Central America #15: El Tunco, El Salvador – time to slow down

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El Tunco at sunset

Now, all the getting up early and taking buses had taken its toll on me. I’d spent three of the last four mornings out of bed by sunrise and had spent several hours on the road. I’d certainly been ambitious in my 5-week trip around Central America and had moved rather quickly, but I decided that the time for the end of express tourism, as I liked to call it, had come.

But not before a mammoth journey from Copan Ruinas in Honduras to El Tunco on the pacific coast of El Salvador. Once again, shuttle buses put on for the heavily-laden backpackers ran the distance in just one stretch, but to the tune of about 40 USD. Naturally, I opted to do it all on local buses for about 8 USD, even if it did involve what I calculated to be eight different transport.

The quickest route involved hopping in and out of Guatemala, so I went looking for the bus that would take me there at 6am. I knew there was definitely one that went there, but wasn’t sure where to catch it from, so headed off to where I’d got off the bus on the way in. Those buses were only going back in towards Honduras, and the drivers and chargers insisted that no bus went to the border from Copan, trying to usher me towards their taxi friends in tuc-tucs. The tuc-tuc was extremely pricey, however, so I figured I’d wait by the turn-off to La Frontera which I was sure I’d seen the previous day about 100m down the road. I went down there and waited for a while, and was approached by another tuc-tuc driver, who inquired where I was going. I told him, and he said he’d take me to where I could get transport for a dollar, which I interpreted as him taking me back down the road 100m, so I at first declined. Within a few minutes he came back in the opposite direction and stopped again, telling me that no bus was ever going to pass by there, so I relented and asked him how much it would cost me to the border with him. He admitted that it would be pricey to go there on his tuc-tuc, and not great for the vehicle’s well-being, so instead offered to take me to where the bus left from. At this point I asked for more detail, and he explained that the mini-vans set off from the other side of town. He drove me over there, despite the struggles of his tuc-tuc to get up the steep roads and left me exactly where I needed to be.

The first honest taxi driver I’d met.

From there, I took a bus to the Honduras-Guatemala border, where nothing of note happened except an old fellow at customs demanding a tip from a Colombian traveller who had apparently done nothing wrong other than have a passport from a certain country. Next, I took a minibus to Chiriquipo, at which point I asked my way onto a bus to the Guatemala-El Salvador border, where I didn’t need a stamp as the one from Guatemala covers transit in El Salvador (as do apparently stamps from Honduras and Nicaragua, although they gave me one each time I passed through customs). I ate stewed cauliflower and rice with tortillas on the Guatemalan side of the border in what you might describe as a shack, before crossing over and having an El Salvadorian beer to welcome myself into my latest destination.

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Welcome to El Salvador

From there I boarded a chicken bus that belted out reggaeton at obscene volume to get to Metapan, then got on a bus to San Salvador, before some kind local women I talked to instructed me to get out at Santa Tecla as it was where the road to the coast was. I got out as they commanded and crossed a bridge over a very wide and busy road and waited for the 102 chicken bus to La Libertad, which was crammed, meaning I had to place my bag on the overhead rack and slide it down as I myself moved down the bus as passengers kept piling on. I found the fact that buses have numbers in El Salvador rather useful (works better than some guy shouting out the destinations through the front door), and waited on a darkening road in La Libertad for the number 80 which would take me to El Tunco.

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Musical bus

A smiling toothless old lady was kind enough to tell me where to alight, and I got off at the side of the road and made my down a track towards what was apparently El Tunco. It certainly was. The place is basically a small village consisting of two main streets which you can loop in about 15 minutes. It has developed in recent years due to the excellence of its waves for surfers, though it has nothing much apart from hotels, hostels, eateries, discos and surf shops, as well as the houses where the locals live. It’s apparently popular with Salvadorians at the weekend, though I wouldn’t be able to confirm that as I stayed from Tuesday through to Saturday morning.

I arrived as the sun was setting, so made straight for the beach to see a rather spectacular orangey-red sunset from the beach, and sat on a rock to take it all in and have a breather after what were 8 hours of non-stop journeying. A man touting for tourists to stay in his hostel took me along to his establishment only to realise it was indeed full for the night, but still took me over to another one called Papaya Lodge, where I paid 8 USD per night.

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Arriving at sundown

In what would become a pattern for the ensuing days, I ate pupusas, basically a palm-sized grilled pastry containing all ranges of ingredients, including cheese, chicken, jalapenos, garlic, spinach, fish and prawns, amongst other things, in whatever way you wished to combine them, and then topped with spiced cabbage which sits on the table in a massive jar. Simple but effective, especially at 0.50 USD each. If you’ve ever been to Colombia or Venezuela, they’re like arepas.

Back in the hostel, and in the dorm for eight people there was just a German girl and I, and so we hit the streets in search of a beer and some music. Along the way, I bumped into a girl who I’d worked with at Nottingham Uni SU bar, but didn’t realise until we got chatting. We each got litre bottles of beer and supped them on the pavement where some other foreigners had gathered around a rather inebriated Australian who was improvising raps for everyone who walked past.

The German girl and I then moved on in search of music and couldn’t quite find the origins of the beats until we came across a small bar in which a few people were singing karaoke, among them the Australian rapper and a few under-dressed women in their 30s and 40s who, without wanting to discriminate unfairly, may have had nocturnal professions. Girls drank cocktails for free until a certain time while I had beer, and then a limbo stick suddenly appeared and that was our entertainment for the next half an hour or so, and I found myself surprisingly good at it despite my height and usual inflexibleness.

Things then took a surprising turn as the German girl, who I had started to get on well with, was whisked away by a local man who taught her some dance moves for Bachata, Merengue and Salsa, leaving me wishing I had more advanced talents in that field. Spotting me alone, one of the local women in there grabbed me for a Merengue dance, but danced it quite differently to what I was used to, with a rather exaggerated amount of pirouettes, and too much of an insistence on leading, rather than letting me impose my less basic steps on her. Anyway, that abruptly came to an end, as the drunken Australian came over and put a firm palm on my chest so as to mark his territory. Perhaps he’d made arrangements with more than one woman. Needless to say, having been abandoned by the German girl, palmed off by the Aussie and left thus on my bill, I downed my beer and made it back to the hostel. Sometime later, the German girl rocked up, informing me that the Salvadorian who’d taken her under his dancing wing was apparently gay.

A strange night.

First and foremost, El Tunco is renowned for the quality of its surfing, yet as someone who had never partaken in the activity and not the keenest of swimmers in deep and foamy waters, I figured it was best to take a beginner’s class. I went early in the morning and bumped into the same guy who’d brought me to the hostel, and inquired about surfing that day. He asserted that the waves weren’t quite apt at that moment and that I should return a few hours later to see. The situation remained the same at 11 as it had at 9, so at 1 when he told me for the third time to come back later, I accepted that fate preferred me not to go out playing on the waves, and was rather thankful that he hadn’t taken 20 USD from me for what he considered would be a waste of time for a novice.

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Waves

My plans for the day therefore changed and I walked to the two extremes of the somewhat pebbly beach and sat down on several occasions to read the most interesting novel I could procure at the hostel: The Princess of Egypt, a rather romantic affair which I finished in a few days. Unfortunately, I’d left my sun cream with a Spanish girl in Nicaragua and couldn’t be bothered getting anymore. Obviously, I burned within the few hours I was exposed, and didn’t make the same mistake the following day. On the wander around, I came across a really interesting cave and sat in there contemplating life for a few minutes.

Another issue I had was that of almost being out of cash and none of the three ATMs in El Tunco allowing me to withdraw money. This occasioned a bus ride into La Libertad, where I had similar problems, before finally coming across one which let me take out some cash. This was perhaps the root of the bank fraud which would be committed on my account the following week from an ATM in Los Angeles.

On that foray into town I also had what I might consider my first negative experience on the trip. As I was walking around looking for a cash machine, several dodgy-looking men whistled at me, shouting gringo at me and trying to get my attention for some reason unbeknownst to me. I didn’t acknowledge them and wondered how female travellers would probably have to cope with such attention on a daily basis. Who knows? They may have been trying to engage me for a friendly chat, not totally unfathomable as most of the Salvadorians I’d met and would meet had been very amiable. Then again, I’m not a fan of being targeted because of what I am, and had thus far managed to melt into the background in most places I’d been. Then again, I was wearing shorts, flip-flops and sunglasses, traditional gringo wear, so should have expected it.

I comforted myself by eating an excellent fish ceviche (fish marinated in lemon juice and seasoned with onions, tomatoes and herbs) for a modest 6 USD by the fish market. The hostel was pretty quiet that night and apart from a group of socially-insular Israelis, I was the only person about, so I contented myself by getting deeper into the Princess of Egypt.

One of the hostel workers had pretty poor English, but did that thing of assuming that no foreigner can speak Spanish even after they’ve lucidly spoken to your colleagues in front of you, and over the next few days we had a couple of language battles that I ultimately won.

The next day I walked all the way down the road towards La Libertad for about an hour in search of a more batheable beach, given that there is barely any sand on El Tunco, and it’s pretty rocky underfoot once you dip your toes. I indeed found one called San Blas after about 45 minutes walking. From the main road you turn right where you see the signs for it and need to walk down a road for about 10 minutes to get to the waterfront. It’s about the only access to the beach which isn’t via one of the hotel/restaurants/resorts that line the coast near La Libertad. The water was extremely salty and foamy, and despite knowing that it wasn’t doing my slightly charred skin any good, I indulged in the warm waves for quite a while.

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Beach to myself

As I’d decided to park up for a few days in the same place, I found myself exploring on foot the following day in the other direction. I caught the bus up the road for 0.25 USD and got off at Zunzal, which I though was another beach, but was actually the very same spot I’d walked up to the previous day where the cave was. There comes a point where beaches become private, so I went as far as I could and decided to continue up the road to see what else I could find.

The answer was nothing except for private properties and impassable steep cliffs for the next hours, so I gave up and stopped off for some chicken in a large restaurant with a spectacular viewpoint which I had to myself. After eating, I once again jumped on a bus and spent a few more hours on San Blas beach, and found that once again I was the only person within eyeshot on what is a reasonably long beach.

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El Salvador coastline

Once back in El Tunco, I got my pupusa fix and set about organising meeting up with a friend of a friend in San Salvador the following day. I had a quiet night in the hostel again, and felt good for having recharged my batteries, even if it meant I’d miss out on some places up in Guatemala as a consequence.

In summary, El Salvador had lived up to its reputation of being a friendly place, and I hadn’t yet come across anything alarming which would ward off potential tourists, as the country’s violent reputation has a propensity to do. The countryside had for the most part been a luscious green and the sea a sparkling blue. I hadn’t seen a cloud in the four days I’d been there and had probably had a few too many greasy pupusas than I should have.

Evidently, the capital of the country might be a better indication of what state the country is in, but my first impressions had been positive and I hope for that to continue.

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