ESCAPING LA RUTA, we headed for Tacuba, a small town at the end of the line in northwestern El Salvador. The place itself is pretty dead, and drunken zombies stagger around the time at all hours. Unemployment is high, and some people have given up...notably the men of the town; the women seem made of sterner stuff. In Tacuba, behind every drunken man, there's a strong woman. Wandering the town one afternoon, in search of coverage of Honduras v El Salvador, we'd ended up walking into the drunk tank. Seeing faded hand-painted beer ads on a dirty wall, I shrugged at Andy, and he nodded: worth a look. The smell of unwashed bodies hit us in the face like a fist as we entered. Three men got up to greet us with a cry which was the desperate primeval call of "The free beer has arrived". They staggered towards us, arms outstretched in frightening welcome, and I noticed another man laid out on the dirt-packed floor. Another was kicking the pinball machine. We backed up rapidly towards the doorway, explaining we needed the football, and they obviously had no TV. They were too drunk for any realistic pursuit of us, and we quickly found a bakery with a telly which they gladly put on as we started knocking the beers back. It seemed no-one in the town gave a toss about the game; funny when you think that a football game between these two sparked a war. Not just the football, mind...but the land reforms in the region had favoured Honduras, and border tensions boiled over after the next football game, hence it being named the Football War. I refuse to use the S Word bandied around in these parts.
I'd come to the town due to its proximity to the Nacional Parque El Imposible (No...I'm not translating that for you, either). The main hostel in town organises all the tours. Mama and Papa run the hostel, and their son deals with the tours. The elderly couple are lovely, and the house is probably the most cosy I've stayed in. The exuberant Manolo is the life and soul, and the perfect host; if you are a female travelling alone, that is. If you're a man, you're pretty invisible unless you want to sign up for a tour. He's a good-looking lad in his thirties, but those looks aren't going to last forever, and he doesn't seem in a rush to settle to down. Yes, I know I'm hardly the one to talk. But then I'm not the one trying to shag everything available, hot or not. He'd been seeing a young Jewish girl from NYC when we arrived. She'd asked another English lad at the hostel if she should be sleeping with Manolo or not, and did he think the latino did this with a lot of guests. James didn't want to tell her that, yes...of course he did. But that would become obvious in a painful way. Besides, he's mentioned in the Lonely Planet as the insatiable Manolo. And there's enough mentions of him online. He's a very naughty boy. We didn't talk much, and he seemed a little cagey around me; I think he knew that I recognised the player behaviour and the macho posturing, wandering round the place in his vest with a pump-action shotgun. But the girls fall for it, hook, line and sinker.
Myself and Andy had returned from the game half-cut, to find Manolo and the guests trying to finalise the plans for the bike ride through the jungle to the coast, where the idea was to spend the next couple of nights in a lodge. It was a bun-fight. Some wanted to stay one night, not two. Some didn't want to ride a bike. After twenty minutes of debate, it was noted that there weren't enough bikes to go round. One person had to drop out. I hadn't met James at this point, an Englishman my age, but turned to him as he was sat right next to me, asked if he was going. He shook his head and said he was doing the six-hour waterfall hike with one other fellow. Smaller group? Count me in. I didn't fancy the Big Gringo Bike Ride, despite the opportunity to witness what I knew was going to happen: there was another single girl in the group. It'd be like watching a car crash in slow-motion: the shark would be smelling blood.
Next morning, we waited around while the guides prepared the bikes. I smiled to myself, as I'd obviously made the right choice: the bikes were youths, and not designed for rough terrain, with street tyres. Riding those would be a nightmare for anyone non-midgets in the group. The look James gave me told me he was thinking the same. So off we went, heading up the rough road the the jump-off point. We were joined by an Israeli, who was actually OK, apart from being a tight bastard. We said our Goodbyes to the rest of the group and dropped downhill into the forest. A meandering, treacherously wet path soon had us at the river's edge. A little further ahead, we came to the first jump. The river ran through a tight gorge, and our guide pointed out the footholds we'd need to get across to the rock face we'd jump from. It was precarious, and needed one fluid movement to get across: one slip and you'd fall into the river via some nice rocks below. I began wondering what I'd been thinking to sign up for this...hardly therapeutic for a fractured rib, is it? James volunteered to go first, and the guide wedged himself into the area below, the better to catch us should we mis-time it and fall. He must have been insane, as he was half my size. Following James across, we prepared ourselves for the 5m leap as the guide lobbed a stone to tell us where to aim for. In James went, myself following 30 seconds later. The water was England Cold, and very refreshing after the sweaty climb downhill. After the Israeli clumsily leapt in, the guide pointed out the way to swim to the next fall.
The falls got bigger each time, and we reached Jump 3. Inching out over the slimy rocks, we looked at the drop...a good 6m. There was a clump of jagged rock at the bottom. Hitting those was going to mean serious trouble. The guide told us that only one person had broken an ankle recently, and it took them six hours to help him hobble out. That made me feel a lot better, obviously. James went first again. The trainers I was wearing were so old that there was no tread on them, making me more nervous about slipping. My legs were leaden. Physics was telling me that forward motion would carry me well clear of the rocks with an outward leap; but it's one thing your brain telling your legs that, quite another for the legs to agree, what with the restless butterflies fluttering around in your testicles. But shakily obey they did, and I hit the water hard; it took a few seconds to suface, visiblity in the brown water limited, and a grateful breath was inhaled through a grin. This was exhilarating. I swam on my back to the shale slope at the mouth of the gorge, the rocky edifice above me dripping water from the foliage through shafts of sunlight. The Israeli chickened out, and climbed to a lower perch before nervously launching himself into space. Warming ourselves in the sun on a large flat rock, we agreed that this was one of the best trips any of us had taken while travelling.
We arrived at our next jump, skipping one which looked tempting, had the guide not wagged a finger and told us it was shallow. You could do this trip yourself, but that was the point where you'd break something and rename the river gorge Shit Creek; your paddle would be nowhere to be seen. This next jump was bigger, maybe 6-7m. The rock to leap from was a mere foot across, between a tree and a bush. Trepidation fought my will. James went in immediately: valiant Englishman to the core. My foot was slipping on the rock whenever I put weight on it, and my legs started trembling. The Israeli shook his head and followed the guide down the rocks to the edge of the churning pool. I went to follow him, then steeled myself: I'd regret it if I left the valley without completing the set. I stared at the spot, didn't think about it too much, and launched myself. Hanging in the air, I could see James grinning at me. I popped up out of the water facing the jump...it looked even higher from the pool. My pink palms stung from slapping the surface as I hit. James said he was doing it again, and I followed him. Much easier the second time around...so much that we actually did it again.
The last jump was a different prospect. We stood on the lip of a slab or rock atop a 60m plunge. I assumed, correctly, that we were not to leap from here. With the help of the guide, we abseiled down to a lower point next to the falls where we could drop 8m into the raging pool. This one had less rocks to potentially cripple us, so myself and James were straight in. We jumped a further three times before we made the steep uphill trek to our pickup point...it was just too good not to. Our soaking tee shirts were steaming as we panted our way up through the undergrowth. Before the last waterfall we'd been discussing what the guide likely earned. At $25 a head, I said I hoped it was $10 per person, Manolo keeping $15. James scoffed and said he'd be lucky to be earning $10 per day. We agreed we'd tip him $5. The Israeli quickly dropped out of that conversation, understandably.
Heading back in a pickup through the forest, I noticed a small dog running after us. Tan and black, it obviously had some Dobermann and Rottweiler in it. He was a beautiful animal, maybe 6 months old. It had followed us for some time when I turned to another of Manolo's staff who was stood in the back of the truck and asked him where the dog had come from. "The beach." I was flabbergasted. He then told me they'd come some 18km with him running behind. Some kid was going to be heartbroken tonight, I thought. We lost sight of him on some stretches as the truck picked up speed, but he caught us on rougher ground, running past and awaiting us at the next bend, tail wagging. I fell in love with this feisty little character. Every time I feared we'd lost him, he'd regain the ground. Everyone in the truck was grinning and looking out for hi. Just when I was beginning to picture life on the road with this ballsy little chap, we rounded a corner and drove through a small village we'd passed on the way up. There was a workshop there, with two muscular, mean junkyard dogs roaming the road. We stopped to let someone out, and I was praying the dog would make it past. No chance. One attacked him, and he fled beneath the nearest car. As he came out, he tried to slink away with his tail between his legs. The other dog was simply watching him, waiting his turn. As our truck set off again, he looked after us. I was heartbroken. The latinos would have thought me an idiot, but I felt like jumping out and going to his rescue. But what would I do with a dog in tow? To be honest, as difficult as it could have made border crossings and the like, I very much regret not going back for him. I have a lump in my throat just writing this. As we turned a bend out of sight, I could only gaze backwards, hoping to see him legging it around the corner. He'd have been mine to keep. James could tell I was upset "That's the trouble with life...there's always a bigger dog."