We bring it to YOU (walking vendors in El Salvador)   7 comments

Living in a developing country, in the middle of nowhere?  Not to worry, you needn’t leave your house, most of the necessities in life come to you.

Various vendors, marketers, and peddlers wind their way through roads and passageways throughout El Salvador every day.  This entry takes you through encounters with vendors selling their wares on country roads in rural Chalatenango to others walking door-to-door in a tourist area just south of San Salvador.

Bakers peddle on bikes through caserios (country neighborhoods) and colonias (urban and suburban neighborhoods), offering rolls, bread, and pastries; signaling their arrival with a horn (comically, it’s a clown’s horn), attached to their bicycle.

Rural Chalatenango:  A vegetable vendor we prefer comes into the caserio every week on selling tomatoes, cabbage, cucumber, onions, avocado, etc. off his small commercial truck.  Unlike the grocery store, there may be only 1 variety of orange that day, or red onions but not white, but he usually produces most of your vegetable needs.  He packs a big plastic bin of “gelatins,” small bite-sized capfuls of a jello-like candy to give out to kids on his stops.  Every Thursday between 7 and 8am we hear the long hand press on his horn, announcing his approach.  Since my mother in-law buys large amounts of tomatoes and cabbage to run her ‘pupuseria’ he stops right in front of the house for her.  My husband and I stock up on veggies for 5-9 dollars a week.  Avocados went up from 3 for a $1 to 40 cents apiece*, still not bad considering they were 2 for $1.50 at best when I left the U.S.  Food selection is limited in rural El Salvador, but bless it for cheap fruits and vegetables!  Another veggie vendor made rounds here, but thankfully he stopped.  He had a megaphone strapped to his truck, broadcasting his products in a loud, not so good auctioneer style  (aspiring auctioneer perhaps?); we heard him blocks away but couldn’t understand his garble.

Chulto City is a major salt vendor and use the megaphone well.  All they sell is salt, and boy are they proud of it.  “Get your best salt here, Chuuulto City, bright white white [Chelita Chelita Chelita…], iodized salt, don’t live without it…” is chanted on wheels in Spanish.  “Helados ‘Candy’” dances ’round the neighborhood in their ice cream truck a few times a week.

The final but not forgotten of the megaphone crew are the “Chatarra” guys.  In any neighborhood in El Salvador at least once a week they come by not selling, but buying “Chatarra Chatarra Chatarra lamina, compramos refridge, tele (TV), latta…”   They pick up discarded items with scrap metal, tin or aluminum.  Auctioneer style as well.

Got room for a few more bottles? Spotted in Puerto de la Libertad October of 2010

Recycling hasn’t hit prime time in El Salvador, but there are recycling centers, and ambitious people with trucks will travel:

courtesy of Daniel at ocasaz.wordpress.com

The helado (ice cream) guys ring a small bell to humbly announce offerings from their cart.

It breaks your heart to see them pushing along in the beating sun.  And almost always an older gentleman, so one is compelled to buy a couple cones.

A sweet older woman came by last fall, selling canastas (baskets).  I got a deal buying a small hamper-sized basket for 5 bucks.

[I interrupt this story to note that as I typed this, along came someone ringing a bell in the street in our new neighborhood, Los Planes de Renderos.  Sure enough – a sorbet man!   Just as I was saying, an older gentleman, selling 25 cent child-size cones in your choice of vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate.  “I’ll take four!” I said, and treated my husband and the two masons working at the house we’re renting.  The ice cream vendor carried everything in a large cardboard box with a strap, on his shoulder.  Pictures of fancy ice cream bars adorned its top.  Inside were cones, cups, his scooping spoon, and a smaller cardboard box containing 3 flavors of ice cream.  No plastic containers, no ‘cooler’, just a simple cardboard getup, human powered with hands legs and feet!   He had travelled from San Marcos, a town nearby to sell his cones in the well-off neighborhoods of our tourist town with Mountain Vistas.]

Meanwhile, back in Chalatenango….not long after Chulto City belted out their salt-selling sermon, a guy selling blankets came by our rural house.  One had a Whinnie-the-Pooh and friends design in blues and whites, colors inverted on the opposite side.  I bought the blanket and my husbande teased me, but we did use it a few nights when it got “fresco” (brisk) on December nights last year.  Sundry food items also pass through the ‘hood’, such as frozen chicken, which comes by regularly.  When in season, an old woman with very few teeth and her mentally challenged son come by with fish, which my husband likes to buy.  The tamale girls, as I call them, come by selling freshly made hot tamales which they carry in “guacales” (shallow plastic buckets) on their heads.  They live in the neighborhood and make their rounds occasionally.  I’m usually game as it’s warm and fresh.

The oddest thing I’ve seen sold by mobile salespeople in El Salvador would be Mattresses.  Sold by men and women who walk them around.  Obviously not Sealy Posturepedic (try hauling that down the road!), but a thinned-down version one can fold and carry on the shoulder with a strap.  I feel for these vendors when I see them carrying such large and cumbersome items. I’d often like to give them a ride, but my husband reminds me their success comes from entering every neighborhood, and walking by every home, like door-to-door salesmen your grandparents knew.  So no point in offering a ride unless I want to be the salesman’s side-kick.

My husband and I made a furniture purchase from mobile vendors once – a pair of men selling folding wooden tables in Chalatenango.  Seeing how easy they carried them helped make the sale!

“Ah La La Pizzaaaaaaaah!’.   This guy is one of my favorites.   The pizza man has a unique songlike chant, it’s rather inviting.  We hear him streets away, buzzing around on his motorbike, pizza and soda on tow.  A buck a slice with a cup of soda, a deal by American standards, but pricey for Salvadorans (daily wage for a laborer in the country = $7-10 day), so more likely indulged by families getting remittances.  The remittance club can also afford to buy from the motorbike carrying Pollo Campero, or as I like to call them, Pollo Robero ** (see ‘robo‘).  It is good stuff, but be ready to empty your wallet – costs almost as much as the states.

Let’s take a gander back to the mountaintop venue again in Los Planes de Renderos.  The vendors have been selling and walking along, all this time.  There are two ladies I know well by face, and a 3rd who has made herself familiar of late.   All three sell chocolate discs, which are used to make Latino style hot chocolate with, and other small items.    I can go to the “Mercado Central” (main market in the city) and buy everything they offer for a better price, but they are such dears and make their living this way, so I buy when they stroll by.   They are from nearby towns, and we often remark about the big difference in climate just 15 minutes down the hill, often 10 degrees warmer than here.  Thus, the ever-present chocolate discs and sweater they carry with them.

A salesman of house wares came by just a week ago and left an impression.  A mountain of goods, he pulled out item after item from his collection-in-tow, trying his darndest to sell one of a dozen aluminum pots, curtains, and blankets.  Insistence often pays, so he kept on after my first warnings, offering one thing, then another.  He piled it all back after my final ‘I’m sorry, I have all those things’.  Eventually, everything was on his shoulders again.  I couldn’t believe he could carry it all – a dozen or more aluminum pots up high on his back, and several blankets and curtains held on his sides from a strap.  A human mule, hoping to dump some cargo in exchange for a few bucks.

Clothing, shoes, and hammocks lend themselves well to sales walkers and we’ve seen all kinds.  Hammock sales have a comical barter process.  The vendor starts at, say $15-18.  ‘No, I already have hammocks’, you say.  “But this is a great hammock.  I’ll bring it down to twelve.”  ‘No, really, I have that kind already’.  “You can always use another.  How about $10?”  ‘No, really, I don’t need anymore hammocks’.  “OK, OK…$8.  But I can’t sell it for any less….”  At local gas stations down the road hammock vendors approach to take you through this interchange; after the 4th ‘no’ the price has dropped in half.

Another time here on the mountain a couple of young girls (tweens?) came by selling “Atol de Piña,” a hot drink made of ground corn meal and pineapple.   I’d always eaten pineapples in cold dishes, so this was an exotic treat.

The best purchase I remember in our mountaintop locale was from a husband and wife duo selling popsicles.  I bought an arrayan flavored frozen fruit treat, generous sized and shaped like an umbrella. Best popsicle I’ve had in years, and was only 35 cents.

* Avacados, at the 3/2010 price; they’re now up to .50 apiece (vendor/market price) or more a year later.

** Went to a Pollo Campero.  Got a bucket of chicken, and….hmmm…I don’t see the drinks on the menu.  Ah well, let’s get 4 big drinks for the gang, we’re dying of thirst in 90+ degree heat.  Along comes the receipt.  Drinks are $1.25 for a small fountain soda (in El Salvador, no less) and we ordered all LARGE!   Slick job not listing drinks on the menu, Pollo Robero.

7 responses to “We bring it to YOU (walking vendors in El Salvador)

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  1. I like the Atol drink, I’ve had it here in Las Vegas at a Salvadorian Cafe.

  2. I am thinking of taking a job in san salvador at the american school. Is san salvador safe? is the city charming? What advice can you give?


    • Ken, where are you right now? I would do my best to make sure you HAVE the job before showing up here to live (unless you have lots of savings), because jobs are hard to come by here. You will also want the school to help vouch for you so you can get residency here. El Salvador makes you leave the country every 3 months, but it’s not like Costa Rica where you can “hop the border” for 24 hrs and come back over – we are part of the CA-4 so you have to go all the way to Mexico or Belize northward, or Costa Rica southward to “hop the border” which is more expensive and involved. In terms of charm or safety – certain parts of San Salvador are charming but they really need to do a lot more to ‘charm it up’ over here. They are trying, the major of SS is trying to clean up the streets and relocate vendors so not to crowd the sidewalks, and President Funes ‘reordered’ part of the city, prohibiting buses from driving through it to make it more amenable to tourists. If you are a “night” person I would not advise El Salvador for you as most pp tuck themselves in their homes by 7pm for safety sake – it’s ill advised to go nightclubbing or gallivanting around after dark, I wouldn’t do it. If you are a more quiet person who does not need a big nightlife, you’ll be fine. Best advice – come here for at least 2 weeks to get to know the city before moving here blindly. We can talk more at your email address, Ken.

  3. To KEN: I have to disagree about the Salvadoran nightlife as this person is describing it. There is TONS of it. Pubs, sports bars, restaurants of every kind and clubs. Some are not in safe areas but if you stick around the nice big malls(lots of security there) they have going west of San Salvador, the Zona Rosa, Escalon or Santa Elena(where the US Embassy is) you’ll be fine. Just within the places I mentioned you will find dozens of different spots to choose from.

    I honestly don’t know where this “people tuck their heads in their homes @ 7pm for safety sake” stuff comes from. Maybe the total ghetto areas. It could not be further from the truth. My advice is for you to take a trip down there and see for yourself. I visit regularly for business and have met American and British teachers who love the place. Make Salvadoran friends and you’ll have a great time at their lake, mountain, or beach houses. Something different every weekend!

    • Hi Shin, thank you for your input. My husband and I live on modest means, and don’t have a ‘going out a lot’ lifestyle, so we know little of the nightlife here, and can’t give much advice there.

      If you live close enough (or staying in a hotel close enough) to the places where you are going out, it is probably safe enough. It’s when you wander off on foot into other areas (no no), or if you get lost in your car trying to drive back home where it could become dangerous. In San Salvador once you leave the ‘nice areas’ most of it IS ghetto!

      Yes, my comment about ‘after 7pm’ is probably extreme for visitors and expats. It’s coming from a vantage point of ‘regular folks’ who don’t live in good neighborhoods. I have in-laws who live in Soyapango (they dont’ walk around there at night), and I see people murdered daily on the news, so I’m sensitized to the danger here.

      Visitors and people with well-paying jobs live in a ‘bubble’ with privileges most people here don’t have. They can afford a lifestyle that protects them from many dangers, but things can happen in their neighborhoods, too – last year 2 men tried (unsuccessfully) to kidnap a man driving to his house in colonia Escalon at 9pm. I think rules of the traveler’s road apply, like stick with safe areas, safe places, and don’t get too comfortable, as it’s not Kansas.

      I’m glad you read this and commented. Readers who want to know more about nightlife here can shoot you an email, as you have a lot of information. Thanks for sharing.

  4. They are right. I live in Soyapango and I dont go out of my house at night! If I stay at my mother in laws house too long she walks me home and waits until she sees me turn into my pasaje. Its dangerous here. I went to some bars with Salvadoran and I couldnt be alone. Theres gang members everywhere and you wont know who they are. Things are so bad here that girls have been kidnapped during daylight when they were with a few mwn. They were held and raped for days then released. Their brothers were told if they look for her they would kill the whole family. ANd I live in a good area! I wouldnt recommend coming here to live for the night life. And I agree with people entering their houses and closing doors and windows as soon as the sun starts going down

  5. Ashley, I am horrified to hear about girls getting picked up and raped for days. It’s a bit unnerving that they don’t talk about this stuff on the news – but maybe the girls and their families are too scared to report it. How terrible! How much longer will you be living here for, in those conditions? If you need to move somewhere safe that’s not too expensive, Los Planes de Renderos where we used to live (up top near the mirador) is very safe.

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