Surfing El Salvador’s “Wild East”

By Thomas S. Garlinghouse • Photos by Dan Mottern

Never in his wildest dreams did William Koplitz think he’d find himself in a Third World hospital nursing multiple gunshot wounds. That he was in just such a position struck him as surreal. But both wounds, the one on his hand and the one on the right side his face, brought him back to reality. He was lucky to be alive.

He had come with his brother, John, to El Salvador to surf. On a rare flat day they decided to take a trip into the interior to visit one of the country’s famous volcanoes. They hired a driver and by noon they were standing on the rim of San Salvador Volcano, marveling at the incredible vista.

On the way back, they came upon two men standing in the middle of a narrow dirt road. One of the men brandished a shotgun and called out for them to stop. The driver gunned it instead. The man with the gun fired at them. The impact blew out the passenger window, spraying glass and buckshot everywhere. William, in the passenger seat, caught some of the flying debris in his face and hand. The driver was hit in the shoulder.

Despite his wounds, their driver sped up, careening and fishtailing down the road, leaving the two assailants in a cloud of dust. William, thinking part of his face had been blown away, turned to his brother and asked frantically, “John, do I have a face?”

“Yes,” he said “but it looks like you got hit with glass.”

A few hours later, William gazed around the hospital with his one good eye, taking in the bloodstained walls, crowded gurneys, and overall grimy conditions. It could have been worse, he mused.

Through the Heart of Darkness, Lightly

Koplitz’s tale weighed heavily on my mind as our plane dropped through the clouds on the final approach to El Salvador. I had read it on a travel blog a few days before leaving for my own trip there. I knew, of course, that the country was a dangerous place even before I chanced upon his blog.

At one time El Salvador occupied a prominent place on the U.S. State Department’s list of the world’s most dangerous countries. This was back in the 1980s, when the small Central American nation was engulfed in a brutal, decade-long civil war. Even now, over ten years after a formal cease fire ended hostilities, El Salvador remains a dangerous place. Although the country is struggling mightily to rebuild its shattered institutions, crime and violence remain a seemingly perennial problem. Koplitz can attest to that.

Seeking distraction, I peered out the window, gazing down at the green, verdant landscape. Scenes of pumping pointbreaks and tubing sections soon replaced muggings, assaults, and robberies in my thoughts.

El Salvador had loomed large in my imagination ever since reading an article about the country’s wave-rich coast in Surfer Magazine. A regular foot’s paradise, the country is purported to have miles and miles of high quality pointbreaks – all packed side-by-side along a 320-mile stretch of Pacific coastline.

The country is divided into two main surfing areas – the La Libertad region in the west and what is commonly known as the “wild east.” I was headed to the east, which lies three hours from the capital, San Salvador. While the La Libertad region has been on the surfing map for the last two decades, the east is only now beginning to attract surfers. Located near the border with Honduras, it contains the most pristine and, some have argued, best surf in the country. The most famous breaks are Las Flores, a sandy bottomed pointbreak that has been compared to Rincon, and Punta Mango, a hollow, more critical right-hander.

I had booked the trip several weeks ago with one of the more well-known surf travel companies that now clutter the internet. The booking process had been so easy – almost to the point of farce – that I felt somewhat guilty. Deep down I knew that surf travel shouldn’t be this easy; it should require at least a modicum of blood, sweat, and tears. Even so, my thoroughly bourgeois nature wasn’t quite ready for a Heart of Darkness-type sojourn. With a steady job, live-in girlfriend, mortgage payments, and a menagerie of pets that relied on me, I was hardly in a position to go “feral.”

I cleared customs about an hour after landing and ventured outside to find our surf guide, Luis. Though still early morning, it was already hot and humid. Between my pale, sweaty skin and boardbag, Luis easily located me. As we waited for the others to arrive, he told me that a southwest swell was on tap for the coming week. It was supposed to build over the next two days, peak on the third, and then gradually back down by the end of the week. It wouldn’t be huge, Luis informed me, but we would definitely get “waves of good quality.”

About an hour later, with everyone accounted for and our boards strapped to the roof of Luis’s van like cords of lumber, we set off. I noticed that the road from the airport had recently acquired a fresh coat of asphalt. It was, I surmised, emblematic of the country as a whole. In a sense, the entire country was refurbishing itself, trying to come out from under the shadow of the decade-long civil war and remake itself into the image of a modern, Latin American country, a country striving to redefine and redeem itself. But as we traveled further in-country the road gradually deteriorated; El Salvador still had a ways to go.

The three other surfers who traveled with us were an interesting lot. They were well-traveled, keen, and just as eager as me to sample the wild east’s watery smorgasbord. Barrett, from Hermosa Beach, had spent some time down in South Africa surfing its shark-infested coastline. He had also traveled to war-ravaged Mozambique where he had sampled numerous uncrowded pointbreaks. Clay, an ex-navy seal, was from San Clemente and had seen two tours of duty in Iraq. He seemed the most eager to hit the waves; he was scheduled for another tour of duty in Iraq on his return to California. The third occupant, Keith, was a gregarious banker from Marina del Rey who had traveled around Central America before.

The miles passed and our conversation lagged so I turned to stare out the smudge-stained window. A succession of small towns – each one ragged and depressed – drifted by. Occasionally we passed another car or a pedestrian along the roadside. Eventually, cornfields and low-lying banana groves gave way to steepsided canyons and craggy, volcanic hilltops. We were now traveling through mountainous terrain. We were also, Luis informed us, finally entering the wild east.

Despite its excellent reputation among a growing number of surfers, the east coast has a much darker side. During the brutal decade-long civil war that engulfed the country in the 1980s, the east coast was the stronghold of the communist FMLN guerillas. It was a place to which few Salvadorians willingly ventured, except government troops periodically sent to flush out the rebels. Even today, the area is considered a wild, lawless, no-holds-barred place, the antithesis of any well-manicured, nicely kept white bread American suburb.

With all this in mind, I half expected to see AK-47 toting FMLN rebels around the next blind curve. Luckily, each curve in the road disclosed nothing more dramatic than the occasional slow-moving truck laden to overflowing with plantains or produce.

By mid-morning, after descending again to the coastal plain, and driving the last few miles on a jarring dirt road, we reached our destination: the sprawling Las Flores Surf Club, on the palm-strewn outskirts of the fishing village of El Cuco. The Club stood directly in front of its namesake pointbreak like a covetous landlord greedily keeping an eye on his holdings.

One of the first people we saw—a stark reminder of the region’s violent reputation—was a uniformed guard armed with a big shotgun, strolling back and forth casually. I took his lazy insouciance as a good sign.

From the shore, our first glimpse of the fabled Las Flores break was singularly unimpressive. It was small, maybe 1-3 feet and junky. Luis told us it was the smallest he had seen in several weeks.

“But don’t worry,” he added cheerily, “it’ll pick up.”

Las Flores

I lounged in a hammock beneath a palapa for over an hour, absently staring out at the break, watching the small waves roll onto the beach with a tedious regularity. It was the afternoon of our second day at Las Flores and the swell still hadn’t picked up more than a foot. With the horizon a flat line, it didn’t seem possible that a southwest swell was headed our way. I wondered whether Luis had been on the up-and-up with us.

Nonetheless, we had surfed Las Flores this morning and for a while the day before. The wave definitely had potential and I could see why, theoretically at least, many had compared it to Rincon. It broke at the top of the point near a large rock and peeled flawlessly across a sand bottom all the way to shore, a good 500 yards or more. On a good day, we were told, it doesn’t section once. As of yet, however, we were underwhelmed.

Dan, John and Dave had arrived the previous evening – swelling our ranks to seven surfers. Dan, a surfer from Georgia, was looking forward to surfing some quality waves.

“Word is we’re going to hit Punta Mango tomorrow morning,” he said.

“You know what time we’re leaving?” I asked.

“Early.”

Punta Mango

The knocking on my door was loud and insistent.

“Tomás!”

By the time I got out of bed and made it to the door, Luis had already moved on, knocking loudly at the next room.

Some forty-five minutes later, with our crew divided between two 28-foot superpangas, each powered by a 130hp Honda 4-stroke engine, we set off for Punta Mango. Loaded to the gills with surfboards, we plowed down the coast, slamming over the incoming swells.

The low pressure system that lay several 1000 km off South America had finally got its act together, and was now pushing lines of evenly spaced swell right at El Salvador’s swell window. The southwest swell had finally arrived.

Beyond the rugged and uninhabited coastline, volcanoes towered above the surrounding countryside, their cone-shaped tops half obscured by gauzy wisps of mist. Before long, we saw the pluming crests of breaking waves in the distance—Punta Mango. As always, I felt a mix of emotions about surfing a wholly new spot –especially one that many have described as “intense.” Punta Mango is a powerful right point with an amazingly fast wave that breaks over a rocky bottom. It has long tube sections and is fronted by a pristine cobble-strewn stretch of beach. Just recently discovered, it can be accessed only by boat. I gripped the gunwale of the panga tighter, feeling anxiety roil my insides.

Luis brought his hand up to shade his eyes as he gazed out at the scene. “Looks good,” he grinned.

We pulled up just outside the break, cut the engine, and sat for a moment. There were already several surfers in the water, and although it wouldn’t have been described as crowded – at least by North American standards – it was a bit of a disappointment that we didn’t have the place to ourselves. But as any surfer knows, word of a swell travels.

Sitting on their boards, the surfers waited in a small pack a few hundred yards from our boat, watching the horizon. There was a momentary lull and everything was quiet, the surfers bobbing gently up and down on their boards. They looked calm and sedate, almost like parishioners gathered for some strange watery rite.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a set rumbled in from the horizon.

All at once, the scene changed. The surfers began to jockey for position, and what had seconds before been a quiet and tranquil picture was now devolving into a frenzied tableau replete with frantic paddling and exuberant shouts. The surfer sitting the deepest immediately spun around and paddled furiously. Behind him, the wave jacked up menacingly and threw out a thick, enveloping lip. He gained his feet in one fluid motion just as the lip pitched forward and, with his legs planted firmly, raced down the wave’s face.

Our panga immediately erupted into hoots and cheers, and that was all it took for the boat to unload. We fell over ourselves in our haste to get into the water, waxing our boards, throwing on rash guards, and attaching leashes. I was the last one over the gunwhale.

By the time I reached the lineup, another set was rolling in. To my amazement, I happened to be in the best position to catch it. I turned my board around and paddled hard. The wave reared up behind me and I discovered it was moving faster than I had anticipated. Instead of paddling, I hesitated for a moment – a fatal mistake. The wave swept me up to the crest and, gripping my rails, I pushed to my feet.

But in a classic case of “late-take-off-itis,” I lingered suspended at the lip, looking down the wave’s long, smooth face. Seconds ticked by at a snail’s pace. Then, in a rush, the wave roared away from me and I was caught in its clutches. Pulled forward like a disobedient dog on a leash, my feet lost contact with my board and I was pitched headlong over the falls as the wave broke with a booming crash of whitewater.

The impact was violent and I was driven deep. The next several seconds were a confusing welter of churning water, chaos, and desperation. I was spun this way and that, launched end over end, and somersaulted. When the wave finally let me loose, I popped to the surface, shaken but unhurt.

After that, with my tail between my legs, I moved to the inside. I wasn’t eager to repeat the brutal process. It was obvious to me now that these were waves to be reckoned with.

As I mentally prepared myself to line up again, I watched my compatriots get some incredible rides. Barrett hurled himself over the edge of a mean, curling beast, dropped into the “pit,” and disappeared in the spray and mist. A few moments later, he popped up behind the back of the wave, a little speck in the distance. He must have traveled some 100 yards or more. Clay stroked hard for the second wave of the set, determination etching his features. He dropped down the face and swept into a smoking bottom turn, then raced back up the face, crouching low. The wave curled over him in a blue-green tunnel.

Finally, tired of watching from the sidelines, I decided to get back into the game. I didn’t want to head back to Las Flores skunked.

A moderately-sized wave rolled toward me, and I paddled for it. Immediately caught in its momentum, I hopped to my feet. I picked a straight line and held on, racing swiftly along the face, my hand clutching my outside rail. The wave lined up perfectly in front of me, peeling flawlessly, not a drop out of place. I was going so fast on such a perfect wave that I forgot to pull any maneuvers; I just stood stationary on the board, crouched low, allowing the wave to carry me along. It was so fast – almost preternaturally fast – that I wondered, half-jokingly, how many G’s I was generating. The wave closed out behind me with a resounding whump! as I exited.

That was it. I was smitten with El Salvador’s waves. I stroked back to the lineup, my mind fixated completely on the next wave—and each one after that.

A Funny Sort of Mind Game

From the comfort of my now well-used hammock, I gazed out at Las Flores sunset and was reminded of a Gauguin painting – all bold strokes and bright colors. My thoughts drifted back to Punta Mango, trying to remember the specifics of each ride. But it was a funny sort of mind game. My memory, for some strange reason, was filled with large gaps. To my surprise, I found I could remember only portions of any one ride.

In his book, In Search of Captain Zero, Allan Weisbecker described a wave he surfed in Pavones, Costa Rica. It was a perfect wave, and he rode it on his longboard, perched on the nose for an entire minute, just gliding along effortlessly. Later, seated on the beach trying to remember it he found himself, as I did, unable to recall the entire ride. The final couple hundred yards of the ride was a complete blank.

Weisbecker attempted to describe this lapse in time in quasi-Zen Buddhist terms. He wrote, “I had perceived, in a deeply intuitive way, the seamless integration of matter and energy – without the artificial duality, the either/or-ness the human mind is prone to.”

Being a child of the 1980s, rather than the 1960s, I wasn’t comfortable with the Zen Satori analogy. For me, there was no sudden flash of intuition or enlightenment, no mystical experience of oneness. I felt more like an amnesiac.

It has been suggested that some athletes, during crucial moments, act on instinct rather than conscious thought. As anyone who has been surfing for a while knows, wave-riding requires little, if any, active thought. But it does require intuition in the form of making split second adjustments that are dictated by the ever-changing quality of the wave. These adjustments are done largely by feel rather than conscious effort. And because the surfer isn’t conscious of each and every movement, it’s possible that he might not remember each one, or even a sequence of them.

Regardless of what had caused the gaps in my memory, one thing was certain: I remembered enough of the morning’s session to want more. The waves I caught in that beautiful spot were some of the fastest, longest and best rides I’d ever had.

As I settled myself comfortably in the hammock, I realized that I had also forgotten about William Koplitz’s ordeal for the last few days. Chuckling, I remembered something a friend once told me about traveling in tropical climates. She said, “Don’t be surprised if you suddenly discover that the routine of living crowds out everything else.”

Beyond the point, I watched a panga cruise past, its prow rising and falling with the swells. Nearer to shore, two fishermen stood in the shallows, casting their nets into the water. And in the foreground, a thin and ragged village dog, all spindly legs and scabrous coat, stood at the water’s edge barking at the men.

I finally had an inkling of what she meant.

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