Is El Salvador safe to visit?

The U.S. Department of State warning concerning El Salvador says, “Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape, and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”

Some areas of San Salvador are not very walkable because auto traffic here can be overwhelming. Here: near the corner of Boulevard Los Próceres & Avenida Infantería, San Salvador.

The U.S. Embassy in San Salvador reports, “Crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country. Since a rise in violence in the summer of 2015, the current murder rate in El Salvador is among the highest in the world, an annual rate of 103.1 murders per 100,000 citizens for 2015. In comparison, the U.S. rate is 4.5 per 100,000.  While U.S. citizens are not singled out as targets, the pervasive violence greatly increases the chance of someone being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  Since January 2010, 38 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador.  During the same time period, 449 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen, while others were victims of violent crimes.”

Essentials of travel. A Mexican Mac Store employee gave me the tool I use to open my iPhone for free. Nice guy. Also here are phone chips from T-Mobile (USA), Telcel (México), and Tigo (Central America). I bought the tiny dental box in a grocery store to keep everything nice and organized.

It’s hard to argue those facts. My experience in El Salvador has only been positive. When I compare Salvadorans to other Latin Americans, Salvadorans win the friendliness competition. They’re just EXTREMELY friendly and very curious about gringos. Sure, even small convenience stores have so many bars on the doors and windows that they look like prisons and it seems like half the jobs here are dedicated to private security guards brandishing huge, scary-looking shotguns. The guards are everywhere protecting even the smallest of businesses. But, the guards are all super-friendly and love to say hello to anyone passing by.

My false wallet. It has nothing of value except a 20-dollar bill which I make sure pokes out to make the wallet look valuable. I keep the wallet hidden, yet easily at hand in case I get mugged. Hopefully, it will be enough to satisfy a thief who will then run away.

The woman at a local grocery store I shop at always calls me “Corazón” – heart. I was in a mall two days ago and a security guard went out of his way to wave his hand high in the air right at me. I thought maybe I was breaking some rule and he wanted to correct me. I approached him and he said good morning and asked how I was doing. I said I was good. He asked if there was anything he could help me with. I said no, I was just wandering around, enjoying the day, “Es que, estoy deambulando, disfrutando el día”. He said that was great and he wished me a good day.

Funny 🙂

The currency of El Salvador. They use one-dollar coins here a lot. The first time I got a bunch of these John Adams coins in change, I mistook them for quarters. I put a bunch of them in the tip jar. Oops! I didn’t mean to do that! Oh well, the baristas got a good tip that day 😉
My bus ticket from San Salvador to Tegucigalpa. I bought it a week before my travel day. Unfortunately, there are no buses that leave in the morning; afternoon trips only 🙁 I was happy to reserve a first-class “asiento solito”; a seat not next to another. Yay! 🙂

I’ve had a few encounters where people just really wanted to know my story. Where am I from? Why am I here? Why am I visiting El Salvador? They can’t get enough of my stories. They’re just honestly, innocently curious. Very nice people.

No, they’re not dead – just sleeping through the midday heat. There were six of them, but I couldn’t get them all in the photo

I walk all over the city – the parts adjacent to the neighborhood where I’m living (San Benito), and I’ve felt extremely comfortable everywhere I go.

This is at the base of Monumento Mayor Roberto d’Aubuisson. Apparently, “no communism” is official government policy 😉 
Catedral de San Salvador
2ª Avenida Sur, downtown San Salvador
Downtown San Salvador
Palacio Nacional, downtown San Salvador. The guys on the right dressed in red are part of an FMLN demonstration. The “Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional” is the Marxist-Socialist party.

San Salvador

Nation number 79 on my hit parade.

The border crossing from Guatemala to El Salvador was interesting. As we approached the border, the driver made a long and difficult to understand announcement over a raspy speaker. I didn’t catch all of it, but I think the gist was that we would have to leave the bus and go into the immigrations office to have our passports stamped. He reminded us to avoid taking photos with our cellphones. Shortly after, we pulled up to the border station and stopped.

06:00, on the bus and ready to roll

I zipped up my backpack nice and secure for departing the bus. I already had plenty of U.S. cash in one pocket just in case there were any fees to pay. I didn’t think there were any, but you never know what to expect. I waited to see what the locals did and I followed suit. As I stepped off the bus I was mobbed by about 30 guys screaming, “Cambio!” “Dólares!” All of them had huge wads of U.S. currency in their hands and I suppose they wanted me to exchange my leftover Guatemalan currency for U.S. currency. I just kept repeating, “No, gracias”, “No, gracias”, “No, gracias” as I made my way through the throng. I followed a bunch of people into the immigrations and customs office and stood in a line. There were about 30 people in front of me, but it moved very quickly. Man, I feel like a skyscraper next to the locals. They are not tall people. I really stick out in a crowd with my relatively pale skin and nearly two-meter height.

Guatemala is shockingly green and lush

When it was my turn, I walked up to the window and handed over my passport. The lady looked it over while chatting with a friend on her cellphone, stamped a few things and handed it back. As I was walking out I handed a very short, old, wrinkled, woman beggar my extra Guatemalan coins. I bravely crossed through all the guys offering cambio again, got back on the bus and we drove off. I assumed we were good to go and we’d drive right into El Salvador, but not quite. The bus only drove a few meters across the river bridge, “Río Paz” and parked again. I guessed the bus driver had to do some paperwork on the El Salvador side of the border. So, we sat waiting in the bus parking lot for about 20 minutes. I wanted to take photos, but there were lots of security guards standing outside the bus and I didn’t want trouble.

View from the bus; roadside Guatemala

Eventually, a Salvadoran border agent came aboard and spoke to us individually, looking over our passports. He asked me a few questions (in Spanish, of course), “Who are you? Where are you from? When did you arrive in Guatemala? Do you live here or are you a tourist?”

Pretty simple.

Roadside Guatemala; if you click on the photo and zoom in, you can see his pineapples 😉

He left and then five minutes later a more serious looking official dressed in military-style black fatigues came on board looking for passports. He wasn’t interested in speaking to locals. He came straight to me. I assume this was because I was the only foreigner on the bus. He basically asked the same questions as the other guy had, but a little more detailed. I explained I was traveling through Central America on my way to Panama. He seemed happy with that, handed my passport back to me and that was that.

Then we drove into San Salvador. Easy peasy.

These are ubiquitous in rural El Salvador

San Salvador seems very nice.

Oddly, my Airbnb rental is only a five-minute walk from the bus depot. The Sheraton downtown doubles as a Pullmantur bus station. I got off the bus, handed the driver 20 quetzales as a tip (he was surprised) and walked to my flat. I arrived there at 11:45. I didn’t know it wouldn’t be ready until 14:00. No problem. I walked back to the Sheraton and had pasta and beer. It’s a beautiful hotel. I sat outside by the waterfall/pool and had an excellent time.

View from the bus; roadside El Salvador

El Salvador is the first country I’ve visited that uses the “voseo” form of Spanish. It’s a dialect I’ve never studied, never used and never even heard before. I’ve heard the Argentine accent in films, but it’s not quite the same thing. So far I don’t notice much of a difference, but we’ll see how it goes.

As in México and Guatemala, fast-food vendors are everywhere in El Salvador

Sure enough, they use U.S. dollars here. That’s so unusual. They even give change in U.S. coins. I wondered about that. Using the dollar bill is one thing, but an entire country using U.S. coins as well? I’m surprised. Coins are extremely heavy in mass. They must bring change into the country using heavy-lift aircraft. I wonder how it was all done initially in 2001. For an entire country to use the dollar, you must need billions of dollars in bills and coins. It would seem a significant logistical problem. I need to look into it.

View from the bus; roadside El Salvador

Shortly after finishing my meal and choosing to sit back and relax with a beer until 14:00, a bunch of hens arrived in the restaurant. They were big and did a lot of chirping. Naturally, they just waltzed into the restaurant, because obviously, they own it. Either they knew they owned the place or they just had an attitude since everyone knows now that they’re not birds, they’re really dinosaurs. They stared at me expecting, what else, food. The waiter chased them out and they left without complaining. You could tell they were thinking, “Stupid mammals. We’re dinosaurs!!!” The mammalian waiter went back to the kitchen and came back with a few bread rolls. Then he proceeded to tear up the bread into small pieces and feed it to them – outside the restaurant. I think if you don’t want dinosaurs in your restaurant, you don’t feed them, but I’m just a foreigner here. It’s none of my business 🙂

View from the bus; roadside El Salvador

There’s a pathologists convention in the hotel. They have posterboards all over the place complete with photos of diseases. Gross.

View from the bus; roadside El Salvador
View from the bus; roadside El Salvador
View from the bus; roadside El Salvador
Sheraton Hotel, San Salvador
Dinosaurs
Mammal

Tour of Central America’s murder capitals

Guatemala City is the first city I’m visiting on this trip that has the honor of being in the top 50 murder capitals of the world list. It comes in at #24. Tomorrow I board a bus for San Salvador, which has the distinction of being at #17 in the world. Salvadorans must laugh at a low placement of 24. Guatemala City is clearly a lightweight when it comes to murder. They need to work on their game.

Catedral de Santiago de Guatemala, Guatemala City

After eight days in San Salvador, I plan to be in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Tegucigalpa is way down the list at #35. Clearly, a much safer city 😉

I haven’t felt threatened or uncomfortable in Guatemala City, but I’ve done my best to not look like an easy mark. I’m constantly aware of everything and everyone around me. I keep my valuables in a money belt under my clothes and I also have a phony wallet with bills sticking out of it in one of my pockets. If I’m robbed, I’ll hand it over – but not too fast. I plan to make it look like I really don’ t want to give it away. I’ll keep my head on a swivel for San Salvador and Tegucigalpa.

If I disappear tomorrow, I was supposed to be on the 6:15 Pullmantur bus from Guatemala City to San Salvador. It leaves from in front of the Holiday Inn.

See ya! 😉

(maybe)

The trek so far…

The Quetzal and Guatemala

In case you aren’t aware, the Quetzal (“ket-sal”) is Guatemala’s national bird. It’s arguably the most beautiful bird in the world. It’s not only the national bird, but it’s also the name Guatemala has given to its national currency. Instead of dollars or pesos, they have quetzals or “quetzales”

The Quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird. This is not my photo. It was shamelessly stolen from the internet-machine.

It takes a couple of days to get set up in a new country, but I’m good now. Yesterday I bought a local phone chip for my iPhone and I got a few hundred quetzals to use for spending money. Yay 🙂

The one-quetzal bill.

Quetzal notes, of course, have the Quetzal bird on the front and in the upper right-hand corner of the bills are the ancient Mayan symbols for the denomination the bill represents. Very nice.

The 100 queztal note. As of today, about $12.95 USD.

On 8 November I leave Guatemala and get on a bus for El Salvador, so my currency and my phone chip will be useless.

Would you like to guess what the national currency of El Salvador is?

Go ahead, guess.

Guess!

What do you think it is?

If you’re a savvy bugger, you’ll know it’s…

The U.S. dollar 😉

Zone 4, Guatemala City

Among others, El Salvador, Panama and Ecuador use the U.S. dollar as their national currency. Interesting, eh? Interesting and strange.

Yesterday I decided to walk into downtown Guatemala City. I’m in Zone 10. I had to walk from Zone 10 into Zone 4 and on to Zone 1, which is the old center of the city.

Zone 1, Guatemala City

At the end of the day I had hoofed it for more than 19 kilometers. I took an Uber back to my flat 🙂 I’m such a wuss.

Zone 1, Guatemala City. I don’t know what the name of this building is, but it’s certainly beautiful.

The ride back was good. My driver was very curious about the gringo in his back seat. He asked lots of questions about all the countries I’ve been to. His heart’s desire is to some day be at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I told him it’s a nice view from there.

Palacio Nacional de Guatemala en la Plaza de la Constitución, Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala

Is Guatemala City dangerous? You’d certainly think so from what you read on the internet. I have to say I feel 100% comfortable here and I don’t feel one bit unsafe. Then again, I don’t plan to visit any extremely poor neighborhoods 😉

Coffee in Guatemala

I’m writing this in the early morning from a sweet little coffee shop near my flat – Bella Vista Coffee. I love a place that opens early and this place opens at 6:00 every morning except Sunday (7:00). Sweet.

Bella Vista Coffee, Plaza Diez, Guatemala City

It’s very modern and they’re playing classic tunes from The Police.

Okay… 🙂

The barista is a sweet young thing. She gave me a pretty nice smile, but then, I suppose she’s paid to treat customers well.  She’s one of those people who speaks by barely opening their mouths. The Guatemalan accent throws me just a little. I’ve never heard it before. This girl spoke so fast with an almost closed mouth and with a slightly different accent – I struggled to catch everything she was saying. I need more practice with the local Spanish dialect.

Bella Vista Coffee; clean, modern, free wifi, not busy. This is my kind’a coffee shop.

I wanted to try some local café cuisine. I didn’t recognize anything on the menu, so I just chose something at random; “muffin huevo”.  They brought it to me a few minutes later.

Muffin Huevo. Not really my style, but it’s fun to try something different.

Gotta say – Guatemalan coffee is excellent – of course 😉

Guatemala

Well, I made it 🙂

Zona 10, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala City is nice! I like it here. So green! I guess that’s expected since this area is basically all jungle.

As you may have read in my last post, my travel day didn’t go quite as scheduled. I had decided early on that it would be fun to walk from the Guatemala City Airport into the city itself to my flat. On the map, it looked like a fine idea 😉

Here I am just as I was walking away from the Guatemala City Airport. It had just rained.

Despite all the warnings I’ve read, it wasn’t dangerous at all. It was perfectly safe. A rainstorm had just drenched the city, but it was done by the time I walked out of the airport. Everything didn’t go as planned. Because my day had been upended a bit, I had forgotten to download a map of the city. I was walking blindly with only a general idea of where I was headed. I asked a lot of locals along the way for directions, but nobody seemed to know where my street or my building was (Avenida Novena and Edificio Aria). Sheesh. I could picture a map of the area in my head, but my memory wasn’t detailed enough. I walked all over the place and almost gave up. If I had to, I was going to grab a taxi. My feet were getting very tired. The problem with getting a taxi was that I only had Mexican pesos and U.S. dollars in my pockets, I didn’t have any Quetzals, which are the national currency. Would a taxi take dollars? I dunno. I doubt it.

Sexta Avenida, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Yes, I could have found an ATM, but the other thing my hectic travel day had interrupted was my planned notification to my credit card companies and my bank that I would be in Central America. Oops. I was afraid to use a credit card or a debit card for fear one of them might be declined, resulting in problems. Hmmm. No money, no map, no local phone card and lost. Damn!

I was getting very tired. I checked my iPhone and it said I had walked over 16 kilometers 🙁

I decided to give it one more try and I struck out in another direction.

Gold.

Zona 10, Guatemala City, Guatemala

After zigzagging around a few more city blocks, I eventually found my apartment building. Sweet!!! I was dead tired. Remember, I had gotten up at 3:30 and my sleep had been rudely interrupted. I was sleep deprived and hungry. I needed a shower and a bed.

The view from my penthouse, Edificio Aria

My penthouse condo is awesome! It’s tricked out with wood paneling everywhere and it’s super-modern. The views of the neighborhood are excellent and I’m writing this from my balcony outside. Today I had lots of coffee and great food. Life is good again 🙂

Puebla to Mexico City to Guatemala City

Today I’m traveling to Guatemala City after two months in Puebla. The day was more challenging than I expected. For starters, I checked a few internet sources and they all said the distance from my flat in Puebla to the center of Mexico City was a matter of 2+15 hours in a car. I figured with traffic, maybe three hours. 

Wrong.

Everything I need to live abroad is inside my small backpack 🙂

Just in case there were delays, I pre-ordered my Uber the day before and scheduled a 4:00 a.m. pickup. That meant I had to prepack my backpack and get up no later than 3:30 in the morning. I went to bed early.

Shortly after dozing off, I was awakened by my bedroom light. There were two people standing in my room.

What the hell???

Driving in Mexico City. Is this a street or a lake?

It was the husband and wife team who are owners of my Airbnb rental. They were curious why I was still in the flat. I gotta tell ya, it’s not easy engaging my Spanish from a cold stop dead sleep into having a conversation I’ve never practiced and never expected to have.

I said (in Spanish, of course), “Uh, I have the flat until 31 October” (they woke me up on the evening of the 30th). They were doubtful. I insisted, yes, it was mine until then. After they figured out their error they offered profuse apologies. What a ridiculous situation. I was extremely irritated. You just don’t do something like that. But I stayed calm, which was made easier since I was still trying to wake up.

They promptly left the flat, red-faced. I went back to sleep and woke up at 3:30.

My brave driver picking his way through the morass.

I’m super-happy I left Puebla at 4:00 a.m. The drive was 5+30 hours long! I expected the traffic into Mexico City to be bad, but this was unbelievable! It was a mess! It hadn’t rained in Puebla the night before, but it had rained in Mexico City. The streets were completely flooded everywhere. It was controlled pandemonium.

In case you aren’t aware, Mexico City is located in the bowl of a valley that’s surrounded by mountains. The water from rainstorms has nowhere to go. It has to evaporate. So, if it rains hard, the valley turns into a shallow lake. A nasty, polluted, shallow lake.

My flight wasn’t until 1:00 p.m., so I wasn’t stressed about time, but my arse was very tired after being sat upon for far too long. I finally got out of the Uber and stretched my legs near the Ángel de la Independencia in downtown Mexico City, then I took a taxi to the airport.

Ángel de la Independencia in downtown Mexico City

My friends Raminta and Dennis will probably remember hanging out with me near the Ángel de la Independencia. This is probably the fourth time I’ve been in Mexico City? Yeah, that’s it. Four visits there. Great town to visit. Love it there.

Once I was at the airport, everything was a breeze. I stopped by a Starbucks, got a latte and sat down to enjoy it. Then I found a sweet little restaurant in the terminal, “Sala 21”, complete with electrical outlets. Very nice.

The Mexico City airport has been remodeled since the last time I was here about 10 years ago. I couldn’t tell it was the same airport.

The Average Nomad and the Ángel de la Independencia in downtown Mexico City

I had pictured the flight to Guatemala to be on a small, old, cramped airplane since it’s such a short flight on a route between poor countries. It was surprisingly modern with a fair amount of leg room. Either way, no matter. The flight was less than two hours long. Two hours goes by quickly.

And, here we are in the 78th nation I’ve visited – Guatemala. Nice. Did you know if you visit 100 nations, you can join the Century Club?

I hope my Airbnb is as nice as advertized. It’s a penthouse and comes with rave reviews. If everything goes to plan, eight days after landing in Guatemala I’ll be arriving in San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. Fun, fun, fun 🙂

From México to Guatemala

In just a few days, 31 October to be exact, I’ll be in Guatemala. This should be very interesting. It’s my first time to Central America. Eight days after arriving in Guatemala I’ll be on a bus to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. After that, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Ooh la la 😉

Guatemala City (not my photo – I haven’t been there yet 😉

I’m reading a lot about safety in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Man! The warnings about crime in these cities is a little daunting. But, what the hell. I’ve been to three war zones already. What’s the worst that could happen?

Right? 🙂

San Salvador (not my photo either 😉

Cholula is chill (and some comments about racism)

Normally I get up at 5:15 in the morning, get out of the house by 5:30 and do at least 1+30 of walking/running. Yesterday I decided to walk from the city of Puebla to the city of Cholula. It took me about two hours to get to the Cholula Starbucks and I was ready to sit down and have a coffee break.

Nuestra Señora de los Remedios overlooking Cholula

Cholula is a beautiful city. The population is a little over 100,000 and it’s much more relaxed than the big city of Puebla. There’s much less auto traffic, the parks are large and the people have a chill demeanor.

Zócalo de San Andrés Cholula

After resting and having my coffee I walked around the city. By day’s end my iPhone told me I’d clocked over 23,000 steps. Ouch.

Plaza de la Concordia, Cholula

I found a great little restaurant off one of the city plazas and I treated myself to pizza and three beers. Total cost: 250 pesos or about $12.50 USD. That seems very inexpensive to me.

Restaurant Ocho30, Cholula

After lunch my feet said they were tired of walking, so I ordered an Uber. The fare was only 80 pesos or about four bucks USD. So cheap. An Uber ride is a great way to practice Spanish. My driver told me he spent 15 years in Texas working in the oil fields. To me, that sounds like a hard way to make money. He said it was a little too long. He couldn’t wait to come back home. He’s like many of the Mexicans I meet here. Quite a few of them have visited and worked in the U.S., but they just want to make some money and go back home as soon as they can.

I gave Rodrigo, my driver, a 100 peso tip. He was a good guy and it was a good conversation. It got me to thinking about the U.S. and how mean spirited so many people there are about foreigners.

I don’t want to say never, but right now I can’t imagine living in a country where so many people support the racist, bigoted words and views of the current president. How can people support his hateful, malicious lies?

Trump attacked an Indiana-born federal judge. He said the judge could not be impartial because he was “Mexican”. This federal judge is not Mexican. He’s an American. Trump is a racist based on the words that come out of his own mouth.

Trump said about immigrants to the U.S., “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Currently, a group of people are marching north to claim asylum in the United States. Trump made a wild claim that there were “Middle Easterners” in the group. Later he admitted he had no proof of this. Why did he make this claim? Because he wants to stoke fear and racist attitudes in the U.S. What difference would it make if there were “Middle Easterners” in the group? What difference would it make if there were Asians, Africans or Canadians in the group? Why mention “Middle Easterners” at all? Because he’s a bigot and he wants to play on the fears of small-minded U.S. citizens.

Donald Trump called for, “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. How much more blatantly bigoted can a person be?

If you support this bigot, how can you live with yourself? How can you look yourself in the mirror knowing you support bigotry and racism? How can you face your family? How can you expect me to live in the United States?

The United States has changed into something I do not recognize.

 

New crib in Puebla, Mexico

I took a chance and rented an Airbnb for a month. It came with a 40% discount  since I was willing to stay for 30 days. Nearly half-off is a compelling argument. The place is great. I’m within a 10-minute walk to two posh shopping malls, tons of fancy restaurants and a number of parks with walking/running trails. This is great. Price? $1,300 USD. I think it’s a steal.

Popo Volcano blowing off some steam

This place even has a gym! It feels so good to warm the old muscles up again. I do miss being in a penthouse. I’ll have to search closely for one wherever I end up going to next.

Angelópolis, Puebla

In my current building I bring the door guys cookies every 3-4 days. They seem to like that. I don’t know what a security guard makes in Mexico, but I’m thinking it ain’t much.

Near Parque del Arte, Puebla

I even have my choice of four Starbucks locations. Not too shabby!

My current flat is inside the red rectangle. Two volcanoes in the background.

My rental here ends on 31 October. Where to next? Mexico City? Guatemala City? Havana? I’m not sure yet. I need to think it over.