How to Spend a Day in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

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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.

A lot of people hear “El Salvador” and immediately think, “It’s not safe!” But that’s not true. There are parts of El Salvador and parts of Central America that are not safe for travelers, but El Tunco is one of the few places in Central America where I felt very safe walking alone at night.

In a lot of ways, El Tunco reminded me of my extended time in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, four years ago — but a million times better. I’m in my thirties now and have truly outgrown fun-but-skeevy places like Sihanoukville; El Tunco has the same fun and friendliness while being so much nicer.

El Tunco, El Salvador

El Tunco

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.

El Tunco, El Salvador
El Tunco, El Salvador

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.

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!


READ MORE:

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El Tunco, El Salvador

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.

El Tunco, El Salvador

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.

El Tunco, El Salvador

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.

Group tour El Tunco, El Salvador

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!

El Tunco, El Salvador

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!

Papaya Lodge Pool El Tunco

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.

El Tunco, El Salvador

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.

Monkey La La El Tunco, El Salvador
Surfer in El Tunco, El Salvador
Monkey La La El Tunco, El Salvador
Sunset El Tunco, El Salvador

6:30 PM: Time to head back, take a shower and primp. It’s going to be a big night tonight.

Girls with Pupusas

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.

Ladies Night El Tunco

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.

Girls with Jewelry

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!

Kate and Verity Painted

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!

Kate and Salvadoran Guy

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!

Where to Stay in El Tunco

El Tunco is a popular getaway for wealthy folks from San Salvador, as well as a very cheap destination overall — which means that you can find excellent value for money accommodation at all tiers. Here are the places

Monkey Lala El Tunco Suites — the NICE place to stay, and the coolest bar and the sunset hot spot.

Papaya Lodge — the BUDGET place to stay, with a great location, pool, and fun environment.

The Takeaway of El Tunco, El Salvador

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!


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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!

El Tunco is a safe destination but you should always buy travel insurance before a trip. It will protect you financially if anything goes wrong. I never travel without it and always use World Nomads.

What’s your favorite party beach town in the world?

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44 thoughts on “How to Spend a Day in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador”

    1. El Tunco is known as a “hippie haven” to most Salvadorans. Wealthy residents of San Salvador tend to rent hotel rooms at a complex on a nearby hillside, near Sunzal, for approximately $150 to $200 per night. You can meet people from all over the world in El Tunco. People visiting from parts of Europe tend to be the friendliest. Unfortunately, there are always a number of dysfunctional tourists visiting as well, though. Typically young Americans, a few out of the crowd, but quite obnoxious, suffering quite visibly from Little Man Disease, riddled with drugs, drinking too much, and thinking they have to prove they are number one.

  1. Hey Kate,

    My boyfriend found your blog for me, leaving my loving the adventures you find yourself on.

    Great message to solo female travelers to get out there and explore on their own!

    Best of luck!
    xoxo

  2. We never made it to El Tunco, but El Salvador as a whole was such a nice surprise on our Central America trip. Everyone was so polite and friendly, taxi drivers weren’t assholes and the area of San Salvador that we stayed in felt so safe and pleasantly fresh compared to other major cities in the region.

    More people definitely need to hit up El Salvador, it’s so overlooked.

  3. Loved reading your itinerary and the photos with each part of the day are beautiful! I appreciate that you shared information about safety so people can feel comfortable and know to be aware. There’s always tons of hype about places that tell you they’re not safe, so it’s great to see someone who is aware and shares knowledge instead of overreacting.

    1. Overreacting is all the people on my Facebook page who immediately say, “El Salvador isn’t safe.” With that kind of logic, you’d assume that the Jersey Shore is a dangerous place because New Jersey is home to the city of Camden.

  4. Note to self – make El Tunco a priority when I return to Central America. Looks so gorgeous! And I am alllll about those ladies nights!

  5. Thank you for sharing El Tunco guide with us. This is a really nice place for people who love to surf and also young people because it’s full of bars with live music.
    If you go with your kids Kayo Surf School it’s a perfect place to learn how to surf.

  6. Hi,
    This is an amazing blog. The pictures give an amazing representation of El Salvador. I am not the biggest fan of traveling but these pictures plus the writing makes me want to go.

  7. Love, love, love the sunset photo! I only went to San Salvador when I was in the country and I heard that it’s quite different from the beach area. Next time I’m definitely adding El Tunco!

  8. I really love how you faithfuly and truthfuly you speak about my little country! …A big fan of yours! Keep up the good reviews!

  9. Indrajit Gahlot

    Hey Katie !!!!
    Like the southeast- Asian skies that fed your spirit of venture, this blog about El Salvador is appetizing mine! Think it’s high time I break my piggy bank and start counting my savings…..awesome pics and loved your writing!

  10. Kate,

    Thanks so much for the recco! We met in Lake Aititlan a few times back in early May (at sublime). Great blog!

  11. Look up a man named Angel. He’s generally working at one of the restaurants. He knows English well. He is very helpful

  12. A little late reading this, but travelling Through CA, starting in Guatemala up to Belize back down to rio dulce, then El Salvador to Nicaragua, how were the buses between the three and what were they like, times comfort safety etc?
    Is there anywhere else you’ve heard that you could recommend for el Salvador ?

    Thank you!

  13. I did not have idea that so many beauties come to my country to enjoy it, those pics anyone can thinks are from some other place… o_O OMG..!!

  14. Enjoyed your info and am going to look at your blog- am thinking about going to El Salvador and want to know if you have any comments for people 60yr and older – as the pictures I saw were all younger people – which is fine – I have friends of all ages and I would enjoy almost any place on a cool beach- and it would be fun to watch people surf-just curious if there are older people at this particular beach?Thanks for al your great info and keep having adventures- I will have them as long as I exist lol

  15. hey! if papaya lodge is booked up, which other hostels would you recommend for good social vibes?!
    papaya is already fully booked for half of next month !

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