El Salvador may be Central America’s smallest nation, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in the quality of surf.
It boasts dozens of world-class waves that are crammed into its mere 190 miles of coastline.
Despite the quality surf, decades of political/economic instability made El Salvador an afterthought for a surf trip.
However, in recent years the tide has started to turn. El Salvador has taken actions to shed its reputation as dangerous and has emerged as a leading surf destination in the region.
A picture that will convince you to buy a plane ticket. Photo: ISA/ Ben Reed
Why Surf El Salvador?
El Salvador has it all: reefs, beach breaks, and point breaks. But it’s the right-hand points that give it its world-class reputation.
The Salvadoran government made it their mission to reverse the country's negative image with a development plan centered around surfing, utilizing their most abundant natural resource to lure tourists back to their country: the waves.
El Salvador went all in on surfing, dumping millions of dollars into the sport and infrastructure by hosting important surf events, such as ISA Olympic qualifiers and a stop on the WSL Championship Tour.
That is where my story in El Salvador began.
Through my previous career at the International Surfing Association (ISA), I was lucky enough to play a role in the country’s transformation via my role as Marketing and Media Manager for the world championships.
I can genuinely say I was blown away by the country – the waves, the people, the food, the lifestyle, and the government's dedication to committing to their future as a surf hub.
How To Get To El Salvador
The San Salvador airport, which is reachable via direct flights to over a dozen US airports, is conveniently located on the coast. From the airport, you can easily head east or west to access the surf destinations via taxi or rental car.
For US citizens, a 90-day tourist visa is provided on arrival for only USD $12.
I took a two-leg journey to get to El Sal – San Diego to Houston, Houston to San Salvador. It was a quick 45-minute taxi ride to the town of El Tunco, which was host to both ISA events.
The most consistent swell season for El Salvador is when the South Pacific is most active, March through October, but even the dry months, November through February, can provide quality surf.
Where to Go in El Salvador
You can’t go wrong with picking a region to surf in El Salvador. There are quality waves all the way from the western border of Guatemala to the far east.
My two trips to El Salvador were oriented around the western region, particularly the towns of El Tunco and La Libertad.
The 6 Best Waves in El Salvador
Punta Roca is the gem of the Salvadoran coast. Located in the town of La Libertad, it’s a high-performance right-point break that features sections for barrels and turns. When it’s breaking right, it reels for hundreds of meters down the cobblestone point.
Evan Quarnstrom testing Punta Roca for himself. Photo Courtesy Quarnstrom.
As the country’s premier point break, it hosts the WSL CT and will inevitably have the heaviest crowd factor when there is swell running.
However, through my experience at Punta Roca, I discovered that the peak shifts enough for everyone to get a few waves of their own.
Just respect the locals and their right to the best set waves, and they will be happy to let you snag a few bombs.
A few notes of caution: be careful coming in and out on the slippery cobblestones, and watch out for ‘Mama Roca’, a notorious rock near the top of the point that can become exposed at low tide.
El Sunzal / La Bocana
Host to several ISA World Championships and ALAS Latin Tour events, El Sunzal and La Bocana are the waves that belong to the lively village of El Tunco.
El Sunzal is a sloping, yet powerful, right-hand point.
It’s perfect for intermediate surfers, but also provides open faces for the advanced surfer.
It can be surfed at any tide and size, from 2 feet to double overhead. During my time in El Salvador, I started every day off with a surf at El Sunzal on my quad-fin fish, overdosing on drawn-out bottom turns and carves from the top to the bottom of the point.
"Overdosing on drawn-out bottom turns." Photo courtesy Quarnstrom
Due east of El Sunzal is La Bocana, a cobblestone river mouth that creates punchy, A-frames. La Bocana lends itself more to critical, performance surfing, and is best surfed with a bit of tide, as low tide exposes rocks on the inside.
7 miles west of El Tunco is El Zonte, a quiet village that features a high-performance right point as well as a sand/rock-bottom wave down the beach.
Las Flores / Punta Mango
I didn’t make it to the east of El Salvador during my two trips, but the country’s eastern shores feature dreamy right points of their own.
Las Flores is the headliner, a long, sand-bottom right point that offers up sections for barrels and turns depending on the swell and tide conditions. Punta Mango, also a right point west of Las Flores, is a shallow cobblestone break with the potential to provide the barrel of your trip if conditions align.
What Surf Gear You’ll Want to Bring to El Salvador
You’ll want to pack for tropical weather and a quiver that corresponds with the waves you’ll be surfing (i.e. more volume for El Sunzal, less volume for Punta Roca or La Bocana).
Pack a long-sleeve rash guard, some strong zinc sunscreen, and a surf hat for maximum sun protection.
The long-sleeve rashguard also doubles as nice protection for the pesky sea lice, which can irritate skin that is exposed.
El Salvador’s Culture
When you aren’t surfing, you’ll be filling up on pupusas, the national cuisine. You also can’t go wrong with El Salvador’s fresh fruits and juices.
If you get tired of surfing, you can make quick day trips into the country’s interior for cultural/adventure activities like climbing volcanoes, exploring archaeological sites, and touring coffee plantations.
What To Avoid When Surfing in El Salvador
Traveling in El Salvador is safe. That said, don’t get lulled into a sense of security and forget common sense travel protocol.
And most importantly, respect the local surfers and they will return the respect to you. Don’t snake locals or hog all the set waves. And brushing up a bit on your Spanish will do wonders.
The Bottom Line: Surfing in El Salvador
El Salvador has largely put their complicated past behind them and is ushering in a new era of surf-centric tourism.
During my two stints in the country, I discovered a regular-footer paradise (the goofies can have fun too) that checked all the boxes for a quality surf trip: consistent waves, a safe environment, easy access, and friendly locals. I know my first two trips to El Salvador will not be my last.
Dispatch is an ongoing column featuring a firsthand account of the surf scene abroad from American Surf Magazine Contributors.