Stephen Tapply Photography
Old Souls’ Day

I arrived in Suchitoto, a colonial town north of the capital in El Salvador, found a simple hotel with a stunning view of the lake, and initially booked two nights. A young couple – actually a pair of patronising ‘Superior Travellers’ – had written in their online blog that they’d arrived there late afternoon and left the following morning, ‘because there was nothing to do.’

They were right. Suchitoto is small. Clean. Safe. Friendly. It’s a tiny town with cobbled streets where everything happens very slowly. But it really has nothing much to offer apart from a picturesque cathedral, several small absorbing galleries, a restored theatre, a couple of museums, an ‘Art for Peace’ centre run by an incredible lady dedicating her life to the country, and thirty-odd buildings of historic importance.

I suppose you could try a boat trip on the picturesque, lotus covered lake, which takes in about 200 species of migratory birds. There’s also the longest zip line in the country, horse riding trips, hiking in beautiful green countryside, two waterfalls within walking distance, various organised tours that include agricultural practices, deserted buildings, bomb craters, caves that the locals hid out in. And the tours are accompanied by guides who are very knowledgeable about the recent conflict…

Then there are a bunch of restaurants and cafes catering for locals or westerners, and an indoor market with excellent and cheap food stalls. Or, if you prefer, you can take lessons in cooking El Salvadorian cuisine in one of the restaurants.

You could browse the numerous shops selling local crafts, drink until late in bars where you’ll meet colourful local characters, or dance at a disco for young people aged between 18 and 60. If that’s not enough, the very helpful tourist office has a stack of brochures, pamphlets and leaflets with details of visits to nearby attractions.

Or you could just sit in the plaza in front of the cathedral. If your Spanish is good enough, a local will stop by and chat – the older ones have strong opinions and are willing to talk about their experiences and provide fascinating insights into a civil war that nearly tore the country apart.

So, absolutely nothing to do. I stayed for ten days.

To start with, I explored, taking photos, chatting to locals and a few other westerners. I even got to see the president, Mauricio Funes, who came to make a speech in preparation for the Independence Day Celebrations.

Then my hotel owner explained, not very clearly, that Sunday was the Fiesta de la Reina, and that a bus was taking a group to Costa del Sol on the Pacific coast where the crowning of the ‘queen’ would take place. Max, one of the guests in the hostel, and I, didn’t understand completely, but it sounded like fun. For $5 we got a return bus ticket, lunch, and an opportunity to see what I had been told was the one of the best beaches in the country if you weren’t surfing. We thought we’d join the trip, see part of the festival, and explore the nearby town.

The following morning we arrived at the plaza. 5.45 a.m. The group had rented a bus – a 129 – which normally runs just between Suchitoto and San Salvador. Looking at the rest of the passengers, I felt really young. There didn’t seem to be anyone under 70. The group leader was rather surprised when we got on the bus, and told us that it wasn’t the normal 129 to San Salvador, but an excursion. We explained that we had been invited by our hotel owner, (who was planning to bring his son, but didn’t get up in time!), so he took our money and made sure that any explanations or instructions he gave to the bus were repeated to us a little more slowly. No one spoke any English, but everyone was friendly.

As we made our way towards San Salvador, there were bemused faces by the side of the road. People put their hands out but we didn’t stop. And we were half empty. Ask how many El Salvadoreanos you can get on a bus and the answer is, ‘one more… always one more.’ Then, when we were south of San Salvador heading towards the coast, there were even more bemused faces. The bus was obviously way off its normal route. I wanted to stick my head out of the window and yell, “Disculpa! Donde esta Suchitoto?” Excuse me, where’s Suchitoto?

We stopped for coffee en route at a small comida that had clearly never seen a health inspector, and arrived at our destination around 9 a.m. At least fifteen other buses from all over the country were disgorging septuagenarians and octogenarians, a very small number accompanied by their children and grandchildren.

The centre, a sprawling mess next to the beach, was like a holiday camp complete with pool, but with small changing rooms instead of chalets. Our group was led to the two which had been assigned to us, and we helped to carry some chairs and tables across. Several people had brought hammocks that were promptly strung up, and others changed into clothes suitable for paddling in the sea.

Max and I wandered down to the beach. The surf broke very close to shore, so the visitors weren’t really swimming, rather lying down in the shallows and letting the water wash over them. Quite a bizarre sight. After getting our own feet wet, we strolled around the centre, chatted to a few people, then watched some of the dance and music performances by different ‘old people’ associations from around the country. Talking to the manager of the site, we discovered that the ‘Festival’ was actually just an opportunity for pensioners to have a cheap day out by the seaside. If I’d understood that at the beginning, I don’t think I would have got on the bus.

We decided to leave the site for a little while and explore. You can’t. There isn’t a town, just several kilometres of walled, closed off beach resorts, apartments and hotels along the seafront. No centre. No shops. A couple of roadside stalls selling crisps, sweets and soft drinks. We did find a rather posh looking seafood hotel and, having missed breakfast, went for an early lunch. Expensive but exceptionally good, with tables on a pier over an estuary running parallel to the ocean.

Returning to the centre a couple of hours later, we walked down to the beach again. It would have been obvious that we weren’t there when the food was served – we were, after all, the only gringos. So when we got back to our cabanas we discovered that the group had thoughtfully saved two of the lunches and a selection of soft drinks for us. We sat in the shade, chatting, and two widows in their late sixties quizzed us about our marital status and financial situation! The performances had ended – there was now dancing, so Max took the two widows off while I rested and chatted some more. Finally, we cleared up and it was time to go back to Suchitoto. Once again, many bemused faces by the roadside when we didn’t stop for them.

Suchitoto is a very friendly town. No one looks at you suspiciously. The peanut and hammock sellers are not very persistent. There’s not much haggling over the souvenirs since the opening price is usually the ‘local’ price. Everybody smiles and says ‘Buenos Dias’, ‘Buenas Tardes’. If you’re eating in a pavement café, random strangers will say ‘Buen Provecho’.

It’s also a very small town. So during the next few days I kept running into people from the trip. They’d greet me warmly as if I were a long lost friend and we’d chat. When this happened at the cafés, the other travellers would look across, confused, wondering if I was someone famous or important…

The day after our trip to the beach, I was on my way to breakfast when I met one of the couples. They positively beamed when they saw me. He shook my hand, she kissed me on the cheek. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then she asked if I had enjoyed my day at the beach with ‘los pensionados.’

I was so tempted to say, “That’s a really stupid question!”

There are some Suchitito photographs here


Copyright © Stephen Tapply