Toro de Oro: last chance for El Salvador to develop a sustainable surf spot

September 29, 2019 | Surfing
Toro de Oro: one of the best surf spots in El Salvador

Surfing at Toro de Oro, in El Salvador, has indeed been a surreal experience.

Since the first time I surfed there, back in 2015 and until the present, I have surfed it alone.

Not many times because the wave only breaks good from April to October and requires a big swell to work properly.

I have not paid thousands of dollars like rich and pro surfers who travel to very remote places in the middle of the Pacific and Indonesia to get away from the crowds.

And to top it off, I was surfing alone in a very densely populated country like El Salvador.

With surfing having gone mainstream, it is a fallacy to think that there is still Aloha spirit in the water.

It sounds incredibly egotistical, but most surfers, including myself, do not really enjoy surfing in crowded spots and feel uneasy about sharing waves.

But I see the total contradiction when surfers claim that they want to keep a surf spot secret and, at the same time, gain fame from posting videos and pictures of themselves surfing that spot.

With the popularization of applications like Google Earth and Google Maps, it is completely naive to think that a surf spot can remain secret for long.

Surfers can spend hours at their desktop computer figuring out where there is a chance for a new point break all around the world.

So, Toro de Oro is not a secret spot at all.

It lies in what the media has dubbed the "Wild East" of El Salvador, between Las Flores and Punta Mango. Surfers can view the Toro de Oro wave when they take their boat to Punta Mango.

Access by land to Toro de Oro is possible, but restricted, due to the risky feeling of being in a place where there are no hotels, restaurants and no police at all.

Hacienda Toro de Oro

This surf spot lies in a private hacienda by the same name - Toro de Oro.

The hacienda has about 930 acres, roughly three kilometers of coastline and is home to surf spots by the name of La Vaca, Toro de Oro, El Torito, and El Majague.

The hacienda belongs to a family of eight members who has been fighting a "civil war" between themselves for control of the whole property.

When the family patriarch and sole owner died in the middle of the 1980s, he left no legal will. He fathered eight kids with two women.

At that time, the 10-year civil war was raging on, and the hacienda was a battleground between the right-wing government and the leftist guerrillas.

As a result, the hacienda was almost abandoned, and most of the heirs left for the United States.

At the beginning of the 1990s when the peace accords were signed, the elder brother tried to gain control of the whole property by hiring a lawyer to draft a document making him the sole owner in the absence of the rest of his siblings.

Unfortunately for him, the other brothers found out in time about his plan and decided to fight for the property.

They left the United States and returned to El Salvador.

In this family feud, there were no factions or teams - it was one sibling against the rest.

For more than 25 years ,they have been quarreling themselves in a drama proper of a movie or soap opera.

Between them, they have fought with their fists; they have used guns to intimidate each other; they have sued each other in court and even sent others to prison for a few days.

Don Pedro Orlando, one of the family members, realized the lunacy of this family feud and decided to document in his memoirs the whole story of his family.

He has made his life mission to try to become a mediator and share the hacienda with the rest of his brothers.

The fight has not been to gain control and surf waves, but to develop the hacienda for livestock like cattle and horses.

The family members were so involved in their private feud that they failed to recognize that tourism was a more profitable business than raising livestock.

The story of this family feud is not the only one in the "Wild East."

There were several families who had internal feuds that also owned states of more than 1,000 acres who decided to sell parcels to tourism developers.

Because inheritance and property rights had not been properly established, lots of land were sold without proper land titles.

Toro de Oro: the government needs to promote a sustainable surf tourism strategy here

Surf Tourism in El Salvador

The new government of El Salvador has recognized that surf tourism is key to generate export revenue for the country.

It has pledged to develop surf cities, and the general population that knows about it is very optimistic.

For me, I am giving it the benefit of the doubt.

The details of the project have not been leaked out, and by experience, we should know that the devil lies in the details.

Surf cities are very fancy words that if they are not backed by real actions will be more empty words than anything else.

In my opinion, the government, besides providing financing capital, needs to regulate surf tourism to ensure a level playing field in the beneficiaries, and not to repeat the errors that were committed in La Libertad province.

In El Salvador, traditionally land developers have interpreted market mechanisms as their right to do whatever they want as long as they have the capital with no regards to others.

In El Salvador, land has been grabbed by force just like land was grabbed in the United States in the 1800s with a cowboy mentality and just like it is being grabbed in Brazilian Amazon currently.

The problem for El Salvador is that we are a very small country, with only 21,000 square kilometers; we are not 10 million square kilometers like the United States and Brazil.

We are more similar in size to Israel, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Taiwan. So, land for development is very scarce.

In El Salvador, calling for government regulation of surf tourism has a connotation of being dubbed "a commie."

However, I have lived most of my life in the United States, where I have seen strict government regulation in surf tourism.

The municipalities of Oahu and Maui have not let developers build shopping malls and fancy hotels next to the Banzai Pipeline, Honolua Bay and Jaws waves.

For a new surf city to be successful, El Salvador has to study and implement land development regulation that mimics measures taken in other cities around the world that have embraced sustainable development that protects the environment and at the same time benefits local communities.

El Salvador cannot try to develop more Cancun's or Waikiki's.

The country simply does not have the capital, and it will be a waste of money, leading to ghost cities when they fail to attract investors and buyers.

From the truly sustainable surf cities where I have lived, two cities stand out in particular: Haleiwa in Oahu, Hawaii, and Santa Cruz in California.

There might be others around the world, but since I have not lived there so I cannot talk about them.

In a Salvadoran surf city, municipalities cannot just let any business that pays taxes settle in that city.

In El Salvador, most surfers that come will tell you that Puerto de La Libertad has the feel of a ghetto neighborhood.

This city has the best wave of Central America in Punta Roca, but not many tourists like to stay here.

All kinds of business that pollute the environment have been allowed to operate here like gas stations, tire changes, fast food restaurants, and so on.

For tourists to recognize Puerto de La Libertad as a surf city, too many businesses would have to be dismantled.

Lost Opportunities

One coastal city in the Wild East that lost the opportunity to become a surf city was El Cuco. Along with Costa del Sol, it has the best white sand beaches of the country and some decent beach breaks for surfing.

However, the city also has the feel of a neighborhood ghetto.

Alcohol rules supreme, and mayors from different political parties have been scared to close canteens that sell pure alcohol from 7 am till late night hours.

Drunkards are seen on a daily basis sleeping on the sidewalks, pissing on walls, molesting pretty women and begging for change for the next shot of whiskey.

The labor workforce from El Cuco has its blood full of alcohol and is not very productive.

As a result, businesses have more incentive to hire Nicaraguan immigrants to do the jobs that El Cuco residents cannot perform.

Another regulation that the Salvadoran government needs to promote is the development of green public areas like parks next to the water's edge.

In El Salvador, this might prove tricky to implement because local land developers are addicted to building hotels as close as possible to the water's edge.

They hate to talk about the prospect of sea level rising and tsunami threats.

Toro de Oro: there's an hacienda in the heart of local controversy

No Seawalls and Private Beaches, Please

The building of seawalls should be discouraged.

Municipalities in El Salvador most likely won't have the capital to assist hotels in repairing seawalls when the ocean decides to claim them.

At Toro de Oro, since there has been no development at all, it would be relatively easy to develop green areas.

In fact, it already has green areas in the form of a forest that has grown spontaneously in spite of the deforestation that is happening in the region.

In order to promote public green areas close to the water's edge and hotels being built in the adjacent hills, the government needs to make sure that land developers do not block access roads to the public.

This has been a monumental failure in El Salvador.

Many beaches have been effectively privatized in El Salvador with the simple action of landowners blocking the access road to a public beach.

This is detrimental to the local economy and to property value of the land in the adjacent hills.

The 10-kilometer stretch in El Salvador from Puerto de La Libertad to El Sunzal has a similar feel to the 10-kilometer stretch in Oahu from Haleiwa beach to Sunset beach.

However, when it comes to access roads to the surf, the differences between these two regions are striking.

In the North Shore of Oahu, every half kilometer there is an access road. People who try to block access to the surf very likely can end up with a broken nose besides a lawsuit.

In La Libertad region, the number of public access roads to the beach has been steadily declining.

At El Tunco, to access El Sunzal beach and La Bocana, there is only one access road.

The economic consequences are that El Tunco cannot create more hotels in the hills and more jobs because there are no access roads anymore.

There are major plans to double the coastal highway leading to El Tunco.

There is going to be more traffic in the area with no access to the surf, which is a major economic contradiction.

One of the most visible failures of access roads to the surf in El Salvador happened at Costa del Sol.

The major land developer who sold lots failed to develop that beach to its full potential. He did not allow for any public green areas next to the beach.

Instead, he let private homeowners close most of the access to the beach and build tall walls around their homes.

When foreign tourists drive along Costa del Sol, there is no such thing as scenic driving.

They can drive for more than 10 kilometers and still fail to view the most beautiful beach because the house walls block the view.

And the property prices for land on the other side of the road with no access to the beach have effectively collapsed.

The result is luxury homes with beach access next to lots full of trash and no construction.

Costa del Sol had everything going to be a paradise destination: kilometers of white sandy beaches with surf beach breaks together with a mangrove river running parallel to the beach perfect for sailboats and yachts for fishing.

Toro de Oro: in El Salvador no land developer has attempted or bothered to consider building green zones or parks next to the surf

An Uncertain Future

At Toro de Oro, if the government does not enforce clear rules to protect access to the public beach, it is going to become a thorny issue for both local residents and the current family owners.

In a few months, the Courts are going to effectively split the hacienda into eight properties, one for each sibling, all with access to the beach.

This will put an end to almost 30 years of family feud. Some of the siblings will naturally be tempted to sell to whoever pays the most price.

Considering that new surf spots around the world are each day harder to find, in spite of the gang violence in El Salvador, there will be strong demand for the properties at Hacienda Toro de Oro.

Very likely, the forces of greed, avarice, and speculation will kick in and prevail if the government just stands by.

Most potential buyers will be tempted to just try to buy small one or two acres of land next to the water's edge and later block access to the beach.

This will effectively result in the collapse of the property prices for the rest of the lots in the hills that do not have access to the beach.

This is one major reason why it is not that attractive to the current owners to sell land in small lots, but rather the whole strip that the Courts will assign them.

Besides the landowners' interests, the local communities close to Hacienda Toro de Oro stand to loose with access roads being blocked and beaches privatized.

Many of them make a living from fishing.

Telling them that they have to walk extra kilometers to reach the water's edge will be firepower for social unrest.

Many of them have experience with weapons because they were former guerrilla fighters, government soldiers, and the new generation of gang members.

Government regulation needs to be enforced to authorize police to issue tickets to the general public that insists on littering the beaches.

This problem is not going to be solved by volunteers getting together on weekends to collect trash.

That is just an incentive for people to throw trash even more. It is not just an educational problem.

I have seen many affluent Salvadoreans with good education driving luxury cars and throwing trash and beer bottles in the streets.

They do it just because they know they can get away with it.

But when they travel to the United States they behave properly: they don't litter because if they do they know, they can be penalized by the police.

The "Wild East" is very clean compared to the La Libertad region, but there are already signs that the same contamination is going to happen here.

At Toro de Oro hacienda, every now and then, you see trucks dumping trash on the roads and even on the beaches.

And the ocean currents are bringing lots of plastic trash from many kilometers away.

At El Tunco, when the surf tourism exploded around 2005, there were no policies to prevent hotels dumping their sewage and septic tanks in the ocean.

As a result, the estuary at El Tunco is totally contaminated, and it generates rotten odors that people who are dining have to get used to

The proposed solution by the government for El Tunco is a water treatment plant that has been delayed many times because it costs millions of dollars.

In the "Wild East," it might be cheaper for the government to spend money on preventing hotels from dumping sewage in the ocean.

Maybe developing greyscale water systems that make water treatment plans unnecessary.

Traditionally, the eastern provinces of El Salvador have been neglected by the central government.

Most of the capital spending is focused on the capital San Salvador and to a lesser extent the western provinces.

San Salvador has become a black hole getting bigger and bigger over time, and it does not really generate much export revenue.

San Salvador is basically a big city that does produce much, but is a place full of superfluous consumption at the shopping malls.

This consumption is made possible by the family remittances from abroad, which is not a healthy economy because it encourages a parasitical society that does not like to work.

Much of the export revenue for the country comes from sugar production in the rural provinces, which has a bleak future because there is not much land and water available to sustain it.

Surf tourism is an elegant way of bringing export revenue when it can provide for a clean business in the services sector.

So, the government should be aware of the stakes involved to make sure surf cities become a viable reality.


Words by Jorge Dominguez | Administrator at Hacienda Toro de Oro

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