Everything you need to know about surfing in El Salvador
Update from May 2015
El Salvador is the smallest of all the Central American countries, but if you’re in search of perfect right hand points, it probably has the most. It’s also the densest populated country in Central America and one of the countries with the most weapons per head worldwide. This has to do with one of the most brutal civil wars in history, which ended two decades ago and still lies somewhere in the national psyche.
When I came here the first time, I found the local people rather unfriendly in general. Maybe it was just the wrong people I met in the beginning, as everyone else who traveled here disagreed with me. But spending more time here and coming for a second, third, and fourth time, I have to say most the people are more than helpful and happy to show you some other places and faces of this great little country. The waves are still the main reason for me to keep coming back. But by now, I know the local people well enough, call many of them my friends, and I really like them. And better Spanish helps too! By now, I’d say they are some of the friendliest and most helpful people I can think of!
In my eyes, this is a country where there is not much more to do and see than surf. But maybe this has to do with how good the surf actually really is. You never want to be too far away from the beach to not miss a single session. However, it’s such a small country, it isn’t too difficult to discover something else than just waves, without being far away from the coast.
And don’t forget to eat ‘Pupusas’, the cheapest way to get stuffed and they’re delicious!
Sonsonate is the city where you probably change your bus if you’re coming or going to Guatemala unless you use an international bus company like Tica Bus. It’s also from where the ‘Ruta de las Flores’ starts, a nice way to see something else of El Salvador than just waves. Or a gateway to the Sierra Apanece, where you find Lago de Coatepeque and the three vulcanos: Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Santa Ana. You can drive up the middle one and hike from there to the top of Izalco, the one to the left. This is also the area, where you find some other things to do like Canopy.
San Salvador is just another big city. But only half an hour from the surf. You can go to one of the many malls at night for the Cineplex, paintballing or just to eat junk food! But it’s better if you have your own car, as the buses at night are rare and not really save. It also has some pumping nightlife, but it’s a must to know where you go. Or even better, go with trusted locals. San Salvador is not the kind of city you want to get lost in at night, and being a drunk Gringo wouldn’t really make the situation any better!
Surfing El Salvador
Lets talk about some of the best known places to for surfing in El Salvador. Of course, there are many more. Just go exploring, and you’ve got a good chance of finding empty waves. But these are the best known places in El SAlvador from North to South, or actually from West to East.
Mizata is one of the closest beaches to Sonsonate, and around one 90 minutes from El Tunco by public bus or 45 minutes by car. There are a couple of different places to stay, some very basic and cheap, and a few really nice but expensive places. It has a fairly long beach break with different peaks and toward the South end is a nice little right-hander point. The atmosphere here is super relaxed, and you often surf alone or with only a few other people. If you like it quiet and uncrowded, Mizata could be a good option for you with a medium-size or small swell. The beachbreak is peaky, sucky and super fun.
Surfing K59 & K61
K59 used to be notorious for its Bandidos, who would wait for you on the way from the beach to the main road, and take everything from you, even your surfboard. But as it looks, those days are over, and it became one of the favorite spots for a lot of people here. You can stay right next to the waves, or come here in the morning by local bus. The other option is, to pay a driver, who brings you and your friends here and drives you everywhere else where you want to go. I personally think this is not necessary, as it costs a lot of money (not really a lot, but much more than the local bus), and rocking up on a surfspot with 5,6 or even more people is just not the way to go.)
K59 is the kind of wave a lot of people travel for. It is an extremely easy wave to surf well! Steep enough, but kinda slow, allowing you to do pretty much whatever you want to do. As this is Average Joe’s paradise, it is crowded with average Joe’s. Lot of dropping in, and a lot of people to surf around with every big set hitting. But if you get a good wave, there are plenty of locals on the beach, taking pictures of you. Once you’re out of the water, you can check them on their computer before you’re dry! It became a bit of a circus, but a great wave nevertheless.
K59 is for sure the better wave than K61. It’s steeper and faster, but also much more crowded! K61 is just around the corner, or a 10-minute paddle from K59. If you decide to give it a go, you won’t have people taking your picture, but the chance to surf it alone! Km61 needs a bit more water, as you are too close to the rocks on dead low tide, but both spots are better between low and mid but can be surfed most on any tide.
Surfing El Zonte
El Zonte is a few kilometers north of El Tunco, and a good option if you are looking for a place that is quieter or to get away from the weekend craziness. There are a few different places to stay and to eat. From basic shack right on the point, to nice hotels and villas with a swimming pool, just a few steps away. The main wave is a mellow right pointbreak over boulders. It’s best on a small swell and you can surf it with every tide, but a higher tide is preferred. The quality of the wave is not as good as let’s say K59, and so is the level of surfing. This makes it easier to get waves, if you’re not a pro.
On the other side of the rivermouth are some peaks that can get good, keep an eye on it. I wouldn’t surf this side on a low tide, but with enough water, it is super fun and a good chance to get away from the crowd. You’ll find lefts and rights. But again, this place is better with a small to medium swell.
Surfing El Tunco
El Tunco is where you’ll end up if you come here to surf. It’s a nice little beach town with some surf shops, restaurants, bars, street food, and everything that makes life for backpackers and surf travelers easy. There are also a few people around who give Spanish lessons. Here you will find cheap backpackers, slightly more expensive places with nice private rooms, and even a few fancy hotels. A lot of the cheaper places have invested some money and are not that cheap anymore.
So if you are on a really tight budget, you might have to stay somewhere a bit away from the center, but you’ll still find places for 6-8 $/ night. If you decide to stay a bit longer here, you should try “La Gitarra” . It’s an awesome place right in the center, next to the bars, restaurants, and parties, and right at the beach. But more important, it is a really nice and clean place with a huge kitchen you can use (to save up more money), and they have special rates for people who stay longer. It’s for sure worth to have a look there. But be warned! when the weekend party crowd arrives, it gets noisy, real noisy! Bring your earplugs if you want to surf early, or join the party.
El Tunco is quiet during the week, but has raging parties on the weekends, when the middle and upper-class San Salvadorians come to the beach to drink, dance and drink more, a lot more. But most importantly, this is one of the places that pick up most swell in the whole of Central America.
El Tunco definitely has changed a lot. They struggled a lot here in the past, but this helped them to understand, that they need the international tourists, and that the surf tourists might cost them a few waves while they surf by themself. But at the same time, those tourists bring business and foreign Dollars. Thanks to this realization, the Tunco locals are some of the friendliest you can imagine! And as long as you play your part, you’ll get your waves, have a great time and no problems at all. Even the beaches that used to be a bit sketchy are pretty safe by now.
On all the better-known surfspots are people who sell you drinks and snacks, and guard your stuff while you’re out there surfing. And more often than not, are local people on the beach who take pictures of you surfing and sell them to you afterward. Even so, be respectful and let them the waves they really want. Every local here surfs better than you! Even if they’re half your age!
Even if there are surfshops where you find wax, leashes and everything you need, finding a good surfboard here is surprisingly difficult! Better bring your own boards!
There are three waves in El Tunco:
The first one is La Bocana, an A-frame over boulders and probably the best left in El Salvador. It is usually best with a medium swell and can be fun with all tides. Keep an eye on it and you are likely to score perfect fun waves here with just a handful of people in the water. Give it a try even if it doesn’t look perfect and try the right. It’s much steeper than the left and good fun as long as it’s not too big. But be careful, the right has much more power, and the paddle back out can be tough.
Just a bit up the beach is a little beach break that works best in small swells. It’s right and left to the big rock that gives El Tunco its name.
Ah…yeah, the wave…It is usually short, small and steep. A great fun wave to do one or two maneuvers, or to train your airs. But don’t feel depressed if it doesn’t work as you want, the local kids will fly around and make you feel even worse 😉
The next wave is a few hundred meters up the beach. It’s a super easy and long point break called El Sunzal. It’s usually bigger than everywhere else and more of a longboarder wave. But if it has some size, it is fun on a shortboard too. Great to make one cutback after the other, over and over again. This wave is not steep and a good bottom turn is not really possible, but this makes the wipeouts much softer and even when it is double overhead or more, it doesn’t feel heavy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t get hurt here or that a wipeout doesn’t drag you all the way in (and over the rocks!) but it’s unlikely.
Depending on the swell, you can sit way too deep, 25-30 meters deeper than you would think, and hope for the ones that come in a bit different. If you get one of these, the take off is a bit steeper and the wave in front of you is steep as well. You have to speed up to make it through this section to where most people are sitting. But if you make it, your wave is longer and you enter the main part of the wave with a lot of speed to lay into your first big turn. If you don’t make this section, you end up caught inside, take a lot of waves on your head, and have a long paddle back. Your decision if you try it, or sit where all the others are. It’s the perfect wave if you’re not a beginner anymore, but not looking for difficult waves and just want to have fun and progress.
El Tunco is also a perfect base from where you can go in both directions and find out what places you like most. Chicken buses cost you only 25 cents US to most of the other surf spots and they are used to people with boards. The Air7Con busses cost 1.50US, plus the same for your board.
To the South of El Tunco are a lot of other places, the most famous is Punta Roca. But if you ask around, and check google maps, you’ll probable find some places where you don’t have to share the waves with many others.
Surfing La Libertad, Punta Roca and more
La Libertad is only 8km south of El Tunco and NOT the best place to stay. You’d better just come here for what you have to do, like shopping in the big supermarket, the local market, or cheap and fresh seafood that you can buy next to El Molle (the pier) in the middle of the city. Or of course to surf the incredible wave of Punta Roca.
Some people say Punta Roca is the best wave in the Americas. I think this is a pretty big claim, but no doubt, it is a wave that plays in the highest league worldwide.
Getting into the water at Punta Roca is a bit of a bitch with mid-tide or lower, but easy if the water is high enough. Watch where other people go in and do the same. To get out of the water, use the same place as to get in on high tide, and on low tide it’s better to get out at the beach all the way down the point. At least if it’s big. This wave, as many world-class waves, only gets better with size, but is fun as soon as it starts breaking. It is fast, steep, has many different sections and has barrels on most of the waves. Watch the locals surf doing it!
There are a couple of different take off spots. Taking a wave somewhere between these spots is often almost impossible, as it is so steep and fast, but taking off just a few meters deeper can sometimes change the whole thing and it becomes easy. But respect the locals and the local pecking order. Not only because this is always the way to go, but also because the locals may tell you in a less friendly manner! I’d say La Libertad is not as bad as its reputation, but some of the locals can be. In and out of the water! Be friendly, wait your turn, don’t paddle to the first take off spot, and don’t think you’re a local because you’ve surfed this spot for three or four times, and you’ll be fine.
If you really struggle, just paddle down the point. Everyone surfs the first couple of sections, but it is surfable further down the point as well, much smaller and not as steep, but still a good, and uncrowded wave. The final part of the wave is called “Punta La Paz“, and if you surf here, you’ll have your peace. It’s a bit fat and slow, but still a great wave, if the swell is big enough. If you have a longboard or fish, this is an incredibly fun wave.
There are more waves in La Libertad and close by. Walk around, and you probably find some.
There is so much surf in this area, especially in the main season from around May – September often with offshore or no wind all day long. Five months of perfect waves, and it’s even pretty consistent outside the main season. So it could be a good idea to sacrifice some sessions to go exploring and find waves nearby that no one surfs. Maybe not as perfect as Punta Roca, but only for you.
And on top of it all, there are still a lot of beach breaks all along the coast. The might not be perfect beaches and have a lot of rocks in the sand, but they can be great fun, often barreling, and never crowded.
I surfed countless points and beaches between La Libertad and Mizata. Some of the okay, some of them great, and everything in between. As I just said, it is in your hands if you surf with the crowds, or if you ask around and go exploring, to find your own little favorite spot.
Surfing las Flores and Punta Mango
This is the other surf area in El Salvador. It’s close to the Honduran border and thanks to the new roads only around 2.5 to 3 hours by car, or a day trip by local buses from El Tunco. You have to go to the ‘Terminal Oriente’ in San Salvador and from there another bus to San Miguel and from here another one to El Cuco, or Carrical if you want to go to Punta Mango. There are buses from El Cuco, passing Las Flores and go to Punta Mango. Ask for the bus that goes to Carrical and walk the rest, or even better, one that goes to Agua Fria and ask them to tell you when you reach Punta Mango.
Once you made it to El Cuco (not really a nice beach town), Las Flores is within walking distance, if 15-20 minutes is walking distance to you. There are two cheap places to stay right on the beach, both of them are around $15 a night and not nice at all. Or you pay $20 for the same room and fit in as many people as you can (probably three or four). As most rooms don’t even have windows and are tiny, more people make it cheaper but not better. The other option is a super fancy hotel on top of the cliff.
As this ares is getting more popular with the tourists and the surfers day by day, new hotel options came up lately. You’ll find out about them online, or just go there and ask around.
The wave here is a sand bottom point break that breaks off a palm covered
headland (or in front if it is big enough). You feel like you’ve found paradise, except for the crowds. This area needs a big swell to work and with every big swell coming, so too do the crowds from El Tunco.
Las Flores is best close to low tide, but the current here is so strong that you have to surf it with the outgoing tide. The other option is you can paddle like a motorboat, or pay someone to give you a ride back up the point, who actually sits in a motorboat. Altogether, it needs a big swell, is crowded, the accommodation is not that great, it needs the right tide, and has strong currents. BUT it is a beautiful and a super fun wave. It’s steep but slow, allowing you to do whatever you want to do on it and it can barrel for a long time.
There are boats leaving from here to another spot called Punta Mango, a place that was found in pre-war times by some traveling hippie surfers who stayed there for as long as they could. During the war it was unsurfed. But Punta Mango found its way back to former glory within the traveling surfer community.
It’s far from being a secret, it’s just hard to get there, at least people think so and pay a boat. But there are two or three (almost) daily buses that go all the way, and some more that make you walk the last 2 km – as it was in my case.
Once you arrive you have to talk to the locals and stay with them for cheap or stay in Rancho Mango. But better contact them first, they’re not there all year round. If they are, go have a beer, a pizza and a chat. There are some other projects going on of foreign people who want to build restaurants and hotels there, so it could change fast. As far as I know, some of those things are already built by now, so if you know more about it, please let everyone know in the comment section at the end of this site.
The wave of Punta Mango is like the evil twin of Las Flores, not as friendly, but more fun. It is not all sand bottom and you are likely to hit some rocks. It’s much faster and more powerful and needs some size to show off.
I stayed in Punta Mango and paddled out in the dark, but usually had only one or two waves before some boats from Las Flores arrived and they felt like cheaters! For you who stay in Punta Mango, you’ve found the end of the road one more time, but not everyone takes the same road to arrive at the same place. However, sometimes you get lucky, especially in the afternoons, when there is no wind. You paddle out at 3 pm and the surf is perfect and you’re alone for one hour. If there is no boat coming by 4-4:30 pm you know you’re gonna have it all to yourself for the rest of the day.
This is how it was in the 2011 season and talking to people who were here for a while, this was the first season that people showed up in the afternoons. This place is changing fast, with a new road that makes it faster to come here from the International Airport or El Tunco, the new Hotel and Restaurant that was in construction when I was there in 2011, and more and more people traveling for surf, who know what this place will be next season, or the one after, or the one after…
All in all…
I’d say El Salvador is not the most interesting country and not the safest or most diverse, but it is not as bad as some people tell you. Don’t be stupid and you are fairly safe. I know many people who came, but heard fewer bad stories than from many other places! But probably the only good reason to go there, for sure the best, is: If it is an all surf trip and nothing else. Sure there are other things to do. There is a nice waterfall in Tamanique, close to El Tunco, or you can go river rafting and such things. There is just not as much as in its neighbor countries.
If you’re looking to surf some of the best right-handers in Central America, good and cheap rum along with accommodation and food for a reasonable price and crazy Saturday nights, you’ve found your place right here… for me personally? I’ll be back! Always!