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Guns in El Salvador… But No Backpackers

Are you sick of all the travelers in Central America? Then head to El Salvador where the rest are too scared to go.

El Salvador was almost an accident. I was on my way from the South to the North of Mexico when the proximity of the Guatemalan border sucked me in. Guatemala was nice but my time was very limited and the terrain didn’t allow to go too far off the Great Central American Dope Trail.

The Lonely Planet felt particularly evil on that trip. Everyone was on the way to that village where turtles lay eggs, their noses buried in the book. I suddenly realised that I don’t know a single person at home who has ever considered watching turtles lay eggs. This abnormality, plus Bob Marley, the stench of dope and fashion cult of the indigenous made me dizzy. Luckily I met Luke and we decided to escape to El Salvador.

Because no one else did.

Some people read in the Lonely Planet that there isn’t that much to see in El Salvador. In addition, it’s way too off the main drag – Guatemala to Utila, North Honduras, where everyone has to scuba dive.

Others feel nervous. In case you were not aware, the civil war in El Salvador finished in 1992, after 12 years of brutal carnage. But people got so used to sleeping with firearms that the country is still armed to the teeth. For many years after the war the streets remained violent and gangs multiplied. All in all, El Salvador has a reputation of a small, out of the way, dangerous country with not much too see. Great, more for us.

We met a couple of people who had been to San Salvador airport and then jumped onto a bus straight to Guatemala, but we failed to meet anyone who had actually seen the country. So we didn’t know what to expect and we were nervous too.

It was a pleasant ride, with plenty of coastal colours. In 2 hours we had already crossed a third of the country and arrived to the capital. San Salvador immediately charmed us with its languid air. For a capital, and after Guatemala City, there was a sense of order, a sense that things have a direction and are more or less under control. Although it is a city where edges are in all respects sharper, a city that may show you teeth from time to time, it was far from the chaotic images we’d imagined.

The scars of the war appeared immediately, however. There were no ruins but as we were checking into the hostel we were received by a one-armed lady and as soon as we walked out we bought a coconut from a one-legged old woman.

As for danger, we didn’t feel it. But that day we did stay in a heavily protected part of the city. Over time I decided that El Salvador was only slightly more dangerous than Guatemala. It is one of those countries, like Colombia, great to visit while everyone still thinks it is unsafe. The shotguns were indeed numerous: at a pharmacy, at an internet-café, at McDonalds. You would see one every 50-100 metres. But they were all security. Normal people kept guns at home and walked around with machetes. Those were everywhere. I still don’t know if it’s just a universal household item or a poor man’s shotgun.

However, for Luke this was a disappointment. Guns were the reason he came to El Salvador. He had read in his Lonely Planet that you could buy them on a market. So we spent the whole first day trying to do that, he would just come up to the stalls and ask if they sell shotguns. Eventually we realised that LP betrayed us. Again. We did find lots of holsters though and bought two huge machetes, just to blend in.

Next day Luke remembered that in Cambodia (another everyone-has-a-gun country) they had shooting ranges. So we had a drink in the evening and decided to ask the girl at the hostel reception if there was one nearby.

But all we could manage in our broken Spanish was ‘donde es possible alquiller armas?. The worried girl dialed the manager’s home number and said that two drunk gringos are asking where they could hire guns right now. We had lots of explaining to do in the morning and felt pretty stupid.

Luke was running out of options. Throughout the next day he kept coming up to security guards on the streets and leech them with “I want to play with you gun. Let’s go to the field. I’ll pay you”.

Some politely shook their heads, some frowned (naturally, the phrase could be misinterpreted). The following morning destroyed Luke decided that enough is enough and crossed over to Honduras.

For me, I was just happy to finally escape the backpackers in Central America and meet a proud, scarred people with a humility and a gentleness that reminded me what travel is all about.

For more of Alex check out his Valencia site

Alex Valencia