In September of last year (2014), my itch for a surf trip finally got to me. I started planning, researching, and attempting to recruit friends to come along. It quickly became apparent that the latter effort would be mostly fruitless - people who like to surf simply don’t live in cities like Atlanta. I thought of the prospect of going it alone. I had never taken a solo trip before, though it seemed daunting and exciting at the same time. Knowing that I just had to go surfing, changing the destination or purpose of the trip wasn’t an option. My remaining options were to cancel the trip or to go by myself. Almost stubbornly, I refused to cancel the trip. I settled on El Salvador, booked a hostel, scraped together enough skymiles for a flight and tried to prepare myself for a new adventure. I think a part of me felt like I had something to prove to myself. Strangely, it didn’t come from a place of doubt or mistrust, but what seemed as a simple desire to be tested. I left a cold and rainy Georgia November with adventure in mind - I quickly found I would not be disappointed.
As I stepped out of the international airport in San Salvador I felt as if I’d just walked on stage for a performance. After clearing customs and walking the final stretch of dusty linoleum, I stepped through doors that opened to an immensely crowded, fenced off space created for arriving travelers to seek out their loved ones, travel partners, or business contacts. The tropical 85 degree air warmly greeted me along with the stares of a couple hundred Salvadorans. They focused on me only momentarily, quickly realizing I wasn’t who they were looking for. Surprised by the sudden surge of attention, I awkwardly started one way only to turn around and go back the other way, trying my best to quickly get out of the open space while also looking around for my name on a sign. I knew I was to be picked up here once I had cleared customs, but I remembered I was early. I made my way to the far side of the fence and tried to get a better view of the crowd. My mind hadn’t yet settled in to the spirit of adventure, and it started to play through ridiculous scenarios and what if’s. Naturally, I began to assume my ride wouldn’t show up, leaving me stranded in San Salvador. Cue internal dialogue about the soundness of my decision to make this trip alone. After 30 or 40 embarrassingly tense moments, I was relieved to see a boardshorts and t-shirt clad Salvadoran shuffle up from the back of the crowd with my name on a sign. I walked over, handed him my information, and introduced myself in broken Spanish. I was quick to find that Mateo spoke English very well, and we talked back and forth as we walked to his truck. Leaving the airport, I settled in to the two and half hour drive to Playa Las Flores talking intermittently with Mateo. About halfway through the drive, we stopped at a small service station and got a couple of bottles of water. Getting back into the truck, Mateo mentioned that all of the service stations and most places of business in El Salvador had armed guards. Already knowing of the security and crime issues El Salvador faced, I asked Mateo if that sort of a thing was a problem here, gangs (Maras, as they’re called in El Salvador) and such. He replied, “no, not at all. I know some bad people in the city, but they’re my contacts.” He finished his statement with a laugh, and I tried to laugh along with him, not knowing whether I should feel safer or much, much more concerned.
The rest of the drive in was more or less uneventful, and I was excited to finally reach Las Flores. The paved roads lasted almost all the way to El Cuco, the closest village to Las Flores. After driving through town, we climbed a bit of a hill and suddenly the ocean came into view on my left. The blue expanse extended far to the west, washing over dark sand beaches, and, as I looked ahead to the south, I saw the rollers easing in past the point that creates the Las Flores point break. Mateo was unimpressed as the swell was pretty average, but to me, a landlocked city dweller, the waves looked glorious. We parked in front of the gate leading up to the property where I would be spending the next week. I grabbed my things and headed towards the quaint building situated on the very tip of the point and I was met halfway and greeted by Julio, the manager of the property. Anxious to surf, I quickly settled my things in my room and threw on a pair of board shorts.
The walk to the beach was about five minutes as I had to walk all the way back down the point and then east a little ways to the front of the beach. I carried nothing but a key (in my pocket) and surfboard, and, before I knew it, I was wading into the perfectly warmed Pacific Ocean of Central America. As warm as it was, the water was a welcome respite from the heat of the day. The sun started to dip over the point to the west so I sat in the shade as I watched for a set to roll in. Paddling into my first wave, I surprised myself by actually making it. After a quick turn, the wave closed out and bowled me over with a rush of whitewater. I came up smiling, giddy to be surfing again. I knew I would surf almost more this week than I had surfed over the course of my whole life and I could not have been more excited. After enjoying the ocean for another hour or so and catching a few more waves, I headed back up as it started to get dark.
I pieced together enough Spanish to put in an order with Julio and relaxed at the table. As the trip wore on, I would learn that Julio ran the place for the most part. He also liked lifting weights and smoking a little weed here and there - though we weren’t able to communicate much, he was as nice as he could be and never failed to wear a smile. There was another guest there from Norway, but he currently lived in France. We chatted a bit as we both waited on our meals and arranged an early morning ride to Punta Mango, a point break about a twenty minute boat ride from Las Flores. I ate well that night and I knew I was going to enjoy the food - it was much like what I had experienced in Costa Rica. Worn out from the previous work week and the day of traveling, I went to bed early that night.
The days started to blur together as I got into the meat of the trip and settled into the rhythm of surfing, eating, reading, and sleeping. The first couple of days were somewhat lonely - I knew this would happen when I decided to go on a solo trip, but I expected it later in the trip rather than at the beginning. There were only so many hours in each day that my unconditioned arms could handle the constant (and sometimes frantic) paddling that comes along with surfing. That left several hours of lounging around in hammocks and reading, thinking, or napping. I was thankful I had brought a few good novels with me. I polished off Cormac McCarthy’s The Road before the end of the second day, and I made it most of the way through Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms before the trip was over. Even getting sucked in by the stories couldn’t quite pull my mind away from the thought of how much better this would be if I had a good friend with me. I felt the creep of loneliness on the fringes of my thoughts, and I reminded myself why I came. I had to cling to the beliefs I hold dear and I thought of how well loved I was by so many back home. It’s funny how loneliness feels almost like panic at first - like so many other hurtful things, I think it’s just a loss of perspective. Those first couple days made the trip feel like it was the new reality, but I was simply being shortsighted. By the second or third day of my trip I had made good friends with a Brazilian named Cesar who arrived a couple days later than me. He was a fantastic surfer and an overall really nice guy - a joy to talk to and get to know. Cesar spoke Portuguese, English, and Spanish - his Spanish was not so good according to him, but it was light years ahead of mine. Between the two of us, we were able to talk to and even get to know the staff (who knew only Spanish) a bit. By the middle of the trip, the loneliness I had started to feel during the first couple of days subsided to the point of almost vanishing. I was too preoccupied thinking through the challenge of the next surfing session or replaying the incredible memories of the last one. My focus had settled on the trip and I started to enjoy every minute more and more - I was dazzled by the beautiful country, thankful to have good company, and blissfully exhausted from abusing myself in the water.
On my last full day of surfing in El Salvador, I had a bit of a close call in the water at the rocky point break, Punta Mango. Punta Mango is a remote break that can pull very powerful waves if there is any size to the swell - it breaks over a rock reef and there is no beach, only more rocks. It can also get pretty shallow when the tide is out. Having surfed it all week, I had grown pretty comfortable with the wave and I was confident in my ability to surf it safely. With that in mind, I paddled into the first wave of what I would find out was a very big set (most waves worth taking come in sets of 5-10 depending on the spot, swell etc.). Unfortunately, I didn’t make the drop (I wiped out..). Frustrated with myself, I broke the surface of the water and turned to see the next set wave breaking a good ten yards out from where I washed up. Now I had to struggle to make it back outside and keep from getting pummeled. Having a bit of a thicker board, duck diving under the waves was a mostly futile effort but I tried anyway. The first wave caught me off guard with just how powerful it was and how much further towards shore it pushed me back. I came up fiercely paddling to meet the next one. Wave after wave, I kept getting caught and slammed, further and further back each time. On the fourth or fifth wave I felt my feet scrape across the rock reef as I got washing machined by another set wave. On the verge of panic, I came up paddling as hard as I could, terrified the next wave would slam me squarely onto rocks. The set must have been close to ten waves and by the time I finally got out I was completely spent and a little shaken - it wasn’t by any means a life threatening situation, but I could’ve been injured badly and it’s a long, long way to a hospital down there. Looking back I laugh at the things I said to myself as I paddled with all I had (I had my GoPro on the whole time.. enjoy the embarrassing video below - against my better judgement, I'm sharing it here). Whether the danger was real or perceived, it challenged me in a way I could never duplicate or create myself. Much like the trip as a whole, I knew that instance was an important one to overcome.
I think that’s my one big plug for encouraging a solo trip - everyone should do it once (assuming you have the means and time, of course), if for nothing else, simply to prove to yourself that you can. The next time you’re doubting your ability or your talent or you’re just not feeling so confident, you’ll find yourself thinking, “well if I can go to such and such country and do such and such crazy activity with complete strangers, I think I can handle fill in the blank.” And you most certainly can. We all need those reminders every now and then, and what better way to test your mettle than a solo quest for adventure? At the very least, you’ll come away with some epic stories and some memories that are just for you.