Foreign tourists enjoy the surf and sand at Puerto La Libertad, El Salvador. (Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Puerto La Libertad, El Salvador — Robert "Roberto" Rotherham stepped onto the black-sand beach before 6 a.m., cradling his well-worn surfboard.
Gone are the times when he would tackle El Salvador's majestic waves alone. There were at least 30 other people out before dawn on this warm weekday morning.
It was late March and the swells were the season's biggest yet.
"Blessed by the good Lord," Rotherham said.
El Salvador's surf has long been an open secret among the wave-wise aficionados who journey here from California, Europe and the rest of Latin America. Although many stayed away during the country's civil war, the trickle of die-hard surfers has slowly crested to thousands of visitors taking advantage of world-class waves, easy access, laid-back hospitality and 80-degree water.
The waves crash against the undulating curves of the Salvadoran coastline like rolling tumbleweeds, bigger and bigger as they splay along the shore. The waves stay "hollow, not mushy," Rotherham said; you get "in the tube" — inside the wave.
And the waves, he added, are more likely to deliver their riders than break their boards, one of the many hazards of tougher surf spots. These are user-friendly waters.
"The chances of getting crucified on these waves are less," said Rotherham, who is 61 and has lived here nearly 40 years.
Rotherham was drawn by the waves in the early 1970s, driving down from California's overcrowded beaches with a buddy in an old Volkswagen van. They were exploring, looking for swells. He stayed, enamored of a local woman and a beach lifestyle that somehow remained casual and slow-paced despite the country's endurance of war, natural disasters and violent crime.
Today Rotherham wears glasses, his hairline is receding, and his sun-cured skin resembles a turtle's. He has pretty much seen it all — "I am surfing's living history" — and his eye now focuses on the future and the tourism business he's hoping the beaches of El Salvador can churn up. Like many of the old-timers, he has set up a surfing-based tourism shop, in his case with one of his sons.
But at the beginning that would have seemed impossible. Soon after he arrived, civil war erupted between the right-wing, U.S.-backed government and leftist, Soviet-backed rebels. Massacres and guerrilla attacks became the order of the day, and foreign tourists stopped coming to El Salvador's coast.
It was a period when local tourism sustained the area. It was a half-hour drive from the capital, and residents in San Salvador took advantage: a relatively peaceful escape from the city and conflict to thatch-roofed eateries overlooking the ocean, where the cheap beer flowed.
"Even during the war, the danger level was not too high," Rotherham recalled. "This was probably the most tranquilo zone in the country."
Only the most hard-core, fearless surfers came during those years. Once the war ended in 1992, and only gradually, this tiny Central American country came back on the surfing circuit.
But for a long time, the first concern visitors expressed was "security, security, security," Rotherham said.
Rodrigo Barraza, who organized some of the first surfing tours of El Salvador nearly two decades ago, said people still think the country is at war.
"It has cost us a lot to change that image," he said.
Still, surfistas come from all over the world. Locals are quickly putting up small hotels and open-air restaurants. The government built an impressive boardwalk and assigned "tourism police" to keep thieves and gangsters at bay.
"This is why I live here," said Lindsay Rogers, a Toronto teacher who moved to San Salvador four years ago. She was loading up her board after a morning wave workout. "It is very rare to have a city so near a beach break."
Rotherham may be the coast's biggest promoter. Tourists go to Guatemala for Maya ruins and Costa Rica for rainforests. All El Salvador has, he says, are its beaches and its surf.
"What makes these waves extremely unique … is they pivot, then come in as a long wall of water that doesn't dump all at the same time," he said. "These waves are a dream."