El Tunco: Surfers Paradise in El Salvador
Except for being party town and surfers paradise, El Tunco is also a popular beach destination with both locals and foreign visitors. El Salvador does not have the best reputation when it comes to safety, but El Tunco is an exception. Read our travel guide on the best things to do in El Tunco, top attractions, where to stay, what to pack, and how to stay safe.
We know that many travelers do not make it to El Salvador, a Central American country which does not have the best reputation when it comes to safety, with one exception. This exception is called El Tunco, a tiny beach town on the Pacific coast.
For many, El Tunco equals El Salvador. Although the town does not show the reality of the country at all, or maybe because of that, foreigners, especially surfers flood the town stretching along the coast, and locals excitedly join them on weekends.
There are two types of travelers. Those who arrive in El Tunco for a weekend, and reluctantly leave several weeks later without exactly knowing why they loved El Tunco so much, and those, who simply did not find El Tunco that interesting, and leave the town even several days before they intended. We must admit, we belong to the latter group.
What we think is the most important when traveling to destinations such as El Tunco, is to arrive with your mind open, and be mentally prepared, that unless you are not a surfer or you do not party hard, there are not many things to do.
Except for surfing and drinking, it is possible to do a half-day trip to a waterfall here, and then you can chill all day long on a black sand beach (or rocky beach, depends on what the tide brings), and enjoy the sun.
We believe El Tunco must be the perfect place to unwind - get up in the morning, have a slow breakfast, leisurely stroll to the beach, eat shave ice, have lunch, nap, go to the beach again, eat dinner, sip a drink or two, watch sunset (which is by the way the top) and then go to bed.
But as by that time we were on the road for eight months or so, we simply were not in the mood to do that, because El Tunco did not look by far as a pristine beach paradise from a catalog, but we know by now it has different qualities.
There are two more important things we must factor why El Tunco did not become our favorite destination in El Salvador (it was Santa Ana, by the way), we do not surf (and do not have at the moment slightest impulse to learn it), and we are not backpackers in the true sense of term anymore. In case you are, you enjoy your time in a social hostel plus the surf is your friend, you will for sure (we hope so) have a completely different experience.
But as honest travel bloggers we hope we are, we wanted to write a raw travel guide on El Tunco as we saw it.
Here's the post focusing on the best things to do in El Tunco, including tips on where to stay, how to stay safe, how to get to the town and what is the best time to visit the area.
THINGS TO DO IN EL TUNCO
As we've mentioned above, there are not many classic touristy things to do in El Tunco, and you won't find here top attractions in the true sense of the term, but this is not what the destination is about.
Here's a list of the best things to do in El Tunco.
Surfing | Although we are not surfers ourselves, it is not possible to talk about Playa El Tunco without mentioning surfing at the first place, because it is here clearly an activity number one, and most of the visitors arriving in this part of El Salvador love this sport. But even when you do not have any intention to join surfers or learn how to surf, sit on the beach for a while, and admire the skilled people conquering the waves.
El Tunco is an all-year-round destination for surfers, but the most consistent waves are during the wet season between May and October, followed by March and April. Even if you are a beginner, no worries, pay for a one to one lesson, which costs around $20, and it won't take long, and you will for sure master your skills to ride the waves.
Swimming | It is not possible to lie down on a red-hot beach all day long, so swimming is another obvious activity to do in El Tunco. In case you are not a confident swimmer, and even when you are, you should be aware that waves in this area are pretty big, and rip currents are pretty strong as well, so you should never get too far from the shore to the open sea.
Relax on the Beach | El Tunco's black beach is one of the main reasons why so many people travel to this destination, but we did not find it that amazing. The black sand is photogenic, but as it was not anything new for us, we were noticing other things in the surroundings as well, and the concrete structures, hotels, and restaurants along the beach did not enhance the beauty of the place.
Also, large pebbles occasionally cover the beach and shift depending on the tide, so some people find hard to get to the water. We think it is a good idea to reserve a hotel with an outdoor pool, where you can chill out and combine this activity with relaxing on Playa El Tunco.
Explore Caves | When facing the sea, walk left for ten to fifteen minutes, and you will soon reach quite large caves. Caves are accessible only at low tide, so always check the current tide schedule to make sure you won't get imprisoned in caves by water.
Nightlife | El Tunco is famous for its nightlife, and fun and drinks are what most of the visitors expect. The tourist season brings crowds, and even if you do not plan on hitting local bars, you can enjoy the lively atmosphere.
When traveling during the wet season it is good to know that the town is often hibernating and the lively atmosphere is gone.
Eat Pupusas | Overall we were not blown away by Central American cuisine, but we really liked El Salvador's traditional meal, pupusas. You can find pupusas everywhere, no matter if you eat in fancy restaurants or street food stalls.
Pupusas are made from corn dough, and it is stuffed with different fillings, such as meat, beans, cheese or vegetables, and it is served with fermented cabbage and home-made sauces.
Tamanique Waterfall | More adventurous souls might find interesting information that near El Tunco is Tamanique Waterfall, and although the hike to the falls is pretty challenging (it is often slippery and you must use ropes at some sections), it is well worth the effort.
It is necessary to take a guide to the falls, so you have two options here in case you decide on visiting the place.
You can either take a guided tour from El Tunco, or you can take a more budget-friendly option, wait for a bus on a road intersection heading to the falls, and find a guide once you will get off the bus. Remember to pack sturdy boots but also swimsuit as you can cool down in a pool under the falls.
Sunsets | If there was only one thing we should give El Tunco credit for, it would have been absolutely stunning sunsets. Around the time when the sun is about to go down, you will meet many people on the beach as no one wants to miss the spectacular orange-pink-golden show.
WHERE TO STAY IN EL TUNCO
El Tunco is a small town on El Salvador's coast, and it is solely revolving around tourism.
There are quite many accommodation options close to the beach, but we found hotels in El Tunco pretty expensive, especially when looking for a budget-friendly place.
We did not make a reservation in advance and tried to find a hotel for a better price on the spot, but locals did not want to bargain, and we were walking around for about an hour to find a reasonably priced private room.
If you can, make your reservation well in advance, because rooms in El Tunco during the high season are sold very quickly, and the price increases. Before making your reservation, it is good to know there are even smaller settlements around than El Tunco, for example, El Sunzal or El Palmarcito, and it is only up to you where you will decide to stay, and what experience you are looking for.
We've handpicked three best hotels in the town for every type of traveler.
Budget | Hostal Casa Makoi - Clean hostel for a good price, pleasant staff, tasty breakfast and a perfect location close to the beach makes from this place one of the best backpacker accommodation in the town.
Mid-range | Hotel & Bar La Guitarra - This hotel is the best value for your money you can find. Ocean views, laidback vibe, nice food, clean rooms, and outdoor swimming pool make from this hotel a no brainer.
Luxury | Boca Olas Resort Villa - Excellent location and perfect service, sparkling clean rooms, outdoor pool, and helpful staff are the reasons why this is the best place to stay in El Tunco.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
HOW TO GET AROUND EL TUNCO
Getting around El Tunco cannot be easier.
The town is really small, and unless you plan on walking away from the beach, the best way how to get around is on foot.
In case you want to get to other beach towns such El Sunzal, or to a bigger city of the area, La Libertad, it is better to take public transport if you do not travel around by rental car, which is surprisingly easy in El Salvador.
HOW TO GET TO EL TUNCO
El Tunco is a pretty popular destination among backpackers traversing Central America, and instead of traveling by public transport, it is much more comfortable to take tourist shuttles.
They are a bit more expensive than public transport, but you do not have to switch buses, the drive from one point to another is much faster, and it should also be safer.
One of the most popular shuttles are the ones from either Antigua, Guatemala to El Tunco, or from Leon in Nicaragua to El Tunco, which we also took, and the journey was without a single problem.
In case you are traveling to El Tunco from another destination in El Salvador, you will likely have to switch buses in the capital of the country, San Salvador. Of course, you can also take tourist shuttles within cities in El Salvador, but as distances are short, we did not find it necessary and got around by public buses, which are not very comfortable, but on the other hand, they are cheap.
If traveling to El Tunco from Santa Ana, you must take a bus 201 going to Terminal de Occidente in San Salvador, and here switch to a bus 102A in direction to El Tunco.
Another way how to get to El Tunco is by rental car, which is a perfect option in case you plan on visiting other destination within El Salvador, or if your itinerary contains other destinations in Central America as well.
WHEN TO VISIT EL TUNCO & WHAT TO PACK
El Salvador has two distinct seasons, wet and dry. The best time to visit El Tunco is between November and April when it rarely rains, and you can enjoy pretty weather.
May to October is the rainy season which often turns the black sand beach to a muddy mess, but on the other hand, it is the best time to visit for surfers.
The rainy season also sees the sun (it usually rains in the afternoon), so you don't have to worry in case wet months are the only time of the year you can take your holiday.
As most of the activities in El Tunco are closely connected with water, here are several essential things you should pack with you for visiting this beach destination.
SAFETY IN EL TUNCO
El Tunco is a town basically made of two run-down streets when one of them is not even properly paved, so you can tell it is really small, and it seems that everyone knows each other here.
Usually, such tiny towns where the economy depends on tourism are safe, and we had this impression from El Tunco as well.
Although El Salvador has a terrible reputation when it comes to safety (it is actually one of the most murderous countries in the world), El Tunco seemed very peaceful, even after dark.
As always, be cautious, watch your belongings, and try not to stay alone on the beach after dark or in an unlit alley, and you should be fine.
If there is one thing you should be super cautious about, it would be riptides and strong currents.
WHERE TO GO NEXT
If you are traveling through Central America, there are many wonderful beaches worth visiting, and if you are not sure which one to choose, we can tell you from personal experience that all of them we enjoyed better than Playa El Tunco.
It just sometimes happens that you don’t see or appreciate the beauty of the place like others do.
And that’s one of our favorite things about traveling around the world. Sometimes you have to look really hard to understand why other travelers like something you don’t, and that a new travel experience doesn’t have to be only positive. These are usually the travel memories that will stick with you the most.
And what are the beaches we liked the most in Central America?
We really enjoyed San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua which is another surfer’s paradise, beaches in Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro in Panama, and when you still think you cannot be without seeing a beach made of volcanic black sand, head to Monterrico in Guatemala.
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