Our 10 days in El Salvador were all about… contrast.
Not just contrasts with our experience in Mexico. Sure, we expected lots of differences even before we arrived, like spending U.S. dollars again! (El Salvador does not have its own currency anymore, which makes things simple but a bit surreal for American tourists.)
We knew the food would change in a big way. Right now, as I write this, visions of my favorite Mexican tacos are appearing in my head like a highlight reel. I see fresh fish tacos from the north, fading into carnitas and steak as we made our way south. Always eaten with heaps of cilantro and the spiciest salsa I can tolerate. Served on top of two freshly made, never-too-dry tortillas, because one tortilla cannot be guaranteed to contain all the juicy, greasy (but never too greasy) sauce. Tacos, if you’re reading, we miss you!
It turns out the national food of El Salvador, pupusas, don’t bring nearly the same pleasure to my taste buds. They’re thick tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, and/or some kind of salty pork from a tube. Bland city. They are served with a coleslaw-type topping, which adds some flavor. Pupuserias are dotted along every major street in El Salvador, but after two different attempts to love this food, I gave up.
I knew we’d be leaving the best food behind in Mexico, and now that fact is sinking in. Pospects don’t look too good in the rest of Central America, either. But I digress.
Another big contrast is the cruising grounds. The coastline of El Salvador is tiny indeed, only 160 miles. There are just two safe, well-described places to stop in a sailboat, and they both require entering an estuary with the help of a pilot boat to guide you in.
Contrasted with dozens of easy anchorages in Mexico, we knew we were in for an experience. We chose the more centrally-located Bahia del Sol for our stay, where arrivals and departures are coordinated by a couple of former cruisers, Bill and Jean, who live on an island in the estuary. (Side note: Jean is from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Wherever you go, there’s always a Sconnie.)
We timed our approach for high tide on a day where the swell was under five feet. Why? Because to enter or exit the estuary you need to cross a bar that sits in only 8 feet of water—and that’s at high tide! Pineapple’s keel extends 6.5 feet below the surface of the water, so there’s not much room to spare! And the water on either side of the entrance is even shallower, creating set after set of violently breaking waves that make an un-guided entrance virtually impossible.
Bill met us at a specific waypoint and guided us between breakers on a narrow path. We were lucky to arrive on a calm morning and enjoy an uneventful entrance, but it is every bit as dramatic as it sounds. Once inside, the estuary offers total protection from the waves, and marina staff greeted us with a much-needed rum punch to calm our nerves as we stepped off the boat. (Did I mention it was only 8:30am? Good morning, indeed!)
Besides safe arrival and departure, Bill and Jean have dedicated much of their time to making sure cruisers enjoy their stay. For instance, on the day we arrived, they hosted all the visiting cruisers at their house for appetizers and drinks, and then we walked a few yards along a sandy path to their local pupuseria. As you can see, this was truly a local experience they were sharing, just hours after our arrival.
We met other sailors and dove in to the local culture right away. Another outing to a restaurant in the middle of estuary, literally:
We had little time to rest and settle in, because we were in for another big contrast: Visitors! We have made so many memorable connections with people since we started cruising. And that means we’re often in getting-to-know-you mode. Meeting people is exciting, but there’s nothing quite like time with “your people”. In this case our people were John’s sister Jennifer, her husband Chris, and their friend Ben.
Jennifer, Chris, and Ben discovered El Salvador years ago, so like Bill and Jean, we consider them local gringos. For us, that meant we could relax and not worry about figuring out everything ourselves, like which bus to take or how to find the best hikes. They drove down to meet us, and we spent a couple days enjoying the beach and local area near the marina. Then we drove together (five of us, plus Ben’s dog Blue, in their vintage Toyota Land Cruiser) up the coast to their favorite place in El Salvador: Playa El Tunco.
It was time for even more contrast. For the first time in six months, we left the boat and the cats (!) to spend a couple nights ashore. Like, in a hotel! Luckily, some cat-loving cruisers were docked nearby and they kindly checked on “the kids” while we were gone. I didn’t worry about the boat or the cats even once, because Jennifer, Chris, and Ben packed the next few days full.
Some highlights! First, the Tamanique waterfalls. Getting there required a bumpy ride in the truck and a beautiful hike through untouched land. After repelling down the side of a cliff, using an old electric cable for support (seriously)—this is quite harrowing if you have short legs like me—we were rewarded with gorgeous views and a cold, refreshing, freshwater swim.
(Photo by Luis, a local teen who was our guide. We picked him up at his house, and he led the way. We never would have found the waterfalls or a guide on our own. It pays to know the local gringos!)
The next day we went to the capital, San Salvador, for provisions. Super Selectos is a local chain that is more like a U.S. supermarket than anything I’ve seen since leaving California. I mean, look at this:
Just a couple of my favorite purchases:
They had yellow onions and butternut squash, which I hadn’t seen in six months, Grey Poupon the size of my head, sesame oil that was not $15, Pretzel Chips, beef jerky… all the comforts of home! And yes, I bought more than you see here!
After John caught some waves during his first surf lesson (He rocked! Check out the pics on our Instagram account @particularharbor), we said goodbye to our people and then got a ride back to the boat. We had an unforgettable week with this crew; a really grand time.
We didn’t know that when we returned to Bahia del Sol, we’d be in for the biggest contrast yet.
This little spot in El Salvador has a much smaller group of cruisers at any given time than the popular spots in Mexico. And with Bill and Jean’s social calendar, we ended up meeting just about all the cruisers here. As usual, we met some wonderful people and made fast friends. (One bonus of leaving Mexico is that we are starting to meet more people coming north from the Caribbean via the Panama Canal. Many of them have generously helped us make our own Caribbean cruising plans for next season.)
But, the flip side, the contrast, is that we also had some interactions that left us saying “Get me outta here!” That was a big first for us, and it didn’t feel good.
Everywhere we go, other sailors offer their advice, especially when we tell them we are new to cruising (and when they see our 35-year-old faces). 99% of the time they share their thoughts in a respectful way—friendly, conversational, and with the intention of keeping us safe.
Unfortunately, in this tiny cruising community, we found a higher concentration of the “You should do this…”, “You will regret not having this…”, “You shouldn’t go here…” crowd. I’m telling myself that it was just their personalities that made the delivery more forceful and less tactful than normal. Still, it left us both wanting to shout, “We’re fine, thanks!! We know what we’re doing and we are perfectly capable of making our own decisions!” We didn’t do that, of course.
We also realized that many of the cruisers here have very different beliefs (political, religious, economic) than we do. And again, normally that’s fine. In fact, meeting so many different people has given me a new opportunity to understand and appreciate people with views that are different from mine.
But here, someone said something that was so offensive, so much more extreme than anything we’re used to hearing, that they actually felt the need to apologize to John and me the next day! At the time, we did not hide the looks of disgust and shock on our faces, and clearly this person realized what they said was very wrong. That was a good thing, but it still left a bad taste in our mouths.
I’m being intentionally vague because I feel guilty writing about other people. But really, giving the details isn’t important. What is important is how these interactions made us feel. I’m determined to make this blog an honest report of our experiences as we cruise, and that includes the emotions that can be frustrating and tough to cope with at times.
Looking back, I think we may have felt some of the highest highs and the lowest lows during our brief visit to El Salvador. And more than anything, it made me realize that it is not really places that affect us. It’s the people we meet who have the most influence in shaping our experience.