…tranquil, tourist sparse, sea turtles, incredible sunsets, empty beaches, emptier waves.
Some village residents.
After Somoto Canyon I was back in León for one night to collect my things and get on the road. First stop, Jiquilillo. “Where?” was the response I usually got when people asked me where I was going next… and that was exactly what I wanted. The small fishing village on the northwest coast is not a major tourist destination and if it wasn’t for a chance recommendation from an acquaintance (thanks Ellie!) who called this place “paradise” I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting it.
After a day of inexpensive travel, the chicken bus dropped me right at my destination, Rancho Esperanza. I was delighted to be greeted by three rambunctious children climbing trees and picking fruit. I didn’t catch all of their Spanish but I did catch “la boom”. They thought I was there to surf the nearby world class, hollow, beach break. I was flattered that something about me made them think I was a decent surfer when really I was still catching the wash. The rancho itself was a welcome sight after a long day of traveling with its beautifully muraled cabañas, luscious foliage, beachfront location…and hammocks!!! I was ready to trade in the rocking chairs of the city for my dear, beloved, soul mate, the hammock.
Inside the main rancho
I immediately relaxed in this wonderful place and was especially excited to stay at “Jiquilillo’s hostel with a conscience”. The owner has spent many years living in and giving back to the community and hosts volunteers who do the same. The boys I had met in the trees were part of the rancho’s “Kids Club” where volunteers spend the afternoons with local children who come to play games, do crafts, and learn English. There were 3 volunteers staying at the rancho and no other tourists. This along with the family-style dinners and the ever-present children who clearly felt at home, made me feel right at ease here. In León I had become accustomed to the luxury of wi-fi of which there was none at the rancho. As such, I spent most of my time swimming, reading, surfing, swimming, hammocking, beaching, yoga-ing, moving, and breathing. Here I fulfilled my dream of watching the sunset while floating on a surfboard and it was glorious. And so my 5 days there feel like 5 weeks. It was a nice change from the non-stop noise and activity of León to find a place where I would swim and be the only one swimming. Or surf and be the only one surfing. It was kind of surreal to be somewhere so beautiful and feel like I had a private beach that I only occasionally shared with a handful of locals (a result of traveling during the rainy season).
Checking turtle nests
A truly special experience was swimming in the ocean with freshly hatched endangered sea turtles as they took their first tiny strokes in their new vast home. One of the volunteers mentioned he had visited a turtle rescue project up the beach so I decided to investigate. I walked 30 minutes north towards Los Zorros where I was able to -for zero dollars- meet with the local volunteer run organization that rescues endangered sea turtles. Started by a retiree who lives in Jiquillillo and according to him “had too much free time”, the project has two paid employees, a local father and son, with everyone else working as volunteers. The employees and volunteers patrol the beach at night along with dozens of poachers who shine flashlights around the sand waiting for turtles to come lay their eggs. Typically then the poachers sell the eggs to restaurants and stores. Eating sea turtle eggs is common enough that some TEFL friends saw the local they lived with eat turtle eggs several times and contrastingly you can sport a bumper sticker to tout that you don’t eat turtle eggs. Speaking with one of the employed locals, I learned that the organization actually pays less for the eggs than restaurants, but a few years ago poachers started noticing that fewer and fewer turtles were returning to lay eggs and realized they needed to invest in their own job security by selling the eggs to rescue organizations sometimes as well. So these local men stay up most of the night buying from poachers then the volunteers set to carefully burying eggs and waiting and occasionally digging up nests to check for signs of life when it should be close to hatching time.
Local children come to meet the newest turtles
I was able to observe the checking of the nests a couple of times when there were half a dozen or so hatchlings each time (I was there a bit early for the really large batches to hatch that might include hundreds of turtles to release). Then the hatchlings are collected in a bin and given a bit of time to wake up before being taken down to the water where they walk their first steps on the beach so their natal beach will imprint and they can return to lay their own eggs someday, a process called natal homing. Apparently they have three days worth of energy to swim non-stop without eating so you can’t wait too long to release them. They swim a bit in a bin filled with ocean water to get prepared and then the giant 6’4″ employee has the task of taking the open top bin out past the powerful waves to give the babes a head start at survival. I joined him and swam out with the tiny creatures as they headed out to start their lives (hopefully) until the current became too strong and it was prudent to swim back in.
Another beautiful Jiquilillo sunset.
A few minutes later it started to rain. Instead of taking shelter and waiting out the storm I began my 30 minute walk back to the rancho in the hard, driving rain. But the water was warm, so warm that it provided the warmest, longest, most nourishing, and cathartic shower I had had in 9 weeks. And when it started to really pour I jogged a ways. And when lightening started striking in the ocean nearby I walked again and enjoyed nature’s sensory orchestra. A few short minutes after arriving back at the rancho lightning struck a tree on the edge of the property where I had just walked and within a few minutes more locals cut down the torched tree for precious firewood. Not long after this the power went out.
Earlier in the day I had told a neighboring comedor I would like to eat fish there that night (now that I could choose to be by the ocean I would and since I could choose to eat its fruits I did so often). I tried to eat fish that were not caught using explosives, a common practice in the area, since as with poaching endangered sea turtle eggs the need to feed one’s family in an impoverished place with limited opportunities tends to take precedence over environmental sustainability. So, power outage and all I walked a short ways down the road and followed the lights of candles that were covered by 2-liter bottles to protect them from the wind. Eating at one of these places is kind of like you’re paying someone to eat dinner at their house on what is essentially their porch. The resident children, of which there were more than a handful, ate their dinner by candlelight as well and were the only other customers that evening other than myself and a friend from the rancho. As typical, the fish was cooked whole and served with rice and fried plantains and it was delicious. The charming ambience, gracious hospitality, toothsome local fare, and all-round memorable experience was well worth the less than $4 that I paid for it.
Neighboring pigs come to root around near my cabaña.
The power stayed out for 24 hours. Rumor was a bus slipped on the muddy road during the storm and took out the power pole. But no matter, life without electricity was surprisingly…not that different. I would still wake with the light of the sun at 5am to the sounds of the roosters crowing and the pigs rooting around outside my cabaña (after two months in a city I relished “wildlife” that was not a late-night borracho). My food was still cooked over a fire. You don’t need an electrical current to read, surf, or lie in hammocks and when you happen to walk by probably the only gelato stand in Jiquilillo you might get a discounted rate on their melty goods. I can see how people who weren’t blessed with a high boredom threshold could have gotten antsy here but I counted the power outage as a blessing as it postponed me booking my flight to my next destination and gave me another day of surfing and stillness.
The main rancho
Two days after I left this wonderful place a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck off the southern coast of El Salvador, just 67km WSW of Jiquilillo. My friends who were there later recounted how terrifying it was to be awakened by the sound of sirens and to be told to get your passport because a tsunami is coming. The owner of Rancho Esperanza evacuated his family, the few guests and volunteers in his pick-up truck and picked up some of the local children along the way as most local families do not have a vehicle to evacuate with. I am happy to report that the tsunami did not hit and though there was flooding, no lasting damage was sustained by this blissful locale.
At the rancho
My dorm digs
Volunteer Simone watches hatchlings take their first steps
Logos for Pepsi and other sugary drinks make their way onto homes in every corner of the country
Sea snails make beautiful art
The start of one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen
So many beautiful murals!
Local beach soccer! Soccer seemed to be the second most popular sport in the country after baseball