El Salvador Travel Blog

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“The hope of reward in this line of religion was to be able to gaze with boredom into the big black hole, pausing only to wipe the face of your pocket watch with a clean linen handkerchief so that it’s next owner can trade it in on a new Bulova along with the gold he has knocked out of your indifferent teeth.”

-Thomas McGuane, Ninety-Two in the Shade


I was winging it.

  All the way from San Salvador I’d been winging it, because one of us had to.  I was the most experienced Salvador traveler of our five person group, so I was unofficially in charge of us getting us to the point alternately known as Mango, Floral, Number Five, and Espina.  An obtuse desire to share my knowledge with others was bringing out some of my veteran confidence, which was only a thin veneer masking a vast unfamiliarity with the country.  I did know where we were going, at least. Having been there three times before, I still had never attempted it quite the same way we were planning.

We were next to the bus terminal in San Miguel, eating a surprisingly good lunch.  The restaurants that one usually encountered around Salvadoran bus terminals weren’t nearly up to this standard.

  Nothing fancy; the usual fare of chicken, rice, and beans, but the chicken tasted damn good, and their licuados were the topper.  They had every type of licuado under the sun.  For lack of anything else to impress my traveling companions with, I’d taken to musing aloud about my familiarity with the neighborhood.  This came down to having spent one night in a dingy hotel around the corner, but for some reason I felt this inane compulsion to keep up my veteran’s authority.

Passersby gawked at our piles of surfboards and other piles of gear.  Even if we hadn’t been carrying so much equipment, we would have still been painfully conspicuous.  We screamed gringo from every pore:  Nick, dumped straight down on the scene off a Southern California beach with no shirt, a mass of chest hair, and baggies hanging halfway down his ass; Matt, a thin, bespectacled, quiet type who was halfway between looking like a surfer and a tropical jungle botanist; Mike, whose retro haircut and growth of stubble made him look like an undercover narc from a seventies TV show; Frank, a muscular, unusually happy-go-lucky German with a ponytail; and me.

  No, we weren’t about to merge quietly into the woodwork.

There was a dearth of acarreos around the bus terminal, and the first one we asked wanted 200 colones to take us to El Cuco.  The only other one around had a bizarre little vehicle which I deemed too small to possibly carry us, but Matt thought otherwise.  He only wanted 125 colones, which was fine, but I had a suspicion he didn’t understand where we wanted to go.  I was trying to explain that we wanted to go to a beach ten kilometres up the coast from El Cuco, to a place called Punta Floral, and he indicated that he knew it.  I had a hazy memory of the neighboring beach to El Cuco being called Playa Flores, and I suspected that was what he was thinking of.  The others were enthusiastic, though, so I decided that we’d just go for it and see how far we could get him to take us.

  I didn’t see fit to air my misgivings, because after all, I was supposed to know what I was doing.  It had been noted by my occasional traveling partner Tim, who needed me to translate for him, that I had the habit of agreeing with things I didn’t always understand.  When he wanted to know what it was that I had agreed to, I sometimes told him “I don’t know”.  I had a sense for whether things required a yes or no in most situations, even if I barely understood what was said.  Again, this was part of my overplayed veteran air, part of which involved the projection of a greater fluency in Spanish than I actually had.  It relieved me no end to have traveling companions more fluent than me, because I could immediately relax and turn all communication responsibility over to them.

Frank, who was typically Teutonic in his handy mastery of anything new he decided to take on, was the best Spanish speaker of us all.  Like the Californians, though, he was unfamiliar with the territory, and it didn’t help that we were trying to go somewhere that people never asked San Miguel acarreo drivers to take them.

  Our driver, José, was a middle-aged man with thick, silver hair and a broad smile.  There was something slightly unusual about him, but his appearance paled compared to the oddness of his vehicle.  None of us could figure out what manufacturer was responsible for it, and Nick proclaimed:

“I think he made it.”

It had the stubby quality of something East German or Russian, perhaps something like a pickup version of the Trabant.  The size of it was along the lines of a Lada, with the back seat moved up and the trunk replaced by a tiny little pickup bed.  We strapped the boards to the roof, crammed four of us in the interior as passengers, and packed Mike in the bed with the rest of our gear.

  Jose cranked it up and away we went.

The ride out to the coast was fairly uneventful, chugging up the mountain roads at a snail’s pace until we were at the top and the whole coastal panorama revealed itself before us.  Before we knew it we were down in El Cuco, and we stopped for cold drinks and supplies at the main tienda of the village.  I wasn’t surprised when, upon taking the dirt road up the coast, José stopped after a half mile and said that we had arrived.  We were overlooking Playita Las Flores.  Here was where things would get tricky. 

Queremos a ir mucho mas allá,” I told him, pointing further up the coast.

  Es una punta mas lejos.”

He shrugged and we climbed back in.  He suggested a few different village names that might be the ones we were looking for.  I agreed that it was probably whichever one he mentioned that was the farthest one along, trying to buy us some more time.  The road kept switching back and forth between smooth, flat sections, and extremely rocky hills. What I remembered was how awful the road got in the later portions, and I didn’t think his stubby two wheel drive was capable of running it.  We went through a series of “aquí?” questions from him at various waypoints, whereupon I would put on a bewildered look and assure him “no, un poquito mas”.  Finally we got to an overlook from which I could show him exactly where it was that we were going.  The point lay only a few miles further up the coast, and he didn’t show any resentment or indicate that it was a problem.

He skillfully maneuvered his little wonder truck through some large ruts and rocks, around oxcarts and herds of cows, and finally up the steepest hill of the journey.  Even in first gear it was too steep an incline for the truck.  We lurched forward five feet at a time, spinning the wheels, revving the engine, going forward, then backward, then forward again, and it appeared that we might be at the end of the line.  Jose would have none of it.  What might have been a minor nuisance at first had become a challenge for him.  His reputation was based upon getting us to our destination, and nothing was going to stop him now.  Inch by inch we progressed until we had cleared the hill, and we didn’t stop again until we were on the plateau overlooking the point.  Even then, José was hacking down large weeds and shrubs with a machete to get the car closer to the cliff’s edge. 

We gave him an extra 25 colones for the effort, which didn’t satisfy him, so we threw in another fifty.

Then he smiled contentedly and the brief moment of tension was put to rest.  We were simpatico.  He agreed to come back and pick us up in two days time, and we took stock of our situation.  The barren headland of the point that I remembered from the year before had changed dramatically.  The fishermen’s hut that had been under construction was now finished, and appeared to be occupied by a family.  Out at the top of the point rows of corn were planted, and the entire area was fenced in by barbed wire.  There was a small grove of banana trees by the house, chickens scurried through the yard, and the familiar sight of wood smoke curled up into the air above the thatch.  Small naked children idled about. 

We made our way down the embankment to the rocky shoreline inside the point, and began to set up our hammocks in the grove of trees that shaded this area.

  I didn’t have a hammock, so I laid my sleeping bag on the small round boulders and arranged a tolerable bed.  The waves didn’t look terribly good, but everyone was happy to be there and thought it seemed worth the effort.  I’d assured them that the locals were friendly, mostly subsistence farmers and oyster fishermen, and that I’d gotten to know many of them when I had camped out with a similar group the year before.  The district president, whose empire consisted of one or two of these outlying villages, I knew to be a young, warm-spirited man by the name of Santiago.  During the other trip, he had explained that many of the local campesinos were former guerilla combatants, and that at least half of his friends around there had fought with the FMLN.  For his part, he sat out the war in the United States, wanting nothing to do with the hell zone that Salvador became in the Eighties.

While the others were occupied tying up their hammocks, a local wandered over from where he’d been lying nearby.

“You don’t want to stay here,” he told me.  “It’s not safe to sleep outside.  You should stay with the family in the hut over there.”


“Every group of people who has come here before has been robbed.  There is a group of bandidos who come here at night from El Cuco as soon as visitors arrive.  For the last six months, this has happened.

  They will come tonight when it is dark.”

I shrugged. This seemed like more rumor-mongering to me, or part of some kind of scam.  The last thing I wanted to do was go sleep on the floor of a small, smoky hut.

“We’re bigger than them,” I said.  “We can look after ourselves.”

He laughed a knowing laugh.  Foolish gringos didn’t seem new to him.

“It doesn’t matter how big you are when someone’s pointing a gun at you,” he explained.

Well, that was something.  I conceded his point.  Guns made a difference, but still I resisted the idea of taking precautions.  I couldn’t believe the place that I had camped so happily a year before could have changed so.  I had a perverse need to be robbed to prove to me that it was real, another flaw in my veteran persona.  Until then I wanted to live free of paranoia, by the words of my grandmother:


.. it may be that some day I shall be drowned by the sea, or die from pneumonia from sleeping out at night, or be robbed and strangled by strangers.  These things happen.  Even so, I shall be ahead because of trusting the beach, the night, and strangers.

The others took the warnings more seriously than I did.  There was some confusion about what course of action to take.  I buried my money and valuables under a few rocks, and declared that I was ready to be robbed.  The bandits could have everything I had left.  My position was that I would rather suffer the inconvenience of having a gun pointed at me, be relieved of some of my possessions, and get an otherwise good night of sleep, than the alternative of not being robbed and getting a terrible night of sleep.

  The others did not share my fatalism.  Nick was concerned with being robbed and murdered.  I argued that they only wanted our money and it was incredibly unlikely that they would kill us, but he wasn’t so sure.  After I walked out to the tip of the point and came back, they announced their decision.  They were moving into the hut for the night.  Grudgingly, I followed.

As Matt was taking his hammock down, he found a scorpion in it.  This seemed to be an omen that supported the case for a change of venue.  We piled up everything in the small dirt yard in front of the hut, and Frank explained to us the family that lived in it.  There were eight children between the ages of two and twelve, their mother, and a stepfather.  The original father had deserted them.

  The stepfather was apparently in his position less because he was in love with the mother than because he had stepped forward to take responsibility for a family that could not have survived without his help.  He was a quiet, wiry campesino with sad eyes who was probably not much older than us, though he looked it.  The mother, who scarcely ever moved from her erect position beside the wood stove, had a firm look of pride about her.  She was also somewhat attractive.  After eight babies she still had a nice figure, a semblance of youth, and a warm if rather expressionless face.  If she had not had so many children, I would have thought she’d been a member of the guerillas.  Women like her were the lone thing that kept Salvadoran society from disintegrating completely.

The family was desperately poor, and made do as well as they could off their subsistence life.  They had a well out behind the house, which gave them ready access to water.

  As close as they were to the ocean, I was surprised they could tap into a fresh water table.  Mixed with ground corn, the water gave them tortillas, the staple of their diet.  This was what the mother seemed to spend most of her time by the stove making and tending.

My first look inside of the hut confirmed that we were going to be in for a night of it.  It was a space of sixteen feet by sixteen feet, with a number of tiny hammocks already filling up the rear of the hut.  Along the back wall and throughout the hut a variety of animal life resided, including ducks, chickens, a kitten, and a mangy dog.  Into this residence we moved five gringos, our surfboards, and our vast wealth of gear.  Somehow fifteen of us were going to sleep in here.  Of all the things the night promised, comfort wasn’t going to be one of them.  The others strung up their hammocks side by side and on top of each other, and I lay out my sleeping bag on the dirt beneath them.

  We shared our papaya, melons, bread, and oranges with the family, and were settled in by the time it got dark.  Frank asked them what time they went to sleep, and the father said “now”.  This prompted Frank and the Pedro boys to retire out to the top of the point with a bottle of rum, followed by some of the older children, while I curled up with my Walkman and tried to relax. 

As soon as I was stretched out comfortably with REM’s Life’s Rich Pageant playing, I felt something tickling my feet.  I stopped myself just in time from kicking at it when I realized it was the kitten trying to curl up there.  An assortment of bug life crawled off the floor onto me.  Then I experienced the curious sensation of a webbed foot planting itself on my face, when the majordomo of the ducks decided to waddle out of its corner and clamber right over on me on the way to parts unknown.

  I decided to take my risks outside.  Taking my sleeping bag with me, I put my headlamp on and slipped out.  The father pointed out the trail to follow, and I crawled under the barbed wire and walked out to find the others.  I heard them before I found them.  Someone called out suspiciously from nearby, and I responded with an hola.  The voice was still unsure until I identified myself, and then my lamp found them seated on a log.

“Turn that damn light off,” Matt demanded.

They had worked themselves into such a state of paranoia already that they were hiding under the log when I approached, convinced that I was one of the bandits.

  I was glad my friends didn’t have guns.  Laying out my bag and adjusting the rocks, I stared happily up at the stars.  We were so far from any city lights that the night sky was dazzling.  The crew was finished with the bottle of rum and all fairly happy.  I turned on my Walkman again and listened to REM sing:

     we are young despite the years we are concerned

Someone noticed lights on a hill a few miles down the beach, that looked like car headlights.  We ignored them until we saw flashlights on the beach.  I downplayed their significance, thinking it was probably locals out collecting turtle eggs or some such endeavor.

  The lights continued along the beach in our direction.  When they were in the next bay, only a half mile away, it wasn’t REM but the kids who changed my mind.  With urgency and worry in their voices, they told us we had to get back to the hut.

Son los bandidos.  Vamos a la casa.”

Until then I had been able to blithely ignore the warnings, but this was the first time I’d heard actual fear in the tone of any of the locals.  The workings of my brain had been a mass of contradictions. I had enough faith in the goodness of the locals to make me doubt that bandits existed in the area, yet the entire thing also struck my more suspicious side as sort of conspiracy between all the locals to.

..what?  I couldn’t get by the fact that the family was treating us with great concern and hospitality, and there were no obvious rewards for them in a scam beyond some extra food.  If they were all in it together and the bandits were armed, then their most favorable course of action would be to rob us.  In that case it would make no sense for the family to shelter us.  If the bandits were a myth, no more than a group of campesinos with flashlights being used as a prop to scare us, it was an awful lot of effort to go to as a community just to secure some food for this one family.  Plus, it was a conspiracy only a paranoid gringo could have come up with.  I did know that Yepi, a Salvadoran surfer from La Libertad, had been here a month before with a friend and their things were stolen from their car. So robbers existed. The only thing my obstinate mind wanted proof of was that they had guns.

Mike, the smallest of us, became drunkenly indignant on the way back to the hut and protested that we couldn’t let them do this to us.

“No, man, this is wrong.  Let’s take ‘em out.  Ambush them.”

No one else shared his Rambo-like enthusiasm.  We trooped back into the hut feeling very small and very tense.  The father directed us to hide our money and valuables somewhere that they couldn’t be found.  There was a row of fishermen’s innertubes and nets stacked up in the rafters, and I put my money belt up on top of one of the tubes.  We became as quiet as we could and extinguished our lights, while the father watched through a crack in the thatched door.  The only illumination was a candle burning beside the stove, which lit the interior in a soft, eerie glow that matched the tension levels.

  I lay on my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, relaxing into fatalism again.

Matt stood at a crack in the thatch, and soon reported to us that the lights had gone straight to the area we had been.  They had obviously seen my headlamp back before we noticed their lights.  Mike was back in the corner, brandishing his knife and still muttering about taking them out.  Nick had his small machete at his side, which he was keeping handy more to use on the possibility of a renegade Mike than as defense against the bandits.  Frank was crouching back near Mike, keeping a wary eye on him as well.  The father had counted eight of the bandits pass by.  Matt counted six or seven, but couldn’t tell if they had weapons.  Failing to find us out on the point, they moved on, but our restiveness remained at the same high levels.  We assumed it was only a matter of time before they came looking for us in the hut.


Though I was confused, uneasy, and no doubt somewhat scared, I was still having trouble coming to grips with the situation.  Any of the fear that I felt wasn’t a result of my own knowledge, but dependent upon the words of others.  More than anything it was dependent on the fear and strain that vibrated through the hut with an intensity I had never been surrounded by before.  There is a great reluctance to take words seriously, when they cannot be related to one’s own observations.  While surfing in Florida once I watched a ten to twelve foot shark chase a large fish for a hundred yards until it caught it and ripped it in half, the remains of the fish ending up no more than fifty yards from me and another group of surfers.  Immediately, all of us started to paddle for a wave to take to the beach.  My oldest brother, who hadn’t seen the shark, wondered why everyone was going in.

  When told what happened, he shrugged it off, not because he had no fear of sharks but because he had to see it to be threatened by it.  I felt something of the same way now.  I trusted Matt’s observations, but I wanted to have proof of the guns.  Where were the guns?  When I had a pistol or rifle jammed in my mouth, would I finally be happy?

“This is fucked,” Nick muttered.  “We’re being hunted like dumb animals.”

That feeling was real.  I did feel like prey for the first time, a small, insignificant creature holed up with no escape, stupidly waiting to be devoured.

  After awhile I tried listening to my Walkman again, but gave up as soon as I turned it on and Michael Stipe came out with:

      silence means security silence means approval

Where the hell was he when he penned such an idiotic sentiment?  As time dragged on and it seemed like we had pulled through safely, I slowly relaxed.  Then Mike’s hammock cord broke and he fell with a thump onto my legs.  It hurt like hell, but we laughed for the first time in awhile.  I drifted in and out of sleep, but usually for no more than five minutes.  Every way I moved, I ran into someone.

  When I rolled on my side, my hip grazed Nick’s butt in the hammock above me.  In every direction on the floor lay piles of small children.  The night dragged on and on...and on.  By one in the morning I was wishing there was still something to be tense about so that I could have a diversion from my discomfort.  Stars to gaze at would have made all the difference, but there was nothing but black gloom.

I finally located my Walkman among my things and turned it on again.  The music was easier to listen to now, and it even started making a little more sense in the situation.

      the town is safe again tonight.


     the only thing to fear is fearlessness

     bigger the weapon greater the fear...


When the morning finally came, we agreed that we had already had quite enough of Punta Floral/Mango/Espina/Number Five.

  The waves were pathetic and we learned from the father that a pickup truck left twice a day, at nine and two, from a spot on the road nearby.  He also told us that the bandits had come back a half hour after he and Matt had first seen them come by.  This time they had come all the way into the yard, and up to the front door.  Having found no trace of our presence in the yard, and apparently unwilling to invade the family’s privacy, the bandits had gone back to whence they came.  They had to have been disappointed.  A load of gringos had rolled out to the point, and they had come away with nothing. 

Matt and Frank went surfing while the rest of us packed.  We gave the family the rest of our food and fifty colones for taking the trouble to protect us, and at half past eight we all set out down the beach with the father to guide us.  His idea of “just down the beach” turned out to be different than ours.

  We skirted the rocks of four different headlands and walked two and a half miles before we arrived at the designated spot.  By the end of the second mile my paranoid mind began to act up again and I began wondering if we were being set up to be ambushed.  A small, harmless-looking, fifteen year old bicycled alongside us on the beach near the end of our walk, and the father warned us that he was dangerous.  It was as close as it seemed he was going to come to identifying the teenager as one of the bandits.

Little man with a gun in his hand.  The song was on a live Minutemen tape that I was listening to, courtesy of the Pedro boys.  There was another track on the tape called Song for El Salvador.  The Minutemen, a legendary band of the early 80’s American punk scene, seemed far more attuned to my surroundings than REM.

  Fronted by a charismatic, fat revolutionary named D Boon, the band had penned countless punk/funk/jazz anthems that came in at about a minute or less in length.  They hailed from San Pedro, and often made mention of that godforsaken LA coastal neighborhood in their songs.  The Pedro boys were the first people I’d ever met who had grown up with them.  Tragically, D Boon died in a car crash in 1985, and it was a random sort of connectivity that had brought me together ten years later with a group of surfers from Pedro on a remote beach in a war-torn country that Boon had sung about. More random yet, the Minutemen had been touring with REM before Boon died.

Some other things struck me as odd, too.  I had become suspicious in the beginning when the man who warned us about sleeping outside had emphasized that the bandits were from El Cuco and weren’t local villagers.  The father seemed to be indicating otherwise, and it was my feeling that they had originated from one of these outlying villages.

  How much did everyone know?  There was a surreal feeling about the whole affair, as if we’d unknowingly played our parts as expected in a carefully scripted play.

When we reached El Cuco, we found José and his bizarre little truck outside the tienda.  The hood was up and he was mulling over the engine.  He greeted us warmly and we told him we wouldn’t need to be picked up the next day, which left him nonplussed.  The road out to the point had apparently taxed his vehicle beyond its limits, and his immediate concerns were in bringing it back to life.  On the bus ride to San Miguel, a suave teenager with long black ringlets showed Matt a 9mm automatic he had tucked in his waistband.  He might have been one of our enemies, casually showing off what he would have used on us had he caught us in a more isolated place.  Or he might have been just another of the legion of well-armed criminals that had flourished in El Salvador since the war had ended.

A year later, Peace Corps volunteers were violently assaulted in one of the outlying villages we had come from, and a woman brutally raped in front of her male counterparts. Only then did I realize how lucky we had been.

Six hours, a few buses later, and we were almost back to La Libertad, coming down the mountains from San Salvador to the coast.  Nick and I were in the back of the bus, which had decided to pick up every human being on the road regardless of capacity.  People rode on the rear bumpers clinging to the open back door, the ladders, other people, while inside there was an insane crush of people on either side, on top of us; we were buried under an avalanche of people. The next Minutemen song on my tape started and D Boon howled:




Hurch says:
well, REM summed up my stupidity about that pretty well - "the only thing to fear is fearlessness". had led a charmed life to date in my travels through danger zones of Nicaragua and Salvador and it was a sharp reminder of where I was.
Posted on: Apr 18, 2008
sybil says:
what beautiful prose. i felt like i was there experiencing your discomfort (loved the webbed foot on your face) and your paranoia. altho, not so much your obstinacy. LOL! i'd be like... guns? outta here. don't need to see it.
Posted on: Apr 18, 2008
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