I have to admit given El Salvador's recent reputation for extreme gang violence and a ridiculously high murder rate during early 2016 I was extremely reluctant to even consider giving this beautiful country a visit. I knew the country offered an abundance of swell and was in possession of some of the best right hand point breaks on the planet....but would this be worth potentially risking my life for? Ok maybe I am being a tad bit overly dramatic here but hey the current murder rates aren't exactly something you can ignore.
In there first three months of 2016 El Salvador was averaging between 20-24 murders a day quickly making it the murder capital of the world. The powerful gangs of MS-13 and Barrio 18 have divided the nation with the gangs openly partaking in a vicious blood feud as they battle violently for power, territory and drugs on the streets of San Salvador. Death squads enter rival territories to conduct hits not just on opposing gang members but also their family and friends.
These gangs rose to power in El Salvador when the United States implemented the policy of deporting US based gang members back to their home countries where they would continue their illegal operations and they thus became extremely powerful within a very short space of time. The gangs originated in Los Angeles when many fled to escape El Salvador's 12-year civil war in the late 1980's, which left 75,000 people dead. These gangs were formed as protection for Salvadorian immigrants who were being targeted by strong Mexican Cartels in the USA. While I did not want to write an overly negative article I still feel it is important for people to have some background on the issues facing the region.
Tourists however and tourist regions are not direct targets for violent crime in El Salvador as the majority of violence is primarily centralised in the countries capital San Salvador. It is a great shame that El Salvador has this violence hanging over it as it is an amazingly beautiful country, with amazingly friendly people. This country has so much potential and it in fact had the strongest economy in Central America in 2010 before gang violence and poor political leadership took control.
Having lived in Mexico for the past eight months I knew that the danger levels portrayed in the media were often blown out of proportion or where located in certain hotspots/regions as opposed to the entire country. Bearing this in mind after a few solid conversations with good friends who had recently visited El Salvador I was quickly assured that much of the country is relatively safe for the foreign traveler and many of the best waves were easily accessible from safe tourist friendly locations. So what the heck, I decided to take a punt on El Salvador on route from Guatemala to Nicaragua with an initial plan to stay for one week....I ended up staying five. Due to the quality and consistency of the surf I was pretty much stranded there as I was unable to bring myself to leave the large perfect swells and world class surf spots behind. Accessing El Salvador from Antigua, Guatemala was relatively effortless with a shuttle bus taking me there direct from my hostel in Antigua to the small surf town of El Tunco in less than four and a half hours for a mere $15 USD.
El Tunco is a small, friendly and extremely safe surf/tourist town located approximately 45 minutes drive from the countries capital San Salvador. While a little bit touristy El Tunco is still a great place to begin your adventures in El Salvador.
The coast of El Salvador is absolutely gorgeous with rich lush forests and coconut trees lining the beautiful headlands while the region also offers up some of the most stunningly beautiful sunrises and sunsets that you will ever see. El Tunco is popular with both locals and traveling surfers/backpackers alike as you will find many of the comforts of home here. The town is populated with a variety of good quality hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars to suit all price ranges and preferences. In the weekend the night life can get very vibrant with an influx of locals visiting from nearby San Salvador to enjoy the beaches and party so when the waves aren't quite doing it you will always find something fun to fall back on. Despite Tunco's close proximity to gang infested San Salvador the town is very safe with security checkpoints located at both entrances to the town while many of the hotels have their own private security services.
Out of all the Central and South American countries I have visited thus far El Salvador surprisingly has by far the highest level of English speakers with many Salvadorians having studied in American language schools. Unfortunately the country is not able to fully reap the benefits of this strength as much international investment and interest into El Salvador has either ceased or been greatly reduced due to the gang crisis the country is currently experiencing.
Wave wise you could not be in a better spot than El Tunco with maybe nearby breaks that all work in different swell sizes and conditions. While I am not normally one to blow out spot names and locations I will do so in this case as this town relies heavily on surf based tourism as it is quite essentially one of the main sources of income for the region. The locals openly welcome and encourage traveling surfers to visit and enjoy their waves so I am happy to give a basic spot rundown here.
Located in the heart of El Tunco you have La Bocana a super fun peaky and somewhat shifty rock/sand bottom beachie with many a-frame peaks on offer. La Bocana breaks on most tides and works best on small to mid sized swells. Look north across the river and you will see the popular point break of Sunzal which is a haven for beginner and intermediate surfers. While a short 10-15 minute drive north you will find the point breaks of K59 and El Zonte which offer relatively less crowded and more low key surfing options. [Continued below]
However, the main draw card to the area is the infamous Punta Roca arguably El Salvador's best wave. Punta Roca is located in the nearby town of La Libertad a mere ten minute drive/chicken bus ride south from El Tunco. This famed rocky point break offers up super fast, down the line and very long right handers with some chunky barrel sections thrown in for good measure. Roca starts to break on swells just under two meters and will really turn it on when the swell hits the three to four meter mark. The wave is very high performance and is best suited to the advanced surfer. Roca is a board repairman's dream as entering and exiting the water here can prove extremely challenging due to the powerful swells surging over extremely slippy, shallow and often sharp boulders.
While Punta Roca can get stupidly crowded at times you should still be able to get your share of waves and I was even lucky enough to score a handful of good days there with less than ten guys in the water. If you are super keen and hit the spot on first light you can always beat the crowds for an hour or so as Central Americans aren't exactly renown for being the earliest of risers. Sorry my Latin friends but it is true. [Continued below]
There are many more spots that go under the radar here so if you can source your own vehicle and pry some priceless local knowledge then you just might have the key to score some fun waves all to yourself. This region has some of the friendliest local surfers I have ever encountered so if you are friendly, show respect, wait your turn in the lineup you might soon find yourself sharing a few cervezas with the local crew in Tunco. A word of warning though, you won't just be competing with the locals for your share of waves here as the area is also a super popular spot for Brasilian surfers. I was more than surprised to find most of the line ups filled with traveling Brasilians who take advantage of cheap flights and holiday package deals to El Salvador in order to steal your waves ;-)
Should you visit El Salvador? Sure why not? I spent five weeks in total in El Salvador and I had many great times there scoring some amazing waves for almost the entire stay and I made some amazing friends. While the country does have an extremely bad reputation for gang violence this can be easily avoided and I never felt remotely in danger or threatened there during my stay, not once. I would definitely recommend the place to the traveling surfer who wants something exciting, beautiful and slightly off the standard surfing trail. So what's stopping you? Book your tickets now!