A trip to El Salvador is often proceeded with trepidation: travel warnings, media coverage focusing only on terrible events, and a reputation as a bloodstained, war-torn country will cause that. These preconceptions don’t exactly melt away on arrival either. Upon exiting the airport, you enter a strip of highway flanked by small shacks selling coconuts; their vendors waving a white cloth as if in surrender to some arriving conqueror. So why would anyone go? Usually it’s for one reason, surfing uncrowded waves.
El Tunco is named for a pig-shaped rock formation that sits just offshore the restaurant-lined beach. A mere 35-minute drive from the airport, El Tunco is a small hotel-filled enclave, populated with backpacking foreigners during the week and families looking for a beach reprieve from San Salvador, the country’s capital, on the weekend. The beach and main street are lined with restaurants, with pupusas—maize pockets filled with beans and cheese, and served with red salsa and shredded, fermented vegetables—being a popular option.
The main draw at El Tunco though, is the surf break at the north end of the beach named Sunzal, where longboarders dominate a lineup littered with surfers of various skill levels from complete novices to aging rippers. To find uncrowded waves, you need to push further into the wild.
We arrive for our first surf in the small village of Taquillo. Here, there are two beaches divided by a rocky river mouth, the sand is dark and mountains rise on either side of the valley. Two locals sit under palapa shades on the beach, holding professional cameras with telephoto lenses.
I’m a visitor at a new spot in a country where the murder rate is 25 times that of the United States. I’m trying to stay under the radar and not get anyone’s blood going. My wife and I survey the lineup: three locals, young guys, surfing the better of the two points, which is a right-hand wave that wraps into the small bay breaking along a jagged line of rocks. The other point is completely empty of surfers, a trend that continues during our stay. We paddle out, happy to sit inside the bay and watch as the locals surf the wave in a way that suggests they’ve been doing little else since they were born. They attack the most critical sections of the wave, whipping their boards and sending spray high into the air, drowning their audience in blue-sky afternoon rain.
Gathering our bravery, we drift further toward the takeoff zone. We’re hoping that a wave will swing wide enough that the locals find themselves out of position so it can naturally pass to us. One of the locals looks in our direction, I give him a small wave. He looks young in one way but old in another, something I spot time and time again in El Salvador. He looks to the horizon, spots a wave coming, looks back at me, and judges my position. He says, “That’s yours.” I look at the wave and look at him, he nods solemnly. I start paddling as the wave begins stacking up to hit the point. I’m acting out of surprise that anyone, in any place, would offer a wave to a visitor. The wave is upon me, I scratch and paddle. The wave looms at my side and begins to look vertical, it sucks water from the reef and I’m able to see through the blue to the rocks below. I push on my board with my palms ready to spring to my feet. But at the critical moment, I pull up on the nose of my board, too scared to go. The wave rolls perfectly down the point, a wasted effort on the part of nature and a stain of shame that follows me as I skulk back to the channel.
In surfing, everything is commitment. Commitment to pushing fear to the back of your mind when every one of your senses is telling you not to go. The same is true of El Salvador, sure there are dangers that lurk behind the tropical facade, but the rewards for the committed travelers that go are too great to ignore; a beautiful country and people.
El Salvador: The hot tips
The good fart:
To be stoned in El Salvador is to be bien pedo, which according to my own personal research translates to good fart. I questioned several locals on the prominence of this saying and none saw the humor in it that I did.
Hot weather, cold beer:
It’s hot in El Salvador and for many this means seeking out cold beer. Most restaurants have branded fridges that display a large digital readout of the temperature inside. The best temperature I found was at Corner Restaurant in El Tunco where the temperature usually hovered at -4.1C, basically nearly freezing the beer inside.
Owned by a young Australian couple, the Surf Farm is a permaculture property and within walking distance to two right-hand point breaks. Find out what’s growing at their Instagram account @Surf_Farm.