Las Peñitas: When the stale city air – breathed and rebreathed by thousands of sweltering people, churned around sticky markets and their festering produce, channelled through drains and gutters and around the steaming nether regions of horses – gets too oppressive, we follow the example of other León residents and head for the beach.
Twenty minutes from the city, across a flat, husk-dry landscape coned with six mighty volcanoes, we reach the Pacific. Wild waves crash on a long, empty surfers’ beach. The blackish sands are empty and almost clean, and a continual breeze blows in from the ocean.
We take a big room with louvred panes overlooking the beach and lie under fans, curtained windows numbing the piercing sun. We’re both feeling a bit unwell – our brains have been boiled inside our skulls by the unrelenting sun. So we stay in our room, reading and snoozing, eating painkillers and drinking water.
Pelicans fly past in swooping ribbons just inches from the surf, bats squeak in the roof cavity and the damn mosquitoes stealth-bomb our exposed skin.
Next day, we walk a couple of hundred metres to the fishing village of Las Peñitas. It’s really just a collection of 50 or so houses at the mouth of a river that empties here. A small island, Juan Venado, sits just offshore opposite the river mouth, creating an estuary of mangroves that supports birds, crocodiles and other animals, including the endangered olive ridley turtle, which lays its eggs here every year. Unfortunately, the egg-laying season ends by January, but we hope to see some stragglers.
When the tide is out, the whole bay becomes a strong-smelling sand plain – fishermen check and mend their nets and children play. But once the tide returns, the water fills the area, refloats all the boats and it’s no longer possible to walk to Juan Venado.
We eat a poor meal and chat to some locals. How will the election go, I ask. The question here, as with many other places we’ve visited, is not simply an inquiry into which party will win, it’s also about whether the elections will be fair, whether there will be unrest and arrests, whether it will make any difference… Germany has offered to monitor the voting here.
“If the elections are fair and free, all will be well. If not, there will be a coup; a war like before,” says one. And what do you think: will they be fair and free? “No, I don’t think so,” he says.
We stroll back to our room and watch a couple of novice surfers miss the waves. Then we read and snooze some more. On Monday, we’re getting a long bus through El Salvador to Guatemala City.