The capital of murder, my trip to El Salvador

  Writing blogs like this one gives me an amazing opportunity to achieve three important things. First, and probably most important, is that it will stay as way of a souvenir, to remind me places I was fortunate to visit. I recognize the second reason as a possibility to share my experience, tips, thoughts and observations with other travellers or readers. And last, but not least, is the fact that while writing all my memories, or at least most of them, they are coming back to me again like a wave, like a wind of all those things I saw, touched, felt and tasted, almost experiencing them again.

   Glad I finally can introduce, thought, just in a small part, El Salvador to you. Place that currently holds, said in a nice way, a very uninviting title of being one of the most dangerous country in the world. Somehow, yet again, from my experience, numbers can lie or twist the first impression. Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, where one person get killed every hour, became to be my favorite place in this part of the world. I guess the fact that I found locals to be the friendliest, along with the tropical beauty around, helped to crashed the general opinion in my head. Yet on another side, this Centro-american land is apparently well known for experiencing some of the highest murder rates in Latin America. It is also considered as an epicenter of the gang crisis, along with Guatemala and Honduras. Organized crime in El Salvador is a serious problem. It is estimated that around 36.000 of people belong to the gang. Efforts to understand or deal with this phenomenon have been insufficient. As mentioned, I am glad I visited Salvador. It really was a pearl while traveling around Central America. However, I had to start with cold information, just so you will research well areas you’re planning to visit. This should help you to prepare better for your trip and to stay safe.

   Probably not the best statistics to start with, and a breaking reason for many not to visit this country. But let me tell you something, I traveled around there as a solo female, staying even in a very rough areas of capital and Santa Ana, and I could not, literally, see any good reason not to visiting this country. I stayed in El Salvador for 2 weeks in April 2016, twice in capital and once in Santa Ana. I traveled only by public bus, always being alone. Lack of English-speaking people around could be a problem indeed for many of us, but just with very basic Spanish, like I’ve had, you will be fine. It is probably also good to mention that 95% of the deaths take gang members only and, I am afraid, police force too. Having said that, many youngsters are just simply forced to join the crime world. However, with good attitudes, like not walking after dark, or in some dangerous ares, you will be very safe, and you will love Salvador, like I did.

Reasons why I loved Salvador most in Central America

Locals

  Kind, generous and so helpful people, that I’ve met during my backpacking in Central America, I found mostly in El Salvador. Either it was in a hotel, on the street, in the restaurant or just in the bus, people were always smiling to me, trying to help, chatting. They were very interesting in me, wanted to know where I am from, why I came, and how on earth I am alone here. All these factors made me feel very welcome. I received loads of warmness from many true hearts. I just could not imagine a nicer nation, I think even in both Americas. I will always remember all those guards with shotguns on the street always calling me to wave and say: buenos dias Anna, como esta. I was probably one of a very few tourists they saw before, as I never stayed in a touristic area, yet they weren’t reserved in any way towards me. Police were always stopping and asking me, if I need a lift anywhere, people smiling all the time which make my whole experience just perfect.

Landscape

  El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. It has 307 km of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Fonseca, and it is situated between Honduras and Guatemala. The topography of El Salvador contain mainly mountains, but the country does have some narrow, relatively flat central plateau. The highest point in is Cerro el Pital at 2,730 m, and it is located in the northern part of the country, on the border with Honduras. Because El Salvador is located not far from the equator, its climate is tropical in nearly all areas, except for its higher elevations where the climate is considered more temperate. Lakes and volcanoes can be found in many areas too.

Rich range of a street food

  As a one of the poorest countries in Central America, gastronomy business creates some earning opportunities for many locals. You will just never get hungry in Salvador, as food stands are available on every single corner in every possible place. Vendors do offer a wide range of many meals from a very local snacks (pupusas – hand-made corn tortillas stuffed with various fillings such as beans; tamales-corn dough pockets that are served with different fillings like sweet corn, cheese, meat or dried fruits; pasteles-fried dough patties filled with meat like chicken, pork or beef and finely chopped vegetables; soups), along with more western options like chips (here eaten with mayo and cheese – see Germans, you’re not the only one:), burgers, pizzas; and finally finishing at any kind of shakes, natural fruit juices and many different sweets to pick. Any stomach will be satisfied in El Salvador.

Santa Ana Volcano

  One of the most amazing places I have seen in my life, definitely in my top five. For more info about volcano, and how to get there by public bus, please click here.

Cost line

  307 km of coastline along the Pacific Ocean contains a sandy beaches with beautiful tropical flora around. Coast is also well popular among surfers.

Cheap prices

 El Salvador is one of the cheapest countries in Central America. You can travel on public transport in the cities for maximum of 0.25$. The bus from capital to Santa Ana (2h of journey) cost as little as 1$. Hotel`s bed with bathroom can be found from 10$. Breakfast or lunch found on the street from 1$. Good place to buy some clothes at a very low price.

Just remember to

  Please note, if you are planning on going to El Salvador, do some research on area you will be staying in. Most of them are just fine, but few are controlled completely by gangs and nobody can access them. Police is not welcome there, if a solo officer will go to that part of the town, he will get instantly killed.

  Never walk after dark and try to avoid not crowded areas. Do not flash with your valuables like phone or camera, as thieving is very common generally in whole Latin America. Eh, that’s the reason I don’t have many photos from there.

Understanding a daily life in San Salvador

  But please do understand that people of El Salvador struggle on a daily basis. As much as  part “what I loved most” of this blog can sound as a fairy tale, we have to recognize that people of this country are in constant fear of being murdered or abuse in any way, especially young males. Here, I have to add that you as a tourist are very safe, way safer than locals. They are just not as fortunate as you are. Again, poorest people, like everywhere, are at greatest disadvantage that are forced to live in roughest areas where violence occur on a daily basis. A large percentage of the population lives under the poverty level, which means their chance for a decent standard of living is low. Their situation is so bad that many of them risk a dangerous trip up to the United States to look for better opportunities.

  Every private business have to pay a tax to one of the gangs that control the area or street. It is normal to see a dead body on the road sometimes, and that almost every shop got his own bodyguard with a shotgun, rifle or machine gun. Guns are visible pretty much everywhere, and are normal even for children. In western countries you can see a non-smoking signs, when in El Salvador no-gun sights are everywhere. Some people are forced to travel at night, which is a very dangerous thing. Many have witnessed a murder or are accused of snitching to authorities, while others have been evicted by criminals who wanted their home. Those with money or relatives in safer areas often seek refuge within El Salvador. Young girls tend to get pregnant at a very young age, just to avoid being claim by the gang members. It is well know that police and government is highly corrupted. Having said that, being a part of a force, is probably the most dangerous job to do as of war between gangs and the government. Fear is notable almost everywhere, buses are full of holes from bullets. Gang members are on every street, patrolling their territory, making sure money are collected from  business owners, and the collectors are usually under 12 years old.

  So this is a daily life in El Salvador, the country I felt in love with. As much as I hope to visit again, I would love to see the improvement on many levels, especially in crime rate and economy. Yet again, please note that this is one of the most amazing countries in the world. With a proper attitude you will be just fine, and you will experience and appreciate the people and the land, like I did.

Easy guide to do Santa Ana Volcano.

  The magnificent volcano of Santa Ana is one of the top must see places in El Salvador. It is also in top five on my list of most amazing nature wonders, I have seen so far. Though, the landscape of the whole country is geologically interesting, with wonderful sandy warm pacific coast beaches and islands, the volcano will probably turn as the highlight of your trip. In this quick guide I will tell you how to rich the area yourself in nice and easy way, and why it is better not to take an organized tour.

 The Volcano, also named Ilamatepec (from Spanish), at 2,381 meters above the sea level holds the title of the highest in El Salvador. It’s located west of Coatepeque Caldera. Because it is an active one please, just in case, do check before planned arrival if its open to the public view and possible to hike. Thought, it is very unlikely not to be able to trek it, the volcano got the history of a violent eruptions. The last one, in October 2005, killed at least two people, injuring several others. It’s been reported that during the activity volcano spat rocks for over 1.5 km, and some of them were the the size of a car. Before 2005, its known that the last big one happened in 1904, so obviously  not so often, but yet still possible.

  To be able to trek you should stay for one or two nights in Santa Ana, the city just 2 hours away from San Salvador. But I understand that you may not have few spare days. The quick option, in that case, is to get a tour from San Salvador, so you will be able to do it in one day. However, if you have a time, you need to get to Santa Ana. You can catch a coach from main bus station in the capitol. Ticket can be purchased in the bus. As far as I remember, it cost me around 1$. I forgot to add that US dollar is an official currency in Salvador. Once you are in Santa Ana, you have to stay somewhere overnight, as there is only one bus that goes to the volcano side in the morning, and the return one comes at 4 in the afternoon. Not a problem at all, lucky you, this lovely town is a very touristic place. There are loads of hotels and hostels around, and mostly located by the main square that is full of markets, mercados, street food stands and restaurants. Anyway, coming back to our trip…the morning bus leaves around 7.40-8.00 am, but please check the timetable for the current time. The bus number is 248, with directions to Cerro Verde National Park, from La Vencedora terminal. Ticket is very cheap again (around 1$), and the bus will take you right to the entrance of the park, where you will have to pay to enter. So basically, you will arrive early, around 9.40-10.00. The entrance fee of 3$ is for the base camp area where you will wait, but you can buy a coffee and a small snack around while waiting. I was there alone, so a bit concerned that I will be trekking with no other tourists, but one big bus arrived just 15 minutes before 11.00 with other travelers. It was an organized trip. Once we paid (just 1$ to the guide), we were able to start. There is only one trekking session per day, and it starts at 11.00, so you will have to wait. But please be aware that it`s actually worth it, as you will be able to look around. You cant hike the volcano on your own anyway, you have no choice. Your safety is the reason for that, as you have to be assisted by the guide and one or two police man that will guard you right up to the caldera and the whole way back from the top. I’ve heard that it is because of the previous robberies that occurred in the park. I can believe that, as Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The climb is relatively easy, but remember to take a warm clothes that can withstand the wind. Its not so warm at the top. Please take snacks with you, as most of the stands with food are closed in the morning. Also the little restaurant in the base camp will be open around lunch time, so you can have a hot meal, but once you are back. Take loads of water, as hiking will take 2 hours each way. Have at least 2 liters, as you will sweat a lot, so better not to get dehydrated. Its not so difficult at the beginning. You’re are just walking trough the forest. You will be stopping at some view points to get some photos and to have a little rest, but not so often. The difficult bit starts after some time. I would say last hour is most difficult.

There is no forest anymore, so you just trek on the rocky little road. 30 minutes before finishing your hike, you will be able to smell sulfur. Once you’re on the top, you will be blown away by the beauty of the caldera. The volcanic water got an unusual intensive blue/green color, and you can see that it`s bubbling a lot. Take loads of photos. You will be given around 30 minutes there before the group will be heading back down the same way. Apart from caldera, you will have the opportunity to see a Volcano Izalco, beautiful panorama of Lake Coatepeque, Cerro Verde and, if the weather is good, the Pacific Ocean! The last one I could not see, I am afraid, but I`ve heard it is possible. It is truly breathtaking! The return bus will depart at 16.00 right from the base camp area. It will stop at the parking. The way back was very nice too, I was chatting with my broken Spanish with others, and, again, I was the only tourist there. Kind bus driver even drooped me off right by my hotel. Yes!!

  So why do I say its better to do it by yourself?

 Well, for few good reasons. First one is the fact that you will be in the bus with just locals. This is something I am always looking forward to. Everyone has been so kind to me so far, and people are always so interest in me and vice versa. Second, you will have more time to look around. Especially when back from the top. You can also have a hot meal there made by two lovely ladies. Third, not so important to me, but of course you will do it twice, if not three times, cheaper. The organized group, I mentioned before, asked me if I want to come back with them in their fancy Mercedes mini bus, as they had a spare place. I kindly said thank you, but I refused. Hehe…they were shocked a bit. I really do think it`s better to plan everything yourself, it gives you the satisfaction that you’re doing it the difficult way, however this trip is easy anyway. Example? I will always regret that I bought a tour for Machu Picchu, as I’ve had only 4 hours at the top, and that is not enough. You need the whole full day to discover Incas ancient world around that mountain. And for last, (common!) its not so complicated at all, use your head to plan sometimes!