El Salvador: dealing with the elephant in the room

I’m going to write several posts about El Salvador in the coming weeks. We only spent 9 days in the country but the warmth of the people and the variety of natural attractions made a very strong impression on me, and perhaps of all the experiences we enjoyed in Central America it is the ones here that will linger longest in the memory. But as soon as I mention El Salvador to almost anyone there seems to be an instantly burning question that springs from their lips. So let’s start by dealing with this issue that, in my opinion, is more than any other factor holding back a potentially significant tourist market.

Is El Salvador safe?

Nothing happened to us. I can’t even claim that we had a near miss or a remotely scary experience. We were greeted, helped and befriended by some of the kindest and most hospitable people we’ve met on our travels.

But that does not make a place safe. Yes, the country does have a serious gang problem and guns are widespread. Some Salvadorians we met spoke of muggings and robberies that had occurred in their lives as we might speak of a bout of flu or a sprained ankle.

But there are two facts that made me feel comfortable and secure while travelling around El Salvador. Firstly, the gangs that are responsible for the majority of the crime tend to be more concerned with each other and so stick to their own neighbourhoods. As a tourist you will have no reason to go anywhere near these places.

Secondly and more crucially there are around 500 members of the national Tourist Police in El Salvador. These are very friendly, helpful and in our experience highly trustworthy officers who patrol the streets and trails where tourists are most likely to go. As a result, we were happy to wonder along even remote trails, knowing that officers were close by and in some cases would even walk with us. One particular officer who accompanied us on a volcano hike was keen to practise his English. As a result we gained a valuable insight from his stories of Salvadorian life while he enjoyed a three hour language lesson. The presence of the Tourist Police seems to act as a deterrent, as according to all local sources who spoke to us, crime directed against tourists is extremely rare.

Are there some restrictions? Sure, you wouldn’t want to walk the streets of the big cities at night (not so different to many US and UK cities). We took a taxi after dinner back to our hotel through San Salvador and the streets were deserted; similarly in Santa Ana, where we were amazed to see how quickly the city emptied after sunset. Yet contrast this with the smaller tourism-focussed towns such as Juayua and Suchitoto; there we could walk around freely at any hour of the day or night and it felt completely safe.

Of course as with anywhere sensible precautions go a long way to ensuring safety. If you don’t carry wads of cash, avoid the expensive flashy cameras and keep any personal items hidden in inside pockets, you will reduce your risk of crime. But don’t those rules apply equally in London or New York?

So is El Salvador safe? I would say yes, providing you follow local advice and take sensible precautions. If you do this, travelling through the country will pose no more dangers than visiting anywhere else.

Now that we’ve got that elephant out of the way, I’ll be focussing next on just why El Salvador is such a great place to visit.

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12 Responses to “El Salvador: dealing with the elephant in the room”

  1. JB #

    I was in El Salvador over a year ago and had no problems, though I would be wary of San Salvador and was warned by a nice fellow passenger about getting off a bus there in a bad area. The other places I visited though, including Juayua, Suchitoto, Tacuba, Ataco and El Tunco were pleasant places that at least always appeared safe.

    January 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm
  2. Great info but it sounds like comparing El Salvador to NY and other US cities is a bit of a stretch. If the country has a dedicated police force for tourists there is obviously a need for this added protection. Also, not feeling safe being able to carry your nice SLR camera is a major bummer for any travel photographer and photography lover out there! Of course, El Salvador is one of many countries where this can be a risky endeavor.

    I do look forward to reading the upcoming posts about all the treasures of the country though!

    January 22, 2011 at 8:01 pm
  3. Sofia #

    This is such a wonderful article. My mother is from El Salvador and we actually just got back from there last week. We go there every summer for a month and my parents bought a beautiful apartment there a few years ago. We are always trying to explain to our friends how wonderful the country is and how much we enjoy going there. The people are truly what makes this country so special. I look forward to reading more fo your posts!

    January 22, 2011 at 8:51 pm
  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Everyone I have met who has been to El Salvador speaks very highly of their time there and I haven’t met anyone who has had a problem (admittedly a very small sample). As JB points out, there are areas that are best avoided, particularly in San Salvador – local people avoid these areas too.
    Steve, I agree that the presence of a tourism police force does suggest that there is a need for them – that said, the fact that they are there (and that as a tourist you are likely to go to the same places that they are concentrated) is a reassurance. I’m not a photographer but I can understand the frustration of not being able to carry your gear where you want. My frustration here was not having the freedom to walk where we wanted in the big cities; I guess we had to make some compromises in order to see what the country had to offer, and in the end these compromises did not detract from the trip in any significant way.

    January 23, 2011 at 10:53 am
  5. Bill #

    El Salvador is Costa Rica. In the 1970′s. Costa Rica is now nearly as expensive as the U.S. and overrun with Americans. I am a Floridian who speaks just a little Spanish and who has been to El Salvador maybe 20 times. I have NEVER had a problem. Unlike Costa Rica you can fly into San Salvador and be at the beach in 20 minutes (try Hotel Casa de Mar near La Libertad). Great surfing. Cliffs over black sand or rocky beaches. Or, go to Costa del Sol and go deep sea fishing or walk along sugar sand beaches. Head up to Apaneca for coffee farms and zip lining (as good as any anywhere). Lake Coatepeque may be the most beautiful on earth. The capital is a much better city than San Jose and there are great hotels (try the Princessa). Modern malls (indoor and outdoor) and great museums. And the people are THE best.

    January 23, 2011 at 1:06 pm
  6. Good advice from Andy.

    Must also be true for several of the world’s most beautiful places.

    I think it’s best to do your research – in some countries you can’t just wander aimlessly ; avoid tourist dress – convertible walking pants = moneybelt; and keep your head and camera down.

    Something I’ve learned on my travels ( first picked this up walking through rough estates in the UK!) walk with a sense of purpose. Sounds ridiculous, but if you look as if you know where you are going, you look less out of place and people notice you less.

    Imagine you live just a street or so away and you are on the way home: no need to be stopping and staring, or faffing with streetmaps. And never underestimate the locals; sometimes all it takes is a smile to break the imagined walls down.

    January 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm
  7. Walking with a sense of purpose – funny you say that Mark, I was continuously using those same words as we walked through Central America. I’m forever concious when we hesitate and look like lost souls, unsure of where to go. Better to walk confidently to another place, peek at the map and then walk on… like you say, this applies in the UK too!

    Bill, thanks for the comparisons with Costa Rica – have heard similar from others, and agree with your views of so many of the beautiful aspects of El Salvador. I’m not a surfer, but I was impressed sitting on the beach at El Tunco and watching the pros riding the big waves!

    January 24, 2011 at 11:56 pm
  8. Rob #

    Sounds like an interesting place. I’ve never really considered travelling to this part of the world so I look forward to reading the rest of your posts about El Salvador.

    January 26, 2011 at 11:00 pm
  9. fernando vides #

    Very interesting comments and points of view… im a tour operator in Central America and i will try to figure out the reason why El Salvador has not as much tourism as the other countries.
    First about Steve’s concerns, i do think you can compare El Salvador to New York, if Andy reffers that if you are walking in the middle of the night in the bronx, well something migth happen to you; Steve also points the fact of dedicated police force for tourism, well explain that its a little complicated, and we need to understand a little about local culture, Salvadoreans are what we call malinchistas (dont know a translation of this word in english) but this word refers to an attitude over white skin people, Malinche was an indegenous lady who helped cortez in the conquest of tenochtitlan, anyway what i mean is that violence as Andy said is confined in some areas and common thiefs target allmost only the salvadoreans. im not sure if the malinchismo is due the samall amont of tourists but as some of you mention here travelers almost never report eny problems; so the dedicated tourism police force was created to promote local tourism.
    In fact El Salvador is the safest country of cnetral america for foreing travelers, in my opinion, and believe me deffinetely saffer than Costa Rica where i read reports that thiefs wwould even flat your tire pretend to help and rob you.
    also want to point out that its probaly not that popular because fligth rates but if you enter trhu guatemala, nicaragua or honduras you avoid those rates
    Whats deffinetely true is that salvadoreans are the most friendly of the region and the country is beatiful and like Bill says i think nothing to envy to Costa Rica.
    Also let you know that This samall country will surprise the ones eager for history, El Salvador is one of the four most important countries en the continent for paleontology, for example mamooth has been found, and i bet in the near future will gain more importance in the roll that played for the maya culture, hard to prove because its vulcanogical history, but heres a link that you can check to see what i mean

    January 27, 2011 at 6:48 pm
    • Nick #

      I really do not think the definition “Malinchista” is the correct word to label the dedication the tourist police gives to the people, it seems like you are saying they are being nice just because they are safely showing “White people” around or getting paid, where as if they were showing other people of color around, they would be cold and rude. Which i don’t think is the case. If they are polite, why can it simply be because they are polite? Plus if tourist police of placed for the job, its because the country knows that they are needed for safety, Well anyways I went to search for what Malinchista means, since i had no idea what it meant, and this is the first thing that came up on wiki

      (Una persona es malinchista cuando tiene tendencia a preferir lo extranjero frente a lo nacional.

      Una persona malinchista es aquella que tiene el deseo de creerse de algún país extranjero a su país de origen sin antes pertenecer a él.

      Ejemplo: persona que posea solo la nacionalidad mexicana y se crea de algún otro país como Estados Unidos, es una persona malinchista. En cambio, una persona con nacionalidad mexicana y estadounidense que se incline más por alguno de los dos países, no debe ser considerado como malinchista, ya que la persona goza de derechos y deberes de ambas naciones y por ende pertenece a las mismas.)

      It translates to

      (A Malenchista person has the tendencies to to prefer the foreign before the national

      A Malenchista person is one who has the desire and believes to be from a foreign country and not their country of origin with out belonging to the foreign country

      Example:Person who posses only Mexican nationality and believes he/she is from another country like the United States, is a Malinchista person. Difference from a person with Mexican and American nationality that inclines more with one of those two countries, should not be considered Malinchista, giving that the person has the right y duties of both nations and belongs to both)

      Reading this blog, i did not see in any way how Salvadorans would exclusively fit the “Malinchista” description out of all Central Americans nor any other Latin American country people that are polite, nice, and give a smile to “White” tourist, nor does it seem like El Salvadorans want to be from a foreign country just because of that, which just sounds silly and crazy. They are perhaps just curious and want to learn new thing about people that come from a foreign country and maybe practice their English a bit, just like everyone else in this world, but it doesn’t mean Salvadorans along with 100% of the planet are Malinchistas simply because they are hospitable with White tourists. It also doesn’t seem like Salvadorans want to be from a country that is not their own, on the contrary i would say they are proud to be from El Salvador and express it on their festivals

      i don’t know, i just found it odd and rude that you would say something like that, but i think you were WAY OFF with the Malinchista label

      January 18, 2012 at 10:34 am
  10. Thanks for sharing your valuable insights Fernando, and interested to learn about Malinche and the origins of malinchista. Like I said, El Salvador is one of the few places in the world where people smiled said hello to us in the streets, not only in little villages but even in big cities such as Santa Ana.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:28 am
  11. So glad to read your assessment that El Salvador is safe. I often hear these rumors of danger and when I get to the place that is supposed to be so dangerous I find no resemblance to the rumors. Sounds idyllic and I’m looking forward to reading about the natural attractions.

    January 28, 2011 at 7:19 pm