El Salvador: Surfing in the “New Land of the Free?”

The expansion of the Surf City tourism project towards the eastern and unexploited part of the country raises concerns over democracy, sustainability, and land ownership.

May 1, 2023

José Adolfo Turcios works in the only surfboard repair shop in the eastern part of El Salvador, called “The Emergency Room.” (Julián Reingold)

On the eve of the first anniversary of the Salvadoran gang crackdown, President Nayib Bukele presented El Salvador on social media as “the new land of the free” with great beaches and the “lowest crime rate in the Americas.” Some critical voices reminded the national government that this is still the “land of poverty and inequality,” with low wages, lack of transparency, and forced displacement.

The contrast between these two conflictive narratives can be seen when visiting the so-called Oriente Salvaje (Wild East) of El Salvador, home to Punta Mango, Las Flores, La Vaca, El Toro, and several other waves that make up the rough diamond of Salvadoran surfing. The potential of this area is in the process of being exploited in order to develop the country’s national tourism industry.

The Surf City circuit began in the popular beaches of El Sunzal and La Bocana, in La Libertad district—near the capital in San Salvador—and is now expanding towards the eastern part of the country through the construction of a 13.6 kilometer highway that will link the beaches of Las Flores and Punta Mango, two virgin paradises that 15 years ago could only be reached by boat. According to the Stormrider Guide to surfing, Punta Mango is the main attraction of the Oriente Salvaje, with an epic right pointbreak peeling over barnacle encrusted boulders.

Risks of Eviction and Pollution

Halfway between Punta Mango and El Cuco, Miriam Yolanda Guerrero, 33, lives on a plot of land surrounded by tropical vegetation and a unique view of the Pacific Ocean. She hopes that development in the region will bring better roads, which will allow her to find a better job. The lack of job opportunities has led much of the local youth to flee to the United States, while also avoiding recruitment by El Salvador’s infamous gangs.

Miriam Yolanda Guerrero contemplates the sea view from her home in Punta Mango. (Julián Reingold)

Further down the road, José Eduardo Velázquez Machado,43, is knitting a hammock on his porch. He works in a fibreglass workshop fixing boats and repairing nets, and sometimes does some gardening to support his seven children and three grandchildren. Velázquez occupies a plot of land that is not his own, and he is uncertain whether he will one day gather the $20,000 needed to buy the land or be forced to leave if the owner decides to sell.

Velázquez's family was extorted by gang members in Usultán asking for a tax, so they fled towards Punta Mango about five years ago. While the roosters crow in his garden, he says that gang activity began to calm down in the area over the past six months, and he now feels that they live free, happy, and safe. Velázquez is hopeful that an increase in tourism will bring more work for the fibreglass industry in the area, in a project that is expected to benefit about 960,000 people.

If Velázquez and his family are displaced by the proposed development, they may end up segregated on the outskirts of larger cities like San Miguel or San Salvador, where living costs are higher and it is more difficult to rely on traditional livelihoods such as crafting and gardening.

In December, the Inter-American Development Bank approved $106 million for infrastructure investment in Surf City 2.  A few months earlier, in May 2022, Bukele announced the creation of Bitcoin City, unveiling a golden simulation of a circular crypto-paradise powered by geothermal energy from a volcano at a time when the value of crypto currency was plummeting.

Diego Santos, a specialist in surf tourism development and professor at Madrid’s EAE Business School, fears that as far as pollution goes, El Salvador might repeat the same scenarios as Bali in Indonesia and Thilafushi in the Maldives, where greenwashing, pollution from single-use plastics, and untreated hotel waste are heavily impacting coastal communities. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, causing irreversible damage to marine ecosystems globally.

José Eduardo Velázquez Machado crafts a hammock outside his house near El Cuco beach. (Julián Reingold)

“This demands strict regulation from the country in order to avoid having ecosystems as 'broken toys', while the tourism industry is rushing to recover investment,” says Santos.

For Santos, gentrification is another major issue, citing the Canary Islands as an example: “Tourists make prices rise, overpopulation of digital nomads, traffic jams, and transport saturation. The solution would be to apply tourist taxes, a Sustainable Development Fee or raise the price of long-stay visas.” Costa Rica is attempting to limit large infrastructure projects in order to safeguard it’s pristine natural areas, particularly in places like the Cocos Island National Park.

The risks of pollution and unregulated development in a small country like El Salvador should not be taken lightly. If the government is betting on tourism as a driver of national development, it must invest in long-term biodiversity conservation practices for endangered coastal ecosystems, such as the mangrove forests in Barra de Santiago, Jiquilisco Bay, and  El Tamarindo.

“We Need a Clear Democratic Framework Under the Rule of Law”

After decades of depredation and environmental degradation caused by intensive crops like cotton, and the punishment inflicted by twelve years of armed conflict, the eastern coastal strip and its communities had been practically abandoned. In the mid-1990s, some entrepreneurs initiated the work of making the Wild East an attractive surfing destination.

Rodrigo Barraza, president of the NGO Oriente Salvaje and director of Las Flores Resort, reflects that “it is positive for the community and tourists to not only be safe but also feel safe. In the east, there were few gangs and those who tried to settle were rejected by the communities. We need security, but also a clear democratic framework under the rule of law.”

Barraza’s organization is training community leaders to avoid conflicts between local and foreign surfers. “Sometimes we have peaks in the season where a contingent of foreign surfers arrives and it is a complex matter to manage,” says Barraza on a call from San Salvador.

Pedro Portillo Lasso opened a restaurant in El Cuco after living half his life in the United States. “With Bukele we saw more changes here in three years than in the last 30”, he says. (Julián Reingold)

Barraza believes that surfing prevents insecurity by bringing a recreational and healthy activity to the beach culture, but he knows that tourism can be a double-edged sword. Too much development can affect the natural environment, as has happened in Hawai'i and California. For this reason, Barraza and his team are working with the Salvadoran Corporation of Tourism (CORSATUR) to achieve a responsible development that involves the participation of local communities.

The infrastructure work needed in eastern Salvador includes road improvement, sewage management, and a drinking water network. This is particularly important for beaches like Las Flores, where Carey turtles are hatching again despite the stream that flows untreated water into the sea.

A border for delimitation of the Wild East are mountains with protected Natural Areas such as the vast and attractive mangrove swamp of the Jiquilisco Bay, the forests of Chilanguera, El Caballito, La Piragua, and others. Proposals have been made by the Oriente Salvaje NGO to create a biological corridor for the protection of endangered species such as parakeets, parrots, and the spider monkey.

In this region one can swim in the sea watching the whales and dolphins migrate along the coast, then go hiking in the mountains and observe more than 100 species of birds. Some bird species are not found anywhere else in the country, such as the Blue-tailed Hummingbird.

“Our Biggest Fear is that all the Trees will be Chopped Down"

Turcios and Yepi posing under the sign of their surfboard repair shop on Las Flores beach. (Julián Reingold)

When the civil-war was coming to an end in 1991, Edwin Sander Recinos 51, known as “Yepi,” discovered the lost paradise beach of Las Flores and moved there permanently in 2006. With his business partner, José Adolfo Turcios, he runs the only surfboard repair shop in the eastern part of El Salvador, called “The Emergency Room.”

“Hey, dude! I just broke my board and I only got five days left at the beach. Can you please help me?” the surfers say to Yepi and Turcios, who are there to help them enjoy the waves. Most of their workload is from May to October, and during the small swell season Yepi also gives surfing lessons.

Yepi is excited about the prospects of Surf City 2, and hopes to receive some government support to develop his business. He also fears that as soon as the hotel boom begins, they will have to move their shop to another location. Yepi used to live in Las Flores, but since that plot was sold, he had to move to a nearby town. The plot adjacent to the shop costs over $170,000, in a country where the minimum wage averages less than $400 per month.

While fixing a longboard, Turcios complains that they are losing their boat access because of the new hotels along the beach. “Aside from the surf shop, we are also lancheros, but we are not allowed to park our boats on the shore anymore,” he says. For Yepi, the worst outcome would be for all the trees to be chopped down and have the natural landscape destroyed.

Before paddling off to the waves in Las Flores, Omar Muñoz, 21, who works as a lifeguard in El Cuco, says he believes that the expansion of Surf City will allow the youngsters the virtue of a healthy water sport and drift them away from the influence of the maras gang. Surfer and photographer Marvin Ocampos, 22, worries that the landing of professional surfers in the area will not bring more work opportunities: “top surfers bring their own photo crew, they won’t hire my services.”

Omar Muñoz enjoys the afternoon swell at Las Flores beach. (Julián Reingold)

El Salvador wants to position itself in the eyes of the world as a world-class tourist destination. In the past four years, eight international tournaments have been organized in El Salvador, and another five events are scheduled to take place in 2023. Last year, the Lonely Planet travel guide selected the country among the 30 best destinations to visit in the world.

“You can tell that El Salvador has been working a lot on its tourism, with surfing being strategic, and few countries have taken it so seriously to be able to position themselves in such a fast and efficient way. Only time will tell if Surf City's strategy is sound and correct, but following through on it is important,” concludes the surf industry specialist Santos.

Bukele’s efforts and investments to promote an image of El Salvador as Latin America’s surfing mecca, instead of a hot zone for murder and organized crime, obscures the authoritarian nature of the ongoing state of emergency. Some analysts consider the massive security display against gang violence to be a smoke curtain to distract the population from questioning the real state of the Salvadoran economy and public finances, particularly in relation to ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. The real question ahead of the 2024 presidential election, however, should be: can public security and the protection of human rights co-exist in El Salvador?

If Bukele wants El Salvador to be “the new land of the free,” his government must tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality and provide a comprehensive democratic framework that would allow the country to overcome more than 40 years of political violence. Hopefully, the Salvadoran government and people will find a way out of the state of emergency and move towards a state of peace and security.

Julián Reingold is a climate journalist based between Athens and Buenos Aires. His research has been focused on ecosystem services, energy transitions, and climate justice movements. He has been a fellow of GRID-Arendal, Earth Journalism Network, One Earth, and Climate Tracker, and his environmental photography has been recognized by UNESCO.

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