Living Like a Local in El Salvador

The  night bus from Flores to Guatemala City was cold and uncomfortable. AC blowing and cramped seats made it impossible to sleep. We made it to the city at 5am where we transferred by taxi to another bus terminal. The streets were already busy with working chapins who got ready for another long day of hard work. Our Tica bus was already more spacious and less crowded. We drove through beautiful scenery filled with volcanoes and lush forests. After crossing the Guatemala-El Salvador boarder and a couple more hours on the bus, we transfered in a cab and 45 min later we finally arrived on the Salvadorian coast.


El Salvador History

There are mixed perception of El Salvador. Some will highlight the natural beauty of the country, from the mix of lush mountains, world-class surfing, spectacular hikes to amazing volcanic crater lakes. Some others will remember the ravage of the civil war of the 1980′s and the succession of natural disasters that left a country in many years of recovery.

The 1979-1992 civil war was a conflict of inequality between the government and guerrillas leaving more than 75,000 dead. Not long after the country had begun to recover, after the peace agreement in 1992, that it was hit by a series of natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and several earthquakes in 2001 leaving 1,200 people dead and more than a million others homeless. Unfortunately, with the addition of international news broadcasting about gangs, violence and crime, most tourists still consider the small Central American country a dangerous place to travel.

El Zonte

The black sand beach welcomes crashing waves that surfers enjoy catching at the break. It is calm, tranquil and beautiful. El Zonte is a little village accessible by a dirt road going down towards the ocean. The mouth of the river flowing through it forms a right point break with rocky bottom which comes popular with both native and foreign surfers looking for a non-crowded wave. This is where we set camp, at El Dorado surf lodge.

Julie went for an early morning surf session. I sat at the local restaurant next door to our lodge and, feet in the sand and cafe con leche at hand, I glimpsed at her trying to catch some waves. The ocean was rough and the swell big. She was definitely having a workout out there.
We took the afternoon to explore the town of La Libertad. Aboard a chicken bus, we made our way to the busy coastal town.
La Libertad
La Libertad is a dynamic port town and a popular tourist attraction only 20-minute bus ride from El Zonte. We walked along the Malecón and found a farmers’ market, hosting souvenir tables and multiple ceviche stations. Mariachis searched for audience and niñas desperately wanted to sell their bracelets. School girls treated themselves with flavoured shaved iced cones and fútbol enthusiasts played on the beach while the sun sat over the horizon.
We went back to El Zonte where we spent a couple of days of pure tranquility. Rare is the electricity at night so we enjoy candle light dinners. No Internet either, so good old ways: grab a book and read a story in a hammock or share travel stories with fellow voyageurs. On our last night, between a sip of Sauvignon Blanc and a bite of fish ceviche, we got the chance to watch a turtle lay her eggs on the black sand beach.
El Tunco
After a few relaxing days, we packed our bags and hopped on a chicken bus toward to El Tunco. El Tunco (”The Pig”) is a little gem located on the Salvadorian coast. Named after the big rock standing tall like a pig in the ocean, El Tunco is growing to become a popular surf town for both locals and international surfers travelling off the beaten path. The place is known as El Salvador’s classic surf town, a long-time surf mecca with its 3 attractive breaks, sun bleached hair surfers and travellers like us that… easily get stuck. With quality waves, good local food, dynamic nightlife, seductive smiles and inspiring sunsets, it is hard to give El Tunco a brief visit. The locals call it the Tunco effect: ”once you come to El Tunco you never want to leave again”.
We located ourselves at La Guitarra, a laid back backpacker hostel with warm and cozy bungalows a few steps from the beach. Whether the need is to read a book by the pool, update the travel diary swinging in a sun-warmed hammock or even bet on a game of billiards with fellow wanderers, La Guitarra is a comfortable and safe option to stay for a short or long stay.
Journal entry:
The sun beamed in the sky and the waves crashed on the sand. I looked at the ocean, my board leashed to my ankle, telling myself:” I guess it’s not that bad. Just massive swells erupting from the ocean. I should totally be fine.” I took the little courage I could find and the non-existent surf knowledge that I had and dove into the agitated sea. Lyz and I paddled pass the break and I felt great. I looked at Julie who stayed closer to the shore and waved with a proud smile. But Julie wasn’t waving back. Instead, she signaled us to come back. Soon enough we realized that we went too far out and were stuck in a rip tide. I got a little worried as I found myself getting closer and closer to the rock. There were no waves to ride back in and paddling back to the starting point was unsuccessful. At the time of confusion and at the edge of concern, we saw 2 surfers paddling towards us. ”You ladies need a hitch?” So there we were, 2 gringas getting rescued by 2 locals. Classic! But this fine picture is a genuine example of hospitality and altruism that the locals grant to tourists. Feet back to shore, I kissed the hot black sand and postponed the surf session. Instead, I sat back on the rocky beach and watched the pros showcase how it’s done.
After a surf session (whether your session was in the water or on the beach working on your skin colour), you might want to put some food in your belly. There is a diversity of laid-back open-air restaurants offering both local and fusion cuisine. Skip the traditional American burger and try the famous fish tacos, or grab a pupusa from a local stand.
Sit down and embrace the local life. As for the nightlife, you can’t miss it on weekends. Start with some peanut butter sushi at Raoul’s and then hit one of the open-aired bars.
D’rocas throw good parties on weekends with live bands. Be part of the celebration and dance the night away, feet in the sand, at the rhythm of a salsa, a rock or a reggaeton. The after party is usually spread on the beach and in the streets. Grab a late night broccoli burrito and perhaps an other beverage at one of the night stand. And this is just one hot night in El Tunco.
A few days went by and I already felt like home. The village is so small that you end up knowing everyone: from the old man renting surfboards, to the fish taco lady, to the Smirnoff server (Julie and I don’t drink beer, but found out that Smirnoff only cost $2. Heaven!), to the henna tattoo artist, to the jewlerly guy to the smoothie lady, to the local surfers.
We spent afternoons just hanging loose, watching the world go by. The boys challenged themselves on their board, carving strong turns and cutbacks, riding on top of the breaking curls. I captured the moments on my camera as they propelled off the waves. If one got tired of surfing, he climbed up El Tunco and showed off a perfect dive. Or perhaps took the paddleboard and exercised his balance pass the break. There possibly might be a volleyball game going on further on the beach.
There is no need to stress. No place to go. No one to meet. Just be there, in a sun ray of light absorbing every moment of life. The sunsets were absolutely amazing, but the last one was the best. I reflected on my last days spent in the surf town and as the sun retired behind El Tunco. I watched the surfers catch a last wave home as the stars came to appear in the sky. The ocean was melodic, the breeze was nice. I felt just fine. I could stay here forever…
Despite the reputation it might have through the years, El Salvador is in all a destination for all avid travellers. Surfing is a natural tourism industry that has grown in recent years as the government focuses on this sector. Local government has invested in the infrastructure like the improvements of the roads, available drinking water supply and security at the beaches and in towns. El Salvador now sees a growing number of international surfers enjoying quality and not-yet crowded waves. Whether it is a stop while travelling through Central America, a surfing adventure, or just an overall sighting of the country, you’ll find that this tiny little piece of land is a pure hidden gem of natural beauties, Salvadorian genuine smiles and pure warm hearts. So if you feel adventurous and want to escape the hustle and bustle of your busy life, buy a ticket to El Salvador, get a tan on your surfboard, fall in love with the ocean curls… you might never return ;)