El Salvador may be Central America’s least visited nation. Those who travel to the region tend to only pass through its capital, San Salvador.
Development professionals based in the city consider such relative obscurity one of San Salvador’s greatest assets. Other pluses include the presence of highly trained, friendly locals and the city’s American-oriented, businesslike environment, which means that development workers can forge strong professional and personal ties with Salvadorans instead of living in the expat bubble.
High level of Americanization
San Salvador is one of Central America’s most Americanized cities. Many of its 1.8 million inhabitants have lived in the United States or have family abroad. Thus, English language skills and familiarity with the American culture is common.
“The whole attitude of Salvadorans is oriented toward the United States,” said Reinhard Junghanns, EuropeAid’s head of cooperation for El Salvador. “The U.S. lifestyle is being imitated.”
The country uses the U.S. dollar for its national currency, and San Salvador’s streets are lined with KFC, Pizza Hut and Subway stores.
“It’s franchise heaven here,” said one development professional.
“I’m in the Chicago time zone,” she said. “I have perfect weather. You can get everything you would want in the U.S.”
The city’s relatively robust economy also creates a more Western-style business environment.
“It has a professional challenge,” said Aldo Miranda of the Research Triangle Institute. “It’s not a ‘banana republic’ where you have siesta time. People take quick lunches and spend a lot of time at work.”
The composition of the international donor community in San Salvador reflects the city’s American orientation. The U.S. embassy in San Salvador is one of the largest in the region, and the U.S. Agency for International Development mission serves as the regional office for Mexico and Central America. The Millennium Challenge Corp. has awarded its largest compact in Latin America, worth $461 million, to El Salvador.
Save for the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation, European donors typically have smaller footprints in San Salvador.
Forging personal connections with locals is relatively easy in a city like San Salvador, which boasts a large, educated middle class.
“People in El Salvador are lovely,” Galas said. “They are passionate about their country, and they are interested in the rest of the world.”
Most development expats said they do not miss the lack of a formal expat community in San Salvador.
“Expat networks are tighter in areas where the situations are difficult, and there is a need to cluster,” said Chemonics International Project Director Carlos Quintela. “But here, it’s fairly easy to develop a network of [Salvadoran] friends.”
Although not a nightlife mecca, San Salvador offers a variety of options for connecting with expats and locals. Similar to many Central American cities, San Salvador has several centers.
Much of the city’s dining and entertainment establishments are located inside malls.
“As strange as that seems, the malls are sort of the community spaces,” Galas said.
The most popular mall with expats is La Gran Via, a commercial center near the upscale neighborhood of San Benito in the city’s southwest.
La Gran Via seems like a not-so-distant cousin of Minnesota’s Mall of America: Food choices range from Papa John’s and Bennigan’s Grill & Tavern to Quinznos and Benihanas, the Japanese steakhouse. For entertainment, there are bars, discos and a movie theater.
For those less interested in the mall experience, one upscale restaurant popular with development expatriates is La Ventana.
“It’s owned by a German guy … and a lot of foreigners and Peace Corps volunteers hang out there,” Miranda said. “It’s a transcultural place.”
La Ventana is located near Boulevard de los Heroes, which has several other bohemian restaurants, bars and cafes. These sites include Leyendas, Café la T and Café la Luna.
“They are fun, they have live music,” Galas said. “They are sort of a combination of lefty college kids and lefty expats.”
Although many of these bars are within walking distance of one another, a taxi is recommended to visit this area during the evening due to security.
American hotel chains are the most common choice for visitors on development-related business.
The popular Inter-Continental Hotel is located in the Blanca Flor neighborhood near the central business district and next to the Metrocentro mall. It’s also an option for hosting development-related events. Room rates begin at $80 per night for preferred customers.
Also popular, particularly with USAID staff, is the Hotel Sheraton Presidente located in the San Benito neighborhood. The Sheraton is also near the Zona Rosa area, which has a cluster of entertainment options. Prices begin at about $100 per night.
The Courtyard Marriott is also located at La Gran Via, near the U.S. embassy in the southwest part of the city. It is a popular location due to its walking distance from entertainment at the mall. Prices start at around $125 per night.
Bed-and-breakfast lodging offers homeyness and local character at more affordable rates. One highly rated venue is El Árbol del Fuego. Covered in flowers and decorated with rustic local design, this bed and breakfast is located in the upper-middle-class La Sultana neighborhood near San Benito and only five minutes from La Gran Via. It offers quiet rooms, an outdoor patio workspace, free wireless Internet and breakfast. Room rates begin at $45 per night.
The homes and offices of development professionals are clustered in several neighborhoods. In addition to San Benito and La Sultana, Antiguo Cuscatlán, a municipality bordering San Salvador on the southwest, is an increasingly popular area with development professionals.
“Most people who work at the U.S. embassy live there,” Galas said. “And now, the United Nations people are moving there because the U.N. moved their headquarters near the embassy.”
Another central neighborhood where development professionals live is Escalón, which is close to high-quality restaurants.
“It’s right in the center of the nice part of town,” Galas said. “You can find town houses and gated communities with big family houses.”
Also close to Escalón are the German and Spanish embassies and the Centro Español. Many expats frequent the latter, an affordable sports club with a swimming pool and tennis court.
Cost of living
Living in San Salvador is expensive. The rent for a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in a good neighborhood will average $800 per month, while the rate for a two-bedroom is worth $1,500 per month. Food is also pricey.
“Everything else [other than food and housing] is much cheaper and prices go down 30-40 percent as soon as you get out of San Salvador,” Miranda said.
Based on statistics, El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. According to a United Nations survey on crime trends, the country had the highest homicide rate per capita in 2006, with 58 homicides per 100,000 people.
Much of this violence is confined to rival gangs and contained within certain neighborhoods that expats can avoid. But even savvy development professionals who have lived in some of the world’s toughest hardship posts say the threat of crime is real.
“It is restrictive, especially if you come from Europe and the U.S. and you are used to having the freedom to walk in public places,” Miranda said.
Walking at night is highly discouraged, and most expats limit their walking during the day. Unfortunately, public buses are a primary target for gangs, and there are daily reports of robberies and violence on the bus system.
“I don’t think any [development] agency would recommend using public transport,” Miranda said. “At RTI, we are not allowed to use the bus.”
Taxis are a safer transportation option, particularly when they are hailed from known locations like a hotel or restaurant. Taxi rides in San Salvador begin at $5 and typically cost between $5 and $9. Taxis are the recommended method of travel in the city for those without private cars.
Fortunately for expats, San Salvador offers easy escapes from the crime-fueled tension permeating the city.
A refuge since the civil war, El Salvador’s Pacific coast is only a half hour from the capital and is one of the city’s most popular getaways. In addition to world-class waves, it is also a social hub.
“Everyone I’ve met has been at the beach, not in San Salvador,” Galas said. “There’s people there from San Salvador, as well as expats.”
Galas said she rents a beach house with a group of friends for $400 per month. There is also a beach club called Joya del Pacifico that charges only $50 per month.
Located in the north and west of San Salvador, the highlands offer cloudy mountains and misty views of active volcanoes that are prime destinations for hikes, picnics, bird-watching and camping trips. Nearby volcanoes Boqueron, Cerro Verde, Volcan Santa Ana and Volcan Izalco are all within two hours of the city.
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