El 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 me to go too far off the Great Central American Dope Trail. Lonely Planet felt particularly evil on that trip. Everyone was on the way to the village where turtles lay eggs, their noses buried in the book. I suddenly realised that I didn't know a single person at home who had 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. We decided to escape to El Salvador. No one else did.
Why? There are a few reasons. Some people read in Lonely Planet that there isn't that much to see. Plus, it's way off the main drag – Guatemala to Utila, North Honduras, where everyone has to scuba dive. Others feel nervous. Civil war in El Salvador ended in 1992, after 12 years of brutal carnage. People got so used to sleeping with firearms that the country is still armed to the teeth. For many years after the war, violence abounded 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. Better for us.
We met a couple of people who had been to San Salvador airport, 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.
It was a pleasant ride, with plenty of coastal colours. In two hours we had crossed a third of the country to arrive in San Salvador. We were immediately charmed by its phlegmatic and strong presence. For a capital and after Guatemala City, there was quite a sense of order, of a direction and control. Although San Salvador is a city of edges, a city that may show you some teeth from time to time occasionally, chaos is definitely not part of its description.
We saw the scars of the war right away. There were no ruins but as we were checking into the hostel, we were received by a one-armed lady. As soon as we walked out, we bought a coconut from a one-legged old woman.
We didn't feel in danger. We did stay in a heavily protected part of the city, though. 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-cafe, at McDonalds. You would see one every 50 to 100 metres. But they were for security. Average people kept guns at home and walked around with machetes. Those were everywhere. I still don't know if it was a universal household item, or a poor man's shotgun.
Luke found this disappointing. Guns were the reason he came to El Salvador. He had read in Lonely Planet that you could buy them on the market. So we spent the whole first day trying to do that. He would just come up to the stalls and ask if they sold shotguns. Eventually we realised that Lonely Planet betrayed us. Again. We did find lots of holsters, though, and bought two huge machetes 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 desk if there was one around. 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 were asking where they could hire guns. We had lots of explaining to do in the morning and I began feeling stupid.
Luke was running out of options. Throughout the next day he kept coming up to security guards on the streets and saying, "I want to play with your 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 Luke decided that enough was 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, it's more residential. Particularly unpleasant is the stuffed centre, which has turned into one dirty market. But the country is so small and travel was arranged in such manner that it was much more practical to venture to and from the capital, wherever you went. The city was fairly pleasant, had decent places to see and a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Tourism is still new and it is mainly the capital that can offer decent hostel, and only a few.
The most travelled route is south to the coast. Beaches like El Zonte and El Sunzal are considered the best surfing in Central America. It's a large chunk of the tiny tourist economy so that you are likely to be approached in San Salvador asking if you are 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 10 kilometers 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 black. A storm in El Salvador, viewed from those beaches, is really something special, with spectacular thunder and lightening.
My friend, Maria, 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 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 has been almost entirely isolated for many years. The east has always been poorer and it suffered more in that war. It is still slightly more edgy. San Miguel, the major city of that area, is a dusk-to-dawn haunt. Once 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.
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 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, 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.
I went to El Salvador to meet regular, genuine people. I like the Salvadorians a lot. Generous, friendly, tranquil, they also have this hard inner core, this dignity and respect for themselves and others. Many have scars of sadness in their eyes, they have had a difficult life, and it is their inexplicable strength, discipline and sense of quiet pride that raised the country so fast from the ruins. They are 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.
As for 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.
Apart from writing travel articles, Alex also runs his Valencia Travel Guide – an online travel information resource.