Bare Ash Beach

Friday, December 18, 2009

Leaving Juayua on the Flower Route at 10 AM gets you to the volcanic black sand beaches of El Salvador’s Balsam coast (and specifically El Tunco) at about 2 PM. From there, you wander down a small cobblestone road from the highway into town, passing a few hotels here and there and eventually coming upon some restaurants and cafes. All this done with 20-some kilograms of backpack in surprising heat (the mountains are warm in the day, but nothing like this) leaves you anxious to find a place and quickly. I found one pretty quick that was $10/night for a private room but stubbornly pressed on, noting that there seemed to be nobody around (and I’d heard it was really busy here). Before I knew it, I found myself on the beach and noted a friendly (and pretty) surfer walking back from the beach with surf board under her arm. Aside from a couple Aussies who were staying elsewhere and seemed even more clueless than I did about where everybody was, she was the first foreigner I’d seen and I hailed her for instructions. She’d just arrived that morning, but had a place with private rooms for $10 AND with a swimming pool, not to mention a few other Canadians staying there. She was kind enough to lead the way to Fabrique and I was happy enough to follow.

The place was definitely not central but it was nice and had the essentials: fan, hammock, clean beds and bathroom. Plus it had a pool and at least one nice person to visit with. So I stayed. Jessica, the Canadian surfer from Vancouver Island, and I went to explore the beach and the town of El Tunco, sans backpacks, and wound up walking (and crawling through a cave) all the way to Playa Al Sunzal where we had some beer on the rocks and watched the sunset before walking back. She had a friend also staying here that was out when she’d arrived and we ran into the friend, Robyn, on the walk back. She seemed friendly enough. The third Canadian girl, Kat, was not so friendly and took an instant dislike to me, to the point of not only ignoring me but turning away when I offered an introductory hand and pretending not to see me when we passed in the street. Given that this behaviour started from the moment we met, she is either always a grump or else she really didn’t like my beard. Add to this a lack of humour and I definitely didn’t feel all that comfortable hanging out with the girls anymore as they seemed oblivious to her rudeness in my direction (and she was perfectly pleasant with them).

The next day, I have to admit I started by watching the Dexter finale. Holy crap. I won’t bore you with details but wow. Shocking. That done, I grabbed my book, The Bourne Supremacy, my towel, shades, and a bit of cash, and headed for the beach. After a quick breakfast at Erica’s, which is without a doubt the best food in a several mile radius, I sat on the beach and read. It seemed like I could get in about one chapter on my front and one on my back before I gave into the heat and had to go in to the water and swim/body surf. The waves here are great for body surfing, and I wasn’t quite ready to jump on a surfboard today so it worked out well. I finished the book, which was again entirely different than the movie, gave it to the girl at Erica’s, and retreated to my hotel to sit by the pool a bit and enjoy the last bit of sun. The girls were gone with a local guy to a local beach some distance away and were camping over night, so I had the place to myself. This could be a good thing or bad, I decided to head into town and see who I could find. Almost nobody. Almost. I ran into the Nicaraguan couple I’d visited with in Juayua who, it turns out, had had their camera bag stolen with the girl’s passport, wallet, camera, and a few other incidentals while on the bus here. We had dinner together and I bought them some drinks before retiring to catch up with Brian for the FrankBlack.Net Podcast.

I finally rented a surf board on my third full day in Playa El Tunco, and decided to splurge for a lesson to refresh my memory. I don’t think the lesson was worth it as the ‘teacher’ did nothing but hold my board and give me a push, but I did manage to catch several waves and only had the crap kicked out of me once. I surfed as long as I could with the heat, salt water, and weak arms I had to deal with, and returned to the hotel to find the girls were back. I still don’t know what makes a wave ‘crunchy’ but I’m learning. Jessica came to my room to say hello and tell me that they’d been invited to go partying in San Salvador with some local guys. It was one guy’s birthday and he’d rented a minivan and got a driver so that everybody could drink. Whether or not I should go played in my head. Pro: a cool opportunity with some locals in a city I’d never go party in on my own. Cons: San Salvador is really really dangerous at night; I would probably not be all that welcome by anyone but Jess; I was thinking to leave tomorrow morning. I went out to dinner to consider my choice (meeting again with the Nicaraguan couple, which is always a challenge for my seemingly worsening Spanish) and on my way back ran into a whole bunch of travellers that were likewise going and invited me to join. So I jumped in the crowded minivan, and off we all went.

It was a surprise party, so when he came to get in the van we all yelled something in Spanish (Happy Birthday, old something) then headed out to Stanza6. They had a pretty cool live band doing U2 covers among other things and there was not even a moment of feeling like there was the remotest danger. We were there from around 10:00 (we left just before 9 from El Tunco) and returned at 4:30 AM, stopping at a little street food vendor along the way, where the van almost left me behind. That would’ve been interesting. It was a great night and the return van cost $5 and club entrance with free drinks until midnight cost $10, and that’s all I needed to spend. The group was friendly, fun, and I would do it again... in a day or two. I decided El Tunco and the surrounding towns and beaches would get one more day after all, and set out in the morning with my camera to get, hopefully, a few decent shots. I almost brought it the night before, but luckily I didn’t as Jess had hers swiped. Most of the photos on this blog post are from that morning photography session. I wandered up to El Sunzal again, this time at low tide so I could walk further, and then came back noting a restaurant teeming with locals where I had a great lunch. It was time to enjoy the poolside hammocks at the hotel and I did.

I was hoping to get to Nicaragua the next morning so I tried to find out information. There’s a Pullman/private “Tica” bus (a company name) that leaves San Salvador at 5 AM for Managua. Not a bad option, but I had to somehow get to San Salvador in time to catch it. Some research unearthed another company called King Quality, that allegedly had busses for the same price (about $25) leaving at 10:30 AM. Done. I got up early and arrived in San Salvador via Chicken Bus (and then a short $3 taxi to Puerto Bus) by 9:45. There, I discovered there was a really early bus (4 or 5 AM), a regular-hour bus (8 AM) and another bus at 11:30. The catch was this bus was not the more reasonably priced $25 one but $46. Because they serve you food, supposedly. Well, here in El Salvador, that had better be a T-bone steak with some wine. So I was in a quandary: I had a backup plan of chicken bussing to Alegria, moreorless on the way to the Honduras border, and spending a night or two there before pressing on. On the other hand, Christmas was coming soon and I wanted to be sort of settled in Nicaragua somewhere that I liked, maybe a beach. And I’d heard of the difficulties in time and availability getting to Nicaragua from El Salvador (through Honduras, which is what makes the whole thing tricky) already. So I did something stupid and paid way too much money for the bus ride.

Why was this stupid? Well, for starters because it was the same price as two days in El Salvador eating, sleeping, and even drinking were I so inclined. Secondly, I would be missing out on eastern El Salvador, which is supposed to be pretty. Thirdly, had I thought about it with more clarity, I could have easily discovered that I could catch these same busses at more reasonable hours further east in El Salvador. So I could have gone to Alegria and caught, say, the cheap-o 5 AM bus from nearby San Miguel at about 8 or 9 AM. If I could rewind time, this is what I would have done, and I hope somebody somewhere reads this and is able to do it the smart way as a result. I should also mention that contrary to the supposed CA-4 agreement between Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, I had to pay a $3 fee at the border (in spite of discussing/debating with customs officials and demanding proof) of Honduras and an $8 fee at the Nicaraguan border. The CA-4 is supposed to allow free travel across all those borders so I was miffed but, luckily, I had just enough money on me to cover it.

The bus, which didn’t leave until after 1 PM incidentally, did get me to Leon, Nicaragua at 10:45 that night. I hate arriving anywhere at night. It’s hard to get your bearings, it’s definitely less safe to be walking around with everything you own on your back, some hostel receptions are closed, and so on. I got a taxi from the gas station where I was dropped off into town for $1 and he took me to Big foot, which was boarded up for the night but a few knocks got someone to the door to tell me they were full. Via via across the street was in full party mode, and I didn’t even want to attempt to navigate my backpacks through that crowd. Which left me standing on the street with nowhere to stay at 11 PM. There was a hostel a block over that I walked through the shadows to get to, and that was not a pleasant experience. It too was boarded up and there was no answer. My same taxi driver drove by me on the street and stopped because he thought he’d given me incorrect change. He then drove me, free, to another hostel (he should’ve waited in the first place but this made up for it) called La Clinica which was not exactly a nice spot but it was cheap enough and I just wanted somewhere for the night at this point. I checked in, went to grab a beer, then came back and crashed. My exploration of Nicaragua would start tomorrow.

Balsam Coast Photos

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