A Perfect Day in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador
Coming to Central America, I had no idea that one of my favorite places would be a two street town on the coast of El Salvador. But El Tunco was so much more than I expected.
In a lot of ways, it reminded me of my extended time in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, four years ago — but a million times better. I’m thirty now and have truly outgrown fun-but-skeevy places like Sihanoukville; El Tunco has the same fun and friendliness while being so much nicer.
Nobody is going to declare El Tunco a cultural hotspot — not the Salvadorans who consider it their nation’s top getaway, not the gringos on the backpacker trail. You don’t come here to go to museums or learn how to weave –it’s a beach town, after all. You come here to surf, relax, and chill out.
What I most loved about El Tunco is that most days followed a delicious routine. When you’re on the road as much as I am, as soon as you grab onto a semblance of routine, you hold on tight. I delighted in having the same schedule every day and rarely deviating from it.
Here it is: how to spend a perfect day in El Tunco, El Salvador.
7:30 AM: If you’re new to surfing, this is when you should go out, as the waves will be at their gentlest. The waves in El Tunco can get intense, so this is your best shot if you’re not an experienced surfer. Find an instructor on the beach a day before and arrange for an early lesson.
There’s nothing like catching your first wave!
9:00 AM: Smoothie time! You’ll find smoothie shops along the two streets that make up the town.
Yes, two streets. That’s it. And until I arrived, the main street to the beach wasn’t even paved! They began paving it toward the end of our trip and I think it will be complete by the time I return next week.
9:30 AM: Check a local surf report — low tide may be around this time. When it’s low tide, it’s time to visit the beach caves! You should visit as close to low tide as possible, especially if you’re bringing your camera.
Head to the beach and walk eastward; it’s about a ten-minute walk. You’ll be walking on rocks for much of the journey.
Don’t worry — you won’t have to crawl through anything. These caves are tall enough to walk through.
The caves are a great spot for photos, but for the love of all that is sacred and holy, bring a dry bag and protect your electronics from the crashing surf! You need to wade in and out of water, no matter what time of day it is.
After the caves, have a swim if you’d like — it’s one of the better swimming spots. Just make sure someone is watching your things, or don’t bring anything at all!
11:00 AM: Brunch time! Or lunch time? El Salvador is the only country in Central America where I really got to love the local food, but let’s save the pupusas for dinner tonight. Instead, let’s grab something international.
If you’re up for brunch or healthy dishes, head to Dale Dale cafe. There’s an open, breezy porch in the back that straddles the line between indoor and outdoor seating. I usually get a fruit salad and a fruit smoothie.
If you’re ready for lunch, head to Take a Wok for a custom dish where you choose your own noodles, protein, and veggie add-ins. I recommend the “special pork” — well worth the extra dollar!
1:00 PM: Swim time! Jump in the pool at Papaya Lodge, grab a beer, and make a few new friends. Everyone in El Tunco is so friendly, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much.
Some of my favorite memories from El Tunco are of laughing with new friends in this tiny pool.
5:30 PM: Drop whatever you’re doing and head over to Monkey La La on the beach. This is the spot for watching the sunset. Just look at that view!
Some evenings there’s a live band; some evenings there’s a DJ. Grab a cocktail, sit underneath the lights, and watch the sun dip beneath the horizon.
This is also one of the best times of day to jump in the water if you’re an experienced surfer. If not, sit back at Monkey La La and watch the surfers darting in and out of the waves.
6:30 PM: Time to head back, take a shower and primp. It’s going to be a big night tonight.
7:00 PM: Pupusa time! Pupusas are the ideal street food: tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, chicharrones (fried pork skin), and/or vegetables. Top them with tomato sauce and a spicy jalapeño slaw. I get two if I’m a normal level of hungry, three if I’m ravenous. At around 50 cents to $1 each, there’s no better deal in town!
There’s a nice pupusa restaurant on the corner of the two streets in town.
8:00 PM: Oh yes, it’s Ladies’ Night, and the feeling’s right! Ladies’ Night takes place at a different bar most nights of the week and usually runs from 8:00-10:00 PM. It’s not just drinks specials for ladies — ladies drink for free. Usually just rum and Cokes or vodka sodas, but still — FREE DRINKS!
Totally makes up for making 70 cents for every dollar a man makes, am I right? (Please note that this is sarcasm. Don’t send me hate mail.)
The best thing? Because ladies’ night takes place at just one bar, everyone in town shows up at the same place! You don’t have to worry about whether you’ll run into your friends from Papaya; they’re already there!
Now, there’s a big difference between El Tunco during the week and El Tunco on the weekend. The week is primarily a gringo affair, but on the weekend it seems like half of San Salvador journeys down to lie on the beach and party. Street vendors multiply; bars swell with attendance; the music goes from pop and hip-hop to pure salsa. It’s a good time to be in town.
8:30 PM: If it’s a bit dead in the bar, grab a drink and take it outside while checking out the jewelry vendors. You’ll find tons of gorgeous custom pieces. Not your thing? Get a henna tattoo!
10:00 PM: Ladies’ night is over and you’re back to paying for drinks, but now it’s time for dancing!
In the clubs on the weekend, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with San Salvador’s wealthiest — immediately recognizable by their designer outfits, actual Chanel handbags, and immaculately coiffed hair — and while you may have a negative opinion of rich people in your own country, these Salvadorans are some of the warmest, kindest people you will ever meet.
Make some friends!
1:00 AM: The witching hour — it’s time to get weird! I think I went to an Israeli rave one night.
Something will come up. Go do it.
Soon you’ll hit the hay — ideally at Papaya Lodge — and be ready to start all over again!
I loved it here. And so did the twelve women who came on tour with us.
Since leaving El Salvador, lots of people have been asking me about safety. I know that El Salvador doesn’t have the greatest reputation, and to people who aren’t familiar with the country, it sounds like a place that would be dangerous to visit.
Know this: I felt extremely safe in El Tunco. It’s a two-street town and people are always out and about at night, like in Thailand. I would never go to the beach alone at night or put myself in a similarly isolating situation, but I felt safe walking alone on the street after dark.
El Tunco was the only place I visited in El Salvador and the only place on which I can offer an opinion. However, Globetrotter Girls has a lot of El Salvador posts and they’re a great resource if you’re looking to travel elsewhere in the country. Also keep in mind that you can’t paint the entire country with the same brush. San Salvador has dangerous neighborhoods, just as nearly every major city does, but that doesn’t mean other parts of the country aren’t safe.
As I write this post, I’ll be arriving back in El Tunco a week from today, and I can’t tell you how much joy that brings me!
Essential Info: If you’re going direct to El Tunco, you can fly into San Salvador airport (bring $10 for immigration if you’re arriving by plane!) and take an hourlong taxi direct to El Tunco for about $30. You can also take a chicken bus to nearby La Libertad or take a direct tourist shuttle from either León, Nicaragua (I did this and it’s an overnight journey with far too many potholes and swerving to sleep), or Antigua, Guatemala (four hours including a border crossing).
I loved staying at Papaya Lodge — it has such a fun but chilled atmosphere and it feels like the “it” spot of town. Dorms from $8, rooms with two twins from $20. Around the corner, Tunco Lodge is a good alternative if Papaya is sold out. It’s a 38-second walk from Papaya Lodge (I know — a few of our girls who arrived early needed a place to stay before the tour, so I timed it for them!).
Ask around for Ladies’ Night. It’s a small enough town!