San Salvador, El Salvador Report of what it's like to live there - 04/28/12
Personal Experiences from San Salvador, El Salvador
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
NYC, 8 hrs w/ connections in ATL (Delta), IAD (UA) or Miami (AA).
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Educator (NGO sector).
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Rental options are limited and basic. Apartments are virtually non-existent, but 2-3 bedroom houses in gated "residencias" can be found in the $500-800 range especially in Santa Tecla and San Benito at the south end of town. Be advised that landlords have no problem retaining your entire security deposit on cooked-up reasons. Work through your employer or the embassy to find ethical landlords/owners.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Super Selectos and Dispensa Don Juan are the big chain supermarkets. My local Super Selectos charges slightly under what you would pay in a mid-sized American city. The Salvadoran diet ranges from rice to beans to pupusas and back again. There is very little spice or seasonings in anything. Thus, supermarket offerings are limited. Anything imported is marked up 50-100% and is often expired or near expiration.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
All manner of incredibly unhealthy fast food, from McDonald's to a foul local chain called Biggest. Most are at or slightly below US prices. Heart disease and cancer rates are increasing due to dietary negligence.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
I know of no organic foods beyond the "female diet" aisle in Super Selectos where you can find TVP, marked up Wasa crackers, some soy protein, and stevia. The concept of organic, or simply eating healthily, does not exist here.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants and mosquitoes during dry season. Five-inch cockroaches in your house's nooks and crannies are not uncommon.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Postal System is reliable though DHL. El Salvador will charge you a fee for anything they possibly can.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Cheap, $10 for a maid to clean house and garden.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
I've seen a few dark and dreary places operating out of old mechanics shops.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Visa/MC is widely accepted, but you will pay the associated foreign fees. Citibank is here, but has no connection to Citibank in the US. You will pay fees on any ATM transactions. Open a local bank account if you are here for any length of time at HSBC, Citi, or Banco Agricola.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Spanish is certainly helpful. Salvadorans who have spent time in the US can generally speak English at least phonetically.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Again, those with respiratory issues are forewarned.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Buses are regularly held up by gang members exacting bribes or just hungry people who ask a dollar from all passengers while wielding knife. Take the local taxis. Fares are reasonable, but negotiate in advance. It's 25 USD to the airport.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
4x4s (Landcruisers, Monteros, Troopers) are plentiful.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Tigo again. About $19/month for reliable DSL.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Tigo is cheap and reliable.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Conservative, vaguely reminiscent of the Soviet '80s.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
ES is one of the most dangerous countries on earth due to ongoing gang activity and drug trafficking. There were 4308 murders in 2011. Though this is unlikely to affect you directly as an expat, unless you are running narcotics, it casts a pale over the country's psyche that, to be brief, sucks incredibly.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Much of the diet is toxic. My local GP (good ones are based in Escalon) is good, and fixed me up affordably ($40) when I got a nasty URI.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
San Salvador air pollution has exceeded the WHO's standards for the better part of two decades. The dry season cooks up a medley of dust, lead, arsenic, and mercury that will put the brakes on any daytime outdoor cardio-vascular activity. You can avoid some diurnal pollution by getting out before dawn if you run for example. Those with any pre-existing respiratory issues should think twice before coming.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Wet (approx late May to late September). Dry the rest of the year with the rare shower. Temps are mid 90s to high 60s in San Sal for most of the year. It's warmer at the coast and cooler in rural parts.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The British Academy has the best reputation ahead of the American school. There is no true international school here however. Students are 95% Salvadorans, most from the top 1% of society.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Miniscule. There's not even a Hash House Harriers.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Dance clubs, especially at the area malls, abound.
3. Morale among expats:
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Decent for families, ok for singles. As a single gringo male, it can be hard/impossible to find educated, worldly women. There has been a marked brain drain to North America/Europe.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I can't imagine a society that is this conservative would welcome gays with open arms.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There are no ethnic minorities here.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The beaches from La Libertad north to Los Cobanos offer good surfing, cheap lodging and some nightlife for the backpacker set.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Beaches are nice. Black volcanic sand and epic surfing waves. Much of the primary forest has been denuded, so you need to head to Costa Rica for rainforest. The Santa Ana volcano makes for a nice day trip but you are forced to take a guide (totally unneeded).
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Indigenous culture is long gone in ES. For pottery, textile, weavings, head to Guate.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
I'm really stretching here, but saving money comes to mind.
11. Can you save money?
Yes. A single can easily live on less than $500/month.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
ES has the third largest economy in the region but the ruling economic and political elite has overwhelmingly reaped the benefit of this. The country has not experienced any of the tourist boom that Costa Rica/Panama and to a lesser extent Guatemala has seen. This is a shame because it's about the only sector that could funnel significant revenue to a broad base of society.
Salvadorans, if I can speak generally, are warm, hospitable and helpful but also hampered by a long history of social stratification. The massive gang problem is rarely seen (and certainly not by the ruling class) as a side effect of poverty and educational disenfranchisement, but rather the natural extension of the inherent inferiority of the have-not's. This is social Darwinism at its worst and Salvadorans seriously need to dispense with this kind of thinking if they wish to address their country's ills.