is complimentary.
Real San Salvador
Set in the heart of San
Salvador, this hotel is close to Metrocentro. Additional attractions include
National Theater. Dining options at InterContinental Real San Salvador
include 4 restaurants and a bar/lounge. Room service is available 24 hours
a day. Recreational amenities include an outdoor pool, a fitness facility,
and a steam room. This 4.0-star property has a business center and offers
secretarial services and business services. Wireless and wired high-speed
Internet access is available in public areas (surcharges apply). Additional
property amenities include valet parking, a concierge desk, and multilingual
Hotel Real Aeropuerto San Salvador
This hotel is located in
San Salvador. Dining options at Quality Hotel Real Aeropuerto include a
restaurant. Room service is available during limited hours. A complimentary
breakfast is served daily. Recreational amenities include a spa tub, a
sauna, a fitness facility, and a children's club. There is a full-service
health spa on site. This 2.5-star property has a business center and offers
a technology helpdesk and audio-visual equipment. High-speed Internet access
is available in public areas. Guest parking is complimentary. Additional
property amenities include gift shops/newsstands and laundry facilities.
Presidente San Salvador Hotel
Close to Museo de Arte de
El Salvador and David Guzman Anthropology Museum, this San Salvador hotel
is situated in the business district. Additional attractions include Estadio
Cuscatlan. Dining options at Sheraton Presidente San Salvador Hotel include
2 restaurants and a bar/lounge. Room service is available 24 hours a day.
Recreational amenities include an outdoor pool, a health club, a sauna,
a fitness facility, and a steam room. Spa amenities include spa services,
facials, body treatments, and a hair salon. This 4.0-star property has
a business center and offers meeting rooms for small groups, secretarial
services, and a technology helpdesk.