El Salvador is an off-the-beaten-path Central American country with gorgeous natural beauty. In 2019, the country received 1.6 million visitors.
The beautiful landscapes, including the coast, are the most popular things for visitors to see. Join the locals (and backpackers) in the stunning waves of Playa El Tunco, or head inland to the stunning tropical landscapes of Montecristo National Park.
El Salvador is also home to stunning historical sites, from the Mayan ruins of Tazumal to Spanish colonial towns such as Suchitoto. El Salvador may be small, but it has something for everyone.
However, it also has a reputation for danger that may turn many potential visitors off. So, is it true that El Salvador is a dangerous country, or is that reputation mostly based on rumors?
We put together this travel guide that can help you get the inside scoop on how to travel safely to this picturesque destination (or if that is possible at all). Let us show you the way!
Is El Salvador Safe to Visit in 2023?
El Salvador is a place that you will need to exercise a lot of caution when visiting or avoid altogether. The country suffers from a very high crime rate.
Although crime does not often affect visitors directly, it is still present enough to make many tourists think twice before booking a trip to the country. Many countries are very wary about advising their citizens to travel to El Salvador due to the risks in the country.
The Canadian government advises its citizens to exercise a high degree of caution in the country due to the high crime rate.
Other countries are even more concerned in their travel advice for El Salvador. The United States advises its citizens to reconsider travel altogether to the Central American country due to extremely high rates of crime and an unfair legal system.
Common problems include:
- Armed robbery
- Gang violence
- Arbitrary detention
Although the high crime rate primarily affects locals, not visitors, the overall atmosphere of high crime will affect your feeling of safety while you are in the country.
In response to the high crime rate, the Salvadoran government turned to strict measures. In 2022, it implemented a State of Exception that gave police extra power to combat crime, such as mass arrests, mass trials, and fewer limits on police power.
This law has been widely criticized for its curtailment of civil liberties (the Salvadoran government itself admits that about 1/6 of people arrested are innocent).
Although most people affected by this crackdown are locals, foreigners have been caught up in mass arrests before. Plus, as the Salvadoran government slides into authoritarianism, any criticism of the government is often punished.
It is best to avoid anything that might get you in trouble with the law as your home government may not be able to help you — the UK government warns in its travel advisory for El Salvador that consular representatives have been denied access to court proceedings in the past.
El Salvador has a dry season and a rainy season, like many tropical locations.
The rainy season lasts from May to October and often causes flooding, particularly in rural areas. Be sure to prepare if you are visiting during this time. Hurricanes also happen during this season and can be devastating.
Crime in El Salvador
Crime is absolutely the primary concern for visitors to El Salvador as the country has a notoriously high crime rate, one of the highest in the world.
In 2019, El Salvador had one of the highest homicide rates in the world, at 37.16 incidents per 100,000 people. However, the crime and homicide rate has been steadily declining since 2016, when the government stepped up law enforcement efforts.
In 2022, the homicide rate was just 8 incidents per 100,000 people, which is still high compared to the global average but actually one of the lowest rates in Latin America.
The tradeoff is that now El Salvador has the world’s highest incarceration rate, which is often criticized by human rights groups. High homicide rates are usually indicative of high rates of other violent crimes, such as armed robbery and kidnapping.
This is also true of El Salvador. Almost all violent crimes committed in the country were committed by gangs. El Salvador is home to notorious street gangs, or maras, such as MS-13 and Barrio 18.
These gangs often ruled entire neighborhoods and cities in the country, demanding extortion and rent payments from local business owners, kidnapping middle class locals in exchange for ransom payments, and committing homicides.
Many of the gangs trace their origins to the brutal El Salvador civil war of the 1980s, which still affects the country today. While most gang violence was targeted homicides, the gangs would also attack crowds such as shooting at city buses, killing innocent civilians including tourists.
El Salvador gangs tend to be heavily armed, with machine guns and even grenades, making their activities deadly.
The government crackdown has temporarily stopped gang violence and greatly decreased the overall crime rate, but many point out that this is a temporary measure.
When the thousands of alleged gang members get out of prison, violence might creep back up again. Plus, the social factors that pushed many youths into existing gangs, such as extreme poverty, still exist, meaning that new gangs could form.
Gang violence grabs the headlines, but other crimes exist in El Salvador.
Respondents to a Numbeo survey reported worrying about vehicle thefts, vehicle break-ins, muggings, and petty theft. These property crimes such as theft and robbery are the crimes that are most likely to affect tourists.
Beneath the headlines breathless about gang violence is a far more mundane reality. The most likely crime you will experience in El Salvador is petty theft and other crimes of opportunity.
In its travel advisory for El Salvador, the New Zealand government warns that tourists are often targets for petty crime such as pickpocketing, bag snatching, and theft from vehicles.
Thieves sometimes follow people from transportation hotspots such as the El Salvador airport to single them out for theft. Thefts are common around bus stations, popular tourist destinations, in front of the airport, and on public transportation.
Make sure that you don’t make yourself an attractive target to thieves. Always keep your valuables out of sight (and preferably at home or safely locked up in your hotel safe).
Flashing valuables such as expensive smartphones or lots of cash can draw the attention of thieves, especially in a country with such a high poverty rate. Thieves often target tourists after they use ATMs since they know that is when people have cash on hand.
The UK government advises its citizens to use ATMs only in secure locations such as shopping centers and only during the day. Only use official money exchange bureaus in hotels or banks.
Some tourists choose to rent a car to get around El Salvador, but that exposes you to another common form of petty theft in El Salvador, which is theft from vehicles.
Never, ever leave anything unattended in your vehicle, especially not something valuable such as your phone or wallet. Always lock your doors and keep your windows rolled up, even while you are driving.
The violent crime tourists are most at risk of in El Salvador is armed robbery. The Canadian government advises travelers about the risk of armed robbery.
Robberies often occur on public buses, in tourist areas, in isolated scenic locations such as beaches, and at highway junctions. Avoid driving at night as highway robberies can occur. Take private coaches to travel in between cities as public buses are often targeted for robberies.
Robberies occur most often at night but can also happen during the day. Even if you are with a group, going out at night is not the best idea. El Salvador is not the safest country to explore on your own.
Try to travel with a group as robbers are more likely to target people who are on their own. Always share your location with someone back home who can call authorities if you don’t check in on time.
The Australian government also warns about the risk of armed robbery and other violent crimes for travelers to El Salvador. Robbers often execute express kidnappings, when they force a victim to drain their bank account at various ATMs.
That is yet another reason why you shouldn’t use ATMs on the street. If you are the victim of a robbery in El Salvador, hand over your valuables immediately and don’t resist in any way.
Criminals are often heavily armed in El Salvador and may injure you — or worse — if they feel like it. Focus on getting to safety, reporting the crime to your embassy, and seeking medical attention, especially if you were sexually assaulted.
Avoiding Bad Areas
Despite the crackdown on gangs, there are still a few parts of El Salvador with very high crime rates that tourists should avoid at all costs. The capital city of San Salvador has many neighborhoods that still have very high crime rates.
Avoid the following areas:
- San Martin
- San Marcos
- The area around the Tica bus station and Hotel San Carlos
Ask a local for advice on which areas are safe for you to explore and which areas to avoid. Although most crime is concentrated in San Salvador, other cities such as San Miguel and Santa Ana also have higher crime rates.
Things to Consider
Here are a few other safety tips for visiting El Salvador:
- Don’t take any drugs or buy any drugs. This includes CBD products or other cannabis-related paraphernalia that may be legal in your home country but are illegal. Penalties for getting caught are severe, so leave anything that might be interpreted as illegal at home.
- Go hiking with a group or a guide. Robbers and attackers often target lone hikers on trails since they know help is a long way away. Plus, the landscape is often inhospitable in, so it’s a good idea to have some extra help.
- Only use official taxis and try to call ahead instead of hailing on the street. Official taxis usually have an “A” in their license plate. Unofficial taxis either overcharge tourists or go a step further and rob them.
- Be sensitive around the El Salvadoran civil war. The brutal conflict killed many and displaced thousands more. Most locals, especially middle-aged and older people, have traumatic memories related to the conflict. Don’t start conversations about the war and be sensitive if you do ask questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few common questions that you might want answered before you head to El Salvador:
Is El Salvador safe for tourists 2023?
2023 is probably the safest year in a long time to visit El Salvador. The crime rate has decreased drastically due to the government crackdown. However, you just need to be careful of arbitrary detention.
Is it safe to travel to El Salvador right now?
El Salvador is the safest for travel than it’s been in a long time, but that doesn’t mean that it is safe. Crime rates are still high, including crimes that typically target tourists such as armed robberies. You will need to exercise a lot of precautions to stay safe.
Is El Salvador a safe place to vacation?
El Salvador is not the safest place to vacation due to its high crime rate. Many travelers that want to experience something new come to the country, but those in search of a relaxing vacation should probably go elsewhere.
Where to avoid in El Salvador?
Most of the capital of San Salvador outside of the historic center is fairly dangerous. Avoid impoverished neighborhoods with high crime rates such as Mejicanos.
Is El Salvador safe for white tourists?
Many white tourists visit El Salvador each year. However, you will stand out as a foreigner, so you should take extra precautions to protect yourself from robberies. Non-white tourists have also been targeted for robberies, so it’s not your race that makes you stick out, but your foreign status.
Over to You — Book Your Trip Today!
While it is possible to travel to El Salvador and to come home safely, you will need extensive preparation to do so.
The high crime rate often affects tourists, so always keep your valuables hidden, don’t venture out at night, and research safe accommodation and itineraries extensively. Happy (and safe) travels!