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Last Updated: Friday, 7 May, 2004, 03:08 GMT 04:08 UK
Surfers lead Salvador tourist revival
By Claire Marshall
BBC correspondent in El Salvador

The hour before the sun fully rises is the best time for the surfers here. There is no need for wetsuits - the water is a balmy 30C.

Teco describes himself as the "local Baywatch"
Sitting on their boards, they wait in a small pack a few hundred metres off shore, watching the Pacific waves roll in. One by one, they catch one of the perfect right hand breaks, and ride them all the way in to the shore. Then, they paddle back out for more.

From a beach-front cafe, travellers watch this early-morning display. One swings gently in a hammock. Others are tempted by the smells coming from the kitchen, and tuck in to a typical local breakfast of eggs, fried plantain, beans, and freshly squeezed orange-juice.

A few metres away, a fisherman and his son stand in the shallows, casting their net.

This tranquil haven is the newly-emerging face of El Salvador.

A decade after the end of its violent civil war, this small central American state is starting to be discovered. The unlikely pioneers of this revival are surfers.

Keen wave hunters have known for years that El Salvador is perfect surfing territory. Now, their secret has been let out.

Visitor 'explosion'

Matt Schapiro is from the United States. He carries his surfboard under his arm as he emerges from the ocean. Wiping the salt water from his face, he says his friends were shocked when he said that he was coming here on holiday.

The peace process in our country has brought much more security for foreigners here
Saul Calles
"They think it's all bandits and violence. But in reality it's just the same as everywhere else - just with fewer tourists," he says.

The resort developers have yet to move in. The restaurants here have dirt floors, and the entire family gets involved in the cooking.

The primitive conditions do not bother the visitors. One young girl from Germany sits in her bikini and sarong sipping a cup of coffee. She has come to El Salvador on her own.

"I was slightly nervous to come here, but actually it's really nice. The people are wonderful, and it's not dangerous at all," she says.

According to the Salvadorean Deputy Tourist Minister, Jaime Alvarez: "Tourism really went down during the lost decade of the civil war. But during the last few years we have seen an explosion in visitors, with the number increasing by around 20% each year. Surfers make up an important part of this."

'Local Baywatch'

It is certainly good for business.

Saul Calles emerges from his surfboard repair shop in the coastal town of La Libertad in a cloud of white dust, after sanding down a board.

Saul Calles in his repair shop
Saul has seen business grow in the past few years
The amount of business Saul handles here has increased by more than five times in the last three years.

"The peace process in our country has brought much more security for foreigners here, so some people have come to visit and they have told other people that it's beautiful and much more secure than before," he says.

Rodrigo Barraza runs Punta Mango Surf Tours. When he started up the business in 1998, he had some 30 people a year coming to explore El Salvador's surf spots.

Now, he caters for 10 times that number.

His next project is to set up a hotel on the eastern part of the coast which was under the control of the guerrillas in the 1980s.

However he is aware of the potential impact that this could have.

"I want to advance the quality, not just the quantity of tourism," he says. "I have a social conscience, and want to work with the local people so as not to disrupt the traditional way of living."

Teco has long hair and necklaces of carved seashells around his neck. He has lived on the beach of El Zonte all his life.

He runs one of the cafes, but spends most of his time in the water, surfing. He says that he is the "local Baywatch", having saved the lives of more than 60 people over the last decade.

He stands on the sand, and gestures out towards the ocean. "I don't have many things, or much money, but living here, I don't need any of it."

Country profile: El Salvador
22 Mar 04  |  Country profiles


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