El Salvador has a very tough act to follow in Guatemala. Guatemala was insanely beautiful and delivered on so many levels. Culturally rich with the Mayan heritage boldly evident throughout the country, an abundance of natural wonders and scenery in the form of numerous volcanoes in various hives of activity, big lakes and just generally stunning scenes throughout, and good honest people (in the main).
Similar to Guatemala, I have done next to no research on El Salvador and consequently I have no pre conception or expectation of what the country will offer. Generally the first thing anyone asks is, “is it dangerous?” Clearly it’s past political fractions and infighting, the high reported crime rate and the Lonely Planet’s usual over caution has done nothing to quell travellers concerns.
Despite this and being completely ignorant to its chequered past, I’m loving El Salvador and my first few week on the Pacific Coast has been top draw.
First impressions suggest the people are friendly, they engage in conversation freely and at no stage have I felt anything but safe pottering around. I’ve only seen one drunk fast asleep on the pavement which compared to Xela is quite impressive.
That said I’ve spent the vast majority of my time thus far either in the sea trying to avoid being smashed in by thundering sets of waves or in my hammock so I’ve not exactly explored this little country in depth.
P A P U S A S
One thing is for sure, Salvadorian’s love Papusas! After being presented with tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner for five long days in the deep jungle of El Mirador, Guatemala, I was pretty happy to never let one of those little corn breads pass my lips ever again. That all changed when I entered El Salvador and was presented with the “Papusa”. A Papusa is essentially a tortilla filled with all manners of culinary wonderments. Camerón (shrimp), pescado (fish), pollo (chicken), frijoles (beans) and queso (cheese). Cabage and hot sauce is poured on top. These range from 25 cents to 50 cents! I find myself thinking about them whilst surfing.
They are quite literally everywhere. The streets are lined with women patter caking their papusas. From what I can see making papusas is the only career prospect the women of El Salvador have. I see small girls copying their mums every lunch and dinner, like a fast track apprenticeship scheme to have them selling the national dish out of the front yard before they are 10.
Whilst the average El Salvadorian gets through about 10 of these per day I can’t quite see how there is money to be made in this profession, the diversification between you and your next door neighbour is next to nil. It’s the same with the little tiendas here and in Guatemala. There are hundreds of them selling the same junk food. What’s the thought process behind opening up a papusaria or a tienda here? “Oh look there are 20 people on the same street as me selling exactly the same thing, I think I’ll open my own papusaria and sell exactly the same fare.”
That said, right opposite where I’m staying, my local papusaria does appear to have some diversification in their product line. Shrimp and fish are on the menu. Thus far I’d only really come across frijoles and cheese and chicken and cheese.
However, they appear to be missing a trick, not once have I seen a papusa dolce, a sweet papusa, a desert version. One day I take it upon myself to try and introduce postre (desert) to their menu, how they’ve not hit upon this when there are hungry surfers lurking I do not know, a sweet papusa would send their profits soaring.
I rock up to my local papusaria armed with fake Nutella, mini Snickers bars, bananas, peanut butter and condensed milk. The suggestion is they place the mini Snickers or chocolate spread, peanut butter and banana inside the papusa just like it was frijoles or whatever and then drizzle the condensed milk on top. It’s kind of like a crepe really, not that out there or creative, but I can’t believe they don’t cater for the sweet tooth of the average tourist or their own.
This doesn’t go down well with the proprietor of the local papusaria. I can’t work out if she’s shut down for the night or she is disgusted that I would tarnish the national dish by introducing something that has not existed in the entire history of El Salvador. I question myself that maybe my request is deemed rude. Similar to wanting to put tomato ketchup on my mums roast dinner, has this caused offence.
I then cut my losses and ask for a tortilla. I place my ingredients on top. It’s a taste sensation. The cocinera thinks I’m insane but we share a laugh about it. I should have let them try it so they could see what they were missing out on but I was enjoying it too much to think about letting anyone else have a nibble on chocolate paradise.
I also think this would be great with strawberries or coconut shavings. The options are plentiful. I’m considering opening up my own papusaria and milking this sweet cow!
E L T U N C O
Having had to stop at the boarder momentarily to present my passport it was noticeable the climate in El Salvador whilst only 3 hours from Antigua, was very humid and sticky, I was instantly covered in a layer of sweat.
The boarder crossing was easy and took no longer than 20 minutes. There was no search or interrogation which given this is a major drugs trafficking route was quite surprising. Maybe I’m heading in the opposite direction but I still expected some police presence or a sniffer dog or two. Nada.
I arrived into El Tunco, the usual stopping point for travellers heading south. I’ve not got much to say on El Tunco other than it was a ghost town full of empty bars playing bad music and deserted over priced restaurants. The general feel here is misery, the shops and restaurants actually look pained to take your money.
It’s biggest plus is it shares a pretty spectacular coast line with this giant random rock, La Roca, standing out in the ocean.
I arrived to a major thunderstorm and spent my first night in my hammock watching the rain pour down, I’d not seen rain like it for a long time.
The following day I went in search of a surf board. I wanted to buy one because the anticipation is to surf for the next couple of months here and in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama and then again in Peru and Ecuador so it’s definitely cost efficient to buy a second hand board than rent one for $8 to $10 per day. I’d give it to a local kid when I’m finished with it.
I find a decent looking board for $100. It’s clearly a little old but there doesn’t appear to be too much wrong with it, it doesn’t have many ding marks on it.
The problem now is I can’t pay for the board because Halifax have done that annoying thing where they decide to block your cards even though they know you are abroad and you have taken their travellers credit card because it offers free cash withdrawals whilst abroad. Please don’t be surprised when the card is being used abroad! That’s exactly why I’ve got your credit card! One day this annoying arrangement is going to land me in desperate shit.
This takes some time to resolve. The next day I have a functioning credit and debit card. Before buying the board I go for a run along the coastal road. 2km up the road is El Sunzal. As I climb up the steep drag there is a viewing point down onto the ocean.
There’s a few people surfing and the spot looks way nicer than El Tunco. I continue my run and see a sign for Surfers Inn. I enter the gate and am met by an old man. He’s called Antonio and he shows me around his hostel. It’s ideal. It’s a family run hostel and it has a big garden with hammocks, a decent kitchen and is a five minute walk down to the point break. I go and check this out and the waves are pumping and it just all round feels way better than the tourist trap of El Tunco. This feels like I’m in El Salvador and not some horrific resort catering for Americans fat wallets. It’s also $2 cheaper per night than staying in El Tunco.
I run back to my hostel, pack up my stuff, buy my board and return to Surfers Inn.
S U R F E R S I N N – S U N Z AL
When I return that afternoon I am met by the whole family. And what a big family it is. There are so many kids of all ages running around and playing. There were just too many people to remember all their names and the relation they were to Antonio and his wife Maria. What I can make out is they have four daughters, two of which live in the US and the other two live locally. Between them they have 18 grandchildren. 10 of those are at the house now. There are three dogs, Bom Bom, Layler and Bobby.
After returning from dinner on my first evening the extended family and their pets are celebrating one of the grandsons, Ricardo’s 13th birthday. They’ve got BBQ’d goat and civiche. They invite us to join the celebrations. They’re all quite drunk, the men knock back beers at a pretty rapid pace but everyone is having fun and I do my best to join in the conversation with my Spanish where I can. “Me gusta comida mucha” is my go to phrase. They speak a lot quicker than Guatemalans and with a slightly different accent but I’m picking it up gradually.
I’ve not been too tempted to eat meat since I gave up but this night was a real test, the BBQ’d goat smelt incredible. If there’d been mint sauce on the table I would have gone for it 100%! As it was I was force fed two massive plates of civiche and then came the birthday cake and the ceremony of dunking the bday boys head in it.
It’s a nice introduction to the family and I’m glad to be immersed within El Salvador rather than a tourist trap and the gringo trail of El Tunco.
Later on during my stay, Wendy, one of the daughters introduces us to the art of making Papusas. After almost two weeks of eating these every other day I was pretty excited by the opportunity to make my own.
A large part of the family are around and we all make our own Papusas of shrimp and fish. A Swedish, Colombian couple provide a massive tuna fish for the filling. It comes with cheese and there’s two types of tortillas. Corn or rice. After I’d eaten the three I’d made I must have eaten another four, they just kept bringing them to me. After four hours in the surf my appetite is ravenous and I can take in seven pretty easy.
I’ve really enjoyed staying at Surfers Inn for just over two weeks. It’s the perfect chilled setting, it’s got a great garden, hammocks, a good kitchen and the family are ace.
The kids are really good fun and sweet. The youngest grandchild is a little boy called Spencer. He’s 5 and without doubt is as cheeky as they come. He’s always scheming, always being told not to do what he is doing. Just a typically little boy I guess.
One day he sets up a little stall outside the communal bathrooms with a load of toilet paper piled high. He then try’s to sell me toilet paper when I go to the bathroom. He gets told off by his mum but I give him a few cents for his entrepreneurship.
Another day he disappears down to the beach which I don’t think he is really allowed to do. He returns with a crab in a bucket. I ask him what his crab is called. “Ryan” is his answer. It makes me laugh. Such an English name. He then tries to put it down my shirt when I’m not looking.
One afternoon whilst I’m doing a little work out Spencer rocks up dressed almost identically to me. He’s topless, he’s got a piece of rope tied round his chest, he’s wearing a black watch not too dissimilar to mine and he’s got a skipping rope in his hand.
He then proceeds to copy every single exercise I do. He’s a strong little man. I ask him several times, “Es dificil para ti?” “No” is always his answer. I know grown men who couldn’t handle this session as well as little Spencer. What a dude!
I take a shower outside and wrap my towel round my waist and go mad make some lunch. Next thing I see Spencer bowling about with just a towel round his waste. He’s had me in stitches for hours.
We go to the beach one evening for sunset and the kids and dogs come. I think Spencer pretends to be a dog most of the time.
During my stay here there has been a constant flow of really nice and cool people coming by all the time. The French dude who was here when I arrived was sound, a cool group of Australians and an Irish girl with great advice on travelling in El Salvador stayed for a few days, a nice Swedish girl and her Colombian boyfriend joined us for papusa making night and a mad little German dude called Felix arrived on his motorbike. Felix on his 650 started his journey from Alaska and is heading to Argentina. His journey is pretty inspirational and is certainly something I want to do in the future.
He cracks me up, he goes mental at everything, the dogs barking, the music on the buses, the long boarders whilst surfing, everything. It’s always done in a humerous way and it just makes me laugh. He reminds me of my Dad moaning about every little annoyance.
One evening whilst complaining about the stickers on apples he starts telling me how much he misses the apples of his home village in Germany. He said how much he’d love a homemade apple pie. I hear you lad, I empathys with you wholeheartedly, you are talking to the right man! I miss classic British deserts more than anything else. At that point I suggested we make one. We spend the next day talking about apple pie and how we’d go about making it. As far as I could see the kitchen here had all the utensils and apparatus required minus a rolling pin to make the dream a reality.
We went to Libertad and stocked up on apples, flour, butter and cinnamon.
I’m pretty proud to say that I produced a spectacular apple pie!
This ones for you Nan!
We had to make do with condensed milk over the top as nowhere near here has ice cream and cream just isn’t a goer. Nevertheless it worked well and I demolished about 2/3rds of it for dinner and then finished off the final slice for breakfast the following day! The pasty was not up to Nan’s standards but given the circumstances I’m pretty happy with my efforts.
A German girl who i always see out in the surf randomly swung by to buy some beers. I offered her some of the pie and she was going nuts off it so I’m not blowing my own trumpet when I say I delivered a colossal apple pie.
Next up and much easier will be apple and strawberry crumble!
T A M A N I Q U E
Tamanique is rumoured to have a spectacular cascada, waterfall, so I make the 30 minute journey with a Swedish lad I’ve travelled to El Salvador with, Eric. We hitch hike our way up at no cost.
We’d been told that it’s best to take a local guide as the route down to the waterfall is tricky so we enlist the first guides we meet, two brothers, 13 year old Alex and his 12 year old brother whose name I’ve forgotten. I like these little guys because they had bold negotiating skills. When we asked how much they wanted for the trip they started ridiculously high at $10. It made me laugh. We settled for $6.
The waterfall was really nice and dropped down four levels, each one getting bigger and bigger. The lads were jumping in from some pretty big heights. I’ve lost my metal for jumping from heights so I make my way down to the 1 meter marker. The water is bloody freezing but that doesn’t stop the guys jumping in and out for ages.
I’d definitely recommend this little trip to anyone staying in or around La Labitad, El Tunco or Sunzal.
The walk back up the hill is hard going though. Only takes about 30 minutes but it’s steep and slippy and under the early afternoon rays it’s a sweat fest. Don’t wear flip flops!
We stop at the local Papusaria and tuck into the standard 3 papusa medley. The boys get stuck in as well.
When we come to pay up the cost includes the lunches of the boys. They got their $10s in the end!
Alex mentioned climbing the hill for great view of the countryside and the Pacific coast. I wanted to get an evening surf in so we arranged to meet the following day at 1pm at the papusaria to climb the hill.
I was a little late meeting Alex but he was there waiting for me with his machete in hand. Not quite sure what he was going to need that for but it’s pretty common to see men and children walking around with a big blade in their hand. Off we went up Cerro de Tamanique. The views were beautiful and we hanged out at the top of the hill for an hour or so until Alex decided he’d had enough for the day.
On both trips this 13 year old had completely gassed me walking up the steep terrain. Yeah he does it every day but he’s 13, he shouldn’t be bossing me. So far on this trip I’ve had a 62 year old female Mayan guide set a pace I couldn’t live with and now a 13 year old boy. Things only get worse in the surf!
S U R F – S U N Z A L
I’ve spent most of my time surfing the splendid point break of Sunzal. It’s dead close to Surfers Inn and is a beautiful spot especially during dusk, the sun set is always top draw.
Whilst I’ve spent considerable time in the water, sometimes five hours a day, I’m not sure how much of this is spent actually surfing. Instead of watching waves I’m admiring the palm tree lined shore, the mountains and the sunset. The occasional turtle always pops its head up for breath too.
Whilst I love the spot because it is beautiful it gets very crowded. I set my alarm for 6am every morning and am typically in the water for 6.30. For the first half hour or so I feel like I attempt to score more waves than the next 2 hours as the long boards turn up and start riding everything going. They start so deep that by the time the wave makes its way down to me there are at least two people on it and I have to let it go.
There’s a funny group of old American dudes on long boards who are always out early. One wears a hippie tie dye t-shirt and makes the funniest noise as he catches every wave in sight. He shouts, screams and sings at others as he shoots past. He cracks me up.
Sadly it’s not just 60+ year old men dominating me in the water, the local groms (term for young surfers) rip it up. There are only scraps left for me at best and my proficiency at scoring scraps after a week of paddling about is not great. Still, I love being out there and occasionally I catch something which gives me a huge buzz to get back out there and catch more later.
The 2pm slot is looking like a good one to take. Everyone’s having lunch or are sleeping it off so the crowds are much less. I surfed with four others for about an hour from 2-3 which was incredible.
One morning Felix and I get up at 5am to ensure we are the first in the water and to maximise our premium surf time. It’s pretty incredible to paddling out to see with the stars shining above us and not a sausage in sight. The water is so warm, and the water is really calm, not actually great for surfing, but in a purely aesthetics front this was a pretty special moment. As a few more surfers join us the sun starts to rise out of the sea to the east. It’s an incredible “salida de sol” and I’m pretty happy the waves are calm because it allows me the chance to take in the scenes without fear of being nailed by a wave the size of a house.
I do manage to catch a few short rides. That and the sheer beauty of the morning is enough for me to return back to hammock for breakfast with a big smile on my face. This is the life! 5am starts from here on! I love the feeling of productivity an early start brings.
Jonaton the Colombian Swede joins me from Antigua where he’d been waiting two weeks for a new camera to be delivered.
Sadly he rocks up as the swell completely dies so my official staff photographer doesn’t get to shoot me on any waves.
P U N T A R O C A
I surfed here one morning with a French dude from the hostel who’d been coming here the last five years. This was his favourite spot to surf. I was more than happy to go with him and surf a different wave.
Well the French dude is pretty much a professional and has no problem jumping in off rocks as the waves crash in. I don’t think I’m going to make it in the water at one point, the waves crash in making the rocks slippy and it’s hard to enter the water without being taken back onto the rocks. You have to wait for the big sets to pass then make a dash for it.
I make it in unharmed.
It’s 6.30am and there is not a sole out there, it’s nice to have the waves to ourselves. I still catch very little.
I spend a lot of my time concerned that if I mess up my turn on take off I am going straight onto the rocks.
My positioning in the water is a bit off and I’m still getting use to my “new” board which has developed a hole in the tail.
I come close to riding some nice waves but more often than not I’m left just on the top of the wave needing one more paddle to get me over the top or just to have set off a little earlier. Positioning and timing are absolutely key with surfing and at the moment mines all over the shop. I blow myself out after an hour of paddling hard for waves that I just miss.
My paddle strength and stamina is going through the rough though so once I get my positioning and timing sorted I will be scoring big.
After 2.5 hours of intensive paddling and minimal reward for my effort we manoeuvre over the rocks and out the water. This is harder than getting in as the waves crash in behind you.
I then take my board to La Hospital de Tabla just round the corner and they quote me $10 and ask me to come back in a couple of days.
L A L I B E R T A D
This is the closest big town with a market and super market.
It’s a 25 cent 20 minute bus ride to La Libertad. The drivers are just as insane as Guatemala. They play regaton music at a ridiculous decibel and the guys collecting the money from the customers barely give you a second to get on or off, they are always shouting at you and waving at you in a hurried fashion or making some strange hissing noise. The bus does not stand still ever, you are always getting on and off a moving bus.
Generally the buses are packed so it’s quite a stressful ride especially when I’m carrying my surf board and bags of food from the market. I always need a sleep after visiting the market of La Libertad.
As markets go it’s not of Antigua market level proportions but it’s still adequate enough to source all my fruit and veg on the cheap.
They’ve also got a couple of cracking pandarias selling all sorts of sugar laden pastries.
I’m having trouble with my bank cards again and after one attempt at one machine I need to find another to try them out.
I ask a local man where the nearest ATM is. Instead of telling me the direction he walks me right to the bank machine which was not remotely close. This would never happen in England and from now on whenever someone asks me for directions I am going to be way more helpful than just saying it’s left and right. Eres legendario!
They’ve also got a fish market on the pier which is incredible.
One evening myself and two Germans who I’d met in Flores and then again in Antigua bought a massive fish, similar to tuna for $4 and a further $1 to have it filleted. We cooked the fillets in lime, garlic and chilli and had this two nights on the bounce, there was so much food. We also made a fat soup out of the carcass. Possibly the nicest meal I’ve had since I’ve been away.
I managed to ding one of Antonio’s rental board whilst mine was being repaired so I had to come into town to collect it. I decide to run the 10km and save myself the stress of the bus ride. When I got to La Libertad I was gagging for a drink. I had a $20 on me but no vendor down on the beach could change my $20. I tried about five places, all had just opened up for the day and didn’t have any cash on them. When I returned to the original shop to tell them I couldn’t find any change a local guy paid for my drink. Only $1 but again I’m not sure you’d ever find this in London or England. Nice guy.
E L A C C I D E N T E
I took a day off from surfing. It was Sunday and I’d been surfing two or three times a day for up to five hours the last 6 days and my body and my neck especially was crying out for a rest. The waves are always most crowded on the weekend as city surfers descend on the coast. It made sense to take the day off.
I’d run up and down the coastal road a few times and had seen lots of great spots with unobstructed views of the sea and the surf from an elevated position. I thought it would be nice to walk to these spots to soak up the views from somewhere other than in the water.
After having a little lie in and a massive breakfast of porridge and fruit with cinnamon and cacao, my now go to favourite breakfast, and a beetroot, spinach, banana, pineapple and strawberry smoothy,(they’ve only got a blender here! Not a 900watt nutribullet but still!) I set off on a little walk up the coast. I stopped for an ice cream and continued. Within minutes my stomach wasn’t feeling quite right. Here was a serious movement but I knew that I only had to walk about 1k to make it to the first restaurant where I could use their bathroom.
As the restaurant got closer and closer the situation became more and more perilous. About 50 yards from the entrance I could not hold on any longer and made a dart for the bushes. Except I couldn’t make the bushes and had to whip down my kegs at the road side. All hell broke loose.
I’m looking out for cars just hoping no one passes by. They don’t but it gets worse. There are a series of exclusivo buses parked up at the restaurant. The drivers all walk out to see me crouched down at the side of the road. It’s pretty obvious what I’m up to. They take their phones out and start taking pictures whilst making reference to “gringo” a lot. I wave back to try and add some humour to the otherwise pretty grim situation.
I returned back to the hostel and showered.
I have some big plans for the next week or so which involve no surfing and some voluntary work so the the next edition from El Salvador will have a bit more than just surf and food chat.
Stay sharp young lovers!