You aren’t supposed to travel to a country like El Salvador alone. In fact, you aren’t even advised to travel to El Salvador at all right now. It’s on the U.S. Department State Department’s Travel Warnings List because “crime and violence levels in El Salvador remain high.” Countries get added to this list “when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all,” the government agency writes.
El Salvador, along with Honduras and Guatemala, forms part of what is known as the Northern Triangle – a region with the highest violent death rates in the world. The Travel Warning is pretty grim, citing that extortion, mugging, highway assault, home invasion, and car theft are common crimes. Since January 2010, 34 U.S. citizens have been murdered in the country.
Thousands of foreign visitors do travel to El Salvador safely each year, however, travel writers Joe Baur and Candice Walsh among them. They’ve both visited the country recently and wrote about their positive experiences.
In the past nine months I’ve had six layovers at the El Salvador International Airport while flying back and forth between the United States and my new home in Costa Rica. On every layover I’ve itched to leave the airport and see some of the country, but I never had enough time until a 7 hour and 30 minute layover on a return trip from San Francisco presented me with a long-awaited opportunity to leave the terminal and sightsee.
Why I Wanted to Visit El Salvador
It’s my personal goal to visit as many countries as possible in the world. Finally stepping out of the airport in El Salvador would mark country number 38, but my reasons for wanting to see this country with my own eyes run much deeper and stretch back much further than just wanting another stamp on my passport.
You see, the first boy I ever kissed was from El Salvador. He worked at a restaurant near my summer job in high school. I would stop in every few days for a slice of pizza and we would talk. When he kissed me on a November day I knew nothing of the 12 year civil war that ravaged his country, killing 75,000 people and forcing him to flee to the United States. I only knew that his eyes were green and his lips were soft. I wanted him to be my boyfriend.
At my high school in Maryland I served as an aid in an ESOL class for recent immigrants. Most of the students in the class were from El Salvador. They’d walk the hallways in between classes, physically occupying the same space as their U.S. born peers, but a world away in their struggles. When I sat next to them helping them with their math and English homework I knew nothing of the mass number of Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States, concentrated primarily in California, Texas and Washington D.C., a number totaling more than 1.1 million making them the sixth largest immigrant population. I only knew that these new students were kind yet wildly lost. I wanted to learn Spanish so I could be a better friend to them.
While studying at the University of Maryland, I ran a tutoring program in Langley Park, one of the largest Salvadoran communities in the United States. I recruited student volunteers and once a week we traveled to a community center to teach English. When a student volunteer came up to me one day because his second-grade buddy wouldn’t stop crying, I knew nothing of the depths of his pain, adapting to not only a new country, language and culture, but also to living with his father, a man he had never met before, for the first time. Nor did I know the depth of the struggles he would face growing up in poverty and trying to avoid becoming affiliated with the dangerous gangs in the community. I only knew that this little boy had chubby cheeks and was full of sweetness. I wanted to cradle him in my arms until his sobs silenced.
I didn’t know much of anything about El Salvador’s political situation until my mom, a university professor, returned from facilitating a study abroad program in the country several years ago. She’s been back several times and both my sister and brother have taken courses with her. Each one of them has come home with stories of the country’s hardships and the people who have touched their hearts in the village of Hacienda Vieja.
My personal connection to El Salvador has lingered inside me since my teenage years. These are the reasons I so desperately wanted to see El Salvador despite the travel warnings. They filled up so much of me that there was no space for fear, no option to not go when I had the chance.
Clearing Immigration at the El Salvador Airport
Actually leaving the airport during my layover took a considerably more amount of time than I had anticipated. Since El Salvador wasn’t my final destination on this trip, my ticket price didn’t include all the taxes required to enter the country. I found this out only after waiting in the long, slow-moving customs line and being denied entry. I had to walk all the way back to the opposite end of the terminal and pay $37 in taxes to the airline just to turn around and walk back to customs and pay $10 for a tourist visa.
“Your name, please,” the young customs official asked in Spanish as I approached the immigration desk at the El Salvador International Airport for the second time.
I handed over my passport. He looked over the details and scanned it into his system.
“And your name on Facebook?” he asked, looking up at me from his seat.
I’ve entered countries in Central America about a dozen time in the past year and I can’t say I’ve ever been asked this question before. “The same,” I reply, baffled.
“And why aren’t you traveling with your boyfriend or husband?” he then asked, looking at me deeper and smiling broadly. My naivety faded away and a smile of understanding crossed my face.
Ok, I get it. Congratulations, El Salvador. You win the award for being the only country where I’ve been hit on even before getting my passport officially stamped. You win.
Traveling Alone in El Salvador
An hour after landing, I exited the airport to be swarmed by a crowd of taxi drivers all aggressively asking me if I needed a taxi. It is often in Central American airports to be swarmed by taxi drivers, but at this particular time of day I was the only tourist exiting so the mob overwhelmed me. In an effort to travel as safely as possible and make better use of my time, I had arranged a tour through a company online weeks ahead of time. I confirmed my tour the night before. On the day of my arrival, I scanned the crowd in search of a tour guide with my name on a sign. No one was in sight waiting for me.
It has been my experience that in many places in the Spanish-speaking world you can get by just fine without actually speaking Spanish. After several months living in Madrid one of my friends got so fed up with the language barrier that during her entire last week in the city she refused to speak Spanish. She got by just fine. Every time I go to the movie theater in Costa Rica (which is often because it rains a lot here and movies are cheap), as soon as I open my mouth to buy a ticket the people behind the counter address me back in English. It makes me feel like a failure at life that, after living in a Spanish-speaking country for almost two straight years, I can’t even order a movie ticket in the language.
Yet El Salvador is a completely different story. If you don’t speak Spanish I’m not sure how you would survive here because very few people, even at the airport, speak English. El Salvador was the first place I have traveled to where I would not have been able to navigate without speaking Spanish.
Using my Spanish, I asked one of the taxi drivers if I could use his cell phone to call the tour company, hoping the guide was waiting somewhere out of sight. It turns out the tour company forgot about me.
There I was, standing in front of the El Salvador International Airport, a woman now traveling completely alone.
I explained the situation to the cab driver and asked him how much it would cost for him to take me to the sights on the tour, listing as many as I could remember. He said it would be impossible to see all the sights I listed but he would drive me to some places for $80.
The price the tour company had quoted was $60. This price discrepancy, along with something about this man’s demeanor made me distrustful of the situation. I decided to head back into the airport where I could have some space and take a step back and figure out how to solve my current predicament.
Only you aren’t supposed to go back into the airport. An elderly security guard stopped me from going back in through the doors and that is when I cracked. The reality of the fact that I was alone in El Salvador and potentially in an unsafe situation hit me. I was scared.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve cried while traveling, alcohol-induced, late-night ponderings over ex-boyfriends withstanding. But there I found myself in the El Salvador airport choking up and pushing away tears while trying to explain my– in the grand scheme of things not so unfortunate situation –to a short, old man who probably saw many of his friends die during his country’s civil war.
I asked him if there were official guides or if he knew of a taxi driver who was safe. He said there are no official tour guides waiting at the airport (because generally weeping semi-blonde girls without travel companions don’t visit our country, he probably thought).
He said that all the taxi drivers wearing blue button down shirts are official, licensed drivers, safe to drive with, and quite knowledgeable about all the major sites in the capital city. He walked me over to one taxista in particular, a man of about his age, who told me he would drive me around the historical sights of San Salvador during the next five hours for the price of $60.
In most of my wanderings, to the beaches of Costa Rica, the fjords of Norway, the streets of Paris, I don’t have to make tough travel decisions. But El Salvador is a very different type of country, and at this moment I was faced with one of my toughest decisions yet. Do I trust this stranger to drive me around the capital of a country where the Department of State “continues to warn U.S. citizens that crime and violence levels in El Salvador remain high, and U.S. citizens traveling to El Salvador should remain alert to their surroundings.”
I looked into this man’s eyes and I saw kindness. I decided to trust him.
Questioning My Decision to Visit San Salvador
I made this decision to see San Salvador while the other taxistas continued to swarm me and attempt to sway me to travel with them instead. This is how it must feel to be a celebrity swarmed by paparazzi. I turned away from the crowd, stepped into the old man’s cab and drove away from the airport.
Of course, deciding to trust a taxi driver and feeling secure and at peace are two very different things. As we drove away from the airport I was full of a lot of doubt.
I knew the risks of traveling in El Salvador from my mom and the news. My mom and her students do not visit San Salvador anymore as the dangers are too high.
In recent years, as the economy has worsened, there have been increases in the amount of gang violence in the country. Thousands of gang members from MS-13 and M18 now occupy El Salvador after having been deported from the United States. El Salvador claims that these gangs did not exist in their country and have grown in presence all with the number of deported Salvadorians. Gang related crime is not targeted toward visitors, but some of the families my mom works with know people who have been shot by the gangs.
It is so rare for me to question a decision I make about traveling. But these statistics were in the back of my mind as the taxi drove further and further from the airport. I wondered if I was indeed crazy and stupid as some people had claimed I was when I told them I was going to El Salvador in the first place.
A Taxi Tour of San Salvador
My instincts about my cab driver, José Corea, turned out to be right. He drove me to San Salvador, which is about 45-minutes from the airport and we visited an Artisan Market as well as a large collection of historical sights including Plaza Salvador del Mundo, the National Palace, Plaza Libertad and the grave of Óscar Romero, a Catholic martyr and national hero. On the way back to the airport we stopped at a Mirador that overlooks San Salvador and we ended our time together by sharing a dinner of pupusas, a national dish, in Olocuilta, a town full of pupusarias.
During our drive José spoke candidly about his country’s history and current social problems. His honesty and the level of detail in the information he provided me led me to continue to trust him and feel more and more comfortable as the day wore on. He gave me the sense that he knew the dangers in his country were real but that he also knew how to avoid them. His sincerity made me feel he genuinely cared about my safety and my well being.
Once my initial panic melted away I was surprised by how safe I did feel in San Salvador. At first I was hesitant to use my camera, but José assured me it was safe to take photos and once again no one stared at my camera or at me getting my picture taken anywhere we went.
According to José the gang violence occurs in suburbs of San Salvador and not in the historic center. He said that, although not many tourists visit, this section of the city has a very low crime rate. While the safety risks are indeed statistically higher than in Guatemala City or San Jose, Costa Rica, walking around San Salvador didn’t actually feel much different for me than these other cities. Perhaps once you have learned to feel comfortable in one Central American capital the others feel the same.
I didn’t get stared at in the streets of San Salvador at all. This really surprised me because even in San Jose I am stared at (my hair color and large build makes me stand out I know). It is a fact of life in Costa Rica I have become accustomed to. I ran into very few other tourists in San Salvador, so I am sure here I stood out even more than I do in Costa Rica, yet no one seemed to take notice.
El Salvador’s Dark History
One of my primary reasons for visiting was to learn more about El Salvador’s brutal civil war. José served in the military during this time period and was kind enough to tell me about his personal memory’s from this time period.
This 12 year civil war lasted from 1980 to 1992, spurred by mass social inequality within the country. At the start of the war, 2% of the population owned 95% of the wealth. Dissatisfaction ran high and many people felt the country’s corrupt military dictatorship was preventing economic change.
In 1980 the military assassinated Father Óscar Romero, a Catholic Priest who was a vocal advocate for greater social equality in the country. After his death a left-wing guerrilla group called FMLN formed to attempt to overthrow the government.
Communist governments, including the Soviet Union, backed FMLN. To prevent the potential spread of communism, the United States contributed heavily to the sitting government, investing $7 billion during the war. It is startling to learn that this adds up to $1.5 million per day for 12 years straight.
During this time period, many Salvadorans fled to the United States as refugees. Today 20% of El Salvador’s native born population lives overseas, including more than one million in the United States. After the war ended, Salvadorans were no longer able to come to the United States legally as refugees. This has left many families separated and caused illegal immigration rates from the country to soar.
The war ended in 1992 after both sides reached an agreement with the help of the United Nations. However, social inequality is still a large problem here. There are very few jobs in the country. Many citizens are reliant on remittances sent from family members in the United States, a sum of $200-300 a month.
Reflecting on My Decision to Travel to El Salvador Alone
I realize that I was only outside of the airport in El Salvador for around five hours so I am by no means an expert on solo travel in the country. I also realize that I was incredibly fortunate to have found such a compassionate and trustworthy taxi driver as José and that my travel experience was a safe one. But as I reflect on my experience traveling alone in El Salvador I have no regrets about my decision.
It is my deepest wish to know the world as fully as possible and that includes the places that are not as peaceful. It was an invaluable experience for me to learn about El Salvador’s civil war, social inequality and political situation in person and with my own eyes. I was able to understand the members of the Salvadoran community who had such a profound affect on my teenage years on a deeper level.
If you are planning on traveling to El Salvador please only do so after carefully considering the risks. If you are interested in getting in touch with my taxi driver José, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.