El Salvador, for us, would end on the beach. Perhaps appropriately so since what tourism has existed here has been a result of surfers who pay little attention to what the local situation or international reputation is if it means finding a good wave. More practically, this is where we could pick up a shuttle to Antigua, Guatemala where we would be spending our second week of traveling.
The ride to El Tunco from Cerro Verde speaks to the, let’s call it, dense diversity I have been hinting at throughout this story. Within a couple of hours from urban Santa Tecla, we were in colonial Suchitoto. Another couple of hours, Cerro Verde where the temperature dropped to the low 50s at night. Then not even two hours away we were in sweltering hot and humid El Tunco with the Pacific Ocean a stone’s throw away. If it sounds incredible, that’s because El Salvador is.
Our final stay was at Boca Olas, a gorgeous complex geared toward longer stay travelers that just launched within the new year. We were more than willing to help break it in.
After a quick jaunt across the rocky Pacific coast, we joined Kelly, who works in marketing and PR for the hotel, and her husband for a drink at the hotel bar. Cadejo Brewing Company from San Salvador was generous enough to leave a sixpack with a few different flavors upon hearing of our visit. Damn fine stuff that could stand up to most American craft breweries. It’s worth noting that Cadejo once ran a satirical campaign for president. Who wouldn’t want to support a brewery like that?
Joining Kelly was her in-laws who had actually worked in the government during the Civil War. They have since moved up to Houston to be closer to grandchildren, but were in town to visit Kelly and her son who live in San Salvador. Kelly herself comes from the States, but you can tell she considers herself just as much a salvadoreña in the way she talks. When the conversation inevitably turns to the Civil War, Kelly admits some frustration with how foreigners continue to perceive El Salvador.
“This country could really use some good PR,” she said with a bit of a sigh.
She wishes El Salvador would get some credit for absorbing the guerrillas of the FMLN as a viable political party. In fact, the FMLN has now held the presidency twice, and their far-right rivals in ARENA are still around as well. Of course no war would have clearly been preferable, but you get the point.
As one of the older tourism stopping points, you see a few more foreigners than anywhere else. Ultimately Kelly sees El Salvador as a melting pot, and it surely is in El Tunco. Boca Olas alone is full of foreign staff mixed in with Salvadorans. At the front desk we met Katherine, whose New Zealand english accent threw us off when she told us she’s from Switzerland. Like other foreigners who have landed in El Salvador, she fell in love with the place during a backpacking trip through the Americas. She’s since gotten married and is happy to call El Salvador home for the foreseeable future.
El Tunco struck us as a beach town unlike any other we had seen, especially within Central America. The town is essentially one narrow street lined with a mixture of homes, hostels, shops, and restaurants that leads to the calle peatonal or pedestrian street. This “street” is simply a strip of sand surrounded on both sides by an even larger mixture of businesses to poke in and out of that ultimately leads back to the beach. Unlike the rocky corner of the beach near our hotel, we now found ourselves on a wide expanse of perfectly flat black sand. Wading into the ocean, the ground remained consistent for as far as my atrocious swimming skills allowed me to go. Surfers have their corner where the waves hit strong, especially around sunset. This was the place for my people — those who enjoy flailing themselves at big waves with the relative assurance that the ground is neither painful nor going to sweep you away.
After a day at the beach, we rewarded ourselves with a day of mimicking a sloth with a bit of gluttony thrown in for good measure — just to cross off a couple deadly sins within a few hours. This led us to Sweet Garden Café & Crepas, a small eatery perched on the second floor with an enjoyable overlook of passersby where we were lucky enough to consume a delicious crepe concoction of chicken and cheese. Perhaps it was the sun rendering me useless and hungry, thus truly excited to eat just about anything, but dammit if that wasn’t one of the best lunches I’ve ever had, topped off with a strawberry fresca natural.
Katherine hooked us up with her husband’s cousin Luis for a hike to a series of waterfalls. She sold us on the experience over a Greek dinner with the Ohio State national championship game on in the background. Talk about a cultural explosion.
We met Luis a little after eight in the morning. He was dressed in a light long-sleeve shirt and shorts with long black hair coming out from underneath his mesh ball cap. The drive was about 20 minutes to what we were warned would be a somewhat rigorous hike. Though after noting we had just done the hike to the crater of Santa Ana, we were assured it wouldn’t be too challenging.
Unlike the aforementioned trail, this was nothing official. When I asked Luis for the name, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Caminata Cascada.” It was something Luis said he remembers using 20 years ago when he was a little kid before moving to Maryland with his parents. It hasn’t changed a bit since, he told us.
The hike was more technical than difficult. The entire hike to the collection of waterfalls was moderate, but the rocks were as sturdy as if they were natural rock climbing walls. 20 or 30 minutes later we had arrived to the waterfalls. Luis suggested jumping off one that dropped 15 feet before, but we weren’t going to do a damn thing until we saw him do it. Admittedly nervous, Luis waded into the pool of water between waterfalls to get a sense of where the rocks were. Then he jumped in from a point around 10 feet high before finally taking on the highest point.
10 feet seemed manageable for me. Though I’m not typically one for jumping off the safe ground to the unknown. The nerves kicked up a bit, but I climbed up, convinced I was only going down one way. Needless to say it wasn’t nearly as bad as my mind had made it out to be.
This conjured up an obvious metaphor for El Salvador. You hear all these stories about the country that either make you nervous or completely disinterested in visiting. I’ll admit that I let the uneducated warnings and documentaries rattle me in spats. After watching Oliver Stone’s Salvador, Melanie teared up.
“They’re going to hate us,” she said, referring to the depiction of U.S. involvement.
Maybe you make the decision to visit anyway, but you’re still nervous as your trip nears. Finally, you go and see the reality of El Salvador is not black and white, just as you would find in any country. You see the indisputable fact that this a beautiful country full of kind, hard-working, curious and welcoming people.
Then you realize characterizing an entire country’s people based on a handful encounters is a bit cliché, but it somehow feels okay for tiny El Salvador. By the time you land, you’re glad you jumped and you’re looking to climb back up and do it all over again.