Three days of mostly motoring took us from the Gulf of Tehuantepec to Bahia Jiquilisco, El Salvador. There a panga of the Barillas Marina Club met us outside the entrance and its driver, Luis, guided us over the bar and into the mangrove-lined bay. The bay looked far more like a river than a bay as we wound some ten miles up to where the string of mooring balls sat. A dozen boats were already here, and we picked up Mooring #20 at the end of the line of boats and shut down the motor in the peace and quiet solitude of Bahia Jiquilisco.
Heriberto Pineda, the head honcho at the Barillas Marina Club, was soon out to greet us, and made sure that our stay was as pleasant and carefree as it could possibly be. The immigration and customs officials had an office on site and the check-in process was as smooth as it gets, with Heriberto guiding us through every step. Once we were cleared into the country Heriberto told us about the facilities and left us at the bar where he gave us a round of drinks on the house. My beer went down smooth and helped wash away the stress of six days at sea and my first couple squalls complete with lightning storms. It was good to be on firm ground again, and the marina club was in a gorgeous, isolated location.
Fort three days Ryan and I enjoyed the amenities of the club, explored the mangrove-lined bay and its many winding channels by dinghy, took our first forays into towing behind the dinghy on surfboards, and relaxed the days away. One afternoon at the tables of the club we met Cameron and Jenny, a pair of cruisers in their late-twenties heading towards Panama like ourselves. We shared tales of our trips down to El Salvador and by the end of our stay had decided to head for our next stop, Punta Ampala, together.
The morning of Tuesday, May 16, brought clear skies over El Salvador and I was up shortly after five to prepare for our departure. The sun rose bright orange and beautiful beside one of the country’s numerous volcanoes. There was not a trace of wind in the bay. All was quiet. When the clock struck six Luis showed up in his panga to guide us down the bay, and by eight we were back in the open ocean and heading south once more.
As the morning wore on the tropic sun began to beat down and a cumulonimbus cloud formed inland. As we motored on I watched as the cloud morphed into different shapes and admired the beauty of the rugged, uninhabited coastline. By the early afternoon we were giving the sandspit off Punta Ampala a wide berth before entering the shallow, open bay. Here we dropped anchor behind Cameron and Jenny on Velella in fourteen feet of water and were quick to launch our dinghy.
The talk at Barillas was that Punta Ampala was home to a good righthand pointbreak and that there were never any other surfers around. Thus Ryan and I loaded into our dinghy, picked up Cameron and Jenny, and zipped off to the east side of Punta Ampala to search for waves. The point held a series of rights that broke in different stages, but the ones further out had some windchop on them from the day’s seabreeze. Thus we opted for the one furthest in, a well-formed wave breaking off a small rock outcropping in front of a beautiful home. The wave reminded me of a miniature Malibu, and within an hour Cameron, Ryan and I were back with our boards and paddling out for the first time in El Salvador.
If you’ve ever seen the movie The Endless Summer then you can imagine what my first surf session in El Salvador was like. The sun dipped in the blue sky. An offshore wind caressed the waves and swept out beautiful rooster tails from their tops. The sets poured through, marching down the point in a perfect procession. And a small group of friends traded off waves, gliding over their faces and racing down the line. Though it was small to be sure, it was fun as surfing always is, and the setting was unbeatable. Our boats sat at anchor a quarter mile away and we were nearly encircled by land, yet the remnants of a swell managed to creep up this point and break purely for our enjoyment. Only the setting of the sun could bring our joyous session to an end and chased us back to our respective boats.
One major drawback of the anchorage at Punta Ampala is that it is completely exposed to the south and has little immediate protection to the east. Thus when the landbreeze began to blow in the early morning hours the anchorage became an uncomfortable lee shore. Our first night there the motion woke me at 0400 and I was kept awake when a passing cloud unleashed her fury on us thirty minutes later. Abandoning the idea of sleep, I sat beneath the spray dodger in the cockpit and read, enjoying the solitude and tranquility of the early morning. At 0600 I was ready to start my day, so I zipped off to check the surf. When I saw it had dropped I rode a few waves in the dinghy, and returned to the boats. I stopped by Velella and gave Cameron the surf report and we decided to take the bus up the coast in search of waves.
After shuttling our things ashore, locking the dinghy to the boat, and paddling back ashore, the four gringos waited for the bus to pass by. In the meantime a handful of locals, all of whom worked seasonally on the shrimp boats, gathered around us looking to earn some money. After trying to talk them away we ended up having them give us a tutorial on the art of opening coconuts, and passed fifteen minutes guzzling coconut milk before the bus to La Union arrived. The bus driver looked incredulously as the four gringos loaded onto his bus with their surfboards. Lucky for us there weren’t many people on board so we scurried to the back of the bus and took up the last few rows.
Twenty minutes bouncing along rugged roads and through tiny towns brought us to the coastal city of Las Tunas. Here we disembarked and headed for the beach. Rundown shacks lined the roads and street vendors sold their delicious pupusas four for a dollar. The beach was lined with palapa-covered restaurants filled with empty tables set up on decks above the brown sand. A wide swath of sand led down to the waters edge and spread a few hundred yards in both directions. There wasn’t another soul in sight and it felt like the seaside version of a ghost town. Las Tunas must be a popular weekend and summer spot for many Salvadorans from inland cities, but on this weekday during early winter the beach was reserved for us gringos.
We set our things down on a rocky outcropping and watched the six foot sets pound ashore for a few minutes, surveying the scene. After a while the sun was too hot to sit around in any longer, so I grabbed my board and dashed for the water. I leapt over the first wave of whitewater, landed on my stomach on my board, and began stroking for the outside. As with most beachbreaks there weren’t any channels to paddle out in and a couple waves broke right on my head before I emerged outside the break and sat up on my board. Immediately I was struck by how warm the water was. My body had grown accustomed to the 85˚ water of Mexico, but this was even warmer—this was closer to ninety! It remains the only time I have been surfing that I was probably also sweating, though being in water obviously masks that well.
Cameron soon joined me outside while Ryan and Jenny stayed in riding the whitewater. Before long the sets started rolling through and I traded off waves with Cameron. Many closed out quickly and provided but short rides, but there were a few that held up longer producing two memorable rides for me—one backside tube and one big flyaway that launched me up off the back of the wave. After two hours of surfing I was even hotter than when I had paddled out, and with everybody else already in on the beach I decided to catch a wave in. We sat on the rocky outcropping letting the sun scorch us dry, took a short walk down the beach, and returned through the town to the main street where, four pupusas later, a bus arrived and whisked us back to Punta Ampala where we arrived shortly after noon.
Ryan and I spent the afternoon wandering around the desolate town built on the point. Beautiful homes lined the point (occupied throughout the summer by Salvadorans from the capital and a couple Americans I was told), but inland was dirt poor. The town was filled with shrimp fishermen of meager means who loved the sea and refused to stray far from it. The town had a wild west feel to it, and just a hundred yards from the ocean you felt as if you were in the midst of a vast desert. Rocky roads strewn with litter; small stone homes separated by barbed wire fences; animals of all sorts, all malnourished, wandering the streets at will. It was a sad sight.
But there, in the midst of this squalor, the towns occupants were strewn about: an old couple seated in chairs outside their homes smiling and waving as I walked past; young kids laughing and waving as a soccer game momentarily paused for the gringos; a group of fishermen repairing tears in their nets in preparation for the upcoming season, beers close by and laughter filling the air. These people were not poor. They were happier by far than most wealthy Americans. Yet again I was struck by how little it can take to make a person happy.
When I felt I had a good feeling for the town I slipped between two coastal homes, sat on a seawall overlooking the pointbreak, and wrote up the day’s events in my journal. When Ryan was ready to go we returned to Avventura. Back aboard, I read for a bit, took a short nap, and by 4:30 was ready to get in the water again. Ryan said he was too tired so I loaded my board in the dinghy and zipped over to the inside pointbreak where Cameron was already out. We caught a few fun chest high waves before being lured out the point to a bigger spot. A log paddle brought us into head high peaks, but despite being bigger they broke in deep water and fizzled out soon after takeoff. Unimpressed, we returned to our mini-Malibu, traded off waves till sunset, and had a blast. Life was good.
Sunset, the Scrooge, chased us back to our respective boats. I prepared a taco dinner for myself and Ryan, washed the dishes, shot off an e-mail home, and slipped into bed as a light rain began to fall and the first bolts of lightning appeared in the east. The lightning marched steadily closer as I drifted in and out of sleep, but in the end never struck too close for comfort. A steady rain persisted through the night, and I fell asleep despite the racket it made on deck.
12:30 A.M. Jolted awake by a heightened motion of the boat. I sit in bed for a moment, listening and thinking. The anchor chain! Its snubber has come off. I leap out of bed, stripping off clothes as I rush through the cabin. By the time I reach the cockpit I’m in my underwear as I emerge into the vicious downpour. Into the blackness, I scurry forward, pull the anchor snubber on deck, and find a spare piece of rope. I tie the rope onto the anchor chain, let out a few feet, and the line takes up the strain of the anchor. All is well once more. We’ll be safe till daylight. Then, on the horizon in the east, a big bolt of lightning followed five seconds later by a burst of thunder. Damn! We’re not in the clear quite yet.
Ryan is in the cockpit, standing under the spray dodger, staring aimlessly forward. “I got it; you can go back to sleep,” I say, returning aft. My body shakes uncontrollably from the cold rain. I towel off and take a seat at the nav station. Sleep is impossible with lightning so close. The land breeze has struck again and the anchorage has become a rolly mess of a lee shore. Bolts of lightning continue to flash through the portholes as I send an e-mail home. The rumble of thunder continues while I read at the nav station. I stare into the darkness at the continuing rain. It’s time to flee this bloody anchorage!
I managed a couple hours of sleep once the lightning receded (around 0300), but awoke at 0530 ready to move on. Immediately I started the engine, woke Ryan, and we began picking up the anchor in a continuing drizzle. The sky was a thick, ugly gray and the beach ashore was drenched a dull brown. All looked dreary and bleak. Nicaragua was calling.