El Salvador

November 2017

HITCHHIKING TO THE SURF

I threw most my plans out the window while backpacking the coast of El Salvador in fall of 2017, after an enriching two weeks in Honduras and Guatemala. One day in this small Central American country quickly became two, two became three, and before I knew it, I had spent nearly a week doing little more than eat pupusas, ride motorcycles and surf.

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Five days of sunshine in El Salvador.

Despite its uncomplimentary reputation, there is much to be gained from a visit to El Salvador. Its beaches, rainforests and mountains are spectacular, and I was surprised by the warm welcome I received at every turn. That’s not to say you should overlook state corruption, organized crime and violence against women during your stay — on the contrary, a trip to El Salvador should be planned carefully for these reasons. But venture there, and you may just find your groove, and have a hard time leaving, like I did. Allow me to explain in the post below, which details my spontaneous and extended itinerary in one of Central America’s most undiscovered (unfortunately avoided) travel gems.

Day One: Panajachel to El Tunco

I left the sparkling blue waters of Lake Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala’s Sierra Madre mountain range early on Nov. 4, 2017. It was an eight or nine-hour bus ride from Panajachel through the Honduran border to El Tunco, a tiny surfing town halfway down the coast. I paid USD 25 to Adrelina Tours for the shuttle, which can be booked at the office on Calle Santander. The transit went smoothly, and while the lineups at the border were a little chaotic, the bus drivers were experienced and helped everyone through it.

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Hammocks for snoozing at Papaya Lodge.

EXPLORING EL TUNCO

The heat in El Salvador was unlike anything I had experienced in Honduras and Guatemala. I reached El Tunco by mid-afternoon, feeling sticky and uncomfortable as I swung my backpack over my shoulders and marched into Papaya Lodge. I had made a quick email reservation on the way there, and on arrival, sprung an extra few bucks to sleep in an air conditioned dorm room. It was a sweet little spot — guests snoozed on hammocks on the upper floors, read by the outdoor pool, and nursed hangovers with plates of egg, bacon, fruit and granola at the bar in the courtyard. I did what I usually do when arriving somewhere new: pull out the camera and go for a walk.

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Surfers hit the water early in the morning in El Tunco, El Salvador.

El Tunco is a charming, laid back surfing town off the Litoral Highway in La Libertad, about 40 minutes from the capital, San Salvador. It’s small and compact — a few residential homes, surf shops, restaurants and hotels, all within 15 minutes’ walking distance. The visitors here seemed to be doing one of three things: sleeping, surfing or drinking. I inquired at the tourism office across the street from Papaya Lodge about booking a shuttle to El Cuco, another beach town further down the coast. My intention was not to stay long in El Salvador, just to break up the drive from Guatemala to Nicaragua. Clearly, that’s not what happened.

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‘El Tunco’ rock at high tide.

I had drinks that evening with an Australian fellow I met on the bus from Guatemala. We watched the sun set spectacularly over the Pacific Ocean, and an unusual rock formation for which El Tunco is named. At low tide, the rock is said to resemble a pig, or tunco, earning the town its title of ‘The Pig.’

TROPICAL LIGHTENING 

El Tunco, El Salvador, Papaya Lodge, travel El Salvador, El Salvador itinerary, Elizabeth Around the World, The Pig, lightening storm, tropical lighteningWhen the oranges, blues and reds faded into darkness, we met some other travellers staying at Papaya Lodge for dinner. The restaurant at the hostel was excellent and affordable, but not as cheap and delicious as the pupusa stands down the main road, closer to the highway. Pupusas are a staple in El Salvador — thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, bean, pork or locoro flowers, and served with a sweet cabbage slaw called curtido. At two for a dollar, you can’t go wrong, so go wild and try all of the fillings. El Salvador uses American currency, so be sure to stock up on cash before you go as ATMs can be hard to come by.

When we couldn’t eat any more, our motley crew returned to the beach, where an astonishing pink lightening storm coloured the sky. It was crowded and bands were setting up in the bars and restaurants lining the boardwalk. The salsa started to play, which was my cue to turn in after a long day of transit.

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Day Two: El Tunco to La Libertad

I recommend rising early in El Tunco, both to get your choice of waves and surf board, but also because it’s best time to see the pig rock. During low tide, you can march right up and explore its nooks and crannies, find a comfortable spot and watch the more skilled surfers. Just a heads up — El Tunco’s beach is not for swimmers and sun worshippers, as there isn’t any actual sand and the waves can be choppy. Bring some sturdy shoes for the rocks and save the lounging for the pool.

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The tranquil streets of El Tunco.

After wading through the salt water, taking a few photos, and visiting the shops and restaurants I had missed the afternoon prior, I made my way back to Papaya Lodge for a delicious granola and honey breakfast. I had now walked the bulk of El Tunco, and realized that online reviews weren’t exaggerating — there wasn’t much to see in this small town. I considered an early departure to El Cuco, or even León in Nicaragua later that day, until some of the folks I had dinner with the previous evening wandered out of bed and declared they were going to find a nearby waterfall. Not really keen on spending a whole second day in transit, I decided to play this one out.

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As more guests at the Papaya Lodge rose from their bunks, and provided unenthusiastic feedback about the waterfall, some new friends and I decided to try and find the ruins at Joya de Serén, about two hours north of El Tunco, instead. I was now 100 per cent glad I hadn’t hopped on a bus; an afternoon of riding through the Guanaco countryside being infinitely more appealing.

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Ready, set, ride.

In the blistering heat, we headed down the main road toward the highway until we found a rental shop. Unfortunately, its rental forms — available only in Spanish — had hefty damage deposits that we weren’t confident we would get back, even if we returned the scooters in the same condition we found them. So we asked around, and found a small hostel tucked into a residential compound, whose owner said she could rent us two motorcycles for USD 25 a piece, with a piece of ID to hold as collateral. After a few quick mechanical fixes, they were ready to go, and we started our journey inland towards the ruins.

THE RUINS AT JOYA DE SERÉN

The Salvadoran landscape is stunning. While traffic, gas stations and fast food joints clutter the city streets, in rural areas, it’s a patchwork of yellow and green farmland, rolling hills, sweeping vines and forest canopy, complimented by twinkling blue ocean and palm trees along the coast.

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Not pictured: pack of brawling dogs.

Driving in El Salvador, however, isn’t for the faint of heart — the rural roads are a mix of potholes, dirt, gravel and switchbacks, with the possibility that any minute, a cow, chicken or cat could dart into the street. And they certainly did — I nearly hit a wayward pig, and slammed the breaks to avoid striking a pack of brawling dogs, which immediately went after our exposed legs and ankles as we screeched to a halt amidst the chaos. I sped off to catch up to Sammy and Jordan, who had disappeared into the blinding sunlight creeping through the vines.

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We reached the ruins by midday, paid USD 3 for entry and started our tour. Joya de Cerén is an archaeological site featuring the remains of a 1,500-year-old Maya farming village that — like Pompeii — was buried in ash after the Laguna Caldera volcano erupted around 600 AD. Identifiable were a steam bath, a domestic house, a prayer hall and a meeting house, all made of earth, wattle and daub. There are 18 structures in the site in total, that are — quite strikingly — minuscule. These Indigenous people must have been very tiny, for the houses couldn’t have accommodated anyone greater than five and a half feet standing. According to UNESCO, what makes Joya de Cerén such a unique and valuable archaeological discovery is the light it sheds on the lifestyle, beliefs and cultural practices of Mesoamerican farmers, in a world of study that primarily focuses on the structures and systems of the elite.

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A SALVADORAN RODEO 

We took a different route south back to El Tunco with the hopes of reaching the coast by sunset. We stopped for lunch at a café in a small village off the main road, where for USD 1, we chowed down on milkshakes, nachos, and a dish that seemed to just be ground beef, cooked onions and boiled carrots. It was a quaint little town — so small in fact, that in writing this post, I couldn’t find it on a map of El Salvador. But it had a lovely church with a mural of prominent Salvadoran archbishops, including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, martyr and recently-canonized Óscar Romero. (Please tweet me if you can identify this town, and I’ll update the post!)

We were heading back toward the coast when we noticed a large group of men gathered around a circle of horses to the side of the road. Their riders were dressed in decorative chaps — a display not unlike a Western rodeo. I was delighted to have been in the right place at the right time to witness the sport, until a couple of drunk cowboys on horseback walked up to the motorcycles, and started harassing Kristin and I. We kickstarted them cautiously, so as not to spook their steeds, as calls of “Bye, baby!” grew faint in the wind behind us.

We were physically exhausted and caked in dust by the time we reached Papaya Lodge. It was dark, but we had been treated to a spectacular sunset ride along the water, and miraculously light traffic. We met up with some of the other travellers for beer and pupusas, and watched another spectacular lightning storm over the Pacific Ocean. I went to bed soon afterward, with plans once again of catching a bus to Nicaragua the following morning.

Know Before You Go: El Tunco

Where to Stay

  • Papaya Lodge in El Tunco is a clean, secure and air-conditioned hostel with WiFi, cheap eats and excellent access to the beach, surf shops, and shuttle booking office. Most backpackers stay there, so it fills up quickly during high season. Shared dorms start at USD 10 per night. Make a reservation at +503 2389 6027 or papayalodge@hotmail.com.
  • Tunco Lodge is another well-reviewed hostel, just around the corner from Papaya Lodge. In fact, El Tunco is so small, you could walk around and check out all the hostels until you find one that you like. Make a reservation at +502 2389 6318.

Travel Tips

  • Bring lots of American cash to El Salvador, as the ATMs are few and far between outside the major cities.
  • Don’t reserve your hotels and hostels online from home, as the prices on booking popular websites don’t at all reflect the price you pay when you show up at the door, or call from within the country.
  • Safety should be top of mind, so plan your transit carefully and avoid arriving in a new place late at night. Book your shuttles with a reputable company, like Gekko Explorer or Adrelina Tours. You can usually get away with booking one day in advance, and if your hostel can’t make the reservation for you, they can direct you to the nearest ticket office within walking distance.
  • Make sure you get up early enough to see El Tunco during low-tide. This is also the best time for surfing. The boards and instructors may run out quickly during high season, so you may want to reserve ahead of time.
  • The balcony at Monkey Lala is the best place to watch the sunset in El Tunco. It’s also a nice spot to enjoy a Golden beer or Pilsener, and you’ll find lots of other backpackers there.
  • Despite El Salvador’s reputation for being a dangerous place, El Tunco is a pretty secure spot. Tourists are the town’s main source of income, and people tend to look out for each other. I felt safe walking around at night, although I definitely advise leaving your valuables in the dorm locker.
  • El Tunco really is as small as I’ve described in this blog post. There aren’t any knockout museums, restaurants or bars, and if you’re looking to experience Salvadoran culture, you won’t find it here. There’s not actually that much to do, so if you’re short on time, and not really into surfing, give this one a miss.

Day Three: El Tunco to El Cuco

I don’t have a hard and fast rule against hitchhiking. I’ve picked up hitchhikers myself while driving in a foreign country, and have often been caught in situations where I’ve had to rely on the kindness of strangers with repairs, directions, or rides. But under no circumstances, is it a method of transportation I endorse in El Salvador, and it was quite begrudgingly that I found myself doing it early in the morning on my third day in the country.

It wasn’t my idea (yes, I’m throwing my friends under the bus here). A cost-cutting measure, they reckoned, even though the shuttle to El Cuco, a small beach town further down the coastline, was only USD 30. I was unsuccessful in persuading them to take it however, and being the only Spanish-speaker in the group, caved to requests to accompany them, so I could translate. It’s a weak excuse for having taken part in a reckless adventure, but there it is.

A TRUCK BED AND OPEN ROAD

After collecting as much logistical information as I could from the residents of El Tunco on the best way to do this (none of them thought it was a good idea), we marched down the main road, backpacks over our shoulders in the blistering heat, and stuck our thumbs up in the air. Step one was getting a ride to La Libertad, where we might find someone to take us to Zacatecoluca, or further, if we were lucky. After a half-hour of failed attempts, I persuaded the crew to take a cab to La Libertad, for the hot bargain of USD 1 each.

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Piled in the bed of a pickup truck, bound for San Salvador.

La Libertad is a bustling port city, and we could barely squeeze ourselves through roads and sidewalks, jam-packed with cars, animals, vendors and carts as we made our way to the artery that led to San Salvador. Several folks offered to drive us there for hefty sums of cash, but Sammy and Jordan were insistent on making it to El Cuco as cost-free as possible, no matter how long it took. We were attracting quite a bit of attention on the side of a busy street with our thumbs up, and an older gentleman in a pickup truck pulled over to ask us what we thought we were doing. In Spanish, I explained our plans to hitchhike to San Salvador, and eventually, El Cuco. He thought we were idiots, and I privately agreed. He was so concerned for our safety in fact, that he called his wife and asked if he could take us part of the way there. She agreed, God bless them both.

We piled into the bed of his pickup truck, and sped off with the wind whipping through our hair. We had been lucky, I told the crew with a grimace, and our luck was not evidence that hitchhiking to the most dangerous city in the world was a good idea. Unfortunately, fate was not so kind to the gentleman who had picked us up — as he filled up his tank at a gas station on the way, the fuel attendant lost his driver’s license, leaving him without ID. He was fuming, but announced that he had changed his mind, and would take us all the way to San Salvador. Feeling guilty and grateful, I bought him some goodies from the gas station as a paltry thank you.

We made it to San Salvador in good time, with tangled hair and sunburns as souvenirs of the ride. We bid our kind driver adieu, and proceeded into the mayhem of Terminal de Oriente.

CHICKEN BUSES AND CHOCOLATE PREACHERS

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Sandwiches on the chicken bus.

In less than a minute, our group of four had been circled by six or seven chicken bus conductors, who barely stopped to breath between demanding our destination, promising they were going there, yelling at each other for stealing customers, and pulling us by the arm toward their coach. They even tried to yank our backpacks off of us to load onto the buses, which is when I started to return their aggression. I shouted in Spanish that they were not to touch us, and they backed away slowly, as if I had suddenly grown a set of horns. When everyone calmed down, I asked if anyone was going to La Paz, Usulután or San Miguel — three places I thought we could catch a ride to El Cuco. To my delight, there was a bus to San Miguel, the country’s third-most populous city, leaving in 20 minutes. We paid USD 2 or 3 each for passage, bought a few apples and sandwiches for the ride, and were off.

It’s about three hours to San Miguel from the capital, depending on the road conditions, time of day, and number of stops the bus driver makes for the chocolate preachers. That’s what I called the snack vendors who would hop on the bus with bins of chips, candy and chocolate, hand them out to passengers for inspection, and make a five-minute speech about the merits of purchasing whatever they had placed in our hands. I only caught snippets of their pitches, but most of them mentioned the incredible “opportunity” we had to purchase them, and the superior quality of the sweets that most certainly, vale la pena. They would then come back to collect cash from those they had persuaded, snatch back the chocolates roughly from those they hadn’t, and hop off the bus in the next town, where they would do it all again. I don’t know for sure — but I suspect the bus drivers collect a penny or two in the process.

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A beautiful view from the bus near San Miguel.

A poorly-dubbed episode of Baywatch played on the small tube TV by the driver, as winding valleys and sparkling lakes whizzed by the window panes, hidden partially by curtains in an attempt to keep the bus cool. We had attracted the attention of a sweet little girl, who was staring at us in between the cracks of the seats occupied by her mother and brother. I started to braid my hair in an effort to control the tangled mess, so she started to braid her hair as well. She mirrored much of our behaviour for the rest of the drive, and but refused to say anything to us despite my best efforts to say hello.

SAN MIGUEL TO EL CUCO

The sun was setting by the time we reached the bus terminal in San Miguel. We were about an hour away from El Cuco if we could find a ride directly there, but unfortunately, it seemed as though public transit had wrapped up for the day. We were lucky once again, and with only minutes to spare, caught the very last bus to El Cuco, via El Progresso and Chirilagua, for USD 1. To say it was standing room only would have been an understatement — there were people squeezed into single inch of the bus, including on top of people’s bags and laps wherever possible. I dropped some change while sorting out the fare, which the man sitting next to me promptly stole before my eyes, unapologetically. There wasn’t enough physical room to even turn and say something to him, so I let it go — it was less than USD 2.

It was pitch black by the time we arrived in El Cuco, and most of the passengers had alighted. We weren’t dropped off at any terminal or hub — El Cuco was too small to have one. So we asked around for directions to the Casa de Canela, which, as it turns out, was a five-minute walk away, just like everything else in the little town.

It was a small, gated pink and green complex with a lobby full of interesting artifacts. We paid USD 10 each for the night, but for the same price as we had paid in El Tunco, received none of the same comforts. Casa de Canela was dirty, had no doors and windows (leaving the rooms wide open to bugs) and our beds were covered in a thin layer of dust and debris from the slowly decaying roof top. But there weren’t really any other options at that late hour, so we tossed our backpacks onto the bunks and went out in search of dinner.

In the light of street lamps and pupusa stands, we wandered around the tiny town. It was very quiet, save a football match between young boys in a cement basketball court at the main intersection. We were the only visitors around, and after a few minutes of watching the game, were invited to play against the local champions. Naturally, we lost, but we got a good chuckle out of the boys’ steely tactics, who took their match against the gringos very seriously. Shortly afterward, we wandered into what seemed to be the only open sit-down restaurant — a bright pink establishment called Comedor Sofy.

MEALS WITH MAMA SOFY

It was a curious restaurant. The walls were lined with family portraits and some of the strangest décor I had ever seen. When she saw that she had guests, Mama Sofy herself ran up to greet us as warmly, fetched us beers, and invited us over to her kitchen to inspect the steaming offerings of the day.

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Bienvenido al Comedor Sofy.

For USD 3 each, we filled our plates with delicious chicken, roasted potatoes and beans, and sat on the benches among Sofy’s other goods for sale, including plastic dolls, sanitary pads, garlands, rusting jewellery and non-perishables that looked like they had been sitting on her shelves for years. Sofy was clearly an entrepreneur, whose business was only limited by the availability of goods she could have trucked into the tiny town of El Cuco.

We ate, drank and laughed in the whimsical ambiance of Mama Sofy’s comedor. It took several minutes for us to realize that the source of the strange sounds we had been hearing was a bright green parrot, that she pacified with bananas for guarding the door leading to the kitchens. When we finished, we promised Mama Sofy enthusiastically that we would return the following day. And we did, of course, for the next three.

Day Four: El Cuco

There’s nothing like spending a day on the beach with good friends and average beers — having nowhere to go and all day to get there. We walked around El Cuco, soaking it in for the first time in sunlight, and were surprised to discover that it’s just as sleepy during the day as it is at night. After a hearty breakfast of frijoles, juevos y crema at Sofy’s, we walked down to the beach.

In the distance, we saw a small strip of hotels on hill tops, whose steps led down to a a second beach where tiny white dots marked the presence of surf boards. We weren’t quite sure how to get there (cliffs separated the two beaches), so we followed a dirt road uphill in that general direction. That road, it turns out, leads to Chirilagua, a separate municipality in the Department of San Miguel. We passed a couple of hotels, all empty in the quiet season, and stopped when we saw a familiar sight — a sister Papaya Lodge.

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If you’re looking for comfortable and affordable accommodations around El Cuco, Papaya Lodge Las Flores is the place for you. At USD 12, it’s a little more pricey than Casa de Canela, but its spotless pool, gardens, hammocks and bunks are unquestionably worth two dollars.

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Papaya Lodge in El Cuco.

It also has a restaurant, bar and surf shop, and access to Playa El Zonte. The only trade off — it’s a 20-minute, rough dirt road walk from El Cuco, which is tricky in the dark, and uncomfortable in the heat. We paid USD 15 to rent our surf boards from Papaya, and walked down the wet, muddy road to the beach.

BOARDS, BEERS AND BONFIRES

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Necessary.

A massive albatross soared through the blue sky above as we paddled our boards into Playa El Zonte. We took turns, with one person responsible for watching our belongings on the beach at all times. Of the four of us, Sammy was the only skilled surfer — the rest of us spent our day celebrating small victories as we stood up in the white water and rode to the shoreline.

We went for a walk around the cliffs separating Playa El Zonte from Playa El Cuco, and discovered the remnants of a bonfire in a natural grotto between the two. We watched thousands of tiny ants murder and take apart a bumblebee inside the cave, before they — and we — were forced onto higher ground by the tide.

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There isn’t really anywhere to get food in the area (at least, nowhere obvious), apart from the restaurant at Papaya Lodge. So by the time we made it back to El Cuco that evening, we were famished. To our dismay, we had returned too late to find dinner. Almost everything in El Cuco, including Mama Sofy’s, was closed by 8 p.m. We managed to get our hands on some french fries from a vendor just before he locked his shop, and walked back to Casa de Canela, through the glow of fireflies, to get some supplies for a bonfire. It might have been romantic, were it not for the run-in with a couple of snarling, angry dogs, and the heckling from a male prostitute, who seemed interested in Jordan and Sammy.

After collecting blankets, sticks and dead palm leaves, we lit up a bonfire at Playa El Cuco, far from sight of the town square. We were treated to another pink, Salvadoran lightening storm, and a warm salty breeze from the ocean. I couldn’t help but stay one more day.

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Day Five: El Cuco

Looking back on my trip to Central America, this fifth day in El Salvador is one of my favourites. It was a rinse and repeat of the fourth day, enriched by a marvellous afternoon with locals who were shucking oysters at Playa El Zonte. We said our goodbyes to Kristin, who left for Nicaragua early. It was just us three.

PILSENER AND POLITICS

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Catching a break from surfing.

Our morning started at Sofy’s once more, where we were greeted with open arms and steaming plates. She had become our El Cuco Mother — a bond forged through roasted potatoes, beer and our fascination with the peculiarity of her store and her entrepreneurship. We returned to Papaya Lodge, picked up our surf boards, and readied ourselves for a second day in the water. But we weren’t alone on the beach — a group of friendly Salvadoran millennials had a pulled few lawn chairs onto the sand. They were laughing, enjoying bottles of Pilsener, and exercising their freedom to canoodle with significant others away from prying eyes. We were sharing a very small section of sand, and couldn’t help but strike up a conversation. They spoke just enough English, and I spoke just enough Spanish. We talked school, careers, families, and of course, U.S. President Donald Trump. Nearly everyone I had met in Central America had an opinion about him, for better or for worse.

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Talking politics with new friends.

We surfed, drank and chatted. We had lunch at Papaya Lodge, got stuck in the mud on the walk back to the beach, and were having a most delightful day. Late in the afternoon, an elder arrived with lemons and oysters. Everyone took a turn shucking, and he and I had a deep conversation — to my surprise — about climate change. He told me he had been collecting oysters from these waters for 60 years, and had never seen the coastline less plentiful. Their colour was different, their taste was different, and he never knew when the once-reliable harvesting season would come. I played soccer in the sand with some of the gang before with we bade our new friends farewell. We left earlier this time so we could have dinner, having learned our lesson the previous day.

PUPUSAS AND POKER

I loved Mama Sofy dearly, but it had been three days since my last pupusa, and I could bear it no longer. She didn’t serve the dish, so we went for a walk in search of the cheesy, hot paddies. Along the way, we saw a man whose finger had been cut off, running around madly, with a trail of blood behind him. I momentarily lost my appetite, but it returned when I detected the smell of steaming pupusas on a grill near El Cuco’s main street.

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Steaming hot pupusas.

They were three for a dollar, and the best we had tasted in El Salvador to date. We were delighted to see a group of openly gay men having a party at a nearby restaurant — the first sign of noise and nightlife we had seen in the tiny town. As we were walking off our pupusas, we followed a trail of blood on the ground to the beach, where the man whose finger had been cut off was staggering happily on the sand. He was singing, drunk as could be, clutching his blood soaked, bandaged hand. By the time we returned to the town centre, the men’s restaurant party had ended. It was only 9 p.m., but that’s El Cuco.

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Can’t say no to chocobananas.

Dessert was a round of chocobananas, a Salvadoran classic that is frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and covered in sprinkles. I had seen ads for them all over the place, and couldn’t leave the country without taking part. I couldn’t stay in El Salvador any longer, or I would fall too far behind in my itinerary, and miss my return flight to Guatemala. I booked a shuttle to León, Nicaragua for USD 35 at the front desk of Casa de Canela, where the beer fridge — always stocked with warm Pilsener for USD 1 each — awaited. We drank and played cards, until it was time for bed, putting off our goodbyes as long as we could.

Day Six: El Cuco to León

I had one last breakfast at Mama Sofy’s (who spat fire at Mr. Trump, as he appeared on her television) with Sammy and Jordan, before catching the bus to Nicaragua at 10:30 a.m. They were off to San Miguel, in desperate need of an ATM as their cash flow dwindled. They left before I did, so I sat on my backpack and waited on the road by Casa de Canela for the shuttle, which was late, of course, by about an hour.

I was the last traveller to be picked up, everyone else having come from El Tunco earlier that morning. It’s a six-hour drive to León through Honduras, assuming all the border stops go well. I was prepared with American cash in hand — the entrance fees are USD 3 for Honduras and USD 13 for Nicaragua. We stopped twice for bathrooms, ATMs and snacks, and made it through the border checkpoints without a hitch. It was nice to be back in Honduras, even if just for the ride.

El Cuco, Playa El Zonte, El Salvador, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Elizabeth Around the World, El Salvador itinerary, travel El Salvador, backpacking
El Salvador delivered.

I had lots of time to reflect on my stay in El Salvador — unplanned, unexpected, and worth every minute. There will always be a special place in my heart for Mama Sofy, a fiery woman who runs her own business, and doesn’t take shit from anyone, especially not a U.S. president. I had learned about the far-reaching and very tangible impacts of climate change from an elder in his element. I had explored much of the coastline, discovered game-changing pupusas, and had some exhilarating close calls. El Salvador delivered.

I made it to León in relatively good time. I had booked a room at its famous Bigfoot Hostel in León, which, like its sister in Antigua, Guatemala, is internationally known for its party scene. And when I was dropped off at its cobblestone doorstep around 7 p.m., and that’s exactly what I found.

Click here to follow my journey through Nicaragua.

Know Before You Go: El Cuco

Where to Stay

  • There aren’t many places to stay in El Cuco. Most of the accommodations, varying in their luxuriousness, are in nearby Chirilagua. If you want to stay in El Cuco, Casa de Canela is really the only option. It’s USD 10 per night (with a discount for three nights or more), but the showers are in tiny stalls outside, and everything is old and dusty. As long as your standards aren’t high, it’s acceptable.
  • Papaya Lodge, is between 15 and 20 minutes away by foot, and at USD 12 per night, a much nicer option. There’s a pool, hammocks, a restaurant, a surf rental shop, and a very muddy pathway leading directly to Playa El Zonte. Reserve at papayalodge@hotmail.com.

Travel Tips

  • There are several ways, clearly, to get to El Cuco from El Tunco. If you don’t speak Spanish, I wouldn’t advise the chicken bus option, although I’m sure it’s been done many times before. The shuttle is cheap enough to be worth your while, and cuts hours off the journey with a direct route.
  • There are no ATMs in El Cuco, so stock up on cash ahead of time, or you’ll find yourself on a bus back to San Miguel to get some.
  • Like El Tunco, there isn’t much to see or do in El Cuco. But because it’s a bit more isolated and doesn’t attract as many tourists, you’ll get a better sense of Salvadoran life, and have more of an opportunity to interact with people and culture.
  • I wish I had time to see more of San Salvador and San Miguel. In my opinion, some of the time spent on the beach would have been better spent in these cities, absorbing more of what El Salvador. But it would have added another layer of planning and security concerns to the journey, and it would have taken me away from my coastal route to Nicaragua. If you’re a seasoned and confident traveller, I’d recommend exploring a bit more of the interior.