San Salvador, El Salvador Report of what it's like to live there - 02/06/22
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?
No. I have lived in Eastern Europe and the Middle East previously.
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?
Home is mid-Atlantic US. We opted to drive to DC and take a direct flight, so total travel time was 9-10 hours. The flight from DC to San Salvador (direct) was about 4.5 hours. There are a lot of options to travel back to the US, and I think they’re mostly in the 9-14 hour range, depending on where you’re going and what your route is.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. 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?
For the US Embassy, housing is a variety of houses relatively close to the Embassy (some very close - I can almost walk faster than I can drive) and apartments/condos closer to San Benito. One thing I did not know literally until we pulled up to our house the day we arrived is that there are Embassy houses that are not in gated communities (i.e., they don’t have an extra layer of security). Our house is fine; we’ve had some minor repair issues, and one termite problem, but GSO takes care of things relatively quickly. Security is the big thing: if I’d had any inkling that we would end up in a house just out on a street, I would have been much more explicit in my housing survey. The neighborhood is relatively safe, but San Salvador is still San Salvador.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Most things are available, including a decent selection of “international”: groceries, but costs are comparable to DC. It’s not cheap here. You can get local seasonal produce delivered to your house; it’s a little cheaper than buying at the grocery (Super Selectos, Walmart, PriceSmart), but not much.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I would bring any really specialized spices, Asian ingredients, etc. You can find probably 80% of what you want locally, and ship most things via DPO (if you're with the U.S. Embassy), but supply can be inconsistent and it’s easier just to have things on hand. Also, bring any personal hygiene or cleaning products - everything here is scented to the hilt. If you’re sensitive to smells, or don’t want your house to smell like the cheap floral perfume you wore in 8th grade, bring your preferred products.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Lots of restaurants around, including all the major American fast food chains, if that’s your thing. Just within shouting distance of the Embassy are McDonald’s, Panda Express, Quiznos, Wendy’s, McDonalds, Papa John’s, and a drive-through Starbucks. There’s even a Chuck E. Cheese by Multiplaza (the main mall). There is Chinese and Indian, but it’s not great. You can get good pizza, tacos, and burgers. Tiny producers abound on Instagram, including some of the best yogurt and challah I’ve ever had. You can get almost anything delivered, either via Uber Eats or through the local Hugo app.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
I don’t know about unusual, but there are definitely roaches and ants. When we first got here there were a ton of roaches in the house, but once we’d settled in (6-8 weeks), they died down and now it’s manageable (one every couple of weeks). Also the aforementioned termites, but I think that’s less common. I’d recommend bringing ant bait, including indoor and outdoor ant bait – sometimes the ants are out of control (once we had them eat through our floor and start building a hill in our living room), and some of them bite. My toddler has been swarmed and bitten by ants multiple times, both at our house and in the recreational areas at the Embassy.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and pouch. I don’t know about local mail, but there’s DHL here that I think some people have used without problems.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Help is available and affordable. We have a live-in nanny/empleada for $25/day and a gardener who comes once a week for $25/day. Most people have a housekeeper and gardener, a nanny (if a family with kids), and some people have a driver to help with school drop-off and pickup.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There’s a gym at the Embassy, that’s reasonably-sized and well-equipped. I think there were classes pre-pandemic, but if so, that hasn’t picked back up yet. The Embassy also has a short course pool, basketball court, soccer field, running path, and two tennis courts. There are gyms in the city (don’t know of anyone who uses them, but they’re there), and some country club-type establishments that some people join. Also independent “studios” with things like yoga, interval training, etc. Yoga studios and other exercise classes seem comparable in price to the U.S. There’s also surfing; “Surf City” is relatively close, and plenty of people take advantage. It seems relatively easy to get set up with lessons.
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?
Credit cards are widely-used. Most small-time delivery services (produce, our super-tiny batch yogurt producer) prefer cash, but it’s easy to use cards everywhere else.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I’m pretty confident there are Mormon services, but otherwise I don’t know.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You need Spanish here. The Embassy has a fairly rigorous program; I’m sure there are also local tutors available for a reasonable price.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Sidewalks are in disrepair and some have actual stairs built into them.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
I don’t believe anything other than Uber or approved taxi services is allowed. There are plenty of local buses, but transportation crime and control of bus lines by gangs are rampant, so using them is not recommended.
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?
Bring anything that will fit in a compact parking space. If you’re super outdoorsy maybe consider bringing a 4WD, but we haven’t needed it. We have a Toyota Rav4 and it’s been just fine.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Most people seem to have Tigo or Japi (the only fiber-optic in town). You can work with your social sponsor to get it set up before you arrive. Due to the pandemic, I’ve been teleworking almost the whole time I’ve been here so far, and have only had a few internet outages (could count on the fingers of one hand). We have Tigo and it’s fine; we pay $85ish/month for the fastest internet and no cable or phone. Works totally fine for streaming, teleworking, etc. One note: bring wifi extenders. The way houses are constructed here, you’ll need them.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I kept my TMobile plan here; lots of other people use Google Fi.
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?
I don’t think there are any quarantine restrictions, and people seem happy with vets, kennels, trainers, dog walkers, etc. The biggest problem now seems to be getting dogs to the States (with the new rabies regulations), not bringing them here.
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?
Many, many spouses/partners take advantage of proximity to the U.S. (and Covid-era work flexibilities) to telework from the US. There are some EFM positions at the Embassy. It doesn’t seem to me like we’re overflowing with them, but there are some. I don’t know of anyone who works on the local economy, although I assume some must.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
The most popular volunteer opportunities are at orphanages, and many people get involved. There are also some opportunities at the Embassy (e.g., Green Team, scouts, that kind of thing).
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Honestly I couldn’t say. We’ve been here a year and I’ve been teleworking 99% of the time due to Covid. Seems like typical business/business casual. I can only imagine formal dress at a Marine Ball, but needless to say, due to Covid, there wasn’t one last year.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
San Salvador is rated as critical threat for crime. Most of the places expats go, and the neighborhoods where they live, are pretty safe, and Embassy security does a good job patrolling Embassy housing. Nevertheless, violent gangs control a huge swath of the country. They don’t typically target expats, but it would definitely be possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pay attention to your surroundings, follow RSO guidelines (especially the travel policy), and be smart about what you carry on you (don’t flash anything, don’t carry anything you’re not willing to lose).
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health concerns seem minimal. A lot of people have seasonal allergy problems in the dry season. This is also the only place I’ve ever been where there seems to be an E.Coli season? (April-May) But not too bad. My daughter had her first ER visit here, and while the care she received was adequate, it didn’t solve the problem, which any U.S. provider would have resolved in 10 seconds flat. LES helped me find a local pediatric orthopedist who fixed her right up. There are definitely competent local doctors, but I would medevac for anything serious (although many expat women give birth here). Dental care is fine.
Personally at the moment I find the Health Unit inadequate. The nurses are reliable, but I feel we’ve had very spotty experiences with a doctor there. In my opinion, the doctor did not seem to understand some fairly basic things (for example, what “causes” autism), and refused to treat or recommend a doctor who could treat my daughter’s orthopedic injury. A new MED officer recently arrived and I hope things improve soon; when I bid, the HU was a big selling point, but now I would say make sure to get up-to-date information if this is important to you.
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?
Air quality is mostly good. There are a few months (Dec-Feb) when there’s some burning of sugar cane. Ash will get in your house, and if you have a very sensitive respiratory system it might bother you, but I don’t personally know of anyone who experiences problems with it.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I don’t really know. I do know that some restaurants have gluten-free options, but I think mostly you’d be cooking at home, unless you were very confident that you could describe your needs in Spanish.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No, although I would say that the pandemic + the relentless pace of work is really weighing on people.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The temperature is fairly temperate all year: mostly 70s and 80s, with a few forays into the 90s. Rainy season is May-October, and it rains every day, but not for very long. The climate here is great for kids – it’s almost never too hot, cold, or rainy to play outside.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
My kiddo isn’t school age yet, but there are plenty of schools available and people seem happy with them. Most U.S. Embassy kids are at Academia Britanica Cuscatlan (British) or Escuela Americana (American), with a smattering of kids at the French and German schools.
2. 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?
Yes, there are plenty of local preschools available, including Montessori and at least one Waldorf(ish) option. People seem very happy. Most people have nannies if they have littles, so I don’t know about day care. I believe there are after-care options (or, at least, after-school activities) at the British school, but I’m not 100% sure.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes. There’s soccer, tennis, and swimming (lessons, not competitive) at the Embassy. Local soccer and swimming are also available. Some kids do martial arts, gymnastics, and dance locally, as well. There are also plenty of music teachers, mostly piano but I do know of at least one guitar teacher.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is medium-sized, and definitely dominated by Americans, both from the Embassy, and Americans who have moved to El Salvador. Morale overall is pretty good, although I think it can be hard for non-U.S. expats to find a circle – the Embassy community is huge and can seem hard to break into. There are definitely resources (Facebook, WhatsApp groups) that can help anyone find their way.
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?
Hard to say during the pandemic. With a kid too young to be vaccinated, we go out very little, and the bulk of our socializing (as U.S.-based diplomats) is definitely at the Embassy. There are some virtual groups, though, and I would recommend that anyone coming to live in El Salvador join the Expats in El Salvador FB group.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for families with young kids (especially, again, if you’re coming to the U.S. Embassy, where they have everything you need). For couples without kids I think it would be fine, as long as you’re good at making your own fun. I think it can be very tough on singles, though – U.S. Embassy-wise, at least, it’s a very family-oriented post, and the typical ways you’d meet up with others (e.g., Meetup or InterNations) don’t seem very active here. If you’re an introvert/homebody, it’s probably okay, but I know some singles who have had a very tough transition.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
I’ve found it easier to make friends with Salvadorans than in any other country I’ve served. Maybe this has something to do with Salvadorans’ strong connections to the U.S. - so many Salvadorans have lived/studied in the U.S. themselves, or have family there. I think it’s relatively easy to make local friends. I haven’t noticed any prejudices, but again we’re pretty sheltered to the pandemic, so I may just not have been out enough.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think for expats, especially in the diplomatic community, it would be fine.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
None that I know of.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We haven’t gone much of anywhere or done much of anything due to the pandemic, but it’s great to be so close to the beach.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
I’m definitely the wrong person to ask!
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
No, I don’t think so. You can go to the Fernando Llort gallery and get some tiles or prints, but that’s about all I can think of.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Proximity to the U.S., ease of adjustment (there’s relatively little culture shock), family-friendly embassy (U.S., at least), short commutes, good weather.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
There are things I wish I’d known about the Embassy (e.g., housing security, the deterioration of the Health Unit, the pace of work), but that’s about it.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Bug spray, ant traps, roach traps, and sunblock.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I don’t have any specific recommendations, but if you’re an American diplomat do your research on the history of the United States in El Salvador, including in the civil war.
6. Do you have any other comments?
San Salvador is a relatively easy place to be.