​Half-Way Home: A Surf Adventure

It’s always striking how perspective can change and Lima has felt like the anchor point for these shifts throughout my trip. Landing in Lima for a third time, my journey from the airport was a wild one. It’s pretty rare for tourists to take the public bus from the airport, but it’s the perfect window into working class Lima and the price is right so I opt for this route. The bus stop is a lively, chaotic place. Small minibuses drift into the pickup zone from the highway at full speed. Fare collectors hang out the sliding doors hooting at other busses as they narrowly avoid collision. Yelling out in an undecipherable shorthand where the bus is going. Locals pile in and out. Before the dust settles from such an aggressive entrance the tires squeal, peeling out back onto the main road. As I waited for my bus, a rather comfortable public shuttle not dissimilar to what you would find in NYC or Paris, I marvel at this loosely organized system and how efficient it does appear to be, moving people rapidly with little fuss. It’s also a bit of a shock to the system. After three months in Chile, I had forgotten how much looser things tend to be in Peru and it was exhilarating to be tossed back into the frenzy.

Back where it all began

My bus became deeply entrenched in Lima traffic, though the lawlessness of the bus station had been fun, less order on the roads leads to frustration in transit. However this was a good opportunity to observe the city and the spectacular shift of socio-economic status that occurs between Jorge Chavez International and Miraflores. Around the airport you are in a developing country. And in some directions people are living in complete poverty, without access to electricity, plumbing, or clean water. On the flip side, Miraflores, where I was staying, and the surrounding areas are ultra-fancy, far beyond anything in the Chilean cities I had grown accustomed to. Ferrari’s made drive-buys at Michelin star studded top 50 restaurants, and perfectly manicured private estates lined the cliffs. I think the most surprising aspect of this disparity on my third trip through the city was how separate these two worlds were. It’s completely possible to live in a bubble of affluence, so sheltered that you could forget that the person landscaping that luxury high rise may go home to candle light.

One evening a friend I had made on an earlier visit invited me to what was more or less a networking event of sustainably focused startups and creatives in the city. It was an amazing experience, hosted at a coworking space where his company was based, I got to chat with entrepreneurs of all types about their projects. It was a huge departure from anything else I had done during my trip and it was both fascinating and fun. I had a long conversation on this topic of wealth disparity and isolation with some new acquaintances and their perspectives ranged the gamut but were thought provoking nonetheless. I’m still working through how this type of observation should be incorporated into my life moving forward, both personally and professionally.

After some deep conversation the event took a turn. Free beer lead to an unexpected trip to see a local, legendary surf rock band in the basement of a nearby bar. It was magnificent, in the small nondescript building these guys were shredding, laying down classic 60s and 70s vibe surf riffs. Dancing a grooving got me focused, as the reason I had come back to Lima, and why I would leave in such haste, was to go catch some of the best waves the Americas have to offer.

At 5:00am I groggily stumbled off a plane at a tiny airport. The sun was just starting to come over the horizon but already I was desperate to change out of jeans. Denim was simply not intended for the tropics, at least not for me. My phone buzzed as I connected to WiFi and across the lightly staffed customs barrier stood two faces I had not seen in quite some time. It was my first encounter with anyone from home other than Abi for six months, and after a quick stamp and paper shuffle at border control I was in arms length of two longtime friends and surf companions Will and Ryan. Reunited and pleasantries exchanged, the waves of El Salvador were calling. The only thing standing in our way was the baggage carousel.

Around and around it spun, but the eight foot long, two foot wide mammoth of a checked surf bag never appeared. Five in the morning after a medium haul flight is not a good time for any type of confrontation, especially not when it involves expensive surf equipment being lost in the international cargo shuffle. Needless to say tensions were high as we approached the lone baggage attendant. Though courteous and seemingly doing her best, no progress was made on the bag’s location and after an hour elapsed it was clear no further information was going to be made available.  We left the airport board-less and made the short trip to El Tunco, the surf hub of El Salvador; a thin, yet dark vail was resting upon the trip.*

Life moves slow in El Tunco

The boards were M.I.A but the swell was up so moping around wasn’t an option. We rented some decent offerings from the hostel and hit the water. La Bocana, a beach break in town was firing so we paddled into the lineup. Smooth, well-seasoned rocks comprised the beach ranging in size from softball to Mini Cooper. High tide was a must to make sure the largest of the boulders were sufficiently submerged. The paddle out is fairly non-threatening as a deeper channel provides a mostly hazard free route to the wave. However, once in the impact zone (the area where the waves begin to break) thick, heavy, outside sets can approach, wreaking havoc upon anyone who isn’t able to clear the area. A few good waves each set the mood right for all, but like clockwork the now fully established sun began to turn the waves sour. As the sun comes up each day in places like El Salvador the air is rapidly heating, this happens much quicker over land then water, where the ocean acts as a temperature regulator. The hot air expands on the land creating lower pressure, causing the higher pressure air over the water to migrate, generating an on shore wind. This is not good for waves and thus mid-day becomes a dead period where it’s both blisteringly hot and the waves are not as good. Time for a siesta.

Rinsing off my board I realized a slight tragedy had occurred. Somehow, during my first session of the trip, the central fin along with the fin box ripped out from the board. Still day one and the group simply couldn’t catch a break. Upon further inspection it appeared that the board must have been compromised before I took it out, as I had no recollection of, and there was no evidence of a tango with rocks during the surf. Will, being a man of preparation had, extra fins on hand and I was able to convert the board from a three fin thruster into a quad fin. I’ll spare the details about what this means but in general it was not ideal for the surf, but in a bind it would do. I duct taped up the damage and vowed to deal with it later in secrecy, lest the hostel see it and over charge me to have it repaired.

Well that doesn't look good...

Warmed up on the beach break and ready to get into the real action the next stop was to El Zonte. 8km away from town up and down a windy jungle road El Zonte is a delicious point break. On the best of days it’s a super long, predictable wave; breaking surfers left to right off of submerged rock formations. A point break is a surfer’s heaven as every wave does exactly the same thing, every time, allowing one to paddle out without even wetting their hair. But when the elements are not perfectly suited, surprise giants can cut through the middle of everything and clean out the whole bay. The surf looked great, it also looked crowded, very crowded. In a place like El Salvador the lineup tends to be pretty split between locals and tourists and this can cause a lot of tension and strife. Opinions on how much courtesy locals deserve and how much local entitlement one has can vary greatly and disagreements on such topics do not go well. Localism in general is my least favorite aspect of surfing, and even giving a generous dose of leeway it’s inevitable. Someone will get pissed off at you eventually in a lineup 75 strong. Like a Band-Aid I got my first rip in quickly. I failed to catch a completely uncontested and not great wave from the middle of the pack, a situation that should not have even registered on anyone’s radar, yet a local body boarder felt this was the perfect opportunity to give me a firm curse out and establish whose waves I was surfing. As mentioned earlier, it was a tough first day for all. Rattled I kept my distance and entered a bit of a lull. As the day progressed the crowd thinned, the waves got better and finally after a solid hour and a half just floating around I found my rhythm.

Though crowded, a hotspot like El Zonte has many perks. The main is that it’s a first class wave, substantially better than the best days at home on average and when it truly goes off, only the best of the best are out, putting on clinics for those gawking from the dry (and safe) sidelines. There are also no shortage of people on land documenting the events. At any given moment at least a couple drones were buzzing around filming rides from the air, and on the crumbling cement walls protecting the small village from high tide and storm surges, talented photographers capture every ride, which they will happily share with you post session, for a fee. This is probably the best money making scheme a young surfer can have in El Salvador and our provider, Luis, was a true hustler. He took thousands of photos every day and made his rounds in the afternoon to sell his shots. It’s rare to have your surf document, let alone well and by someone with appropriate gear, so when Ryan surprised Will and I with photos as a gift from the trip it was a truly appreciated gentlemen’s move.

Lineing one up at El Zonte

For two more days myself, Will and Ryan scored excellent waves at El Zonte. With each passing day I became more comfortable and familiar with the lineup and thus able to improve my positing in the hustle and bustle. A few more sessions at La Bocana proved eventful as well, with some more powerful, albeit, shorter waves. Short and sweet was my time with Ryan and Will, having these things called ‘jobs’ their journey was cut short, and after four days they returned home. But with the departure of old friends came the arrival of new, and specifically one very unexpected cameo appearance. As I sat by the hostel pool one evening, enjoying a crisp, cold lager to combat the grueling tropical heat, a familiar face passed by. For any long time readers, my third post on this blog recounted a day of hiking with a Slovakian guy when Abi had acquired an obligatory bout of Peruvian food poisoning. Six months later, sure enough, this same man showed up just in time when my other companions were down and out. It was a perfect coincidence and we immediately became daily surf companions. Will and Ryan’s departure also marked the loss of a rental car we had hired, making further trips to El Zonte difficult. But a new incoming swell landed right in the pocket of El Sunzal, a gentle giant of a point break on the opposite side of town.

A Building swell filling into El Sunzal at low tide

My first session out at El Sunzal was fairly uneventful. The paddle out is exhausting as the main break lies two to three hundred meters from shore depending on tide. As a newcomer to the spot I hung back to get a feel for the ebbs and flows of both the water and the people while resting my now noodle arms. Towards the end of the session I had a grasp on the set up and grabbed a bomb, a big outside right that peeled in for what felt like ages. A wave so long my legs were tired, a single wave that embodied a day or two of good New Jersey surf. Pulling off the shoulder I flopped on my back, overwhelmed by the wave, exhausted from the day. I was close to shore, and the paddle back to the takeoff seemed infinite, I headed in. The swell would build for the next two days, and I knew this was going to be my new office.

El Tunco is a tiny surfer’s town. It has only one real road that operates as a one way, cars enter from one side and leave from the other, a drive-through city. It’s quick to know the faces of those who hang around for a while, and I slowly began to build a routine at my favorite spots. My mornings started early, 5:30 or 6:00 as it was too hot to remain in bed. By 6:15 I was at Dale Dale, a great cafe in route to the beach serving good El Salvadorian coffee. It had a wonderful shady patio to relax on from which I could scope out the morning swell in almost complete peace. Unfortunately, they played Fox News with volume on every day as though to avoid making my utopia a reality. Perhaps that’s their way of keeping the carefree surf contingent grounded; reminding us all that the whole world isn’t a beach front vacation. My coffee was served unordered, I suppose I became a creature of habit but from time to time I would throw a curveball at the friendly staff and add on one of their tasty breakfast offerings. I surfed El Sunzal all day, every day, for the rest of my time in El Salvador and every day it was perfect. For five or more hours I bobbed around in the water and each passing session I got a bit more slack from the locals and long term visitors. I recognized all the faces in the water, and the quality of both the waves of got and the way I surfed them began to skyrocket. For the first time in my life I was making rapid improvement as a surfer and it was unbelievably rewarding. I imagine the time on wave acquired in these nine days doubled my usual annual volume. I reached a new peak in my surf career. After each surf I sat at a small bar on the beach and watched the rest of the day’s waves pass by, sipping on an ultra-refreshing Pilsener beer as the sun set across the point (El Tunco’s unique SSW facing beaches are the key to its spectacularly consistent surf).

Golden hour

Though I cooked most meals (read: breakfast tacos all day every day!) it was impossible not to supplement with the delicious cuisine on offer. I found some edible gems in South America, this is true, but entering Central America and being offered a more Mexican style of Latin fare, it’s instantly obvious why Mexico is renowned globally for its food and Chile is not. Burritos stuffed to explosion with Pico de Gallo, beans, cheese, and spiced meat we irresistible as were the El Salvadorian specialty of Papusas. A Papusa starts as a bucket of dough, the artist creating such delicacy then grabs a small ball and makes a large dimple, stuffs it full of all kinds of good things, seals it up, smashes it flat and griddles it to crispy perfection. The process is slow, made to order, and delicious. Often served with a pickled slaw and hot sauce, 2-3 make a meal and at less than a dollar a pop it’s a great deal. My favorite papusaria, on the edge of town was also my favorite burrito joint, it was rare that I skipped a day.

Papusas in process

Along with my daily surfs, post surf lounging, and papusa consumption, a darker, more secretive affair was taking place on the hostel balcony. That surfboard that broke, It still needed fixing and slowly but surely I was making progress taking care to not let the hostel staff realize it was their board on the mend. I acquired the missing parts from a ubiquitously recommended board repair guy who operated out of a parking lot in town. He knew what was up and provided the parts needed as well as some sand paper of different grits for a small fee. I did a little surgery removing the remainder of the broken component and cleaned up the area with my high grit paper. I glassed in the new fin box using a spare fin to make sure everything stayed nice and aligned. Sanding it smooth took days as this was more of a rotary sander scaled job, but by hand is the craftsman’s way I suppose. Once flat I reinforced the region with another glassing and wet sanded to smooth. I bought a cheapo fin from a used board shop and clamped it in, good as new(ish). As my cab arrived to take me to the airport I put the board back on the rental rack, no time to argue as I loaded my bag and drove away. The screen read Newark, cloudy, 60F, and with one last gracias as my ticket was checked, Spanish was no longer the preferred language of my travels.

NYC, Que tal!? 

NYC, Que tal!? 




* After Ryan spent many hours calling the airline (Volaris should not be trusted) and then making a group trip to the El Salvador airport to chat with the airline face to face it turned out the boards never left JFK. The good news was that Will and Ryan’s surfboards were not lost forever, the bad news was they were not making it to Èl Salvador. They picked up the boards upon returning home and it’s unlikely the compensation provided by the airline will overcome the hassle. But, such is life, gotta take the good with the bad, and the surf was good!