Beach-Bound (Day 173) – Juayua to Playa El Zonte, El Salvador

Probably before going into yesterday’s ride, it’d be worth it to set the scene for you right now.  We just got out of bed, stumbled a few feet into an eating area at the hostel where we’re at, and M plopped into a hammock next to me, while I’m sitting at a table, starting out at palm trees, a rocky beach, and massive, massive warm waves.  There are surfers (the waves are doing the “barrel” thing like in an Ocean Spray commercial), but this is such a long and empty coast that there are more perfect bays and beaches than there are surfers, so it’s pretty empty here.  In any case, it’s safe to say that we’ve gone from zero (sitting around Antigua, miserable and waiting) to sixty in a spectacularly short few days.

Yesterday was about as nice a riding day as you get.  We woke up in Juayua, and I went up to the lovely top floor of the hotel where the 360 degree view showed the sun rising over the Salvadoran highlands and coffee plantations.  We grabbed a quick bite, then set off for an exhilarating 20 km descent down out of the highlands into the trashy and loud town of Sonsonate.  From there it was about 40 km of warm, pancake flat riding (the first truly flat riding we’ve done since eastern Texas!) until we got near the coast.  The weather, while warm, was much better than it was two months ago in Mexico (the last time we weren’t up in volcanic highlands) and it was nice and sunny too.  Then it was 30 km of rolling hills up and along the coast.  If you’ve ever been on Highway 1 in California, this was much like that, except a more tropical version.  Ficus trees clinging to the rock faces where roads were blasted out of hillsides, tropical vines hanging over the road like party decorations while we rode up and down cliffs looking out over the huge surf and deserted beaches.

Volcanoes everywhere!

Hope that thing holds

By the way, notice how I just mentioned “roads blasted out of hillsides?”  That’s a pretty key phrase for cyclists.  Rather than just lay roads over every single hill, hillock and lump – like they do in Guatemala – they actually cut roads out of hillsides here. That’s HUGELY helpful when you’re already going up a long hill.  But even more than that (dropping my voice to an urgent whisper) they have TUNNELS here! Tunnels! Tunnels are like this once-in-a-bicycle-tour gift that magically turn huge hills into short, straight strips of road.  So as hard of a day as it was yesterday, it was also easier than it could’ve been and spectacular riding.

Blasted!

Tunnels: Helpful AND horrifying!

The Salvadoran coast, as beautiful as it is, isn’t all that well-known, so it’s mainly surf bums who hang out there. The beach names are based largely on the kilometer of road where they’re located, so we just sort of took our pick based on how far we wanted to ride for the day and chose Playa Zonte (Zonte beach) at kilometer 53.  We rode down to the beach and I watched the bicycles while M walked off to find a decent room.  Two minutes later she was back…with our old friend Shaun!  We first met Shaun in Oaxaca, where he became our first friend outside the USA (he’s a veterinary surgeon from Montana).  We met up with him again in Xela, Guatemala, where he was off to points unknown and we didn’t expect to see him again.  In fact, just yesterday M and I were talking about how we should write to him because we liked him so much.  Well, after touring through Honduras and Nicaragua and then volunteering at an orphanage just outside San Salvador, he jumped on buses to visit…Playa Zonte.  He arrived about 10 minutes before us.  So now, happily reunited with a friend and spending the day with him (we’re gonna try to surf), we seem to have completely shook off whatever bad feelings were left over from our horrendous visit to Antigua.

Beach soccer on Playa Zonte

Kind of pretty

A couple of thoughts after our first three days in El Salvador:

Entering another Spanish-speaking country in Central America is a bit like watching British television in the sense that while everything is similar, things just seem to feel a bit different.  Take the “chicken buses.”  In Guatemala, we grew accustomed to taking old American yellow school buses as our chief mode of transport (other than the bikes).  Pretty much all of the buses, just like in the USA, were Blue Bird buses.  Here in El Salvador, everyone gets around on old American Blue Bird school buses, but it’s an older model of bus, and they’re all painted green and white, instead of yellow (or some garish new paint job).  Also the buses are a different model, with the flat front.  Basically the same, but just a little off from what is just on the other side of the border.

There are a few clear differences.  For instance, food here in E.S. became heavier almost immediately, with the famous pupusa (basically a cornmeal pancake mixed with cheese, beans and/or meat, then pan-fried) appearing, as if on cue, as soon as we crossed the border.  And with the heavier food comes the heavier people.  After we went from fat to skinny (Mexico just passed the USA as the most obese country on earth – but Guatemalans are basically thin) we’re back into heavy territory again. It’s a bit of a pain for us, since we have little control over the food that we can eat, so we’re stuck with lots of fried food whenever we stop to eat.

El Salvador uses the US dollar (and even our small change) as the national currency, and it’s a bit surreal seeing the locals speaking in Spanish and then reaching into their pockets to pay, using dollars, dimes and nickels.  The funny thing is that after being in Guatemala for so long, we now have to convert the prices of everything into Guatemalan quetzals in order to know whether a price is fair or not.

It may be because El Salvador uses the US dollar, but this country has a lot more of an American feel to it.  For one thing, US national corporations are here (like Shell gas stations).  For another, people seem to be a little more diverse- we see a lot of blue eyes and light skin, which we never saw in the highly indigenous and highly segregated population in Guatemala. Also, we meet at least 2 or 3 fluent English speakers everyday in the most out of the way towns.

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