My week in El Salvador

Friday, November 20, 2015

If you like white sandy beaches and picturesque tropical oceanfront resorts Playa El Tunco probably isn't the place for you. The sand in El Tunco is volcanic black and the Pacific constantly batters the shore line. There's boulders, rocks and driftwood littering every inch of this El Salvadorian beach. And to be honest there's nothing typically beach resort-y about Playa El Tunco at all. In fact, there's only one actual resort and one other snazzy looking hotel. I know this isn't really selling El Salvador or Playa El Tunco but all these factors make Playa El Tunco an absolute paradise for budget travellers. It does not attract the masses, which in traveller talk means cheap and chilled - a language I speak fluently.

My week in El Salvador

El Salvador at a glance

✓ Language: Spanish

✓ Currency: US Dollar 

  Street food: $1-$3 - Burritos and pupusas

✓ Restaurant food: $5-$15  - Large portions often with a drink, prices vary massively stick to set menus for $5

✓ Drinking: $1 per large Cerveza

✓ Taxis: $5 on the coast $10+ in San Salvador - Taxis are a must at night in San Salvador

✓ ATM's: Bring enough cash - ATM's often run out

✓ Where to stay: Papaya Lodge, Playa El Tunco - Avoid La Libertad


All prices in US Dollar


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A sunset Salvadoran style - A local woman selling banana bread on the beach and a local wild doggy. No El Tunco sunset would be complete without the addition of a stray dog

About El Salvador's Playa El Tunco

When you're staying in a beach town you do often have expectations and maybe hot water for cleaning with would be one of them, but when accommodations start at $8 USD per night and peak at around $15 USD in 30+ degree temperatures hot water is very overrated. This is Playa El Tunco, El Salvador in a nutshell. A dream to all budget travellers and backpacking as a whole.

One of the main pulls to El Tunco is the surfing. I have heard Playa El Tunco is one of the best places to be on this coast line to catch some waves. Its not hard to see why watching the swells from the ocean front restaurants. The small street is packed with surf shops and beachwear stores and not much else.

Enjoying the beachside bars in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

The beach in Playa El Tunco kind of reminds me of a place we visited on the Oaxaca Coast of Mexico called Puerto Escondido, similar vibes, lots of surfers. Puerto Escondido has also been named one of the up and coming destinations for 2017 - watch this space El Tunco. El Tunco is similar but on a much smaller and much more relaxed scale.

If you don't surf, like me, it's still pretty impressive to watch, especially at sunset when everyone seems to gather on the beach to watch the show-offs do their thing. Pull up a piece of lost driftwood and grab a cold one for under $1. We were fascinated watching helicopters checking out the waters by La Libertad up the coast. Pretty crazy to think that you're so close to such an infamous port and life remains unfazed in little Playa El Tunco down the road.

La Libertad is an extremely dangerous and infamous port 15 minutes up the road from Playa El Tunco. Renowned for its involvement with illegal trade and drugs. Mostly tourists avoid La Libertad but the desperate need for a working cash point had us leave El Tunco and return to La Libertad several times.

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Prepare for a few similar photos. The rock is probably the only photographable thing in El Tunco, El Salvador
The large rock formation in the centre of the beach in El Tunco is perhaps the most photographed thing in all of El Salvador. No seriously, I'm not joking.

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A beer and a sunset - The perfect Playa El Tunco evening on the pacific coast of Central America

Saving Money in El Tunco

The accommodations in El Tunco, as I mentioned, are all priced between $8 and $15 USD per night and most have pools (a bonus because swimming in the sea is way too risky). Check out Papaya Lodge before heading to El Tunco. There are both reasonably priced dorms and privates here with a pool, great communal areas and a snack bar for the guests. There's also a convenience store located next to Papaya Lodge and you can bring your own booze into the hostel.

All the beaches in El Tunco are red flag and there are no designated swimming areas or lifeguards. If you do go in keep your sensible head on, it's scary and I know this from a wipe out experience. It started with me cooling off in the water and then smashing into the sand seconds later. SOS.

You can eat for pennies in El Tunco and when you're sick of the traditional El Salvadorian pupusas all the fast food restaurants serve up nachos and delicious veg and bean filled burritos with home made thick cut potatoes. Almost every restaurant has a fresh fish special for $5 USD which comes with a refresco or a beer. For a beach side town so small El Tnco sure packs it in when it comes to cuisine.

We spent longer than expected in Playa El Tunco and opted for veggie wraps and burritos almost every night from a kebab type fast food place next to Papaya Lodge Hostel. $1.50-$3.00 USD for a tasty filling meal.

Stick to set menus for the best value


Playa El Tunco beach selfies - Sat on a piece of driftwood

Nightlife and cash life in Playa El Tunco

When it comes to nightlife in Playa El Tunco girls drink for free at the many promotional ladies nights. There are probably too many bars considering the size of El Tunco. The ratio to everything else is slightly off, but I'm not one to complain especially when they have drinks promotions favouring us girls.

The biggest issue we had in Playa El Tunco and I hear this is the case across El Salvador was accessing our cash. The official currency in El Salvador is US Dollar but like many of the countries in Central America there is a real shortage of small notes and change. If you do plan on spending any cash at all in El Tunco make sure you have it before you arrive.

From El Tunco the closest working cash points are 20 minutes away in La Libertad as I mentioned earlier. La Libertad isn't really a destination of choice and after 2 or 3 journeys some of our group still weren't able to get cash out. Cash machines are rather hit and miss in El Salvador, even in the capital  and the three in El Tunco didn't work at all during our time there despite being a large, clean, air conditioned walk in 'hole-in-the-wall'. The locals in El Tunco told us cash points are even an ongoing issue for them and if you're Canadian you'll probably have to find someone with a non Canadian Visa card to withdraw for you. And If you use Mastercard forget about it you aren't spending a penny. 

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Who doesn't love a sunset with a large imposing geological feature?

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Some tips for Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

When leaving Playa El Tunco Speak to the locals in the shops on Main Street most act as independent travel agents and will happily organise you a transfer for the best price. Love to surf? Then Surfs Up. Most hostels including Papaya Lodge offer surfboard rental $10 an hour is the going rate but many shops and hostels are happy to organise discounts for large groups. For almost any advice in Playa El Tunco ask a local.

El Tunco sunsets are some of the best on the Pacific Coast of Central America

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A silhouette and a sunset. Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

Culture, crime and turning 22 in El Salvador

I don't want to sound too negative but Playa El Tunco doesn't culturally have much to offer and Puerto La Libertad is too dangerous to spend any significant time there.

But, and it's a big but, if you're interested in getting to know some locals and learning first hand about El Salvador Playa El Tunco is definitely the place to do so. Almost everybody in El Tunco is friendly and not in a rip-you-off kind of way we experienced in Cuba and occasionally in Mexico. Independent tourist information centres fill Main Street in El Tunco and most locals appreciate if you take any time at all to stop by for a chat.

There's nothing really outstanding about tiny El Tunco except maybe the people and the big old rock in the ocean. But a select few travellers tend to arrive in Playa El Tunco and stay for a while just like we did.

Watching the final surfers steal the last of the daylight
Maybe it's the spectacular sunsets that draw people here or the surfing. I doubt it's the pupusas but the other cuisine was worth sticking around for. If you're passing through El Salvador give El Tunco a try. It's a great place for us budget backpackers to save up some cash and meet some other like minded travellers. Its also a great location to meet the characteristically genuine and kind locals.

For one member of our travelling duo El Salvador would also become a great stop on our journey to celebrate a Birthday too. Jamie turned 22 on the shores of El Salvador and Playa El Tunco disproportionate nightlife gave him a Birthday hangover to remember. After a splurge on Birthday breakfast and an fast taxi ride booked courtesy of one of the locals we left El Tunco towards the Capital to spend the remainder of Jamie's 22nd Birthday in San Salvador. Large American chain steakhouses were calling.

Happy 22nd Birthday Jamie

Everything you need to know about getting to The Bay Islands from El Salvador

Heading to Honduras? La Ceiba for The Bay Island? Once in San Salvador head to the nearest large bus station. First and second class tickets can be booked for the long journey. Its far to be prepared and leave early to get to the bus station with plenty of time to 'check in'. 

Ours was an early one 5.30/6.00am so pre-book a taxi at your hotel/hostel reception - you'll be surprised at the traffic at that time in the morning. To read about our time in The Bay Islands click here. Most arrivals to La Ceiba are late, its best to book a bed for the night before boarding the early ferry to Utila or Roatan.

Click here for more Central America


My week in El Salvador - travelsandmore

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