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july 14, 2005 -> surfing with the savior: el Salvador

Most backpackers touring Central America bypass El Salvador. You can't blame them. “The Savior” is tiny, densely populated, largely deforested and carries the stigma of a bloody, 12-year civil war. The war ended in 1992, but now LA-style gangs terrorize the country. As El Salvador uses the US dollar, it isn't a dirt-cheap destination. Unlike Guatemala, it has no major Mayan ruins or large indigenous communities. Unlike Honduras or Belize, it has no tourist-friendly islands to attract otherwise skittish visitors. While El Salvador does have several climbable volcanoes, a few dramatic national parks and a long coastline, so does almost every country in Central America. Ironically, the fact that no one goes to El Salvador is probably the best excuse for visiting it.

We rode a nearly empty bus from Tegucigalpa to El Salvador's capital, San Salvador. As we climbed aboard, an armed guard told us to stow all of our bags in the luggage compartment – to prevent robbers masquerading as passengers from boarding with weapons. The landscape didn't change when we crossed the border – sharp, green hills astride muddy rivers – but the infrastructure improved dramatically. Smooth black tarmac with vivid white stripes sliced through the green hills. Cement cladding and extensive culverts protected the road from landslides.

On the edge of San Salvador, we passed sprawling communities of ‘casas modelas' – low-income housing. The interconnected homes, each painted a bright color, had tiny refrigerator-sized backyards. Even the guidebooks, which normally refrain from bad-mouthing capital cities, withheld praise for San Salvador. The traffic was atrocious. Like most Central American capitals, it had a poor, polluted, hectic center with massive, modern shopping malls at its edges. There was no reason to stick around. After first getting ripped off by a taxi driver, we took a bus across the city to the coastal bus terminal, passing through the “historic district” without noticing it.

I wanted to surf again, and little El Salvador was developing a big buzz in the international surfing community. We had found some great websites describing the surfing conditions and long, empty beaches. The photos looked incredible. Not that left-hand breaks or hollow tubes really meant anything to me. I was still a beginner. But I did like the prospect of regular waves and uncrowded line-ups. The bus to La Libertad was already crowded when we boarded and achieved neutron star density when we picked up fifty stranded passengers from a broke-down bus. I ended up with a several shopping bags and a Spiderman pillow stacked on my lap. I looked hopefully at billboards that advertised La Libertad and its nearby beaches as “the center of El Salvadoran tourism.”

Our low morale took another blow when we arrived in La Libertad. The town was filthy. Dozens of drunks wandered the streets and slept at odd angles on the sidewalk. We walked to the beach and found it littered and the water brackish. The surf hotel that looked so good on the website was empty and in a dodgy area. Crestfallen after twelve hours of transportation, I was ready to give up, take the bus back to San Salvador and stay at the Intercontinental. Nori thought we should try further up the coast. We crammed into the back of another old school bus – I sat on a spare tire while Nori squeezed in the corner – and asked the locals to shout when we neared Playa Sunzal.

Fifteen minutes later, we jumped down and began walking along an empty road towards what we hoped was the beach. On a whim, we turned down a muddy path and found the Tortuga Surf Lodge, a small two-story hotel with rooms that overlooked the ocean for US$30 a night. The Hawaiian owner, Kurt, rented surfboards, and he had hired a great local chef. After cold sodas and cheeseburgers, our attitudes improved immediately. To get inspired, I watched a video about the history of big wave surfing. That night, we fell asleep to the sound of whistling wind and thundering waves.

Kurt took me out surfing the next morning. It didn't take long to realize that I wasn't skilled enough to surf there. I struggled to clear the breakers and the riptide kept yanking me towards nasty black pinnacles that rose up from the sea. The waves were too big and too slow for someone as inexperienced as me to catch, so I spent the whole hour paddling frantically away from the impact zone. Getting back into shore was even more difficult. The backwash kept sucking me away from the beach. When I finally did make it, Kurt pronounced in his very laid-back, surfer-dude accent, “Yeah. That might have been a bit much for you.”

Conditions got worse the next day. An offshore storm had turned the waves to evil-looking chop. The owner advised me against surfing, so I grabbed some books and read on the patio overlooking the ocean. Nori spent the whole day in our breezy second-story room reading “The Da Vinci Code.” In the afternoon we met Don and Kim Mirra, a fun American couple who ran a photography studio in San Diego. They were doing a photo shoot for an American organization that buys land in third-world countries and redistributes it to poor families. Though the community that they stayed in was desperately poor, the tenacity, dignity and hospitality of the villagers had amazed them. “The bad thing is that I feel so fat after eating thick corn tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Kim complained.

We would have liked to spend a few more days on the coast, but we had a schedule to keep. We had just over three weeks to see three countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize – just enough time to see the highlights. We took another crowded bus back to San Salvador, and walked through the downtown area to the bus terminal for Guatemala City. A travel agency in the terminal advertised bus services to Chicago – 5 days of travel for US$220. It reminded us that in just over a month, we would be returning home.

Scott

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