Surf's up at El Zonte beach in El Salvador, where a girl stands on a surf board next to her volunteer instructor. (Photo: AFP)
Streaking down the front of a curving wave, the little girl balances fleetingly before tumbling -- she is one of dozens of poor kids in El Salvador getting a tantalizing chance to surf their way out of poverty.
El Zonte on the Central American country's coast is a world surfing mecca, where powerful Pacific swells explode onto pristine beaches an hour's drive from the capital San Salvador.
The little 11-year-old is one of around 20 local children from poor families being offered a chance to surf their way to future employment.
Schooled by volunteer instructors, the goal is to prepare them for a future as watersports professionals, part of a multi-million 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 university level, added Solorzano, speaking before the novel coronavirus 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," said Mariam Lopez, 37, another instructor.
The program started two years ago, initially for girls to take surfing lessons two Sundays a month, but now it also welcomes boys who live near beaches in the local department of La Libertad.
El Zonte's laid-back ambience is a world away from El Salvador's notorious gang violence, and central to a plan by President Nayib Bukele to present a tourist-friendly face to the world.
Surfing draws tourists here from United States, the Netherlands, Canada, Brazil and Germany, and many have chosen to stay.
Learning to surf in El Zonte is not cheap, and classes alone can cost between 10 and 50 dollars an hour.
But 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 told AFP.
The children also take lessons on the environment, English and art provided by Medusas one Sunday a month in the courtyard of a small hotel.
El Zonte is part of a $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," said Tourism Minister Morena Valdez.
El Salvador earned $1.76 billion in tourism revenue in 2019, up from $1.5 billion in 2018, according to ministry figures.
China has promised to finance a $35 million sewage treatment plant and a potable water plant in the area.
The coronavirus pandemic cruelly prevented El Salvador from putting itself on the world surfing events calendar when the ISA World Surfing Games 2020 event, due to be hosted by nearby El Sunsal beach, was cancelled.
Up for grabs at the games were qualifying spots for the Tokyo Olympics, where surfing is to make its debut as an Olympic sport.