Travel writer and author Timothy Mathis ignores advice from fellow travelers and makes his way to El Salvador’s small port city of La Union — notorious for gangs and violence.
They told me not to go to La Union, but it’s midnight, and I’m shirtless and sweating in a windowless room, lying on a frayed topsheet — the only bedding provided at an $8-per-night hotel in this port town in El Salvador. I could be drinking microbrews at a resort. Instead I’m worrying about Salvadoran gangs breaking down my door. I have to wonder if I’m naive for being here. But I’m probably overreacting, constructing imaginary threats out of my own prejudice.
After a month of Spanish lessons in Guatemala, my wife Angel and I traveled south towards Costa Rica on Central America’s segment of the Gringo Trail, where vans full of American students, German surfers, and dreadlocked Australian hippies drift between humid, sandy backpacker enclaves in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
While most people take the highway, there’s a variant of the trail that skirts around Honduras and crosses the Gulf of Fonseca by boat from El Salvador to Potosi, Nicaragua. The overland route is unremarkable, but the gulf is an adventure through a beautiful, ecologically important, and rarely-touristed tropical paradise. Perfect.
The boat to Nicaragua leaves from the port town of La Union, but most backpackers stay an hour south in El Cuco, where there is an American-owned beach resort that has a direct connection with a guy who will get you to your ferry, no problem. El Cuco is known to be a tranquil, beautiful place. Getting there, though, does require side tracking, so we weren’t sure that we would stop.
The website for the American-owned resort was the only place I could find information in English about the crossing, so I sent an email for advice on whether it was possible to arrange boat departure directly from La Union.
The message I received back was a stern warning about La Union, which the American said was no place for gringos. There’s nothing to do there, and it’s not a nice town. In fact, it’s unsafe for travelers. El Cuco is much nicer. There is delicious food and a beautiful beach. Don’t go there, come here!
We’d only been in Central America for a month, so what did I know about La Union? The thing is, though, that every gringo in Central America has an image of what kind of traveler they want to be. You don’t want to be a coward, but you also don’t want to take unnecessary risks. You don’t want to be naive, but you also don’t want to be judgemental. You don’t want to miss the adventure, but you also don’t want to end up in somebody’s trunk or in a Salvadoran prison.
All of this goes through your mind when you’re offered advice from another traveler. What if they’re the type of gringo that you’re trying not to be?
I don’t know what kind of gringo that guy was, but his warning had the opposite of its intended effect. Surely La Union would be fine. I did some research, and it had a Burger King. How bad could it possibly be?
So we booked a hotel close to the port, where we’d catch a boat the next morning.
In our room there was a single exposed light bulb. There were no windows, and the walls were yellowing and undecorated. The linens were clean, and the attendant was polite, but this was no beach resort in El Cuco.
After killing our afternoon wandering around, we felt that La Union was like other Central American towns on the surface. It was a tangle of busy streets patrolled by lazy dogs, scattered with their turds. The locals exuded a relaxed indifference towards us, and the central business district was full of teenagers huddled around televisions, stands selling corn pupusas, and music. The air was warm and smelled like motorcycle exhaust and the ocean and overripe fruit and fish. It was the first place we’d been since Guatemala City where there were no other backpackers around.
We had all day, so we stopped at a bar on the water. You shouldn’t go out drinking in strange Salvadoran port towns, but it was just us and a group of professional-looking men in khakis and polo shirts. We ordered a couple of Pilsners, the ubiquitous local beer, and I picked a Pearl Jam song on the jukebox. It reminded me of home, in Seattle, but here we were, relaxing our way into the real Central America with the locals.
Before Pearl Jam made it past their first verse, one of the polo’d guys stood up, stepped around us to the jukebox, and switched on a song called “Frijolero.” It’s a great Mexican tune, don’t get me wrong, but the chorus is a series of obscene curses about gringo wankers. He sat back down, smirking at his friends.
There’s a thing that happens in places where you aren’t fluent in the language, where you slip into a defensive obliviousness about what people are saying. When you feel confronted, it’s easy enough to assume that you just don’t understand and they’re probably being friendly. In this case, though, the message was clear. I didn’t come to a Salvadoran border town for problems, so we left after one drink.
We walked back to the hotel, chastened by La Union before we even made it to happy hour. With nothing to do we decided to practice Spanish with the clerk who was sitting bored behind the desk in an empty lobby. After fumbling to introduce ourselves, he slipped into perfect English.
“I’m Miguel. Is it easier if we speak English?”
Like 25% of Salvadorans, Miguel had lived in the States — Maryland, to be specific. He was a dual citizen because one of his parents was American, and while he was only 17 now, he hoped to move back soon.
“Ah, it’s just… It’s not safe here, with the gangs…”
He was clearly uncomfortable answering the question, and we didn’t want to press him, so we went upstairs for a shower and a nap.
At 6 p.m., just as the sun was setting, we decided to find dinner. Miguel was pulling a solid metal door across the entrance to the courtyard.
“Hey – do you have any advice for places to eat?”
“Now? You shouldn’t go out now. It’s not safe here after dark.”
I was already anxious after the “gringo wanker” song in the bar, but I could see a Little Caesar’s just up the street. “I guess we’ll go to the pizza place then?”
“Ah, okay, but I should call you a taxi.”
“Really? It’s right there — I can see it.”
“Yes, but it’s not safe. Maybe it’s okay if you go to the grocery, but it’s not safe here at night.”
The grocery was less than a block away.
“I’ll wait by the door to make sure you get there.”
The sun had set just minutes before, but the streets were already empty. While this was probably a coincidence, we didn’t even see any street dogs. It was just us, the turds, and the steel gates protecting the doors and windows against the night.
“Jeez, what’s going on around here?”
We grabbed bread, cheese, fruit, a couple of Pilsners, and hurried back to our hotel, trying not to look like kidnapping marks. We knocked on the closed steel door. Miguel’s face appeared through a small window, and he rushed us in, saying nothing. We climbed the stairs to our room to eat, sleep, and hide from whatever it was that everyone was nervous about.
Late at night, you worry in a windowless cell like that. Light trickles through cracks in the door, and you imagine it would be easy enough for someone to kick it down.
You imagine what you’d actually do in that scenario.
In the end, all of the worries are hypothetical. I drift off and the night passes quietly.
The next morning, the sun was out, and the air was warm. We grabbed pastries from a corner stand and headed to catch our boat to Nicaragua. The port was sleepy. There were a few fishermen, but nothing that looked like a ferry.
We did what you do in this situation and waited around. We had been told to meet here, but the boat was scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. When I checked my watch, it was ten after. I wasn’t excited about another night in La Union, and I was contemplating the embarrassment of calling the American in El Cuco for help.
Finally, at 8:45 our captain arrived, unbothered in a faded t-shirt, sun hat, and flip flops.
“Hola! Hola! We’ll be ready in a few minutes!”
Our passports were stamped by a disinterested official in the small customs office, and a long, thin motorboat landed on the beach — a white canopy on top, the hull a speckled blue fiberglass that had started to fade in the relentless sun. It seemed like a flimsy craft for such a significant crossing, but we loaded our gear and set out, relieved.
We’d made it out of La Union unscathed. It was a sunny day. The water was sheltered, and the views of the gulf were the picture of Central American romance. We motored past lush forests, palm trees, and sandy beaches where lazy fishermen were casting their lines. We could see Honduras, and the captain explained that no single country gets to claim the Gulf of Fonseca. It’s shared between El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. It’s a beautiful place, but there’s always been tension. It used to be patrolled by pirates, but the captain reassured us that it’s now peaceful, a protected ecosystem.
The sea seemed to back up his claims of peace until we passed the shelter of the headlands. The waves picked up, and our tiny boat started to bounce. The air temperature shifted from balmy in the sun to frigid in the wind. We put on our jackets. Looking down at the water, we were surrounded by swarms of jellyfish.
Crawling along, the captain occasionally burst into laughter when sea spray drenched us. Angel looked tense, her hands clenching the canopy stanchion. We jumped a particularly large swell and the bottom of the boat came down flat with a whomp. The engine died, and the captain cursed, yanking at the rope start on the outboard. He frantically pulled down the cloth canopy while we jostled, water splashing over the bow, the engine whirring as it lifted in and out of the water with the waves.
Soon the captain’s laughter was nervous rather than reassuring. “No problem! No problem!”
I tightened my life jacket and noticed that the shore couldn’t be more than a mile away. Surely we could swim there. Through the jellyfish? Into the Honduran jungle?
We struggled along this way until we made it to the shelter of another headland. The water calmed, and so did we as we anchored on a broad beach in Potosi.
A few hours later, we were in the charming colonial town of León, lying in a hostel hammock, surrounded by Australians and Americans and white kids with dreadlocks.
I wrote a message to some friends back home about how we’d just gone to a place that we’d been told was dangerous, but it was fine. We went out drinking and didn’t get into a fight. We went out after dark and didn’t get robbed. We stayed in a spartan hotel, and no one broke in. We took a bumpy local lancha, and we didn’t sink.
It was true. All of my anxiety had come to nothing. But after that, we did go back to the Gringo Trail. And while I don’t regret staying in La Union, I have to admit that if somebody asked, I’m sure I’d mention the steel doors, the nervous locals, the jerks in the bar, and the dubious crossing. I’m not sure what kind of gringo this makes me, but I’d probably tell them to stay in El Cuco.