Pulling back the veil of El Salvador

Featured drone image: ISA / Ben Reed

El Salvador is a small country with a big reputation. Its notoriety for gang violence far exceeds the attention that it deserves as a tropical paradise for surfers. At least in the US, most people are familiar with the gang MS-13 and its ties to El Salvador, but most couldn’t tell you anything else about the country. Can most people even place El Salvador on a map?

While the small Central American nation of six million has suffered a global PR problem over the decades fueled by civil war and violence, surfers have been the principal early adopters of El Salvador’s coast, willing to test the waters of places that governments advise against visiting.

What surfers have found in El Salvador is a far cry from the preconceived notions compounded by sensationalist headlines.

The nation is blessed with a coast that beckons the robust swells of the South Pacific, drawing the raw energy to the tropical waters covering its reefs, points, and beaches that cause the waves to bend and break in forms that surfers only dream of.

Drone image of waves breaking at El Sunzal.
Swell lines bend into El Sunzal, with La Bocana seen further down the coast. Photo: ISA / Ben Reed

El Salvador’s new President, Nayib Bukele, is aware of the largely untapped resource that is the year-round waves breaking on his country’s coastline.

President Bukele’s idea to use surfing as a tool to develop his country is what brings me into the story.

Bukele — a young, unconventional president who breaks the mold by refusing to wear a tie with his unbuttoned jacket, having a cabinet comprised of 50% women, and transparently making presidential commands via social media — has a vision to make El Salvador a global destination for tourists, particularly surfers.

President Bukele’s idea to use surfing as a tool to develop his country is what brings me into the story.

A president who has never surfed, is betting on surfing

Nayib Bukele said he has never surfed, nor does he plan to.

However, he sees the ocean as a way to develop his country, create jobs, bring people out of poverty, and reintegrate gang members into society.

Early in his presidential term, he seems to be a man of his word, as his administration has launched a “Surf City” campaign to show the beauty of their coastline to the world.

How does one show their excellent waves to the world? An in-person exhibit is probably the most efficient and convincing method.

As part of the campaign, El Salvador has started to host international events, including the International Surfing Association’s World SUP and Paddleboard Championship (where I serve as Media Manager).

With a bit of a late notice, I packed my bags for El Salvador as enlisted help, a small piece of a big plan, to develop and improve the country through surf tourism. We were set to host a StandUp Paddle event that would bring over 150 competitors from 27 nations around the world to visit El Salvador.

Evan Quarnstrom surfing a righthander at Punta Roca, El Salvador.
Enjoying the warm water and right point breaks. Pictured here at Punta Roca. Photo: Harry Robbs
Evan Quarnstrom surfing at Punta Roca El Salvador.
More Punta Roca. Photo: Jose Duarte

Getting my feet wet in El Salvador

I wouldn’t say that I was afraid of visiting El Salvador at all, but if I were looking to spend some hard-earned dollars on a surf trip, I would tend to lean towards places a little more familiar — Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua.

That said, it didn’t take me long to realize what I had been missing once I arrived.

We were put up in a hotel right on the point break of El Sunzal, less than an hour by car from the international airport and the nation’s capital.

I awoke on the first morning to check the waves and was pleasantly surprised by the size and consistency of the swell reeling down the point. It didn’t take me more than ten seconds to speed walk back to the room to throw on my trunks and cake my face in sunscreen.

I usually don’t get to surf much at work events, but early sunrises and accommodation a stone’s throw from a point break allowed me to surf quite a bit. Getting in a good morning surf makes the work day so much easier.

El Salvador is known for its right hand point breaks, so as a regular footer I was in heaven. I spent every morning surfing, afternoons hiding from the blazing sun while banging away at a keyboard, and evenings surfing again.


Just days after arriving in El Salvador, I found myself face to face with President Bukele, speaking to him, shaking his hand, taking photos. He held an engagement to meet the event staff and athletes at his presidential palace in the nation’s capital.

The fact that a President is willing to give the time of day to a bunch of surfers is quite unprecedented.

Knowing that I don’t have nearly enough of an understanding of the political landscape of the country to overly judge the president on his policies, I went off the little that I did know and first (in person) impressions.

that was probably the only time I will ever shake the hand of an active president in my life

I truly felt that the man was sincere. It didn’t feel like he was above those that he spoke to.

He definitely spoke with confidence, repeating multiple times that his “Surf City” campaign “is going to work.”

I felt oddly relaxed around the President, maybe not as nervous as I should have been. I left that engagement knowing that was probably the only time I will ever shake the hand of an active president in my life.

Evan Quarnstrom with the president of El Salvador Nayib Bukele.
Meeting President Nayib Bukele at the presidential house in San Salvador.

Is this the real El Salvador?

My love at first sight with El Salvador’s coast made me realize that I was an unconscious adherent to the negative global image of the country.

I’ve been to lots of countries around the world and know that you cannot read a book by its cover. People tend to be helpful and friendly in all countries, but I also know that they can easily be overshadowed by a few bad apples.

As I spend my last days in the country enamored with what I’ve experienced, I know that whether for better or worse, I’ve only seen a small slice of the pie.

As with most of the countries that I visit for work events, it’s really just a passing glimpse of the culture and a far cry from truly experiencing the locals’ way of life.

Working when a huge international event is running is not necessarily an accurate representation of a country, especially when the event funding, infrastructure, support staff, and visitors that are brought by the event are removed from the equation.

Does the gang activity affect Salvadorian’s lives more than meets the naked eye?

That said, as I think back about my time in El Salvador, it has been an amazing, eye-opening experience, but I can’t help but wonder if what I’ve seen is what life is really like in the country.

Does the gang activity affect Salvadorian’s lives more than meets the naked eye?

At this point, I am ready to give El Salvador the benefit of the doubt, but at the same time know that a return trip is in order.

Getting to more intimately know the waves, the culture, the nature, and the society, whether it confirms or denies any preconceived notions, is just more reason to come back.

Despite my lingering uncertainty, one thing is certain: President Bukele’s plan is working.

The proof is in the pudding. A gringo like myself, whose only opinion of El Salvador had been molded by the internet and hearsay, is now a believer in the nation’s natural beauty and rich culture.

It’s safe to say I’ll be back. And I know I’m not the only one.

Evan Quarnstrom and Sean Evans going surfing at Punta Roca.
Heading out for a surfing session with our photographer Sean. Photo: Harry Robbs

22 thoughts on “Pulling back the veil of El Salvador

  1. OK….finally someone has really written a very positive article about ES!! My first trip to El Sal was in 2002 and I’ve been coming back ever since, even purchasing a house on the point @ Sunzal….Always seems to be a swell as the whole country faces South and any pulse for Antartica gets to the coast.
    You mentioned the surf during the SUP contest. It was terrible, barely waist high with zero push…and as the MEDIA director, why was there ZERO swag? No t-shirts, no hats, no programs, nothing with the contest logo for sale!! Seems like a HUGE mistake, if your’e trying to bring attention to the event…It wasn’t on anyones radar, outside of the local area….Greg


  2. Great post. Thanks for the recommendations and Im sure that you missed so much of the good things this country has to offer. Saw you in those early surf sessions at El Sunzal point break a few times. Nice to hear about your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for writing about my beautiful country and your experience there!! We are very hopeful that Nayib Bukele and his dream to Develop our country will become a reality!!
    Yes, come back to El Salvador and I am sure your love will only grow!! Thank you again!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, of course, you only saw and lived the tip of the cake, that is, the best of the best, the country is still in a process of profound change, which will take years of decisions, successes and mistakes, but I like to think that the country will soon enter its golden decade and, hopefully, could become permanent.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m happy you had a great experience in El Salvador. Those waves had been waiting all of these years for such competitors like yourself.

    Thank you for taking the time to write about El Salvador. It means a lot to all Salvadorians! Many blessings!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so very much for visiting our country. We are beautiful people the past 30 years my country had corrupted governments that only stole millionsof dollars and kept alive the gang members supporting them financially. Until pur president bukele took office we realized that is how the gang members took over our country but our president bukele has combated these gangsters and put thousands in jail in this 6 months on office. Things are getting betteer in my country. God bless you and we wish you comeback to our country 💟🇸🇻💟🙏🏼🌄

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I hadn’t come back to El Salvador for 34 years since I left due to the civil war, but it happened to me what you experienced, I wast just reading news and bad reports until I went back and I learned by my self that if the reports were right there was something that had changed because what I saw was a different story. I’m so proud (now) to say “I’m a Salvadorean “ I don’t feel the “shame” of being misrepresented by a small group of people (MS 13) that have created a bad fame for our country Now, like you, I can’t wait to go back , I purchased plane tickets for January to take my family to go visit the country of his father.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great story, even doh I don’t live on my home country I believe that we are on the midst of a great turn around for El Salvador 🇸🇻 with the hand of President Najib Bukele.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow. Thanks for this good article about my country. I don’t live there since 1989 but I visit my family and I feel good to see people from other countries talk like that from my beautiful country El Salvador (El Pulgarcito)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Evan for your inspiring articule. I hope it will read by many so that people like yourself will come to El Salvador and see for themselves the beauty of our country and its people who welcome visitors from all over the world with open arms. Thank you again and have a safe trip home.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Evan, what an awesome reflection. May God bless you all for coming to our country and enjoying surfing, the people, the food, the weather, etc. Our country is ready for a big change and I am glad to see how our president is setting up the stage for that. We look forward to having you all back anytime. Thank you for putting your thoughts on this article. God bless you Evan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Evan, that’s a great article about surf in El Salvador and it’s friendly people. Cool to meet the President – the young political generation has a lot of work to do changing the country image but doing a great job in such short time thanks to people like you willing to make the trip and discover what an awesome place it is. I have been many times and love El Salvador!


      1. Thank you ver much for showing that my country is more than what the news has always show( only the negative) enjoy our beaches there is a lot more to see along the costal areas and through the whole country


    1. Good to read a story about people coming to rather than leaving El Salvador. Bukele is the first president to acknowledge that the misfortunes suffered by migrants are the country’s fault because of lack of employment opportunities and violence in the community. Hope he can make some real strides on this and it’s very cool that you got to meet him. Good story. Happy travels (I am in Greece right now—maybe we will meet there?😉).


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