A guide to surfing El Salvador
Where to surf in El Salvador, where to stay, what to eat, what to miss
El Salvador, with its sweet, sticky climate and abundance of mango trees is known for many travel delights. For surfing, El Salvador is known as a right hand, point break Mecca.
Sandwiched between Guatemala and Honduras in Central America, the tiny country of only 6 million, has point breaks gracing most of its 307km coastline. It is home to two world-class waves: Punta Roca and Punta Mango. Punta Roca played host to the women’s 6* world qualifying series (WQS) event the year I was there. Sadly, they no longer host this event as the government couldn’t fund it.
Best time to surf El Salvador?
Almost all of El Salvador’s coastline faces dead south so it works best on south and southwest swells. The waves are most consistent during the wet season (between May and Oct), but March and April also see great waves with less rain.
How to get there
From the US, 4 flights a day go from Houston, Texas to El Salvador’s International airport in the capital San Salvador (United & Avancia – 4-hour flight). 3 direct flights also go from Los Angeles (Delta, Avancia, Valaris Costa Rica – 5-hour flight). Internationally, if you want to avoid the US, you can also fly to Mexico City and transfer that way.
Check Expedia as they search all these airlines and will find you the best cheap flight to San Salvador.
Visa for El Salvador
A 90-day visa is given on arrival for $10USD. Check this website to see if your passport is eligible.
Travel safety & gang-warfare in El Salvador
At the time that I traveled to El Salvador (May -July 2016), it was deep in gang warfare with the highest homicide rate in the world: 38 murders a day. I didn’t encounter any problems when I was there except one dead body in the street. But I shouldn’t have been driving at night. Do not drive at night!
If you want to know about the troubles in El Salvador, this is a good article to read.
This Vice documentary on the gangs of El Salvador (the gang Mara Salvatrucha 13, commonly known as MS-13 and their rivals Calle 18), was also really informative.
Just like you would in any country, keep your wits about you. I started my surf trip in El Tunco (very safe and fine to wander its two small lanes at night). I set up a base there, rented a car and surfed all the surrounding breaks. I avoided the city San Salvador although some traveled there during the day to see its sights. I was only interested in surfing.
- Get travel insurance. Seriously. Don’t forget (use code STOKED5 for 5% off World Nomads when using this link, sadly not available to US or Candian residents, or with any other offer).
- Don’t travel the roads at night (drive or walk)
- Do some research into the ‘problem‘ areas e.g. in San Salvador and avoid
- Tell someone where you are going & check-in (share location etc)
Health issues – Rampant mosquitos!
I got Chikungunya when I was there. It sounds like a curry but it was a nasty virus that gave me a fever and severe joint pain. It kept me out of the water for the biggest swell when my friends on the women’s pro surfing circuit were visiting me. Gutted.
There is no vaccine or medicine for these diseases so the only way to prevent them is repelling mosquitos. Travel with a mosquitos net for your bed and take natural mosquito repellent. Stay away from chemical DEET spray, it works but is toxic.
I’ve written a detailed surf packing list including everything you should have in your first aid kit. I highly recommend checking it out.
Traveling around El Salvador
The local bus, known as the chicken bus will set you back $0.25 and entertain you to a soundtrack of 80s love songs. Another option is to arrange a local to drive you to different breaks. Find a friend in the surf (works best for us girls I think!), or speak to the surf photographers on the beach, they are often keen to drive you and take photos for a package price (don’t forget to negotiate).
Air-conditioned tourist shuttle buses also connect the major tourist spots of El Cuco, El Tunco, and north to Guatemala or south to Nicaragua. It’s not a bad idea to rent a car from the airport (there is a Hertz at San Salvador airport). Otherwise, you can rent a car in El Tunco pretty easily from locals but it may not be the best. We had bald tires and no suspension and our tires burst at night outside the city of San Salvador which was not ideal given the current homicide rate. I was very scared of changing the tire on the side of a busy road.
Where to surf in El Salvador
El Tunco is a short 35-minute drive from the International airport of San Salvador. Although touristy, it has everything you need to get started: surf shops, restaurants, bars, surf instructors and cheap/safe places to stay. It is also a bit of a traveler melting pot, so great to meet people and get inspiration for your next surf.
Where to stay in El Tunco:
- The cheapest option is La Sombra Hostel ($15/ night for own bathroom with a fan or $300/month, $20/night AC- discounts for longer stays). Mosquitos are a bit out of control though!
- Papaya Lodge or El Sunzalito Hotel are really good value with wifi, family rooms (so you can share and make it cheaper), swimming pool and 24-hour front desk security.
- ($20 – $40 a night)
- If there are a few of you, look into renting Esymar Beach House. It’s as close to the break as you can get and the pool is amazing!
Find hotels in El Tunco. Reserve your stay and pay on arrival
Eat: So many great food options! Fex’s burger, the green restaurant on the corner and the pizza place are awesome. The is also a natural food cafe!
El Tunco is also home to two great waves: La Bocana (a left, rock, point break with a workable right) and Sunzal (a fat, very busy, long, peeling, right-hand point over deep water). Sunzal is a relatively gentle wave, great for learning (on the shoulder), longboards or a mellow(ish) surf up to 4ft. You can get a really long ride at Sunzal but the walk there along the rocks from El Tunco is just as long as the wave, but not nearly as enjoyable (10-15min walk). When it gets big, Sunzal gets heavy. Being a fat wave, you have to duck A LOT of water. It is one of the few waves in El Salvador that can hold a huge swell (see above video). La Bocana (left point with a workable right) is faster and has a good air section. Both waves are very busy especially between 6-8am and at sunset.
A note on El Tunco: You can get everything you need in El Tunco. I found a selection of surfboards for sale at Papaya surf (I paid $250 for a second-hand FireWire, El Fuego in perfect condition). If you are hunting around for a surfboard, I recommend going to all the hostels as travelers are often selling theirs for cheap. At the Papaya surf shop, you can also get zinc, reef -safe surf sunscreen, rash vests, surf bikinis and most things you’ll need from surf brands you trust (same a US or AU prices).
You can not get a surfboard repair kit (resin or epoxy), so make sure you bring this with you. If you are ready to pack for your trip, have a look at our surf-specific packing list to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
El Tunco area:
From El Tunco, it is really easy to travel to El Zonte, K-59, K-61 and Mizata; four more rock boulder, right-hand points.
El Zonte is a super chill, smaller version of El Tunco with a good right-hand point break, it has a beach-break options and also yoga classes. El Zonte is easier wave of the bunch so you often see a lot of surf schools there. Not too many eating options but is good if you are after a chilled beach vibe.
Where to stay in El Zonte:
- In El Zonte, Canegue Surf Hostal is your cheapest option at $15 a night. It has a nice garden and 24-hour front desk
- Essencia Nativia & D’takit Horizante in El Zonte ($25 – $30/ night with fan)
Eat: At your accommodation or any restaurant on the beach.
K-59 is a quick, right-hand point that breaks on to the rocks. It is definitely a face-race along the wave when it has some size. It is for more experienced surfers. Round the corner is K61, another right point (you can walk or paddle between the two).
Where to stay at K59:
- The K59 Surf Resort ($110 / night all inclusive) – this is as close to the waves as you can get with a pool and bar with the best view. Love this spot.
- The K Lodge is another option.
Eat: The locals will catch you fish and cook it on the BBQ right on the point but other than that, there isn’t much to do or eat in K59.
Mizata is another wave about a 40-minute drive from El Tunco in the other direction- a fast right-hand point of more consequence as well as a beach break. It is one of the least crowded waves in El Salvador and also the most consistent (it gets swell when everywhere else is flat). It can not hold a big swell though, anything over 10ft and it doesn’t work. Best on a high tide.
Punta Roca (La Libertad)
Wave: Punta Roca (right-hand point – arguably one of the best in the world)
One of the best right-hand points in the world. This wave also hosted a women’s 6* WQS event in June. It is in the town of La Libertad and is long racey right, over shallow, black boulders with a steep barreling take off. Make the first fast section then it’s a long ride of a perfectly walled up wave… but look out for Mumma Roca on low tide, she (a protruding rock), pops out and gets ya!
Where to stay at Punta Roca / La Libertad:
- There is an AST surf hotel a 5-minute walk from the break, closer to the pier – great location & place to stay
- Also the Punta Roca Surf Resort is amazing and situated close to the break
Recommended hostels & hotels in the La Libertad area
Eat: Some of the best ceviches I have EVER had is from the fishing pier in La Libertad. In the restaurant in front of the pier. The pier is a huge fish market. You can’t get fresher. Going for a walk there is an experience in itself.
Like Sunzal and Las Flores, Punta Roca holds big swells. Getting in and out of Punta Roca (rock point in Spanish), is always challenging. You scramble over the black boulders and when there is swell, it’s more like you get swept over them! But don’t worry too much, the rocks are round and smooth and the local kids will help you with your board. Just give them a dollar or buy a coconut from their dad after your session. The locals can be hard to deal with. Don’t expect to paddle up to the point on big day and get many waves. You can always take off at the second section when they are being agro. La Libertad is also a dangerous city so exercise caution & don’t leave the keys of your car on your tyre when you go surf! Pay a local to watch your car.
Looking for a surf guide in El Salvador? Surfing El Salvador can help you out.
El Cuco / Las Flores
Seriously, don’t miss Las Flores. When you get there you’ll ask yourself why you didn’t come earlier or stay longer. It’s a sleepy beach of serious beauty. Like Sunzal and Punta Roca, it can hold a big swell (the sweep is, however, a KILLER!). It is another perfect right-hand point that can hold a massive swell (and will get busy when that swell arrives). On low tide, a little beach break in the middle can work too.
Where to stay in Las Flores:
Stay in Las Flores (the beach), not El Cuco (the town).
- On a basic budget, I recommend Rancho Mumma Cata as it is right on the beach ($20 / night fan).
- Mira Flores is absolutely stunning and should not be missed ($500 for 6 night including daily boat trips to other waves – I stayed here, we had two big beds in our room and shared between 3. The stairs are a workout but the view is exceptional. I would stay again and again!
- Las Flores Resort is also exceptional and on the beach so you don’t have to do the Mira Flores stairs but you also don’t get the view.
- There is also another AST Surf Hostel overlooking the point. Or the Punta Flores Surf Hotel.
Eat: At your accommodation or go into El Cuco and have fresh fish on a table on the beach (the restaurant on the right-hand side of the square is WAY better than the one on the left!). The food at hotel Mira Flores is terrible. If you’re doing a trip to Las Flores it’s definitely worth taking your own food as even in El Cuco, it’s hard to find fresh fruit or veg unless you buy it off the back of the food truck.
A video posted by STILL STOKED (Alexa) (@still_stoked) on
Get travel insurance – Use code STOKED5 for 5% off World Nomads on this link
El Toro and La Vaca are two breaks North, towards Punta Mango – also right-hand points. You will need a boat to get to them or a 4×4 car (the road is really bad so don’t try it in your little rental).
Wave: Punta Mango
Arguably one of the best waves in Central America. Punta Mango is just a short boat ride from Las Flores ($50 there and back, split between you), or a 30-minute drive (the road is awful, 4×4 recommended). When it’s on, it’s a barreling jewel in El Salvador’s crown. A dream wave. It works up to 10-12ft. It can be really hard to paddle out from the beach when it’s on, so a boat from Las Flores is a good idea. There is nothing in the Punta Mango area other than the wave and a few places to stay.
Where to stay at Punta Mango:
- For luxury(ish), stay at Hotel Los Mangos, the sister hotel of Mira Flores. The view of the wave is magnificent and you can watch all the action from the infinity pool (see photo below). Like Mira Flores though, the food is not great. I stayed here. The pool and view is to die for.
- For a cheaper option ($10/night), stay at Rancho Mango but bring a lot of bug spray. You’re in the bush but just a short 5 min walk to the wave.
Eat: Rancho Mango does a great $10 pizza. There is a little pupusa stand down the road too (local food, about $1 a pop). There are practically no food options other than your hotel in Los Mangos so stock up in El Cuco on fruit and snacks.
Tessa Thyssen and Isabella Nichols explore waves in El Salvador before the WQS event at Punta Roca:
El Salvador is a beautiful country, full of world-class waves and kind, welcoming people. While it is not without political problems and trouble between its two leading gangs, I felt really safe surfing around the country. Don’t write El Salvador off. Just use your head when you travel, like you would in New York , London or any place known to have dangerous areas. I CAN’T WAIT to get back there!
Get travel insurance – Use code STOKED5 for 5% off World Nomads on this link
Thanks to everyone who made my surf El Salvador stay so memorable: Eduardo at Fex’ Burgers in El Tunco, Kinder, the Puerto Ricans, the locals at Sunzal, Mathilde at Las Flores and all the girls competing at the WQS event that surfed, caught up and traveled with me: Freya Prumm, Tarnea O’meara, Codie Klein, Paige Hareb and Steph Single – Legends!
Looking for travel insurance & want a discount?
I highly recommend World Nomads for a number of reasons: they cover many activities such as surfing, diving, skydiving etc. You can book after you have department from your home country. They cover trips over 30 days, and they donate a portion of their profits to good causes. I’ve got Still Stoked readers 5% off with code STOKED5 but only when you use this link – Sadly this discount is not available for North Ameria & Canada residents.
Have you been surfing El Salvador?
Let me know if I should add anything to this article or if you found it helpful, please let me know in the comments below. Have a great, safe trip!