How El Salvador Became a World-Class Surfing Destination

Imagine discovering one of the world’s most perfect waves.

When surfers Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson gazed out over the hollow right point break at La Libertad Point in the early 1970s, they christened it Punta Roca, or “Rock Point.” And a legend began.

The California teens had begun their trip to Central America after watching Endless Summer, a 1966 movie about two surfers who traveled the world in search of the perfect warm-water waves. It gave them an idea.

How El Salvador Became a World-Class Surfing Destination

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Imagine discovering one of the world’s most perfect waves.

When surfers Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson gazed out over the hollow right point break at La Libertad Point in the early 1970s, they christened it Punta Roca, or “Rock Point.” And a legend began.

The California teens had begun their trip to Central America after watching Endless Summer, a 1966 movie about two surfers who traveled the world in search of the perfect warm-water waves. It gave them an idea.

Peterson, a photographer for Surfer magazine, convinced his editors to commission a handful of articles about Latin America’s untouched surf. Then he and Naughton set out in an old Volkswagen Beetle to sample the lonely waves of Mexico. As those became popular, the two pushed on into undiscovered Central America. Using old nautical maps to parse out the big waves, they discovered a collection of incredible breaks in El Salvador.

“La Libertad was a particularly idyllic place,” wrote Naughton. Surfers could live cheaply, close to amazing waves, and “not worry about a thing if you left your gear on the beach.”

Today, the surf is more crowded, people take their equipment with them, and prices have risen (though it’s still one of the least expensive surf spots in the Western hemisphere). But the waves are still awesome. El Salvador’s south-facing coast picks up large, regular swells from March through October (with the best between May and September), bequeathing the tiny country a world-class array of right-hand point breaks. And, yes, a few lefts.

Word Gets Out

With waves like El Salvador’s, it was just a matter of time before the surfing world became obsessed. Naughton and Peterson’s articles about El Salvador’s fantastic surf were published in Surfer magazine in 1972. The duo then traveled to Africa, in search of even better waves, finally returning to El Salvador three years later for another set.

“It was 1975, and my how things had changed,” Naughton wrote. Thanks to their articles, the water was packed with Americans. “It was raining single fins on anyone unfortunate enough to be caught by a set paddling out.”

Their romance with El Salvador’s waves was on the wane; they felt that the Central American surf circuit had become more about the party, less about the breaks. They returned to California. But surfers continued to roll into El Salvador.

Surfing Goes Local

One of these visitors was the legendary Gerry “Mr. Pipeline” Lopez, who took it upon himself to teach local kids how to surf. He couldn’t know that his students would become the first generation of El Salvador’s now world-class surf set.

As the 1970s came to an end, the Salvadoran Civil War began. Tourism in El Salvador, and throughout Central America, slowed to a trickle. There was only one group of travelers who could not be dissuaded from coming. Surfers.

It soon became customary to leave their boards behind in La Libertad for the increasingly surf-crazed local kids. With the economy struggling, this was the only way for residents to get them. The boards were put to good use: As the war wore on, it was almost all locals riding the waves.

Yet even during the war, this area took on the laid-back feel of a surf town. “This was probably the most tranquilo zone in the country,” surfer Robert “Roberto” Rotherham told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. He had arrived in La Libertad in the late 1970s and decided to stay despite the war. His beachfront business still got plenty of customers on weekends, when families from San Salvador would make the half-hour drive to enjoy the beach and some semblance of peace. And Rotherham had Punta Roca almost all to himself during the week.

The World Tunes In

Peace returned to El Salvador in 1992. The first wave of tourists to hit the country had to bring their own boards. By 2000, both locals and expats were investing in surf tourism. New hotels, restaurants, and surf schools sprang up. At first, these thatch-roofed businesses clustered around La Libertad and El Tunco, but gradually spread up and down the coast.

Soon, the scene exploded. World-class Punta Mango in Playa Cuco drew surfers onto eastern shores, where they discovered dozens of other surfable breaks. To the west, the waves at Playa Zonte, Km 59, Km 61, and Mizata were soon repopulated with both local and foreign surfers. Businesses opened. The roads improved.

And in 2011, the elite World Championship of Surfing decided that El Salvador was ready to host a top-level international competition, joining destinations such as the Canary Islands, Portugal, France, and the Azores as places with both the epic waves and organizational skills to host a major athletic event.

The excitement was electric. El Salvador welcomed “the best surfers in the world from more that 30 countries to a surfing tournament that will reach more than 240 million television viewers worldwide,” announced Minister of Tourism José Napoleón Duarte Durán. “With the coverage of respected sports channels such as ESPN, Sports News and CBS Sports, among others, the ISA World Masters will deliver a global promotion for our nation.”

The coverage was unprecedented, and people took notice. Today, El Salvador is one of the world’s premier surf destinations, home to dozens of surf outfitters, specialty guides, beautiful resorts, and schools where you can learn Spanish in between sets. Even Naughton and Peterson have returned for another ride.

Come follow their lead. The water is warm and the waves world-class. And it’s all here waiting for you.

El Salvador’s Top Spots for Nature Adventures

Hiking, mountain biking, rafting, surfing, swimming: Whatever adventures you’re into, El Salvador has a lush playground for you to partake of it. Easy-to-reach waterfalls, hot springs, volcanoes, and beaches come together in this outdoor lover’s paradise, with expert outfitters ready to gear up and whisk you to the best spots.

The easiest way into wild El Salvador is at one of the many ecotourism centers scattered across the country, where you can arrange your own adventure with English-speaking guides and all the equipment you might need. Here’s where to get wild.

El Salvador’s Top Spots for Nature Adventures

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Hiking, mountain biking, rafting, surfing, swimming: Whatever adventures you’re into, El Salvador has a lush playground for you to partake of it. Easy-to-reach waterfalls, hot springs, volcanoes, and beaches come together in this outdoor lover’s paradise, with expert outfitters ready to gear up and whisk you to the best spots.

The easiest way into wild El Salvador is at one of the many ecotourism centers scattered across the country, where you can arrange your own adventure with English-speaking guides and all the equipment you might need. Here’s where to get wild.

Montecristo National Park

Great For: Hiking & Camping

This park sits high in the cloud forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains, some 7,000 feet (2,1336m) above sea level—an entirely different world from the dry tropical forests that dominate the Salvadoran countryside. Cool (50°F/10°C), wet weather has created the perfect home for massive ferns, fantastic orchids, pumas, and vibrantly colored birds like the resplendent quetzal.

You’ll also find a wooded and well-maintain campsite, and several hiking trails up to 4 miles (7 km) in length. The longest, steepest trail leads to a monument where El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras meet. Bring everything you’ll need for your hike and stay, as services are limited.

Perquín

Great For: Hiking, Camping, and Swimming

El Salvador’s “Wild East” is just a bit less developed and accessible, preserving its natural wonders for more adventurous travelers. Start in the mountain town of Perquín, which has become the area’s center of ecotourism.

Guides can arrange all sorts of hikes through the mountains, taking in waterfalls, rivers, and hot springs, as well as multi-day excursions that include tent rentals and meals. One of the most popular destinations is the Rio Sapo, a river that rolls past one of the best campgrounds in the country, with toilets, fire pits, security, and swimming holes; a double waterfall is a short hike away.

Rio Lempa

Great For: Whitewater Rafting

The most important river in El Salvador is the Rio Lempa, once the southernmost border of the Mayan Empire. Its 262 miles (422 km) rush past rolling mountains, epic gorges, and small villages on the way to the Pacific. Experienced kayakers can paddle the Class IV and V rapids at the top of the Lempa, but most people head to Apazunga Aquatic Park Center to take easy whitewater rafting trips down the Class II and III portions.

Apazunga (which translates to “where the river begins”) also has a refreshing spring for bathers, a small canopy tour for adrenaline junkies, playgrounds, and other family-friendly amenities.

Bahia Jiquilisco

Great For: Biking, Kayaking, Sea Turtles, and Beaches

The mangrove-forested inlet of Bahia Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve is a quiet place of almost unspoiled natural beauty, covering more than 150 square miles (400 sq km). Locally run tour operators offer boat and kayaking trips around the islands and inlet that are perfect for birding, fishing, and wildlife spotting.

This is also one of the world’s most important hatcheries for hawksbill turtles, critically endangered because their translucent shells are used to make much-coveted jewelry; ask your guide about visiting a conservation project. Or choose to arrange bike rides, visits to plantations and wildlife preserves, and overnights along the endless white-sand Pacific beaches.

Must-Do Day Trips from San Salvador

When you first arrive in San Salvador, it seems like the busy capital must be hours from the nation’s natural wonders and cultural highlights. But nothing’s too far away in this compact country—and with the excellent road system, it’s easy to reach several impressive attractions.

Whether you have a full day or just a few hours, here are the spots to check out.

Must-Do Day Trips from San Salvador

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When you first arrive in San Salvador, it seems like the busy capital must be hours from the nation’s natural wonders and cultural highlights. But nothing’s too far away in this compact country—and with the excellent road system, it’s easy to reach several impressive attractions.

Whether you have a full day or just a few hours, here are the spots to check out.

El Boquerón National Park

Distance: 12 miles (20 km)

The graceful silhouette of San Salvador Volcano dominates the capital’s skyline, and the park sits on top of this 5,905-foot (1,800-meter)-high mountain. Drive up the volcano’s steep slope, past pretty restaurants serving traditional food. You’ll soon arrive at the park, where you can explore botanical gardens lush with colorful ornamentals, playgrounds, and picnic areas. Then make the short, steep hike to the rim to check out spectacular views of the city and look down into the 1,830-foot (558-meter)-deep crater.

La Libertad

Distance: 19 miles (30 km)

One of El Salvador’s best beaches features world-class surfing and plenty of places to sample fresh ceviche. Relax on the palm tree-lined sandy beach, gazing out over waves lapping at the iconic pier. Or make it a weekend of it by staying at one of the many oceanfront hotels.

Puerta del Diablo

Distance: 8 miles (13 km)

Take in El Salvador’s rugged landscape just south of the capital at this dramatic split-rock formation. Climb the steep, rocky stairs to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with remarkable views to Lake Ilopango, San Vicente Volcano, and the Pacific. You’ll also find a zip line, rock climbing, and stands selling fresh pupusas (stuffed tortillas) near the parking lot.

Joya de Cerén and San Andrés Archeological Park

Distance: 25 miles (40 km)

See the region’s Mayan history up close at this archaeological park about 45 minutes from the capital. Here, the rolling hills are punctuated with stone pyramids and public buildings dating to 900 BC. Just minutes away is Joya de Cerén, a village often called “America’s Pompeii” because a volcanic eruption in 590 AD buried it beneath five meters of ash almost overnight. Homes, hearths, and businesses were perfectly preserved, offering unparalleled insight into the lives of working-class Mayans.

Lake Ilopongo and El Zapote Barracks Museum

Distance: 13 miles (21 km)

El Salvador has several outstanding military museums; one of the best is located just east of the capital. Along with an array of tanks, planes, and war memorabilia, El Zapote features an amazing three-dimensional map of the country’s dramatic topography, as well as a “popemobile” (Pope John Paul II visited El Salvador twice). Afterwards, visit the country’s second-largest lake—it sits right outside, nestled scenically into an ancient volcanic crater. Hammocks, boat rentals, and restaurants along the shore will tempt you to make a day of it.

How to Travel Around El Salvador

Just off the beaten path, at the very heart of the hemisphere, El Salvador beckons travelers with dramatic natural beauty, colorful culture, and surprising convenience. Its well-maintained roads, long dry season, and compact topography mean you can spend the morning surfing world-class breaks, the afternoon relaxing in the cool mountains, and the evening enjoying San Salvador’s fine dining and festive nightlife.

But don’t speed your way through; savor this small gem of a country and its stunning volcanoes, broad beaches, and pretty Spanish Colonial villages. You’ll enjoy it even more if you come prepared. Here are some suggestions.

How to Travel Around El Salvador

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Just off the beaten path, at the very heart of the hemisphere, El Salvador beckons travelers with dramatic natural beauty, colorful culture, and surprising convenience. Its well-maintained roads, long dry season, and compact topography mean you can spend the morning surfing world-class breaks, the afternoon relaxing in the cool mountains, and the evening enjoying San Salvador’s fine dining and festive nightlife.

But don’t speed your way through; savor this small gem of a country and its stunning volcanoes, broad beaches, and pretty Spanish Colonial villages. You’ll enjoy it even more if you come prepared. Here are some suggestions.

How Much Time Should I Spend?

El Salvador is small, with excellent roads and a robust public transportation network making for efficient travel around the country. Spending about a week should allow you to experience the top attractions, most of which are in the western half of the country. If you really want to explore, however, you could easily spend a month and still not come close to seeing everything. The best strategy is to choose your own adventure, then make plans to come back.

Do I Need to Speak Spanish?

Learning a little survival Spanish and carrying a phrasebook will make your trip run far more smoothly. Still, English is widely spoken, and people are usually eager to help out.

Tourist centers, including San Salvador, Juayúa and the Flowers Route, Suchitoto, Perquín, and any of the popular surf beaches are relatively easy to get around without much or any Spanish. If you’re nervous about navigating public transportation or exploring less touristy areas without fluent Spanish, arrange guided tours and private shuttles through your hotel.

Climate

El Salvador has two seasons. Verano (summer), the dry season, runs from November through April, and it gets hot—average highs in the capital approach 90°F (32°C) in March and April. Rainy season, called invierno (winter), happens from May to October. The landscape is greener and prettier, and temperatures are slightly cooler, with highs in the low 80s (high 20s). Just be ready for afternoon downpours, which usually last an hour or two in April and May and become more frequent by late August and September.

Temperatures vary more with elevation than season. The coastal lowlands are hot year-round, while the mountains get chilly (it’s been known to snow atop Cerro El Pital). Even the central plateau (which includes San Salvador) gets chilly in November and December, when highs average about 82°F (28°C) during the day but drop to the high 60s (low 20s) at night.

So come prepared! Pack a light jacket and long pants along with your summer gear, and warmer clothes if you plan to spend time in the mountains.

Money & Costs

Conveniently for U.S. citizens, El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar as currency. Banks can exchange euros and some other currencies. ATMs are widely available and connected to most global networks. Most major credit cards are accepted, even in small towns. Be sure to let your bank and credit card companies know that you’ll be in El Salvador, to avoid any lapse in service.

Costs are reasonable, even by Central American standards. Budget travelers can eat, sleep, and travel well on less than US$40 per day, while mid-range travelers enjoying comfortable hotel rooms can expect to pay US$50–120 per day.

For luxury-travel aficionados, El Salvador offers a network of upscale offerings, including excellent hotels, Airbnbs, restaurants, private tours, and other amenities. Costs vary, but are considerably less than you’d pay in a more developed luxury market.

Getting Around

Most foreign visitors arrive at Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (SAL), still often called Comalapa International. It’s small, efficient, served by official taxis and Uber, and is located between San Salvador and the beaches of La Libertad; a taxi to either will cost US$25–$35.

Most international car-rental agencies have offices at the airport, as well as in major cities around the country. Renting a car is an excellent option; El Salvador boasts the best roads in Central America. They’re well maintained, relatively well marked and easy to navigate, and guarded parking is generally easy to find. Just be aware that while base rates for rentals are low, insurance and taxes raise the final cost significantly.

El Salvador also has an extensive and inexpensive public bus system that serves even the smallest and most remote villages. Minibuses, pickup trucks, and boats may also be options for reaching remote areas. Be aware that while major cities have central bus stations, smaller towns do not, so you’ll need to ask around for bus stop locations and schedules, which can be challenging. (Start at your hotel). And be prepared for crowded buses. If you’re traveling internationally by bus, plan to depart from San Salvador, Santa Ana, or San Miguel.

Ubers are plentiful, and taxis are usually easy to hail, either at taxi stands or through your hotel. You can also arrange private drivers, transportation and tours through almost any hotel.

Great Hikes in El Salvador that Anyone Can Do

With so many parks and protected areas packed with volcanoes, mountains, and crater lakes, it’s no wonder that Salvadorans love to hike. But the most famous treks are strenuous; climbing those spectacular volcanoes isn’t for everyone.

Happily, El Salvador is a famously family-friendly country, with scores of easy yet still amazing hikes that almost anyone can do. These trails will get you off on the right path, but there are plenty more—just ask at your hotel or any tourist office where to find them.

Great Hikes in El Salvador that Anyone Can Do

 

Great Hikes in El Salvador that Anyone Can Do

Great Hikes in El Salvador that Anyone Can Do

With so many parks and protected areas packed with volcanoes, mountains, and crater lakes, it’s no wonder that Salvadorans love to hike. But the most famous treks are strenuous; climbing those spectacular volcanoes isn’t for everyone. Happily, El Salvador is a famously family-friendly country, with scores of easy yet still amazing hikes that almost anyone can do. These trails will get you off on the right path, but there are plenty more—just ask at your hotel or any tourist office where to find them.

Chorros de la Calera, Juayúa

Chorros de la Calera, Juayúa

Hiking distance: 1.2 miles (2 km).
Work off the delicious food served at Juayúa’s weekly gastronomic festival by taking a scenic stroll past wildflowers, mango trees, and coffee plants. Bring your swimsuit; you’ll end up at an epic swimming hole filled with crystal-clear water, fed by a wall of waterfalls. Serious hikers can book a guided six-hour “Seven Waterfalls” tour, which also ends at Los Chorros. You’ll be ready for that swim.

El Boquerón National Park, San Salvador

El Boquerón National Park, San Salvador

Hiking distance: 1 mile (1.5 km).
The summit of iconic San Salvador Volcano is protected parkland as well as a refreshing high-altitude escape less than an hour from San Salvador. El Boquerón features several easy trails, including the short, steep hike to the volcano’s rim, with fantastic views across San Salvador and beyond. For a more intense workout, take a guided 3.5-mile (6-km) trek around the rim, or brave the much more challenging descent into the crater itself.

Los Tercios Waterfall, Suchitoto

Los Tercios Waterfall, Suchitoto

Hiking distance: 1 mile (1.5 km).
El Salvador’s most perfectly preserved Spanish Colonial town is Suchitoto, and the most popular hike from town is the walk to Los Tercios, a fantastic formation of hexagonal basalt columns. In rainy season, water pours over the striking structure and creates a small swimming hole at the bottom—a welcome treat after the steep final section of this trail. More challenging treks include the strenuous six-hour ascent of nearby Guazapa volcano, with stops at old military outposts along the way.

El Chorrerón de San Fernando Waterfall, Perquín

El Chorrerón de San Fernando Waterfall, Perquín

Hiking distance: 1.5 miles (2 km).
The ecotourism center of eastern El Salvador is Perquín, where local guides have developed hikes to all sorts of amazing natural attractions. Favorites include a fairly easy walk to San Fernando, where water plunges straight down a rocky face 128 feet (39 meters) into a gorgeous pool. Feeling bold? Take on the more challenging trek to Rio Sapo, a beautiful river where you can camp overnight.