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Is El Salvador Safe. These are likely the four most common words people ask when looking into travelling to El Salvador. And there’s a lot to unpack here.
The simple answer is a rhetorical question: Is anywhere safe?
The real answer, overall, is yes. For the vast majority of locals and foreign travellers, El Salvador is a safe place to visit. Though I won’t sugarcoat the fact that it isn’t perfect. I love El Salvador, and I want people to experience it for themselves. But the journalist in me won’t allow my bias to mislead you by ignoring certain aspects that exist.
El Salvador as a whole and its capital, San Salvador, have a notorious history of violence. Since the civil war ended in the early 90s, the country has had one of the highest murder rates in not only Latin America but the entire world.
There are many factors contributing to the high rates of crime and violence. Look at any country coming out of a decade-long civil war and you’ll find similar patterns. Though regardless of the causes, certain facts can’t be ignored.
Gangs in El Slavador
What stands out above all else is the violence brought on by gangs. The most notorious is Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly known as MS-13 — one of the most violent and dangerous gangs in the world.
While Salvadoran gangs hold a strong presence in the country, as a traveller your chances of having an encounter with them, much less a negative one, are rare. I have even heard stories from local tour guides that gang members have occasionally come up to groups of foreigners to have a casual chat, asking them where they’re from and what they think of El Salvador.
That said, and this is a big ‘that said,’ these guys are bad news. In the spring of 2022 El Salvador underwent a state of emergency in reaction to an uncommon but incredibly violent gang uprising. Over 70 people were murdered by Salvadoran gangs over two days. March 26, 2022, marked the highest single-day murder rate the country has seen in 30 years.
What makes this event even worse is the speculation that this violence, which targeted random civilians, was for no other reason than to damage the country’s image of progress. The country has made so many significant improvements in recent years, including the adoption of Bitcoin as a legal currency.
These changes have brought an influx of foreign travellers, business opportunities and investments. According to a local friend, this wave of attacks could be a move to discredit the president’s changes and damage the country’s reputation — coordinated terrorism to spread fear to locals and foreigners alike.
It’s a horrible thought, but it’s a reality that cannot be ignored or denied. And the government is taking strong steps to crack down on the gangs. By mid-April, the government had arrested over 10,000 gang members.
So, back to the initial question:
Is El Salvador Safe?
Again, having said all that, my answer remains yes. At least when comparing it to nearly any other country in the world. Terrible things can happen anywhere, even in your hometown. As a traveller to El Salvador, the likelihood of anything serious happening to you is slim.
So aside from the gang violence, what are the concerns with travelling in El Salvador?
As a foreign visitor or even a local, the biggest danger you should concern yourself with is petty theft. El Salvador is an ascending nation, a developing country in common media terms. Although it’s making leaps and bounds from where it once was, a huge swath of the population is still very poor. Many people are without jobs, or at least decent paying ones. And with poverty comes desperation.
That said, there are several easy ways to keep the risk of theft to a minimum.
How to Stay Safe in El Salvador
Safety in El Salvador isn’t much different than in most other developing countries. Follow these simple rules to mitigate nearly all chance of finding yourself in danger.
Don’t Walk Around at Night
Walking around at night, especially alone, is never a good idea in most places. This is common sense nearly everywhere, but especially important in a place with a higher than normal crime rate.
This isn’t to say that everything bad happens at night, just that the likelihood of something happening is much higher after dark.
After dark there are more shadows for people to hide and less people out to be witness to potential crimes. Unless you’re in areas with a lot of people, such as a festival or other event, be wary about walking around after dark.
Walking Alone in Remote Spots
Certain tourist areas might seem like safe places to walk alone, as they’re frequented by foreigners. However, this is exactly the reason to be extra careful. When a site that’s a little off the beaten path is frequented by foreigners, local thieves know the chances of a bigger score greatly increase since most travellers have more cash and valuables on them.
These are a few examples of places where theft is common:
- The waterfalls hike outside Juayua
- The Santa Ana volcano
- The basalt waterfall on the outskirts of Suchitoto
The common theme here is places that are popular with visitors but remote enough that you will often be alone and an easy target.
To stay safe, go on a guided tour, such as the Santa Ana volcano trek. Another option is to have a police escort. This may sound a bit extreme, but in many places, such as Juayua and Suchitoto, local tourist police are available free of charge to escort you to the sites.
Finally, you can hire a local guide. This is cheaper than a proper tour and has less “official” feeling than having a police officer. Most guides only cost a few dollars and it’s a great way to support locals.
Ask at your accommodation about any sites you wish to visit nearby and ask if they recommend an escort. Any decent hostel or hotel should be able to set you up.
Don’t Flash Around Expensive Items
This should go without saying, yet we constantly see travellers flaunting expensive toys and jewelry in public places, making themselves a target.
This isn’t to say you should leave all of your expensive belongings at home or in your hotel. The key is to keep things subtle. Don’t wear expensive-looking jewelry or watches. It’s simply unnecessary. Second, keep your wallet and phone in a bag, especially in crowded markets or on buses. I got a little over-confident while living in Colombia and had my phone picked from my front pocket on the metro. It happens.
Finally, if you’re a photographer, keep your gear out of sight until you need it. Potential thieves can spot that $3000 Canon lens a mile away.
Keep your Belongings Close
Like with keeping things in your bag, keep your bag close while on crowded local buses. As much as riding chicken buses is a right of passage in El Salvador, they’re a prime spot for thefts. Keep your bag closed and on your front whenever possible on crowded transport. This is also important in markets and other crowded locations.
The easiest kind of theft is one without confrontation. Sliding open a zipper and pulling a handful of goodies from your backpack is a quick and easy. And you’ll likely not know until they’re long gone.
If you can’t wear your bag on a bus, at the very least keep it on your lap. I’m referring to purses and small day bags of course. But it’s good to keep your large luggage within eyeshot as well.
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Choose Transportation Carefully
This will be a hypocritical statement, but necessary. Be careful when choosing local transport. If you’re hiring a driver, be sure they are reputable. It is possible to hire random locals as drivers but if doing this yourself you’re taking a chance. The same goes for hitchhiking. Although we’ve done it quite often, it isn’t recommended — especially if you don’t know the area. And never at night.
The bus system in El Salvador is incredibly well connected. Taxis and Uber are available almost anywhere. And many accommodations will be able to set you up with a driver for a reasonable fee.
Don’t take chances with random drivers.
And finally, while on the topic of transportation…
Bus Safety in El Salvador
Riding buses in El Salvador is part of the experience, especially the famous chicken buses. And while they offer an occasionally chaotic ride, where you need to pay attention are the city buses — specifically those of San Salvador.
Buses are a cheap and sometimes convenient way to get around the city. Though, as we learned, you can easily and unexpectedly end up in the wrong part of town. Avoid hopping on random buses, even if they’re headed in your direction. Always know ahead of time which bus to take so you end up where you are planning to go.
Lastly, when riding city buses, try to sit near the front. As some local friends told us, most thefts happen near the back of the bus.
Other Safety Concerns of Note
A small handful of other things to watch out for that are worth noting. These are some of the natural factors to have in your mind while exploring this wonderful country.
- Jumping from waterfalls is fun but has clear and obvious risks. Only do such activities when you’re absolutely sure it’s safe to do so.
- The coast of El Salvador is brilliant for surfing. This means a lot of waves. If you’re just out for a swim, or are a beginner surfer, make sure to know the water conditions before heading out. I almost drowned in Nicaragua (along the same coast as El Salvador) after misjudging the tide.
- Check your shoes before putting them on. Little critters such as spiders and scorpions like to hide in dark spaces. (It also wouldn’t hurt to check under your pillow before going to bed)
- Be selfie smart. Don’t be a statistic. There are some incredible places for selfies in El Salvador, such as the famous blue crater lake of the Santa Ana volcano. Just don’t get too close to the edge, guardrails are seldom.
The Best Way to Stay Safe in El Salvador
Talk to Locals.
This is truly the best piece of advice I can give about staying safe in El Salvador — or anywhere for that matter. The situation on the ground is always changing. Certain neighbourhoods of some cities are better than others. Areas deemed “dangerous” one day are perfectly fine in a few weeks.
The best thing you can do to keep safe is to speak to locals about the current situation. Most Salvadorans love having people visit their country and want nothing more than for you to enjoy your experience.
Speak to taxi and Uber drivers, the people working at your accommodation and restaurants you visit… Nobody can give a better glimpse into the current safety situation than someone living it.
Is El Salvador safe to travel? Yes. Hundreds of thousands of travellers visit El Salvador every year. If there were any extreme risk to safety we would all know about it.
Bad things can happen in any city in any country at any time. There’s no sense avoiding one of Latin America’s most amazing destinations for fear of something that can happen at home.
Follow the suggestions in this post and use a bit of common sense.
Most importantly, enjoy your visit to El Salvador!