An old poster from El Salvador at the wall of my hostel in San Salvador

Surviving San Salvador, one of the friendliest and deadliest cities in the world

I'm not going to say that it was love at first sight, but San Salvador really grew on me. The friendly people and some excellent tourist attractions compensated well for the scary parts of town.

I landed at the airport in El Salvador at night and had to take a taxi into San Salvador. This was really straight-forward, as there is a taxi queue and the driver didn’t even try to rip me off. I was really grateful for that, as I hadn’t haggled in Spanish in a long time.

The airport is located quite a bit south of San Salvador, so if you’re headed to one of the beaches you might as well go there directly. I wasn’t, so I had decided to spend the night and then a day in San Salvador. The capital is a transport hub in the country, so if you’re planning to spend some time in El Salvador, which I highly recommend, chances are that you’ll pass through a few times.

Sorry about the lack of photos in this post, San Salvador is not a particularly pretty place, and while I felt perfectly safe most of the time, not flashing my electronics was probably one of the reasons I could.

What to do in San Salvador

My guidebook said that the old town is really nice, with the squares and the churches and all, but when I got there it was all a construction site. Some genius had decided to do construction on all of the squares at once, blocking off the entire center with fences and making all the streets very crowded. There was a central market, partly in a temporary location, but really nothing else. A shame really, the squares looked nice in the pictures, and I’m sure they’ll look even nicer once the renovations are done.

I walked over to the Parque Cuscatlán, a more relaxed location, but that was also kind of a depressing place. I was still a bit jet lagged and I wasn’t really feeling it. Where was the Central America I’d missed so much? After trying a museum that was closed during its normal opening hours, I decided that San Salvador wasn’t for me and walked over to the mall Metrocentro to get some things I needed and then head back to the hostel. I was randomly approached by an American who told me that the area was very unsafe and that I would probably get robbed. Just what I needed.

Man boarding the chicken bus in San Salvador

My first day in San Salvador wasn’t a success, to say the least, but the next morning I was already getting into it. I was leaving San Salvador to go to Santa Ana, but had to take two local buses (hint: it’s not dangerous) to the bus station (not dangerous either). The bus stops aren’t marked, so I had to ask around a little, and everyone I talked to was SO friendly. They just loved to help me find the right corner to wait for the bus. Then I got to the messy bus station, and had another series of lovely conversations with people. I left San Salvador smiling.

But what to actually do in San Salvador?

I would return to San Salvador a week later, with a day to explore the neighborhood of San Benito, or Zona Rosa. I went to the Dr. David J. Guzmán National Museum, an anthropological museum that was really interesting, with an exhibition on a devastating volcanic eruption and lots of old artefacts.

I also went to the art museum nearby, Museo de Arte de El Salvador, to see the works of local artists. I really liked that museum as well, and they’re both small enough that you don’t get tired seeing both of them.

In the evening I bumped into a guy I’d met in Santa Ana, and we went out together to have dinner at a food truck park just outside the art museum, and then to a rooftop bar nearby. I must admit that as a solo female I wouldn’t have wanted to walk around alone after dark, but with two men I wasn’t worried at all. Zona Rosa is a safe area, but safe in El Salvador means that it’s full of armed guards. That doesn’t make me feel safe, even though it probably should, because I’m not used to seeing weapons like that.

Where to stay in San Salvador

I stayed my first two nights in Hostal Cumbres del Volcan in Colonia Escalon, and on the return I stayed at Zona Hostel in Colonia San Benito. They were both alright and reasonably priced. Zona was a little bit more expensive and had optional breakfasts, and a really nice lounge area downstairs. Cumbres del Volcan was almost empty when I arrived, so it’s hard to say what it’s like when it’s full of people, but it had a more homey feel to it.

Where to stay all comes down to what you want to do. If you want to have easy access to the historical center, maybe Escalon is a better option. If you want to see the museums and be close to the main road for buses out of town, San Benito is excellent. I personally liked that I got to try both! If I returned I would probably go back to La Zona.

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