When I moved to El Salvador a lot of people started asking me what life is like in El Salvador. They wanted to know what day to day life is like here. My friends and family in the United States tend to imagine that it’s like living in the Amazon jungle or living in Mexico, or somewhere between the two. They’re not entirely wrong.
Most people have some idea of what Mexico is like and they assume that El Salvador and other Central American countries are the same. There are certainly similarities. A lot of the the cultures in Central America are intertwined. I’ve visited all countries in Central America at this point and they all have a lot of overlap in their lifestyle and culture. But there are many differences as well, which is why I want to discuss El Salvador in detail.
Since I moved here in 2018, I’ve learned so much about the way people live. El Salvador is known for it’s natural beauty, volvanos, beaches and coffee farms. Initially I was living in the suburbs of San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. Later I moved to the rural countryside with gorgeous views of volcanoes. Those contrasting living circumstances has given me a pretty good idea of how people live across the country. It’s been quite an experience.
What is day to day life like in El Salvador?
El Salvador is a developing country. It’s relatively poor, so don’t be surprised to see common traits of an under-developed country: dogs in the streets, poorly paved roads, military personnel walking around, etc. Those traits are less than optimal, but the country offers a lot of freedom and beauty. You can experience anything you want here: Urban living, the beaches, nature and outdoors. People are generally laid back, and usually late for meetings by 10 to 15 minutes.
The government is small, although security is expending to combat crime, a problem that the President has tackled head-on and improved the day to day life in El Salvador for everyone. Police and military are often walking the streets and directing traffic. It’s nothing to be concerned about. They’re keeping you safe.
Street vendors are very common – men and women often sell their goods in the streets and will go door to door selling bread, tortillas, candy, and other things. Children often accompany their parents while they’re selling their items.
Depending on where you stay in El Salvador, you can expect a lot of surprises if you’re moving from a developed country. Buildings and houses are wall-to-wall, meaning that there’s no space between buildings, unless you live in the countryside. In the countryside, the space is endlessly sprawling with fields and thick jungles. Houses are typically one story – this is volcano land. Therefore, people tend not to build tall buildings, because they’re at higher risk of collapsing from earthquakes (not to mention they’re more expensive and time consuming to construct properly).
When you buy a plot of land, you can build virtually anything on it without a permit. Technically, there may be permit’s necessary, but everyone that I’ve ever spoken to (quite a few people at this point) say that nobody really cares – even law enforcement. A friend of mine even tried to go through the legal process of getting permits to build. In the end, it was a nightmare and the governing offices just said not to worry about it. I was shocked to hear that.
Almost everyone here has a smartphone because most people cannot afford a laptop or computer. Therefore, most people do all of their online activity through a mobile phone. There are cyber-cafes, but usually only students and young people use the computers in cyber cafes. If you ever have trouble connecting to the web, remember, Starbucks and McDonalds are your friend. They have Wifi and they are located everywhere in the city.
El Salvador uses the US Dollar as it’s currency
First and foremost, we need to mention the money. El Salvador is one of the few countries in Latin America that uses the United States dollar as its currency. They do this for stability. Other countries that don’t use the dollar tend to have high inflation rates, which is common for corrupt governments around the world. However, El Salvador currency benefits from stability from the US Dollar.
If you visit El Salvador, you don’t need to worry about converting US Dollars to Colons or Pesos. Your cash and your credit cards will work here, the same as they do in the United States. Cash is king. Bring some cash. No more than $20 per day is necessary.
Everyone is late for everything in El Salvador
Sometimes it’s as if time doesn’t exist. Meetings start late, appointments start late, busses run late, parties start late, everything is…late. That seems to be part of the culture. In fact, it’s common through-out all of latin culture, with exceptions of course. This is a good representation of what life is like in El Salvador, because it shows how things move slowly and people are more relaxed.
If you’re the type of person that needs everything to be on time, prepare yourself. You can expect most things to run at least 10 to 30 minutes behind scheduled times. When I was applying for my residency here, I had an appointment at a government office. I arrived on time, but waited an hour before anyone to see me. Things like that have happened more than once. Be prepared to wait. Don’t be offended if someone else is late, they expect you to be late too. Just don’t be more than 15 minutes late or you risk annoying them.
Honestly, since I moved here I have become adjusted to this. It’s no problem. It’s just part of life here, living in a more relaxed culture. If you plan to live here, you’ll get adjusted to it too. It’s important to mention, being on time is respectful, but don’t take it personal if someone else is late to an appointment with you.
Local Public Transit & Uber in El Salvador
There is no subway or “metro” system in El Salvador. People either travel using cars in El Salvador that they own, Uber or the local busses. The traffic in San Salvador is bad. Very bad. From 8AM to 9PM, there is a lot of traffic. Remember, El Salvador is one of the most densely populated countries in Latin America.
Local busses in El Salvador
The local bus system is fairly efficient. It only costs about $0.25 per ride, and usually it takes 2-3 rides to get to a destination. Be careful though, its often unsafe. El Salvador has a lot of petty crime and organized crime. If you travel during the day, you’ll probably be ok. If you travel at rush hour (morning or early evening) you will definitely be on packed bus with a lot of other people. Some busses offer air conditioning, but that is the exception.
Rental cars for travelers
Rental cars are an option for travelers, usually costing about $80+ per day (insurance is required). A tip: if you rent a car, shop around. Alamo and National are two companies that offer decent prices. However, you can find even better deals in the city of San Salvador and they’ll drive to the airport to pick you up. I rented a car that way for $125 total for three days.
Uber exists and is growing in El Salvador
Uber exists in El Salvador and thank god for that. A brief trip is usually only $2 or $3. When my car broke down, I used Uber many times. However, be prepared to have rides occasionally cancelled by drivers. Uber drivers in El Salvador think differently than in the United States. Every time I take Uber, the drivers are often picky in rider selection and one or two drivers will cancel my ride before I finally get one to pick me up. The reason is because the drivers want to guarantee that I’m going a far distance (further distance = more money for them).
Usually I tip my Uber driver $1 extra, in addition to the normal fee. The reason is that these drivers are already giving a percentage to Uber for using their App. These drivers deserve more than they’re getting. Plus, they’re not scamming people, like the Taxis in El Salvador…
Taxi cabs in El Salvador
Taxis are not a good idea. They will almost definitely overcharge you. For the same ride that I paid $3 to Uber, a taxi driver charged $10. Taxi’s are opportunists. They don’t care what the “going rate” is in El Salvador. If you’re using their service, they will charge whatever they want. If you ever use a taxi in El Salvador, absolutely get the price before getting into the cab.
Taxi’s are also not always safe. Everything is intertwined here in El Salvador. It’s a small country with a lot of people. Who knows what Taxi drivers are involved in. People can paint a car yellow and call themselves a taxi with almost no consequence. The regulations and safety procedures for Taxi drivers are very weak in El Salvador. In general, I recommend that people don’t use taxi’s in El Salvador. Use Uber! I’ve only used taxi’s here 2 or 3 times and it was always overpriced and less “secure” than the times that I used Uber.
The food in El Salvador is very different from Mexico
Latin cultures are very proud of their native recipes and that’s true for El Salvador too. Don’t ask a Salvadoran if the food is like Mexico or if they sell burritos or tacos. You’ll be considered stupid and annoying.
A lot of people think of latin food as being the same across all latin countries. It’s not. There are similarities, but big differences. For example, rice, beans and fried plantains are common in most latin style dishes. Using lime and lemon in drinks and meals is very common too, across countries. But other than that, the food has great diversity in terms of ingredients and in terms of how it’s prepared. El Salvador foods are different than many other cultures.
Here are some specific examples:
- Eating spicy food is not common. Jalapeno peppers are rarely used in dishes in El Salvador. Generally speaking, people in El Salvador don’t like spicy/hot food. Obviously that is very different from Mexico.
- You won’t find tacos and burritos in El Salvador. There are a handful of Mexican restaurants in El Salvador, but Mexican food are not common foods here. Instead, people in El Salvador eat pupusas, sweet bread, local fruits, eggs and seafood dishes (because it’s located on the Pacific seacoast).
- Horchata is different in El Salvador. Here, people use “Morro” as the base ingredient in horchata. Morro is a cinnamon-like plant. In Mexico, Horchata uses rice as its base ingredient.
- Hot soups are common in El Salvador. That’s right, even though El Salvador has a tropical climate with high humidity, people here love their soups. In Mexico, you won’t find nearly as many different styles of soups.
- Seafood is a staple here. El Salvador is on the pacific coast. The ocean runs along the entire southern coast of the country. Shrimp, crab, tilapia and anchovies (sardines) are common in many meals. In fact, putting shrimp on Italian style pizza is a desired delicacy here.
- Salad dressing isn’t used. This was a disappointment for me. I love salads with regular Italian dressing. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find in restaurants so you have to buy it yourself in grocery stores and make salads at home – problem solved! So, do they just eat raw salad? Nope. They squeeze green lime juice over the salad with a little salt. That’s the most you’ll find at a restaurant.
- Fruit stands are everywhere. This is common in other latin countries too. There are numerous fruit stands in every community, which are basically just little local produce kiosks. There you’ll find watermelon, oranges, lemons (usually limes), papaya, mangos, lettuce, cabbage, bananas, plantains, apples and sometimes you’ll find grapes, plumbs and pears.
You can read more about the food in El Salvador in my other article “What is Food Like in El Salvador?” It’s an easy read.
People negotiate prices for basically anything over $5. Buying items from small/local street vendors is very common. There’s no need to run to the grocery store often – people will sell whatever you need in the street. It’s a convenience that developed countries don’t have.
For fruit and bread – don’t negotiate. It’s already dirt-cheap, usually about $0.50. You can only negotiate prices with small sellers of items (there’s a lot of them). Don’t, for example, walk into a shopping mall and start negotiating. Shopping mall prices are high – avoid them.
And note: shopping malls are rising in popularity in Latin America. I know, in the United States shopping malls are mostly retail graveyards that are being phased out of business altogether. But in El Salvador, shopping malls are booming.
The country is changing. For the most part, negotiation is slowly starting to be phased-out. As bigger retail chains come in, and shopping malls are built, we’re seeing less negotiation. And while that’s sad to some degree, because it’s part of the culture, it’s also convenient simply to know the set price of items. It’s a trade-off.
Is the food in El Salvador safe to eat?
Generally, yes. The food is safe to eat. I’m comfortable to eat at 99% of restaurants, including restaurants that I’ve never eaten at before. Salvadorans are known for cooking there food well. In fact, sometimes the cook it too well for my preferences. But, better safe than sorry.
You’ll find all of the normal fast-food chains too: McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, China Wok, and more. It surprised me when I moved here. Usually I don’t eat fast food – however, sometimes it’s really nice to eat non-Salvadoran food. Living here month after month, sometimes you need something familiar.
Definitely be careful when eating any form of meat from street vendors. Meat from restaurants, large and small, is fine, but I question street food. The only times that I ever got sick was when I ate meat from street vendors. Personally, I’m done with taking risks.
After I got Salmonella poisoning in Mexico, I stopped playing games. If I’m buying street food anywhere, including here in El Salvador, I generally avoid meat unless I watch them cook it and the heat is super high. Pupusas are safe to eat, even with meat, because they cook them at very high temperatures for a long time.
Is the water in El Salvador safe to drink?
No. Don’t trust the water from the faucet. Only drink bottled water. Public water supplies are known to be unsafe and poorly maintained. People only use public water for cleaning dishes and doing laundry. Dirty water is just part of what life is like in El Salvador until the country changes. We literally buy 5 gallon drums of drinking water each week for our water supply at our house. This is common in mostly every part of the country.
Most people here buy blue 5 gallon jugs of water on a weekly basis as their primary water source. In rare occasions, when water is running low, people will boil public water on the stove to remove any pathogens. But it’s not common.
Bottled water is ok. Purified water is also fine. Many hostels and hotels have water supplies that are fine to drink. When in doubt, ask. Never assume. If you assume, you might be on the toilet for a week.
People in El Salvador have less, so they do more with less.
As I mentioned, El Salvador is an under-developed country. It’s a second-world country. El Salvador is growing rapidly recently, however, as you get further outside of the capital city of San Salvador, it becomes easy to see that the country is very undeveloped.
The roads are poorly constructed. There are few bridges and they’re old. Buildings are often put together using only brick, concrete and rebar (metal reinforcement bars). Many of of the building roofs are old clay slates or just sheet metal.
Being a developing country affects all aspects of what life is like in El Salvador.
Here are some examples of how it affects everyday life:
- “Markets” for food and clothing are usually just little hand-built stands that were put up in a few minutes. Again, it’s the norm to see people selling food and clothes on the side of the street. They are usually very friendly and just trying to earn money to feed their family. Of course, they have larger retail stores, too. There are 3 Walmarts. There are 5 large shopping malls and a handful of strip-malls. But in general, the bulk of people’s buying habits consists of shopping at mini-local family markets.
- People lack trust in many ways that we take for granted in developed countries. People in developed countries have a higher level of trust for government officials, local companies that offer services, and other people. Here in El Salvador, people don’t trust others immediately. The story of Andy Lovos is a good example of why. It takes a long time to earn someone’s trust. I came here as a relatively naive “gringo” (it’s ok to laugh at that term, it’s not racist) and was surprised to see how people often to not trust each other. In fact, many people will trust me (because I’m a white dude) before they’ll trust others in their neighborhood. That surprised me, but I’m glad people are comfortable around me. It’s a different world living here, with things you’ll never expect.
- People try to do everything themselves. Due to the lack of trust, people here are often unwilling to hire people to do work. This means that most people repair their own cars, builds their own houses, fixes the plumbing when it breaks, etc. This is weird to me. I hire people. I’m a programmer and I don’t like putting a lot of time into repairing my car myself. But after living here for a while, I understand why people here struggle with trusting other people. I went through 5 different car mechanics before I finally found an El Salvador mechanic that I can have a basic level of trust with.
- Responsibility, honesty and accountability come in short supply. Here, if something of yours gets stolen, it’s considered to be your own fault. That’s how many people think here. That was very different for me to learn when I first moved to El Salvador. The people here generally think: “You left your valuables out in the open and you did not protect your possessions, why wouldn’t someone take it?” I’ve had things stolen from me four or five times, even when things were behind closed doors. Even when someone is busted for stealing, they generally think “oh well”. Honestly, I learned my lesson the hard way. You get accustomed to it and learn to be very careful.
- Buildings are all made of concrete and iron bars. If you visit El Salvador, you’ll notice something interesting about the buildings. The walls are fortified concrete and the doors and windows are covered with thick iron bars. That is for security. Everything is locked. Most houses have double-iron doors. You won’t find unprotected glass windows or wood doors here. Building entrances often have two levels of locked iron doors. Usually businesses are further protected by a security officer with a rifle or shotgun. There are numerous opportunists here, so businesses and private communities protect themselves.
- People wash their clothes by hand and use clothes lines to hang their clothes to dry. You won’t find many washing machines or laundromats here in El Salvador. They’re considered to be unnecessary and too expensive. So, people manually wash their clothes and dry them on a clothes line outside, usually behind their house and away from public view. When I searched for laundromats to do my laundry, I only found 3 in the entire city and they had old machines. If you need your laundry cleaned, ask if they have laundry services, or hire someone to clean it for you. Someone will gladly clean it for $5.
Although I probably just scared the crap out of you regarding the crime, you honestly don’t have to worry much (although, of course be careful). People here that steal generally do not steal what they cannot easily steal. In other words, if you make it difficult for something to be stolen, it’s very unlikely to be stolen. Additionally, tourists and foreigners are usually not their target. Thieves know that the police and military are committed to protecting foreigners. Gangs of El Salvador are preoccupied with other things. Criminals here don’t want to be on the front page of international news.
Also, most people that commit petty crime here are uneducated and don’t mastermind plans to steal things. It’s mostly just grab and run situations. The thieves definitely don’t want to go to prison. The prisons here are scary and the people here know that. Criminals fear the police and military here because the police and military have zero tolerance for shitty behavior. So, if you use common-sense and protect yourself, you won’t have any problems.
The government has overcome a lot of government corruption
Being from the United States, I wasn’t prepared for what what life is like in El Salvador in terms of government corruption. Although the corruption hasn’t really affected me directly, I can see how it affects the citizens here. It affects them in terms of the resources they lack and the general distrust that they have for other people.
Sure, in the United States and in most places in the world, there is some level of corruption. This seems to be especially true in poorer countries, where there’s less resources to be shared.
I’m talking about pure, disgusting political corruption.
Let me provide some examples from recent history in El Salvador:
- Former President Mauricio Funes (Leftist/FMLN) – Illegally laundered more than $700,000 from the government of El Salvador, then left the country for Nicaragua, where he was granted asylum (which easily demonstrates the corruption in Nicaragua too).
- Former President Francisco Flores Pérez (Conservative/ARENA) – He was charged with stealing $15 million that was donated to El Salvador in 2003 by Taiwan’s government.
- Former President Antonio Saca (Conservative/ARENA) – He and a group of his closest confidants embezzled more than $300 million of public funds during his five years in office.
Keep in mind, El Salvador is a small poor country. When hundreds of thousands of dollars go missing, people notice. In the United States, when millions of dollars go missing, it’s pocket change. Hell, in the United States billions of dollars have gone missing before and people don’t even complain much. In El Salvador, people have their eyes on everything, because if they don’t then people will abuse the situation. And they can’t afford more abuse.
In the poor country of El Salvador, every dollar is needed for infrastructure, social benefits, police and security and building communities. Unfortunately, public funds are misused very often. You can read more about these three corrupt presidents on Insight Crime.
Politics in El Salvador are changing for the better
The people here are tired of corruption and lack of accountability. People have demanded change, and finally they are getting change. In 2019, an independent president was voted into office under incredible circumstances. The left and the right candidates were mostly ignored (having both contributed to significant scandals) and the new independent president was voted in by a landslide. The people have spoken.
Now, living in El Salvador, on a daily bases I can see progress being made. For the first two years, while I was dating my Salvadoran girlfriend, I didn’t see much change. Now in our third year together, I’m seeing things change quickly. Roads are being built. Potholes are being repaired. Government websites are being improved. Social programs are getting more positive attention. The President is coming down harder on gang violence.
A lot is changing, and it’s mostly positive. Thank god for these changes. The people of El Salvador are finally seeing the changes that they deserve. Development is increasing and security is increasing.
Holidays in El Salvador are celebrated differently.
Christmas – In latin countries, they celebrate Christmas. But Santa Clause isn’t seen as an important figure. In fact, in latin cultures they don’t tell their children that Santa Clause exists. Honestly, that was a little sad to me, haha. However, Saint Nicholas is represented. Also, instead of Santa Clause, they use fireworks on a local and national scale. Fireworks are available to buy on every street corner for both Christmas and New Years. It’s a little overwhelming, because it’s so loud and it’s right outside of every building.
Day Of The Dead – Most, if not all, latin countries celebrate day of the dead or “dia de los muertos”. But all countries celebrate it differently. Most people think of Mexican parades with colorful skeletons and decorative apparel and makeup. However, in El Salvador none of those things are part of the holiday. Instead, people visit graves of their lost loved ones, decorate the cemeteries with flowers and spend family time together.
What about fun, drinking and partying in El Salvador?
People do party here, but it’s different. Remember, El Salvador is a conservative culture, mostly due to it’s Catholic roots. Partying often consists of drinking beers, going to the disco or beach, and listening to electronic music with reggaeton. Smoking cigarettes is fairly common in social environments.
When talking about partying in El Salvador, there are two main places to consider.
The beach – The beach is the best place to be for drinking and partying. Check out Playa El Tunco, El Zonte and Costa Del Sol. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s safe, and it’s rather inexpensive. You can easily go bar-hopping at bars at Playa El Tunco. Plus, there are many foreigners at the beach, which means more openminded people and more diversity in the fun you can have.
The city – The city is fun, but it’s different than the beach. Bar hopping isn’t much of an option, unless you have a designated driver that’s willing to take you from place to place. The only exception to this is “Paseo El Carmen” in Santa Tecla. That’s a super fun area for bar hopping. Other than that area, when you go out into the city, you’ll be confined to one or two bars because it’s too dangerous to be walking in the streets late at night. Don’t do it.
Night clubs – A final mention on adult night clubs. There are a handful of gentlemen’s clubs in El Salvador. I don’t know how many there are, but I want to say there are about 5 or 6 of these sorts of clubs. Be prepared to spend at least $100. Keep an eye on your tab because supposedly they’ll add drinks and services to your tab if you’re not paying attention. Don’t be flashy and don’t be stupid. Pay attention. It’s best to go with a friend. Knowing how to speak some Spanish is suggested too, otherwise you won’t be able to talk to the staff.
How do people earn money in El Salvador?
El Salvador is like any other country. There are professional jobs in the city, farming jobs in the country and everything in between. The average salary for unskilled labor is $10 per day or $300 per month. For skilled labor, the salary rises to $600 or $700 per month, with a peak of about $1,000 per month. Of course, corporate jobs, university positions and government positions can earn significantly more than the average.
Personally, I’m a programmer. Being from the United States, I do freelance programming for clients in the United States from my computer in El Salvador. It sounds great, and sometimes it can be, but it’s also very stressful. I constantly need to prove my value, make my clients happy and provide top quality work. However, my situation is unique and doesn’t represent what life is like in El Salvador for most other foreigners, at least in terms of my work.
If you try to work in El Salvador it will be extremely difficult. The best option is to have your own small business, to work for the US Embassy, or other government-related position. You can also work at english-spanish speaking call-centers. There are many of them and you likely be paid decent (very low by US standards, but high by El Salvador standards) simply for being able to speak English fluently. Don’t expect more than $1500 per month.
The biggest challenge I have with my work is when the Wifi randomly stops working or the power goes out. That happens approximately one time every 2 or 3 weeks. It’s frustrating. That brings me to my next point…
Electricity and Wifi Network Outages
If you’re traveling or moving to El Salvador, be prepared for inconsistent internet. It’s just part of what life is like in El Salvador. The country is slowly improving but it will take time.
As a programmer, I rely on the internet heavily in my work. The internet and power goes out every couple of weeks. When the power goes out or internet stops working, it usually goes down for one or two hours. It depends. However, be patient. It will come back on without any effort. Usually, I just do computer work offline until it comes back.
What are the people in like?
Most people are kind and friendly. People here generally keep to themselves, although they’re friendly and willing to help you if you need something. If you are an obvious foreigner and can speak a little bit of Spanish, people will love to converse with you. When I say “obvious”, I mean having skin or hair thats lighter in color and stands out. El Salvador doesn’t receive as many foreigners as other countries in Central America because it’s off the beaten path and a lot of travelers skip El Salvador.
I should mention, the entire time that I’ve lived here in El Salvador, I have not seen a single black person in the entire country. I’m not sure why. I didn’t realize that until now, as I write this.
I’ve seen asians, europeans, jewish people, mormons, jahovas witnesses, people from the United States, canadians and people from all over latin america.
The laws are mostly un-enforced
The police here are focussed on gang violence, human trafficking and drugs, for the most part. They don’t have time for speeding tickets and checking seatbelts. In fact, parking tickets are non-existent here. I have mixed feelings about that. Again, it’s liberating not to ever get a parking ticket, but it’s super annoying when people abuse this freedom. I can’t tell you how many times people will stop and park in the middle of the road.
Tourist Visas and Residency Visas
If you overstay your visa, you will get charged a small fee. I think I paid $12 once when I accidentally overstayed my visa. Oops. However, after that happened, I applied for residency and now I am a resident of El Salvador. The process to become a resident took about 2 months, lots of waiting and about $150 in fees. I also have a NIT, which is required to pay taxes and buy property. I had to get a NIT to buy my car.
The bathroom situation
Yes, the bathrooms are different here because of the poor plumbing in the country. Most of the plumbing in El Salvador was put in place after the civil war of the 1980’s. The pipes are low quality and made with thin plastic. This means that toilet paper is discarded in waste-bins in the bathrooms. If you flush toilet paper down the toilet, the pipes will clog and you’ll have a bigger problem, namely an overflowing toilet.
All public bathrooms provide waste-bins. However, they don’t always provide toilet paper. Hotels, airports, shopping malls, and quality restaurants definitely provide toilet paper. However, anywhere else is a risk. You might not find toilet paper, so, bring a roll with you or at least fold some up and put it in your pocket.
What is the landscape like?
The landscape in El Salvador is breathtaking. The beaches are beautiful. Some beaches are sandy and some have a lot of rocks. The cliffs, mountains and volcanoes are incredible. Definitely hike the Volcano of San Salvador if you get a chance.
We’ve covered a lot here. I hope this gives you a good idea of what life is like in El Salvador. There’s so much more to talk about. But this should give you a good idea of what it’s like to live here.
Feel free to send me any questions. Thank you for reading!