San Salvador, El Salvador Report of what it's like to live there - 10/17/23
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 also lived in Canada, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.
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 central VA. The length of the trip really depends on the route. We usually go through Miami, which involves two, two-hour flights and a 2-3 hour layover in Miami. (Beware of super short layovers at DFW...) The trip isn't long, but the times aren't convenient, we get into RIC around midnight, and departing to go back to SAL we need to be out of the house by 3:45 am.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What years did you live here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing includes houses *very* close to the Embassy (5-20 min walk), houses a bit farther out, and apartments/condos that can be a 10 minute drive without traffic and infinite with traffic. People are mostly happy with their housing, although of course your mileage may vary. There doesn't always seem to be a great match between position, family size, and housing. This year in particular it seemed like any new arrival going into a house ended up in TQ for 2-6 weeks, and I'm not sure why that was. I don't recall that from past years. GSO is pretty responsive, but sometimes problems seem to linger.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Very good. You can get almost everything here, and what you can't, you can probably order via DPO or pouch. This is a USD economy, though, so groceries/household supplies are not notably cheaper, and sometimes are much more expensive ($7-8 for a jar of peanut butter, $10 yogurt, $27 bags of frozen berries...)
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Asian ingredients and Trader Joe's snacks. Also, decent wine; you can get it here, but your go-to $7-10 bottle at Trader Joe's is going to be at least $15 here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Lots of burgers, pizza, some Mexican. UberEats and PedidosYa can bring you almost anything. There's one decent Chinese restaurant in town and apparently one good Korean place, but I've never been.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
I swear our house sits on multiple ant colonies that are impossible to eradicate. At least once a year we have ants eat through our floor and take part of the house over, and it's not for lack of cleaning (the first time it happened was in our living room, where there was no food or water to attract them). Other than the ants, nothing unusual, some roaches, some moths. We've had a few mice (bring your own mouse traps just in case unless you like glue traps, which is all we've found locally), but the ants are what really have us stumped.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO/Pouch at the Embassy.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available and reasonably priced. Going rate for nannies in the expat community is $25-$35/day, depending on live-in/out, family size, etc. We also have a driver to take my daughter to school ($30/week and he works for several families) and a gardener ($25/day). I believe housekeepers are similarly priced.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Embassy as a small but well-equipped gym, including a studio where there are yoga/pilates/Zumba classes. There's also a short course outdoor pool (if you're a swimmer and have seen reports of an "Olympic size" pool, there *is not* an Olympic size pool at the Embassy), basketball and volleyball courts, tennis courts, a soccer field, and a walking/running path around the Embassy. There are several tennis coaches who come into the Embassy as well as a trainer who does a group cross-training class once/week.
Some people also take classes at studios outside of the Embassy; I believe prices are similar to U.S. prices.
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?
Yes, you can use credit cards almost anywhere. Some smaller local vendors are cash only, or else you can do bank transfers if you have a local bank account.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are Mormon services and I believe at least one Catholic mass in English. 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?
Lots, as English is not widely spoken here. You definitely need Spanish and/or a lot of confidence in Google Translate.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. The U.S. Embassy is accessible, but in other places sidewalks are in disrepair and buildings are not necessarily built to be accessible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
No. You can take Uber or approved private taxi services, but no public transport.
2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?
A sedan or small SUV works well. If you're really into hiking, etc., you might want a 4-wheel drive. Repairs are fairly easily accessible. I wouldn't bring anything too huge, but you do see big cars around.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes; you can work with your social sponsor to get it set up before you arrive. It's pretty reliable. During Covid telework we only had a handful of outages. The primary providers are Tigo, Claro, and Japi. Tigo and Claro are cable, Japi is fiber optic.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I kept my U.S.-based plan. Don't know anything about local phones.
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?
We don't have pets, but plenty of people do and are happy with vets, training services, and kennels or other pet-sitting options. A lot of people just look for pet-sitting within the Embassy community rather than boarding pets. No quarantine requirements.
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?
Some work EFM positions at the Embassy, a fair number teach at international schools. Many, many more take advantage of proximity to the U.S. to telework. Not sure on local salaries.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots of people volunteer with a local orphanage. I'm not sure what else there is.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business or business casual at the Embassy. Formal dress only at the Marine Ball.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Recently the RSO lifted all travel restrictions within the country and then the crime rates have dropped dramatically. It's still important to be aware of your surroundings, etc, like anywhere else.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Local health concerns include "mal de Mayo" (aka e. Coli season, approx last half of April - early June), mosquito-borne illnesses (rates are low, and no need for malaria meds, but you do hear of local cases of dengue and chikungunya), and respiratory issues.
Local medical care is okay. Lots of people give birth here, people have had non-emergency surgery and done fine. We have a local pediatrician we like a lot, but for anything serious I'd medevac.
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?
Lots of kids in particular have respiratory issues here. Mold? Weather? The very brief sugar cane-burning season? All I know is my preschooler has constant allergy and congestion issues here, but when we go home to one of the worst places in the U.S. for seasonal allergies, she's totally fine.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
We were told we could not have mold testing done, as "it's Central America, there's mold everywhere." So if you're mold-sensitive, this may not be the place for you. As for food allergies, there are a few places that are either gluten-free restaurants or have gluten-free options. Otherwise, especially if there's a very serious allergy, I would eat at home unless you are very confident you can explain 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 Seasonal Affective Disorder here.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Temps are between 70-90F all year. It rains daily (but not all day) from April-ish through October-ish. November-March is amazing weather. Bring sunscreen because the sun is very strong. I really miss seasons here.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Schools are "adequate" K-8, but there are high schoolers here. There are a few international schools to pick from, but most Embassy kids go to Escuela Americana or ABC (the British school). A few kids also attend the French school, German school, International School of San Salvador, Arbol de Vida, and Acton Academy. My kiddo isn't school age yet, but I would say visit a range of places and pick what's going to work for your kid. I haven't heard of any outrageous experiences with applications and admissions.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Definitely don't know enough to really answer this question, but I do know that families with special needs kids have been happy with Arbol de Vida.
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?
Lots of preschools. EA, ABC, and the French school all have programs starting at age 3. Lots of Embassy littles are also at Arbol de Dios, Acton Academy's Montessori preschool program, and Casa de los Ninos (also Montessori), I think all of which start at 18 months.
My kiddo started at Acton's preschool. It was okay, but we made the switch to Casa de los Ninos and she LOVES it. Definitely worth the hassle of the admission process (and it was a hassle).
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, lots. At the Embassy alone there are swim lessons, tennis lessons, soccer, flag football, and Scouts. Kids also take music lessons, dance, gymnastics, and martial arts locally.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is fairly large. Morale is good in terms of lifestyle, but very middling at work.
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?
The community at the U.S. Embassy is very strong, but there are also opportunities to engage with the local/broader expat community via volunteer opportunities, faith-based groups, running/cycling groups, etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's great for families of small kids, but I think it would be a wonderful place up to about 10-12. I think it's harder for teenagers; we live out in the burbs and there's not a lot to do. Singles and couples who are good at making their own fun will do fine here, but otherwise it might be tough.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Many, many Salvadorans have some connection to or have lived in the U.S., so in that sense there's not much of a barrier to overcome, as long as you speak Spanish.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think for LGBT expats it's fine, but for locals it's harder.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I haven't noticed any problems with ethnic, racial, or religious prejudice, but I'm white so what the heck do I know? Gender inequality is still a huge issue in El Salvador, from the high rates of femicide to my nanny telling my daughter which toys are "strange" for boys to want to play with.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The highlight of my time here has been how amazing it is for my daughter. She loves her school, she speaks fluent Spanish, the weather is great for playing outside all year round.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Proximity of the beach (lots of people surf), salt rugs on Good Friday, Ruta de las Flores, hiking volcanoes. None of these are hidden gems, but they're great to have in your back pocket. The Community Liaison Office (CLO) is good at arranging trips, including to rum distilleries and coffee plantations.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really. Some interesting local artists but that really depends on your taste. I wouldn't say anything is a "must have."
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you crave American-style suburban living with post differential, San Salvador is for you.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Frankly, I wish I had understood how much U.S. domestic politics around migration would influence our work here on a daily basis.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Maybe, but *only* because of how great it's been for my daughter.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes and idealism.
4. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, bug spray, swim suit, and career coach or therapist's phone number.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Learn all you can about the civil war and the history of how gangs arrived in El Salvador.