We have spent the past two weeks in tiny and surprising El Salvador. So unexpected; the ocean, the mountains, the people, the food. Simply surprising El Salvador.
Why El Salvador
ElSalvador gets a bad rap. In the American media you only hear about the bad things. Currently the bad thing in El Salvador is gang violence. The civil war is over, but gang violence plagues certain parts of the country.
But not everywhere. Most places are safe and welcoming to tourists, locals are happy to have you here to enjoy this developing country they love. But most Americans haven’t ventured here…which is unfortunate. Americans still flock to Mexico, a place plagued with violent gangs, cartels, kidnappings and corruption…and yet El Salvador remains elusive to American tourists. I don’t get it?
We spent two wonderful weeks in El Salvador, a tiny country about the size of Massachusetts, with about the same population (6 million). It’s the only Central American country without a Caribbean coast (Belize the only one with out a Pacific Coast). El Salvador’s coastline on the Pacific is about 307km, and the visitors who do find their way here are mostly surfers, drawn to the beautiful warm waters and spectacular swells.
Fabulous El Tunco
Luckily for us we chose to stay in Playa El Tunco, though we didn’t know much about it. We were looking for ocean beaches, and found them here, where surfing is king.
Even though we don’t surf, we found plenty of ways to enjoy Playa El Tunco and were able to explore further afield from this location. Given El Salvador’s tiny size, it’s easy to stay on the coast and take day-trips inland and to the mountains.
The best decision we made was booking an airbnb room at Balance Yoga Retreat, right in El Tunco and walking distance to everything we might need. Balance does daily yoga classes, as well as retreats multiple times a year. While we were here we were one of just two guests staying and I took advantage of yoga every day (read more about that here). We enjoyed the beautiful little oasis with the pool, hammocks and flora. Owners (and Americans) Lindsey and Adrian were wonderful to us and we would certainly come back here again someday.
Adrian and Lindsey helped us set up a driver for two different day trips. First we visited Joya de Ceren village. It was fascinating to learn about this lost pre-Colombian Mayan village, discovered beneath 14 layers of volcanic ash from nearby Santa Ana volcano. The
site is now an archeological UNESCO site. We continued on to the San Andreas Mayan Ruins, one of several Mayan Ruins found in El Salvador dating back to 900 BC. The Mayans ruled much of what we now think of as Central America from about 2600BC (oldest finding in Belize) until about 1000 years ago, long before the Incas or the Spanish conquistadors. Archeologists believe the culture died out due to a historic drought that plagued the region for years.
Our second day trip was to the mountainous villages north and east of El Tunco, scattered in the coffee growing region of El Salvador. El Salvador is known around the world for rich and delicious coffee, and on this trip we made sure to pick up some coffee, as well as several other wonderful locally made crafts for gifts for family and friends. Three mountain towns (Ataco, Apaneca, Juayua) along La Ruta de las Flores have weekend festivals where you can buy just about anything from socks to ceramics as well as taste a wide variety of El Salvadoran specialities. Our favorite food find on this day were the delicious riguas, a corn dough pancake filled with cheese, wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf and then fried crispy on the griddle. Riguas are a speciality of this mountain region of El Salvador. (see a recipe here).
Things We Loved
There are other day trips easily done from El Tunco that we did not do, such as hiking the volcano or swimming in waterfalls or going to a mud spa. But we actually really enjoyed just hanging out in the tiny village, which has a surprising variety of restaurants and fun things to do. Our favorites included;
- Balance Yoga – possibly the best yoga classes I have ever taken and very reasonably priced
- Exploring the El Tunco caves just south of town at low tide
– you can only go here at low tide and we were lucky enough to have some really low tides while we were here. It was so fascinating we went twice. Just beautiful.
- Watching the sunset over the Pacific with a $1.25 beer at any of the half-dozen beach front bars. Our favorite bars were Casa Miramar and La Bocana.
- Sitting on the rocky beach and watching the surfers do their thing. It’s like watching a ballet on a freeway…in a storm!
- Eating pupusa, the national dish of El Salvador at either Nancy’s Pupusa or Christy’s – both tiny mom and pop shops. See a pupusa recipe here. Christy’s also has a variety of other items on their menu including delicious tacos and sopa de pollo. You can also get your laundry done at Christy’s! A one-stop-shop.
- One of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had was at Mopelia, where you can find a nice selection of American and European craft brews
- Dinner at El Tunco Velos was a nice surprise, where I had a fabulous salad of lettuce, strawberries and feta that was so delicious. Lettuce as usual is hard to find in grocery stores, so I was very happy to find this salad.
- Lots of little shops cater mostly to surfers, but I bought a t-shirt at Get Up Stand Up, where they
manufacture everything they sell including darling reversible swimsuits.
- My other favorite shop was La sirena, a hole-in-the-wall gift shop of unique and inexpensive souvenirs locally made.
- Surf lessons are big, for beginner to advanced. We didn’t tackle this but it looked fun. Or try renting stand up paddle boards or take a guided SUP tour.
- We tried to find a memorial in La Libertad that is dedicated to two US Nuns and two missionaries who were raped and murdered in 1980, a few months before the murder of San Salvador Arch Bishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero. These murders (by El Salvador National Guards) launched the long civil war in El Salvador. Unfortunately no one we asked knew where this memorial was, so we did not see it. The history of these murders and how it launched the bloody war is fascinating. You can read about it here.
Add It to Your Bucketlist
If you decide to come here (and you should) be sure to be in Playa El Tunco beyond a weekend. The tiny village swells in population on weekends, as El Salvadorans (known as guanacos) come here from San Salvador (one hour) and La Libertad (20 minutes) for the day or the weekend of sun, surf and fun. From Monday – Friday afternoon the town is mostly local, quiet and serene. That’s when I liked it best.
During our two weeks here I have met so many lovely people, mostly young (20’s and 30’s) surfers from the USA, Canada and a few European countries. I have met no-one my age or even close. Which needs to change. El Tunco and El Salvador really should be on your bucket list, no matter your age, or if you surf. It’s a wonderful place, a beautiful culture and a friendly country. Simply surprising El Salvador. We will be back.
See it before the secret gets out.
Next stop. Belize.