Not originally on our schedule, El Salvador was a last-minute spontaneous weekend trip from Guatemala. We only spent 4 days relaxing, surfing and drinking every smoothie we could find in the beach town of El Tunco but those 4 days were some of the best of our entire trip!
Like Honduras, a lot of people had warned us about the ‘dangers’ of El Salvador and strongly encouraged us to avoid the country all together. Of course, we never took this advice very seriously – it’s easy to say that a country is dangerous… hey, with the way things are going who’s to say that the UK or US are any safer nowadays?! We really wanted to see El Salvador for ourselves and form our own opinions but our only obstacle was time. 3 months may seem like a long time but, in reality, it’s nowhere near long enough to see everything and so we had to make sacrifices in terms of the places we’d be visiting.
The thing is, if I set my mind to something I won’t be able to let it go until it becomes a reality and I think I had my mind set on El Salvador right from the very beginning – I just hadn’t quite worked out how we were going to get there. The beauty of travelling is that you gain more and more knowledge as you go along and making plans gets easier when you speak to people who’ve just come from the places you’re headed to. We met at least 5 people who raved about El Tunco – they told us that it was a must-see and one of their favourite places in the world. The 3 of us started to think we’d be stupid to miss it so we decided to cut a few days out of our Guatemala trip and spend them in El Salvador instead.
Essentially, this meant that we missed out on a visit to Lake Atitlan. I can hear thousands of gasps from travellers around the world who believe this lake to be one of Guatemala’s most beautiful and iconic spots… I’m not doubting that we would have felt the same but we’d been lucky enough to spend some time on Ometepe Island (a freshwater lake in Nicaragua) and thought that El Salvador was the better decision for us. I have every intention of returning to Guatemala one day and I promise to make Lake Atitlan my first port of call but, until then, here’s everything you need to know about our stay in El Tunco…
Let’s start with the journey there, shall we?
We caught a shuttle from our hostel in Antigua, Guatemala directly to our hostel in El Tunco, El Salvador. It was September 15th and we were a bit gutted to be missing Guatemala’s Independence day parade but, as it turns out, it’s the same date all over Central America so we were lucky to catch some festivities on our journey across the border.
The shuttle was cheap, easier than public transport and seemed legit… that was until we got to the border and things started to get a bit fishy. There was a MASSIVE queue to leave Guatemala and our driver wasn’t keen to wait. He turned around, told us to give him our passports and $3 each and he would sort it out for us. It was only when he walked away that we thought ‘Wait…. don’t we need to physically be present to get our passports stamped because they check the face against the photo?’ and ‘Why have we paid $3 when there is no exit fee for Guatemala?’. There were a few seconds of panic when we realised we’d handed over our only form of identification to, what was essentially, a complete stranger but he returned swiftly with exit stamps in our passports and we set off to El Salvador.
Except we didn’t…. because one of his tyres had deflated. My prediction is that the tyre was slashed because there was a large, straight cut down the middle but I suppose it could have been something else – we don’t really know. Either way, we were stuck in ‘no mans land’ between borders until we could change the tyre. It took longer than expected which was probably karma for not doing the legal thing and just waiting in the queue but eventually we were able to head into El Salvador.
Once again, the driver refused to follow the rules and we watched him hand over a wad of cash to a police officer who just ushered us through the border without any passport checks or anything… We made a comment about not having an entry stamp and the driver laughed and said ‘It’s all done electronically these days, don’t worry!’ 🤔
Sure…. so the police officer who ushered us through has a camera behind his eyeballs that logs our faces and a computer in his brain that inputs our names, entry dates and visa requirements simply with the blink of an eye? Yes, we can all absolutely believe that a country with insufficient funds to provide decent housing has enough money to finance futuristic technology. 100% on board. Yes sir, whatever you say.
So, basically, we left Guatemala and entered El Salvador illegally (not intentionally) and it probably happens more often than we think. If anyone tried to track us down at this point, they’d only be able to see that we left Guatemala – they wouldn’t really have a clue where we went from there. Scary what such a small amount of money can do here and it just goes to show how much corruption goes on behind the scenes! All 3 of us were pretty miffed to miss out on an El Salvadorian passport stamp (not like that’s one of the main reasons we wanted to add an extra country to our itinerary: for more stamps 🙄) ((pfffft, fine, that is absolutely one of the main reasons we wanted to add an extra country to our itinerary: for more stamps)) but we were happy to arrive after such a strange experience.
The neighbourhoods in this part of El Salvador are all gated with security guards at every entrance – in this sense, they are all totally cordoned off from each other. There are a few different surf towns in the area (El Sunzal and San Blas, for example) all with the same security gates and La Libertad is the nearest commercial area. I’ll stress right now that this is not the real El Salvador – they make an extra effort to keep visitors happy and safe because this is how they can increase tourism and improve the economy – so, the life in this coastal region is completely different to the life in San Salvador, for example.
We stayed at a hostel called ‘Papaya Lodge’, which was right in the heart of El Tunco. That’s not hard though because El Tunco is one of the smallest places in existence. I think it would take less than 5 minutes to walk from one side of town to the other but that’s what makes it so special.
The first thing we needed to do was get some El Salvadorian money (which happens to be US dollars) and do some laundry. The problem is that none of the ATM’s in El Tunco accept foreign cards but, luckily, the owners of our hostel were more than happy to drive us to the bank in La Libertad. I forgot to top up my card before we went and so when we got there I couldn’t actually withdraw any cash… definitely not one of my finest moments. The wonderful thing about group travel, though, is that you can help each other out and Alice and Abbie put me on a tab for the weekend to save us wasting any more time going back and forth between towns.
We dropped our laundry off and went straight out to explore the town. There is just one main road in El Tunco with numerous smoothie stands, souvenir shops and surf schools. If you walk one way up the road you’ll end up at the entrance/exit gate of El Tunco and if you walk the other way, you’ll end up at the beach – it’s impossible to get lost and we can guarantee you’ll bump into the same people day in, day out.
Back in Panama, we met an El Salvadorian couple who told us that if we love black, black, BLACK sand – the blackest of all the sand in the world – then we should visit their country. None of us could really say that black sand was one of our interests but we were still intrigued nevertheless. Now we’ve experience it, we can honestly say that these beaches are like nothing we’ve experienced before. The sand is jet black and there’s just a completely different vibe to the golden sand beaches we’ve been used to so far on this trip!
El Tunco is not a place to swim or sunbathe – people come just for the surf and the nightlife. Great news for us generally but also not so great, when all we wanted to do was lie horizontally and spend the afternoon catching some rays. Thankfully, our hostel had a pool with a sun deck so that’s where we decided to spend our first day. In the evening, we went for dinner at a cool, candlelit restaurant, made friends with some drunk locals and tried ‘loroco’ (which is a type of flower) on our pizzas.
The next day was another hammock/pool/read/write/sleep day for the 3 empanadas. We went out for lunch to try the local delicacy: pupusas. No joke, these things give Honduran baleadas a serious run for their money! I think I must have consumed about 25 of these things in just 4 days and, the beautiful thing is, they cost barely anything! A pupusa is basically a thick doughy tortilla-type-thing filled with cheese or beans or meat or loroco or eggs or avocados or whatever the hell you want! THEY’RE THE BEST. If you can’t tell how excited I am by these things then seriously what is wrong with you, how many more exclamation marks and capital letters do I need to use?!?!?!
Okay -breathes deeply- I’ll let you guys discover pupusas in your own time. Moving on to the next story of the day: I almost got electrocuted. I tripped and jammed my finger into a plug socket by the sink in the bathroom that was COVERED IN WATER and PERMANENTLY TURNED ON. After 10 seconds of freaking out about losing all feeling in my hand, I realised that I hadn’t actually done any permanent damage and started giggling. It was obviously nervous laughter but also I enjoyed the idea that I’d come close to death in El Salvador. Not for the reasons that people warned us about – gang crime, guns and drug trafficking – but because I put my fingers in a plug socket…
Thank you God/Science for allowing me to come out of that situation unscathed. I promise I will take more care when performing my dance routines in the bathroom not to trip over a towel I left on the floor a few hours earlier…
That night there was a party at our hostel, organised by a 50-something year old American guest called Dustin. Now, I’m not gonna beat around the bush here: Dustin was the worst – he’s the kind of guy that refuses to learn Spanish and thinks that locals will suddenly understand English if he says words at half-speed, talks AT you for 20 years about how successful he is, tries to pay for everything you eat/drink and compliments you only on your appearance but assumes that, because you’re female, you can’t possibly be as smart as him. We’ve all met a Dustin or two in our lifetimes, eh? To be fair though, all 3 of us appreciated his efforts and it was a nice way to bring everyone from the hostel together – we ate whatever free food we could get our hands on and then went out to buy even more food. We returned to the hostel at about 11pm just as the group were all leaving for the nightclub.
‘COME WITH US!!‘, they all shouted.
‘Sure thing, we’ll meet you there!‘, we replied as we put our pyjamas on and went to bed.
Hahahaha, no, we’re glad we chose sleep over partying because it meant we were alive, alert, awake, enthusiastic for our surf session the next day. We each had a personal instructor who worked with us individually to develop our skills and they insisted that Mahual beach was the best beach for waves that day. I don’t know what the hell they meant by that because these waves were MASSIVE, BROKEN WAVES. Why they took us there when we hadn’t even mastered the bottom turn at this point, I have no idea? Our hearts were aching for the long, green waves of El Sunzal just down the road but we decided to trust our instructors and brave it.
We ended up having a blast! All three of us agreed that having the one-on-one lessons helped us improve at a much faster pace than the group lessons and we were finally starting to get the hang of things. At the end of the lesson, we were told to catch one final wave but I refused to stand up and just bodyboarded the whole way to shore – you don’t realise how exhausting it is until you’ve been out in the water for a few hours! Hi-5’s and smiles all around, we hopped back in the truck to El Tunco in time to catch the sunset. We had a few drinks at a beach bar, watched a couple dance to Latin music and admired the beauty of this El Salvadorian gem of a town before retiring to our hostel for our last night.
We spent the final morning in El Tunco watching one of our surf instructors compete in a surf competition. He (and every competitor) did a great job – we were in awe of the skills we saw out on those waves. We chilled with a few of the locals and an Australian guy who bought us beers…. at 10am in the morning.
We met a few pro surfers, one called Fafi who is sponsored by Corona and seems to have a pretty bright future ahead of him. Obviously, we took a picture of him just in case he ever does become famous and we can say ‘WE CHILLED WITH HIM ON A BEACH IN EL SALVADOR’… Yeah, yeah we’re lame. Leave us be.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave El Tunco behind and head back to Guatemala. Honestly, this place captured all of our hearts and we would recommend it to any beach-loving, laid-back traveller who fancies a surf break and a taste of coastal El Salvador. Hey, even if you just came for the sunsets you would not be disappointed! I promise!
During the journey back, our shuttle driver kept stopping every 30 minutes to buy a milkshake or a pupusa and let’s just say his digestive system didn’t respond well to this mix. We re-named them PUMPusas, wound down the windows and laughed at the situations we find ourselves in sometimes…. At least we crossed the border legally this time….
Guatemala update, coming soon! Adiós amigos!