Thursday, March 17, 2016

Is San Salvador Scary?

A few years ago before I came to El Salvador for the first time my mind was foggy. The only things that came to mind were the deadly civil war with death squads and murdered nuns, the M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs and the ongoing travel warnings from any google search. So that begs the question. Is San Salvador a scary dangerous place?

That is a tough question. From an outsiders / traveler's viewpoint the quick silly answer would be no. If you manage yourself properly like anywhere else in the world, stick to know areas of interest and stay away from the Ilopango and Soyapango barrios on the east side of town you should be fine. The reality is absolutely yes. This is one of the worlds dangerous with some of  highest murder rates in the world.

But lets go back to the good side of the city because right now my dear mother is reading this and has already started the email telling me to come home. God love her.

This city of 2 million is surrounded by my favorite things, volcanoes.  Boquerón Volcano and Cerro El Picacho  can be viewed anywhere in the city while San Jacinto, Soyapango, Santo Tomás and San Marcosare near by. It is modern, clean and they pick up their garbage. (Do you listening Leon and Managua?) Zona Rosa looks like any street in Canada or the USA with its wide boulevards, chain hotels and fast food joints. I stayed in Zona Guadeloupe and never felt any fear when I wandered. There are lively restaurants, bars and lots of traffic.

Yellow taxis are everywhere, clean, safe and cheap so traveling around is easy. The more adventurous can take the public buses for about .25. Some are new, some not so much but they will take you where you need to go. I did not have the energy to try and figure them out, and just in case I screwed up I did not want to end up in the wrong place.

With that, I wandered to the top of my barrio to one of the main streets. I stopped for a large coffee and watched the world stream by. After a quick visit to Iglesia Guadeloupe I found a pupusa street vendor. Sitting at the standard plastic table and chairs the piping hot bean and cheese beauties were delicious and at .30 each a pretty darn good deal. There were a line of taxis right in front of me so off I went to the National Palace and Cathedral Metropolitano. Both beautiful and historically important.

The National Palace in San Salvador
Gardens inside the National Palace

Cathedral Metropolitana

Inside the Cathedral Metropolitana
The short version of the story Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador was he was an outspoken critic of the government in 1980, a very dangerous time to be that person. As a result he was shot and killed while performing a mass service on March 24th, 1980. During the funeral procession outside the Cathedral Metropolitana violence erupted when teargas was tossed into the group of mourners numbering 250,000 while rifle shots came from the surrounding buildings including the National Palace. In all 31 people were killed officially (estimates are as high as 50). His large portrait hangs in the church (upper left in the picture). The beatification of Romero was held in San Salvador on 23 May 2015

There are so many more places to visit in and around San Salvador but without a guide I was not going to just "wander around" a city of 2 million people with a dark reputation. I did wander one of the huge local markets where I purchased a new toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream and 3 pair of socks for $3. The pic does not do the market any justice. I discovered later while reading about San Salvador that these markets are all controlled by gangs, I mean serious serious gangs. They have spies, usually kids, wandering around checking on peoples business and gathering protection money.  Sometimes it is best to be unaware of things. I was never in any danger as there were police and para military guards everywhere and NO I was not going to take their pictures.

Market view from the door of Calvarilo Church

The reality of San Salvador as told to me by my cab driver back to my barrio. Hector who spoke great English and appeared to be around 50 had escaped to the United States in the mid 70s during what he said were very dangerous time for the country. Yes, a civil war would be considered dangerous times. He traveled through Guatemala and Mexico crossing illegally into the United States. Yes, people leaving the ravages and poverty of Latin America for the possibilities of a better life are very real.

He was working a living in Houston for about 10 years when he was caught by immigration using a faked green card. I never asked him what he did for a living or how he was caught. He volunteered the conversation, I shut up and listened. He had working man hands and long scars on the inside of his left arm. Again, no questions.

He was tossed into an American Immigration detention centre for 4 years with out so much as a trial then one day they deported him. I suspected there was more to the story, but it was his story. He found himself back in El Salvador just after the war but now had a criminal record that carried over to El Salvador. Taxi was what he was only qualified to do.

"San Salvador is a very dangerous place and I can get shot at anytime" and with that honest phrase I was hit with a cold dose of reality. We were now driving down the main very busy and touristy boulevard and he said "for example, "if we turn at this corner we will get shot"  to which I instantly replied "ok, so lets not turn at that corner". Thankfully he laughed. He talked about his need to know every barrio and every street, even the smallest streets in order to survive. "The want my money, my car and even my shoes" . Its all about fear and control and we are afraid and they are in control. "They shoot police for fun and as a part of initiation into the gangs". He said that there were no jobs and money was hard (he was not looking for any money from me) and to be careful as some people are bad people in this town. With that he smiled, dropped me off and thanked me for visiting El Salvador.

Reality. If you go about your business and visit where you want to visit in San Salvador you will be fine. If you do not know where you are going, hire a guide. Take taxis as they are cheap and as anywhere in the world, taxi drivers are the smartest people in that city. Do not get drunk and decide that visiting Ilopango and Soyapango or another dangerous neighborhood would be "cool". You WILL NOT return.

Gangs of San Salvador are very real - YouTube Video   Nov 30, 2015 - Vice News Run Time 1: 05. Take the time to watch this video and you will get great insight and perspectives from the police, gang members, teenage EMS, religious leaders, peasant farmers, market stall owners and government officials. It's a well done documentary and makes you realize that the gang issue is not going away any time soon.

Like my last trip here I never felt unsafe and enjoyed myself. I am off to Antigua Guatemala tomorrow and a date with Volcan Acantanango. That bad boy is going to hurt.

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