Streaking down the front of a curving wave, a girl balances fleetingly before tumbling — she is one of dozens of poor children in El Salvador getting a chance to surf their way out of poverty.
El Zonte is a world surfing mecca, where powerful Pacific swells explode onto pristine beaches an hour’s drive from the capital, San Salvador.
The 11-year-old girl is one of about 20 local children from economically disadvantaged families being offered an opportunity to surf their way to employment.
Schooled by volunteer instructors, the goal is to prepare them to become watersports professionals, part of a multimillion-dollar government project to develop the watersports industry.
“We are opening an opportunity to learn how to surf and other activities, so that these girls and boys can be empowered leaders of their communities and can escape poverty,” said Yasmin Solorzano, 34, a coordinator of the volunteer program called Medusas.
The children also learn English from their instructors and are encouraged to study up to the university level, added Solorzano, speaking before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the program.
“It’s a path for them. We want them to use what they learn here so that they can have a professional career and at the same time surf,” instructor Mariam Lopez, 37, said.
The program started two years ago, initially for girls to take surfing lessons two Sundays per month, but it now also welcomes boys who live near local beaches.
El Zonte’s laid-back ambience is a world away from El Salvador’s notorious gang violence and central to a plan by Salvadorean President Nayib Bukele to present a tourist-friendly face to the world.
Surfing draws tourists from the US, the Netherlands, Canada, Brazil and Germany — and many have chosen to stay.
Learning to surf in El Zonte is not cheap. Classes alone can cost between US$10 and US$50 per hour.
However, instructors at the entirely volunteer-supported Medusas program — many of them foreigners — do not charge and boards are rented out at a minimal cost.
“I really like children and I also really like helping people — and I don’t just come here to enjoy the waves, but also to give something to people,” 33-year-old Nette Klement from the Netherlands said.
The children also take lessons on the environment and art provided by Medusas one Sunday per month in the courtyard of a small hotel.
El Zonte is part of a US$200 million Surf City development project promoted by Bukele to turn this part of El Salvador into an international destination.
“Surf City is an ambitious project with which we want to position El Salvador as one of the best destinations for surf and beach tourism in Latin America,” Salvadorean Minister of Tourism Morena Valdez said.
The pandemic prevented El Salvador from putting itself on the world surfing events calendar when this year’s ISA World Surfing Games event, due to be hosted by the nearby El Sunsal Beach, was canceled. Up for grabs at the event were qualifying spots for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
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