5/11/19 – 5/15/19
It was pure morning. Dew boiled off tarmac. Sun slid up from behind strident peaks. Smoke wafted from roadside tiendas grilling chicken and tortillas and mixed with the humidity and scent of nature’s decomposing surplus of bananas and mangoes which gravity constantly plucked from trees and forgot on the ground. Cars played kick the can as if trying to help out economically deprived scrappers by crushing them.
We were held up at immigration for what seemed an unreasonable period of time to fill out a tourism questionnaire. The officer on the El Salvador side of the Rio Paz was asleep under an umbrella. We’d been purchasing more bottled water lately. You don’t always find a tap to filter from and I would only use the rivers as a last resort because most are receptacles for sewage. The amount of visible plastic waste on roadsides was starting to get at us so we began asking restaurants to fill our bottles. This isn’t as straightforward as in the states as they usually have a limited supply of five gallon jugs of clean water. Some don’t have any to spare, but most are happy to help and won’t accept our money despite our insistence.
We break on top of a hill to forage through fresh mangoes on the ground. A man approached, held out a massive bag of cookies, and said something I couldn’t quite understand. I assumed he was trying to sell them to us so I replied with a cool, “Gracias pero estamos bien.” He forced them into my hands and explained it was a gift and welcomed us to El Salvador before returning to his car.
We'd heard the country was wealthy in comparison to Guatemala. We didn't know what that meant until I walked into a US style grocery store with organic Pop-tarts, a vast wine section, fancy cheese, and a bourgeois deli. Soph waited outside while I searched for an ATM.
"Anything nice in there?"
"Not a thing." I wasn't interested in dropping five days budget on cheese and wine or having to carry any of it.
We rode a few more clicks to camp at Termales de Alicante. All the while I was wondering if maybe El Salvador would be “that place”. The kind of spot one could hide out with cheap food and beer and not be bothered by the rest of the world because it is generally viewed as a wasteland. Detroit was once that place before the developers "discovered" it and raised the price of coffee tenfold. Travelers are always looking for that place. And we always blame everyone that came after us for ruining it. Part of me wants to tell people that El Salvador is a vast warzone where children are routinely eaten for breakfast because all of the land has been salted and they can no longer grow food. And as much as we liked it, you can’t help but wonder why twenty five percent of the population had fled. But it doesn’t take much observation to see that our experience here is different.
I woke up to a man chiseling away at a concrete wall in perfect eighth notes with a bar of silence filled by the staccato paradiddle of a little yellow oriole. The clip could have been sampled for Paul’s Boutique. We decided to have a casual day riding the Ruta de las Flores. Pupusas and pancakes every ten to fifteen kilometers in little mountain towns. As we descended to the coast, we got our first taste of the rainy season. Sitting under a canopy next to a church for an hour whilst the heavens relieved their bladders. Two men joined us eventually and we watched locals walk casually through it all, makeup running, Mother’s Day attire, not even pretending to hurry. I asked the man how long it could last.
“Cinco minutos, cinco horas, o cinco dias.”
No hint of joking. Without an end in sight we kept moving. As we reached the black sand coast the grey skies opened and we were dry within twenty minutes under that fourteenth parallel sun. We camped at a place called Cocolito. Soph sat on the beach while I discussed with the owner, Antonio, the loss of purchasing power parity to the average Salvadoran as a result of the country switching to the dollar almost twenty years ago. His main argument was that the price of beer had gone up almost tenfold to two dollars for a one liter bottle. This may not seem like much to us, but when you make six bucks a day it pretty much takes you out of the market.
"I can't even afford to get drunk," he told me.
It’s expensive for a country to have its own currency and the argument for a few that have adopted the dollar is that it provides more stability as their own money is more prone to devaluation. One factor often causing inflation upon the switch is that prices often have to be rounded when converted to dollars. A change in a penny could be a thirty to fifty percent increase for the cost of some goods. Perhaps more important is the sense of national identity that is lost. Countries illustrate their heroes and sacred institutions on their money. To use somebody else’s is to lose a certain degree of one’s symbolism.
Many homes in Central America have an outdoor reservoir of water made from concrete that in some cases is the size of a six person hot tub. It is drawn from for most non-drinking purposes. This might mean a bucket of water used to flush an unplumbed toilet or to do laundry. It was in the eighties at night and I found myself waking up to douse my body with several bowls. I would then go back to sleep soaking wet, only to awake again in a few hours.
The next morning we made our way along the coast to Playa el Palmarcito. The never-ending bays and rock outcroppings covered in seagull dung reminded me of Oregon. We stopped at a lookout point and spoke with a man who sat there every morning to drink his coffee on his way to work. Before leaving, he handed me a knife.
“Para proteción?” I asked.
“No, para mangoes.”
I felt a bit silly, but it seemed like a fair question given the country’s reputation. Everyone throughout Latin America will tell you that their country is safe but that you have to look out for the others. In Mexico Guatemala is the dangerous one. In Guatemala you’re warned of El Salvador and Honduras. Here in El Salvador we’re told that we need to be careful once we get to Costa Rica. Everyone seems to be afraid of mass shootings in America but also believe the risk to be worth having a nice lawn.
The roads were relatively flat compared to Guatemala. All of a sudden we were riding a hundred kilometers by midday. My gut was really starting to feel good for the first time in months and I found myself racing semi-trucks up small climbs. We found a hostel called The Hammock Plantation by the coast and spent two days there. Two little girls greeted us and said that we could stay for free and that their dad would make us all the French toast that we wanted.
“You’re terrible business owners,” Soph told them.
The owners, Xenia and Mark, had recently bought the place and moved from the Netherlands, although Xenia was born in El Salvador. There were no grocery stores nearby. Once or twice a day a truck would drive by loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables and honk its horn as it trolled the streets.
“We’re in the middle of two large towns, so we’re the last stop for all the grocery trucks. Somedays they sell everything before they get here……”
By the water we ate ceviche and swam in some tide pools constructed from lava stones that would fill as the waves splashed over them. There were torrential rains every afternoon and from the way my pen trailed off in my notebook I appear to have spent a good portion of the day sleeping in a hammock. At one point I awoke to two young women running away from the patio area and swearing. Mark had decided that he was going to remove a wasp nest in a short palm by hacking the frond off with a machete. They all ran and jumped in the pool as they got stung. I went back to sleep, hoping I was outside the periphery of their rage.
We saw that some other cyclists had stayed at the fire station in Usulutan and decided to give it a try. The ride was flat and we were making good time. Then I got flat tire number seven. Soph still had yet to get a puncture. The bomberos had had so many cyclists come through that they process us as if we were a grease fire. Copy our passports, show us the yard where we can camp, direct us to the showers, and leave us alone. They didn’t seem to have any interest in chatting, or maybe after one hundred and twenty five kilometers it was us.
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Hey, Chris, I think this was your best opening paragraph to date! Worth repeating:
“It was pure morning. Dew boiled off tarmac. Sun slid up from behind strident peaks. Smoke wafted from roadside tiendas grilling chicken and tortillas and mixed with the humidity and scent of nature’s decomposing surplus of bananas and mangoes which gravity constantly plucked from trees and forgot on the ground. Cars played kick the can as if trying to help out economically deprived scrappers by crushing them.”
Love it! I have had a hard time keeping up with you lately, as end of my sabbatical has loomed into site, but glad I took the time to read this installment! I continue to take great pleasure in my vicarious version of your trip. Thanks! Jim A
Thanks Jim. Hope all is well
Did you peddle from Playa el Palmarcito to Playa El Tunco? There’s a few little hostels there, just off the beach, some with thatched roof huts on stilts and an outdoor patio restaurant with amazingly good and very cheap food. Sometimes I think that’s the place I should have called it quits. Which brings me to a question: When we find a place that just seems to let us live and breathe, why don’t we just stop?
We loved El Tunco. You raise a great question. Perhaps we’re always looking for something better…..
Great writing Chris. Enjoyed your narrative and the perspectives on USA vs El Salvador. El Salvador wins all the way around in my book. Especially on the soccer fields.