Dispatches from Zaragoza: Getting Around in El Salvador

Dispatches from Zaragoza: Getting Around in El Salvador

Frank Matarrese

We’re here without a car of our own, so we are discovering how to get around in El Salvador. There are three main ways: on foot, by bus and by truck. Day to day, most people in Zaragoza have to walk for daily needs. Everywhere we’ve gone, we see people walking: in town, on two-lane (or less) rural roads, on city streets and on the main highway. People walk with children to school, they walk carrying loads of whatever or just to get to the next town.

Buses seem to be the next most common mode of getting around. Buses here are almost all old Blue Bird school buses, belching diesel exhaust when laboring up the Zaragoza grade. These buses, custom painted in the local style, not two alike, bear a number on the front and back, along with sayings and prayers, with interiors similarly decorated. Along with the driver, each bus has what can best be described as a passenger “wrangler”, who rides often on the entry step with the door open, alerting the driver to a pick up or drop off. The wrangler also collects the fare, putting coins into a cloth bag and making change with one hand as the bus bumps along (50 cents seems to be the standard – the country uses U.S. currency). People pass money when the bus is too crowded, and when it is packed, people often hop on an off from the rear emergency door, even "viajitas" with the assistance of the wrangler and other passengers.

We’ve ridden the bus a few times now to Asuchio and La Libertad and maybe ride into San Salvador at some point, though some have cautioned us about robberies (more on that in another posting). Other buses supplement the old school buses, ranging from 30 passenger Coasters to small micro-buses, all brightly painted and using the same system as their bigger counter-parts. Buses run everywhere and there seem to be bus shelters in the most remote spots (some are sponsored by political parties – permanent campaign sign until someone paints it over!).

The third most popular mode of transit is by vehicle. In Zaragoza and pretty much everywhere outside of San Salvador, people can be seen riding in the back of a pickup truck, often fitted with a rail fence (used to move livestock, too) – most popular are small Nissan or Toyota extended cab diesels. They seem to be everywhere. We’ve ridden in this fashion several times and in the countryside, it’s exhilarating, but not so fun in the city.

Lastly, other modes of transportation that we’ve seen are: bicycle ranging from kids on trick bikes and campesinos with machetes slung on rusty mountain bikes to serious cyclists in full “Tour de El Salvador” regalia. There is a general problem with biking, because though the main highways are in very good shape, town and city streets range from cobble stone or dirt/gravel to potholed-asphalt. Speed bumps abound, even on the main highway. Other modes are tucu-tucus or small motor scooter cabs from India, ox cart and horseback. We’ve seen them all.