I always imagined that when I got around to backpacking Central America, I would sweep the isthmus in one go, hitting every country except for a tiny, violence-racked sliver often ranked the most dangerous country in the world: El Salvador.
What materialized was just the opposite. My first trip to Central America was El Salvador alone.
In 2020, I was hired by an American software software startup, and one of my first tasks was to find freelancers to audit insurance documents. Startups usually outsource their operations to India, Pakistan, and the Philippines, but I don’t like forcing people to stay up at night working, so I looked for talent closer to home. Eventually I hired Julio from El Salvador on UpWork.
The more I spoke to him, the less afraid I was of visiting El Salvador. Julio convinced me that the statistics were misleading, and that, like anywhere else, the level of danger depends on where you are, who you are, and what you do.
Much of El Salvador’s staggering homicide rate can be attributed to rival gangs shooting each other in drug wars in sketchy neighborhoods. The risk this sort of violence poses to tourists is questionable.
On day one we planned a road trip to a quaint, well-preserved colonial town an hour north of the capital considered to be El Salvador’s cultural and historic heart. Getting there took many hours as Salvadoran traffic tends to be ruthless.
That’s Julio and Patty. Julio was our first hire in Latin America, and Patty, his girlfriend at the time, came a year later. Patty now heads the Customer Support department at the company while Julio heads the Implementations department.
By sunset we gathered to have dinner at a restaurant with a beautiful panoramic view of a lake.
Juayua and Ataco
We started the next day’s road trip the same way we ended the previous day’s: with a communal meal overlooking a beautiful lake. Lake Ilopongo is an enormous caldera crater lake just east over the capital.
Then, we set out on another long road trip to check out other culturally important towns. Take a cue from Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos initiative, El Salvador promotes internal tourism by investing in tourist infrastructure in small historic towns in the countryside.
Towns in El Salvador tend to all follow the same pattern: a central plaza with a market buttressed by a main church.
San Salvador City Center
Among the many places Patty and Julio wanted to show me, San Salvador’s city center wasn’t one of them. Dirty, chaotic, and rife with crime, the city center was a place I was told to never go alone. But I am a city guy, and I wanted to see it, even if Patty and Julio wouldn’t let me book accommodations there. They agreed to take me one afternoon after work.
San Salvador’s city center was a highlight of the trip for me. I could understand why Salvadorans are not proud of it, but I dig the gritty faded urban decay aesthetic.
In every conversation leading up to my visit to El Salvador, Patty has insisted that I will go the beach, and I have insisted that I will not.
We reached a compromise. I agreed I would look at the beach. Just not sit on it.
The beach is called El Tunco because apparently the rock in the middle looks like an upside-down pig (if you’re extremely imaginative and on drugs, I guess?).
Patty and Julio were dismayed by how commercialized and over-developed El Tunco had become since the quaint beach town of several years ago.
San Salvador Volcano
The city of San Salvador sits at the foot of the San Salvador volcano. Patty, Julio, Angie, and I drove up the slopes to have sunset dinner overlooking the city.
The thing about being on a volcano is you don’t really notice you’re on a volcano.
Julio ordered a dozen traditional Salvadoran dishes for me to sample. We couldn’t finish half of what we ordered.
My last full day in El Salvador was the most eventful. We hiked a volcano, visited a pyramid, and walked around downtown Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second largest city.
Julio and Patty brought me to the airport, and it was time to say goodbye.