15.02.2011 - 01.03.2011 32 °C
From Antigua we took a five hour shuttle bus to El Salvador, which crossed the boarder and dropped us off at our chosen destination -El Zonte. Knowing we had to meet our friend Jen, from Vancouver, we felt it was easiest to arrive in the country early and find accomodations for her to have a safe place to arrive. We picked El Zonte as it is described as the place for beginners to learn surfing, but soon realized that this little beach town is a gem of El Salvador which many miss for the more touristic spots further down the coast.
El Zonte boasts only a handful of accomodation options and some private housing, but largely remains an underdeveloped stretch of beach with a quiet charm perfect for finding tranquility and a frolick in the waves. We spent time looking between the few accomodation options until finding the French Canadian, family run, El Dorado. Out of our price range, the friendly owner dropped the price for four days until a large group was expected to take over every room. We were spoiled by having a little pool, a beach front lounging area, hammocks, and a small bar and eating area. The main and most important draw to this place was the friendly group of locals working here which we soon befriended. They tought us Spanish, joked and laughed with us and were what made our stay in El Zonte so memorable. (Galang galang Jen -private joke just for you).
For the first few days we simply suntanned all day, getting up to get a drink from the bar or jump through the large waves to cool down. It was quiet and uneventful, but exactly what we were after. El Dorado caters mainly to the French Canadian tourists with a charter flight bringing them directly in to El Salvador, with the owners advertising mainly to the one-week surf package tourists. At the time of our stay there were four, friendly, French Canadian guys staying and the combination of great people and beach was a perfect set-up for Jen to arrive to. We arranged for a car to pick her up from the airport as her flight arrived late into the crowded San Salvador, and she made it without a hitch.
The first night with Jen happened to be a Saturday evening and the locals had a party down the beach which we all attended, having a fantastic time goofing around and dancing. Jen had no problem making friends with our local "crew" and we danced the night away all together.
The following day we needed to find another place to stay as it was our last night in El Dorado, but we were lucky enough to be able to move one door down to Olas Permenantes. This beachfront accomodation is a busy hang-out, especially right before sunset as everyone gathers to see the bright red sun rapidly dropping into the ocean and the surfers catching their final waves before dark.
The beach in El Zonte is a stretch of fine black sand that glitters in the sunlight. I have never seen sand like this, resulting from the volcanic activity in the region. Little children roll around in the dark sands, looking as if they are covered in mud, but a quick dip in the water leaves them clean and repeating the process of covering themselves in the black sands with glee. The Pacific Ocean that runs the coastline of El Salvador made me think of our cold waters back in Canada, but we were amazed by the bath-water temperatures. A dip in the ocean was only slightly cooler than the 30+ degree weather and strong sun. The waves are large, but half the fun was jumping over, diving through them, or riding them back in to the beach.
We had two of our lovely local friends teach us to surf, and while Gato and Mojo tried their hardest to teach Jen, Andrew and myself, we realized just how hard this sport is. The waves are very strong and there are only two times in the day when they are ideal for beginner surfers learning to ride the white wash. Half the battle was trying to get our boards out past the crashing waves, but with multiple attempts and failures we were all successful in standing up and riding the white waters back to shore (which might sound impressive but only lasted for a few fleeting seconds and squeels of delight). We tried again the following day with another friend, Santiago, but now know that the only way to learn is to have one-on-one teaching -learners really need someone helping to get the board out past the waves and to give a little push until you figure out how to jump up fast enough. Obviously we just need to give surfing some more effort, but we had fun all the same.
Other than our lazy days, we did venture out on the chicken bus to the bigger town of La Libertad -the only place with an ATM and groccery stores. It is obvious that El Salvador is making a large effort to attract tourists as a walkway along the ocean is being built and accomodations and restaurants are just beginning to take off. The destructive civil war ended 20 years ago, but the people have had many difficulties with government and violent gangs since. It is unfortunate that many tourists skip El Salvador on their tour of Central America as the country gets a bad reputation for a lack of safety, but we have nothing but amazing memories of the kind and generous locals. The people of El Salvador are the real treasure of this country. They are hard working and eager to please, always smiling and joking. We had strangers approach us just to ask where we were from and to welcome us to their country. The people are happy to see tourists in their country and all understand that this is the only way to improve life in El Salvador. Two years ago, with a change of government, improvements have slowly started, such as elementary schools becoming free and the immediate rise in enrollment. While highschool is still costly, it now includes a lunch and glass of milk for each child and most children are making it at least through a highschool education. There is a minimum wage in El Salvador, but after inquiring we realized that most people make under two dollars an hour and work 50 hour work weeks. The currency in El Salvador is the American dollar, so their meager wages do not go far with the price of living being quite expensive. Locals do get a small break on prices as there is an inflation for tourists, but after going out for dinner with Santiago, we realized that for him to be able to eat with us would cost him almost a days worth of hard work; yet, the people here are very proud and he insisted on paying his own meal and was just happy to be out with us.
After over a week lazying around El Zonte we decided it was important to see more of the country and the three of us caught a bus down to the more tourist oriented beach of El Tunco. El Tunco is full of young travelers as this beach has more of a night life on the weekends, with many people coming in from San Salvador to party on the beach. We moved here on a Friday and were able to go out on the Friday and Saturday night to have a few drinks and people watch. We found a nice place to stay that included a small kitchen, so we ventured back to La Libertad to get food and spent our days eating, reading and being lazy.
From El Tunco we were able to rent a car and made plans to explore some of the interior of El Salvador. It is harder to get around El Salvador than it was around Guatemala, with no shuttle busses available the only option is to transfer from one over-crowded chicken bus to the next. We took a two-day road trip, heading to see some of the recommended sights of El Salvador, including Lago de Coatepeque, Ruta de las Flores and the Parque Nacional El Imposible. The volcanic lake Coatepeque is located in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks and the clean waters which attract many wealthy San Salvadorians for private vacations. The lake has countless homes around its waters edge, but all have high, closed gates, and we found it hard to find any accomodations. There is no town to speak of and it seems to be mainly a haven for the wealthy. After driving around we decided to head up through the Ruta de las Flores to the town of Tacuba, which is just before the enterance to the national park. The 'Flower Route' is a stretch of winding road with little towns scattered along the way. On weekends there are food fairs that happen in these little towns, but mid-week the drive was a quiet one which let us take in the view of inland El Salvador. The hills of the area are covered with coffee plantations as this is one of the main exports of the country. Reaching the quiet town of Tacuba we searched out the Hostal de Mama y Papa, known for the warmth of Mama and Papa, and their son Manolo's knowledge of the surrounding area.
We dropped our bags and then had the opportunity to go to the local hot springs, a 40 minute drive away. Loading up with drinks, we arrived at the volcanic thermal pools in the middle of a private coffee plantation just as dark enveloped us, and just as we sunk into the relaxing heat the heavy rains began. It was a lovely way to spend the evening, soaking away our aches and pains after the day of driving and waiting out the rain in the warmth of the pools.
The following morning we signed up for the four-hour waterfall tour in the Parque Nacional El Imposible. We were driven an hour into the park, from where we then hiked another hour into the jungle only to find a river that flows to create a series of waterfalls. Working our way down the river the guide pointed out where to stand and throw ourselves into the icy pools below. Some of the heights were dizzying, but we all made it, shrieking with joy after conquering our fears. Andrew pushed it further, always taking the highest jumps possible, spreading wide in mid-air so I could capture him in every photo. The final waterfall was a 60 meter drop (which you obviously jump from lower levels) and we lay on the rocks to heat up and eat a basic lunch while Andrew and our guide climbed the face of the waterfall. To end the tour we had an hour hike back up the mountain and while we were hot and tired, the guides were eager to show their knowledge of the area and local plant life, and with the addition of their humour we had a wonderfully adventurous day.
Needing to return to El Tunco to take care of last minute arrangements before leaving the country, we made the two-and-a-half hour drive back to the coast in the dark, quiet after a long day. We needed to drop Jen off back at El Zonte where she will remain for three more days learning to surf at the safe and friendly El Dorado. We then had to return the car to El Tunco, arrange our bus for the following day and find our own accomodation for the night. It all worked out after all the scrambling and with a sadly quick good-bye to our friend, we settled in for only a few hours of sleep. We needed to rise at 5am to get our five hour shuttle bus out of El Salvador, crossing into Honduras to the city of Copan. We just arrived and will stay here for a few days to take in the famous Copan ruins and the extremely popular hotsprings.
We hope to be able to post again soon... until then, we send love and hope everyone is well back home.
Ana and Andrew