Expatriate to El Salvador?

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In the
years since the end of its civil war in 1992, El Salvador has developed
an amazingly vibrant economy. There is good reason for this and
Peruvian economist Alvaro Vargas Llosa describes the situation perfectly.
In El Salvador people are "desperate to own and trade goods
and services." Salvadorans are hard working and friendly people
and here individuals from all walks of life are busy trying to get
ahead. Most seem weary of politics and wish to move beyond the troubled
past. El Salvador really has two economies, especially in the capital,
San Salvador. One economy features upscale shopping malls and exclusive
beach hotels. The other exists on the streets of the city. Despite
the pressures of a worldwide economic downturn, people in both sectors
are making heroic efforts in the pursuit of free enterprise.

San Salvador
has a dynamic business community. One trip down the street that
bisects the city's central shopping district, known locally as El
Paseo, is proof of this phenomenon. The street is lined with restaurants,
nightclubs, shopping centers, home stores, supermarkets, and shops
of every description. The cornerstone of El Paseo is the Gallerias
Mall, a rectangular three-story shopping center actually constructed
around a historic house. The Gallerias food court is an international
dining experience. One can feast on sushi or McDonalds, tacos or
Pizza Hut. The shopping center caters to an endless stream of customers
seeking luxury goods and the best coffee in the world.

A mile or two
from the city center are three large shopping malls. The first,
Las Cascadas, has a store so much like a Wal-Mart that it is actually
now owned by Wal-Mart. The place is crowded with customers, day
and night, seven days a week. Best of all, every line, more than
twenty in all, is open, cashiers at the ready. Retired people bag
your groceries. Printed on the backs of their shirts is this motto:
"I am here to serve you." Another mall, La Gran Via, is
a luxury goods haven with a vast plaza, fancy clothing and shoe
stores, an ultra-modern cineplex, and such well-known chain restaurants
as Bennigan's and Benihana. A third, Multiplaza, is a three-story
architectural marvel. Its soaring atrium has escalators large enough
to accommodate grocery store shopping carts. Multiplaza is anchored
by high-quality department stores and has countless specialty stores,
bars, coffee shops, restaurants, cell phone kiosks, pharmacies,
and a first-rate supermarket. All three of these malls have multi-level
underground parking garages that feature hand car washing while
you shop.

Since entrepreneurs
here can pretty much locate a business wherever they please, these
malls are all located next to one another along the Pan-American
Highway, the major artery that bisects El Salvador. As one could
imagine, this proximity caused a traffic nightmare. Not content
with the state's timetable on traffic improvements, the mall owners
themselves paid for an ingenious series of bridges and overpasses
that relieved the congestion. State highway workers performed the
actual construction but it was a round-the-clock operation that
could have taken years to finish without private intervention.

Outside of
San Salvador are factories where workers sew garments from pieces
shipped in from the United States and elsewhere. El Salvador is
ideal for this type of manufacturing. San Salvador is just a three-hour
flight from Atlanta. In addition, the country has a willing labor
force and the latest technology. El Salvador can thus compete with
China on the basis of turnaround time. New orders can be processed
and shipped in a matter of weeks, not months in the case of China.
This is highly important in the ever-changing garment industry.
El Salvador's textile factories have also fueled additional development.
The suburban town of Lourdes, ten miles from the capital, is a manufacturing
hub. Lourdes has experienced an explosion of related construction
— shopping centers, apartment complexes, supermarkets, gas stations,
movie theaters, and hundreds of new moderately-priced single-family
residences. The area is so busy that traffic often slows to a crawl
on the "Carratera Panamericana."

Another vital
aspect of El Salvador's current economy is tourism. It has been
a tough sell, given the years of civil war and bad press (or NO
press), but this is beginning to change. For example, the country's
beaches are becoming ever more popular as destination spots and
are engines of economic activity. Posh restaurants overlook breathtaking
Pacific Ocean views. New "all-inclusive" beachfront hotels
have the most modern facilities and, better still, provide thousands
of jobs for Salvadorans. The coastal area is gorgeous year round
and cries out for more development. This is already evident on the
main highway to the port of La Libertad, the hub of El Salvador's
beach scene just forty-five minutes from the capital. There are
lots for sale and houses are going up. On either side of La Libertad's
main drag are mom-and-pop surfboard shops, "surfer-friendly"
motels, and internet cafs. El Salvador's near-constant "break"
has become the best-kept secret in the international surfing community
and the beach is less than an hour away from the international airport.
Needless to say, the La Libertad area is famed for its high-quality
fresh seafood.

The "informal"
economy is equally dynamic. Vendors are endlessly on the make in
San Salvador. Talk about human action! The city center is literally
jammed with "informales" selling all manner of goods,
giving the historic part of a town a jostling, casbah-like feel.
Men and women sell flowers, cigarettes, fruit, pirated DVDs, lottery
tickets, newspapers, car parts, flags and maps of El Salvador, clothing,
even furniture and household appliances. Services include shoe repairs,
barber shops, nail salons, and sidewalk clothing alterations. In
the "centro," dealers offer a wide array of inexpensive
goods and services in an area near major bus terminals. These vendors
are convenient for a multitude of people streaming into the capital
city from all parts of El Salvador.

In every neighborhood,
men hawk fresh bread from bicycles with oversized baskets. The same
goes for ice cream, sold from pushcarts and announced by the gentle
tinkling of a bell. Add to this the makeshift stands where women
set up propane tanks and griddles near bus stops and construction
sites to sell "pupusas." The pupusa is the national staple,
invariably described in the guidebooks as "a small tortilla
stuffed with beans and cheese." This description does not do
justice to the pupusa. It is a delicacy that is, in itself, a reason
to live in El Salvador.

San Salvador's
street vendors are highly resourceful and creative. Merchandise
varies according to the season. During one rare cold snap, hawkers
appeared with sweaters, stocking caps, and blankets. They found
numerous customers at the bus stop on Redondel Masferrer, a busy
traffic circle at the top of El Paseo. Around Independence Day,
El Salvador flags are available at every street corner. Similarly,
whenever the national soccer team plays a match cheap knock-offs
of the official team jersey appear as if by magic. Near Mothers'
Day one can find roses of every variety. For the "Day of the
Cross," vendors will sell you not only a small hand-made wooden
cross, but all the paper decorations needed for traditional backyard
displays. Some street entrepreneurs are superb entertainers. Jugglers,
clowns, and mimes appear regularly at an intersection in San Benito,
a residential neighborhood a mile or so from the city center. One
man does a fire-eating act – while standing on five-foot stilts.
He has an assistant to collect the spare change from passing motorists.

aspect of the Salvadoran scene is the painted wooden bric-a-brac
known locally as "artesenia." These Salvadoran knickknacks
are good business and their production is an object lesson in free
enterprise. There is an artesenia shop in every market and in all
the ritzy malls. The undisputed king of artesenia is Fernando Llort
(pronounced "Yort"), who started an artist colony in the
northern town of La Palma. His operation, though simple, has been
a huge success. Llort creates the original designs and his employees
mass produce the items for sale. His designs have been adopted as
the semi-official symbols of El Salvador and even adorn the façade
of the national cathedral. In addition to his artesenia operation,
Llort maintains "El Arbol el Dios," a high-end art gallery
with a brand new location in the posh section of San Salvador. There
one can find his original paintings and drawings, some of which
fetch thousands of dollars. A multitude of other styles of artesenia
is available. One can go the backpacker route at the Artesenia Market
near San Benito and haggle with assorted vendors. But why bother
when one can find the same merchandise at the same price at an air-conditioned
shopping mall?

Artesenia quality
varies, beauty clearly being in the eye of the beholder, but most
is fairly inexpensive and make great gifts for the folks back home.
One thing of real beauty, however, is Salvadoran entrepreneurship.
Visit El Salvador. Enjoy its beautiful beaches and mountain scenery.
Go to the shopping malls and take a drive down El Paseo. Above all,
witness the true beauty of an almost forgotten art, that of the
country's people and their keen efforts to get ahead.

Dunlap [send him mail]
has lived in El Salvador since 2005.

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