Would you go to El Salvador?

I have an opportunity to travel to a seminary in El Salvador. Everything in me says to go, and I feel I probably will.

But what are your opinions about the possible perils of traveling there? Anyone ever been?

I haven’t been to El Salvador but I have been to fairly nearby Costa Rica. Costa Rica was certainly a joy and you are probably as safe there as at home.

More importantly, I once had an employee and friend from El Salvador. She talked about it all the time. I gathered that it is very poor and has a large impoverished population and pretty poor infrastructure. I don’t think it would be nearly as safe as Costa Rica either. However, for somewhere roughly in the Third-World, I don’t think it would be that bad. I never thought of it as terribly dangerous and nicer are accessible nearby. I would go if that is what I was interested in.

I have no personal experiences to offer, but the US Consular Info Sheet has several entries which I would deem “concerning” at the least.
[ul][li]Many Salvadorans are armed, and shootouts are not uncommon.[/li][li]Armed holdups of vehicles traveling on El Salvador’s roads appear to be increasing. In September 2005 U.S. citizens were victimized in two separate incidents. In one robbery, an American family was stopped by gunmen while driving on the Pan American highway in Santa Ana Department in broad daylight. In the other, an American citizen passenger was robbed after the van in which she was riding was carjacked by armed men. The van was stopped at a traffic light on the busy road between Comalapa International Airport and San Salvador shortly after dark.[/li][li]Mine-removal efforts ceased several years ago, but land mines and unexploded ordnance in backcountry regions still pose a threat to off-road tourists, backpackers and campers.[/li][li]The U.S. Embassy considers El Salvador a critical crime-threat country. The homicide rate in the country increased 25 percent from 2004 to 2005, and El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Both violent and petty crimes are prevalent throughout El Salvador, and U.S. citizens have been among the victims . . . Armed assaults and carjackings take place both in San Salvador and in the interior of the country, but are especially frequent on roads outside the capital where police patrols are scarce.[/li][li]Travel on public transportation, especially buses, both within and outside the capital is risky and is not recommended. The Embassy advises official visitors to use radio dispatched taxis or those stationed in front of major hotels.[/li][li]Visitors to El Salvador should use caution when climbing volcanoes or hiking in other remote locations. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers are common. [/ul][/li]As Shagnasty notes, Costa Rica is safe and tourist-friendly for the most part, but I gather it’s the exception among the Central American countries – after all, would you consider Nicaragua or Honduras or Guatemala friendly destinations? Warnings considered, I would probably still go, but be careful if you do.

Guatemala is truly dangerous by any standard and is one of the countries to stay away from. On our way to Costa Rica, the San Jose airport got closed due to weather so we were diverted to Managua, Nicaragua. The devastating poverty and shanty towns were readily apparent even just looking out of the plane windows. The airport was terrible and sad.

However, Central America has some other decent and interesting places. You mentioned Honduras as being bad but it actually has an up and coming tourism industry and I hear it has some nice parts. Belize also has some interesting and beautiful parts and can be tourism friendly.

I never thought of El Salvador as being as bad as Guatemala and maybe a little better than Nicaragua. That isn’t a glowing recommendation but I would do it even by myself if I got my Spanish back. I think that is a big factor of how practical this would be for the OP. How good is your Spanish? They speak lots of English in the touristy parts of Central America but I don’t think that includes El Salvador.

Are you male or female? Will you be alone? Do you speak Spanish? How long will you be there? Have you traveled to Central America before?

Guatemala and Honduras are very beautiful countries and the tourists that do make their way there (and there are plenty) will find themselves welcomed. I think you’d be surprised how familier it can seem at times and how many people you meet will speak English and want to talk to you about the time they spent working in America. There is poverty, but it’s not as gut wrenching as you can see elsewhere and there are no beggars. In Guatemala city, you can rent movies at Blockbuster and eat at Hooters if that is your fancy.

Crime is a very real danger, but the vast majority of visitors don’t experience it and a few simple precautions can make it a very remote possibility. The state department always overstates things a bit

You can read about my adventures in Guatemala and Honduras here.

I say go for it. You may get run over by a bus tomorrow. If you have to die, it might as well be at the hands of banditos on some third world highway.

Well yes, there is violence, but mostly it is now related to gang activity. As long as one is not involved it is not too bad; and after the end of the civil war, if you are a priest, now you are safer than if you belong to other professions.

I wouldn’t have any serious concern about going there myself. Although I’ve only been to the airport (it and Nicaragua are the only Central American countries I haven’t really visited), I know people who live there and I doubt that there is any severe danger.

I recently spent a couple of weeks traveling in Honduras, the poorest of the Central American countries. Aside from Tegucigalpa, which has some bad parts, everyplace I went felt quite safe. In most places, the farther you are from the cities the safer it is.

IMO, US Consular Information Sheets are usually about as useful regarding potential hazards as advice from your grandmother. The one for Panama greatly exaggerates the hazards, and I have no doubt the one for El Salvador does too.

Are you speaking from personal experience?

Costa Rica v El Salvador; they are as different as chalk and cheese.

El Salvador has the highest population density in the region. Think Hong Kong in Spanish. They have a history of violence. It is part of the national character. They seem to like it.

Costa Rica is (along with Panama) remarkably rural and pacific. It is well-known that Costa Rica (and now Panama) ‘Has no military.’ They simply decided to stop fighting.

Good on 'em.

I blame the coffee.

Good for them, but not quite accurate, there was a military force but when the military supported a fraudulently elected guy (circa 1948) there was a revolt and the new leader decided to end the military, later leaders found it was not needed.

Yeah, I know.

I speak poor spanish. The guy going with me speaks adequate spanish and the guy we are meeting is from Costa Rica.

I have an opportunity to visit a very poor seminary there. My friend teaches classes there for free once a year. My goal is to meet the staff, get some good pics and videos, then present the situation to my church in the hopes that we can help them financially.

We will be hosted by the seminary from the airport to the seminary and at all point between. I am assuming that alone will help a bit with the safety.

No offense, Shagnasty, but where are you drawing this view from?

It is true that Guate was embroiled in a nasty little civil war up until the early ninties, but now-a-days it is a great, safe, and beautiful country.

I was down there as a solo tourist for two weeks last year, traveling both on and off of the beaten path. From the jungles of the Peten to the urban sprawl of Guate City, I never once felt unsafe. As a matter of fact, I was planning a return trip for the end of May (I ran out of coffee :wink: ), but I had to cancel due to some cash flow issues.

On a related tangent, I second what Colibri said:

If you base your travel plans based on what the State Department advisories say, you will most likely spend your vacation cowering in your bed.

I could be wrong but I went to a college with a top-ranked Latin American Studies department (Tulane) and I got that from classes and directly from professors at the time. They were pretty hard core and we had to do a survey of the state of all the major Latin American countries throughout the course and read literature on each one. That was in 1993. The professors were all from the region and Guatemala really stood out as the shittiest by far in terms of history and current state of affairs. We also had to pick a country for ourselves and give an advocacy speech for it. I chose Nicaragua and I thought that was a difficult case but Guatemala was especially hard for a friend that got that one.

I traveled to and loved Costa Rica but our en route flight got diverted to Managua, Nicaragua due to weather in San Jose, Costa Rica much to my delight. Talk about a shithole that is apparent even on approach to the airport. They have true problems.

I am intellectually informed about Guatemala but it is true that I have never been there. The US State Department still thinks it is pretty bad until very recently. Don’t think that I wouldn’t go myself. I would go by myself as fast as you can say plane ticket but I wouldn’t want my wife or my daughter to go.

If you’ve got guides and minders who are going to be with you all the time, then it shouldn’t be a problem. They’ll keep you away from places you shouldn’t be. In my experience, the chief peril in being a tourist is blundering into some area that actually is dangerous.

Guatemala has certainly had a very bad recent history, but things have changed since then. The Guatemalan civil war ended in 1996, and the country has, I believe, been improving ever since.

I traveled in Guatemala a bit in 1977 and again in 1979, as a poor student taking local buses everywhere and staying in cheapo accommodations, during the height of the civil war. The war was pretty much invisible from the areas frequented by tourists even then. Of course, there were some dangerous areas in the back country.

I expect to be visiting Guatemala later in the year for a conference. I’m looking forward to traveling around again and seeing what it’s like after 27 years. Like I say, the State Department tends to be extremely alarmist in their reports. If they did one about Washington DC, you would get the impression people were being shot every day on the National Mall.

No country should be judged solely by the slums of its capital city. I found Tegucigalpa pretty depressing - Honduras is even poorer than Nicaragua - and the people were obviously very poor in the countryside, and much poorer in general than they are in Panama. However, I had no problem at all driving around in the towns and villages outside the capital. I also walked around downtown Tegucigalpa at night, through areas that looked a bit dicey, but guided by a Honduran friend who knew the ropes. I didn’t have any problems. I suspect that much of Managua looks a lot worse to gringo eyes than it actually is.

Shagnasty, I am disturbed by your contrasting “poverty” against “decent and interesting”. I hope that, if you give it a moment’s thought, you will agree that the degree to which a place or a person is “decent” and/or “interesting” does not correlate with the wealth of that place or person.

(In fact, IMHO any correlation might be inverse – most of the “wealthiest” places that come to mind are both indecent and boring).

I agree but you can get to levels of poverty where it can really bring you down as a visitor on a certain type of trip. I would happily visit Nicaragua by myself. This trip was for my honeymoon and I am the one who insisted on Central America rather than Europe like my wife and in-laws wanted. Hmmm, honeymoon in Nicaragua, Guatemala, or Costa Rica? The choice wasn’t really that difficult. There are only a handful of countries that I wouldn’t visit but you have to be in the mood for that kind of poverty in order to go there. Also, Costa Rica isn’t what you would call rich (per capita income is about $4700 a year) but it is well kept up, beautiful, friendly, and peaceful and interesting. Nicaragua may be very interesting but the nearby competition of Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, and Honduras means that it will generally lose out on recreational visitors. None of those places are wealthy either.

Fair enough. Given those choices, for a honeymoon, I’d say Costa Rica makes perfect sense. (Although a week in a B+B on stunning Lake Atitlan, Guatemala that you could only reach by small boat but which has a jacuzzi and good, local meals would be quite romantic… yes, there is such a place).

Well there was some kind of karma with this thread. I just got back from my small church fundraiser and one of the things we were raising money for was a trip to El Salvador for a youth group mission including some of our parishioners. They had photos of the damage, why they were going, and the current state of affairs. I obviously donated and looked at it closely. The place looked in bad shape in places from war and earthquake damage in 2001 but I am sure that much of it is scattered like my former home city of New Orleans.

To the OP, the people I know trying to raise funds were a 15 year old girl and her father. They are going on a large mission to build and rebuild houses in San Salvador. I talked to them and lots of other groups have gone and things have been fine. I gathered that it wouldn’t be a problem.

Great info Shag!. Thanks.