Prior to El Tunco, I’d only touched the Pacific Ocean once, on a business trip to Los Angeles. I was driving back from a deposition to LAX and had just enough time to stop by Venice Beach in my suit, take my shoes off, get accosted by dudes trying to hand me their mixtape while asking what label I work for, take a few photos, and shuffle my feet into the surf before I flew back to Chicago.
There are no mixtapes in El Tunco.
It’s incredibly tiny — maybe the smallest village I’ll stay in on the whole trip. There’s an access road from the coastal highway that leads past a few houses and then you get to the heart of this …well you can’t call it a surf mecca. Mecca is huge. A surf apparition of the Virgin Mary in the viaduct at the Fullerton exit of the Kennedy would be more appropriate to describe the size of El Tunco.
First order of business as usual is finding lodging. I get set up in a private little hut (with bath! and an outdoor hammock!) by the beach for $20 a night (my most expensive accommodation so far; I don’t know it yet, but this is my last night not in a dorm until Panama City). And then it’s time to head to the water.
Most of the beach at El Tunco is black sand, which I’ve never seen before. And a portion of the beach, including the part right by my room, is actually black rocks about the size of grapefruit, worn smooth by the tide, and which make a really phenomenal sound as the waves move in and out, ceaselessly raking them over each other, until they are ground into sand, which doesn’t stick to your legs any more or less than white sand does, but certainly is a lot more noticeable once it’s on you. I run into the water to get it off me.
It’s the first time I’ve swum in the Pacific Ocean. It’s still only March, so I’m expecting the cool water temperatures of Atitlan, but instead I’m surprised by the warmth of the waves as they crash over me. As I taste the brine, it occurs to me that I haven’t swum in any ocean since I was in high school, on a trip to Florida with my parents. Not that I haven’t been feeling far less depressed than usual starting from day one in Guatemala, but finally at this moment there is nothing troubling my mind but the rocks and the sea and the sand.
Relaxing as it all is I’m still feeling a little worn out from my trip in, and I call it an early night.
The next day I trot over to the board rental place eager to take a surfing lesson only to find that the surf is apparently too high for lessons, and I should try again tomorrow. The surf IS strong and I know that because I go out there to jump around in the ocean some more and start body surfing, which is to say just launching myself on top of waves as they break without a board. I’m not good at estimating wave heights but you can take a look at the photos for a sense of it. It’s a lot of fun, but on my second wave the surf pushes me to the bottom and I land on my rib cage hard, sort of like taking a bad dive playing goal in a soccer game. I shake it off and ride a few more waves until a huge one comes in and flips me ass over teakettle. All I know is that I’m upside down and hurtling headfirst to the ocean floor. I manage to get my arms out in front of me to lessen the impact a little but the wave brings home the piledriver, I land on the top of my head anyway and I feel a nice crunch as my spine absorbs the blow. Lucky to have escaped paralysis, I decide that’s enough swimming for the day and I play fetch with a stray pitbull instead. She follows me home and hangs out with me on my private porch while I read in a hammock. For the first time I wonder about what it would cost to buy a place around here.
Torrential downpour Tuesday night. Get some really excellent pizza across the street at Veloz. More CPK style than Chicago or New York but for foreign pizza, it’s excellent. Return home with a plan to just pass out but decide to sit in my hammock for a bit and write more. Sounds of a band riffing on Get Lucky drift over and after a solid 10 minutes of them jamming on the same song I decide to check them out. By the time I get to the bar they were playing…they were still going on that song. Followed it up with a long jam on Californication, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. and my old jazz band favorite Chameleon. Fortunately I’m not carrying any more cash so I don’t drink any more, but just hang on and absorb another new vibe in a new town. No hippies or Spanish students here, just long haired, 8% body fat, tanned surfers.
The next morning I’m back at the surf shop and told no lesson in the morning, try again in the afternoon, and I wonder if I’m ever actually going to get on a surfboard. Finally at around 2pm I’m handed an absurdly long surfboard in exchange for $10 and embark on what is the most physically punishing hour of my trip until I reach Base Torres in Chile.
My thinking going into the lesson was as follows: 1. I am a pretty good skier. 2 skiers are inherently better than snowboarders, at everything. 3. surfing is snowboarding but even these long haired, 8% body fat bozos can do it 4. Ergo I will be a good surfer.
It turns out mountains have a lot more inherent stability than the ocean, and there’s a reason these bozos have no body fat.
The entire thing is a disaster. First there’s just the matter of getting out past the huge breakers that are coming into shore, with my teacher exhorting me to let go of my massive longboard and dive for it. By the time I recover my board the next one is usually coming in. Getting my body on the board isn’t too hard but getting stabilized and turned to shore takes a while, as does waiting for an appropriate wave. I try to pop up and immediately am going head first into the water. Back on the board, pop up, fall again. To my teacher’s credit, I get my money’s worth, as he has absolutely no tolerance for waiting around or catching your breath. Back on the board. Fall. Finally get my feet under me, at least, but lose balance immediately. Do that a few more times. Dive through some breakers. Recover the board. Pop up. Fall.
Now I can say I’m being beaten like a rented mule but the only things I could really say at the time were “FUCK” when I fell off the board and “fuuuck” when I got back on it again to try again. I really hadn’t thought it would be anywhere near this hard, and my hour is winding down with really no hope of me standing up. My teacher finally says “ok, last one” and as the wave comes, I’m just sort of glad it’s going to be over. I pop up, get my legs under me….and suddenly I feel like I’m standing on dry land. I half wonder if my teacher enabled some kind of training wheels as I coast into shore. Finally after about 6 seconds I lose my balance again and fall in, but at least I have proven to myself surfing is something within my ability. I just can’t imagine ever subjecting myself to that shit again. I go back to my room and take a 3 hour nap.
One of my favorite things about El Tunco is the variety of food and beer available for such a small town. Aside from the pizza place I mentioned, there’s an excellent stir-fry place and a gyro joint, all steps from each other, in addition to cheap, fresh seafood prepared by locals. The bar at Mopelia, where I’m staying, is run by a Belgian (who I accidentally insult by calling French) who makes sure a fair amount of beers from his home country are routinely available, as is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the inexplicably ubiquitous Brooklyn Lager.
Next up, blasting back up through El Salvador and Honduras on the way to Nicaragua.