El Salvador: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Departing Mexico we followed the coast south for a two-overnight leg, past Guatemala, to visit El Salvador. We had read much about this beautiful country that has often received a lot of bad press. Originally we had not planned to stop here due to the warnings about crime and the fact that to enter the estuary where we would be staying we would have to cross a treacherous sand bar (more on that later). After doing more research about recent tourism improvements and receiving reports from numerous yachts that this was not to be missed, however, we plotted our course for Bahia del Sol. We spent a little over a week there and now that we have moved on, we reflect on our time in this country with a kind of internal conflict that we reckon every El Salvadoran deals with every day.
The people of El Salvador are hard working, friendly and helpful, and the country itself is beautiful. If we had to choose one word to describe El Salvador’s landscape it would be “Volcanoes” – large, distinctive, and visible in almost every direction.
The country is working hard to shed the stigma of crime and past civil wars and has undertaken a concerted effort to promote tourism and ensure tourists’ safety and comfort. With that in mind we rented a car and took a two-day exploration to several very cute colonial towns built high on the side of one of the volcanoes. We spent the night in a gorgeous restored mansion with beautiful grounds, a decent martini, great breakfast and wonderful service, all for less than the price of a roadside Holiday Inn in the U.S.
We also toured some interesting Mayan ruins dating to 800 BC.
We enjoyed a lunch with amazing tropical vistas from high on the volcano while looking down on the capital city of San Salvador. Rounding out our trip we were able to stop at a modern grocery on our way back to the marina and purchase some much needed staples (and cravings) that had been very difficult to find in Mexico (i.e. Goldfish crackers). All in all it was a very enjoyable tour and a nice change from life in marinas and at anchor.
Back at the boat we took some time to tour the estuary and the communities along it.
It’s no secret that El Salvador is dealing with some problems. It emerged from a 12-year civil war in 1992 that cost approx. 75,000 lives. The instability that followed led to economic weakness and vacuums of leadership and civil control that were quickly filled by criminal elements. This was the story line for over two decades but the country has finally begun to emerge from this dark period with increased export trade of sugar and ethanol and also tourism, as mentioned earlier. While we were traveling we never once felt unsafe. There are armed guards almost everywhere to ensure the safety of tourists as well as maintain civil order. While this can be disconcerting for some, we took it as a commitment to improving and sharing their country.
But, a dark side remains. After so many years of lawlessness, our friend at the hotel explained to us that mafia style criminal elements control almost every town, requiring payments from everyone from the bread seller on a bicycle to larger stores and tiendas. The price for non-compliance is often a bullet to the back of the head. Unfortunately, during our travels we saw two dead bodies on the roadsides, both almost certainly the result of this type of criminal activity. We don’t know how to positively spin this sharp contrast with our experience. Hopefully the country will continue to grow and flourish and eventually law and order will give the citizens back the safety and security they deserve after so many years of strife.
Remember that bar crossing mentioned earlier? For those not familiar, a “bar” is formed where rivers or estuaries meet the ocean and their sand forms a shallow area. That shallow area causes waves to stand up disproportionally high and make the crossing a difficult and often dangerous endeavor. Most bars have a channel that can be navigated at high tide but local knowledge is often required. This is the case in Bahia del Sol where they provide a pilot boat to lead you across the bar. The entrance/exit can often be quite dramatic so they are also nice enough to take photos (for you to be able to send to your insurer, I presume.) Our entry into the estuary was a non-event. We even wondered aloud what all the fuss was about (big mistake).
Our exit was a different case indeed. Our departure began innocently enough with smooth seas forecast as we followed the pilot boat to the bar. Everything looked ducky until a set of three surf-able sized waves rolled toward us. We had a pretty good head of steam going and Gadabout launched her 20 odd tons off the peak of each one in quite spectacular fashion. The good news is that nothing broke and no pants were soiled, although it was nip and tuck on both accounts. We’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
So there you have it, a warts and all summary of our time in El Salvador. Overall, we are glad we didn’t skip this stop. It is actually these kinds of real, unedited experiences we enjoy most when we travel, the opportunity to see a country for what it is and for what it can be. We sincerely hope the situation continues to improve for the El Salvadoran people and we look forward to a return visit in the future.