Basking in the Central American sun, catching smiles from locals, and riding world famous surf breaks – it's hard to believe that El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Although gang violence is rarely targeted at foreigners, extreme caution is a must to make sure you don't end up in the line of fire.
Here's what travelers need to know to stay safe in El Salvador.
It's no lie that crime is a problem in El Salvador, but most travelers get out of the country without trouble. To avoid theft, keep your valuables out of sight and avoid wearing expensive jewelry. Don't walk alone at night, or try to avoid walking the streets at night even in groups of travelers. Check with your doctor before you go about routine vaccinations, and to avoid mosquito bites wear long-sleeved clothing at dawn and dusk, and always wear insect repellent.
Around 4,000 murders a year occur on the streets of El Salvador, with gangs taking control of many areas. The country's capital, San Salvador, is where most of the violent attacks take place, but some areas are obviously more at risk than others.
Try to stay away from downtown San Salvador – parts of Soyapango, Apopoa and its surroundings on the east side of the city, as well as Mejicanos. These districts attract criminal activity, and are not safe places to go.
To give you an idea of how dangerous things can get, these street gangs aren't the type that just carry pocketknives. Many have access to military style weapons, such as hand grenades and automatic guns – and they're not afraid to use them.
There have been grenade attacks on buses, restaurants, and businesses, which have killed dozens of people, including children. Foreigners have also been killed in these kinds of attacks. Buses are often sprayed with bullets, due to gangs demanding protection money from bus companies.
Robberies and muggings are also common on buses and other forms of public transport. Passengers are frequently robbed en-route, at roadblocks, and at bus stops.
Locals have warned about the area surrounding the Tica bus station, where Hotel San Carlos is located. This is an area notorious for violent street crimes. Avoid walking alone around here, even during the day. If you need to go to the Tica bus station, it's best to take a taxi.
Registered taxi companies are fine to travel with. If you're unsure about which ones to use, most hotels will have a list of companies approved as safe and legitimate.
Shootouts aren't uncommon on the streets – many Salvadorians carry firearms, and arguments have a tendency to become violent quickly. These are attacks that don't seem to be slowing down. The government tried to control gang related crime with a tactic called "Super Mana Dura", meaning super strong hand, but this proved unsuccessful. With extortion and drug trafficking on the rise, so too is gang related violence.
Here are a few places that're considered to be safe in El Salvador: Escalon, San Benito, Zona Rosa, Maquilishuat, La Grand Via, and Multiplaza. Even though these places are said to be safe, avoid traveling alone, hide valuables, don't carry too much money, be careful when withdrawing money from the ATM, and if possible carry a copy of your passport – not your actual hard copy.
When it comes to ATMs, try to use one in shopping centres, and change money at hotels and banks.
Credit card skimming is a problem, so keep an eye out for anything unusual on the ATM machine: anything that looks like it may have been tampered with, or something that could be used to store a hidden camera, which may be an empty cigarette packet or a nearby postcard stand.
Like most places in Central America, when the sun goes down the streets become more dangerous. This isn't just in relation to walking the streets, driving can be just as risky. When traveling on roads, it's best to keep doors locked and windows wound up, as carjackings and armed holdups are common.
These attacks take place both in San Salvador and on the outskirts, where roads are more remote and police patrols are few and far between.
Criminals have been known to follow tourists from the airport, to secluded stretches of road or even all the way to their accommodation.
If you're approached, it's best not to resist your attacker. Saying goodbye to your digital camera will be a lot less painful than what could happen if you don't. These kinds of criminals turn violent quickly, and refusing to cooperate will likely result in you being shot.
Climbers and hikers also need to be careful, as armed robbers are known to take advantage of unsuspecting outdoor enthusiasts in remote areas.
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