Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Liz flies down the Cerro Negro volcano on a sled made of plywood and hay string. Safety first. 
In the annals of extreme sports, volcano boarding has to rank in the Top 10. 

Thought up by a bored Australian backpacker turned hostel owner in Leon, Nicaragua, the activity involves riding a piece of juiced-up plywood down the steep, black slope of an active volcano at speeds of up to 58 mph (current record).
Liz and Todd wave hello, leading the train up the volcano. Yes, riders have to carry their own boards.
While everyone comes for the trip down, the views on the hike up aren't so bad either.
Breaking the legal speed limit while sliding down lava rocks on a piece of wood? We were definitely giving this a shot. 

Todd and Liz getting instructions from our guide.
The volcano, Cerro Negro, is actually Central America's youngest (born 1850) and its most active, last erupting in 1999. On the one-hour hike up, riders haul their boards past steam spewing from vents along the route. Rocks in various places are hot enough to melt your shoes. 

Despite the heat and the fumes, we hung around, took some photos, goofed off with the 20 or so others on the tour, and finally got around to boarding down the big black mountain. 

After an instructional briefing from our guide, we slipped into our orange prison jumpsuits and donned our protective goggles (both necessary to stop the flying rocks that bombard boarders like doubt all the way down). One by one, we readied ourselves for launch.

No, none of us was able to break the world volcano boarding speed record...although an American guy from our eclectic group (ages 17-43; six continents) did...58.7 miles per hour (they use a speed gun)...on a piece of thin plywood turned turbo using a thin piece of metal and some Formica. 

Insanity. For those wondering, the three of us didn't even get close to that. Maybe next time.
Todd, Liz and Kip with their volcano boards.
The white rectangle is formica, used to reduce resistance. It has to be replaced after every ride.

Liz seconds before her attempt to break the world volcano boarding speed record.
If you'd like to try out volcano boarding, get yourself to Leon, Nicaragua, drop by the Bigfoot Hostel, and say "volcano boarding" to anyone you see. They'll direct you to where to sign up. Tours leave in a huge orange construction truck around 9 most mornings. 
Todd takes his turn down the volcano.
The takeoff is scary enough, but not to worry--the last 100 yards is way worse.

Monday, July 29, 2013


Some days, you might as well jump. At least, that's what Van Halen said

That's what Kip and his brother did, from a rock atop an active volcano during our first stop in Nicaragua. 

Tomorrow, we show how they got down the mountain...an extreme sport called "Volcano Boarding."  Stay tuned...

Friday, July 26, 2013


Luckily for us, Guatemala's San Pedro Volcano wasn't erupting. The 10,000-foot cone is just taking a beating from a lightning storm that's migrated across Lake Atitlan and settled around its peak. 

With Kip's brother Todd in tow, we took a quick detour to see what's been called the most beautiful lake in the world. We also had to check out the AMAZING Hotel Casa Palopo for a story Kip's writing for Men's Journal

Next stop, riding a piece of plywood down an active volcano in Nicaragua. Safety first!

Thursday, July 25, 2013


A rocky beach shines in the afternoon sun near El Tunco.
For being the smallest country in Central America--about the same size as Massachusetts--El Salvador serves up some quality adventures.

For more than a month, we were never short on things to do, plus, the country's size makes it perfectly accessible for fairly comfortable bus travel. A welcome change from the 12-hour marathon bus journeys of Madagascar, Tanzania and Myanmar.

And so, as we bid farewell to Central America's hidden gem, below is our Top 10 list of favorite things and places, in no particular order.

El Tunco--Surf, sand, soft tacos and sunsets make this beach town an hour from San Salvador a must see. Even Men's Journal loves it!
  • Eat tacos at Taco Guanaco, burritos at Burritos El Chef, and the chicken platter at the corner restaurant by the parking lot (you'll see it). You can't go wrong
  • If you're on a budget, stay at the Hotel Papaya--good rooms for $20 for two
  • Want to learn Spanish? Take a lesson (or 10) with Nelson. $10/hour
  • Visit the waterfalls of Tamanique, a short bus ride from El Tunco
Olocuilta--No matter what, stop here for the famed Salvadorean pupusa. Located on the road between the airport and San Salvador, Olocuilta is the country's pupusa capital and is home to countless roadside stands selling the unofficial national food. Enjoy one filled with beans, cheese, chicken or fish...and don't skimp on the slaw.

Suchitoto--Just a one-hour bus ride from the capital, Suchitoto is a world away. Beautiful cobblestone streets and a traditional plaza and cathedral sit perched on the edge of lake Suchitlan. 
  • Go on a birding tour with "El Gringo" to see the Torogoz, Toucanet, Long-Tailed Manakin and others
  • Follow the stream to the waterfall for a swim and a few jumps
  • Eat and stay at Villa Balanza, with the best views in the city
San Salvador--Sure, it's still rough around the edges, but safety's improved immensely and there's lots to do!
  • Eat some killer tacos at Lips Tacos...the restaurant across the street from Lips "dance boutique"; your cab driver will know what you're talking about
  • Volunteer with Glasswing International
  • Make the trek up to El Boqueron volcano
  • Sing karaoke and eat street food at the fun bars and restaurants of Paseo el Carmen in Santa Tecla
  • Visit the Iglesia El Rosario for its stained glass and artistic stations of the cross
  • See a movie and eat sushi at the Gran Via mall. If it's been a while since you've seen either, you won't be disappointed
Colorful art from an Ataco market.
Ataco--Beautiful city of murals on Ruta de las Flores. 
  • Eat at the new Italian restaurant up the hill from Meson de San Fernando-they had incredible salad!
Juayua--Also on the Ruta de las Flores
  • Eat numerous grilled meats (pork, beef, rabbit, chorizo), corn, yucca and other heavenly concoctions at the weekend food festival
  • Hike down to the waterfalls and have a swim.
El Pital--Spend an afternoon hiking El Salvador's highest peak, and get some great views of the border with Honduras.
  • Stay the night in one of the many mountain guest houses like Posada del Cielo, take in the view and enjoy being cold, for the first time in El Salvador
El Salvador...a country of murals. 
Alegria--The Suchitoto of the East with it's small town square
  • Visit on the weekend for the street fair
  • Have a coffee and try the homemade chocolate with coffee beans at Cafe Entre Piedras
Playa El Cuco--El Salvador's beautiful Eastern beach town. 
  • Take a short ride to Las Flores and watch surfers ride one of the hemisphere's top point breaks
  • Stay the night at La Tortuga Verde (double room for $20), right on the beach in El Esteron. If you stay two weeks, the next two weeks are free!
  • Walk the endless beach and look for sand dollars, and admire the cows
  • Eat at one of the great restaurants over the water in El Cuco
Golfo de Fonseca--the body of water surrounded by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
  • Take a boat tour cruising the islands with Mario of Tours Panoramico (golfo_fonseca@hotmail.com) stopping at Meanguera Island for lunch
  • Take the boat to Potosi in Nicaragua, skipping the border crossing with Honduras all together

Monday, July 22, 2013


El Salvador to Nicaragua: Cross the Gulf of Fonseca
 by boat (orange) or by road through Honduras (pink)?
Would you rather take a scenic, two-hour boat ride across a sheltered bay or suffer through a butt-numbing eight-hour bus from El Salvador to Nicaragua, passing through Honduras, the murder capital of the world

An easy choice, normally, except that our previous boat trips have gone so, so very badly that we hesitated. Briefly. 

With Todd, Kip's brother in tow, we opted for the more direct route, from El Salvador, across the Gulf of Fonseca, to Nicaragua.

Not a lot of travelers venture this way, so below we provide a "How To" guide, along with some photos from the trip. 

Shockingly, the journey concluded without incident all the way from the new port of La Union to what's left of a deserted, decrepit dock in Potosi.


The trip from La Union, El Salvador to Potosi, Nicaragua is a scenic alternative to the long bus ride through Honduras. Below are some steps and essentials to get you on your way:

What to bring: passport, water, snacks, optional seasick meds (especially if your name is Todd) though the Gulf is usually calm. 

  1. La Union: Get yourself to El Sal's major port town of La Union, home to a brand new, multi-million dollar shipping center. Bus direct from San Salvador via San Miguel (4-5 hrs, $3-$5), or from El Cuco, hire a taxi (around 45 mins, $30-$40) or take a local bus (2-4 hrs, $4-$5). If you'd prefer, you could also book the entire trip at the Hotel Tortuga Verde in El Cuco.
  2. Book a boat: Better to do this before you get here, but it may be possible to find a captain dockside in La Union. Boats leave in the morning if there are passengers. One option is Ruta del Golfo, though there were no departures when we contacted them. We went with Mario from Tours Panoramico (7282-4362, golfo_fonseca@hotmail.com). Negotiate a price beforehand. A private boat could be $200+, but much cheaper if there's already a boat going and you can hop on.
  3.  Clear Customs: You need to be at the customs office in La Union at least an hour before departure (ask anyone for "aduanas.") Yes, it takes that long. They may ask for copies of your passport. There's a store with a copy machine across the street. Good coffee shop three blocks up with wi-fi while you wait.
  4. Pick up passport, board your boat: Pretty straightforward, assuming you know where your boat's leaving from. Ask anyone. Photo below. Make sure you have life jackets on board.
  5. Enjoy the scenery: It's a scenic trip, passing by a few hilly islands, some inhabited, some not so much. Try to get the captain to pass close to Meanguera Island to see the pelicans and flocks of Great Frigate birds. 
  6. Dock at Potosi: Lower expectations. There's no functioning dock and no facilities. You'll likely get your feet wet. And then you'll need to walk a couple hundred yards to the customs office. Wake up the officer. Get stamped in. Pay your entry fee ($12 for U.S.). Walk past the soccer field and ask about the next bus to Chinandega. There may or may not be one there. We ended up going to the only hotel in town and the owner gave us a ride in his truck. Negotiate.  Or, stay the night in the hotel and hike Cosiguina volcano.
    Todd celebrating arrival in Nicaragua.
    Walking from the pier in Nicaragua, Potosi's customs office is on the left,
    soccer field dead ahead and an abandoned warehouse is on your right.

Friday, July 19, 2013


"Hi!" says a recently-hatched green sea turtle about to be released into the wild.
A lot of people still eat the eggs of endangered sea turtles. They say the eggs are an aphrodisiac, among plenty of other baseless, lame excuses.

At a dinner in San Salvador, we were talking to an older couple who told us they’d grown up near El Cuco, where we were heading. Over heaping plates of churrasco, we told them of our travel plans -- we would be surfing and sunset watching, and with luck, we hoped to encounter some of the turtles that frequent the area’s beaches.

The wife’s face lit up when she heard our last statement. “Oh, do you want to eat the eggs?” she said. 

Surprised, we replied that we only wanted to see the babies hatching. That would be enough for us.

Unfortunately, well-organized, sea turtle-related tourism, which benefits both local economies and the sea turtle population, hasn't become a major attraction around El Cuco yet. 

But if the beaches of Panama and Costa Rica are any indication, here's hoping El Salvador's not far behind. 

In the meantime, here's a photo of a freshly-hatched green sea turtle we met while in El Cuco. He says, "Hi!"

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Todd holding a baby sea turtle about to be released into the wild.
A visit to Playa El Cuco isn't complete with at least a quick stop (or for us, a few nights) at the well-known eco-lodge La Tortuga Verde. Besides cooking up some of the best food for miles, the Tortuga also does what it can to protect the turtles that have used the area's beaches for decades to lay their eggs. 
A recently-hatched baby sea turtle and its former home.

Unfortunately, turtle eggs are still a delicacy in parts of El Salvador. 

To help combat the problem, Tom, the owner of La Tortuga Verde, started buying the eggs from local tortugueros, or turtle egg collectors.

Instead of serving them in his restaurant, where the first page of the menu reads "NO COMAN JUEVOS DE TORTUGAS" (we don't eat turtle eggs), he pays a premium over market price, giving him first dibs on the eggs, and keeps them in his turtle nursery, giving the babies a chance to hatch. 

We were lucky enough to witness some newly hatched little ones the morning of our departure and were able to be a part of their release into the wild. It was a great farewell to our new favorite Central American country.


El Cuco's main street leading down to the beach during rush hour.
After cooling off in the mountains, it was time to get back to the beach before heading south to the volcanoes of Nicaragua. Plus, Kip's brother Todd had joined us for a couple weeks and he really needed to learn to surf.

A kid about to smash an egg on Todd's head.
We headed to El Salvador's eastern beaches and the town of El Cuco, famous for wide swaths of sand, nesting sea turtles, and the nearby surf break Las Flores

Cuco would be our last stop in El Salvador, and probably our last time (and Todd's first) riding the country's bone-rattling local bus system, so we made the most of it. 

At the San MIguel bus terminal, after a three-hour slog from San Salvador (we splurged...no chickens allowed inside the bus), we convinced a cheeky young Salvadorena to crack some cascarones, eggs filled with confetti, on the head of an un-suspecting gringo named Todd. Both were terribly amused.

After an hour waiting at the station, we hopped a local bus from San Miguel to El Cuco. 

As is typical, the already full bus stopped every few hundred feet to pick up additional passengers, who simply have to wave an arm from the side of the road to get a ride.
Todd and Kip prepping to surf.
"How many people are gonna fit on this bus?" Todd asked. Great question.

As we crammed together a little closer, allowing for six women in starched nurse uniforms to squeeze past, Kip gave him the standard answer -- "at least one more, brother, always one more."

An hour later, the bus pulled into El Cuco, a dusty, oceanside town frequented on weekends by vacationing Salvadorenos and most other times by international surfers.

Besides a few food stalls by the water, there's not much for visitors to see. The main attraction is a long walk or short pick-up ride over rolling hills to the famous surf break of Las Flores.  

As seen in the photo below, the waves were a bit large for us, so we surfed the waves right in front of our eco-friendly hotel, La Tortuga Verde.

Yes, Todd learned to surf. Skip one photo for the visual proof.

No, it's not Todd or Kip surfing. But Kip did take the photo.
Yes, Todd caught a few waves. Mission accomplished.
We squeezed in a little fun at sunset. 
For some reason, Liz loves beach cows. The herd of adolescents above was even more fun than Zanzibar, she says. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Bikers check out Ataco's vibrant murals after cruising along El Salvador's famous Ruta de las Flores. 
Visitors to El Salvador usually do at least one of two things--they surf and/or they travel the famous Ruta de Las Flores, a twisting, turning drive lined with ornate murals, flowers, and some of the richest coffee growing territory in the world.

Liz with pig and cow.

We'd already put in some time on the waves, so we headed down the highway out of San Salvador to the tiny town of Nauhizalco, famous for homemade furniture and for being the first stop on La Ruta. 

While the hand-hewn chairs, tables and lamps that lined the highway were uniquely impressive, none would fit in our backpacks. Plus, Kip was hungry, so we headed to Juayua, famous for its weekly food festival and a roaring waterfall (and also our Habitat build). 

Grilled churrasco skewers devoured, waterfall swam, we hopped a bus to the hillside town of Ataco. 

We came for the day but we ended up staying three. The air was cool, the food was tasty, and the murals were spectacular, and plentiful. 

Around every corner of the stone and brick streets, another brightly-painted wall awaited. Scenes of coffee pickers working, children reading, old people smiling, and even a little green alien flying a spaceship decorate nearly every street.

The story behind the murals is somewhat hard to unravel. Wall art in El Salvador is prolific. It's hard to find a vertical stack of bricks without at least something painted on it. 

In Ataco, we were told the first murals began popping up more than a decade ago to beautify the town and attract tourists. The art's beauty, style, and complexity, as well as a related controversy involving an artist, the town's conservative mayor, and the U.S. State Department, continues to evolve.

But enough with the broken history lesson. Below is a sample of Ataco's amazing murals. By the way, in our next lives, we're going to be highly-skilled artists and move to Ataco, where we'll volunteer to touch up the murals whenever necessary. 

OK, so this isn't really a mural. But it could be.
If Rockwell were from El Salvador, surely he would have approved.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Liz hangs on tight in the back of a pickup as our driver completely ignores a sign asking motorists to reduce their speed and watch out for passing surfers.

Click here to check out some warning signs for weird things on the road in South Africa.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


From Honduras to El Sal, Liz and Phil fist bump.
What is it about tall things that makes people want to climb them? 

We're not sure either, but when we read about El Pital, the highest mountain in El Salvador, we knew it had to be done. And our friend Phil knew he had to join us.

The touristic trick to "climbing" this mountain, which rises more than a mile and a half toward the sky, is that you can drive nearly the entire way to the top. Not exactly a Himalayan adventure, by any means, but still worth a look.

If you're slightly more ambitious, as we decided to be on a chilly, fog-coated morning, you can hike from Rio Chiquito, a small town near the summit, at around 7,600 feet. 

Hard core. But not.

The border marker. And Liz's feet.
We prepared for a serious mountaineering day, loaded down with cliff bars, water and wearing our best hiking shoes. And the hiking was totally strenuous...for almost the entire 30 minutes it took to reach the summit.

Our reward was a misty view of the barbed-wire fence border with Honduras, which we climbed under, standing proudly in both countries.

On our way back down, not far below the summit, we passed through a camp ground.

There, we found a few local families cooking out, playing stickball, having beers. All we had were granola bars and water. 

Next time, we'll be better prepared.
Kip hikes into a split between two massive rocks near the peak of El Pital.

Friday, July 12, 2013


Broken boards, big waves at Las Flores, El Salvador.
One surfer's session ended far too soon after a heavy set snapped his board on a wipeout. 

It was a big day at Las Flores, one of El Salvador's consistent but sometimes punishing point breaks. This particular Pacific swell delivered waves that reached more than 12 feet.

We decided to stay on the sand, snap a few photos, and take in the view, which wasn't bad at all.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Kip screams his way down an unnamed waterfall near Tamanique, El Salvador, as Pedro looks on.
Traveling first class as usual, we dropped 50 cents each for a local bus that struggled 20km along a winding, hilly road to the tiny town of Tamanique. A surfer we had met earlier in El Tunco told us there was a series of waterfalls not faraway that we should check out, so off we went.

As soon as we stepped off the bus, a friendly 30-something guy approached us. "To the waterfalls?" he asked us in Spanish.

We were the only two gringos for miles, and there was little question why we'd come. Our inquisitor's name was Pedro, and it just so happened he owned the waterfall, or so he said (he also said he used to service pools in southern Maryland, but that's a whole other story). Off we went again.

After a 45-minute hike down a trail better suited for mountain goats than flip-flop-clad gringos, Pedro took off his shirt and went flying over a rocky ledge into a pool surrounded by sheer rock walls.

"Come on in, it's cold and deep!" he assured us from below.

So we did.

The first jump of about 10 feet felt refreshing. The next one, at 15 feet, got the blood going. The last one, well...Kip screamed almost as loud and little-girl-like as he did when he was deep water soloing in Thailand.

A big thanks to Pedro for taking us to his waterfalls, which he ensures anyone reading, are way more fun than any pool in Maryland.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Inner-city school kids in San Salvador show off their new shoes.
It's a beautiful thing when the goal of helping others turns into a successful business that allows you to help even more. Such is the case with TOMS shoes.

Kip and Natasha unloading the many boxes
of shoes from the truck.
Started in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie, TOMS has evolved into a successful footwear (and now eye wear) company that has gained international acclaim for its "One for One" campaign. 

For each pair of shoes sold to consumers, TOMS distributes another pair to a child who can't afford them. 

So far, the company has distributed more than two million pairs of shoes to needy kids worldwide. They also raise awareness for their cause through the "One Day Without Shoes" campaign.

What does this have to do with us, you ask?  

Well, thanks again to our friend Phil (of Reto del Volcan fame), we were introduced to Natasha, Communications Director for an El Salvador based NGO, Glasswing International. And now, thanks to TOMS and Glasswing, we kind of smell like feet. 

Happy kids hold up their brand new pairs of TOMS shoes.
Kip has a group of kids in stitches with one of
his goofy Spanish jokes.

In addition to working on health and education initiatives, Glasswing partners with TOMS to bring shoes to underprivileged kids in El Salvador. We jumped at the opportunity to be part of the distribution team for one of San Salvador's biggest public schools. 

Our day began early, as we arrived at the school and unloaded boxes and boxes of different sized shoes from the truck. Once the boxes were arranged by size, we were ready to meet the kids and get started. 

Have you ever tried to put a cloth shoe onto the sweaty-socked foot of an eight-year-old? Trust us, it's a lot tougher than it looks! 

Together with the help of some very patient and dedicated 8th grade student volunteers, we sized and fit hundreds of kids from multiple classes of K-8 graders with a brand new pair of shoes.

All was great until a group of boys came in right after recess. They had been playing soccer, and yes, as they jokingly pointed out to us and to each other, their feet were not exactly downy fresh. We held our breath. They laughed hilariously. 
Many were so excited, they didn't put their other shoes back on, wearing the new pair for the rest of the day.  

Liz fits a sweet girl with her brand new pair of TOMS.
We had a great time laughing with the kids as they excitedly yelled the few words they knew in English and held up their new shoes. Though timid at first, they really started hamming it up for the camera, as shown in the photo below. 
This class gives us some goofy poses while they hold up their new shoes.
A big thanks to TOMS, our fellow volunteers, and Glasswing International for letting us be a part of their program. 

For those interested in volunteering in El Salvador, Glasswing has a variety of individual and corporate volunteer opportunities, in addition to helping out with TOMS. Check out their website for more information.