Photographies Clare James
Photographies aquatiques Rudy Ortiz et Piolo Flores
Overwhelmed from the 26 hours worth of travel, we checked into our hostel room, taking turns to stand under the cold shower. A welcome relief from the heat we were so unaccustomed to. We dressed, leaving the quiet of our room behind, forcing ourselves out into the busy night for a quick taco from a street vendors. We grabbed a beer each from somewhere along the roadside and a jar of coffee from the small tienda, ready for the morning. We returned to the hostel, not too dissimilar to two rabbits caught in the headlights.
We drank our beers on the hammocks in the hostel, listening to the reggaeton below. The ice cold beers worked instantly. The realisation that I had actually finally arrived in El Salvador sunk in. We had made it! My travel dream had become a reality, now I just needed to surf. Stumbling back to the room, we waxed and leashed our boards, ready for the early wake up call. We passed out as we hazily chatted nonsensical rubbish whilst the sounds of the night outside vibrated through the hostel walls.
I woke the next morning to the 5am alarm with eyes wide open. Stepping out of bed with adrenaline already pulsing round my body. Out in the morning atmosphere, only the dark night’s sky was left, not a single soul around. Peering out into the street was a drastic change of scene to the 8 hours prior. The clubs were shut and silence now replaced the reggaeton. Not a whisper, except for that of the birds singing their dawn chorus and the street dogs of El Tunco grumbling in their sleep from the gutters.
Unsure of where exactly the beach was, with stronger than usual coffees in tow, we strolled along the deserted street. Guided solely by the sound of the sea, and the flickering streetlights. Coursing our way down the street, avoiding shattered glass and odours arising from unknown origins, we finally caught sight of the beach.
At the end of the path, I spotted the wave; Sunzal. A long, right hand point break peeling 4ft faces out in the distance. A long paddle out. I spotted a few other early risers making tracks over to the shoreline. At sight of this, we rushed back finishing the grainy dregs of coffee along the way. We swim-suited and suncreamed up, ready in 5 minutes. A welcome change to the whole rigamarole of covering every inch of my body in thick neoprene. The dawny ordeal back at home had become second-nature, but I welcomed this change with a smile and deep sigh of gratitude. We grabbed our boards, the excitement palpable.
I always become so anxious when surfing a new break, whether it’s at home or some far-flung destination. To be surfing a completely new break, out in El Salvador, well. My heart had a fairly unusual rhythm that first morning.
Following the same route as earlier, the street now became more visible in the sunrise. A pink, hazy light beamed onto the street, illuminating shards of glass, highlighting the preferable route. As we giggled our way along, the street dogs rose to accompany us for the ride. Reaching the beach, we clambered over volcanic rocks, tripping and sliding our way through.
We reached the shoreline and screamed as we jumped into the warm water. A yelp of pure, unrelenting happiness. Paddling already so much easier without the weight of neoprene on our backs. I felt myself gliding through the water effortlessly with every stroke. At sight of the point break set up, our faces were pictures of joy, likely mixed with hints of disbelief. We were greeted with perfect, peeling right handers. Streaming for hundreds of yards down the point. The sun had risen over the oil-slicked waters and still not a breath of wind. The morning sky textured with pink and golden hues. We stayed in the water for 4 hours that first morning. Only returning to the hostel for water, food and a place to rest our heavy limbs. Smiles stretched broadly across our faces.
Clare and I caught some of our biggest waves here. I saw her drop into some of the biggest rides I’ve ever seen her take. These vast walls of water engulfed us at times, yet at others allowed us to dance along their clean, perfect faces. All the while, the reef and all marine life below went about their daily rituals. Turtles popped up feet away from where I sat on my board; taking a breath and delving deep below the surface, returning to their feeding grounds. Returning to their home. Pelicans skimmed low over the surface of the waves, casting their ethereal spell on all newcomers to these shores. I spotted fish fleeing their predators, breaking the water’s surface and shoaling up, creating a panic and flurry of excitement for the predator in tow.
We surfed until our bodies ached and our minds craved something new, something fresh. We surfed for 3 to 4 hours every morning. Returning to drink as much papaya juice as possible, devour a typical local breakfast, re-pack bags and boards and set off for another lunchtime surf, then another surf in the evening, if the wind died off.
It was paradise. The perfect trip. I was rapidly falling completely in love with this country. With the food, the fruit, the people, the waves, the ocean. We met some locals in the water; friendly and welcoming, keen to help us along our surfing journey. Everyone looked out for each other in the water; whistles sounded from higher vantage points when a set came through.
We drank as much papaya juice and ate as many pupusas as we could in this small town, until I knew it was time to move on. I loved the wave here, but with the next weekend looming ever closer it was time to re-pack bags and make tracks further up the coast. We spent the remainder of our time between a few other small towns, all of them boasting incredible, heavy right point breaks. These waves broke sharply along boulder lined shorelines. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. So far away from a mental and physical state of safety. When I realised how far removed I was, I felt I’d reached my happiest state. I had catapulted myself into the unknown. So far detached from the safety of home-life.
I had days when I didn’t think I could handle it; when the surf picked up and sets boomed down the point. Peering through the vantage point of a treehouse nestled at the top of the palm trees in a town further north of El Tunco, I gazed out at heavy surf. Dread seeped into my conscious. My thoughts clouded. Panic rose.
I paddled out with the help of friends and locals met along this dreamy El Salvadoran journey. I received some of the heaviest beatings in the water I’ve ever had. Caught out by rogue sets that claimed body and board. Despite these lashings of body and ego, I caught some of my best waves out there. This could well be thanks to the grit, determination and more likely than not, the stubbornness required from learning to surf in colder climes. Maybe, braving those ice cold, white water lashings had helped. In all honesty, I think they definitely did.
El Salvador changed me. I think it is impossible for a person not to be altered, however slight, by traveling to unique destinations. How can it not? When you find yourself in a country overflowing with incredibly thoughtful, kind and beautiful local people, a tropical climate, wildlife, the freshest fruit and local dishes, and of course, perfect waves, your mind will forever be changed.
Not only El Salvador, but in general, surf and travel has changed me. It has forced me out of my shy, anxious self, into a more open individual. Taking the steep drop into the unknown, is, in my opinion, the best idea.