Why El Salvador:
I had a 4-day weekend off work for Christmas. At the time, I was in Miami where my cousin got married the weekend before. For the next week, I was going to spend in LA. So, I needed a place where I could fly easily to both cities.
San Salvador fit the criteria. Additionally, El Salvador has zero COVID entry restrictions. Finally and arguably most importantly, my business school friend Roberto, who is from El Salvador, was going to be home. As a small country, I could use San Salvador as a base and see everything on day trips.
In the US, El Salvador is known as a terribly dangerous place and a center for the drug trade and powerful gangs such as MS-13. However, based on the stories of travelers, El Salvador has cleaned up its act recently and tourists are not affected by this inter-gang violence. In fact, at the time of my travel, the US State Department changed its danger rating of El Salvador to a Level 2 out of 4 (same as many countries around the world including Spain).
The stars seemed to align when I found a $50 one-way flight from Miami to El Salvador on Avianca. I booked the trip.
December 23, 2021: A Warm Welcome
The flight from Miami to San Salvador took just over 2 hours. Once on the ground, I walked into a beautiful airport! The place looked like a shopping mall.
One of the first things I noticed is that all the restaurants accept Bitcoin. Yes, the cryptocurrency. El Salvador´s new president Nayib Bukele recently made Bitcoin legal tender (in addition to the US dollar). Citizens can spend bank and spend their Bitcoins using a government app. Very few Salvadorans have a bank account, so this app partially functions as an online bank. Everyone who downloaded the app gets a free $30 of Bitcoin from the government.
So…what’s the catch? Well, not everyone understands how the price of Bitcoin can fluctuate so much, which freaks people out- especially since most people have very little money. The fees for processing transactions are high. And there is the fear Bukele will obtain and exploit the personal data of many people.
So far, more than 50% of all Salvadorans have used the app, although few use it regularly. One interesting use of the app is that it is a cheap way for people to receive remittances (payments from family abroad). Remittances make up 16% of the GDP of El Salvador, so this is actually a big deal.
After clearing immigration, I was picked up by a driver and taken to my backpacker hostel in Zona Rosa, an upscale neighborhood in San Salvador.
After settling in and getting dinner at a local restaurant and then snagging beer at the country´s top microbrewery, I was met by Roberto outside the hostel. He took me to a bar at a golf club where he and his friends were hanging out. Everyone was so friendly!
I found it interesting that all his friends spoke perfect English with neutral American accents (rather than Central American accents), and many went to the US regularly for work. It appears that El Salvador has a stronger connection with the US than other Central American countries. I also learned that El Salvador is a popular location for call centers.
December 24, 2021: Denny´s To The Rescue
The next morning, I got breakfast at the hostel. A lady came in and made a typical Salvadoran breakfast: thick tortillas, rice, mashed black beans and scrambled eggs.
At the table, I sat down next to a family of Salvadorans (dad, mom and 3 grown children) now living in Los Angeles. They had come to see the homeland, which the parents had not visited since the pandemic, but the children had not visited in about 15 years. They explained that the diaspora is very strong- especially in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Many people try to fly back every year to see their family and deliver goods and money.
Roberto was busy so the morning was mine. I took an Uber from the Zona Rosa to the historic city center. The drive took 15 minutes, but as we reached the center, the crowds were so crazy the car could not reach my intended destination. So, I got out and joined the crowd!
The city center was essentially a giant market. Hundreds of pop-up shops selling mostly low-end clothing took over half the street. The shopkeepers were trying their best to entice people to shop with touts. Cumbia music filled the air. It was a party!
There were so many people that it was hard to walk. Later I would learn that it is a tradition to shop for a new pair of clothes to wear the night of December 24th aka Christmas Eve. These were all the slacker shoppers!
Eventually I reached the city´s main square, Plaza Cívica Capitán General Gerardo Barrios. The square is not particularly nice – there is a lot of construction going on. But it was lively. However, the square is surrounded by the most important historic buildings in El Salvador, the Palacio Nacional (old capitol) and the cathedral. The Palacio Nacional was closed for the holiday, but the Cathedral was open.
The massive cathedral towers over the square. Its front façade is intimidating. I entered via the side entrance. Inside I was surprised by the altar, which contained 7 oil Renaissance-style oil paintings of the life of Jesus who is also known as El Salvador del Mundo, the savior of the world.
Just as prominent in the cathedral as Jesus was another man named Oscar Romero. During the El Salvador´s Civil War in the 1970´s, Romero was an outspoken critic of the government´s civil rights abuses. He stood for the poor people. In 1980, he was murdered while delivering Mass. Nobody knows for sure who murdered Romero, but the top suspects include the government, right-wing paramilitary groups, a coalition of the country’s elite, and even the CIA. The world will probably never know the truth.
Romero died a martyr. His funeral was a huge national event. During the funeral, someone or some group threw bombs at the crowd. As a result of the bombs, fleeing crowds and gunfire, 50 people died.
Romero was beatified in 2015 and canonized as a saint in 2016. While he was a controversial figure during his day (the right-wing government and people did not like him), the population had come around. Romero had become a full-blown national hero. The story of Romero reminded me a lot of Martin Luther King Jr. in the US.
Besides the cathedral and the national palace, there are more commercial buildings including a souvenir market and a produce market. The energy of the center was palpable and contagious.
I decided to walk to a mall 3 kilometers west of the center. Along the way, I noticed a barbershop advertising $2 haircuts. I decided to go for it and got an awesome result. The barber even gave me a proper shave!
Roberto invited me to get lunch, so I took a taxi to meet him at an upscale shopping mall near my hostel. Throughout my time in Latin America, I have learned that malls are an important part of the upscale culture. Malls are more than simply places to shop, they are banks, they are places to eat, and, most importantly, safe secure social gathering spaces.
We met Roberto´s friends Javier and Gabriela. Gabriela opened a new restaurant. Her family works in seafood distribution so she is able to source some of the best food in the country! We feasted on mussels, tacos, and fresh fish while sipping micheladas. The food was spectacular.
For the afternoon, Roberto suggested we drive to Boqueron, a volcano on the outskirts of San Salvador. The drive took 20 minutes. Houses and businesses lined the road, but the top of the volcano is a protected nature park.
From the top of the road, we hiked a short distance to the rim. The crater was shockingly steep and deep!
On the way back to town, we stopped at a restaurant called Picnic. It looked straight out of the Fergalicious music video with candy cane arches and oversized plastic animals. The restaurant became TikTok famous for building a rainbow-colored slide down the mountain. The slide costs $5 and involves taking an inner tube down two big drops. It took about 30 seconds to go down the slide and was significantly more fun than I was expecting.
Roberto had to dash to his family´s Christmas Eve dinner, so he dropped me off at the hostel. I then had the difficult task of trying to find a place to get dinner on the most important family night of the year in Latin America.
Seemingly every restaurant was closed in San Salvador – even McDonald´s. I started to lose hope that I would be going hungry tonight. Then I saw it.
Denny´s – yes the American diner chain – has a single location in El Salvador. It´s slogan is Always Open and that slogan turned out to be true!
I walked in and it looked like I had never left the US. The décor was EXACTLY the same. The only clue I was elsewhere was the fact that everyone was Latino and speaking Spanish. Even in the most Latino parts of Los Angeles, most people still speak English.
The menu was pretty similar to the US. I ordered a strawberry milkshake and shrimp grilled in garlic. Not really the local food that I have been trying to eat, but delicious, nonetheless.
With nothing else to do, I went to bed early.
December 25, 2021: The Lake and the Volcano
Christmas Day is not as sacred as Christmas Eve, but it is still a lazy morning since everyone was out drinking and partying with their families until the wee hours of the morning.
Roberto fit into this category of everyone. I (and most likely he) had no clue knew when he was going to wake. With that in mind, I decided to do some exploring by foot through the empty town. The streets were littered with firework remnants shot out last night at midnight.
I walked to a monument of Jesus standing atop a globe. The monument is known as El Salvador Del Mundo (Savior of the World). I am not sure what makes this Jesus the savior as compared to other statues/poses of Jesus. Perhaps it is like the Buddha or Hindu gods which each have various aspects and this pose is the Savior pose.
Back at the hostel, I chatted with some of the other guests. There were people from France, Germany, Korea, and the Netherlands. What a shame that there were no Americans!
At noon, Roberto had still not woken up and I had called an Uber to go to the beach. Just then, I got a text from Roberto. We were going to go to “the lake”. Truly just in the nick of time.
Roberto picked me up in his car and we set off towards the northwest. Along the way we drove around the backside of Boqueron, which had a field of freshly dried lava. Roberto said that a real estate developer tried to build on the hardened lava but was unsuccessful.
After an hour of driving, we crested a hilltop and saw the majesty that is Lago de Coatepeque. The lake is the remnant of an enormous volcanic crater – imagine a tropical version of Oregon´s Crater Lake. The Santa Ana volcano sits directly above the lake.
Roberto drove us to an Argentine steakhouse where we had a superb lunch with equally stellar views.
Then we drove down to the lake shore. 99% of the lake is surrounded by private homes with boat docks (the 1% is a public access beach and a couple boutique hotels). Most of the homes are second homes for people in San Salvador. Everyone knows each other.
Roberto´s cousins owned a home on the lake. They were were not home, but Roberto obtained permission to borrow their speedboat.
Roberto gave me a tour of the lake, which had glassy smooth water. He explained that the boating culture is extremely strong here. Everyone who has a home here has a boat and people take boats to visit their friends. Waterskiing and jet skiing are very popular as well.
Halfway through the boat tour, I took a dip in the water. I found it warm, but Roberto called it refreshing. “Just wait for the beach” he told me.
Daylight was limited, but Roberto wanted to show me the Santa Ana volcano. The drive took one curvy hour but there were spectacular views of the lake (from above) and of the surrounding countryside. Then we switch backed our way up to the astonishing elevation of 2030 meters (6,677 feet).
The road stops at an enormous parking lot in Parque Nacional Cerro Verde. It was cold when we stepped outside. I was very glad to have brought my sweater.
Roberto led us to a hotel called Casa 1800 The hotel was built to have views of another volcano that was constantly erupting. How incredible would it be to have views of an erupting volcano from your hotel room?!
But it was not meant to be. On the day the hotel opened, the volcano stopped erupting! What a shame!
The hotel has a huge public balcony with perfect views of the other volcanic crater. We timed it perfectly to see the sun set behind the volcano and over the ocean. Could not have planned it better!
Back in San Salvador, I picked up my things at the hostel and we drove to Roberto´s house on the outskirts of the city. There, I met Roberto´s parents and most of his 6 siblings who came from all over the globe to be here for Christmas. Everyone was exceedingly friendly, accomplished, and spoke perfect English. I especially enjoyed talking to Roberto´s mother who is Mexican and is extremely proud of it. We ate the leftovers of their Christmas dinner: turkey in a delicious red sauce, ham and a baklava cheesecake which might be the most decadent dessert I have ever had.
After a wonderful conversation, I went to bed.