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Is El Salvador Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

Is El Salvador Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

El Salvador is a tropical Central American country home to lush landscapes and rich native and colonial history. Temperate weather and economical entertainment options make El Salvador an attractive tourist destination.

However, there are some caveats. El Salvador is part of the Northern Triangle, an area notorious for violent crime that comprises sections of El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras.

Despite its international reputation for violent crime, El Salvador can still be a safe place to visit if you follow a few safety tips. Here are our top travel safety tips for a hassle-free trip to El Salvador.

Is El Salvador Safe to Visit?

The colonial village of Conception de Ataco with the slums in frame for a piece titled Is El Salvador Safe

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At the time of this article’s publication, El Salvador is a moderately safe place to visit. Even so, El Salvador has a reputation for gang violence.

Travelers to El Salvador should be aware that while most violence occurs between gangs and police, no area of the country is immune to conflict.

El Salvador has a history of gang violence that stems from the country’s turbulent political history. Currently, El Salvador is reporting the lowest rates of homicide in over a decade, which should indicate the country is safer than it has been in the past.

However, there have been murmurs that president Nayib Bukele is intentionally fudging the official numbers regarding violent crime, so be extra cautious.

The most common safety concern in El Salvador is theft. Theft is common in El Salvador and is more likely to turn violent than in other countries with comparable theft rates. Violence, in general, is a problem in El Salvador. 

According to the most recent data World Bank Data, intentional homicides in El Salvador trended downwards from 2015 to 2018. Still, the country is reporting 52 intentional homicides per 100,000 people.

That is more than ten times the rate of homicides recorded in the US over the same period.

Additional safety concerns in El Salvador include robberies, such as pickpocketing and carjacking, and violent crimes, such as armed robbery and assault. To a lesser extent, natural disasters such as volcano eruptions are also a concern.

Crime in El Salvador

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Property crimes are the most common crimes in El Salvador, accounting for 47% of crimes in 2019. Common burglary is the most common type of theft in El Salvador and is the crime tourists are most likely to experience.

Remain wary of who is around you in crowded areas to limit your chances of being burglarized. Try not to keep all of your valuable belongings in a single place.

Instead, opt to spread your valuables across your person or members of your traveling party. Since El Salvador is known for its violent crime if you are unfortunate enough to be robbed, comply with the demands of the burglar.

A stolen passport can be recouped; your life cannot. Crimes against one’s physical person accounted for a significant percentage of crimes in El Salvador.

The most recent crime data from 2019 shows that 35% of crimes in El Salvador were categorized as rape, sexual assault, assault, and homicide. Violent crimes are trending downwards in El Salvador, at least according to official numbers.

But El Salvador still has some of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. Avoiding crime in El Salvador is difficult for uninitiated travelers.

The best way to avoid dangerous situations in El Salvador is to know a streetwise local or hire a local guide from a reputable tourism company. It pays to stay wary of your environment and blend into your surroundings in any foreign country, but particularly in El Salvador.

Given the high rate of violent crime, some travelers may feel safer traveling with a weapon such as a knife or mace. Staff at your resort or vacation rental should be versed in the lay of the land.

Conferring with informed locals about your plans for the day can help you ensure that you travel to safe locations along safe routes. Regardless of the information given to you by staff, remember that no area is completely safe, so keep your guard up.

Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods

Photo of San Salvador, one of the least safe places to visit in El Salvador, pictured in the town square

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The US Travel Advisory council states it is difficult to avoid crime in El Salvador regardless of location. Avoiding crime in El Salvador is difficult because neighborhoods and municipalities seamlessly flow into each other.

Even within relatively safe neighborhoods, unsafe blocks and streets exist. All of this is to say that it is impossible to avoid all the bad parts of El Salvador. At the top of the list of most dangerous areas in El Salvador is the metropolitan area of San Salvador.

Unfortunately for travelers headed to El Salvador, the most popular area to visit is also the most dangerous. Bear in mind San Salvador covers a huge area of El Salvador, with nearly 13 municipalities.

Safety conditions vary across the large sprawling metropolis, but there are six municipalities that you should avoid during your trip to El Salvador.

Ciudad Delgado

Ciudad Delgado is the most dangerous municipality of the San Salvador metropolitan area. The municipality clocked 36.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2021.

Luckily for tourists, this dangerous municipality is off the beaten path of popular tourist destinations like the Monument to the Divine Savior of the World.

The municipality occupies a small portion of urban north-central San Salvador and a large portion of rural north-central San Salvador. There is no good reason for a tourist to visit Ciudad Delgado.

Largely a residential area, there are no monuments, historical sites, or natural landscapes to admire in Ciudad Delgado. Tourists shouldn’t have a hard time avoiding Ciudad Delgado.

If you find yourself in Ciudad Delgado, remain calm. Undue panic will draw unwanted attention. Ask a local vendor or shop owner for directions out of the municipality.

If you don’t speak Spanish, walk towards the tallest building you can find, as all of the tallest buildings are located in the tourist areas of San Salvador which are usually safe.

Apopa

Apopa is the second most dangerous area of the San Salvador metropolitan area, with 27.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, but the municipality is far off the beaten path.

Apopa is even farther north than Ciudad Delgado and while there are some churches and natural landscapes to admire in the city, there is not much tourism here. Apopa’s distance from the heart of San Salvador’s metro area means that most locals only speak Spanish.

Maybe some broken English in the best-case scenario. The dangers of Apopa can be avoided easily by removing the municipality from your travel itinerary. 

San Salvador

San Salvador, San Salvador refers to the heart of El Salvador’s capital. San Salvador, San Salvador is the third most dangerous area in El Salvador. It is also the Latin American country’s most frequently visited city. 

The center of San Salvador is usually safe for tourists. The El Salvador economy relies heavily on its tourism sector for economic revenue, so the government polices the area heavily.

In general, the Monument of the Divine Savior of the World, located slightly to the east of the center of San Salvador, is the safest area in metropolitan El Salvador.

As you move outward from this popular tourist destination, the municipality gets more dangerous. However, there are areas in the heart of San Salvador where travelers are at higher risk of being victimized.

Areas such as the historic district are popular tourist destinations with high crime rates. Theft crimes are most common in San Salvador’s tourist districts.

Keep your personal belongings secure at all times. Spread your valuables across your person and members of your party. Avoid conspicuously staring at your phone or map as these actions alert potential criminals to your presence.

It is also difficult to monitor your surroundings when you’re distracted by your phone. In the event of a robbery, comply with the burglars and report the incident to your country’s embassy.

Llopango

Llopango is located on the eastern extremity of the San Salvador metropolitan area. Llopango reported 17.6 homicides per 100,000 people in 2021. Most tourists visit Llopango to visit Lake Llopango, the largest lake in El Salvador.

Tourists should plan trips to Llopango with a trusted tourism firm to limit potential dangers. Knowledgable guides allow tourists to enjoy the majestic beauty of the lake without worrying about transportation.

If you are brave enough to venture to Llopango on your own, make sure you, or someone in your party, know Spanish well enough to ask the locals where you are. When in the area, stick to large busy roads. Crimes are more likely to occur on side streets or in residential neighborhoods.

Mejicanos

Mejicanos is a suburb of San Salvador located north of San Salvador’s major tourist district. Mejicanos is just west of Ciudad Delgado. In general you should avoid avoid the north of San Salvador.

Mejicanos is about as dangerous as Llopango, with a reported 17.6 homicides per 100,000 people. Since Mejicanos is a suburb, the city offers little for the average tourist.

There are no significant cultural landmarks or breathtaking natural landscapes in Mejicanos, making the area an easy one to avoid.

There are no airports in Mejicanos; Public transportation to and from Mejicanos is also poor, meaning that travelers should have no problem avoiding Mejicanos.

Tonacatepeque

Tonacatepeque is a tiny, densely populated municipality located in the boonies of El Salvador. Surrounded by dense tropical forests, the area is located to the far east of Apopa.

The only attractions in Tonacatepeque are the government offices and the juvenile detention center, which is to say that no tourist is likely to find themselves in Tonacatepeque.

Other Dangerous Areas

Santa Ana, Santa Ana, and Colon, La Libertad are other dangerous areas to avoid. Tourists do not frequent these areas because they are far away from the popular areas of San Salvador.

Still, Santa Ana has some beautiful natural landscapes that do attract tourists. If you do wind up in Santa Ana, be sure to stick with a larger group of travelers to increase your safety.

Things to Consider

For a post titled Is El Salvador Safe, Izalco Volcano from Cerro Verde National Park

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Additional considerations to take into account when traveling to El Salvador are:

  • Public transportation depots are hotspots for violent crime. Organize private transportation when possible
  • Violent crimes typically occur between individual gangs or gangs and police, but tourists shouldn’t ignore these conflicts. Violent conflicts often occur in public areas and lead to civilian casualties.
  • Because of the violent atmosphere of El Salvador, most Salvadorians are armed, usually with firearms.
  • Tourists are often the victims of scams in El Salvador. Negotiate the details of your trip in advance before you travel to El Salvador to decrease the likelihood of scams.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Here are some FAQs about visiting El Salvador:

Is it Dangerous to Visit El Salvador?

The overall risk for visiting El Salvador is medium. Tourists can reduce their risk by sticking to densely populated areas in the western half of San Salvador.

Is Mexico Safer than El Salvador?

In short, yes, most tourist destinations in Mexico are safer than tourist destinations in El Salvador.

Why is El Salvador Dangerous?

El Salvador is dangerous because of its long history of political corruption. Corruption and poor leadership led to a lack of economic opportunities that helped illegal markets gain momentum. Today, drug trafficking and murder are the most profitable and prolific illegal markets in El Salvador.

What is the Safest Place in El Salvador?

The safest places in El Salvador are the western tourist districts of San Salvador. Use your proximity to the Monument to the Divine Savior of the World to determine how safe the area around you is, as this popular tourist attraction is at the heart of the safest area in San Salvador.

So, Is El Salvador Safe to Visit?

So, is El Salvador safe? Generally speaking, no, it isn’t. But travelers can still enjoy a safe trip if they plan meticulously and stick to densely populated tourist areas on the west side of San Salvador.

Speak with your country’s travel advisory board to review important travel safety tips if you plan to visit El Salvador.