From Murder Capital to Vacation Destination: Exploring the New El Salvador

“You know who lives there?” Charlie, the man driving our boat, asks me as I jump into the deep blue water of Lake Coatepeque in northwestern El Salvador. He points to a minimalist-style villa on the freshly-mowed slopes of an island at the center of the lake. “That’s President Bukele’s. Ocho million dollares!”

In any other Latin American country, people would talk about their leader’s private wealth with scorn. But Charlie’s tone is one of praise, excitement, even pride. It’s a sentiment I encountered again and again while traveling through El Salvador, and for a good reason. Until recently, the country was known and feared as the “murder capital” of planet Earth, with 1 in every 10,000 residents falling victim to homicide. Today, four years after Nayib Bukele assumed office, the number of annual killings has dropped from 5,000 to just 495: a statistic that has earned him the lifelong gratitude of his constituents. “I can finally go outside without worrying,” a student from Universidad Don Bosco in Soyapango, previously the most dangerous suburb in the capital city of San Salvador, told me. “It still doesn’t feel real.” 

Born to a Muslim family that emigrated from Palestine, Bukele served as the mayor of San Salvador before setting his eyes on the presidency. A dark horse candidate, his anti-establishment, anti-corruption agenda allowed him to score a surprise victory against El Salvador’s entrenched elite. Many presidential candidates in Latin America promise to “drain the swamp” and put an end to the corruption that keeps their countries impoverished and oppressed, only to become a part of the establishment they vowed to tear down. Bukele is the rare example of a politician that not just kept his word, but managed to hold onto power while doing so. 

Bukele’s vacation home at Lake Coatepeque.

One of Bukele’s top priorities was to hunt down El Salvador’s biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street, which earn money through prostitution, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and transporting aliens across the U.S.-Mexican border. The government’s pursuit of the gangs resembles less of a crackdown than it does an all-out war. To this day, tens of thousands of heavily-armed soldiers are regularly mobilized to besiege and infiltrate criminal strongholds. 

Drastic problems require drastic measures, and Bukele’s was to arrest and imprison anybody who had even the slightest affiliation with the criminal underworld. As of 2023, more than 72,000 Salvadorians have been taken off the streets and stuffed into the country’s already overcrowded prisons. 

Bukele’s policies on crime, while effective, come at a cost. While the state has managed to round up many dangerous offenders, it also detained a significant number of individuals who – after close examination – turned out to be completely innocent. Gabriela, a lifelong resident of San Salvador and tech entrepreneur I met at a Miami-esque beach party in the surfer town of El Tunco, told me how, one day, her private driver stopped answering his phone. After contacting his sister, she learned he had been taken by the police while standing on the street drinking Pilsner – El Salvador’s national beer – with former gang members.

Accusing Bukele of human rights abuse, journalists and activists argue mass imprisonment won’t solve El Salvador’s problems but only make them worse. His proponents beg to differ: by cleaning up the streets, the president is able to develop public works that will improve the country’s economy and infrastructure. While highways and libraries can’t justify the injustice suffered by Gabriela’s driver, traveling through this new and improved, and above all, safer, version of El Salvador is making me kind of agree with the average citizen that these are, to an extent, necessary sacrifices. “I do not agree with everything Bukele does,” was the standard response I kept hearing from people, “but we are doing better than we were in the past – and that makes me feel hopeful about tomorrow.”

Where so many corruption-stricken Latin American countries live in an inescapable present, El Salvador is able to look towards the future. In addition to his war on crime, Bukele is best known for his embracement of cryptocurrency. Shortly after setting up shop in San Salvador’s casa blanca, the 42-year-old leader surprised the world by investing a sizeable portion of government funding in Bitcoin. In hindsight, the decision wasn’t all that surprising. The crypto craze was at an all-time high back then, and with Bitcoin’s value on the rise, Bukele saw an opportunity and must have thought he was about to triple the country’s coffers, even quadruple the amount of money he’d put in. Unfortunately, his announcement came moments before the crash of FTX and the federal investigation of its CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried: events that set the crypto world on a downward spiral it has yet to escape from. While exact numbers are hard to come by, El Salvador is rumored to have lost upwards of $70 million.

You’d think such a blunder would damage the country’s economy, not to mention Bukele’s credibility, but that does not seem to be the case. In contrast to neighboring Guatemala, where a despotic Attorney General is currently attempting to undo the ascension of a democratically elected, left-leaning president with an agenda not unlike that of his Salvadorian counterpart, El Salvador remains stable, peaceful, even prosperous. One of the biggest benefits of Bukele’s war on crime is that the resulting safety opened the country up to an industry that had hitherto been all but non-existent there: tourism. At Coatepeque, construction workers are building a litany of hotels, hostels, and clubs to accommodate growing numbers of travelers. Still more projects are in the works at Lake Llopango, located outside San Salvador. 

“This place used to be extremely dangerous,” Gabriela told me as we walked up to a breathtaking mirador,or viewpoint, looking over a thick and seemingly endless canopy. “It’s where all the gangs from Soyapango went to hide.” 

More confused than concerned, I glance over at two soldiers standing guard, their fingers on the triggers of their loaded shotguns. Laughing, Gabriela informs me that their presence is purely ceremonial: Bukele, needing to maintain the standing army he’s amassed for his war, sends troops across the country to act as glorified bodyguards. Not to protect visitors from kidnappers – those odds, she says, are low – but so they have something to do until they are called to lay siege to the next criminal hideout. 

Though not as large as Guatemala and Honduras to the north, or as environmentally diverse as Nicaragua and Costa Rica to the south, El Salvador has much to offer the curious traveler. There’s Santa Ana, a colonial city near the Guatemalan border from where you can visit Coatepeque and climb the Santa Ana volcano, filled not with lava but with pools of boiling water. There’s El Tunco, the aforementioned surf town where you can test your skills on some of the largest, longest, roughest waves you’ve ever seen – or watch others do it from the beach. 

Aside from the grueling traffic, San Salvador is a surprisingly organized capital where neon-lit hipster cafes share parking spaces with hole-in-the-wall pupuserias – barebone cafeterias serving El Salvador’s signature dish: thick tortillas made from corn or rice, stuffed with cheese, pumpkin, spinach, or chicharron, to name only a handful of ingredients. 

This pupuseria holds the Guiness World Record for largest pupusa (4.5 meters).

While exploring El Salvador is no longer life-threatening, it’s still very adventurous. If you want to get from one place to another, you usually cannot book a private shuttle. Instead, you will have to hop on a public “chicken” bus, retired American school buses the U.S. government deemed too old and broken to transport children, but were given a second life in Central America. In many towns, you also have the opportunity to rent motorcycles. If you have never ridden one before, don’t worry – they neither require a license nor experience, and the roads of El Salvador are so chaotic that you’ll become a pro by the time you make it to your destination. That is, so long as you weren’t sent flying by some knee-deep pothole or camouflaged speed bump. 

The biggest adrenaline rush (or panic attack) I had in El Salvador was a group tour of the Siete Cascadas or Seven Waterfalls near the town of Juayua, a 1 hour motorbike ride south of Santa Ana, where what I had expected to be a calm and peaceful stroll quickly turned into something out of the survival novel Robinson Crusoe. Walking barefoot through a jungle infested with spiders, snakes, and crabs – yes, crabs – I was so taken aback by the absurdity of my predicament that I didn’t even think to object when my tour guide (a 9-year-old, crab-catching boy called Cristian) told us to climb up the waterfalls rather than go around them. “I don’t think this tour was approved by the Salvadorian Health and Safety Department,” I half-joked, latching on to the slippery, moss-covered rocks and praying I would live another day. 

Braving the Siete Cascadas without shoes… or rope.

As much as I ended up enjoying my stay, I originally didn’t plan on visiting El Salvador. Although I had heard of what Bukele was doing, I still pictured the country as it was in the past, the way it looked when I saw it on the news, or in an episode of World’s Toughest Prisons. Instead, I thought that I would spend more time in what the media portrayed as its safer, friendlier neighbor: Guatemala. Ironically, it was Guatemala that proved to be more unpredictable as, mere days after I entered El Salvador, rightfully-outraged Guatemalans clashed with law enforcement and barricaded the borders. Weeks later, they still haven’t managed to stop the old government from persecuting their president-elect. But that’s a different story. 

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