El Salvador as we experienced it on our 9 day journey through the country is cycling paradise and I would recommend it to anyone for bike touring from beginners to experienced. We crossed into El Salvador on March 9 and immediately the roads got wider with a beautiful paved 7 foot shoulder, riding through the green rural countryside. The traffic with more room on the roads became less hectic and in your face and the wide shoulders were shared with many other local cyclists, some slow motorbikes and scooters, randomly running cows and people pulling ox carts. People are so friendly in El Salvador and their faces just seem to light up when you say hello…or bye… as you go by. A lot of people speak at least a little bit of English, probably because many have either worked in the US or Canada or want to. We have had conversations where we’re speaking in Spanish and they’re speaking English – both of us trying to practice our knowledge a bit. Those less fluent really try to speak English with you and seem happy that they have the opportunity to practice with a native English speaker. Life under tall swaying coconut palm trees and numerous fruit trees just seemed more laid back and easy for us cycling through and it felt like I finally was able to let out a deep breath that I didn’t realize I was holding on the more hectic, busy highways of Guatemala. On the relatively level coastal roads, distances just rolled by and with El Salvador being the smallest country in a chain of small countries of Central America, it is kind of amazing to look back after a day and say, “Well just rode a quarter of the country today!”
On the first day in El Salvador, we made it to the beach. Playa Dorado seems like a beach you would never go to as a tourist unless you were cycling through since it is unmarked on any tourism maps and close to nearby more well known beaches. This is one of the things I love about cycle touring – you stumble into places and meet people that you would otherwise never go to. Even backpacking, you take buses from places to places while cycling, you get to experience all those spaces in between. We jumped into the water at Playa Dorado and it was so warm. It was also the first black sand beach I’ve been to and it was a bit surreal to play in the surf with blackness starkly under the frothy white foam. There were only two places to stay on Playa Dorado, one at the only restaurant and the other at a couple’s beautiful home.
The next day we rode along the coast to Playa El Tunco. This approximately 50km stretch was the highlight of riding in El Salvador with stunning views of beaches as it winded over the rocky headland shore. Though the ride was hilly, the road was absolutely amazing with great quality roads and wide shoulders and gently graded with the road blasted through hillsides. These portions themselves were so beautiful as there would be high rocky cliffs on both sides of the road covered with fig trees growing straight out of the rock and other plants.
When the road was not carved through the rock, it tunneled through it and there were five tunnels in this leg of the journey. As we rode through the surfing beaches, there would be signs on the side of the road cautioning drivers to “surfistas en la via” – surfers on the road. The ride was hot but there would always be little restaurants, often with breath-taking views, serving up cold drinks and food. Our favourite has been liquidos – fruit blended up with ice and water or milk – basically fruit smoothies and milkshakes!
We spent five nights at Playa El Tunco, a famous surfing beach in El Salvador. Wooden and bamboo patios and buildings hang over the El Tunco river in this chill beachside village full of laid-back local and visiting surfers. Surfers seem to keep coming back to this spot as our neighbour in the hotel, also from BC, Canada, comes here every year for a couple months to surf and another man we met came here to surf and ended up marrying into the big family that seems to run almost all of the businesses here. It is a special place, full of love, people kept telling us and after five days here, we totally understood. We spent our days surfing or at least trying to surf and having fun in the waves. It is really hot here but you spend so much of your time in the water…or having post-surfing ice cream… or chilling in the pool which all hotels seem to have…that the heat just doesn’t seem to bad. We took a day trip into La Liberdad, an old nearby port city, where the wharf was the highlight. The fishermen’s boats are lifted right onto the wharf and the secret is to walk through the bustling fish market to the fishermen’s boat where they sell their just caught fish that is so fresh, it is often still flapping. Bryan and I bought a big tuna right from a young fisherman for only 2 bucks!
After El Tunco, we spent three days riding 230km to the border with Honduras via La Liberdad, Zacatecoluca (try saying that name five times fast!), Usulutan and San Miguel. San Miguel was the biggest city that we visited here in El Salvador and riding in on the busy highway past megamalls, Pizza Huts, Wendy’s and of course, the local favorite Pollo Campero, was a whole new experience compared to the relaxed countryside with rolling hills of tall, green sugarcane. Every town that we passed through was collision of all of the sensory smells and colours of life, the market, food stands and colourfully painted chicken buses tooting their horns as town edged in on the road. San Miguel was like that on steroids. Still, looking out over the corrugated tin roofs of the city, with the twin towers of the church in the centre of the city with the backdrop of the mighty San Miguel volcano looming in the background and walking through the leafy central plaza with other local people chatting on the picnic benches and others cramming into already full chicken buses does give the city a certain charm.
We had a little bike trouble coming into San Miguel as Bryan got a flat and then his spindle holding the tire to the bike snapped as he was putting the wheel back on the bike. However, this experience just further showed the amazing friendliness of El Salvadorians as a local bus worker helped us out, directed us to a great nearby bike shop he knew and even got us fruit after we had been working on the bike for a while. Bryan is also amazing and was able to put something together from his jumbled bag of spare parts to make it another couple kilometres to the bike shop.
We finished our ride in El Salvador from San Miguel to the El Amatillo at the border with Honduras, our only day of riding through desert inland hills and little towns and villages. A few kilometres out of the busy city of San Miguel, we were back in the rural countryside with wizzen old men and women with their frilly lacy aprons and white lace hankerchiefs tied over their hair looking at us in wonder as we rode by and then breaking out in a grin and soft greeting as we say hello. There was this one stretch of the road today where there were succulent rip and blushing red mango stands on both sides of the road. We, of-course, stopped and indulged. We knew we were getting close to the border when there was all of a sudden a long line of semi-trucks seemingly parked on the road, waiting for some checkpoint that did not apply to cyclists. There is only one open hotel at the little border town and we were introduced to the idea of the “universal key” – aka a stick. The hotel does not have any of their keys to their rooms but rather use a stick that they stick down a hole in the door above the lock to pull open the latch. We celebrated both riding through El Salvador and crossing over 7000km ridden on our bikes since Canada by one last dinner of pupusas. Pupusas, the national food of El Salvador, are stuffed tortillas, often with delicious refried beans and cheese, fried before your eyes and eaten with homemade local sourkraut and tomato sauce. Yum!
EL SALVADOR STATS
Frontera La Hachadura to Frontera El Amatillo
March 19, 2014 to March 27, 2014
5 nights in Playa El Tunco
5 days riding to cross the country
This section consisted of 9 days
Day 199 to 207 (of overall trip) –in month 7 of the trip
Total km travelled 418.5 km
Daily average 83.7 km per riding day (5 out of 9 were riding days)
Number of rest days – 4 days
Route A-2 from border until turnoff to Acajutla and then we were on the busy CA-12 for about 3 kilometres until turning back onto the coastal CA-2 for a brilliant long gradual downhill for about 10km. We followed CA-2 on the coast through the beautiful beaches then through Zacatecoluca and Usulutan until it turns towards the coast to El Cuco. At that junction, we took RN-17 inland to San Miguel. From San Miguel, we took RN-18 to the border.
Weather – 9 days sunny – always a headwind when we’re riding!
Accommodation – 9 nights hotel