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El Salvador's western Pacific coast unfolds like the surfing waves for which it's famous. The squalor of the port town La Libertad recedes as the coastal road twists and turns around tiny bays and inlets heading west. Rocky cliffs overlook jet-black shores. Surfers bob in the water in neat lines, each waiting their turn to ride some of the best waves in Central America. Here, the burgeoning tourism industry is low-key and centered around good surfing and seafood. Tiny lodges sit amidst ramshackle villages with little infrastructure and only the occasional high-class resort. The geography finally flattens out to the west at Los Cobanas, and the beaches become long and desolate, stretching as far as the gorgeous estuary known as Barra de Santiago -- one of El Salvador's best-kept secrets.

The eastern coast offers a different vibe as the horseshoe coves of the Balsamo coast gives way to long, expansive beaches. The somewhat tacky, gated resorts of the Costa del Sol contrast with laidback, hidden gems further east, such as Playa El Cuco. These scrappy little beach hamlets come alive on the weekend, or offer splendid isolation on weekdays for those who can extend their vacations just a little bit longer.