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La Libertad

Puerto La Libertad is making a valiant attempt at cleaning up its image. This crowded, hardscrabble, oceanfront city 32km (20 miles) south of San Salvador is notorious for drugs and violence, but the local authorities have recently cleaned up its pier and waterfront, and encouraged the opening of cafes and restaurants, as well as a skate park and amphitheater. Despite their efforts, most travelers just stop here briefly to catch buses to the more laidback beach towns and better hotels along the coast, stock up on supplies, or visit the colorful fisherman's pier. Surfers also flock here from around the world to surf the renowned Punta Roca surf break just outside of town.

The long pier and its nearby market are rightly La Libertad's main attractions. The market's prices vary, depending on your negotiating and language skills. Past the market, toward the end of the pier, you can watch as fishermen haul in their morning catch and send it down the pier to market. Just feet from the pier, you can also see local surfers riding the waves and in the distance, the famous surf of the Punta Roca break. The pier is open daily from 6am to 7pm, and nearby, guarded parking is 75¢ a day.

Banks, ATMs, pharmacies, and grocery stores are on the road just north of the oceanfront; a modern shopping center is 1km (1/2 mile) east along from the pier.

Playa San Diego

This is a long, wide beach 4km (2 1/2 miles) east of La Libertad. It has some private residential houses and a cluster of restaurants at one end where you'll find a river estuary popular with bathers. Two coastal roads run parallel with the beach. On one, you'll find Restaurante Costa Brava (Calle a Playa San Diego; tel. 503/2345-5698) 200m (656 ft.) from the beach. The restaurant is nothing special in itself, but it does have a very nice pool, safer than the nearby ocean and certainly cleaner than the estuary. Day-trippers can use the pool for free, as long as they spend more than $5 in the restaurant. Needless to say, it gets packed on weekends. There are also three very basic rooms to rent for $30 each.

Playa San Blas

This private beach offers more seclusion and security than nearby places, without being too exclusive or elitist. Unfortunately, it is not the best for surfing, but its long, dark shore makes for a relaxing day of sunbathing. The gated entrance is located at Km 39.5 on the main coastal road.

Playa Tunco

Playa Tunco, 7.5km (4 3/4 miles) west of La Libertad, is the Balsamo Coast's most tourist-friendly location and a must-stop along this coast. Tourists and El Salvadorans alike flock here on weekends to enjoy the waves, black-sand beaches, laidback vibe, tasty seafood restaurants, and new and unique hotels. Tunco has something to offer most travelers.

Tunco consists of a main road ending on the beach and a side road with beachfront hotels. Numerous small restaurants, hotels, Internet cafes, and a couple of surf shops offering lessons are all tightly packed into this roughly 1km-long (1/2-mile) area. The beach is long, with black-sand and large rock formations just offshore. The surf at Tunco and nearby Sunzal can get big, but there's usually a small, near-shore break that can accommodate beginner surfers and swimmers.

Opportunities for outdoor tours abound; hiking, kayaking, surfing, horseback riding, and off-road motorcycle tours are offered by some of the hotels and hostels. But my favorite activity here is spending evenings on the second-story, thatched-hut deck of Erika's beachfront restaurant , watching the sun go down behind the surfers. That's paradise.

To get here, take bus no. 192 from La Libertad and get off near Km 42 at the main Tunco entrance, which is marked by a large sign advertising the area's many hotels and restaurants. The town center is a 5-minute walk from there.

Playa Sunzal

Playa Sunzal is a tiny community next door to Tunco (and 9km/5 1/2 miles west of La Libertad), which features a couple of surf hostels, a few pupusarias along the main highway, and a rocky point break that's made the village famous among surfers. You can reach Sunzal from the highway or by taking a 10-minute stroll along the beach to the right from Tunco and turning inland at an opening in the retaining wall just before the point break. Follow the path and turn right at your first opportunity. There are several hostels on this path, and the pupusarias are on the highway ahead and to the left. The best of the hostels is Sunzal Point Surf Lodge (tel. 503/7327-9869; www.surfsunzal.com). Rates for private rooms start at $18.

Playa Zonte

Playa Zonte is a beautiful, approximately 1km (1/2-mile) stretch of sandy and rocky beach a 19km (12-mile) trip west of La Libertad. Many travelers break into Tunco-versus-Zonte camps, with Zonte siders preferring that beach town for its less developed and more laidback vibe. Surfers like its strong beach break, and non-surfers can enjoy its sandier beaches, depending on the tides.

To get to Playa Zonte, follow coastal Hwy. CA-2 west from La Libertad to approximately Km 53 and look for the LA CASA DE FRIDA sign. Turn left there. Coming from the west, look for a sign on your left reading INTERVIDA EL SALVADOR with an image of the Earth. Turn right there. The main road into Zonte has two entrances and is like a giant circular driveway leading to the hotel area. So, you can take either entrance and get to the same place.

Playa Los Cóbanos

Playa Los Cóbanos is a tiny, not very attractive fishing village about an hour's drive west of La Libertad, which lacks any decent hotels and restaurants. The Los Cóbanos area, however, happens to be home to two of the country's best all-inclusive resorts. Decameron and Los Veraneras.

Getting There -- From Sonsonate, take bus no. 26, which stops directly in Playa Los Cóbanos.

When driving from the east, follow coastal Hwy. CA-2 to Hwy. CA-12, where you will turn south toward the ocean and follow the signs to Los Cóbanos. The road dead-ends in the town center 8km (5 miles) after leaving the highway. From Sonsonate, take Hwy. CA-12 and follow the signs.

Orientation & Getting Around -- The road off the main highway to Playa Los Cóbanos dead-ends into Cóbanos' 2-block-long, beachfront town center. Both Decameron and Los Veraneras resorts are within a few minutes' drive.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.