Carlos Don’t Surf

Today’s slide show: La Libertad

Sunset at El Tunco

LA LIBERTAD, EL SALVADOR—Just as biologists use bird populations to gauge the ecological health of natural areas, travelers can use populations of stray dogs and cats to determine the status of beach-hangout scenes. If the dogs and cats are skittish and skinny, for instance, the beach is probably well away from the tourist trail; if stray dogs and cats are nonexistent altogether, the beach-scene is likely catering to mass resort tourism. If the strays display nonchalant charm, however—if the random mutts and kitty cats flirt for their food from travelers—that beach scene has probably arrived at an enlightened middle point in its evolution.

On the volcanic beaches west of La Libertad, El Salvador, stray dogs saunter up to the open-front restaurants and sorrowfully flop their heads into the laps of diners; stray cats blink, purr, and mew under the tables. The patrons here, mostly young surfers and backpackers from the United States and Europe (as well as a few middle-class weekenders from San Salvador), are happy to oblige with morsels of food. Bob Marley tunes play endlessly on cafe sound systems, and bottles of locally brewed Pilsener beer come cold and cheap. It’s a nice little vibe, and at times both the travelers and the strays look genuinely stunned by their good fortune.

With its warm waters, sandy beaches, cheap lobsters, and gorgeous sunsets, La Libertad could easily become a major beach resort—were it not for the fact that (despite the remarkable effectiveness of a 1992 peace accord) most people still associate El Salvador with war and suffering. Tell folks you’re going to a beach in El Salvador, and the notion carries the vague suggestion of Robert Duvall blasting his way through the Mekong Delta in Apocalypse Now (“Carlos don’t surf!”). Hence, outside of international surfing circles, the black-sand beaches near La Libertad (Playa El Zonte, Playa El Sunzal, Playa El Tunco) are virtually unknown.

Ironically, El Salvador’s dangerous reputation is an integral part of the appeal for the people who travel here. I’ve been staying at Playa El Tunco since arriving from Guatemala yesterday, and I’ve found that traveler conversations invariably steer their way toward presumed dangers: gun-toting Salvadorans on the beach at night, street gangs near the cities, leftover land mines in the jungles. This talk is a standard traveler safety ritual, but it’s also part of the vicarious thrill of being in a place with a bad reputation and no major guidebook coverage. Just as I’ve seen in the (largely peaceful) tourist environs of former war zones like Phnom Penh and Beirut, the suggestion of violence is an undeniable selling point for young travelers here—and an otherwise languorous afternoon of surfing and beer drinking can readily be passed off as an edgy adventure.

This morning I took the Land Rover into central La Libertad to rent a longboard that suited my novice surfing abilities. Rolling into the city, I noted the seeming contradictions of life alongside the road: the young woman wearing a midriff-baring Britney Spears shirt as she balanced a bundle of firewood on her head; the old campesino talking into a cell phone as his horse grazed in a traffic median. The tourist police wore shorts and darted their mountain bikes past oxcarts full of sugarcane; Internet cafes competed for storefront space with farm-implement shops and fundamentalist Christian chapels.

Perhaps to confirm my own prejudices (and to tap into that vicarious buzz of danger), I’ve been asking the Salvadorans about their war stories—but they mostly prefer to share their success stories. Oscar, the laid-back Salvadoran-American who runs our hotel on Playa El Tunco, may have dodged death squads as a teenager, but he’s far more interested in sharing the tale of how he came to own a neon sign business in Los Angeles. Fifteen percent of El Salvador’s population fled during the civil war in the ‘80s, and the influence of American-bred Salvadorans can be seen in everything from strip malls to gang graffiti (not to mention the economy: Salvadoran-Americans send over $1.5 billon back to El Salvador each year). Of the half-dozen or so locals I’ve chatted with today, two have lived in Southern California; one has spent time in Tempe, Ariz.; and a fourth offered me casual advice on nightlife in Conyers, Ga.

Aside from those passing conversations, however, I’ll confess that I haven’t spent all that much time with the locals. As with the other gringos here, I’ve mainly been indulging in standard beach-scene pleasures. This morning, I paddled against the current off of Playa El Sunzal and (with the help of Neil Dana, a veteran surfer who works for our expedition film crew) jockeyed for waves along the long, rocky right-break. This afternoon I drank three beers and fell asleep in a hammock. This evening I will walk to one of the restaurants that line the beachfront, where I will have the option of ordering french fries and a medium-rare bacon burger. If by chance that restaurant is playing a cheesy Hollywood action-adventure movie on DVD (and most of them here do), I’ll probably end up watching it. If that restaurant also has an Internet connection, I’ll likely check my e-mail.

I realize the insipidity in traveling to a far-flung clime merely to discover the same small pleasures that can be found at home, but that’s how these insouciant little beach scenes work. The formula has already been set: Attract enough travelers to a place, and before long that place will figure out how to cater to the fashions and tastes that travelers bring with them. If, as a visitor, you bemoan the presence of these comforts, you may as well bemoan the presence of yourself.

And that may well be the ironic allure of traveling to lesser-known destinations like La Libertad: Here, you can indulge yourself in a few comforts of home and still feel like you’re someplace wonderfully exotic.

As I walk my way toward dinner, a stray mutt trots in the sand behind me, looking optimistic.

Several companies sponsored the Drive Around the World expedition; click here for a partial list.