May 2

The Day I Was Robbed and Shot At in La Libertad, El Salvador

Perhaps unsurprisingly most travelers skip el Salvador when traveling accross Central America, making a brief stop in its capital city if at all because of a bus connection to be made. I however, wanted to spend a few days in this country torn apart by a civil war that took place between 1980 and 1992 between the military-led government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition or umbrella organization of five left-wing militias. The country has remained in peace since the cease fire, but the 12 years of war left a rotten economy and over 1 million weapons unaccounted for. So why would I want to spend a few days here when travelling across Central America? Simple enough: to see with my own eyes in what state El Salvador was in (this story took place in 2003) and, perhaps more importantly, surf the world class waves found near La Libertad, a small coastal town set in the country’s north shore.

the wave at el sunzal
This is El Sunzal, the wave I surfed the following morning

Getting there was no big deal, riding chicken buses from Guatemala to San Salvador and from there to La LIbertad. Mind you carrying a bodyboard plus my Eagle Creek Grand Voyage during my 3 month trip didn’t make things easy, but it was all for a good cause. As soon as I got off the bus I was surrounded by 10 people who wanted to take me to their paying hotel, but I remained true to my principle: I’d be staying in the cheapest place possible as I was barely 3 weeks into my trip that would take me from Mexico to Costa Rica and after from Greece to Prague. I was then told to follow a kid who took me to a 2 story ramshackle made of corrugated tin with a fan and a square hole that did its job as a window. Not bad for 2 USD/night I figured, plus there was a Japanese surfer who’d been there for 2 months, a Canadian girl who’d been there for 3 weeks and another surfer from the US who’d been there for a month.

I spent that first day doing what I had come to do: surfing the right at Punta Roca in the morning and El Sunzal in the afternoon, another famous nearby right which requires a challenging paddle when the tide is up and the surf is big. But the wave is a lot of fun, and the scenery from the lineup is to die for! Unfortunately there were no Go Pro cameras back then…

San Pablo Tacachica, La Libertad, El Salvador

My dinner consisted of a few slices of bread with a spread of frijoles and a can of coke, and with that I went to “bed” and began to read as I always do before turning the lights off and vanishing into my dreams. This night, however, would be different.

About 10 minutes into the book I saw something white moving on the wooden beam that held the roof together, so I set my book aside and looked up- but saw nothing. So I went back to business, seeing the same thing about 5 minutes later, but this time moving in the opposite direction. I was quicker this time, and as I tilted my head I saw not one but TWO huge rats (bodies were around 30-40 cm) walking along the beam as if the room was theirs. Which, as I now think about it, was probably the case.

So I had two options: try to scare them away, or assume I had 2 new friends and continue reading. I chose the second, not before tying my bread to a shoe lace and hanging it from a nail to keep them from eating my breakfast. So I continued like this for about 30 minutes more or so, seeing the animals move back and forth several times, and eventually placed the watch besides my pillow, made sure my towel was still hanging from the balcony and went to sleep.

“Policia!!” “POLICIAAA!!!” I was suddenly awakened by the screams of my neighbour, who began calling for the cops for who knows what reason. It took me a few seconds to figure out where I was, and when that was solved I rushed out to her room and stumbled on her on the balcony. She was obviously afraid and shaken, but she had gathered herself. I asked what had happenned and she replied that as she was sleeping she was awakened by an odd noise, she opened an eye, and found a man digging into her backpack that was set besides the wall. She immediately screamed, and the guy took off in a hearbeat, together with her reflex camera and cash from the wallet.

By now the owners of the “hotel” and the american guy were with us, making sure everyone was OK and trying to understand what had just happening. When the lady finally figured it all out, she spoke out words I still haven’t forgotten:

“But…didn’t you put the lock?”

“What lock?” I replied.

“The lock…weren’t you given one?”

The Canadian girl and I looked at each other and we replied at the same time “No…”

So I went back to my room and checked if anything was missing, and of course there was: my watch was gone and so was the towel. Darn it!  I went back to the group which by now consisted of the Canadian girl who was walking back to her room, the owner and her daughter. As the lady was giving me a lock we suddenly heard a few firecrackers going off not too far away, which I thought was odd at this time in the morning- it was barely 4am. I then heard a couple more and something wizzed close to us, and only then did I realize that the girl and the lady were tucked behind a barrell looking at me in disbelief.

“What’s up with you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you hiding?”

“What from?” I asked.

“Can’t you hear the gunshots and bullets?”

“Gunshots? Bullets?” I immediately crouched and heard a few more shots and the respective bullets fly no too far away. We remained in that position for a minute or two more until nothing else could be heard, stood up, and we each went out way back to sleep. I did lock my room this time.
the watch I bought

The night’s event was a recurring conversation topic the following morning. The Canadian girl was leaving that day as planned anyhow, and I had some more waves to surf before heading back to San Salvador and continuing south to Honduras. I was not to be deterred from this by that night’s happening- I was in a small town in El Salvador, not a fancy hotel in Dubai, and it was all part of the adventure. I went to the local market to buy a cheap Casio watch (I looked for mine but didn’t find it), and the surf was epic that day too. The second night was uneventful- my four legged friends walked freely along the beam (they had somehow managed to nibble a hole at the bottom of the bag and eat some of the bread), there were no shots or screams to be heard, and I slept like a baby.

The alarm went off early the following morning. I made sure I had all my belongings with me, gave my remaining food supplies to the hotel owner, checked my watch, and walked to the bus station. That watch is, by the way, the same one I am using right now as I type this story.


What would you have done in my situation? Would you have visited El Salvador? I didn’t have any other problems, and the people were very nice all the time. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and please remember to share this post if you liked it.

[I did take pictures of all these places when I was there, but 1) they are all in Spain and 2) there were no digital cameras back then, so I would have had to scan them anyhow. I have hence grabbed a couple from Flickr to illustrate what the place is like. Photo credits @Flickr: Fabs, Lon&Queta]


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  1. I’m glad you still enjoyed El Salvador in spite of the unfortunate situation. A common mistake many foreigners do in Central American is to look for the cheapest hotels or buses when you can get much better things for an extra dollars. The cheapest hotel I paid for in the States was $30 but I can’t expect to have a similar hotel for $2. Maybe for $10 or $20 you can find something similar in El Salvador, and for $30 something much better. I suggest you always compare what you pay and what you get and you will see that it will usually be much cheaper in El Salvador. From El Salvador to Guatemala you would pay a few dollars in a chicken bus, but why travel uncomfortable when for $25 you would go with airconditioning? M

    1. In the long run those 25 USD mean another day elsewhere. Multiply it by the many buses tanken and soon it’s one month less of travel!

  2. Man, what a story! I think if I saw 2 fat rats, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at all! Talk about an experience. I think I would visit El Salvador. 1) for the culture and traditions and 2) for the view. Those pictures are amazing, showing the rawness of the city and the beautiful water view. Glad to know you’re still alive 🙂

    1. Still alive for sure, and although El Salvador is doing better I hear there is still plenty of “adventure” to enjoy if you want it…

  3. First, the rats freaked me out. THEN … wow. I can’t believe that happened. I don’t know what I would do in your situation (other than definitely freaking out).

  4. Oh my gosh are you crazy?! Surfers, I swear… 😉 My neighbor was from El Salvador and told me never to go there. Then again, people say I was nuts for staying in a house for a year after being robbed of everything from it.I figured hey, he knows I have nothing left!

    1. It is not a boring place, I can tell you that! And if you like to surf the conditions are fantastic!

  5. Still debating on whether or not we are going there – probably not to be honest. While I would love to be a surfer, I don’t think it is worth is quite yet. 😛

    1. Frankly, it is not worth going to La Liberta unless you are really into riding waves…ot much more to do!

  6. I spent 4 months in San Salvador for work but I was primarily with “guanacos” so never had a problem. I felt much less safe in Guate. Since it was so close, we only did day-trips to La Libertad. Great surf for sure, but definitely a bit on the dicey side…

    1. What kind of work were you doing there? Oddly enough I had the feeling Salvador was unsafer, but then things may have changed with time. Did you surf?

  7. I think all kinds of places can be dangerous, even the ones that everyone considers “safe.” Sometimes I think it is just luck. In general, I have to admit that Central America has had less of an appeal for me because of some of the violence reports, but I also suspect that the region is incredibly interesting, probably even moreso than parts of South America that we are finding to be so much like the rest of the developed world.

    1. Many countries in C.A. have a bad safety reputation as you mention. Truth is that most of them are not any more unsafe than big cities in the developed world, yet their recent history has planted seeds that are difficult to remove from today’s reality.

  8. Wow that’s crazy. El Salvador was actually my second time out of the country (well okay third if you count going to Canada). I was never concerned and had a great time. I was only in and around San Salvador so I hope I can make it back to see more of the country.

  9. I skipped El Salvador as I’m not much of a surfer but after talking to other people who decided I will definitely check it out the next time I’m in Central America.

    1. The country is quite safe by most standards today, though the capital city is not much once it gets dark. The people are very friendly though, and there is a lot of nature to see:)

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