My week in El Salvador

Friday, November 20, 2015

If you like white sandy beaches and picturesque tropical oceanfront resorts Playa El Tunco in El Salvador 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. To be honest there's nothing typically beach resort-y about Playa El Tunco, El Salvador 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


Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
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

Important Dates for 2018  

Holy Week El Salvador Sunday 25th March - Saturday 31st March 2018

El Salvador Independence Day Friday 15th September 2018

Celebrations of San Salvador 5th and 6th August 2018

Welcome to Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

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.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador is situated on the volcanic pacific coast of the El Salvador. And one of the main lures to Playa El Tunco is the surfing. I have heard Playa El Tunco is one of the best places to surf on this Central American pacific coastline. Its not hard to see why El Salvador's coast is a recommended surf spot, after watching the swells from the ocean front restaurants. The small streets of Playa El Tunco are always packed with surfers, surf shops, beachwear and not much else, which isn't always a bad thing.

The lazy streets and chilled vibes of Playa El Tunco make El Salvador's beachy coastline the perfect spot for budget backpackers heading south through Central America to stop off and relax for a while.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
Enjoying the beachside bars in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador - How I spent most of my week in El Salvador


Is El Salvador too dangerous for backpackers?

Is El Salvador too dangerous for backpackers? There are probably places in El Salvador that are dangerous. Throughout this guide I'll mention La Libertad as a dangerous destination in El Salvador but El Salvador is perfectly safe of backpackers to visit. As a whole Playa El Tunco and San Salvador are not too dangerous for backpackers, but, like any destination if you spend your time looking for drugs, crime and corruption I'm sure you'll find it easily in El Salvador. 

My answer is simple El Salvador is not too dangerous for backpackers. When travelling Central America and the 'gringo route' in particular it is always wise to stick to tourist hot spots and avoid any wrongdoing and crime, like any destination if you go looking for trouble you will surely find it.

All about  Playa El Tunco

The beach in Playa El Tunco reminds me of a place we visited on the Oaxaca Coast of Mexico called Puerto Escondido, similar vibes and lots of surfers. Puerto Escondido has also been named an up and coming destination and I'm sure Playa El Tunco will find itself on that list soon. Although Puerto Escondido's surfing reputation is much greater than that of Playa El Tunco. El Tunco in El Salvador is still very 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 others taking part. 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 cerveza for under $1 and spend your evenings on the laid back sands of Playa El Tunco. This is perhaps one of the best things to do in El Tunco. Simple, but also a way of life here.

If you do surf, good news. You're going to love the water as surfing is one of the number one things to do in El Tunco you only need to check out the surf shops to see this. Practice and try not to wipe out, the beach can be rocky and littered with driftwood and other debris from the ocean.

El Salvador's drug ports

During our time spent in Playa El Tunco, which was roughly one week, we were fascinated to watch helicopters checking out the waters by La Libertad up the coast. La Libertad is one of the most notorious drug ports in Central America and certainly in El Salvador. A twenty minute car journey along the coast will take you from the calmness of Playa El Tunco to the hectic and busy streets of neighbouring La Libertad.

Its crazy to think that you're so close to such an infamous port and life remains unfazed in little Playa El Tunco which is essentially just down the road.

The port of La Libertad is infamous for its involvement in the illegal trade of drugs in Latin America and has helped to gain El Salvador its unsavoury reputation of being one of the world's most dangerous countries to visit. Mostly tourists avoid La Libertad and I would advise this too when visiting Playa El Tunco, but for us the desperate need for a working cash point had us leave the safety of El Tunco being and visit La Libertad several times.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
Prepare for a few similar photos. The rock is probably the only photographable thing in El Tunco, El Salvador

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
A beer and a sunset - The perfect Playa El Tunco evening on the pacific coast of Central America

Things to do in Playa El Tunco

Looking for things to do in El Tunco? Look no further, here's a list of the best things to do in El Tunco, El Salvador.

1. The Rock - 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. Make sure you arrive at sunset to catch a glimpse of the geology in front of the sunset. 

2. Sunsets - The pacific coast of Central America is home to some spectacular sunsets, join the locals and tourists on a rock or piece of wood to watch the nightly sunsets.

3. Surf - Rent a surfboard or take surf lessons there's plenty available at the backpacker hostels in Playa El Tunco. 

4. Eat El Salvadorian cuisine - Why not try a pupusa a Salvadoran favourite made of corn tortillas and filled with meat or veg. 

5. No swimming - The beach in Playa El Tunco is red flag and there are no designated swimming areas or lifeguards. If you do go in to the water be sensible and expect a wipe out or two. Always watch out for surfers when swimming on a surf beach. 

Budget travel to Playa El Tunco, El Salvador 

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. They 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.

As Playa El Tunco is very much on the Central America backpacker route, you'll find a range of budget conveniences here including a few hostels. El Salvador uses the US dollar, but that doesn't seem to inflate the prices in this beachside resort too much. 

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 Tinco 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. You can stick to set menu's for the best value eats when travelling to El Salvador on a budget, much like most of Central America. 

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
Playa El Tunco, El Salvador beach selfies - Sat on a piece of driftwood is how I spent my week in El Salvador 

Nightlife in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

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, but a night out should be on your list of things to do in El Tunco. The ratio of bars and clubs in El Tunco to everything else is slightly off, but I'm not one to complain especially when they have drinks promotions favouring us girls. For bars and clubs the weekend is usually the liveliest if you want to plan your trip around that, but through the week there are always locals and backpackers from the hostels enjoying the drink promotions. 

Cash machine/ATM issues (Canadians read this)

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. 

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
Who doesn't love a sunset with a large imposing geological feature?

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador

Tips for leaving 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. For almost any advice in Playa El Tunco ask a local. The people of this sleepy sunset town are more than happy to help backpackers and tourists with any requests and many act as tourist information 24/7.

During our time in El Salvador and Playa El Tunco we realised that culturally the Salvadoran people are extremely friendly and helpful. Non-english speaking locals are even eager to lend a hand and help with any broken or pigeon Spanish you can string together.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
A silhouette and a sunset. Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

Why visit Playa El Tunco, 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, 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 Playa 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 whilst on the Central America route and stay for a while just like we did.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
Watching the final surfers steal the last of the daylight

My week in El Salvador

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. That's probably why we ended up spending a week in El Salvador, including a night in the capital of San Salvador after leaving El Tunco.

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.

Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador
Happy 22nd Birthday Jamie

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

Heading to Honduras? La Ceiba for The Bay Island? Once in San Salvador head to the nearest large bus station that does long distance and first class bus services. First and second class tickets can be booked for the long journey from the terminal, advanced is always best. We bought our tickets the night before and our bus was full. Be prepared and leave early to get to the bus station with plenty of time to 'check in'. A mandatory procedure throughout Central America for big long distance bus journeys.

We had to buy tickets to San Pedro Sula in Honduras - yes, that's the murder capital of the world. We changed bus here to get to La Ceiba in the same evening. 

Take an early bus from San Salvador, ours  left between 5.30am and 6.00am,. Ask your hotel or hostel to pre-book a taxi as you'll be surprised at the traffic at that time in the morning in a busy city like San Salvador.

Once in San Pedro Sula, you'll need to board a chicken bus or second class bus travelling to La Ceiba. This will take around 4 hours.

To read about our time in The Bay Islands click here


Most busses from San Salvador arrive to La Ceiba late at night, its best to book a bed for the night before boarding the early ferry to Utila and Roatan. Check the ferry times for the boats leaving La Ceiba - the crossing to Utila takes up to an hour and sea sickness is a definite. 

Click here for more Central America


Playa El Tunco, El Salvador, My week in El Salvador - travelsandmore

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4 comments

  1. I already read this article! I REALLY wanted to go to El Salvador but things got a bit complicated and we didn't have a lot of time so we went to Belize instead. I definitely don't regret going to Belize but I would've liked to see El Salvador too. Anyway, maybe next time.
    Your article is great, you cover all the necessary information.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember we spoke about it before your trip when you were heading to Honduras. I'm glad you got to see Belize, but I'm also jealous because I haven't been there yet. Thanks for reading (again).

      Delete
  2. El Salvador sounds like a nice place to visit. it's funny, I rarely see articles about it, however hopefully tourism can help it improve its reputation over time. The beach looks lovely.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope so too. There's a big drug and gang crime reputation and pop culture and tv doesn't help but El Salvador is a really vibrant place similar to all of Central America. Hopefully the reputation will change like Mexico and Colombia's has.

      Delete

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