San Salvador is not all about the gangs...

Published: February 24th 2018
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“Welcome to El Salvador; my name is Edgar,” grinned a stocky man in his late thirties. Edgar possessed an enviable shock of black hair, and his friendly face made me warm to him straight away, which was great since he was going to be my guide for the next few days. “Is this your first time here?” His accent was thick but perfectly understandable.

I nodded.

“It’s good that tourists are starting to come. This is what the government wants and what I want.” He led me outside into the blinkingly bright sunshine. “Wait here, I’ll get the car. I should only be a couple of minutes.”

With that he was gone, leaving me alone to take in this most dangerous of Central American cities. El Salvador was the edgiest country of my trip. The mention of its name sends shivers down the spines of all but the most intrepid of tourists. To me, El Salvador conjured images of drug lords living in graffiti-covered compounds, surrounded by their tattooed lieutenants and spent bullet casings. Outside their heavily-guarded blocks, street corners bristled with young men lounging on walls with handguns tucked into their shirts. The picture was not inviting in the least, yet I was intrigued. I didn’t know anyone who had been to El Salvador, and that was a magnet to me. But coming in at number one in world murder rankings, El Salvador was the most likely place I’d be a victim of crime.

I kept my back to the wall and surveyed the vicinity. To my left were rows of luggage trolleys. As I watched, a woman got one and walked off with her young daughter. Across from me, some airport workers were eating their lunches from sandwich boxes. To my right was a line of parked cars. Everyone looked perfectly normal and law-abiding. So far, so good.

Seeing the sights

On the road to the city centre, things looked good, too. The road was well paved and the palms were adding a nice touch of the tropics. Roadside stalls were selling piles of fruit and vegetables, and behind them, all-purpose convenience stores peddled mops, brooms and jugs. In a small café, emblazoned with a huge Pepsi logo, three white-aproned women sat waiting for customers. For a city under the cosh of crime gangs, things looked remarkably normal. I decided to ask Edgar what he liked about El Salvador.

He thought for a moment. We were passing a long green-and-yellow chicken bus. It was in the far right lane, bound for a place called San Marcos, a small town southeast of the capital. We passed it and headed straight on, towards San Salvador. “Good question…I can think of two things straight away: the heritage of my country, as we have some fine colonial buildings, and second, the wildlife. The number of birds we have in El Salvador is staggering. Are you interested in birds?”

I shrugged. “Not really.”

“I am. I love birds. The third thing is … the scenery. We have volcanoes, jungles, great coastal areas. El Salvador can easily compete with Costa Rica and Belize if we get things right.”

I asked him what he meant.

“Well the government can do much better for a start. Corruption is a concern. Money comes in, money disappears. Who loses out? Us! And the gangs are another problem. A big problem. So safety is a concern, but this is improving. It’s one thing the government does right. Take this road we’re on right now. Seven or eight years ago, I would not feel safe along here. Every day there were would have been carjackings or kidnappings. But now, none.”

“Why is that?”

“The army. They shoot all the bad guys. This government call this policy mano dura, which means iron fist. And they mean just that. If the police or army think you’re part of a gang, then bang, bang: you’re dead. Fire first and ask questions later. The government is finally cleaning up our city. I think it’s great.”

San Salvador

The melodious sound of Spanish guitars jangled from somewhere up ahead. Edgar and I were crossing a street bursting with ramshackle stores offering key cutting, shoe shining, bag repairs and general kitchen products. Every shop was busy with patrons as if it were a closing-down sale. The guitars grew louder as we took a short cut through an arched walkway. The stores here were selling plastic washing baskets and plant pots. On our left was an ugly wall of corrugated metal, taller than I was. I stood on tiptoe to see what was on the other side and was rewarded with the biggest building site so far. San Salvador’s main city square was full of cement mixers, fume-belching trucks and a few cranes. Between the machinery were lengths of pipe and men wearing hard hats.

“It is Plaza Libertad, Liberty Square,” Edgar told me. “It used to be the best plaza in the city, full of trees and flowers. Hopefully it will look good again soon. And that statue in the middle – the one covered in scaffolding – is the Monument to the Heroes: to the men and women who fought for our independence against the Spanish.” It featured a winged angel holding two laurel wreaths."

The musicians were just ahead of us, limbering up for a performance. Perhaps sensing that they had a tourist in their midst, they suddenly started playing a quick-tempo tune complete with deep resonant singing. We stopped to watch them; I was particularly interested in the fine-fingered dexterity of the guitar players. Quick-changing Spanish-flavoured chords were notoriously difficult to play at the best of times, but cramped up in a narrow corridor, pressed up against a shop-front while an almost endless stream of pedestrians, hawkers, shoe shiners and lottery ticket sellers paraded though, seemed almost impossible. And yet it was not: the troupe sounded mighty fine and so I dropped a handful of coins in their hat.

We walked on, emerging from the arched walkway into yet another nondescript part of the city. I took no real notice of the ugly, grey concrete edifice in front until we stopped outside its entrance. It was a church, albeit one of the most disagreeable ones I had ever seen. Its bell tower was the worst bit, and at first I thought it was a concrete fire escape. The roof was not much better: a curve of unsightly concrete blocks with tiny holes drilled into it. The whole thing looked fit to be demolished. The large metal gate that formed part of its entrance looked like it belonged outside a Bronx convenience store. The El Rosario Church was an eyesore: an ugly concrete mess that should never have been built.

The Most Beautiful Church in the World?

“Welcome to the most beautiful church in Central America,” Edgar said without humour. He waited for his statement to sink in, watching for my reaction. I didn’t say anything; I just stared at the drippings of cement visible on the underside of the overhanging roof. Was the man blind?

Edgar said, “Follow me inside and you will see.”

And, by God, he was right.

The change from exterior to interior was as immediate and astounding, like swapping a lump of mud for a sparkling sapphire. A rainbow kaleidoscope of reds, greens, oranges, blues and, mostly, golds cascaded from the tiny gaps in the concrete roof and sides. The effect was startling, mesmerising. The pews, the altar and the tiled floor, all were bathed in gorgeous hues of light. It was, simply put, the best church I’d ever been inside. To come up with a treasure trove of light contained within a concrete monstrosity was either the work of a madman or a genius. I took picture after picture, from every conceivable angle, but the interior of the El Rosario Church was too beautiful to represent as an image. You simply have to visit it in person.

If you have enjoyed reading this little section about my visit to San Salvador, then maybe you would like to read about my whole trip through Central America. In Hola Amigo, I get to see Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, as well as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Here is a link:



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