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.
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.