3 Things That Will Surprise You About El Salvador

I’ll be making a few posts, complete with pictures, on the day I spent in El Salvador. But in the mean time, there were a few things that stood out to me, and that will probably take you by surprise.

1. The national currency of El Salvador is the U.S. Dollar

Be honest. Before I wrote that, raise your hand if you knew it? I’ll admit I didn’t.

I didn’t have the time to do some of the prep work on my visit. It was a intended to be a layover and then at the last minute I decided I wanted to see as much as possible so I stayed an extra day in San Salvador, the capital.

So I hadn’t looked into the type of money that was used here. I assumed something unique to El Salvador just like Costa Rica and Nicaragua and Chile all have their own currency. As always, I never exchange money beforehand. I go to an ATM and grab it then.

“Why did that ATM give me U.S. dollars? That was weird,” I thought to myself. And then a second ATM, “Dollars again?” Finally I figured it out and confirmed with the hotel desk. El Salvador uses the dollar.

And not merely they accept the dollar like many countries do to cater to Americans or tourists. It’s their official currency. They made the switch about 15 years ago. So when I used one of my dollars to purchase the item below (guess what it is, no jumping ahead),,. I received two quarters back as change.

2. Virtually Every Business Has an Armed Security Guard

El Salvador has a reputation for having a high crime rate, and deservedly so. It’s got the 4th highest murder rate in the world. And while a substantial part of that has to do with gang violence, (not so much against tourists) when it comes to choosing where to go on vacation, most people aren’t going to pick a place with the hope that the murder statistics won’t be applied to them.

So for that reason, it makes sense you’d see a heavy police and military presence. From my day walking around San Salvador though, what surprised me was that this wasn’t what stuck out. Sure, I saw police officers here and there, a couple of guys in military garb. But nothing overwhelming.

What did stick out was that virtually every business I saw had some type of armed guard in front of it. Most of the time with shotguns. I don’t mean only banks or jewelry stores. I’m sure most people would expect that. I’m talking about pet stores and shoe stores and restaurants. There was an armed guard in front of the Pizza Hut. There was one standing outside of the Denny’s. There were three armed guards in a plaza with a Crossfit gym (I had to look for one of course).

In some cases there was one guard fronting a small plaza, so every store in the five store plaza didn’t have one, just the one. But in virtually every single place, every business that was open, there was someone with a pistol or shotgun standing in front of it. Craziest thing.


But they seemed to be nice guys, very chill. There’s absolutely no feeling of police presence or instance where you’re more scared of the cops than you are of the criminals. Imagine having this in the U.S? Every armed guard you looked at the wrong way would bark in your face and give you a hard time.

But time after time guards smiled at me, waved to me, asked me how my day was. In the picture above I came across a guard fully packing, who stopped me to ask how I was and where I was headed. Hmmm… Maybe I don’t look Salvadorian… You think? And maybe I seemed a bit lost… You can see the strap over his shoulder holding the shotgun.

He spoke no English, but I do speak a little Spanish. We talked for a few minutes and I asked him where to get some good food. He gave me very thorough directions (I lost him after the first few second seconds, my Spanish isn’t THAT good). I then gave him half of a dried brown sugar snack I’d bought. Because hey why not.

That item before was a very hard “cake” I guess you could say, of some type of brown sugar and molasses mix. It’s dried out and wrapped in what seemed to be corn husks. I thought it could just as easily have been a pack of dirt. But I decided to take a bite and was fairly sure it was food. The security guard confirmed it. Or else maybe he liked eating dirt.

I hadn’t been so bold earlier in the day to grab photos of the guys with shotguns guarding the shoe store or Pizza Huts. Admittedly, the mentality of fear and dread U.S. police officers drum into you made me think twice. I can’t imagine going up to a heavily armed police officer in the U.S. and taking a picture of him, without getting some type of attitude and a call for backup and probably a taser to the chest.

But with this guy I thought why not, so I took out the camera, told him to pose, and snapped a few shots. He seemed happy to do it. Great opportunity for the scrapbook.

3. The “Mercado Central” Rivals Any Street Market I’ve Ever Seen

Frommer’s says:

Mercado Central near San Salvador’s central plaza is the antimercado. It’s a sprawling, seemingly chaotic warren of shouting vendors, blaring horns, and old women in traditional clothes chopping vegetables in the street. Its biggest attraction is that it’s not an attraction. Instead, it’s the place to visit if you want to see a slice of unfiltered El Salvadoran life.”

And it’s true. To even call it “Sprawling” wouldn’t come close to describing it. It’s absolutely massive, densely compact, and seems more like a maze than it does a market. Row after row of closely packed tables and booths and makeshift stores with curtains for walls. From food to clothing to games to electronics.

It seemed like it went on for a mile in all directions. And here’s the best part, not only does every vendor accept dollars, but it’s very, very cheap. Pairs of jeans were going for $3 and $4. Hamburgers and Hotdogs were around 75 cents. I came across a few booths advertising the ability to play video games at $1.00 per hour. A single dollar per hour.

Have you ever been to El Salvador? Did you find anything that surprised you? Or have you ever considered visiting?


1 Comment

  1. Stephen Smith
    April 6, 2015 / 12:04 pm

    On my way next month. Looking forward to it!