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el salvador boysA few years back, in lieu of a bachelor party for a friend, I sketched out a surf trip to El Salvador. It would never happen. Upon hearing of our destination, the bride-to-be and a groomsman's wife vetoed the choice due to safety concerns in the wake of a 10-years-gone civil war, and we ended up on a boat in Costa Rica.

Not a terrible option, certainly, but at the time, El Salvador was probably no more dangerous than a localized surf break on Long Island -- maybe less so. Four years later, another wedding approached, and another surf trip was planned. This time, El Salvador was vetted without hesitation, and the ladies showed up for the final weekend. Did conditions change, or just attitudes?

You may have your own similar story, but the fact is this: the lengths to which people will go in their search for solitude, authenticity, a sense of the new and untrammeled, a whiff of adventure, are stretching all the time. As a result, destinations once thought dangerous, even dangerously unthinkable, are becoming tourist outposts.

What's It Like? Is It Dangerous?
What is it like to travel in El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Eastern bloc, certain African nations and other places once thought extremely dangerous and inhospitable? Many of these destinations are not intrinsically dangerous places, but simply have not had the exposure to tourism that ultimately results in healthier local economies, robust police forces, and tourist-friendly safe zones and businesses.

Your first impression will be the utter absence of the typical tourist infrastructure -- including tourist traps. This hardly means your presence will go unnoticed, or is unwelcome. In many cases, particularly in places not exposed to the 20th century's explosion in leisure travel, you will find the locals just as curious about you and your home as you are about theirs; the weary cynicism of some tourist-trodden communities has not set in.

In any unfamiliar place, your relative safety can shift radically every few steps or minutes; the terrorist attacks of the past decade in New York, Madrid, London and recently Mumbai are the stark proof.

Another recent example: throughout the 1990's, Indonesia was a very popular place for Western tourists. Post-9/11 and Iraq invasion, however, Indonesia's large Muslim population made a less comfortable place for Western tourists in general, and Americans in particular. Then on December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami resulted in a massive influx of humanitarian aid, including peaceable armies of American volunteers. The perception of Americans reversed again very quickly, and many tourists have returned to the region.

Personally, I felt far safer in El Salvador riding the psychedelic-paintjob buses and raiding the markets as the only gringo in sight than I did tromping through certain surf bum-infested towns in Europe and even Hawaii.

Nonetheless, Salvadoran hoteliers discourage visitors from walking alone after dark, and armed guards conduct night watches at many hotels, resort clubs and the like. It can be difficult to figure out which activities are safe and which might present some danger. Your best safeguard against trouble is to gather some local knowledge.

To wit: When I inquired with our guide about visiting a well-known volcano park in the inland mountains, he strongly recommended we wait until the weekend. "During the week, there are no people out there, so there are no police; the banditos work weekdays," he explained. On the weekend, bigger crowds attracted a military and police presence, and made the grounds extremely safe.

Finally, I found it interesting that, particularly in the case of Central America and the Eastern bloc, it took about a decade before any mainstreaming of popular opinion took place. In fact, however, these places were nice places to visit a solid five years earlier. This may serve as a good guide when choosing a destination; five years of stability is go time.

bogota colombia night dark skyColombia
Once known for kidnappers, guerilla fighters and drug dealers, these days Colombia is being profiled in Sunday travel sections celebrating its colorful colonial cities, unspoiled mountains and pretty Caribbean coastline. The U.S. State Department has an ongoing warning on travel to Colombia, particularly to small towns and rural areas, but notes that violence has decreased significantly in larger cities such as Bogota and Cartagena.

Central America
El Salvador and Nicaragua, not so long ago home to death squads, desaparecidos, civil war and revolution, have emerged as the "next Costa Rica." New hotels are opening all the time, and coastside shanty towns are cropping up to support the return of the surfers (the region was extremely popular, almost overrun, with surfers in the 70's). Finally, an incredible stream of money from Northern expats has encouraged the building of malls, movie theaters and markets, especially in San Salvador, and this influence is spreading.

In Nicaragua, it turns out, an influx of international volunteers during the Sandinista regime exposed the populace to a more diverse community and created among them a more broad cultural and linguistic awareness than in most other Central American countries, save for Panama and Mexico.

Salvadorans have been described as "friendly and hard-working," which seemed a cliche at best, but I was stunned at the accuracy of the description. I found that folks helped you with your Spanish, did unbidden favors, told you about their families, let you in on the joke -- try finding similar treatment in Europe. And whether in a restaurant or the surfboard repair "shop," the work was fast, of good quality, and very fairly presented and priced.

The rural charm is balanced by modern facilities when you need them -- the roads go from good to great, and the airport serves as a hub for many Central American flights. The airport is no war-ravaged shell -- in fact, you'll find Nautica, Perry Ellis, Tommy Hilfiger and a RadioShack. As tourism ramps up, the Salvadorans will adapt and be ready. War is over if you want it.


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