December 26, 2021: El Tunco and A Return to San Salvador
My business school friend and host, Roberto´s social calendar was quite busy. Today he had a first communion of a cousin (how many cousins does this guy have?!?!).
Before the communion, we had a little time to explore. So, we visited the botanical garden. Due to El Salvador´s tropical climate and volcanic soil, all types of plants thrive. The botanical garden had a dizzying array of plants from all over the world. My favorite part was the edible section, where I learned what many tropical fruits and vegetables look like.
Roberto dropped me off at the archaeology museum. While it looked bare bones on the outside, this turned out to be one of my favorite museums in all Central America.
The first floor of the museum chronicled the history of El Salvador. It was nice to have the entire story of the country in one easy-to-understand exhibit. The region now known as El Salvador was located at the southern edge of the Mayan realm. After the Mayans, a culture called the Pipils took over. However, they did not have a large material culture so not much is known about them and less attention is given to them.
The Spanish arrived in 1521 and quickly conquered the land. El Salvador was placed under the care of the Viceroy of Guatemala.
Central America gained independence in 1821, 300 years after the Spanish first arrived. The 5 countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica all declared Independence to form the Central American Republic. At the time, Belize was a British colony and Panama belonged to Colombia. The union itself quickly dissolved, but the bonds remain to this day.
For most of the late 1800´s and early 1900´s, El Salvador was actually a relatively prosperous place and attracted migrants from the surrounding countries. Everything changed in 1979 when a coup brought a new government to power. The new government faced a strong organized group of leftist rebels who were not happy with right wing rule. The conflict lasted until 1992 when the peace agreement signed in Mexico brought the rebels into the government as a political party.
Since 1992, the government has been run by a series of corrupt presidents on both the right and left. The current president, Nayib Bukele, was thrown out of the left-wing party, but then formed his own party and won the election. He is known for many unorthodox and innovative ideas such as declaring Bitcoin legal tender, but he also has thwarted dissent expulsion from the government and even violence. There is a hushed but marked fear among the population that he will become a long-running dictator.
The Civil War paired with some natural disasters prompted an exodus of Salvadorans that has continued all the way up until today. In total there are 2.9 million Salvadorans abroad (El Salvador only has 6.5 million people), so the expat community is a huge part of Salvadoran culture. Of the 2.9 million, 2.5 million live in the US. No wonder the American presence is so strong! A huge percentage – 16% of the GDP of El Salvador – is remittances aka money sent from relatives abroad.
I tried to visit the art museum, but it was closed so I decided to go back to the city center. This time, the center was half as busy as on the 24th- which is still quite busy.
I made my way to the center´s most popular restaurant: Pollo Bonanza. Even on a Sunday after Christmas, there was a line out the door. The restaurant serves a single dish: roast chicken with a vegetable side. The combo with a soda costs $4.50.
After trying the chicken, I understand the hype. It was cooked perfectly, and the vegetable side was so delicious.
Next, I walked over to the Palacio National, the historic government palace that was closed when I visited on the 24th. This time it was open!
The building was the center of all three branches of the Salvadoran government until the 1930´s. After that point, the government needed more space and spread out to various buildings around the city. The building reminded me of a European palace except poorly maintained and without furniture. Still, it was quite beautiful, and the peaceful interior courtyard was quite unexpected in the crowded city center. You must visit on a guided tour. My tour was in English and the guide was great.
I then took a taxi to the military museum, located in a poor neighborhood south of the city center. The museum was located on a compound containing a former presidential palace.
The museum contained artifacts from 20th century El Salvador´s military. Especially interesting were tanks and aircraft from the Civil War, the Popemobile from Pope John Paul´s 1983 visit to San Salvador, and descriptions of El Salvador´s work as a UN Peacekeeper around the world.
Afterwards, I took an Uber to the hostel where Roberto picked me up. We then drove to the beach. The closest beach is in a town called La Libertad, but it is supposed to be a bastion of organized crime. Instead, we drove 15 minutes west to the town of El Tunco.
El Tunco is a world-class surfing destination due to point break and the presence of both left and right-hand breaking waves (lefts and rights). It is El Salvador´s top tourist attraction and sole location on the Gringo Trail, so the town gets a unique blend of surfers and backpackers. The country is currently branding El Tunco as Surf City, El Salvador.
Last summer, El Tunco hosted the 2021 World Surfing Games. This was El Salvador´s first ever time hosting a global sporting event. Yes, the country regularly hosts regional events such as international football matches, but to bring the world to El Salvador is a strong statement about the nation´s safety and Bukele´s reforms.
The government has gone to great lengths to make tourists feel safe here. The entire town is surrounded by armed security and all cars must pass by a police checkpoint and pay $1. Once inside the compound, you still must pay to park in one of the many private lots. From the lots, it is a 90 second walk to the beach.
The beach itself is not pretty. Instead of white sand, there is a black sandy shore strewn with rocks. Luckily, nobody is here for the sand.
15 meters into the water is the namesake of the beach, a lava rock formation people say looks like a pig.
Today the waves were calm, typical of December. Despite these subpar conditions, at least 50 surfers were out on the water. The waves apparently really pick up in the summer.
Lining the beach and adjacent walking streets were beach clubs, bars, restaurants, and hotels. The town was PACKED, and it was a party. Each club had a DJ playing alongside the beach to entice people in. The old standard is Monkey Lala. However, newcomer Kako´s looked to be the best scene at the moment. 99% of the people in El Tunco seemed to be local surfers and families, but, for the first time ever, I saw White tourists.
The sunset was approaching, so Roberto and I went to a restaurant perched on a hill over the beach. We sipped smoothies and watched the amazing sunset over the water with the surfers. What a scene!!
Unfortunately, a lot of other people had the same plans as us, so we got stuck in major traffic. Instead of a 25-minute drive back to Roberto´s house, the ride took over an hour. Luckily, the government is planning to widen the road in the next couple years.
For dinner, I ate at home with Roberto´s family. We had El Salvador´s most iconic food: pupusas. Pupusas are thick tortillas stuffed with cheese and sometimes meat. The name pupusa comes from the Pipil people and artifacts used to make pupusas were found in the Joya de Ceren archaeological site. Honduras also claims that pupusas are their national food. The debate of the origin of pupusas was actually part of the negotiation of the CAFTA-DR treaty. After 2 days of negotiations, Honduras ceded the origin of pupusas to El Salvador. Still, you can find pupusas everywhere in Honduras too.
Just like Mexican tacos, real pupusas are made with corn. However, at this meal, we also had pupusas made from rice, which upset his father. The pupusas were then topped with a cabbage slaw and not-spicy red sauce.
Afterwards I went to bed after another amazing day.
December 27, 2021: El Arquitecto
I woke up well-rested. When checking my travel plans, I noticed that I had not received any emails from the airline recently for my flight since booking. This was highly suspect, so I decided to call United Airlines (the flight was on Avianca, but I had booked the flight using United miles). United then told me that they had cancelled my reservation months ago, but never bothered to tell me. Thanks!
This could have really put me in a pickle, but luckily the flight price was a reasonable $225 – the typical flight price if you book ahead.
I then got my antigen test for $25 in a nearby clinic. It was negative. While I never had strong doubts, you never know.
Next, Roberto took me into San Salvador to see one of his projects – before business school, Roberto was an architect.
This mega-project is a 25-story office tower next to retail with the option to add a hotel and convention center later. The project is connected by skybridge to a large mall.
Roberto´s cousin is working on the construction efforts and gave us a tour. The tour was very thorough; it is clear that much thought went into the project. At the end, we got to stand on top of the helipad at the very top of the building! To have 360-degree views from the top of El Salvador´s tallest building was surreal.
Finally, Roberto drove me to a beach area called Costa del Sol. Here, we got lunch and took a quick dip in the ocean- my first on the trip. The water was soooo warm – it felt like a pool. I now understand the hype surrounding El Salvador´s beaches.
With that, it was time to head home.
El Salvador has it all: beautiful beaches, stunning volcanic landscapes, history, culture, and interesting cities. Pupusas are good, but in general the food is okay. The people are exceptionally friendly and welcoming. Knowing Spanish is helpful, but due to the large influence of the United States, you can probably get around without it.
While in the past, El Salvador was skipped over due to crime, that story is not true anymore. Crime rates have dropped significantly, and tourists can now travel the country in safety without the need for special precautions. Public transportation is safe.
The surf championships are hopefully the beginning of a new rise in international tourism for this undiscovered gem- it has the potential to do what Colombia managed to accomplish in the last decade. I am impressed by the domestic tourists – locals really seemed to enjoy exploring their own country.
My main gripe with El Salvador is the tourist infrastructure. It is not as easy to get around El Salvador as the other countries as a budget tourist. The hostel network is weak. San Salvador has not one, but three main bus terminals and they are scattered around the capital. A private driver costs approximately $100/day.
Without Roberto, getting around without a private driver would be difficult. I would have been limited to day trips to single destinations each day via the public busses. This is fine for a slow traveler, but not for someone with just 4 days in the country.
As El Salvador becomes known as a tourist destination, I am confident so will the infrastructure.
Therefore, I would highly recommend El Salvador at the moment, but only after visiting another Central American country such as Guatemala or Panama first.