How to Use a Washing Sink (“Pila”)   20 comments

This article explains How to use a Washing Sink, or “Pila”, as its called in El Salvador.

First, familiarize yourself with the Pila. All Pilas have a “tub” area to hold water, and one or more “washing” areas/slabs.


Pila, El Salvador


Fill the tub with water, when water is running*.  Be sure the faucet is in the OFF position if you turned it when water wasn’t running, or it will spill over when it comes back on (happened to us already).  I’ll share a phrase my friend in maintenance at the Omni Hotel in Charleston, SC taught me over 20 years ago:  “righty-tighty, lefty loosy”.   Thanks, Jim, still use it today!

Have soap and a guacal ready.

SOAP for washing clothes is sold in short, fat cylinders at the Super in packages of 3.

Max Poder or "Max Power"

My preferred washing soap. We like anything with the word "Indio" here.

GUACAL**: a shallow plastic bucket




guacal - shallow bucket



Now for the washing part: Wet your item, lay it on the slab of the Pila, and roll on the soap.  Use the item to wash itself.   Hold the part closest to you on the pila, with one hand, palm down.  Grab the far end with your other hand.  Bring it to the near end, and rub it against itself, in “away” motions so not to get suds all over yourself.   Don’t by stingy with the soap:  if you don’t have enough, more friction makes it harder to wash and wears it out faster.  For large items like bath towels, I do it in reverse – hold the far end and pull ‘toward’ me for greater arm force to move a heavy, wet cloth.

Pila-Blanket-NoWayBlankets and sheets? Forget the Pila!

Some Salvadoran woman may pride themselves in their ability to wash a blanket on a tiny cement slab, but I’m not that crazy.   Tried it once, pieces of blanket were dangling off the pila, landing on the ground, so tried bunching it up but parts would fall out again, and into the pila’s tub.  Damn thing was more dirty after I washed it than before I started.

Allow me to introduce you to my friend, Mr. Large Bucket.

Throw some “Rinso” in water and mix.  Let ’em set 30 minutes or so, do some “human agitate” like a washing machine, and presto!  Freshly washed bedding.

Works for me.




Wring where needed, and hang. ClothesDrying-clothes-Back-of-Refrigerator drip dry fast in most of the country, heck there’s nothing but sun here.  Except…last year in the rainy season, we were “Living in the Rain forest,” as there was exceptional rainfall between August and September of 2010.   Took 3 days to dry clothes (I got good at wringing).   Sweatshirts – took so long they smelled like sweaty socks, never really dried.  A friend showed me the “hang it on the back of the fridge” trick, it helped tons.

Hangers: People on the mountain put everything on hangers as it rains throughout the day during soppy season.  At the first sign of a sprinkle, one dashes out, grabs all the hangers in one fell swoop and brings them in under cover.  Rain stops, hangers out again.  Repeat.

Dry items ‘reverse’ and Don’t leave ’em out too long. The sun is STRONG here, so if you forget to reverse your nice new green shirt and take off for the afternoon….you’ll find a nice lime green shirt when you get back.

Laundromats? I know of no coin-op laundries in El Salvador.  May be for many reasons:  tradition + economics tied to hand-washing, issues with a city’s plumbing infrastructure, and safety issues (most people are in by 7pm to avoid dangerous encounters – that’s prime laundry time).  Fortunately, there is no shortage of women offering laundry services for the working woman too busy to hand wash.

Benefits of Hand Washing Clothes:

1)  Avoids premature “dingy-ing” of clothes (no “grey soup” in the washing machine from pieces whose colors run)

2)  No more wings!   You know:  the under-the-arm flesh that  jiggle when you wiggle?  Hand wash for a few months and see them disappear!!

3) Saves on electricity.    4) Free Exercise  ( see #2 )

* In many areas of El Salvador, the water does not “run” with constant water pressure 24×7.  Salvadorans have adapted well; they fill their pila and one-two barrels of water to have enough when it is not running.   In some places, like where my in-laws live, there is a specific time window when the water “runs” so homes can fill their drums.  Even the well-to-do live with water interruptions.  They have a large “tank” called a “Cisterna” – seen in urban and suburban El Salvador (a large cement tank to store water, located on their property), or a black hard plastic water tank.

** a Guacal (alt. spelling: huacal) is the word used for a shallow bucket.  Ranging from the size of a small bowl to a large 2 foot diameter basket-size. Guacales are used to pour and store, all over the house and market. Used in washing, cooking, and transporting items like ground corn meal (masa). Women throughout El Salvador (and Central America) carry items in guacales on their head; the shallow shape lends itself well to balancing on the head.

20 responses to “How to Use a Washing Sink (“Pila”)

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  1. One addition I’d add, though my experience is Mexican, not Salvadorian. DO NOT hang laundry to dry during volcanic eruptions. Try picking Popocatepetl stains out of your tighty-whities 🙂

  2. I loved this! I have to admit though that we bought a washer straight away when we moved here. I just don’t do the whole hand wash thing, but I love what you said about the exercise! I certainly would love to tone my arms. LOL. We are lucky where we live that we have running water all the time except for some point on Tuesdays, which can either be during day, the night or sometimes even Wednesday instead.

    I would also mention the use of the pila for bathing using the huacal also. I think I will have to blog about this too 😉

  3. nice article!

    one advice though:

    before hand washing your clothes, put them in a large bucket with “Rinsol” over the night. doesn’t take you so long washing your clothes then and it’s easier!

    works well for me

    • Hi jopra, yes this works well also. My husband (who is a Salvadoran and yes actually washes his own clothes a lot!) likes to do this trick and my mother in law. Since I sometimes forget and leave them in Rinso too long (PU) I just say heck I’ll do it all at once.

  4. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who can’t wash blankets and sheets in the pila! I feel so pathetic. We only get running water every other day for four or five hours. A couple nights ago I was awakened to the noise of water running in the other room at 3:30am. Someone not from the area had visited the house they day before and after they turned on the faucet and realized there was no running water they forgot to shut it back off! I was not happy.

  5. It should be noted, never rinse anything off in the center where the fresh water is held. A mistake I made, to my everlasting embarrassment, the first time I was in El Salvador.

  6. I think the “faucet left on” problem is very common with this type of water system. Its funny, years back in 1999 I visited friends in Oaxaca. It was early in the morning, before we were all awake, when the woman who shares the house was calling down to my friends b/c the faucet was starting to drip. That was our wake up call.

  7. I’m gonna have show this to my fiance! I remember having to wash my clothes in one of these when I was little! So how long does it take you to do an average load of washing? Do you wash things every day? Do they not sell washing machines over there?

    • I did the equivalent of almost 2 loads the other day – 2 sheets, a blanket, a bunch of shorts and t-shirts in a little over 2 hours. It’s just the two of us, and my husband washes too, so not burdensome. If I were working FT, the drying part would be nearly impossible, sowould have to go the machine route or perhaps a local woman – give her the money instead of the appliance company.

  8. I found this article very enjoyable, since I have been to el salvador and this is one of the highlights. My daughters grandmother multi-task and budgets that water to the next cycle. It would fill up on tuesdays and thursdays, and you would have to budget cooking, cleaning, and showering and laundering in between. The little ones would have guacal shower or when it got to warm they would stand on the top of the pila and we poor the water on their heads, it makes you appreciate all that do or can have a pila in their home. the poorer homes were down at the river washing their clothes and using the rocks as thier pila. I miss el salvador, I am looking for a vacation home so we can enjoy it when we can.. any ideas where to get the information of homes, or lots, or fixer uppers..

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, it’s so cute when little kids stand on the pila to get washed. My nephew would like to get baths as it’s so hot where they live in that part of Chalatenango. He would stand in front of the pila, motioning for someone to life him up to get a bath. I sent you an email regarding housing ideas. If you have family living in an area you like that you feel comfortable coming to for vacations, you can start there, by seeing if there are any homes for sale.

  9. LOL…this was my worst nightmare, when I lived in El Salvador. Hand washing clothes! But I’m realizing it did do something to my arms. Today, I play tennis and lift weights to keep up my arms. Much, MUCH more fun!

  10. It is possible to wash blankets and sheets in the lavadero! What I used to do while washing laundry (we have a washer now) is soak the clothes in water, rinso and suavitel. Then I put the blanket in lavadero and push all of the blanket back so just the top is in front of me. i wash all that. Then as those parts get clean i pull it towards me (still inside the lavadero) and keep working my way until im done. Its really not that difficult. When you actually dont rub the clothes it doesnt get all the dirt out. And teh best time to wash is in the morning.
    Btw I cant believe how tiny your pila is!!

  11. Hi Ashley, yes the pila in Los Planes was quite small. Where we live now we have a “Pila Respetable” (respectable one) as I like to call it, he he. My suegra, God love her, was using the same one-sided pila for over 30 years. The pila pictured above, but just one sink the left side of it – for dishes, food prep and laundry – yikes! We finally replaced it with a two-sided pila for her a couple years ago. She is an “old pro” as I call her, and washes the blankets in a similar method as you mentioned, but kind of going around the rosey more. In a small pila, it’s too maddening for me. But now…with our whoa-so big pila, I can even wash a big hammock in it. I have to upload a pic of it if I havent so far. Thanks for commenting, Ashley.

  12. I am newly arrived to Nicaragua and need to wash our clothes. Our pila is almost identical to yours. Thanks for posting this! Have a question, when/where/how do you rinse the soap from the clothes?

    • Connie, I rinse the clothes in the same place. What lots of Salvadoran women do is just keep pouring guacales (bowl/bucket things) over the clothing. I tried something different – using a stopper at the end of the sink I would pour water in and fill up that area to rinse like so, or I would just use a very large guacal/bucket as my rinsing tub. I think you use less water that way.

      How is it going in Nicaragua, btw?

  13. Hi! I was wondering what type of blanket this is. I want to order a new one, but I’m not sure of the name and I have no current communication with my grandmother. They’re beautiful and I just need a new one. thank you

    • Christyna, I do not know what type of name that blanket has. The vendors walk by selling them but I would not know what they are called. They also have Guatemalan blankets that they sell which have a different style to them. Maybe you could search Guatemalan Blankets or Salvadoran Blankets.

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