San Salvador: How to survive a Central-American capital?

After seeing the worn-down houses, grey ugliness and herds of homeless guys on empty streets in Belize City, we didn’t look forward to getting close to any other capitals in Central-America.

Fast forward four months. I sat on the bus and read in our guidebook that San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, is actually a pleasant place, even handsome. The guidebook talked about leafy suburbs, galleries and museums. That was enough. I slapped the book close and we decided to go there.

Is El Salvador dangerous?

I had no idea about El Salvador before I got into the country. On the goodbye party in my office, an ex-colleague asked me if I knew that El Salvador was one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Well, what could I have said? I shrugged and admitted that I had no idea. Worst case scenario- we would just skip it, right? Then again, the same ex-colleague confused guacamole for Coca-Cola, so what did he know?

Arriving in the country we didn’t experience anything weird. The locals were friendly, the atmosphere nice and relaxed.

If you’re unsure about a place, don’t know whether it’s safe or not, the best thing to do is to ask locals. How to find locals in a big city like San Salvador? That’s right, you’re probably not going to walk into a bar in the middle of the night in a potentially dangerous city to make friends. Not a good idea. One way to make friends is to use CouchSurfing. Our hosts were young professionals, brother and sister. They were happy to show us places, help us to catch the right buses and give us the information about safety. Easy as that.

So, I was not nervous. I knew that, as long as we didn’t do anything stupid, we’d be fine. After all, cities can be dangerous everywhere.

Getting into San Salvador took forever, but I didn’t mind. I looked out of the window, sucking in everything new. And then I saw it- a man without a shirt kneeled on the parking lot. A bunch of men in uniforms stood around him, one of them pointing a gun to his head. I was almost on a verge of believing that I’d just had a hallucination. These things just don’t happen in broad daylight.

Reading in Parque Balboa near San Salvador.

It’s not hard to escape the busy San Salvador and find a quiet corner in a park.

A couple of days later, we went to a park to spend some time reading. When we had had enough of our books and were ready to leave, we saw a bunch of boys standing on the roadside. They held their hands on their heads. Army officers surrounded them. Later I learned that it was most probably a common police check-up. Apparently, it was a way to make sure these youngsters didn’t belong to gangs. Police could just stop them to investigate.

The gang problem is, of course, serious matter. The infamous Mara Salvatrucha has done terrible things, like killing innocent Honduran travellers, etcetera. Understandably, the government wants to get rid of them. Especially as these gang members are no longer tattooed, like they were in the past, so you cannot recognise them that easily. But stopping youngsters on the street doesn’t seem very reasonable either.

Enough about these gloomy matters. We took our precautions, didn’t walk around after dark, watched our bags and avoided certain areas in the east of the city and we were fine.

Once you have made your way to San Salvador, you can be amazed by how much it offers. Let’s start from the beginning.

The dusty downtown

Sculptures in San Salvador.

For Europeans, downtowns of cities are the places to admire history and architecture. Here in Central-America, things are a bit different. As our host put it: “Downtowns are not the safest areas.”

The downtown in San Salvador has its shabbiness. Parts of it are run-down and smelly. Homeless people hang out in front of the city library and the theatre. But other parts are nicely taken care of. For example, you can walk on a broad shopping street, enjoy vast squares, sit in a European looking cafe and watch the life go by or admire pigeons flattering around the monuments. There are a couple of churches to check out and, if you want, you can go and see how a library looks in El Salvador. Downside: you cannot really browse the books, only a small selection is for thumbing, but among that sample, you can leaf through student theses. One was about surfing in El Tunco. It consisted of loads of interviews with surfers in the area.

Rainbow in a church

Interior of Iglesia El Rosario in San Salvador.

The most magnificent of the downtown churches is Iglesia El Rosario. From outside this grey concrete building looks like a masterpiece of brutalism. Not everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t hesitate though, you have reached the right place, just step in and admire the rainbow.

That's how Iglesia El Rosario looks from outside.

It really feels like someone has captured a rainbow and locked it in the cathedral. The windows run arch-like from the floor to the ceiling and back to the floor. Each window reflects a colourful light. Most likely you’ll walk around the whole time with a stiff neck – so much looking up and trying to capture the magical light with your camera. But you should look at other things as well. For example, there are bullet holes on the front door. If you walk to the other side of the church you can see how the very same bullet has flown through the whole church and destroyed a stained glass on the opposite end.

The craziness of the local market

Fruit seller in San Salvador.

If you have had enough of religious places and colourful lights, head to a market for a typical Central-American experience. Markets here are extremely busy, you have to jump from side to side not to be driven over by some guy with goods or a car. Sellers shout from all directions, each of them with a more annoying voice than the other. A human river constantly flows and sucks you along. If all of that doesn’t give you a headache, nothing will. Still, there is no better place to buy fresh vegetables or enjoy cold freshly pressed fruit juice in a plastic bag.

Best pupusas ever

City lights of San Salvador.

San Salvador in the night time.

In El Salvador, you cannot escape pupusas – corn dough stuffed most commonly with beans and cheese. There is, however, such a variety of choices of fillings, that you’ll never get bored. Tom loved the garlic/cheese ones and I couldn’t believe how tasty the shrimp pupusas were. On top of a pupusa goes some kind of sauerkraut that makes the whole thing even more delicious.

Pupusas are the national food of El Salvador, which means that they are not only a popular dinner option but also good for breakfast, lunch or as a snack. Our host, Marcel, first joked that he only eats pupusas once a month. It turned out he gorges them down around the clock.

We had had a couple of nice pupusas before San Salvador. But only in the big city, I realised how lovely they could actually be.

Since Marcel worked until late every day, his sister Thania took the hosting over and was happy to show us around and practice her English at the same time. One evening she announced that she has a surprise for us. Thania shovelled us into her cute little car and drove quite a long time on a dark and curvy road that took us out of the capital.

We landed in a little village full of brightly lighted souvenir stalls and pupuserias. To be truthful there was hardly anything else on the street than pupuserias. That’s what we have seen a lot in El Salvador and Honduras- there’s never just one restaurant. In popular tourist destinations, they have installed 10-15 restaurants that all serve the same food.

We climbed to the second floor of one of the restaurants. It was already full of families and youngsters enjoying their meals. It was truly crowded. And soon we discovered the reason-the splendid view of San Salvador. You could eat and watch thousands of city lights blinking all around you. First, we were just sucking in the view. We couldn’t even think about food. “Look there’s the Palacio National,” Thania pointed out a nicely lit building in the old town.

It was lovely. I cannot imagine a better end for an evening than enjoying the view and imagining what is behind every little lamp in this town. Then our pupusas arrived- full of cheese and so flavourful. For some time none of us said anything. It was just too good.

From the speakers, another funny folksong in Spanish started to play. All of a sudden Thania’s face lit up. “Oh, that’s a Christmas song- whenever I hear it I have Christmas feeling!” she cheered. No, it was not a Spanish version of Jingle Bells or White Christmas. It was a tune I’d never heard before- so refreshing.

I felt like a potato boiling in a soup of a new culture. I was looking down at a city I had never seen before, eating something I had never tasted before, listening to the Christmas song I’d never heard of and being surrounded with only Salvadorians. These kind of experiences are definitely a reason why I travel.

Beautiful views and creepy history

In fact, these pupusas were so good that we returned to the very same restaurant in the day time when we were checking out the nearby stone formation called Devil’s Door.

According to a legend, these two gigantic rocks were once one rock until devil needed to go through. The views from the top were spectacular. On one side you could see a volcano and the city, on the other side volcano San Vicente and Lake Ilopango, greeted you. The history of this site was creepy. During the civil war, this was a good spot to dump bodies.

Zona Rosa: the leafy neighbourhood, Thai food, art and craft beer

Drinking coffee in cute cafe in San Salvador.

Zona Rosa also has cute cafes.

If somewhat scruffy downtowns, churches and markets are not your things, then you should definitely check out the district called Zona Rosa.

If you arrive from other parts of Central-America you will be surprised- that garden suburb has air to breathe and space to wander. Taking a walk in this suburb you may even forget where you are- it’s so peaceful and green and life definitely has its own rhythm here.

And the place is full of surprises. For example, we found a cute little eatery that offered Thai food. Sitting in the garden and watching locals on their lunch break put us right in the middle of city life.

Yearning for some culture? No problem, we get you covered. Head to Anthropology museum if you’re curious about the life of Mayas. If you have had an overdose of lost civilisations, go and check out some Salvadorian contemporary art. We picked the latter. I must say it was not that interesting. I walked from work to work pretty much untouched. The only amazing thing was to check out the prizes on paintings. Yes, they have prices in a museum- quite amusing.

Anyway, reaching to the very last painting of the whole exhibition, I gasped for air. Colourful images of farm life, fantastic animals -something reminded me of my childhood drawings. The way I was drawing the city on the windowsill with my sister or coloured a cat with millions of different colours. The painting was alive- as if it was an animation. I leaned closer and wrote into my notebook “Fernando Llort”. It was decided- we had to go to see the town where he lived and worked- La Palma.

Dizzy from the discovery we took a walk in the leafy neighbourhood and headed towards El Salvadorian craft beer brewery Cadejo. To get even dizzier, we ordered samples and enjoyed all the flavours on the menu. Touring in Guatemala one can forget that beer can be something different than that yellow water called Ice Dorada.

Craft beer tasting in Cadejo Brewing Company in San Salvador.

Happy Tom is tasting some local craft beer.

At the end of the day, we headed to a supermarket. Another thing that amazed us with its selection. The light of the setting sun made the baguettes and cheese shine in golden light. In Guatemala, you could count proper supermarkets on the fingers of one hand.

Flowers in the volcanic crater

Turtles enjoying the pond in the botanical garden of San Salvador.

San Salvador is not stingy when it comes to greenery. I have no idea who planned the city, but he did a good job. Like any respectable city, San Salvador has a botanical garden. Unlike just any city, its garden was surprisingly contemporary and well kept.

The location in a volcanic crater made it slightly cooler to walk around. Little winding trails took you through fruit gardens, cactus areas and bamboo forest. You can lean over the edge of a railing to peak at the sunbathing turtles in a pond or rediscover your inner child on a fun swing in the playground, admire pretty flowers or have a tranquil picnic in one of the cool picnic areas. And what’s best- you can enjoy almost complete silence.

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