A lot of people are considering moving to El Salvador in hopes of living in a Bitcoin Mecca, full of freedoms and warm beaches.
How close are we to that?
I don’t know about you, but beach towns bore the living shit out of me. I need action. I need things to do.
So allow me to talk about my recent trip to San Salvador, the nation’s capital.
This may become a better alternative, for many of you.
“F*ck What Ya Heard”
San Salvador used to be a very dangerous place.
When a country has half of its citizens living somewhere else, you know it’s a bad situation.
Like any Latin American capital, you want to stick to the rich areas. As a Westerner, they will still be very cheap compared to where you live now, so there’s no need trying to go the backpacker route and slum it.
I would do this when I was younger. I had some very rewarding experiences, but it always came at a cost, including some very sketchy situations that involved a bit of luck to survive. I’m done with that shit now. I have things to do.
But again, the good news is you can often have your cake and eat it too — cheap living with lots to do and explore. This is why I like larger cities.
And San Salvador, despite its past, is quite livable now, and I did not feel like I was in a speck of danger one single time — and I walked around at night — a lot.
There has been a dramatic change in the overall safety and sovereignty of El Salvador in the past few years.
Why is that?
Enter The Dragon
Nayib Bukele took over as the President of El Salvador in June of 2019.
If you’re a conservative, he has pretty much done to his country everything you would want to do for your own country if you had absolute power.
He has built up the infrastructure (at least in the nice parts — for now. Kind of have to start there for tourism purposes.) and has ignored any opposition to doing so.
He has given a giant middle finger to the West, and their evil overlords numerous times.
I don’t have the particular tweets available right now, but he takes shots on the regular.
If you don’t follow him on Twitter, you’re really missing out.
He is pretty much erasing MS13, an extremely violent gang who has plagued El Salvador for decades. And he brags about it on Twitter every chance he gets, taunting the gangbangers. I will talk about what caused this movement in a few minutes.
But the big headlines are what he is doing with Bitcoin.
El Salvador became the first country to accept Bitcoin as legal tender. This came as a bit of a surprise as many people didn’t see why a country who uses the USD as its main currency would feel the need to do this.
If you own another country’s currency, you have that country under your thumb in many ways. Bukele understood this, and made the bold move to crawl out from under the tyranny.
There has been opposition to a lot of things Bukele has done, but you gotta admit, if you want to unfuck a country fast, you can’t sit there and play politician all day. You have to make moves, and ignore anyone who doesn’t like it.
Is he more or less a dictator at this stage? You can make a case.
But is it working? Certainly is.
Getting Into San Salvador
I arrived the first week of April. I wanted to get there before the rainy season. Latin America is less pleasurable during the rainy season.
From the US, you can get a direct flight to SAL airport from Houston, Dallas, DC, New York, and LA.
I was already in Mexico City at the time, and they have a few direct options per day as well. I took a $90 direct flight.
Regardless, you will likely be coming into the airport late at night.
This is important, because cities in Latin America think it’s hilarious to put their airport 700 miles away from the place you actually want to go to. SAL is no exception.
I recommend you stay at the Quality Hotel Real Aeropuerto the night you arrive. It’s about 8 minutes away, and they have free shuttle service (you do have to call them once you’re there). There is a cheaper hotel option, but it’s further away and I can’t speak on it.
For a Quality brand hotel, it has high-level amenities. It’s decked out with a nice pool, restaurant, and bar. The rooms are great. It’s a really nice place to relax from your flight, and get ready for the trip into town the next day. If you’re feeling social, there are lots of foreigners hanging out in the public areas.
It’s pricey, but very much worth it. You’ll likely want to see the countryside on the drive into town, and you can’t do that at night.
I saw a lot of dorky white guys all over the hotel. I got excited. I was looking for the next crypto frontier, and I was hoping to find it early.
This must be the place.
Where To Stay
There are two main upscale areas in San Salvador. Don’t get cute. Just pick one of the areas I mention in this blog post and go there. I went to both, and we will talk about them.
Don’t rent a car. Just don’t rent a car in Latin America, period. But in El Salvador in particular, there’s some extra hidden costs at the rental places to boot. I’ve heard stories.
You will have a $30 cab ride into town. It’s a pretty drive. Reminded me of driving through the Appalachians a bit, but with more shantytowns.
You want to either stay in San Benito or Colonia Escalon. I recommend starting in San Benito. It has more to do, and more conveniences for your first couple of days.
The area I have circled has the majority of your infrastructure. If you venture outside of the circle (Sheraton Hotel area not withstanding), you’re going to be in residential areas with nowhere to go, and as safe as it is, there’s not much going on.
Inside the circle you will find plenty of restaurants, bars, pharmacies, banks, and a very nice mall.
I put an arrow by Super Selectos. This is definitely the supermarket you want to hit up and/or live near. More on this in a bit.
The Zona Rosa has the most concentration of bars, but they are rather scattered. Nightclubs are hard to find, they may be elsewhere for all I know, which does not inspire confidence. I don’t go to clubs unless I already have girls in tow, and I did not when I was here.
The bars could have been a lot more lively in my opinion, but they were all nice and well serviced.
This would be a pretty easy place to live in my opinion. Would I put it in my top 5 in Latin America? No, but it would be close. If you told me I had to do 3 months in San Salvador, as long as it wasn’t the rainy season, I would be happy in San Benito.
The other area I stayed in was Colonia Escalon. Do not be fooled. If you enter “Colonia Escalon” into google maps, you’ll get this:
It’s wrong. Colonia Escalon is more like this area here.
And it’s very nice. The nicest area I had been to in the entire city.
Bear in mind however, it’s very residential. Less to do, and everything is further away.
The restaurants they do have however are bustling, and very few gringos in this area, if that’s your thing.
Very walkable, and even your grandmother will feel safe here. She may not feel quite as safe in San Benito.
The Crowne Plaza Hotel is dope. I didn’t stay there, but I went over there twice, it’s got a lot to do, and a very social atmosphere. I must have hung out with a dozen strangers, local and foreign, between the two nights I was there.
Why No Bitcoin Beach?
My original idea was to spend a week or so in the capital, then head an hour and a half SW to the cost at El Zonte. This has been the most talked-about area in terms of where “Bitcoin Beach” is going to be located.
Before making any plans, I first wanted to rendezvous with my friend Chris, who had spent the entire week down that way, and was heading back to San Salvador around the same time as I was arriving.
Again, I’m not a beach town guy. Beaches are great and all (when they’re not jam packed with low-quality people), but I spent 8 weeks living in a beach town, and it was 7 weeks too long. They just don’t excite me.
But if this was the early days of this mysterious libertarian paradise in the tropics, then I wanted to see it.
Unfortunately, Chris was not impressed with any of it.
El Zonte is small, and there’s not much happening. Most people walking around are gringo, and there are hucksters pitching you real estate left and right.
But what’s worst of all, El Zonte may not even be where Bitcoin Beach’s main HQ even ends up. Word is they want to have it more up the western coast, towards the volcano.
And the cous de grace was this — About a week prior, there was a massacre that happened at La Libertad, about 6 mi east of El Zonte as the crow flies.
Gangsters murdered a bunch of people, including tourists.
Bukele was forced to leave the Miami Bitcoin Conference to come home and address this.
His rampage against MS13 and the 18th Street Gang ratcheted up tremendously at this time. Again, FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER.
Now my own logic tells me, that this is actually the SAFEST time to go anywhere. Has there just been a terrorist attack somewhere? If you care about safety above all, next week is the best time to go! Security will be off the charts.
But I was looking for a way out, and that, combined with the rest of Chris’s testimony, was all I needed.
I had just come to El Salvador too early. Oh well. I can go back later.
Let’s Chill For a Minute
We are witnessing a gigantic piece of not just financial history, but history in general as we witness entire countries adopting BTC as legal tender.
But the process is anything but fast and expedient.
Chris said you can pay for anything you want in El Zonte with BTC through the Lightning app. This is historic, and cool I guess, but once that novelty wears off, then what’s left?
You can’t pay for anything in San Salvador that way. At least I saw zero signs that told me I could.
I just heard a great podcast on this very phenomenon right here from CoinDesk. I’ll give you the main takeaways.
- Every citizen was forced to download the Chivo BTC wallet, but were also given $30 in free BTC
- 6 out of 10 people haven’t used the wallet one time
- There were provisions in the initial legislation that would make BTC payments available for ALL of El Salvador, but Bukele has walked that one back a lot, obviously, since you can’t use BTC anywhere else that I saw
I also thought Chivo would be everywhere in San Salvador. I saw a small booth at the mall where you could go sign up, and I saw one Chivo atm at a store. That was it.
I also heard zero locals talking about Chivo or Bitcoin the entire time I was there. It has not seemed to permeate society one bit. And this was supposed to be ground zero for the revolution!
It could still be. But we are a long, long ways away.
I think the expats and foreign pioneers will have their moment in El Salvador before the citizens do unfortunately.
My Personal Stats For San Salvador
If you’re thinking about visiting or living in El Salvador, allow me to give my personal opinions on how things stack up compared to other Latin American Cities (I’ve lived in about 2 dozen so far).
If you stay to those two neighborhoods, it’s very safe. There are a few homeless people, but they don’t even beg, they just lay on the ground, out of your way. It was kind of refreshing honestly.
Bukele is exterminating gang members left and right. They’re scared and they’re hiding. I would be very, very surprised if you even saw one from a distance.
Like a lot of Latin American places, public drunkeness is looked down upon, so even out at the bars there was never any trouble, or anyone making a spectacle of themselves. Compare that to the US.
Almost no obviously drugged-up looking people, anywhere. Again, compare this to the US.
Streets are quite empty at night, which is actually what you DON’T want from a safety standpoint, but I felt extremely safe walking back to my hotel at night, even through the neighborhoods, and even if it was a mile or so away.
You will see tin roof shantytowns butting right up against nicer areas, but boy oh boy are they walled off. Razor wire and all. San Salvador takes great measures to make sure one aspect of society doesn’t mix with the other.
“Dangerous” cities are overrated in terms of how unsafe they are. If you don’t go to bad areas, you have basic situational awareness, and you’re not trying to find drugs, very little can happen to you.
Having worked with Salvadorians in the past, I was well aware of what to expect when it comes to local cuisine.
It’s super fucking boring. Sorry El Salvador. Pupusas are great, and you should try them, but there’s very little else in terms of food that has a local identity, and what is there, is rather boring.
This being said, I didn’t have one bad meal. Everything was prepared very well, and there are lots of international options all over. So you should be happy, but don’t think you’re going to dive deep into a little-known food culture and be blown away. Not that kind of place.
At the grocery store, fruits and vegetables were abundant, and of high quality. Meat was very abundant, and of above-average quality.
El Salvador does try to accommodate Westerners a lot, so expect to see a lot of familiar brands in the stores.
All over the place really. You can get some very nice looking 2-bedroom AirBnbs on Loma Linda Street (east of Super Selectos) for about $1200/month (factor in VAT tax).
In Latin America, there is a spectrum. As far as food you get at restaurants or a store, Mexico/Colombia is the cheapest end of the spectrum, and Panama is at the most expensive end. El Salvador falls pretty much in the middle, possibly shaded a bit higher than average. It’s still cheap though, and Westerners will notice it.
When it comes to grocery stores, it all depends on what you’re buying. In Super Selectos, if it was made or grown in Latin America, it’s cheap. If they had to import it, it’s usually going to be near Panama prices.
So a 2lb bag of rice was 80 cents, but a box of Honey Nut Cheerios was $6.50.
Then again, you had exceptions. A can of Red Bull was $2, but a 250ml bottle of Listerine (the small size) was $5.50.
Fruit, vegetables, and meat were on the cheaper side of the spectrum IMO.
Ubers are very cheap and efficient. I never spent more than $4 to get anywhere I wanted to go. Use taxis to get to/from the airport. They will cost $30. Have your hotel arrange a good one for you.
As far as banking goes, I have never seen any of the banks I saw outside of El Salvador. I didn’t see one multi-national. So weird. Locals said Banco Cuscatalan was the best place to bank if you make decent money.
El Salvador is certainly more affordable than Western countries, but as far as LATAM goes, it’s in the middle cost-wise, shaded a bit higher I’d say due to their desire to be a bit more Westernized.
Like anywhere, a bit of Spanish will get you far, but it’s not necessary.
I was impressed with the amount of English spoken here. Chris said outside of the city, it’s almost non-existent, but that’s the case in most non-English Speaking countries.
I had heard El Salvador speaks a vos dialect similar to Argentina, but I didn’t really pick up on it.
As far as my Spanish goes, if somebody is speaking it fast, and behind a mask, I have no idea what they’re saying anyway.
The dialect to me, was similar to Mexico.
A lot nicer than I expected. Pleasant, actually. I expected to stick to my shirt, and in San Salvador, I never did. Coming out of the airport, you think you’d landed in a swamp, but the airport is at sea level.
Once you get to San Salvador, you’ve climbed up about 2000ft, and there is still humidity, but it’s not bad at all. Not a lot of insects either. I felt myself getting bitten some at night by mosquitos, but no visible bites the following day.
I did a lot of walking, and was comfortable. There are months that are a few degrees cooler as well. Then there is the rainy season, which I’ve already said is not the time to go.
6 out of 10.
You’re going find a lot more cute than hot here, which is fine with me. The women did seem to be more outwardly friendly than the men, though I found everyone to be rather friendly.
You’ll see women of all skin tones here, except for black. The only black people I saw were American tourists. If you prefer darker-skinned Latinas, head further south, or towards the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, as far as abundance goes, it’s on the low end. Obesity is not as bad here as I suspected, but the amount of hot women here are well below most Latin American countries. LATAM women are hot in general, so you will still find a lot here, just not compared to other countries not named Nicaragua.
If you’re gay, there’s not much for you here. I didn’t see one gay couple, or anyone who even looked the part.
Maybe you see it more on the outskirts, but Salvadorians just go about their day like anyone else. Very few outward displays of national pride.
In Mexico for example, you see overwhelming pride for their food, their music and their soccer team. Not much of that here.
This isn’t a bad thing, if anything it makes for an easier transition, but don’t expect a noticeable cultural vibe here.
To end it off, here are some of the odd things I noticed about San Salvador…
1 – It’s very hilly. Unusual for most Latin American cities, I have no idea why this is.
2 – In restaurants, the tip is included, every time. It took my dumb ass a good 4 meals before I figured this out. I’m used to telling my waiter “Veinte por ciento de la propina” (Add a 20% tip) every time they bring the bill, but it kept getting met with looks of bewilderment. My bad.
3 – Very little traffic! So unusual for a capital city. I guess when half of your population moves away, the roads clear up a bit.
4 – I was at a cheap fried chicken restaurant in the daytime, a sushi bar in the afternoon, and the Crowne Plaza Hotel at night. These were all on different days. In all three locations, WWE was playing on the TV screens.
I’m glad I went, and I would go back. Especially once Bitcoin Beach, wherever the hell it ends up, starts getting built out more.
But I was pleasantly surprised with San Salvador, and I think you would be too.