This is an opinion editorial by Rikki, Bitcoin explorer, author and co-host of the “Bitcoin Italia,” and “Stupefatti” podcasts.
All images included in this article are sourced from the author.
Although Bitcoin adoption and usage among the common people of El Salvador is virtually nonexistent, as we documented in our previous Bitcoin Magazine article, it is always so much fun to tour this country and we are so happy to be back.
All that is going on here is really quite historic, and to be able to witness it is a rare privilege.
We chose to spend the entire first week in the capital city of San Salvador.
We initially needed a base camp to get organized. The travel vlogs we are making for Bitcoin Explorers require a lot of work and logistics. Telling an adventure like ours through music and images is no easy feat. The amount of work involved is enormous.
But it's time to get moving. We pointed the nose of our car — rented in Bitcoin — toward the outskirts of the city and left its urban agglomeration behind.
The first challenge of the afternoon was to fill up the tank by paying for it in Bitcoin. Who knows why car rentals here have a habit of bringing you the car with the tank half empty. At least, that has been our experience, including the rentals we made last year. Fortunately, it seems that in gas stations they have not lost the taste for accepting Bitcoin. We received only one laconic no. On our second attempt they gas us up and present us with a Chivo QR code without blowback.
The Lightning transaction was also quite quick, considering state sh*twallet standards, of course.
Speaking of the Chivo wallet — upon leaving our hotel we experienced minutes of confusion and disbelief. We ate breakfast, got to the desk and asked for the bill, ready to check out in a few hours. At the front desk they provided us with an on-chain address. Great. We took it to our room, and I calmly made the transaction from our BitBox02. I set the fees high, to get a quick confirmation, and without thinking about it I started stuffing our backpacks.
Just as I was thinking about how convenient bitcoin is, allowing me to pay my hotel bill even from the room, I get a WhatsApp message from the front desk. They write to me that the payment transaction is canceled. Canceled? A bitcoin transaction? How is that possible?
I opened my laptop and checked the status on mempool.space. I see it there, carved in digital travertine, with already nine mined blocks after the one containing it. So it is not only confirmed, it is cemented. I roll my eyes and think that only Chivo can suck so bad.
I arm myself with patience and go down to the front desk. I show the confirmations to the hotel staff. I explain that it is not possible for the transaction to turn up canceled. There must be a problem with their wallet. The address is correct, the transaction ID is the same. They tell me not to worry, that they will call Chivo customer service with all the details and they will fix it. But before they dismiss me, they tell me, "This bitcoin is working really bad though ..."
Do you understand? Do you also understand where the distrust comes from?
They do not have the means to understand that it is Chivo that is the problem — not Bitcoin. For them there is no difference. They live this terrible user experience, and for them that is what Bitcoin is. Obviously I took the time to explain what’s actually happening, and I recommend using another wallet. But those will probably have been words lost to the wind.
It is really striking, though, how the software instrumental to the Bitcoin Law in this country, the state wallet, more than fifteen months after its launch still manages to perform so poorly. I mean, how does a wallet miss an on-chain transaction? It just has to read the timechain.
It turns out to be, in our opinion, the obvious source of many problems. All the times we have gone into a store and been told they have stopped accepting bitcoin because it is too complex, they were likely referring more to Chivo than anything else.
The other reason they always give is that there are too few transactions. Too little volume.
Think about it. Should we really be surprised?
Isn’t it perfectly logical?
We have to keep in mind that El Salvador is not Venezuela, Argentina or Nigeria. It is not a country with its own hyper-inflated national currency. People here, when they receive their salaries, do not have to storm the stores to buy immediately, before merchants raise prices, or turn to the black market to buy any other currency, as long as it is more stable. Salvadorans take their salaries in dollars; they live in U.S. dollars. As much as we may not like it, in emerging countries the American currency is still the most desired. Some people are willing to pay double, if not triple, its value to grab it. Why would the people of El Salvador prefer bitcoin in their everyday lives? Do you really think Bitcoiner talk about monetary sovereignty, privacy in money and self custody has appeal in these latitudes? Without education that provides context?
It is perfectly normal that dollars are preferred here, so we cannot assume that the volume behind bitcoin is coming from locals. Indeed, we should wonder why even the Bitcoiners who visit here do not spend their satoshis — but that is another story.
Our absolute favorite town is Santa Ana and we headed there to get a taste of real El Salvador. Authenticity is in every corner here, and that is what we are looking for.
We have a favorite place in the town called Casa Verde. On paper it's a hostel, but it's really so much more — it's a hotel, it's a bar and it's a community center. It's a very special place. If you happen to be in the area it is definitely the first place to try and stay. Say hello to Carlos, the owner — tell him you will pay in bitcoin and that Rikki and Laura sent you.
The city is always stunning, with its mix of somewhat decadent colonial colors and architecture. It is smaller than San Salvador and that is good. It is much more livable.
Every time we come we always end up having a great time mingling with the people. Near the central square there is a folk market that is beautiful. All the picturesque streets are dotted with stalls selling everything you could want. Browsing them is a pleasure. Pay no attention to the curious glances of the locals, the giggles of the kids. They are still not quite used to seeing foreigners here. If they do it is because you are a novelty here, something you don't see every day. And after all, a little curiosity never killed anyone.
It is natural to think that if few people accept bitcoin in the larger and more cosmopolitan San Salvador, even less would do so here. But it would be a completely wrong assumption. Try asking in the markets, at the stalls. You will find plenty of small traders with a Chivo wallet in their pocket and a great desire not to lose a customer (from whom they can perhaps squeeze a few extra dollars). You will see them ready to put themselves on the line — to take risks, from their point of view. Mind you, you will likely be their first bitcoin transaction; you will have to teach them what to do from scratch.
We spent hours wandering the streets of downtown. The weather here then is perfect, hot during the day but always cool and breezy in the evening.
We bought tubes of toothpaste, a lighter (even here we can't keep from losing them all the time) and Mexican-style tortillas at street stalls, and after making some young street vendor happy with his first Lightning transaction we inevitably ended up in the central plaza, Plaza de la Libertad. It is truly the beating heart of the community. It is always crowded. Elegant and beautiful, with its early 20th century buildings, the National Theater, in pure Art Nouveau style, the municipal palace and the very white cathedral, the most beautiful in all of El Salvador, they say.
On this day, however, the square was particularly chaotic and teeming with activity. They were setting up a large stage, tuning instruments, lining rows and rows of chairs. It was evident that there will soon be a concert here. We approached to snoop around, attracted to the scene like two moths to a light. As we approached, a portly gentleman in his ‘60s saw us and approached us. He is the director of the youth philharmonic, he told us, and explained that that night there will be a symphonic rock event. The young musicians will blend the melodies of their classical instruments with a local rock band, performing covers of great metal classics with symphonic arrangements. He begged us not to miss the show, telling us it will be at 6 p.m. He was happy to see two out-of-towners and you can tell by his genuine insistence that he cared about us going.
That face, that attitude — we've seen it before here. It is that deep desire to show someone from afar that there is also another El Salvador — one that is not made up of violence and poverty. It is made of people capable of studying, organizing, playing and dancing. It is an opportunity for redemption. They want to prove themselves. It's an attitude that grabs you in the gut, believe me.
We accepted it willingly.
We returned at the agreed upon time and they had even reserved two seats for us in the third row, behind the authorities. The show was everything we would have expected. Beautiful, sincere, genuine, moving and musically fantastic.
This is a guest post by Rikki. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.