If you’re looking for four different surf breaks all in walking distance of a friendly little surf town then look no further than El Tunco in El Salvador.
Less than an hour away from the capital San Salvador, this gorgeous little town is sleepy and surfy during the week, but comes alive with a huge influx of San Salvadorians coming down from the city every weekend. But don’t let that put you off – you can easily escape the crowds if you’re willing to explore, or of course you can just get balls deep in the party!
El Tunco was a huge surprise to me. I’d never really had the urge to go there even though I’d spent so much time in Nicaragua. But when my friend suggested a quick side trip to get surf fit before we headed back to San Juan del Sur after a winter in Europe, I thought why not. It turned out to be a great shout. We were only supposed to spend a week there, but I ended up being there two, and my friend Charlie stayed for nearly a month.
Even if you’ve never been to Central America, give El Salvador a go. It’s awesome, with waves and people to match.
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The great things about El Tunco is that you have 4 breaks, and four size options, all within walking distance. La Bocana to the East, La Bocanita next and El Sunzal to the West and Sunzalita, the beach break in between.
For the most part I surfed El Sunzal – a right hand point break at the west end of the beach. It was a little bit of a paddle out, but the lovely mellow rollers made it worth it. It can get quite big if a swell rolls in but during the dry season of November to April you’re generally looking at waist to head high.
The only downside was the crowds, a bigger board was definitely a good idea to get on the waves more easily. Because it’s such a mellow wave, there were a lot of longboarders, so again, a bit of volume to your board can help you get on the waves earlier.
Sunzalita was a bit small when I was there, but there were some lessons and learners out there on big boards looking like they were having a great time. But watch out for the shore breaks here and in front of Sunzal when the swell picks up, I watched two people snap their boards in about half an hour.
La Bocana and bocanita are largely populated by local groms on toothpicks and 20 year old Aussies surfing in their t-shirts. And everyone was getting air. It’s one of the only lefts is El Salvador and regularly generates fast, powerful barrels. It gets bigger than El Sunzal, and breaks quite shallow so you won’t be surprised that I didn’t really surf there too much. When the swell drops though it means you still get waves when El Sunzal is a bit too mellow.
Outside of El Tunco
There are a range of other similar breaks up and down the coast that are fairly easy to get to by bus, taxi or car. Most of them are reef and point breaks. They’re not always scary, but do check with someone who knows the break beforehand to check for rocks and rips.
May to October is rainy season (although it rarely rains all day) and sees the big swells averaging head high but can get up to double overhead on a good swell.
November to April is the dry season, with smaller waves, about waist to head high, with sunshine and offshore winds, so probably a better time for mellow wavers.
The coast is rocky and a lot of the breaks are in the middle of nowhere, so make sure you’re going with an experienced guide or someone who knows what their doing – some of the waves had a bit more power than expected and there might be no one to pull you out!
Out of the water
The usual Central American warning about not leaving your stuff on the beach by itself applies. Make sure your room is locked and your valuables safe. Don’t walk around with huge amounts of cash and only go to the ATM in the day time. La Libertad isn’t safe to wonder round after dark either.
Sleeping / eating / drinking
For most of the time we stayed at La Guitarra, one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. Right between the beach and the main road, you can’t really get a better location. Their cabins are spotless, can have aircon of a fan, and all have their own bathrooms. They have a hammock and chair outside and are all lined up along the main path, so you quickly get to know people staying there and it’s really social. There’s even a pool and a bar that often has live music (you don’t always get much sleep on those nights though). The pool was closed when I was there but Great value for what you get, and it gets cheaper the longer you stay – sneaky! If you stay in one of the huts close to the main house the internet might just reach!
When we arrived we stayed at Qi-x surf house. It’s a bit further out of town by La Bocana. It was quiet but a bit too quiet for us, and as we weren’t up for surfing La Bocana it also meant a much longer walk to the surf so we moved after a couple of days. They do arrange airport transfers for you though, which although a little more than finding a taxi at the airport at $40, definitely worth it as you know you’ll get to there you want safely!
Pupusas. I’d forgotten that I’d had pupusas on a earlier trip to the north of Nicaragua, and can’t tell you how excited I was when I realised they came from El Salvador and you can buy them pretty much everywhere for a dollar each. It’s all I ate for lunch (and sometimes dinner) for two weeks straight. They are like small corn tortillas with refried beans/cheese/chicken in the middle, served with pickled cabbage – ok so that doesn’t sound that great, but trust me, it’s like a Salvadorian version of a grilled cheese sandwich!
Most places seemed to have a kitchen so you can definitely save money by cooking for yourself. Eggs are cheap and I just love buying my veggies from the pick up that drives down the street with a loudhaler. We also caught the bus to the nearby town of La Libertad a couple times to pick up groceries, toiletries etc, which were cheaper than in El Tunco. My favourite place to eat was Taco Guanaco on the main street. The Fish Tacos were to die for, and they were so friendly they knew my name after just a couple of days.
El Tunco is fairly sleepy from Sunday to Wednesday. Things start to go crazy as the weekend approaches and San Salvadorians head down from the city. It felt like the population more than doubled for those few days. It’s such a small town, you can usually just follow the music to find the party, and in the week there seemed to only be one place each night that was really kicking. Ask around when you get there what’s on that night. We mainly went to La Guitarra and Jaguar bar, which also had really good food, and had sunset beers every night at Coco Bar on the beach.
Working and living
El Tunco is a great place to stay for a while. It’s small so you get to know people really quickly. There isn’t much to do apart from surf, maybe yoga or pilates a few times a week. So unless you can make you’re own entertainment, you work, or you literally surf, eat and sleep, then there’s a good chance you’ll get bored.
There are lots of places with free wifi in El Tunco. It’s not always the fastest but it’s workable. I managed to get quite a lot of work done there sitting out the front of La Guitarra when the bar is closed in the day time, although the wi-fi didn’t reach that far.
There were a few expats who had jobs there, largely working for room and board. It’s the usual bar and tourism based services. If you hang around long enough and make friends with people living there you might find something going. Remember to make sure your visa allows you to work, even for room and board.
Both me and my friend worked there and found a whole load of others doing the same. Mostly creatives, so writers, designers, photograpers. Because you don’t have to travel far to get to the waves, you can easily be out for a surf and back working by 9/10am, and then get a sunset session in again later.
There were also a few surf photographers selling their pictures to surfers. Remember if you’re providing services to tourists you are going to be competing against the locals and that might not always go down too well. As always, discretion and a smile will get you a long way.