SAN SALVADOR — The Salvadoran castaway who says he spent 13 months adrift in the Pacific returned home Tuesday to his homeland. He landed in El Salvador at 8:30 p.m. local time.
José Salvador Alvarenga traveled by plane back to Central America, two weeks after the fisherman washed ashore in the Marshall Islands and told the world he had floated 12,500 kilometers (8,000 miles) in a small boat.
Sporting a new haircut and a clean shave, the 37-year-old was heading home to a family that thought he was dead until he emerged, recounting how he ate raw fish and birds and drank urine and turtle blood to survive.
“He could have died. But thanks to God my cousin is a warrior, because I don’t know what would have happened to another person,” said Marisol Alvarenga, 35, who had come to the airport with another cousin to wait for his arrival.
“We are happy he is coming back after so much time,” she said.
His original departure from the Marshall Islands was delayed until Monday due to a health setback. After a stop in Hawaii, he flew to Los Angeles where he underwent a medical examination to decide whether he could board the final flight home, a Salvadoran foreign ministry official told AFP.
Alvarenga, who left El Salvador more than a decade ago, was living on Mexico’s southern coast when he says he went on an ill-fated shark fishing trip in late 2012 with a companion who later died.
In his home village of Garita Palmera, on El Salvador’s west coast, his parents and 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, decorated their humble brick home with blue balloons and palm leaves for his arrival.
“We are preparing to welcome him. It is joy for all of us,” his father Ricardo Orellana told AFP from the fishing and beach village.
The fisherman says he lived in a seven-meter (24-foot) fiberglass boat for 13 months, enduring the odyssey by grabbing turtles off the water and snatching approaching birds.
He told AFP last week that his crewmate, 24-year-old Ezequiel Cordoba, could not stomach the food and starved to death four months into the voyage.
Cordoba’s family in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas say they want Alvarenga to tell them what happened, though they do not blame him for his death.
Alvarenga’s miraculous story was met with some doubt when images first emerged of him, his hair shaggy and sporting a bushy beard, but looking plump.
But officials have said his story checks out, and survival experts concede living in such conditions is theoretically possible.
Fishermen in the Mexican village of Chocohuital backed up his story, saying they went looking for him when he disappeared in late 2012. They say pictures of his boat in the Marshall Islands confirm it is his.
The Salvadoran government has disclosed little about his emotional return home, insisting that Alvarenga wanted privacy after giving a flurry of media interviews while in the Marshall Islands.
“His family and him say they feel inundated by the constant calls and requests from the media and have asked us to transmit their (privacy) request,” said Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda.
Alvarenga was expected to get another medical examination in El Salvador before heading to his village.
The fisherman was in and out of hospital in the Marshall Islands, suffering from dehydration and a range of ailments including back pain, swollen joints and lethargy.
In Garita Palmera, villagers were looking forward to hearing his story of survival, which some said they believe, including young fishermen.
“I would like for him to sit with us here on the beach and tell us about his adventure,” said Tomas Leiva, 17, dragging a fishing net.
“For us youngsters, it would help us learn to survive.”