By Aaron Smith, Contributing Reporter
EL SALVADOR – It’s amazing how busy one can be doing absolutely nothing. That’s exactly what we discovered on a small stretch of El Salvador’s 300 kilometers of Pacific Ocean coastline.
We had planned to do many things: surf lessons, horseback riding, the laundry and re-stitching the Brazilian flag to Vivi’s bag. Eating breakfast at lunchtime, then falling asleep nose pressed between pages nineteen and twenty of a trashy novel while swinging in a hammock was all we could muster. Playa el Tunco, just an hour by bus south of the country’s capital San Salvador, has that effect on people.
The dramatic, black volcanic sands and tide-polished pebbles are pounded by the Pacific’s year round, world-class, endless sets of point-break waves. This is all offset by the sleepy vibe of the small, surfer shanty-town.
However it wasn’t always like that and most people still associate El Salvador with the ‘Contra’ guerrilla wars, political dictatorships and death squads that terrorized the population until the early Nineties.
In San Salvador the ravages of war were more apparent. The decaying facades of buildings and poverty in the slums scratched together with garbage made Brazil’s favelas look almost favorable in comparison. Every bank, hotel, and shop is fronted by tough-looking security guards armed with automatic weapons and many Salvadorians arm themselves with pistols.
With gang related activities an ever-present issue, the country’s violent past doesn’t seem so distant. Yet in Playa el Tunco this seemed a world away. With its brightly painted, wooden huts, palm-fringed landscapes, narrow bare-earthed streets with sleeping dogs, hippie surfers and Bob Marley booming out of the oceanfront bars overlooking the waves, life here is decidedly a beach.
Over a beer an old surfer told me how even this idyllic paradise was marred by violence. He casually recalled how the army flew helicopters over the beach town, strafing the streets with gunfire, but as he said smiling, “No problem now, all in the past.”
With perfect waves and quiet beaches still undiscovered by travelers, Playa el Tunco and rest of the El Salvadorian coast has become a surfer’s Shangri-La. This area, once famous for the production of aromatic oils from the now nearly extinct Balsam tree, may experience a new renaissance in as more and more travelers stream in.
Hanging out with surfers for a few days inspired both Vivi and I to learn. After all, being a Carioca and a kangaroo where beach is an institution, surfing seemed like the natural thing to do. We even had insider tips, like using superglue to patch up coral cuts and squirting sunscreen under the armpits and down the front of one’s board shorts to prevent chaffing.
We changed our minds when two surfers got black eyes and broken noses from surfboards recoiling on rubber ripcords due to exceptionally rough waves. Vivi and I comfortably settled to sinking back into our hammocks and under the cover of our paperbacks.
Senhor and Senhora Smith are from different worlds; he, Aaron Smith, an Australian travel writer, still idolizes his childhood idol, Indiana Jones, and she, Viviane Silva, is a sassy Carioca ‘Sex in the City’ girl. They have decided to embark upon a trans-continental four-month honeymoon BEFORE they get married, from Bogota to New York, the Far East and Australia by bus, boat and donkey. Follow them along the Gringo Trail – it’s an epic Clash of the Titans journey to (hopefully) martial bliss at the end of the road.