San Salvador, El Salvador Report of what it's like to live there - 02/28/09

Personal Experiences from San Salvador, El Salvador

San Salvador, El Salvador 02/28/09

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

I have also lived in Panama and Santiago, Chile.

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2. How long have you lived here?

I have lived in E.S. for 5 years.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Associated with the U.S. Embassy.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

There are direct flights from L.A., Dallas, Houston, Miami, D.C., NY, Toronto. Most flights from the U.S. take between 2.5 and 4 hours.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing here is beautiful. Most homes are very large. Singles are generally in a single apartment complex that is secure, has beautiful views of the valley, a swimming pool, etc. Couples and families generally have large homes with three or four bedrooms. Yard space is sometimes limited, although several of the homes have quite spacious yards for entertaining or playing. Most of the homes are very light and airy, with large windows, cieling fans, and open porches.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

We find that groceries here are a little more expensive than in the US, but not bad. We can find almost everything here. Wal-mart bought out one of the local grocery chains and are stocking its shelves with more and more products from the US.The Salvadorans are very familiar with US products and culture and demand for them here is high, so finding them is generally not difficult. Sometimes you have to go to a couple of grocery stores to find everything you want. PriceSmart must be owned by Costco because it looks EXACTLY like Costco in the U.S. and carries many of the same kinds of products. It even has the same food bar outside the cash registers. You can't go in without spending US$100, but the quality of the goods is generally very good, and it is a great place to get meat and decent cheese. You may be able to find everything you want, but timing can be an issue: sometimes the grocery stores will stock something and then you won't see it again for five months - so if you like it and it can be stored, buy it all!

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Diet Dr. Pepper!!! Cosmetics are expensive here so if you can't order them online, bring some with you. You can get most everything here. Buying clothes might be a challenge but you can have them made for cheap.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Almost everything from the U.S. is available here for comparable cost. KFC, McDonald's, BK, Wendy's, Pizza Hut (appears to be huge here), as well as local favorites like Los Cebollines (mexican food) and Pollo Campero (a cultural phenomenon).Other non-fast food chains like Tony Roma's, Chili's, Bennigan's, Benihana's, TGIFriday's are all here as well with menus from the US and decent food at comparable U.S. prices. There are nicer restaurants as well - great steak houses (La Hacienda Real), local bistros (a lo nuestro) and a myriad of bakeries, cafes, and other places to eat. Sushi and Chinese fare are available but there are only one or two really good places. I have not found a decent Indian, Lebanese, or Middle Eastern cuisine. Vegetarian options are generally not hard to find in any of the restaurants.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitos come out during dusk and dawn, but they are not a major nuisance. I've never had to wear repellant, although it is worse at the beach. San Salvador is at a higher elevation so the insects don't seem too bad in the city.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We have a DPO and pouch. Local mail will work though and I have used local mail to send and receive packages. It is slow and not nearly as reliable, but if you aren't working with the Embassy, it is an option.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

A live-in maid will cost somewhere between US$200 - $275 depending on their experience and schedule. Day maids will generally cost about the same, possibly more. On the local market I believe the average maid earns about US$160 - $180 per month, but ex-pats generally pay a bit more. It is DEFINITELY WORTH IT to find and pay for a maid/nanny that has worked with expats in the past!! Gardeners generally charge anywhere from US$12 - $18 per day depending on what you have them do.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Many gyms throughout the city. If you're with the Embassy I think you can use the gym at the Hilton hotel free of charge. The Embassy also has a gym facility for employees. World Gym is in a very nice neighborhood and a lot of people like that.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit card fraud is fairly high here. You can use your cards all over the place, but you should be careful and not use them at places where cashiers or waiters take your card out of sight. I haven't had any trouble finding an ATM that works with my bank account. El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar so there is no conversion to worry about.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Catholic. There is a non-denominational Union Church. Partial english services available at the Mormon church.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Cable has all the major network stations in the US: ABC (Atlanta), NBC (Denver), CBS (NY??), and Fox, in addition to a smattering of random movie channels, Food Network, Discovery, History, HGTV, etc. There isn't a local English paper but some of the major hotels probably get an international paper from the US.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Spanish is very helpful. Finding employment without Spanish will be near impossible. You'll find the strangest people that speak English (taxi drivers, drunks, random kids, store clerks - but not necessarily doctors, lawyers, or professionals).You'll need some basic vocabulary to get around and do shopping. Even some of the more touristy places will not have English speakers readily available. El Salvador, in general, is off the beaten path, but the people here are very kind and I have found them very willing to work with your broken Spanish.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

More and more places are becoming wheelchair accessible. Sightseeing out of the city would be very difficult, but in the city you could get around with some effort. It would be hard.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Buses are generally considered not safe although in the past I used to ride them everywhere and had no trouble. Taxis are safe, but it is recommended that you call one of the larger companies or use one of the hotel cabs rather than simply calling one off the street.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Just about everything can be serviced here. A lot of Salvadorans bring down used cars from the US and sell them on the local market, so you see everything: Honda, Toyota, Ford, Dodge, Hyundai, Mazda, etc. Some of the Japanese brands may be easier to service than American brands, but I can't say for sure. An SUV is not necessary - roads throughout the country are fine. However, this country is speed bump crazy and some of the speed bumps are out-of-control big - so a sedan may hit bottom once or twice in some neighborhoods. It isn't a big enough deal to spend the extra money on an SUV if you're thinking about which way to go with a car purchase.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

High Speed is readily available and inexpensive. We have a cable, phone, and high speed internet package for US$55/month. We get 1meg/ps connection speed, although they have packages that range from 128kpbs to 2megs. Skype and Vonage all work fine here, although at $0.03 per minute on the local cell phones, many people just dial direct.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cell phones are plentiful and cheap. The rate to call the U.S. with your cell phone is currently about $0.03 per minute.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Not sure.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

We don't have pets, but we've heard there is quality pet care available.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

No. Teachers can get jobs fairly easily, but if you get hired at local rates you'll think twice. Working without Spanish will be almost impossible. There are a few positions at the embassy, but there are a lot of spouses here that do not work and wish they could.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Fairly conservative, although some of the women here dress rather... tight.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Air pollution is not bad. Litter has improved markedly in the past five years, and in some areas you find local street sweepers picking up the trash every morning. Burning garbage can be a problem, but it is not bad.

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2. What immunizations are required each year?

Not sure. Check with your local health unit or the CDC website.

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3. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

This is a high-threat crime post. However, we've never had serious problems. There are parts of the city that most ex-pats won't travel into, although my family has walked the streets of just about every part of the city without problems. Most of the problems are gang related and the violence and murders occurs within gangs. As a trend, tourists are not generally targeted for violent attacks, but you have to watch for things like car break ins, pick pockets or muggings. We travel outside the city and feel very comfortable. Sometimes there have been problems on the road between San Salvador and Guatemala City, but we have made the trip four or five times and never had any trouble there either. If you are alert and careful about where you go and when, you can enjoy San Salvador without unnecessary stress.

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4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

General stomach issues are a concern. Dengue fever has hit a few people, but no ex-pats that I'm aware of. We've been to the ER three times with our kids, and we feel like the health care here is adequate. There are a couple of hospitals that have very good equipment and well trained doctors. Nurses generally are not super qualified but can do the basic. The Embassy has a health unit that can refer you to a local doctor that speaks English. Major surgeries would require a medevac to the U.S. I know several people who have had Lasik here and are very pleased with the results and price. Many doctors are willing to make house calls, and an appointment and check up will generally cost between US$25 - $40.The quality of dental work here is very high and dirt cheap. Many families take advantage of prices to get braces, major dental work, and regular cleanings done while they are at post.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Beautiful weather year round. From October to May is the dry season and it rarely, if ever, rains. It gets hot in March and April. From May to October is the rainy season, and it generally rains every day. Usually the rainfall will hit for an hour or two in the afternoon, but occassionally you'll get days of the tropical drizzle and mist. It is in the 70s and 80s year round. Ideal!!

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are several that the expat community uses. The American School has a reputation for being ok but the kids are a littly more clique-ish and the environment a little more... rowdy? The British School has a reputation for better academics and a more serious curriculum. There is also a Pan American School, International School, French School, German School, and smaller private school Los Robles that ex-pats send their kids to. It is really a case of matching up a school with what you and your kids want.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I'm not sure.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are several. Most are bilingual. Arbol de Dios and The Paper Boat seem to be popular, and both have bilingual teachers. There is also a Montesorri School that I've heard is excellent - much better than many Montessori Schools in the US.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes and no. There are sports programs through most of the schools. You can also find neighborhood gyms for kids that teach dance, gymnastics, arts and crafts, etc. My daughter goes to gymnastics twice per week for US$35/month. Dance classes at the same place cost the same. Karate and other activities are widely available.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Medium to medium large?? You don't see a lot of foreigners outside the embassy, altough there are a lot of Asians (Chinese and Koreans) here with clothing factories and other businesses. Some Europeans here on diplomatic missions. Lots of Salvadorans that are descendants of Europeans and Middle Easterners that you think are foreigners but are not.

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2. Morale among expats:

Generally very good. This is a great family post and there are lots of things to do. It gets confining sometimes because crime in the city makes it difficult to simply go out and enjoy the city. This is still a hardship post, but a very pleasant one.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There are activities every weekend if you want to participate. There are concerts always going on, cultural events at local theaters and museums. The international fair grounds generally has something of interest going on. A lot of people entertain at their homes, but weekends generally involve leaving the city and heading to the mountains or to the beach for the day or overnight.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Families - YES! Singles - yes. There are quite a few clubs, restaurants, and night life. I have several single friends that entertain themselves well in the city. Couples - Yes. Plenty of restaurants, theaters, clubs, and other activities.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I would think so. I've seen a handful of gay couples (no lesbian couples) at some of the malls, theaters, or other places and nobody seems to pay much attention to them.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not really. Certainly not for expats.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Food Festival in Juayua - every weekend!Canopy Tour in ApanecaBeaches are beautiful and it is very easy to rent out a private house or join a club. There are several very nice shopping malls. Movie theaters are just like the US with stadium seating, a/c, and movies are released here generally at the same time as the US.Kids movies are generally in English for the first few days and then they play the dubbed version, so you can take your kids to the Disney flicks. Mayan ruins at San Andres and Joyas de Ceren. Boat tours on Lake Suchitlan and hanging out in Suchitoto - an old colonial-ish type town. Touring the cathedral downtown and National Theater. Museum of Anthropology is beautiful. Museum of Art is very nice and modern. Tin-Marin Children's Museum. Pottery shopping in Ilobasco. The fish market on the pier in La Libertad. Pupusas in Planes de Renderos and the Puerta del Diablo where you can see from the city to the coast and for miles!Hike one of the several volcanoes. Drive to the top of the Boqueron volcano. Explore the markets and old theater in Santa Ana. Guatemala City is only 4.5 hours away! Copan, Honduras and the mayan ruins are only 4 hours away!

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

There are some local crafts that are unique: pottery and basketry. Guatemala has a much better selection of local artisan crafts, and it is only a few hours away.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes, but not lots.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

ABSOLUTELY! This is a great post for families. I do, however, miss some of the freedoms that are sacrificed at a high crime threat post.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter coat and visions of strolling down city sidewalks.

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3. But don't forget your:

Beach gear, sunscreen, and common sense for street crime.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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7. Do you have any other comments?

I have not met anyone who would not have come to El Salvador if they knew then what they know now. Many of the families that have lived at many other posts have said that the facilities and housing here are nicer than most anywhere else they've lived. Don't be fooled into thinking that the proximity to the US will translate into cheaper airfare though. Generally, a round trip back to the states can cost anywhere from US$600 - $900 depending on where you are flying into. Flights out of Guatemala are about half the cost, and include some discount fare airlines like Spirit Air. El Salvador does not. Rumor has it that JetBlue has been researching coming to El Salvador though and that might push airfares down if it works out.

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