Are you spending a few days or a week in El Salvador? If the answer is yes you’ll want to consider heading to Playa El Tunco.
If you like white sandy beaches and picturesque tropical oceanfront resorts then the chilled surf town of Playa El Tunco in El Salvador probably isn’t going to cut if for you.
But if you love good vibes, cheap backpacker destinations and lots of very low-key fun then El Tunco is probably a great location for you to add to your El Salvador bucket list.
Playa El Tunco, El Salvador
Where is El Tunco?
Playa El Tunco is a small coastal town on the Pacific Coast of Central America located in El Salvador in Tamanique. Due to it’s location the sand on the beach is volcanic black and the Pacific constantly batters the shore line making it a very unique location.
The town is simple, there’s only one actual resort and one other snazzy looking hotel but plenty of hostels for backpackers.
Due to it’s off the beaten track nature, the beachside town of El Tunco does not attract the masses, which in traveller talk means cheap and chilled, which is a language I speak fluently.
El Tunco hostels
As mentioned, there’s an abundance of backpacker accommodation in El Tunco making it the perfect budget destination for Central America backpackers.
There isn’t an awful lot of other types of tourism in El Tunco and hence why you’ll find mainly dorm and hostel style of accommodation.
Often when you’re staying in a beach town you do often have expectations and maybe hot water for cleaning with would be one of them, but when accommodations start at $8 per night and peak at around $15 per night in 30 Degree Celsius temperatures hot water becomes very overrated.
The accommodations are all reasonably priced which is why its such a great backpacker destination. Most El Tunco hostels have pools, this is a bonus because swimming in the sea is quite risky.
Where to stay
If you’re interested in staying in one of the backpacker friendly El Tunco hostels check out Papaya Lodge . They have both reasonably priced dorms and privates with a decent sized pool, great communal areas and a snack bar for the guests. There’s also a convenience store located next to Papaya Lodge and you can bring your own booze into the hostel.
If you don’t decide to stay at Papaya Lodgethere are a wide range of similar budget accommodations along the main high street.
You’ll notice this coastal town is very much on the Central America backpacker route, you’ll find a range of budget conveniences here including a few hostels. El Salvador uses the US dollar, but that doesn’t seem to inflate the prices in this beachside resort too much.
Where to eat
You can eat for pennies in El Tunco and when you’re sick of the traditional El Salvadorian pupusas all the fast food restaurants serve up nachos and delicious veg and bean filled burritos with homemade thick cut potatoes.
Almost every restaurant has a fresh fish special for $5 which comes with a refresco or a beer. For a beach side town so small El Tinco sure packs it in when it comes to cuisine.
We spent longer than expected in Playa El Tunco and opted for veggie wraps and burritos almost every night from a kebab type fast food place next to Papaya Lodge Hostel. $1.50-$3.00 for a tasty filling meal. You can stick to set menus for the best value eats when travelling to El Salvador on a budget, much like most of Central America.
Things to do in El Tunco
Playa El Tunco, El Salvador is situated on the volcanic pacific coast of the El Salvador and one of the main lures is surfing.
Its not hard to see why El Salvador’s coast is a recommended surf spot, after watching the swells from the ocean front restaurants. The small streets of Playa El Tunco are always packed with surfers, surf shops, beachwear and not much else, which isn’t always a bad thing.
Beach days and sunsets
The beach reminds me of a place we visited on the Oaxaca Coast of Mexico called Puerto Escondido, similar vibes and lots of surfers. Puerto Escondido has also been named an up and coming destination and I’m sure Playa El Tunco will find itself on that list soon.
If you don’t surf, like me, it’s still pretty impressive to watch others taking part. Especially at sunset when everyone seems to gather on the beach to watch the show-offs do their thing.
Pull up a piece of lost driftwood and grab a cold cerveza for under $1 and spend your evenings on the laid back sands of the pacific coast. This is perhaps one of the best things to do in, although Simple it’s part of the lifestyle.
El Tunco, El Salvador nightlife
When it comes to nightlife girls drink for free at the many promotional ladies nights. There are probably too many bars considering the size of El Tunco, but experiencing the El Tunco nightlife should be on your list of things to do.
The ratio of bars and clubs to everything else is slightly off, but I’m not one to complain especially when they have drinks promotions favouring us girls.
For bars and clubs the weekend is usually the liveliest if you want to plan your trip around that, but through the week there are always locals and backpackers from the hostels enjoying the drink promotions.
When it comes to El Tunco, El Salvador nightlife check out the bars along the beach and on the main street. Bar La Guitarra is located on the beach right by one of the top surf spots and in good views of the famous rock for photo ops.
Need some more inspiration for things to do?
1. The Rock – The large rock formation in the centre of the beach in El Tunco is perhaps the most photographed thing in all of El Salvador. No seriously, I’m not joking. Make sure you arrive at sunset to catch a glimpse of the geology in front of the sunset.
2. Sunsets – The pacific coast of Central America is home to some spectacular sunsets, join the locals and tourists on a rock or piece of wood to watch the nightly sunsets.
3. Surf – Rent a surfboard or take surf lessons there’s plenty available at the backpacker hostels.
4. Eat El Salvadorian cuisine – Why not try a pupusa a Salvadoran favourite made of corn tortillas and filled with meat or veg.
5. No swimming – The beach is red flag and there are no designated swimming areas or lifeguards. If you do go in to the water be sensible and expect a wipe out or two. Always watch out for surfers when swimming on a surf beach.
El Salvador Travel
Is El Salvador safe for backpackers?
There are probably places in El Salvador that are dangerous for backpackers and all travellers alike. Throughout this guide I’ll mention La Libertad as a dangerous destination in El Salvador but El Salvador is perfectly safe of backpackers to visit.
As a whole Playa El Tunco and San Salvador are not too dangerous for backpackers, but, like any destination if you spend your time looking for drugs, crime and corruption I’m sure you’ll find it easily in El Salvador.
My answer is simple El Salvador is safe for backpackers. When travelling Central America and the ‘gringo route’ in particular it is always wise to stick to tourist hot spots and avoid any wrongdoing and crime, like any destination if you go looking for trouble you will surely find it.
La Libertad is one of the most notorious drug ports in Central America and certainly in El Salvador. A twenty minute car journey along the coast will take you from the calmness of Playa El Tunco to the hectic and busy streets of neighbouring La Libertad.
During our time spent in Playa El Tunco, which was roughly one week, we were fascinated to watch helicopters checking out the waters by La Libertad up the coast.
The port of La Libertad is infamous for its involvement in the illegal trade of drugs in Latin America and has helped to gain El Salvador its unsavoury reputation of being one of the world’s most dangerous countries to visit.
Mostly tourists avoid La Libertad and I would advise this too, but for us the desperate need for a working cash point had us leave the safety of El Tunco being and visit La Libertad several times.
How to get from El Salvador to Honduras
El Tunco to San Salvador
When leaving Playa El Tunco Speak to the locals in the shops on Main Street most act as independent travel agents and will happily organise you a transfer for the best price. It’s easy to take a cab to San Salvador and the journey will only ever take a maximum of an hour.
San Salvador to La Ceiba
Once in San Salvador head to the nearest large bus station that does long distance and first class bus services. First and second class tickets can be booked for the long journey from the terminal, advanced is always best.
We bought our tickets the night before and our bus was full. Be prepared and leave early to get to the bus station with plenty of time to ‘check in’. A mandatory procedure throughout Central America for big long distance bus journeys.
Take an early bus from San Salvador, ours left between 5.30am and 6.00am. Ask your hotel or hostel to pre-book a taxi as you’ll be surprised at the traffic at that time in the morning in a busy city like San Salvador.
We had to buy tickets to San Pedro Sula in Honduras – yes, that’s the murder capital of the world. We changed bus here to get to La Ceiba in the same evening.
Once in San Pedro Sula, you’ll need to board a chicken bus or second class bus travelling to La Ceiba. This will take around 4 hours.
La Ceiba to The Bay Islands
From La Ceiba you will want to take the ferry to The Bay Islands, we did this journey to Utila.
But note, there are three different Bay Islands so you’ll want to do your research first and check out the ferry timetables in advance too.
My week in El Salvador
If you’re interested in getting to know some locals and learning first hand about El Salvador Playa El Tunco is definitely the place to do so.
Almost everybody in El Tunco is friendly and not in a rip-you-off kind of way we experienced in Cuba and occasionally in Mexico. Independent tourist information centres fill Main Street and most locals appreciate if you take any time at all to stop by for a chat.
There’s nothing really outstanding about this tiny little slice of Central America except maybe the people and the big old rock in the ocean. But a select few travellers tend to arrive in Playa El Tunco whilst on the Central America route and stay for a while just like we did.
Maybe it’s the spectacular sunsets that draw people here or the surfing. I doubt it’s the pupusas but the other cuisine was worth sticking around for.
It’s a great place for us budget backpackers to save up some cash and meet some other like minded travellers. Its also a great location to meet the characteristically genuine and kind locals. That’s probably why we ended up spending a week in El Salvador!
A 20-something travel blogger based in Liverpool. Covering all things from Latin America to Liverpool local guides and everything in between.