Madelyn Given poses with a military officer in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Central America 2017: El Salvador

El Salvador is the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere; it has had a bad reputation since the 12 years of civil war in the 1980s.  The capital, San Salvador, has the highest homicide rate in the world, and street gangs are mainly to blame. Extortion is common, and mugging, highway assault, and car theft are prevalent. A majority of serious crimes are never solved. If you are robbed, a visit to a police station is an exercise in frustration. Police officers are on the take, and corruption is everywhere. Every day while I was there, all of this was foremost in mind, but with no regrets—I was happy to visit this little country.

Why would I want to go here? I had never been here and I was anxious to learn about the Mayan history, hike up to an active volcano, and see the country and the people. When I was a young Girl Scout, we did a project on countries around the world. We dressed in costumes, carried the national flag of each country, and had speaking assignments about each country. Ever since then, I had wanted to come to Central America. El Salvador remains relatively untainted by tourism. It is the smallest country in Central America, and since it is next door to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, it made sense for me to include them all in a single trip.

Especially while traveling, I am keen on staying healthy and safe. I wear long pants and a long-sleeved expedition shirt sprayed with insect repellant. I take care of what I eat and drink. I shy away from street venders, tap water, agua en bolsa (water in a plastic bag), and chipped ice.  I carry my passport at all times, and at crowded places such as plazas, airports, and markets, I stay alert. I know it is important not to stand out, so I leave my jewelry and expensive camera at home. I am particular about having a trustworthy guide accompany me for the entire trip. Then I can settle down to a great adventure.

El Salvador has a population of roughly 6.5 million people and is the most densely populated country in Central America. It is divided into 14 departments, with 25 volcanos, 14 lakes, 3 large cities, and shore land on the Pacific Ocean. The capital, San Salvador, is in the central region. San Salvador has the largest malls in the region and Metro Centro was one of the first built in Central America. Since 2001, the official currency has been the US dollar. Former banks are now museums.

I spent a couple of days in the capital but only one day there with my guide, Moises. Together, we drove and walked in different residential and historical sections of the city to learn about the history and culture of El Salvador. We began with the Memorial Wall in the small unattended Park Cascation. The Memorial Wall depicted scenes of the 1980s civil war and those citizens who lost their lives. The country is still trying to gain confidence since that ugly period.

I tried to concentrate on my history lessons, but I was still getting used to the terrible heat. Although I had come from southern Florida, that now seemed mild compared to this area.  Despite the heat, we walked through many blocks of the city; venders lined both sides of the streets in front of storefronts, selling fruits, vegetables, shoes, clothing, soap, dog food, rice, grains, and hardware.

There is no welfare here and people work hard every day. The elderly are working, along with men and women of all ages, and children not in school help too.  Babies are attended at the workplace by their mothers.

We went to Liberty Square, which was being restored, but according to Moises, it has been going on for a long time—money is being squandered or going somewhere else. We visited the Cathedral, and in the basement is the crypt of Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, which has been visited by two popes. Romero is loved by his countrymen for his work to help the people gain a better life.  He was murdered during the civil war, but he remains El Salvador’s national hero. There are monuments, buildings, and streets named after him.

We went by the palace, but it also was closed due to a complete, long-term restoration. We walked through markets and Moises stopped at a tiny book store, looking for a math book to tutor his son.

Church of the Rosary, designed by modern architect Ruben Martinez, in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Sometimes Moises would stop and tell me general history of the country, and then he would say, “I have a surprise to show you.” We would walk another block, and in one case, the surprise turned out to be the Church of the Rosary, a modern marvel. Shaped like an upside-down U, it was designed by architect Ruben Martinez, who is still living. It is crowded between traditional buildings and until you go inside, it is difficult to see its grandeur. Simple, sparsely decorated, it is a place of spiritual devotion. The Stations of the Cross, the bronze sculptures of Christ, Mary, and the saints, show no heads, only outstretched hands. This edifice was certainly a surprise in this tiny traditional, poverty-laden city.

We drove to a military museum on a high hill with a clear vista of the city and surrounding villages. There wasn’t much at the museum, just a couple of cannons and vehicles on the lawn. There was an outdoor canteen and we stopped for something to drink. The officer in charge came by the deserted place and greeted us.  We passed the national fotebal (soccer) stadium but I missed getting a photo. A few minutes later Moises was driving up the hill of a residential section and stopped the car. We got out and walked across a grassy knoll, and there in full view below us was the stadium.

In the heat, I was glad to call it a day and to retreat to the refuge of my air-conditioned hotel for the night. Once I left the city, I would not have that luxury.

(posted April 4, 2017)