San Salvador: The Best City You’ve Never Been To

I read about five minutes ago that less than 0.1% of British people have been to El Salvador, which, apart from making me feel all smug for apparently being part of my country’s travel elite, made me pretty sad for the remaining 64,370,000. This figure may even be generous given the likelihood that many of those who claim to have been to this place were just driving through as part of their grand Central American adventure, not getting properly stuck onto the country, and probably barely getting out of their cars. I feel sad for them too, because El Salvador is a dream. I know this because I went to El Salvador just to go to El Salvador, and now I want to go back.

The first thing that I did when I got into the capital city, San Salvador (well technically Antiguo Cuscatlán which is sorta kinda part of the city) was get a bag of freshly juiced tropical fruit from a hole in the wall and sit drinking it at a pavement table gloating inwardly (and potentially also outwardly) about how good my life is.

I admit, I didn’t just stumble across this as a result of my travel-savvy paradise radar. I’m with a local. Cacho, my newest friend, met me at the airport and has promised to show me what’s what in this city.

Backstory: He’s the longtime friend of my friend Ricardo, who I met about five years ago in Baltimore, and have since seen only once (in Amsterdam) but, thanks to the power of modern communication, feels like we’ve been solid friends for years. Ricardo is from here, and it was about time I paid him a visit. So here I am.

Cacho’s showing me the delights of the San Salvador metropolitan area while Ricardo is at work. He just opened a sweet co-working space in Antiguo Cuscatlán, and since I have some experience with co-working, part of the tour was a behind-the-scenes peek at Colab, where I gave him some insights from my co-working days in exchange for some bomb-ass Salvadoran coffee.

As much as I love The Melting Pot (the co-working space I work at in Edinburgh), I felt a decent amount of envy for the people who get to work in this joint. The decor and vibes are great, and there’s a tropical garden for when being in an office with a roof starts to feel too oppressive. It’s also right beside the aforementioned paradise juice bar. If you’re a digital nomad and happen to be passing through this part of the world looking for somewhere chill to be productive, this is your place.

Ricardo met us after lunch and took us straight to another hidden gem. Part art gallery, part outdoor bar, and I also think we walked through somebody’s garage to get inside (but then again you do with all the best places), it seemed like exactly the type of place I didn’t know I was looking for. We sat drinking large bottles of Regia from little glass tankards while a guy behind us watered the grass. Then, as the petrichor hit us, some of the best ceviche of my life appeared before me in a goddamn coconut and I knew I’d definitely found my place.

The rest of the night involved buying beer, party snacks and interesting Guatemalan liquor from the supermarket (where there is a guy guarding the grapes with a pump action shotgun), having an impromptu flat gathering at Ricardo’s with some excellent Salvadorans, then heading out to a deserted karaoke bar (where there was a guy patrolling the dance floor with a pump action shotgun) for a quick sing song before crashing at about 2am. What jet lag?

I woke to the smell of sunshine, and to the joyous revelation that the view from Ricardo’s flat contains mostly volcano. Ricardo was at work so I had the place to myself to drink coffee in the sun on the balcony that faces said volcano, and I was very happy.

I met Ricardo for a burger at lunch, then he dropped me off at MARTE, the El Salvador Museum of Art. It’s not very big, but it only cost $1.50 to get into, and it kept me amused for the best part of an hour. Also air con, praise the lord. There was some good photography exhibitions, rooms of paintings, and a whole load of cool sculptures on the bottom floor. Definitely worth a trip.

At lunch, since data was gonna cost me about $4 a MB, Ricardo had drawn me a handy map on a napkin so I could navigate myself from MARTE to this place called La Casa Tomada – which is apparently another co-working space type thing. Now, my spacial awareness is pretty terrible and I’m not very good at reading maps, but I did make it to my destination with only a few wrong turns, and the help of fewer than five friendly locals (to all the people that told me not to walk around alone here – one is never alone when they’ve got a napkin map).

La Casa Tomada reinforced my perception that co-working in El Salvador is what workforce dreams are made of. I didn’t go in to the office part, just sat in the tropical courtyard and drank a bunch of coffee, used their fast wifi to get all caught up with the world, had a browse of the community bookshelf, people-watched, and just generally chilled the F out. Then night came, and I had a cheeky beer before Ricardo came to pick me up.

Later that night we went to his colleague Eduardo’s super fancy apartment and, with a bunch of journalists and future politicians, drank Four Loko (the original that’s got the good stuff still in it) and sang cheesy Spanish songs until we all developed an intense desire to go out to a karaoke bar again.

For the second night in a row I got to belt out my tried-and -tested rendition of Sheena Easton’s 9 to 5 (MY BABY TAKES THE MORNING TRAIN), which went down an absolute treat as usual. I also had my first ever experience attempting karaoke in Spanish with what I think was potentially/definitely a narco-song. Actually most of the songs being sung there were narco-songs.

We went for tacos at about 3am which was a pretty decent way to end what was, in all honesty, probably one of the top 15 nights out of my life in terms of general hilarity and frivolity – with about six people I only just met. Ten out of ten, San Salvador.

In the morning, we ignored whatever hangovers might have been plaguing us had we not been ignoring them so well, and loaded the car with snacks. We are going on a road trip deeper into paradise and it is going to be bloody marvellous.

What happens in the rest of El Salvador stays in the separate blog I wrote for stuff that happened in the rest of El Salvador

Returning to the city after five days of adventuring, I just had one day and night left before flying back to Scotland. I spent the morning in  the very centre of downtown, where the city first began. This section of San Salvador is very different from the surrounding neighbourhoods I’d explored previously. It’s old and colonial and there’s much more hustle going on.

It’s also where the city’s main cathedral is – a classical-looking white specimen which was actually only built in 1999.  Because it’s Holy Week, there’s all sorts if interesting religiousy things being done with sand on the pavement.

On the subject of churches… today I met my new favourite church in the world. From the outside, Iglesia El Rosario is pretty nondescript, crudely industrial even, in a post-apocalyptic kind of way. But take a walk through its cavernous front doors, and you end up inside an actual rainbow. An entire spectrum of coloured light bounces off every surface in the big, concrete arc. Serene.  Not a religious person, but I can only imagine what the atmosphere in here is like when it’s packed full of people and everybody’s singing a good old catholic hymn.

But enough about churches. More volcanos, more beer.

The San Salvador volcano, which I posted a picture of earlier, has a road winding over the top of it. Along this road are a few eating and drinking establishments offering splendid views of the city and surrounding landscapes. We ended up in the umbrella themed El Paraguas, perched right on a slope about halfway up the volcano.

They bring you your beer bottle in a paper bag, but they also bring you a tin tankard with a picture of a barrel on it labelled EL BARRIL, which made it very hard to decide which awesome receptacle I wanted to drink from. The solution was obviously to get multiple beers and do both.

Food-wise, Ricardo ordered something in Spanish that is apparently a surprise, and moments later a flight of four hot sauces of increasing spiciness arrive, along with bowls of chopped tomato, onion and coriander [henceforth known as tomonco]. Then nothing. I inquire about what these condiments and garnishes are for, but get told to wait and see. I was assuming some sort of tortilla bread thing would be arriving imminently to wrap all the stuff in, but also wondering what all the damn secrecy was for. I know about bread.

Then something did arrive within which to wrap the tomonco and the hot sauces. And it was not bread. I understood why this had been kept a surprise, because there’s nothing quite like the joy of suddenly discovering you’re going to be wrapping your tomonco and hot sauce filling in a SHEET OF PURE CHEESE.

I think this delight is called costra de queso, but I could be lying. Whatever it is, stuffing it in your face is a good way to spend your last evening in San Salvador. We were also treated to a delightful sunset as we were leaving.

Returning to ground level, the last thing to do is to treat myself to a can of each of El Salvador’s four varieties of mass-produced lagers, three of which have only vaguely accurate adjectives as names. (Regia is far the more superior of the bunch, followed by Pilsener, Suprema, then Golden [which gets labelled pisswater but isn’t too bad for rehydrating on a hot day at the beach]).

Before you beer aficionados start to panic, a craft brewery has been recently established in the city, pumping out genuinely good shit which people are getting quite excited about, so your options for local brews aren’t limited to these four.

And there we have it. San Salvador gets a pretty bad rep for being plagued with gang violence and other related crime, and sure, it frequently hovers in the top three of “world’s most dangerous cities” lists. But like every city I’ve ever been to in my life, there’s bad parts and there’s good parts, and it’s pretty easy to tell them apart. “Stay out of Soyapango” they told me, and for once in my life I listened. Easy.

And the good parts definitely deliver in terms of good food and drink, things to do, stunning scenery, and general cultural vibrance as much as in any bustling metropolis. More so even, because the place isn’t swarming with tourists like Rio or Barcelona or New York. Because of the aforementioned “danger”, it’s wholly genuine and unspoiled by the paying masses. Their loss, man.

In San Salvador I’ve met some of the nicest and most welcoming people I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across. Always happy to go out of their way to show me something I might find interesting, always happy to spend their entire evening speaking in their second language just so I’d know what was going on, and a right laugh at the pub.

2 thoughts on “San Salvador: The Best City You’ve Never Been To

    1. I am going to explain what makes El Salvador truly special in the conclusion in my second and final post about the trip, but as a sneak peak, my top 3 favourite things about El Salvador: 1) the people are the friendliest, most welcoming ever. 2) Pupusas. I think of pupusas like every day. why don’t we have pupusas here?! 3) the scenery – stunning beaches, perfectly conical volcanos rising up out of nothing, and the beautiful Coatepeque Caldera.

      Liked by 1 person

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