#38 – El Salvador

Arriving into San Salvador airport (which coincidentally isn’t anywhere near San Salvador), we were bracing ourselves for an onslaught of touts and hassle as we left the arrivals hall.

It was nowhere to be seen though, as a small gathering of mild-mannered Salvadorians waited for the impending arrivals. We easily got ourselves a taxi, and at a cheaper rate than we’d researched, which was a great start.

Our driver was very friendly guy with limited English, giving Mairead and I our first Spanish speaking practice, which resulted in a few funny moments and awkward silences. El Salvador had a warm and welcoming feeling already, as we headed towards the coast through the lush green landscapes, with more cyclists spotted than cars.

We reached the beach area of El Tunco a couple of hours later and found our hostel lurking down a side alley. First impressions were great, as giant trees shaded much of the hostel, with an inviting looking swimming pool and various hammocks dotted around.

Even though we had pre-booked our first couple of nights, a challenging Spanish conversation ensued with the owner woman, as I tried my best to understand the various different costs of each room. There was ones with or without a fan, air conditioning, private bathroom, none of it seemed to make much sense. Despite us already having ‘reservations’ we eventually got to an agreement we both understood and it was for what we had originally booked, the two of us staying for less than $20 dollars a night total. A great bargain, though it was going to be hot without the AC.

After settling, then having to re-settle in another room, we nipped next door to their neighbouring hostel/restaurant to have a delicious ‘eco burger’ meal. Curiously, it was some type of health/vegetarian/juice bar, not unlike one you’d find in the more hipster areas of Vancouver, though at a fraction of the price. It ended up becoming our local eatery the next few days, especially for breakfast where the pancakes and fresh fruit were awesome.

In the scorching heat we walked along the main couple of roads in El Tunco, lined with bars and restaurants, though still somehow maintaining a local and traditional feel. The crowd was indeed very local, with the majority of people around being Salvadorians. It wasn’t quite the party strip I was expecting (a good thing) as we wandered around, sweating heavily, down onto the beach. Consisting of large pebbles and rocks rather than sand, it isn’t the most welcoming place to swim but with the benefit of our keen footwear (and newly bought swimmers) we paddled out and got smashed by a few strong waves – a sign of things to come.

That night we met a friendly Irish couple, clung onto by an absolute bellend of an Englishman. After some card games, beers and a seemingly unending amount of insufferable stories from the English prick’s time in Thailand and elsewhere (I liked it, because I studied history’), we headed to a bar we spotted earlier in the day, advertising live jazz music. The others tagged along and although music wasn’t great, the view out onto an ocean was spectacular as a lightening show lit up the horizon.

More beers were sunk and severely against my will Mairead dragged me into a reggaeton night next door, along with the rest of the crew ($30 entry fee that was actually $3.00). It ended up being a lot of fun, as we danced around like dicks, especially when a local band came on. The next day we slept in until the heat became too much, eventually venturing down to attempt our first taste of the famous El Salvador surf in the late afternoon.

Classed as more of a ‘beginners’ area, we didn’t expect it to be too challenging having both done it before. At the rental place I told the guy I’d been 5 or 6 times and he pointed to a large looking board, which I thought would be too big for my ‘apparent’ skills, so I pointed to a slightly smaller one. He shrugged and passed it over to me, with Mairead asking for the same type of board. Our first mistake.

The break was happening quite far out into the actual sea, and we needed to start paddling far to left of the waves in order to swing back around to them. It took us a good 20 minutes or so until we were around the same sort of area as some of the other surfers. As we started to approach the swell, the waves started to look much bigger than from the shore, while the shore seemed an extremely long distance away.

Having previously sworn myself off surfing and general sea activities after some bad experiences, I didn’t have a great feeling as we waited to catch our first wave. Mairead was slightly further out, and as decent sized wave started breaking towards us, we both started swimming to try and catch it. Her just missing it, me taking the brunt of it as it smashed me forward, with no time to even attempt to stand up before I was barrelling under the wave, waiting to stop being thrown around from the sheer strength of it.

I emerged with a few seconds to grab some air before the next wave hit, much to the same effect. As I came up after this I grabbed the board and rode the next one into the shore like a body-boarder, clinging to it desperately as I inhaled deeply. In shock I stumbled up onto the beach, collapsing and trying to grab my breath, as I scanned the horizon worryingly looking for Mairead, who I couldn’t see over the swells. After a few minutes of regaining my breath and composure I headed out again, worried about the strength of the waves.

After another 20 minutes or so of paddling my way back towards the flock of surfers, I finaly caught a sight of her and relaxed, at least she was still alright! I got close enough to shout over that I was heading in after the next wave. I didn’t want to spook her by my experience, or immediately panic her as she was right in centre of the breaking sets. There wasn’t much other choice than to try and ride them in.

A few big waves came and went, as Mairead nearly caught a couple until one broke slightly earlier and took her out of my sight. I hardly had time to see her catch it as a huge wave behind it started to break early and I knew it was coming right for my head. Unsure of exactly what to do in that situation, I followed the lead of a local next to me who jumped off their board and into the sea, facing the wave side on, waiting for it to hit. I put my head under the water with my hands on the board, not knowing if I should hold it or let go, before eventually letting go at the last second, thinking it might my rip my arms off if I held on.

Boom, the wave hit and I was flung around under water with no sign of my board anywhere. I came up to realize my board was no longer attached to my foot, as the second wave smashed me back under again. I came up for the second time and looked around but it was nowhere to be found. I started to mildly panic and swim towards the shore, before realizing I might not make it all the way back and started shouting out at the two people nearest me for help. They both came over and got me away from the waves, with a local on a body board helping me swim all the way in. I managed to spot Mairead on the beach and walking at this stage, which was a huge relief. After 10 minutes or so we were back on the steady ground, shocked and making little sense to each other.

Mairead had a huge bump on her head and had taken a hit from her own surfboard after the first wave sent her crashing under. We were both deeply relieved to still be still and out of the water, with my board washing up and somehow finding its way back to the surf shack among all the chaos. The locals looked on, almost embarrassed for us, as one Salvadorian with gold teeth grinned back without malice: ‘perhaps next time, you should take a lesson’. Indeed, he was right, except there will never be a 2nd time as we both swore off surfing for good.

It was quite a way to start our first full day in El Salvador, as we stayed in El Tunco another night re-cooperating before heading to our next stop of Santa Ana. From our previous hostel we’d been highly recommended to stay at ‘Casa Verde’ in Santa Ana, which we navigated to through our first use of the local chicken buses, which were great fun.

Arriving into Casa Verde was an absolute dream, with Carlos the owner making us feel incredibly welcome as he showed us our new and beautiful en-suite private room for another very cheap price. Casa Verde ended up becoming our base for the rest of our trip, as it turned out to be such a top spot.

We made use of the free bike hire the following day to have a cycle around the city, taking in the endearing, though rough-around-the-edges, city of Santa Ana. Picking up fresh juice from the street vendors and having a dance outside of Pollo Campestre, it was a great way to tour the city.

There was an amazing atmosphere at the hostel, with it being an older and more laid back crowd, feeling more like a big family by the end of the trip. Two different families were also there during our stay, with their young kids also impressively being brought on the journey.

Some of these (the scottish boys, Jason & Israeli Sharon) came with us as we did a day trip to the nearby Santa Ana Volcano the next day. A relatively short but tough hike brought us out onto a stunning sight down into a volcano crater, with the bright turquoise liquid still visually bubbling away below.

A spectacular sight and one that made us strongly consider heading north to Guatemala to check out another volcano that we’d heard a lot about from others, Acatenango. Though, due to weather conditions and not having the right equipment (no boots or shoes), we made the hard decision to leave it for this time, though in hindsight we were certainly not equipped or feeling in good enough shape to have done it sensibly/enjoyably.

We were staying in El Salvador for our 10 days then, it was decided. Though there was certainly enough to keep us busy during our time. With help from Carlos for his suggestions, we headed north to Tacuba where we had some waterfall jumping lined up. Staying in a funny home-stay type hostel with a Salvadorian family, we were shown to our room where we could have it for 18 dollars if the adjacent toilet door was locked, or 20 if it was unlocked, making it an ensuite.

At first, I wasn’t sure this was exactly what she meant, as it seemed strange how that would affect the price, but it was indeed, as we went for the 18 dollar option (which still meant staying in the same room and using the same bathroom).

Also staying in the hostel/house was a French guy called Roman, along with another strange fellow who we briefly met on the balcony viewpoint to tell us ‘It was really nice … when no one else was here’, he disappeared and we never saw him again.

We did, however, see a lot of Roman and the next day we all set off standing in the back of a jeep (Mairead’s wish fulfilled!) to do the waterfalls. It was in the middle of nowhere and as we started to get close we were briefly stopped by a combination of the army and police. Armed with huge guns and some of them in balaclavas, it was a mildly disconcerting situation as they started to question the driver. It ended up being a routine check to prevent hunters from killing endangered animals, which seemed a little over the top.

After throwing ourselves off some high rocks and wandering down through the jungle area with our guide hacking away at the vegetation as we went, we were completely exhausted by the final few kms of the walk.

Unsure if it was the sun, tiredness or an illness, Mairead started to fall sick on the chicken bus taking us onwards to Juayua, part of the Ruta de las Flores. We stopped off at a petrol station to catch our breath and fortunately it passed after some rest and water. We set about finding our connecting bus, which we jumped on and waited for it start, comically with a little kid shouting at prospective passengers and banging frantically on the back of the bus every few minutes, as if it was just about to take off.

Eventually it did take off and we arrived into Juayua in the dark, though luckily didn’t have far to walk to find our next hostel. A recommendation from Carlos, it was certainly an interesting place. More of a themed boutique hotel than a hostel, it had strange art works all over our room and a quiet garden to finish it off.

After eating out at a local pizza restaurant (and not being allowed a drink until our food came), we set about grabbing a few beers from the local shop. Mairead had to play her part as the shopkeeper, with the owner explaining he would have to ring his wife to find out the prices of the beers. During this bizarre yet humours conversation, the shopkeeper asked where I was from, to which I told him ‘Inglaterra’. He looked at me a little confused before asking ‘oh, and they speak English there too?’. I waited for a smile, or a hint of a joke, but there wasn’t any. ‘yup’ I replied sheepishly, as we headed back to our room.

I’m not sure how it happened but the next thing the travel scissors were out and after a few beers Mairead was cutting my hair using a youtube tutorial. What can’t you learn on youtube these days?

The next day we took in the sights of the famous weekend food festival, though it was more of a restaurant affair, with many of them setting up mini stalls in the village square. We were more interested in the cheap and cheerful street food as we went in search of it down the backalleys and away from the centre. We got ourselves a good assortment of stuff throughout the day, eating a few pupusas, fries and other items.

We bumped into a couple of girls we met in Casa Verde during the day, as it started to feel like we knew every traveller in El Salvador, before arriving back at the hostel and running straight into Jason and Sharon checking-in. After a quick hello, we were checked-out and on the chicken bus back to what felt like our home, Casa Verde.

On jumping out of the chicken bus we picked up a whole mixture of vegetables and other items from the local market area and street vendors, questioning ourselves why we didn’t do this earlier rather than the expensive western-style supermarkets. Arriving back we saw a few familiar faces at the hostel, such as Roman who had now followed us from Tacuba, along with a new family who had arrived. The family were a friendly English bunch, though each time we came to eat our food, they decided it was a great time for a long (though interesting) conversation.

In between feeding ourselves from our hunger and keeping the conversation going, it became a re-occurrence that each time we put our plate down and begun to indulge in a meal we were swooped on for conversation (albeit a lovely feeling to feel part of the Casa Verde family).

We spent the last day relaxing in the pool, while also inventing the game of ‘volleyballpool’. Later we gathered a few presents and had a final stroll around Santa Ana, a place that had come to feel like our home in El Salvador, bumping into a friendly Salvadorian who helped us try and acquire some football shorts (sadly unsuccessfully!).

Later in the night we worked out our remaining money for the trip, leaving ourselves just enough for a few more bottles of the delicious local beer ‘Pilsener’, which we’d certainly miss drinking. As we sat up on the hostel rooftop with Jason, Sharon and the parental couple, sharing stories and watching the distant thunder lighting up parts of the sky, we reflected on a great trip. A warm, welcoming and fascinating country that had impressed us greatly, leaving a lasting notion that we won’t forget.

Like our trip, the night was also nearly at an end, as Jason’s rain nose dutifully predicted an incoming downpour, which seemed to happen at the same point each night. Just before the rain started to fall, we heard our last whistle noise from one of the private security guards working around the city before turning in for the night.

The next morning Carlos dropped us off at San Salvador Airport, which was again bizarrely filled up with elderly people in wheelchairs (as it was when we landed). We spent the very last of our US dollars on a Subway to share before being stuffed into an uncomfortably small room to wait for our flight to the states.

A delay nearly cost us our transfer flight through the US, though we somehow made our connection, running through Houston airport covered in sweat. It wasn’t the most pleasant trip back, as we arrived tired and hungry in Vancouver.

As we waited for the SkyTrain to take us back to our apartment I opened my wallet to find a fresh 50 US dollar note staring back at me. Oh, we had money to spend on food after all, whoops….

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