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San Salvador: Exploring the Underrated and Awesome Capital

“Who told you about El Salvador” was what I was asked by the immigration officer at the airport. My flight from Guatemala City only had 5 other people on it. Once I arrived in San Salvador, there was no queue for immigration once I arrived. The immigration officers took 5 minutes to stamp my passport. They asked me a range of questions about why I was visiting. It must be unusual for a young British man to come to El Salvador on his own.

Once I got through, I had to get a taxi to the centre. The airport is a 40 minute drive away. The taxi fare was $30 which was quite steep.

Is El Salvador Safe?

I definitely need to address safety in this country. When you Google the name of the country, you’ll be met with scary gang members with loads of tattoos. Moreover, there are countless articles about how crime-ridden this country is. I will admit that the centre of San Salvador felt sketchy at night with no-one around. However, I didn’t face any problems even walking alone at night. I’d also add that outside of San Salvador, I felt safe as houses and the local people are incredibly friendly.

Thanks to the current president who is seriously cracking down on criminals. Many Salvadorans I met told me that they feel much safer in the city now. What I have to say is that the media poorly portrays this country as some lawless place full of crime. They only focus on the bad. 7 years ago when it was one of the most dangerous countries in the world with 50 murders a day.

However, the president is cracking down on gangs. The media have changed the story to how the police harshly treat gang members. It seems that the media only focuses on negativity and will portray things badly no matter what.

“We won’t stop until we’ve eradicated the gangs”

Where Did I Stay?

Because of the fact that not many tourists come to San Salvador. It’s hard to find budget accommodation. There are almost no hostels. I stayed in the Hotel Bella Luz which was a very basic hotel on the edge of the historical centre.

How to Get Around San Salvador

If you come to San Salvador, Using Uber is a must. Fares aren’t too steep and it’s a safe way of getting around easily. There are buses, however as a tourist, it can be confusing as hell to know which bus will take you where. During my time using Uber, I got an insight in what Salvadoran life is like. Every driver I talked to told me that this place is safer than the media depicts and they are optimistic for what the future brings.

Where to Eat in San Salvador

Right in the historical centre is Café Fulanos which is a trendy coffee joint and a great place to go for breakfast. The place looks really cool and you can get pancakes, orange juice and a coffee all for less than $5. San Salvador’s historical centre is going under restoration, it is one of the only trendy coffee shops of its kind in the area.

You can’t go to El Salvador without a visit to a pupuseria. A place which serves the local street food – pupusas which are flatbreads with fillings inside. A decent pupuseria I went to within the historical centre was Pupuseria Angeline. You can fill yourself up with pupusas for less than $4 and they’re excellent value for money. I was the only foreign person there at the time and it was my first time trying the food. Make sure you eat a pupusa like a true Salvadoran, by tearing it bit by bit rather than eating it like a taco.

Things to do in San Salvador: Zona Rosa

Zona Rosa is an up and coming high class part of the city. Here you do not have to worry whatsoever about being a victim of crime. What’s more is that there are 2 big museums here, the anthropology museum and the art museum. Both of which sadly during my visit here were not open.

There are lots of fancy establishments here like a cheese shop and a fancy ice cream place. You can find big fancy shopping centres which cater to all of your shopping needs and even the president’s house is located nearby. This part of the city is still developing with a lot of places under construction.

Visit the National Palace

A fancy old style building in the historical centre is the Palacio Nacional de El Salvador. I actually thought this was the place where the president lives until a local told me I could go in. It’s now a tourist attraction and the president lives elsewhere.

It costs $5 to go in and you a guide showed me around. The guide spoke great English and was very knowledgeable about the place. This place used to be where political decisions for the country where made and it is built from materials from Europe such as Italian marble. There was even a small exhibition on the El Mozote massacre which I never knew about, the massacre by the Salvadoran government which claimed more than 800 lives, which were mostly innocent civilians.

One of the rooms inside the National Palace
The courtyard inside of the palace
The sign which commemorates 200 years of the country

Take a walk Around the Historical Centre

The historical centre is the most lively place in the city and surrounding the old buildings such as the Teatro Nacional, you will see street businesses and people performing and dancing to cumbia. Although it starts to die off around here when it gets dark, the massive cathedral and other buildings look fantastic as they’re lit up. During the day, it’s worth passing by is Parque Libertad which has a monument to commemorate El Salvador’s freedom, it has a lot of local people hanging around, I even saw a few guys with instruments performing banda while others danced.

It’s a good insight into local life to come here. You also don’t have to worry about safety round here as there are a lot of police and military walking around.

Parque Libertad
Lots of restoration going on here

The Dark Side of El Salvador at Museo de la Palabra y Imagen

Something that’s not to be missed is this small museum which is just outside of the historical centre, it’s a small museum which receives very few tourists and you only need to pay $2 for it. I think it’s a must visit as it gives you an understanding of how harrowing the war was which went on for more than a decade.

The museum has information about El Salvador’s history of the uprising in 1932 and the civil war. You can see the photographs taken by Richard Boyle who was an American journalist who risked his life to report on the war. The most harrowing part is the paintings which depict the brutality of war and the tapestries which depict unspeakable atrocities made by women who survived the war.

Take in Nature at El Boquerón

El Salvador is a country of volcanoes, one of them is easily to get to from San Salvador, you can take an Uber that will take you right outside of the site and you have to pay $3 to enter. You have to walk up some stairs for 10 minutes to get to the lookout points, once you get there, you’ll be met with an incredible view of a crater and greenery as far as the eye can see. This just might have been my favourite place I visited in San Salvador as the views were insane. You don’t have to do a crazy amount of walking to see the volcano as it isn’t too much of a hike.

See Military Vehicles up Close at the Military Museum

I love a tank

This museum is a little out of the way, however it is worth taking a look at, it’s located in a park next to a huge map of El Salvador on the ground. It’s also free to enter and is a relatively small museum. There are a good few military vehicles you can look at such as tanks, planes, helicopters and even the Pope’s car. The museum tells you a little bit about the history of El Salvador’s army such as their involvement with the UN in the Iraq war.

Is San Salvador worth visiting? Absolutely and things are only going to get better from the way things are going in this country. It’s a very affordable city and the lack of tourists gives it some authenticity. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you will feel the warmth of the Salvadoran people. I’d say I enjoyed San Salvador as much as Belgrade and Bogotá.

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