San Salvador, El Salvador Report of what it's like to live there - 12/08/15
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?
Many other experiences in Latin America, Europe, Asia.
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?
DC. Huge number of flights between El Salvador and the U.S. Twice daily to DC, 3-4 daily to Los Angeles, and regular connections to Houston, Miami, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Toronto. Good connections to South America on Avianca or Copa as well. San Salvador is a hub for Avianca, so multiple daily flights everywhere in Central America. That said, prices tend to be steep for short trips, and it is often cheaper to fly to the U.S. (2-4 hours) than to Nicaragua (40 minutes).
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
USG folks used to be split between really nice apartments in the fancy urban part of San Salvador, and houses located a 10 minute walk from the Embassy. Now we all are put into houses near or relatively close to the Embassy. Houses are fairly new, large, and usually have decent yards. All come with maids quarters and usually a nice porch/lanai. And often mature fruit trees as well! Typical commute to the Embassy is never more than 20 minutes from the furthest place, and many folks are within walking/biking distance. Although the suburban feel really doesn't appeal to many people, the housing quality, location, and amenities are all quite good.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
We have decent grocery stores that stock a large selection of stuff, even gluten-free items. You can get pretty much everything you need, as well as imported items from home. The quality of the local meat is pretty bad, and the cold-storage facilities aren't great either (frozen/thaw/refrozen equals bad taste and a case of food poisoning). Great beer and liquor selection; only cheap and crappy wine available in country.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Olive oil, paper products (napkins, toilet paper, paper towels), and a good gas grill as it is grilling weather pretty much every day.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Every American fast-food chain is here. The restaurants are ok, and reasonably priced. You're not going to get too many gourmet meals here; remember you are in a small city in Central America and you will learn not to be too disappointed. Pupusas are filling, cheap, and very authentically Salvadoran. You'll find hundreds of pupusarias in Antiguo Cuscatlan and Olocuilta; finding your favorite is a fun pastime. And you can get everything delivered to your house.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
For being in the tropics, we've had minimal problems. Mosquitoes, especially in the rainy season, but nothing too terrible. Some ants that spray took care of.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Great availability and very affordable (US$300-400 per month). Nannys and maids within the embassy community are paid better, but also tend to be some of the best. Our nanny is fantastic, so great with the kids, and keeps the house spotless. Live-in is common.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Skimming cards is common here; but many places have cracked down on this and credit cards are much safer to use. Cash is best (we only use the ATM and bank at the embassy). El Salvador is fully dollarized, though you will see the one-dollar coins here more than the bills.
4. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
In theory you could get by with very little (1/5 of all Salvadorans live in the U.S, and many have spent time there). In practice, Spanish is essential for pretty much every transaction. Salvadorans are very patient with all attempts to communicate in Spanish, no matter how poorly one speaks it.
5. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
If you are unable to drive a car here, you'd have issues. The upscale malls and shops have accessible entrances and will make accommodations. El Salvador suffered through a long civil war, leaving many people with permanent mobility problems, so they are somewhat used to making accommodations as needed.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local buses are incredibly dangerous, with high numbers of shootings, robberies, and sexual assaults. Taxis dispatched from the Embassy are safe, and our embassy American Association has shuttles available for hire for a reasonable price (about the same as a taxi to/from 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?
The roads in El Salvador are the best in Central America by far. You really could get by with anything, no need for a massive SUV or 4-Wheel Drive. The biggest annoyance are the speed bumps, higher clearance is best if you can. Most major international car brands are here, and service is easy to get and cheap. Prepare to become an aggressive driver.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, far better than what we got in DC. US$60-100/month depending on the speed desired. The house walls are concrete and you may want an additional router/repeater if you want wifi throughout the house.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring an unlocked phone. Tigo and Claro are the big providers here, with Movistar and Digicel trying to move into the market. Contract plans are cheap, as are rates to call the U.S.
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?
No and yes. Very easy to import a cat/dog, and many quality vets available. Embassy is super dog-friendly with a walking trail and poop bags.
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?
Decent, yes. Well-paying, no. There is a chronic skill-set shortage in the country (brain drain because of the security situation), but the labor costs here are very low. Good for keeping a resume up to date, not a lucrative move financially.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty. Pick your cause (child poverty, environment, animals), you'll find something.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal at the embassy, business casual elsewhere. Only rich Salvadorans and expats wear shorts when not at the beach.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Short answer: yes. Long answer: it is very complicated. El Salvador will have the highest murder rate in the world (excluding active war zones) in 2015. Criminal violence, especially gang-related, is a serious problem in the entire country, and is by far the hardest/most difficult part of living here. There are multiple areas of the city that are entirely off-limits at all times. Within the diplomatic bubble, we aren't really directly affected by it as much (the gangs aren't looking to pick a fight with the USG). Yes, we can't just go for a walk at night, but then again, the roads (and drivers) here are completely pedestrian unfriendly anyway so it's kind of a moot point. We follow our security advice and feel safe here. The hardest part is that the violence affects everyone else in the country so much more. So while we feel safe, our gardener and nanny do have to worry about it as it directly affects their communities.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
No malaria, but there is dengue and other nasties. Really good health care and good facilities. Several folks from the embassy have had procedures done here rather than medevac because of the quality/price of care.
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, and especially where the expats/diplomats live is up the mountains meaning cooler temperatures and decent air quality. Down in the city the diesel fumes can be bad, but this is mitigated by keeping your windows up. Nice fresh sea breezes make it over the mountains at around 5pm each day, except during the dry season when the trade winds keep it nice and cool all day long.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Dry/wet seasons. Dry season begins in November and lasts through April. The first part of the dry season is called the "windy season" because of the fresh breezes. In April and May it gets a bit hot before the rainy season kicks in. Rainy season means sunny in the morning with big afternoon/evening thunderstorms. When a hurricane is forming offshore (they don't hit us, but move north to Mexico), we get 3-4 days of light rain/mist and cool temps that make it feel more like Seattle than San Salvador. Highs in the mid-80sF, lows in the mid-60sF every day, year-round.
Schools & Children:
1. 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?
Really nice preschool options, and a variety to choose from. Many are bilingual, and are reasonably priced. Most run mornings only. Salvadorans begin preschool as soon as they can walk, so age usually isn't an issue. Younger children almost always have a nanny, at least for the afternoons when they come home from preschool.
2. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
At the international schools, and within the embassy community.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's a big U.S. Embassy, and people are generally really happy here. The Embassy is very well-run, and there are lots of events to suit every age/interest group. The local expat population is pretty easy to meet as well.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a really perfect place for families with younger kids, especially infants and preschoolers (affordable and talented household help, and a culture that loves children). Couples do well, particularly if they like to travel and are adventurous. Many singles like it here; the dating culture apparently is pretty similar to the U.S. It is hardest on families with teenagers as the security issues preclude being able to go out much.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
San Salvador is a small city in a very conservative catholic country. From what I understand there is a very small scene, but the country as a whole is not very "out". Completely different within the expat/diplomatic community of course.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
90-95% of Salvadorans look the same (mixed European and indigenous); so there isn't as huge of a racial disparity that you see elsewhere in Latin America. Expats of all origins stand out as expats, and generally don't appear to have too many issues. There is certainly an undercurrent of Latin American machismo, but this affects local Salvadoran women far more than expats.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Hiking the volcanoes (Santa Ana, Izalco), weekends at the beach (40 minute drive), weekends at Lake Coatepeque, coffee sampling from the various fincas, finding the perfect pupusa, being able to grow pretty much everything (fruit, veg, etc) in our yard. And if you really get bored, Guatemala and Honduras are only 4 hour drives away. If you like to surf, you will be in heaven. You can surf world-class waves in the morning before heading to work, every day.
6. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Weather is perfect pretty much every day of the year. People are warm and friendly, super family-friendly culture. The countryside is beautiful, with quite a bit to see and pretty much no other tourists. Excellent coffee.
7. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How awesome it is!
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, this is one of the best posts in the world! You want to be here.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Heavy winter clothing, expectations and assumptions about El Salvador.
4. But don't forget your:
Expert surfing skills, swimsuit, wine, hiking shoes, aggressive driving tendencies.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Most of the material is related to the horrible atrocities committed during the civil war. Useful for background, but won't tell you much about the current state of the country.