Playa El Cuco and our departure from El Salvador
If you ever rode on a 2nd class bus in Latin America before the next few sentences will probably stir up some fond retrospective moments buried under years of more comfortable transportation. Hours of loud Latin music with almost unbearable heat casually ticked by while our backs jarred with every single bump, hole, and piece of debris encountered on yet another day travels through El Salvador. Vendors stepped on and off the bus like ants marching towards a melted tootsie pop. At every planned stop they jumped aboard and sold everything from the ubiquitous Latin sweets to meat on skewers. I counted clouds, listened to some live on bus music performances, and watched volcanoes ponder the busy world beneath their shadows before we eventually pulled into the sketchy city of San Miguel. Armed men with enormous guns guarded almost every visible establishment of this busy capital of the south. We were dropped off outside the bus station and told to walk through the small opening in a concrete block wall topped with razor wire. This was the terminal. We grabbed some delicious Pollo Campero (always a crowd pleaser) and were beach bound once again. El Cuco was our immediate destination and we were dropped off in the middle of the “square” of this rough and tumble looking beach town. Immediately we were approached by a young man with a pickup truck asking about our destination and we were surprised to find out his ride would be “gratis”. Confused, but not daunted, we once again blindly accepted that this was norm and hopped on, bouncing down the only other road out of town with our asses planted on a piece of wood. The beach side of the road was lined with 12 foot high concrete walls completely enclosing each compound in from the outside world. Shacks, small tiendas, and uncultivated farm lands were opposite the fortresses. After about 10 minutes on the back of the dusty truck we arrived at the compound of La Tortuga Verde.
A huge 30 foot flag of El Salvador was strung between Palm Trees at the entrance of the hotel/hostel/small resort created by a visionary of sorts from the United States. Tom was a surfer, real estate guru, and lover of nature by heart. When we walked in Tom was giving a rescued Pelican a bath in a wheel barrow to rid the bird of the fleas and insects that tend to tag along for the ride. I remember thinking, “Now this is an interesting man”. My mind is far too curious to let things like this lay. I knew it was only a matter of time before my mouth would sprint past my mind and figure out what this man’s deal was.
Tortuga Verde was clearly a dream of Tom’s turned into reality. The grounds were immaculately clean with leafy palm trees sprinkled throughout the premises offering shade to the omnipresent sun. There was a blue lit swimming pool and hot tub in the center of the premises and tables, hammocks, and huts lived beach side. This hardly felt like a hostel for backpackers, but the premises offered everything from private house rentals down to hammocks. Tom was a surfer above everything else and offered cheap board rentals and lessons too. When I finally got sit down with Tom he told me about his dream to create a place on the beach that was safe, had the best food around, and created jobs for locals. His place was staffed with about 10 Salvadorans and yet we felt like we were one of the few people staying there (low season, of course). He told me he wasn’t dong this for the money and I truly believe this wasn’t a lie. Aside from the creation of good jobs for this suffering community, his # 1 priority was protecting the turtles. Turtles often lay their eggs on these beaches and are preyed on by locals who then sell the eggs for consumption as a local delicacy. Tom often winds up buying the eggs immediately off the poachers and buries them again to give them a chance at life. He has the system so nailed down that the poachers often come to him first. Job opportunities are scarce here and if Tom didn’t purchase the eggs they would sell them in town anyway. It’s not a cure to the problem, but at least it’s an attempt. Also worth mentioning is Tom’s local TV show, filmed and produced by Tom and his staff, that is aimed at bringing issues such as conservation of the mangroves and turtle awareness to the public’s eye. He’s the gringo with bad Spanish on TV that locals tune into for entertainment.
The beach itself offered short, soft and surfable waves to play in. At low tide the beach would become an endless stretch of sand reaching far into the ocean without a single person in sight in any direction. At night thunderstorms would come in off the coast from Honduras and light up the entire sky. At Tom’s recommended we walked down his protected beaches at dark for a starry, tranquil experience listening to the waves and gazing up at the night sky. We brought a flashlight in case we spotted a turtle laying eggs so we could make sure a poacher wouldn’t claim them as his own.
The next day I woke up extra early and rode my first wave in 7 years. It felt awesome to be up experiencing the magic of surfing once again. I think we should all consider ourselves lucky beings to be able to play with nature in such a fashion.
On another fine morning I found myself sitting alone post breakfast taking in the soft sea breeze. Elissa had left me for only a few minutes before I had that instinctively familiar feeling of eyes on me. I looked over my shoulder to see four Salvadorans all staring at me. After calling me over a few times I couldn’t stop pretending I didn’t notice and reluctantly walked over into a booze-fueled Sunday morning scene on a beach in El Salvador. Sitting directly across from me was an inebriated man with glossy red eyes. There was a man in his late 20’s wearing nothing but boxer briefs to my right. An older man in his late 40’s was wearing a mankini right next to a skinny intoxicated Salvadoran missing one foot. After asking where I was from the drunkest of the three expressed disdain with America using familiar swear words and gestures. A moment of silence followed. This awkward introduction was immediately fixed by a few “tranquilos” while I slunk back in my chair thinking of an escape plan. Before I could say no, beers were flowing and very difficult to decipher Spanish was circulating around my head. Turns out the disdain was because he was an illegal immigrant living in Huntington Beach, California. Immigration used a swat team approach to bust into the house he was staying in. He claimed that 60 illegal immigrants were all living in one house trying to eek out a living. He wound up spending 3 years in jail for it, prior to exportation. The conversation felt very uncomfortable at times, but the tension was released through jokes and awful attempts at conversing with these men. They were trying to teach me funny things to say in Spanish while telling me about their lives. They even wound up feeding me some steak and rice eventually. I had won them over and made new, albeit frightening and weird, friends. After about 2 hours of telling them I had a girlfriend (and constantly scanning around for her to come to my rescue) I eventually saw Elissa. Up to that point they thought I was lying about having a girlfriend. We saw them leaving later that night when we walked into town. My amigos told me how beautiful Elissa is, in English of course, and asked if we would see them back in San Miguel. I could only give them honesty. “No.”
El Salvador was yet another country whose history was marred with political instability, civil wars, and government corruption. El Salvador, like many other countries, fought hard to resist Spanish rule but eventually lost. After Mexico separated from Spain, El Salvador resisted joining the Mexican Federation and was pretty much the prime reason that Central American provinces eventually became their own governing territories. Land was taken over by foreign enterprises and the wealthy in the 19th century when crops transitioned from Indigo (used for dyes) to coffee, which resulted in the displacement of Salvadorans who were now landless. The US became involved during the Latin American communism scare of the 80’s and supported the government, which resulted in horrendous human rights violations from both the military and leftist groups that formed. It was a very hectic and confusing time to be a human amidst the chaotic swings of politics in this region. War crimes were eventually forgiven for all sides but El Salvador’s past still remains visible with “no guns” signs lining parks and public spaces. But despite all of the violence in it’s recent past, El Salvador was very warm and very welcoming to two US citizens wandering around it’s dark mercados, it’s beautiful landscape, and it’s sometimes confusing public transportation system. El Salvador might have a long way to go before it becomes a part of the regular tourist trail, but once it is discovered a lot of the truly raw and gritty experiences of our trip will surely disappear. Hasta luego El Salvador. Vamos a regresar.