Long before hosting the ASP 3-star Copa Quiksilver El Salvador, Punta Roca was considered Central America’s premier righthand pointbreak. Roping off the town of La Libertad some 25 miles south of the capital city of San Salvador, Punta Roca (named such as to distinguish it from every other “La Punta” in the world) was often referred to as the “Rincon of Latin America,” even in its infancy.
And while other cobblestone bays, detonating beachbreaks and boiling rivermouths have since emerged along the 150 south-facing miles of Costa del Balsamo real estate (most of the righthand variety and some only accessible by boat), Punta Roca still boasts the richest legacy and the country’s best surfer, Jimmy Rotherham.
Jimmy’s father, Bob Rotherham, is the undeniable pioneer of El Salvadorian surfing. Peace Corps volunteers began sampling the waves in the ’60s before surf scribe Bernie Baker arrived in 1970 (where he reported only a trio of guys in the water, all Americans). But when Miami-born Rotherham arrived in 1972 — thereafter opening his Punta Roca restaurant/hotel to fuel the tummies and shelter the growing list of surf trippers — he knew he’d stumbled upon a tropical aqueous treasure worth celebrating and preserving.
One look at Punta Roca’s fascinatingly flawless setup, much less one 200-yard-long ride, and it’s easy to see why Bob never left. When it’s delivering its best stand-up routine, and the right surfer’s engaged, a wave can be connected from the tip of the point past the La Paz inside section all the way to the fishing pier — almost three-quarters of a mile.
What makes Punta Roca different from any other user-friendly, photogenic pointbreak is its utter shreddability: It’s got ass (i.e. speed and power), plenty of open-face, multiple launch ramps and several throaty barrel sections. Like a warm-water, deep-blue Twizzler impersonation of Noosa, J-Bay or Rincon — the ergonomic options here defy description. If Lowers makes you feel like a good surfer, Punta Roca will make you feel like a pelican, accommodating 21st century flair better than any single righthander in the entire Northern Hemisphere. It’s that good.
And it always has been. In 1976, John Milius’ Big Wednesday stunt cast and film entourage showed up in La Libertad and stayed for a month, igniting a fuse for what should’ve been an exploration-exploitation time bomb for the country. Only one thing could stop the rush.
Some 75,000 lives were lost in a 12-year genocidal civil war that completely destroyed the country’s infrastructure and, subsequently, put the kibosh on surf tourism before hostilities subsided in 1992. Roving, well-armed militias and leaderless drug gangs and rampant, robbery and violence were among the residual strife left in the wake of war.
“By 2003,” wrote Matt Warshaw in The Encyclopedia Of Surfing, “there were fewer than 150 native El Salvadorian surfers, mostly living in or around La Libertad, virtually no domestic surf industry, and a steady but not-overwhelming stream of visiting surfers.”
But everything changed in the summer of 2003 when Bob’s son Jimmy radically transcended the “good for a Third World surfer” stereotype in front of “The Crossing” crew led by esteemed captain Martin Daly and former 2-time ASP World Champion Tom Carroll. The Quiksilver crew was reportedly so blown away by Jimmy’s supernatural ability and gregarious humility, they quickly signed him, allowing the young prodigy to see how the rest of Earth’s waves stacked up to his beloved Punta Roca. While traveling the globe and building his own family, Jimmy also produced the Quiksilver Latin Pro in 2006 to cut the ribbon on the Rotherhams’ freshly upgraded Punta Roca Surf Resort and spotlight local talents like Emilio Duran and Luis Martínez amongst invited surfers from Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Between 1996 and 2006, El Salvador saw over seven million tourists. By 2011, nearly every major international surf publication had El Salvador in their scopes for travel features, often emblazoning Punta Roca on their covers.
“When our crew arrived some 30 odd years after [Bob Rotherham] had pitched his palapala near La Punta,” wrote Eastern Surf Magazine co-owner/chief photographer Dick Meseroll after a Summer 2004 trip, “we instantly saw why he remained there. We stared in a semi-hypnotic state at these overhead roping walls begging to be gashed to pieces — section after whackable section and shack after throwing shack. To top it off, we saw very few traveling surfers in the lineup during our 12-day stay. It’s never been a major tourist destination of any kind. And that’s not without reason. There have long been many myths, rumors and general misinformation over the decades, along with a strong dose of scary truths. It has continued to reinforce and self-perpetuate its less-than-desirable surf locale cache… Our crew, however, saw absolutely no repercussions: No roving bands of disenfranchised rebels bristling with RPG’s and semiautomatic weapons, perpetrating crimes on gringos.”
Nevertheless, this can still be an uncomfortable, if not dangerous, destination: infected river waters can spawn hepatitis, typhoid and worse. Outside the air-conditioned/armed-security comfort of camps like the Rotherhams, poor sanitation and deplorable foxhole-style accommodations abound. Then there are plague-like mosquito problems around Zunzal (there’s malaria’s here, too), slippery rocks and boulders skirting the shorelines and the imminent threat of earthquakes like the one in 1986 that killed 1000 people and left tens of thousands homeless. Not to mention, intense exhaustion and dehydration (par for the course during pointbreak paddles in Equatorial sunshine) and “Mama Roca,” a huge rock lurking just below the surface at the Punta Roca takeoff zone that can rear its urchin-encrusted head at lower tides.
But whatever, that’s all worst-case scenario. Here’s the best:
Early spring (late March/early April) is the end of the Dry Season, which means S/SW swells minus the torrential weather that arrives with summer. With ideal E/NE winds, ten to 12-foot-plus faces will hold just as seamlessly as a shoulder-high day.
In other words, some waves are just meant to be surfed. No matter what the world is doing around them.