Since leaving the UK in October 2011 we’ve spent very few nights away from the boat. In fact, in 18 months, we’d only had 5 nights that we didn’t spend on board. Our plan to sail up the Pacific coast of Central America was very much influenced by my desire to explore these countries for the first time, getting to know the people, culture and history. However, it’s fair to say that a coast-side view of any country is a somewhat lopsided one. So, our decision to sail up river in El Salvador was purely down to being able to leave the boat somewhere secure in order to have a few much-needed weeks of land travel.


It should be stressed at this point that our plan was for budget land travel. The downside of wanting to explore inland is that we have to take into consideration the costs of leaving the boat in a marina while having the additional costs of travel and accommodation elsewhere. The result is a shoestring budget that the two of us decided to treat as a challenge as to how far we could make our money go. We locked up the boat, bade her farewell, and set off for destinations unknown in El Salvador and Guatemala for, well, for as long as we wanted and could make the money stretch.


In comparison, Guatemala and El Salvador have very different approaches when it comes to tourism. Guatemala has several areas of spectacular natural beauty and well developed towns and cities that have been staple landmarks on the gringo trail for many years. These spots also have their fair share of overpriced cafes and restaurants and shopowners that are all too ready to pounce on a captive audience and tell you in both Spanish and English about all the things they have in their shop (which, of course, you already know as you can see them clearly in front of you). Salvadoreans, by contrast, tend to be charmed by any tourist to their country but it’s generally without any hidden agenda. El Salvador also has its pretty towns and getaways nestled in the mountains but the civil war has meant that the tourists that visit these places tend to be from within Central America. The great bonus of this is that you encounter fewer gringo exclusive eateries, full of gap-year students clutching their Lonely Planet guidebooks.


A year ago, when we were in Cuba, we encountered the strange system of two currencies being simultaneously used: the National Peso and the Tourist Peso. Although we were free to do business in either we found that the difference in pricing was startling. On our jaunt to Havana we quickly chose our favourite place to have coffee, where the cost of an espresso was the equivalent of 5 pence. But we soon discovered that there was also a coffee shop next door which priced in tourist Pesos, so the same cup of coffee would cost £1, twenty times more expensive than the better cup in our place. Our inland travel experiences in Guatemala and El Salvador seemed to highlight this same local versus tourist value. We could decide to eat dinner in a restaurant where the clientele were all holidaymakers or we could choose to eat from street stalls or the local food market, which were full of the local Guatemalans or Salvadoreans and pay a fraction of the cost for food that was, without exception, always better, fresher and tastier.


We also adopted the same approach towards accommodation; we decided why should we pay an extortionate amount for a fancy room with a private bathroom, tv, air conditioning and balcony when the reason that we were staying in there was to be out and explore the town? In Suchitoto, El Salvador, for example, we had the option of just such a room for £60 per night or a private room in a hostel for £9 per night. Plus, the hostel didn’t have anyone else staying that weekend so we did, in fact, still have a private bathroom, and a private terrace and garden all to ourselves for a fraction of the cost. This tactic also led us to explore towns that were more off the beaten track, which is how we ended up in Izalco.


Izalco is a real gem of a town, just East of Sonsonate in El Salvador. It has a beautiful town square with a gorgeous church, plus some of the most fantastic Salvadorean and Mexican street food that we’ve had so far. We arrived there one evening, having travelled all the way from Santiago on the south shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala in one day. Our book on Central America had no hostels or hotels listed for the area so our plan was to ask around and wing it.


So, we stopped a passer-by and asked in Spanish if there were any hotels nearby. He shook his head and said that there was nothing like that. When we mentioned if he knew of any family that might have rooms he suggested the one place that he thought might be possible: the Casona de los Vegas. Not knowing how many of you are familiar with Latin American Spanish pronunciation I should point out that ‘v’s and ‘b’s sound exactly the same, so the word ‘Vegas’ in Spanish is said just the same as the English ‘beggars’.


Yup, we had no place to stay but in the house of beggars.


Exchanging glances with raised eyebrows, we followed our new friend as he led us down a dark side street to a building with no lights on. There was no answer when he rang the doorbell and, as he walked to the nearest restaurant to try to locate the owner, we looked at each other – despairing that even the house of beggars was no longer an option for our weary heads…


…and then Douglas Vega arrived. He was actually out having dinner with his wife and family but he hurriedly opened up the gate to his home, turned the lights on and ushered us inside. There we were greeted by the grand, colonial house that had been in his family for 3 generations, with two large courtyards, handsome tiled floors, old wooden beams, ample rooms for sleeping, living and dining, an entirely separate wing for the use of him and his wife, and an old, twisted tree, laden with ripe mangos in the centre of the courtyard garden. As he gave us our pick of rooms he apologised that we would be the only guests but assured us that his wife would still make us breakfast in the morning and that we were welcome to help ourselves to coffee, beer and mangos. We nodded, stunned into silence realising that we would be staying in the most gorgeous house that we had seen so far.


So sometimes being on a tight budget really does work in your favour.