This is probably the most asked question by travelers who want to explore El Salvador. A lot of tourists have a misconception about the “pulgarcito of Central America” (Thumbnail, El Salvador is the smallest country in the Central America region) to the point they think twice in order to book a flight or even a shuttle from surrounded countries.
El Salvador is changing, definitely, it is, with a new president in charge, new and more allies all over the world this country is waking up and is about to start making noise but this time positive noise around the world.
For this reason, we want to share with you a real-life experience from an Australian girl who visited El Salvador and ended up staying for 3 years in the country and counting, read from her own words what she has to say about safety and solo female travelers visiting El Salvador.
We have the honor to present you, Catlin Creeper, writer-editor – storyteller and
co-founder of @thesalty.club
Let me tell you a story. Today, I wake up at dawn.
The room I rent sits up the hill that runs behind the town of El Tunco. This means every morning I am smacked directly in the face with a full, panoramic view of the four surf breaks of El Tunco; La Bocana, La Bocanita, El Sunzal, and El Sunzalito.
The bowl of the sky is a deep blue and growing lighter by the minute. Watching the world unravel for a new day always blows your mind here. It gives you that ‘damn. I’m actually alive’ feeling that smacks your phone clean out of your hand forces you to pay attention.
I brew my coffee. Strong. Black. Before I moved from Australia to El Salvador three years ago, I never used to drink coffee. Now it’s one of the highlights of my day. It’s just… so good. And here, in El Salvador, the small brown bean has a turbulent and fascinating history, inextricably linked with the politics and development of the country.
When it comes to specialty coffee, Salvadorans have it dialed.
That’s why you’ll gladly sacrifice your central nervous system for that next cup. The risk of a heart attack seems worth it when you’re reaching for that third or fourth (or seventh) cup of liquid gold.
There are a few surfers are already in the water at the river mouth, called La Bocana, a break with fast, steep lefts and short, fun rights.
It’s time for me to get dressed and get in there.
I walk through the sleepy town, streaks of pink and orange shooting across the sky, announcing the impending arrival of the sun. Later, the storefronts will be open, travelers will be moving in and out of the cafes, restaurants, and stores of El Tunco, and it will be a completely different rhythm.
For now, it’s practically empty. I always enjoy the walkway from Main Street to the beach, a small corridor cocooned in palm trees and greenery. It’s like you’re stepping through a portal to another world. In a way, you kind of are.
I learned to surf in this country. You know, I think that sitting in the water, astride my surfboard, wetsuit-free in the warm, tropical waters is the closest to paradise I’ve ever come.
As I was learning to surf I felt held and supported by my adopted community, and best of all is the number of women I see taking up the sport in these waters each year, locals and tourists alike.
I paddle out next to two kids, one on a bodyboard, one on a surfboard.
“Are you going to school tomorrow?” One says to the other, in Spanish.
“No way. I’m going to La Punta.” He says, referring to Punta Roca, Central America’s prime right-hand point break. A world-class wave, many have said. When the swells hit, that’s where the people go.
“No, you’re both going to school.” I say like a stern mother, and they both burst into giggles.
After a few hours, when the sun is high and beating down on the backs of the now-ten of us in the water, I get out of the water.
Did I mention this all took place in El Salvador?
My chosen home of three years?
From that description, it could have been in Australia. Or Europe. Or the States. A normal day, among hundreds of other normal days I’d had since moving here.
Do you know what didn’t happen?
I didn’t get raped. Nor did I get assaulted. I didn’t get murdered. Nor did I get caught in the middle of a gang shoot-out.
What did happen is with my board under one arm, on my way out of the water, I picked up as many pieces of five pieces of trash caught between the rocks that one hand could hold.
Some local businesses are creating initiatives such as trash pick-up afternoons, where tourists and locals alike spend a few hours filling large black trash bags for a free beer or something similar. This is helpful, but nothing new. I’ve seen the local surfers doing beach cleanups for years.
“While trash pickups are great,” I remember one local hostel owner from El Zonte, a nearby surf village, telling me, “There needs to be more effort on the front end, more education around trash and sustainability and plastic, so that it’s not getting thrown out the car windows onto the side of the road, and emptied into rivers in the first place.”
“Our energy,” he said, “should be focused there. Otherwise, the trash is just going to keep on coming down the mountain, a new layer of plastic with each rainfall.”
Anyway, to answer your question: is it safe to travel to El Salvador as a foreigner? Yes.
Would I recommend it?
There are waves around every corner; predominately uncrowded, right-hand point breaks that break pretty much all year round. Whether you’re just learning or seeking a challenge, there’s a wave for you.
There’s the natural landscape that defies description. Drive ten minutes up the road from El Tunco beach and you’ll be diving into the clear waters of Tamanique waterfalls.
Drive an hour and a half and you can hike up the rim of active volcano Ilamatepec, watching the impossible turquoise sulfur lagoon steaming below you.
Go another twenty minutes from there and you’re chilling in glass-clear, flat waters of Lake Coatepeque.
If coffee is your thing, (which if it isn’t, it will be) you can get amongst the fresh gourmet coffee produced in El Salvador’s mountains at 1,600 meters above sea level. This is part of our Ruta de las Flores tour.
Or, if you’re interested in the Mayan Culture, you can check out the Mayan Ruins.
If art is your thing, there’s the brightly colored artisanal colonial-style village of Ataco.
Feel like a city day? Do a city tour. It has ALL OF THE THINGS.
And don’t even get me started on the people. One week in this country will make you re-evaluate everything you ever thought you knew about how you should interact with the humans in the world around you.
Hospitable, selfless, open, welcoming, soulful, hilarious. Salvadorans are some of the kindest people on the planet.
I could write a book purely on interactions with people from here that have made me a better human being.
I remember when my sister came to visit a few months ago, I had taken her to a small beach near El Tunco, to a small restaurant owned by a friend.
Suddenly, a fruit and vegetable truck drove by (yeah, that’s a thing here.) And as I ran out into the hot sand, barefoot, the owner’s wife of a nearby restaurant who was also buying produce off the truck kicked off her sandals and held them out to me.
“Here!” She said, “use these!”
“But then you’ll get burnt!” I said.
“I’m used to it. Take them!”
My sister watched the whole exchange, shocked. The fact that a stranger would offer something of their own so freely when she had nothing to gain.
But to me, it’s normal. I see these interactions daily.
Is it safe to travel to El Salvador?
What is safe? Yes, there is gang activity and corruption. Inequality and poverty is rife, and people are really suffering here in ways we from the Global North can not even comprehend. I believe every traveler should take the time to research the history of the country, the war, how the gangs formed.
But the truth is the risk itself of being in danger is so much smaller for a foreigner than for a national citizen.
Moreover, you’re more likely to be sticking to the tourist areas, the beaches of La Libertad, the coffee region of Ruta de Las Flores, the tourist-friendly parts of San Salvador, the Lake Coatepeque, to name a few.
And even if you passed someone on the street who was affiliated with the gangs, you probably wouldn’t even know it. They’re more likely to just smile at you, ever polite, and say ‘buenos dias.’
I am in love with this country.
If you decide to give someone just five minutes of your time, if you decide to sit with the lady at the tienda, or the man at the bus stop, or the lady hand-making pupusas, you are likely to be gifted with their stories, some hilarious, some heartbreaking, some completely random, but always life-changing in some small way.
El Salvador is a country that I believe is just going to keep going from strength to strength. Like with any single country on the planet you decide to travel to, from El Salvador to Alaska to Australia, do your research, heed the travel warnings, practice common sense, and be smart.
And then come enjoy one of the greatest countries on the planet.