Friday, June 24, 2011

Driving in El Salvador

The last time traffic at the El Salvador del Mundo roundabout was light ... about 50 years ago.

I have been driving in El Salvador now for about four years and, knock on wood, no accidents yet. Some important pointers - make sure you have insurance with roadside assistance. If you do have an accident, be cautious of where you are and what time it is. If someone runs into you from behind, you may want to stay in your car and signal them to follow you to a place where there are lights and guards - a police station is ideal or otherwise a gas station or other business establishment with lots of light and traffic. On the other hand, it may be important to have the insurance guys look at the accident in situ but only do that during the day when there are lots of cars around.

Situational awareness is very important. Driving at night, stopping at a traffic light, keep a watch around your car. If someone comes up to you, don’t hesitate to drive away. The cops are pretty lenient about running reds at night. Windows up and doors locked in any dodgy areas.

You are pretty safe in most of El Salvador except for at night in certain bad areas such as Apopa, Soyapango, and maybe El Centro. Don’t go into these areas unless you have to and try not to go at night. The main thoroughfares usually have cops but avoid getting deep into these areas.

A GPS is a good idea - see You may want to buy a cheap Garmin Nuvi in the U.S. or Canada and then have Ben Quan put the El Salvador and Guatemala maps onto it (either directly or he can put it onto an SD chip). I think he charges $150 for the map program. The GPS is pretty good although when making a long trip, try to confirm the route with a map. On a recent post, I mentioned that we had it set on “shortest distance” and it took us through the mountains.

Driving in San Salvador may appear crazy to you (unless you are from Boston) but you’ll get used to it. In round-abouts, drivers in the left lane may try to cut right and drivers in the right lane routinely cut left. Expect the unexpected and a signal (or lack thereof) means nothing. Some of the crazier things I’ve seen is someone backing down the middle of a two lane highway because she missed her turn off to Sonsonate. There were two full lanes and a shoulder but she drove backwards between the two lanes. When I honked at her, she acted surprised.

Also, on the turn off to Santa Elena beside Multiplaza, there is a exit lane on the left. Cars will routinely drive along the adjacent lane and then cut in at the end. This is normal. What is bizarre is that cars will drive two lanes to the right and then cut in on the people trying to cut in.

Another good rule is that you have to drive aggressively in San Salvador to get anywhere but you should always drive cautiously in the countryside to avoid accidents. I saw two nasty ones on two consecutive trips out to the golf course. The first one was on the new highway that goes from the road up from Lourdes/Santa Ana to Santa Tecla. They have opened a ramp going out to the roundabout in Merliot so you can take the great, empty 3 lane highway into the city. I was driving in with a friend when I saw a small white van in the middle of the road. We get out and the driver said that he was driving along when two racing cars cut in front of him. He hit the breaks and spun but then hit a dark speed bump (watch for those at the end of the road) and tipped over. We tried to lift the van up but couldn’t. Another driver stopped and the four of us managed to get it right side up ... and the driver started it and drove away.

The next night, we were driving down the hill from Santa Tecla towards Lourdes. About half a mile down as it was getting really twisty, the brakes on the truck seem to fail. They were locking up and the truck was sliding. Then we turned a corner and saw two people beside a dropped motorcycle waving at us. We pulled over and realized that the entire two lanes were covered in some kind of oil - we suspected used cooking oil being transported for recycling. We were on a bad spot on the road so we moved the bike and the people down the hill a ways. The truck was almost rammed by an oil tanker but he was able to slow down and get his truck under control. We ended up loading the bike into the truck bed and driving the couple back up to Santa Tecla to an ISS hospital. The driver seemed okay but his wife had taken some bad scrapes and started crying in the car, probably from the shock and the pain. On the way there, we first had to go down the hill (to the U-turn area) and two SUVs were approaching us, driving too fast. One slowed down and locked his wheels and the other almost rammed into him. We called the cops to report it but by the time we dropped the couple off and made it back to the spot, there were no cops and, luckily, no other accidents. Then we saw some cop cars with sirens on heading to the spot.

This brings up another point. Should you stop to assist accident victims? It depends on where and when. If it is at night, you should be careful because someone may rob you and steal your car. My friend is an armed ex-cop so he always stops. People will also fake accidents to get people to stop although I don’t think this is that common anymore.

I have received two tickets in my four years of driving. The first time, I was heading to the airport doing about 110 kms/hr. I was following a fast motorcycle and watching for radar traps. I slowed down after cresting a hill but he blew past the box factory and a cop jumped out and flagged me down. He said that I was driving way too fast (that spot had a 60 km limit) and my infraction was very serious. He asked me if it was okay for him to give me a $50 ticket. I didn’t realize he was asking if I wanted to make a discounted payment on the spot so I said I guess it was okay for him to give me the ticket. Still, in hindsight, I’d rather pay the ticket than to bribe a cop.

The second ticket I got was for crossing a double yellow line. Escalon has a double yellow line running up it and hundreds of cars cross that every hour. In my case, I was with my parents and we were lost and I crossed a three lane road and a cop was right there and chased me down. I said that I didn’t see any signs saying no left turns and he said that you can never cross a double yellow line. I think that I deserved that ticket and I realized that you can get away with a shit-load of bad, stupid, inconsiderate driving but not when what you do is dangerous - and crossing three lanes of heavy traffic was pretty stupid.

If this is freaking you out, try to restrict your driving to Saturday afternoons or all day Sunday. Very little traffic and a nice way to see the city!


  1. Hey there Jaykay, I am going to be doing the drive through Central America soon (already almost through Mexico) and was googling to find out info on El Salvador because I really would like to drive through and see it, but had some reservations. Great to read your posts and get some insider opinions! Really appreciate the info and posts, great blog to read and El Salvador really does sound like a great place to see! And from a fellow Torontian, all the better! Cheers and keep enjoying the time down there!! Mark

  2. Hey Mark, good luck with the drive. I assume you are staying on the main roads and only driving during the day? When you make it down to San Salvador, let me know and we'll go for a beer.

  3. hey there Jaykay, right on! For sure, just during the day, although I got caught a bit in traffic and ended up driving some after dark in Guatemala City on the way to Antigua, where I am at now. Yikes! I was admittedly just a tad nervous, from this point, big cities ONLY get tackled first thing in the morning!! Hey that would be awesome for sure, be great to have a beer and talk about the city! I'm actually thinking of rolling in there maybe sometime toward the end of next week if you're around...I feel like I need to give Guatemala city a day or two (during the day of course) to see some of the centro area...Hope your 2012 is off to a bang and thanks for the response!

  4. Hey Mark, send me an Email to and I will give you my contact details for when you come to San Salvador.