Is El Salvador Safe for Travel? Maras, Chicken Buses, & the Civil War

I get a lot of people asking me, “is El Salvador safe?” A lot of the time, they don’t believe my answer.

Like anywhere in the world, you do need to take some precautions while traveling in El Salvador. Probably a few more precautions than you would in many other countries. But is El Salvador safe for travel? Absolutely.

Reporting on El Salvador, especially in the U.S., is largely sensational. Of course, it is true that there is gang violence in El Salvador. Yes, they do have a homicide rate that’s much higher than average (although on the Global Peace Index, they fall only one spot below the United States).

But you know where else you’ll find plenty of gang violence? California and Chicago. People still go to both of those places and have a fantastic time. Why? Because the crime and violence is largely contained to certain areas and certain people and rarely affects the experience of a tourist. In fact, gang violence is almost wholly invisible to tourists, whether in Chicago or El Salvador. This is why most people who travel to either location end up questioning whether real danger even exists. They don’t see it. I’ve asked many other tourists and Salvadorans – is El Salvador safe? They all generally say the same thing.

As Christy Rico wrote in her essay on visiting El Salvador, the country her parents are from, “While gang violence is a real thing in El Salvador, I don’t believe it is an issue that affects tourists. During my 7-day visit, I never once felt threatened nor did I witness anyone being attacked or assaulted by MS members.”

Things My History Teacher Never Taught Me: What Do El Salvador’s Bloody Civil War, Ronald Reagan, and Gang Violence in Los Angeles Have to Do With Each Other?

It’s also worth mentioning that many of the problems in El Salvador regarding violence and poverty stem from the United States. El Salvador first gained its reputation as one of the bloodiest countries on the planet during the civil war of the 1980s…a civil war which was funded by the United States. The U.S. backed a military regime that had horrible human rights records out of fear of a “communist uprising” and “far left revolutionaries” – same old story, different country. What both President Carter and President Reagan ended up funding were literal death squads that piled bodies in the streets, bodies of anyone who might be remotely suspected of not supporting the military dictatorship. If you’d like to read more on that, here’s a great article.

safety civil war el salvador safe travel

Rico states, “Although the war ended almost 30 years ago, the devastations remain and about half of the country’s population live in poverty. However, for the luxury travelers, if you’re under the impression that all of El Salvador is poor and miserable, you’re wrong. It’s undeniable that the country has suffered many injustices and the civil wars impacts are still evident. I won’t go into politics and start a blame game but I will emphasize that the United States played a significant role in supporting and funding the bloody war. Let that sink in.”

Eventually, people started to flee to the United States in search of safety. They were granted temporary protected status (which Trump is now ending, leaving 200,000 Salvadoran-Americans who have lived here for decades with the threat of deportation). Most of the children of immigrants from El Salvador that I’ve spoken to for this blog have parents who moved to the U.S. during the civil war.

Upon arriving, of course, they were greeted less with opportunity and more with racism, xenophobia, and systemic poverty. While the vast majority of them beat the odds and ended up becoming more productive members of society than many U.S.-born citizens (they commit crimes at lower rates than native-born residents and have to pass criminal background checks every 18 months), some younger immigrants struggled amidst the poverty and violence that exists in urban areas of the United States.

Those infamous gangs of El Salvador, like MS-13? They were started in Los Angeles, California, not El Salvador, as a means of protecting Salvadoran youths from more established street gangs that already existed in the city. Eventually, those gang members were deported back to El Salvador, a country in the midst of rebuilding from a civil war and a violent military dictatorship (again, supported by the U.S.). That’s when problems like the extortion economy really took hold of El Salvador.

But, is it safe to travel to El Salvador as a tourist?

These gangs don’t extort tourists. They extort local business owners who live there permanently and can pay them a regular monthly sum. I’ve also never seen any gang members during multiple visits to El Salvador, and I’ve never heard of gang activity in the towns where I’ve been. All I’ve ever heard in regards to whether or not El Salvador is safe for tourists is petty theft at some rural tourist attractions, like the Los Chorros waterfall in Juayúa, which can be easily avoided by taking a guide for a few dollars.

beaches el salvador el tunco safe travel safety

I’ve visited San Salvador, beaches along the La Libertad coast like El Tunco, and small towns along the Ruta de las Flores like Juayúa and Ataco. Personally, I’ve always felt safe in El Salvador. While there are unsafe areas in San Salvador (I only went there with locals who knew their way around, and I arranged private transport from the airport), El Tunco and La Ruta de las Flores felt as far removed from violence and crime as it gets. In fact, El Tunco felt much safer to me than plenty of beach towns I’ve visited in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, two countries that, as a whole, have much lower crime rates than El Salvador.

I talked to Salvatore Escalante, the owner of El Tunco-based tour company Tunco Life, and asked him whether or not he thought El Salvador was safe for travel. His response?

“Heck yes! Absolutely. As a tour agency, there is one thing that every single tourist tell us at the end of their trip: I don’t know why the media tells only bad news about this beautiful country? They are always talking about gangs, corruption, and violence.”

“What they don’t tell us,” he continues, “is that these issue El Salvador has are only in specific areas where a tourist shouldn’t be doing anything. I remember once a French girl told us joking: ‘Where were the maras [Salvadoran gangs]? I didn’t see any of them!’ So if you are tempted to come to El Salvador because of its paradise-like places but you don’t feel secure yet, let me give one insight: there were more than 2 million tourists between 2016 and 2017 from different countries enjoying El Salvador.

And he’s right – lots of people are visiting El Salvador. I notice each time I go that the demographics of the tourists there are much different from other Central American countries. Namely, not a lot of Americans. Because that’s where media stories about how horrible and violent El Salvador is are most prevalent.

traveling chicken buses is el salvador safe

I also travel through El Salvador primarily on chicken buses, or the country’s public bus system. I’ve had some wonderful rides with stupendous views of the La Libertad coastline and abundant wildflowers along the Ruta de las Flores, and I’ve never once experienced anything even remotely alarming. For more information on how to get around El Salvador safely using chicken buses or tourist shuttles, check out my article on transportation to and around El Salvador.

However, if it’s your first time visiting and you don’t speak Spanish, or you’re just a little bit nervous, you can get around using tourist shuttles and private transportation. Hiring a driver is very affordable in El Salvador. Stefan and Sebastien of Nomadic Boys were pretty nervous when they decided to explore the country during a long layover in San Salvador, so they hired a private driver and tour guide.

“We must be honest that at first we were terrified by the prospect after we read about all the gang violence that takes place,” they explain, “which is why we opted to do a layover tour with a reputable company we found on Tripadvisor (for reference it was: Salvadorean Tours). In reality, all of this is outside the main tourist hot spots and as a visitor you’re unlikely to ever encounter any of this. In the words of our tour guide Moises: ‘the reason why El Salvador is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world? Because once you come here, you’ll never want to leave!‘”

There are so many reasons to visit the beautiful country of El Salvador, and as long as you follow some general guidelines for traveling safely in El Salvador and Central America and make sure to research places before you go, you’ll have a great time.

As Christy Rico, a Salvadoran American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador, writes in response to questions about safety, “For those of you wondering if you should skip El Salvador because you too have been fooled to believe it’s not worth seeing or because you’re afraid, don’t skip it.”

“It’s a beautiful country with lots to see and good people,” she continues. “There is a large misunderstanding of El Salvador. Many opt to “skip” because of extreme trepidation. When in reality, the locals are the those who are victimized. Please educate yourself on the country. If you still decide to skip El Salvador in your travels, please stop trying to convince others to do the same. We should all be allowed to explore and adventure as we deem. If you’re fortunate enough to visit El Salvador like I was, you’ll witness firsthand the wonderful people and amazing places throughout the country.

 

Have you visited El Salvador? Did you feel safe? Do you have plans to visit? Drop your questions in the comments!

This is part of our “Don’t Skip El Salvador” series, which will include practical tips for safety, transportation, and places to visit in El Salvador. For the latest updates, subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email in the sidebar on the right, and be sure to follow us on social media.

Post Author
Elizabeth Aldrich
Completely insane and totally rational. World's most optimistic cynic. Founder, editor, and head author at Temporary Provisions. Find me on Twitter @LizzieAldrich and Instagram @TemporaryProvisions. I'm a freelance writer and full-time traveler, wannabe farmer, amateur beer-connoisseur, aspiring renaissance woman. Check my work at www.elizabethaldrich.com.

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