Flat Out in El Salvador

It’s quite common to experience a few glitches in even the most well-planned of backpacking trips. I’ve certainly had my share. But then there are those trips you can’t believe you made it through. Enter El Salvador. One little hitch my friend Katie and I got ourselves into as we were leaving Honduras was finding out that the shuttle bus from Copan to San Salvador, El Salvador – the ONE bus out of there – was apparently not running. Did  I mention that it was ONE bus?!

This little conundrum we found ourselves in meant that we would have to wing it and take a bunch of hot and sweaty chicken buses across both Honduras and El Salvador to get down to the our beach destination. We mapped everything out and knew it was going to be one hell of a journey….we just didn’t know what we were in for at the time.

Our first leg of the trip had us up at 3:30am to get a tuk-tuk ride from our hostel to the first bus, which we were getting from some random guy we met the previous night on the street. I know it doesn’t sound safe, but we had no alternative and he seemed the least likely to be an axe murderer of all the people we met. And his tuk-tuk was pimped out like a John Deere, so….

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I must clarify the term ‘chicken buses’. They are local and rather sketchy buses in Central America that are basically old school buses which I assume Western countries have thrown away….and people literally bring chickens on them too, hence the name. Basically, they cram people in them like sardines, make sure it’s above 40 degrees Celsius so nobody can breathe, blare Spanish music and stop periodically for more sweaty people to come on, some trying to sell passengers tortillas, quesadillas, candy and brownish water or what I think was milk. In a bag. Warm brownish water or curdling milk. In a bag.

We had made it through two tricky bus rides and connections unscathed before having to cab it across the Honduras/El Salvador border with some weirdo, which was actually the easiest part of the day. The immigration peeps in El Salvador were so nice and helpful…they gave us all these brochures and maps and were actually excited we were coming in the country.

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Then, our next chicken bus in Poy, El Salvador took the cake, and actually took off with our bags. It was pretty awful at the time, but funny now because we eventually tracked them down in another town and got them back. I still don’t really get what happened…we paid for a bus that was set to leave an hour later. We asked where we could get food and were told to walk across the street and leave our bags on the bus because it wasn’t going anywhere, so we did. However, when we left, our bus did too. WITH OUR BAGS.

When we got back and realized what had happened, we freaked out in a not-able-to-communicate-well kind of way, which was probably the worst thing we could have done because the ‘workers’ (I use that term rather loosely) found the whole scenario and my shite Spanish rather hilarious. And for the record, it’s really hard to give someone hell when you don’t know a lot of swear words and are trying not to be asshole foreigners, even when you have every right to be. We could do nothing but trust them when they had a bunch of oh-so-funny phone conversations, then said to get on the next bus to San Salvador because our bags would be waiting for us somewhere along the route. Ya right, we thought.

That two hour stretch was the longest, hottest, most ominous ride ever, and I know Katie was doing the same thing that I was – mentally inventory-ing everything in my bag that was presumably gone forever. I certainly didn’t have anything of value in my bag save for a few souvenirs, but the thought of wearing one set of clothes for the next week, which were the epitome of filth at the time, wasn’t how I wanted to end my Central American adventure.

A few hours in, as I was solemnly giving myself shit for letting my guard down and walking away from my bag, to my surprise the bus driver gave me a whistle and a snap of the fingers and pointed to a little boy sitting on the side of the road on top of our backpacks.

I hopped over the bus railing and sprinted to collect our portable houses and went back to our hot, sweaty journey, in complete and utter shock. I still don’t get why they left with our bags if their master plan was not to steal them. I don’t know and I don’t care at this point (okay, I do and think about it from time to time) but it worked out in the end. Lesson learned.

Even though my Spanish was okay enough to get us by, the whole ‘lost in translation’ thing definitely applied more than once that trek and may have aided in the whole backpack debacle. I still don’t know. However, the last few hours on the bus from hell was a little more bearable knowing my filthy possessions were once again mine.

We were so close to the beach I could taste it; all I had to do was not pass out from dehydration and make one more connection in San Salvador. Once there, we hated it even more than Guate City, and decided to cab it the last hour to our beach paradise. To my surprise, about 14 hours later, half a dozen buses, a border crossing and nearly losing all I had, we made it to the tiny surf haven of El Tunco. With an air conditioner. And water that didn’t come in a bag. I was always told that coming to Central America you had to ride on one of these ‘chicken buses’ for the experience. Well, I got half a day’s worth and I’m all set now. For life.

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After some needed relaxation and ice cold showers, we were off to enjoy this little enclave that was packed with surfing aficionados and wannabees alike, hippies, and beach bums. The next day, we explored the hell out the area, got ourselves some sick ol’ sunburns and tried to swim in the roughest ocean waters ever.

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After some more relaxation and cocktails, we heard a knock on our condo door. We opened it up to find the sweetest little El Salvadoran surfer dude looking to drum up business for the next day in the form of surfing lessons. Hesitant and a bit nervous, we knew we couldn’t back out; we had all but signed on the dotted line.DSCF5939

I need to preface this part of the story by saying that I’m aaall for adventure and rarely get nervous doing anything, but I ain’t gonna lie, I was scared as hell when I saw the waves I’d be climbing and the dinky little board I was going to use to do it. Off I went. And holy hell was it hard! Like…thought-I-was-gonna-die hard; I’m-never-ever-standing-up-on-this-board hard; and am-I-gonna-drown-or-break-a-limb hard.

At one point, I did something he told me not to do and forgot to fall off my board when I could see I wasn’t getting up. As I cruised into the shoreline and barreled into the rocks, I truly thought I might have broken my nose as well as a few ribs, but thankfully it was just a serious case of scrapes, bruises and bumps. Body and ego, by the way.

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Like masochists we went at it again a few days later (full disclaimer….this is NOT us in the pic above) and although we took an ass-kicking yet again, we fared much better. More importantly, we loved every minute of it. Don’t see myself entering surfing competitions any time soon, but I saw what it is that people see in surfing, and relished in my own adventurous spirit that allowed me to check a biggie off my bucket list. With all my teeth intact.

I left El Salvador a week later and ended my two months in Mexico and Central America. What didn’t end though was the love I felt for the countries I visited and the incredible people I met along the way. And gratitude I made it out in one piece. Duda volveré para más.