El Salvador: The Good, The Bad, and The Complicated

Dear Reader,

El Salvador is a beautiful country but, I’ll be straight with you, it’s not in the best shape. By learning about Latin America in my college courses, I have become familiar with the migration situation, drug trafficking, and poverty. However, actually visiting a location is a whole other education.

I recently took a long weekend solo vacation to El Salvador. I experienced a few bumps along the way with my trip (more here) but altogether, I had a good time. Regardless, I was left with much to ponder. Below are my thoughts — classified in the following ways el bueno (the good), el malo (the bad), and el complicado (the complicated).

Royal Decameron Salinitas. (El bueno 🙂 ) I have many mixed feelings about the all-inclusive resort that I resided in for the duration of my trip. First, as a side note, the Royal Decameron Salinitas it is ranked as a four-star hotel, probably by Central American standards. I feel that in the U.S., it would be ranked closer to 3.5 stars (expectations are important!). Regardless, for an affordable rate (based on U.S. standards) one has all meals and alcohol included, there are a few different restaurants to choose from, some are cafeteria style while others include table service. There are four massive pools to swim in, plus an ocean pool (I don’t know how else to describe it) as well as direct beach access. The rooms are decent with an air conditioning unit and tours to regional sites are sometimes available (depending on signups/ time of the year).

Indoor marketplace

People. (El bueno 🙂 ) It’s cliché, but, frankly, I believe that most people are good (isn’t that why we ask complete strangers on the street for directions? Would we do that if we thought people were generally evil?). The people of El Salvador are no exception — they are generally a-okay. For me personally, I had a good experience with my tour companions to the capital city, San Salvador. I conversed with one of my tour mates, an extroverted, middle-aged, married man who took a fascination with my PhD research (which is tangentially related to El Salvador). When we stopped at a market on our trip, he went off and gifted me a book about El Salvador’s history — how kind!

Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador

San Salvador. (El complicado 😐 )From an American perspective, El Salvador’s capital city is low-key falling apart. One thing most Americans do not know is that El Salvador suffered a civil war between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (a coalition of far-left groups) and the government from 1979 until 1992. Today, the city looks as if it is still recovering but it does host modern staples including Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and even Denny’s (go figure). One development of particular interest to me was the beginnings of the construction of a national library — a future big, sleek building erected as a partnership with the Chinese government. I point out this building as the computer-generated-image of the final product looks sleek, modern, and expensive than anything else currently situated within the city limits.

El Salvador National Library Construction Project with Assistance from China

American School Buses. (El complicado 😐 ) I bet you’re wondering whatever happened to the big yellow school bus that took you to school every day for 10+ years. It may very well have gotten a second life south of the border. I was stunned to see such an abundance of American school buses (some painted green, red, and other colors) speeding down the main highway. I never inquired about the purpose of such buses (whether they are privately owned, for example) and no one batted an eye at such a sight that would make many Americans literally lol.

Safety Standards. (El Malo 😦 )One can get away with much more in El Salvador. Outside of the capital city, the police presence is virtually non-existent. I am unsure about any of the traffic rules, but it is not uncommon to load up passengers in the caged back of a pick-up truck and shuttle them down a highway. Similarly, seatbelts seem to be optional and the maximum capacity for cars seem to be as many as you can pack in. People can be seen walking up and down the highway and dashing from one side of the busy street to the other— so be alert!

Stray Dogs. (El Malo 😦 ) I saw many an unaccompanied dog wandering up and down the highway. Sometimes they barked other times they slept, perhaps, attempting to conserve energy in the heat of the day. I wonder how often people get bitten by these abandoned animals.

Guns. (El Complicado 😐 ) Like police officers in the U.S., officers in El Salvador carry pistols. However, the National Civil Police can also be seen carrying semi- and fully automatic weapons (aka the big guns). Also, I cannot find evidence to corroborate this, but I swear to the high heavens that I saw a mall cop carrying a rifle as he patrolled a parking garage.

Currency. (El bueno 🙂 ) El Salvador uses USD. You can simply bring your American dollars and coins with you and use them freely. Also, to your benefit, Americans, as you may expect, the cost of living in El Salvador is much lower, which means you can stretch your dollar further there. For example, I saw a man selling a 50-pack of surgical masks in a marketplace for $1.05 — for the whole box!! Ay dios mio — has racketeering never been so tempting….

Weather. (El Complicado 😐 ) On the positive side, if you are a fan of high-pressure systems, you will enjoy El Salvador’s tropical weather and sunny days. On the negative side, El Salvador is located near a fault line, which means that it is prone to earthquakes as well as tsunamis. Additionally, when I was there (near the end of hurricane season), a tropical storm swept through the country leading to flooding and mudslides.

Spanish. (El Complicado 😐 ) Needless to say, the people of El Salvador speak Spanish. Unlike some other countries though, not very many people speak English. There were certainly some English-speaking staff members at the hotel, however, you will have a much smoother stay in the country if you can manage at least basic conversation en español. Also, outside the international airport wifi/ internet can be spotty, so downloading an offline Spanish-English dictionary in advance can be a big help.

Despite their average appearance, these eggs were actually amazing

Food. (El bueno 🙂 ) Whenever I travel, people always ask me about the food. I’m not a big foodie, so my response is usually underwhelming. Honestly, I feel that the food in El Salvador is just fine (nothing to scoff at and nothing that will blow your mind). To my delight, I encountered some foreign fruits and drank jugo de arrayan (made from a fruit native to the tropics that we just do not have in the U.S.). Also, as my tour guide said — as tacos are to Mexico, pupusas are to El Salvador. Made with thick bread and cheese, the pupusa is the national dish.

Flooding/ mudslide

Some other notes — I only explored a small part of El Salvador but I would be remiss to point out the following:

  • Surfing! El Salvador, located on the Pacific Coast, has a happening surf culture. Boutique hotels line the coast and surf competitions are regularly held there.
  • Volcanoes. El Salvador has a few active volcanoes (to be honest, I cannot find an exact number for this —my tour guide said that there were two active volcanoes, while the internet lists two to seven) and over a dozen dormant ones. Hiking up to the summit of the volcanoes is a popular tourist attraction, but for safety reasons, it is mostly just available from November through April.

Phew! That was a lot and I’m sure that there is a lot more that I missed. Altogether El Salvador was quite the interesting experience and with the right expectations, it can be an enjoyable one too.



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