Have you taken a surf trip to El Salvador?
I first traveled to El Salvador nine years ago and spent one night in the capital city. The presidential elections were that night and the streets were alive with protesters. Arriving downtown via Tica Bus from Guatemala at sundown I quickly walked through the trash strewn streets looking for a cheap place to stay. The hotels were full so I shared a room with a stranger.
I woke up (if you can call it “waking” since I never really slept) at 5 am anxious to get out of the stifling city and make my way to the coast. A taxi took me from the hotel to the main bus terminal. The taxi ride to the my final destination, El Zonte, would have only been $20 USD, but that was too expensive for my budget back then. Instead I sucked it up and spent 3 hours of my time on a chicken bus. The blessing of youth—more time than money.
The early bus headed straight for La Libertad, the main coastal town in El Salvador. On the bus I chatted with an intelligent young El Salvadorean businesswoman whose English was better than mine. It was one of those travel encounters that breaks down your stereotypes about people in other countries.
Finally arriving in La Libertad, I hopped on another bus headed north along the curving coastal road. Quickly, the crowds, pollution and noise of La Libertad were left behind and forested hillsides took their place. The bus chugged along the never-ending twists and turns of the coastal road heading north providing brief glimpses of blue ocean and breaking waves. Excitement got the best of me and I got off the bus at the first stop—I couldn’t contain myself. After a wave starved month in Guatemala I just had to see this tropical surf up close. Little did I know another 5 minutes on the bus would’ve taken me to El Sunzal with perfect roadside vistas.
Hopping off the bus I crossed the street and ran down a dirt road, knowing it eventually would lead to a surf spot. Well, it ended up at someone’s private home and land with no beach access. One of the tricks of the eye every exploring surfer experiences—what appears a straight and easy shot to the waves when looking from a high vantage point turns into hopeless wandering when you’re in the thick of the forest.
Frustrated and still anxious for surf views, I returned to the road and boarded the next bus. When we reached the cliff above Sunzal I was speechless. Growing up as a surfer in Texas I had always half suspected the surf mags were lying to me, or that waves only got that good once in a blue moon. But here they were right in front of me. Perfect waves, perfectly groomed, blue water and tropical greenery all around. It was a dream, and it was real.
The next week I spent surfing some of El Salvador's best waves including El Sunzal and El Zonte. I stayed for $25 USD/night at a little surf resort right across from El Zonte (a great right hand point break). The week had that wonderful surf trip rhythm: eat, sleep, surf, repeat. This was the first time I had traveled to a foreign country on my own for the sole purpose of surfing. This surf trip was before internet and cell phones too, so friends or family did not know where I was. Remember, we were all "off the grid" back then and didn't even know it.
One of my favorite local establishments in El Zonte was a little beachfront restaurant. When the other surfers and I showed up for lunch each day they’d open a large cooler full of fish fresh caught that morning. Simply point to a fish and that was placing your order. The kitchen staff (one woman) would start working on the meal and we’d go for a stroll along the beach or watch the surf.
A leisurely 45 minutes later we’d return to a grilled whole fish on a bed of rice with beans. Sitting under the palm fronds with toes in the sand looking out on the waves and eating a fresh, simple meal I realized most things in life are over complicated. Even the bill was handled with the relaxed vibe you only find in Central America. As long as you came back and paid the tab within 3 or 4 days you were in good graces.
My surf vacation in El Salvador was full of incredible waves and unique experiences. Most of them good, some (like a broken ankle) were not so great but those are the events that end up being the best stories when you return.
Even though I’ve changed a lot in the last decade (I’d stay in a nice surf villa this time) El Salvador hasn’t changed much. It’s still off the beaten track, offers incredible surf, beautiful scenery, cheap accommodations, and is often less crowded in the lineup than Costa Rica or Nicaragua. So if you’re up for an adventurous surf trip with great waves, check out El Salvador sometime—you’ll be glad you did!