How to get there
Before Leaving America
I ended up in El Salvador because tickets were so cheap. Something like $180 round trip from Houston. I was randomly trolling this app called Hitlist that shows all the flights available for the price range you’re looking for (warning: the prices it shows are usually not correct and the flights it links you to are usually not feasible i.e. overnight layovers.) and saw offers for El Salvador and promptly called my bestie like, “Wanna go for the weekend?”
The flight to El Salvador is only 3 or 4 hours and since we recently picked up surfing as a hobby, we had been eye-ing places to sharpen our skills and had heard the surf there was amazing for beginners. But weird, before leaving I told maybe one or two friends that I was going and their response was “Will you get kidnapped?” or “Are you going to play with MS13.” Uhm, short response: no. Long response: there is a travel advisory for Americans traveling to El Salvador (more on that in the Life and Culture section of the blog. Scroll down to read). Even when talking with a friend in Nicaragua, he was like, “Be careful, it’s the most dangerous country in Central America.” I promptly decided NOT to tell my parents until I was actually on the plane so they wouldn’t have time to Google search. Armed with $500 USD and a passport, we quickly said a prayer and headed to San Salvador.
Speaking of money, no need to change. The currency used to be the Colon but that is now obsolete, they now operate on the U.S. Dollar.
Book all of your hotels in advance. It’s not mandatory, but it helps to just have that stuff done (see General Travel Tips). In addition, the hotels or hostels can arrange a taxi for pick-up at the airport for transfer direct to the hotel so you can pre-negotiate your transportation rate otherwise you’re at the mercy of the taxi rates at the airport.
The Language and What To Pack
Spanish majorly helps here. I wouldn’t say it’s completely mandatory, but you will get to places faster and with greater ease if you speak Spanish. Even a little bit.
You should pack sunscreen and bathing suits. If you’re surfing, you should pack bottoms that don’t come off easily (my favorite site is www.nvrstrings.com for Brazilian surfer wear that really doesn’t come off in the water) and one or two rash guards that cover the stomach if you have them. If you’re taking lessons, they will give you a rash guard, but understand they have been worn before. If you’re not taking lessons, you’re on your own with the rash guard bit. You can also bring wedges and maybe a going-out outfit because there is a nightlife in El Salvador and they do show out. But for the most part, flip flops are life.
Arriving in El Salvador
Coming into San Salvador, you have to go through a line in which you’re waiting to press a button. If it’s green, you go through without having your bags checked, if the light turns red, you get your bags checked. It is completely random, no one is accusing you of anything. At passport control, they will issue you a visa. It’s a sticker that they put into your passport and I believe it was $10-15. Have that out and ready if you don’t want to be basic.
Transportation to El Tunco from San Salvador
We arrived super late at night -around midnight- and walked out to see my name on a sign. I had pre-negotiated our taxi with our hotel. Normally, a private transfer to El Tunco should be around $25 USD, but since we were arriving at night and driving at night is not common in El Salvador, the price was $35. And that was after negotiations.
There are checkpoints at night in which the police armed with automatic weapons and menacing black ski-masks will pull over your driver, check his license, ask a bunch of questions, and check the car for any drugs. Just know, it’s for your own safety, I suppose. You may or may not hear your driver whisper “pinche putos” (translation: fucking bitches) as he drives away from the checkpoint. Occasionally they will ask you for your passport to show proof that you’re just a tourist and no need to be searched.
Where to stay in El Tunco
This all depends on what kind of traveler you are. Papaya Lodge is more like a hostel. A room with a bunk bed and a separate full size was $25, and an extra $10 for air conditioning. In the words of my bestie, “I like to sweat profusely while I sleep,” a.k.a we’re poor and cheap so we opted out of the air conditioning, like always. There’s a fan though? No hot-water either, but it’s fine cause you’re hot anyway. But there’s no fan in the bathroom so yes you will sweat while poop-ing. Don’t come here with your boyfriend.
If you prefer a more respectable place to stay, I recommend Bocas Olas. It’s very Miami-esque with a beach-side restaurant, white seats, and an in-house bar called Blu that will have the soccer game or UFC fight on the big screen, dance floor and live band.
The location was really good. There’s basically only one street in El Tunco anyway. Just around the corner you can reach all the restaurants and the beach. And on the other side are bars after bars after smoothie places and one yoga studio. The entire street is blocked off so that cars have to be approved to enter. Most of the “tourists” there are from San Salvador, so it’s very non-touristy trappy. You might meet the occasional Aussie and we hear a lot of people from Israel (random?) come to visit.
You can reach Papaya Lodge by email at email@example.com. Would I recommend it? I mean…I would have, but my favorite worker got fired from here because the bosses wanted to replace him with a family member so I’m not sure the quality of service now. However, I will say that they have a tanning deck, a swimming pool, and most importantly A DENTIST. Yes, a dentist. Dr. Juan is amazing.
Yes, I went to the dentist in El Salvador. Yes, he only charged me $25 to fill my cavity and $20 to clean my teeth. Yes, I freaked my mom out. But it’s fine, really. He did an amazing job. Yes, I will be going back (although, I got salty when I went to Mexico and looked up the prices and they clean teeth for $10). Dr. Juan teaches oral surgery at the University of El Salvador, has worked in San Francisco so speaks pretty decent English, and has all his credentials and degrees displayed on his wall. So including my ticket and filling, it’s cheaper to go to Dr. Juan for all your dental needs than it is to 1) buy dental insurance in the United States or 2) pay a co-pay with additional costs every time you go to the dentist. So suck it, insurance companies and over-priced dentists! (Disclaimer: I don’t have dental insurance so this was a necessity for me. Don’t judge me, I’m poor. Shout out to my dental school friends, though, I know y’all got loans but I can’t afford you right now.)
What to do in El Tunco
Oh, you mean besides going to the dentist? Well the only other thing to do in El Tunco and probably the reason you’re interested in this place in the first place, is SURFING. Classes are $20, $10 for the lesson, $10 to rent a surfboard. Pro-tip: Ask to be the first to be picked up and sit in the front seat next to the driver. Don’t be basic and crawl in the back where you have to stand and be shoved in between all the surfboards. Also, people actually are on time here, I was surprised. We totally thought they would be on colored people time, so instead of getting picked up at 9AM like we agreed, we were off leisurely getting breakfast (which was insanely good, the brown stuff are beans) and cappuccinos, thinking they were going to be at least a half an hour late. In marches the surf instructor into our restaurant (idk how he found us) like, “Did you not agree to be picked up at 9AM?” (Sorry! We were trying not to be basic!)
If you’ve surfed before, the surf lessons aren’t useful. Also, there will be a bunch of maybe young White Christian missionaries taking the class with you, trying to learn to surf, and stopping every 5 seconds to take group pictures (BAAASSSSIIICCCCC) and slowing everything down instead of taking the sport seriously. You’re better off just renting a surfboard and going out there on your own. However, the El Tunco beach waves are actually pretty advanced and there are a lot of rocks. I suggest a nearby beach called Playa El Majahual. You can get a private transfer, or go by bus. We took a lesson, so transport was included in the price. If you’re an advanced surfer, the best point break is Punta Roca in La Libertad and where international surf competitions are held. See below El Salvadorean international surf champion. Yes, lessons with him are only $10.
What to do in El Tunco when NOT surfing
When not surfing during the day, you can visit the cave. The directions are literally: Get to the beach, walk all the way to the left. And then keep walking. And then you’ll see it. I know that sounds non-descript but you’ll understand once you get there. However, LOL, we had a basic moment because we went to the cave twice, both times it was high tide and we couldn’t access it at all. So advice for the non-basic traveler: low-tide starts around 10AM and ends around 2PM
If you’re up for it, there is a waterfall called Tamanique. Ask your hotel to book you a private transfer up. If there are more than 4 of you, it’s $10 a piece, if not it’s $20 a piece and comes with a guide. It takes maybe 15 minutes to access by car. If you wish, you can take a bus, but ain’t nobody got time for that.
The waterfall is amazing, similar to ones I’ve seen in Thailand. The water is crystal clear, you can see all the way down to the bottom and it’s pretty deep. There are 3 large cascades that you can jump off of. The drop is around 20 feet? But pro-tip, the hike down and then back up IS NOT AMAZING. When your guide (which is just a local boy who climbs in and out of the waterfalls all day, but literally I don’t know how he finds his way because there is no path) asks you if you want to take the long way or the short way, please for the love of God, say long. We thought they were calling us punk-bitches by saying you have to be really strong to be able to go the short way. My best friend, a collegiate athlete and half-marathon runner, was like “Who do they think we are, old ladies? Short way, please.” Little did we know that we would be clinging to the side of a mountain trying to make our way without stumbling to our deaths while sweating and trying to balance with a jug of water. Also, the climb back up is brutal… sweating isn’t even the word…we were bathed in our own bodily fluids and insanely out of breath. If you have any physical conditions, really stay away from this hike. Also, bring water, a lot of water. But make sure you also bring it in a backpack because you need your hands to climb. This excursion takes around 1.5 hours if you go the short-way and depending on how long you want to swim for. The long-way is an additional hour.
Also, we read a few blogs raving about the smoothies? Uhm, we had more than one smoothie to fact check this and they weren’t that good. Idk what those people were drinking. Maybe they just like the taste of watery fruit.
Going out in El Tunco
On the weekends, the rich from El Salvador come to the beach to party. Along the beach is a nice walkway. To the left are all the restaurants that turn into clubs at night, to the right are the waves of El Tunco with pro-surfers killing it out there; really a sight to see. It is especially beautiful at sunset where you see the rock after which the city was named after literally meaning “the pig” rise up from the ocean as the sun sets.
We went out to two bars but there are plenty to choose from. Blu, as mentioned before, is a little bit bougie, a little Miami, whereas the bar across the street from Papaya called Munchies is where the local surfers will hang out and definitely more our speed. You can buy a bucket of beers for something like $6 and dance to a mix of reggaeton and hip-hop. Things don’t get crackin’ until around 11:30 and stay open until at least 2. On Sunday’s the music shuts off at 12 for noise control. And then you can drunkenly stumble across the street to your room at Papaya. No uber needed.
La Ruta de Las Flores (Juayua, Ahuachapan, Apeneca, & Ataco)
Things to do in El Salvador
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. You can literally get anywhere in under 3 hours. So of course I was like, let’s drive around the entire country, just cause we can. However, the price to travel around the entire country and back was around $200 (clarification, the price was for El Tunco – around the entire country of El Salvador with a guide – back to El Tunco – and a ride to El Cuco in the morning). Would I recommend this? Split between a group of 4 or more, it’s worth it so that you don’t have to book hotels. We had expected a 3rd person to join us, but she missed her flight so we ended up having to pay $100 each which is not in our usual price range. There is the chicken bus that you can take that is so much cheaper, like $2, and this tour is totally doable as a self-tour. No need for a guide. But it will take you an entire day to travel there by chicken bus. If you have the time, do it the cheap way. You will need minimum 2 days and to book a hotel room where you plan on stopping. Since we just went for a long weekend, we did not have time for this at all and paid the hefty price tag.
There are various eco-tourism-esque things to do and lakes and volcanoes to visit, but after Nicaragua, nothing would compare to what we experienced there. So we skipped all of that. What I was really interested in was this town I had read about that had murals painted on every wall. La Ruta de Los Flores or “Flower Route” is 5-town route that during the right season, is blooming with wildflowers. Needless to say, we didn’t go during that season. I saw zero flowers.
Look, all these travel blogs we read said we needed 2 days to do this. But listen, ain’t nobody got time fo’ that. We smashed this tour in 1 day, fuck with us. Firstly, you only need to really go to 2 of these towns, maybe 3. It’s cute and all, but have you been to Nicaragua? Then you won’t be impressed.
In a nutshell, we visited a coffee plantation in Apeneca, the waterfall and gastronomical festival in Juayua, and the murals of Ataco, the other 2 cities, just skip/drive through them. About the coffee plantation, we learned about the process of growing and making coffee, which was about a 5 minute lesson, and then drank the coffee. Uhm, I’m in grad school, I know what good coffee tastes like, please, I’m on a caffeine diet. This was not good coffee. Beautiful view though.
The gastronomical festival in Juayua was meh. The food was decent. I wouldn’t really call it a “festival,” more like an outdoor cafeteria or something. They’re just stalls with people cooking under tarps, you see that everyday in Mexico, so…
However, that waterfall in Juayua though. I was so not dreading another fucking hike. I’m not gonna lie, I did not want to go to this waterfall. I’ve been to waterfalls in Haiti, Hawaii, Thailand, probably some other country that I can’t even remember right now, we had already gone to one the day before in El Tunco, my legs were tired from that Tamanique hike, so could we just skip this one?
But I had this massive hangover from partying in El Tunco the night before and our guide insisted that this waterfall had healing powers. So I was like, ok yes, let us fact-check this magic. We walked down to the waterfall, the hike was pretty easy, it was a bunch of nothing until you reached this fence and you saw what was below and WOW.
The jungle is so green, deep, and full. You feel like an ant in the expanse of something so much greater than yourself. The sound of rushing water is coming from all directions, you can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from, so you keep walking. Then rising above you are these massive concrete structures with moss grown over them appearing like an ancient temple opening up into a wide waterfall that is nothing like any waterfall I’ve seen before.
There was not just one opening the water was falling from; it was falling over an entire wall. The water would split off the rocks into mini-waterfalls of its own and into a clear-glass pool that is probably clearer than the water you drink. Our guide, now friend since we just spent 3 hours in a car chatting in Spanglish, was telling me to go put my head under the waterfall to cure my headache. Like, I was just about to splash some water on my head, I didn’t know I had to go all the way in. The water was FREEZING. Also there were young teenage boys climbing as far as they could go up and jumping off the rocks. I just kept thinking, where is the nearest hospital? Anyway, after being a little bitch for like 20 minutes, I jumped in and pulled my bestie with me and put my head under the waterfall. #ElSalvadoreanMyths, the waterfall does not cure hangovers. But it did cleanse my soul. The water was so refreshing and the jungle made me feel so connected with the earth, I thought of nothing else.
The murals of Ataco were beautiful. The city was beautiful. You feel like you’re in a storybook with vibrant paintings dancing along every wall, live music, and vendors lining the streets with artisan fabrics, jewelry, and hammocks for sale. However, this happens every weekend but only on the weekends, so plan accordingly. Pro tip: buy your hammocks anywhere else in Central America. They’re $80 here (for the good kind) even after the El Salvadorean guide tried to negotiate a price. In Nicaragua they were $45 and we hadn’t even begun negotiating yet (and no lie, we beast at it). So, byeeeeeee Felicia. Prices at the market weren’t any cheaper than what you could find at a discount store in America. The items weren’t that unique either. You could find these things anywhere in Central America for a lot cheaper. But it’s worth seeing.
Where to stay in El Cuco
We wanted to check out another beach, which was surprise! 3 hours away. The place was called La Tortuga Verde. http://www.latortugaverde.com. Each room opens up to the outside with a couple of hammocks hanging on a screened-in front porch. The cost was $25/room for the first 2 people. This place is called Tortuga Verde because it is a nesting ground for turtles. At night you’ll see the red lights that signify this is where a turtle may be laying her eggs. Don’t walk too fast and end up tripping over one.
This place was recommended to us by our Canadian friends who raved about the workers. Apparently everyone is a volunteer who is there to learn Spanish, but they also know how to party. But, I mean, maybe that was their experience, but it wasn’t ours. We were also there on a Sunday so maybe that was it. I mean, they are cool, but it wasn’t a rage-r. Also, they are hella American (they were literally giving each other hula hooping classes #bye). I personally don’t like hanging out with other Americans while traveling abroad, as if I don’t see them everyday, but maybe that’s exciting to the average Canadian, who knows.
We came to El Cuco for the surf. It’s not that good in front of Tortuga Verde at all. The waves aren’t even really large enough to surf, and we’re beginners so you can imagine. You can hire a taxi for $7 (don’t pay more than 7, maximum 8!) to Las Flores. The beach doesn’t have too many rocks, there are waves for beginners, as well as for more advanced surfers. You can rent surfboards at Las Flores, no need to rent at Tortuga and transport them. Pro tip: If you’re a beginner choose the longest board and buy some wax and wax it down so you have a firm grip. We tried on various sizes and seriously looked so basic flailing in the water on the small surfboards.
The beach seems dead, but you’ll meet professionals in town from Brazil or places like that just surfing here for fun because it’s cheap and the waves are world-class. You can also stay at hotels along this beach, they’re around $80/night.
It’s a bit expensive for El Salvador to eat in-house. Something around $8 for a pizza (that’s expensive, in my opinion, I want to pay $2.) If you walk down the beach all the way to the left, the very last restaurant is called “Brissa del Mar” or something along those lines. It’s a mom-and-pop restaurant with fresh fish, rice and/or french-fries, and beans. Delish. The price is about the same as eating in-house. On the way there, you’ll see crabs coming in and out of the sand and sand dollars sprinkled around you. And as the sunsets you can lay in a hammock and watch the colors change from orange to pink to purple as you feel the breeze from the sea and think about how blessed you are to be relaxing on a beach in El Salvador. But beware of the random pelican that trolls the hotel.
How to get to the airport from El Cuco
Tortuga Verde can arrange a private transfer to the airport for something around $80. The more people you can pack into the van, the cheaper it is for you. We made good friends with the private driver at Papaya Lodge and made him come back for us (shout out to Pastilla!) and take us to the airport. He did it for around the same price even though he had to drive an extra 3 hours.
Life and Culture of El Salvador
As always, I’ll start with the bad. The travel advisory is referring to the gang violence that goes on in the neighborhoods of El Salvador. From what I gathered, these organizations were a product of the El Salvadorean civil war and started in Los Angeles by Salvadorean immigrants. The civil war began around 1920 when 95% of El Salvadorean income was exporting coffee, but that income was only benefitting 2% of the Salvadorean population. And like every time in history when there is such a wide disparity between the rich and poor, a revolution and political uprising began and continued for the next 100 years.
These gang organizations sprouted up as a product of the displacement of civilians and following recruitment as guerilla soldiers against the militarized government. These organizations currently demand money from local shop owners and occupy neighborhoods for territorial control, frequently leading to murders and rapes. The stories we heard were gruesome and I won’t retell them here, but I will say this situation affected all of the people we met. For example: our flight returning home was again at night, something like 1 in the morning, and again the police stopped us. Our van was packed with surfers we met during our short stay in El Tunco who traveled the 3 hours to see us off. They all had long curly hair and may or may not have been carrying their IDs because what is a shirt? what is a wallet? what are pants that you can’t swim in? However, at these police check-points it’s necessary to have an ID if you are El Salvadorean. If it weren’t for our American passports, because of their long hair (which means they might be gang affiliated), they would have been stopped and searched. Should they not have had an ID on them, they would have been detained. One of the surfers said he hadn’t seen his father in 5 years because he lives in a dangerous neighborhood run by a gang who does not permit anyone to go in and out. In addition, his sisters risked their lives illegally immigrating to California searching for a better life. They also said they refuse to get tattoos because anyone who has a tattoo is automatically assumed to be in a gang. If you Google search “El Salvadorean gangs” you can read about plenty of that there. In other news, we passed the checkpoint without any problems and they yelled out “Fuck the police!” as we drove away.
However, all of this is invisible to the casual tourist. You won’t be staying in someone’s barrio, nor will you be walking in some random neighborhood at night. Just think of this as similar to some of the poorest cities in America. If you wouldn’t do it in inner-city Baltimore, don’t do it here. We did meet government authorities from the United States who are working with the El Salvadorean government and local authorities to improve this situation. They are present.
As if the gang situation isn’t enough, El Salvador has suffered a series of disasters. The main ship port in La Libertad suffered from a huge explosion and is no longer in use. In addition, there have been a series of earthquakes since El Salvador sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, killing many people living on its mountainous landscapes. My advice? Stick to the beach.
Speaking of the beach, it isn’t the nicest of beaches. The sand is black from the volcanoes and therefore blocks the light reflections from the sky to make the water blue. They also have quite a bit of rocks. Don’t come here if you’re just looking to casually swim.
All of the above in no way balances out the incredible experiences El Salvador has to offer. The surf culture is great. They are very community-oriented, friendly, supportive, helpful, talkative, and positive. You won’t ever experience gangs or things like that in any of the above places mentioned. Interacting with the locals you would never guess any of the above even exits. People follow a strong moral code, stronger than what I’ve experience in the United States or other neighboring Central American countries. For example, by the time we got to Ataco, we were starving, it was afternoon by this time and we were tired. The stands of food had started to run out so we resorted to eating at a restaurant. Our guide/friend Elmer kept walking from restaurant to restaurant checking the menus. After 20 minutes, I got hangry and said, “What are you looking for?! It’s all the same, can we just sit down and eat?” It was then that he told me he was worried about the prices. He would only get paid $11 for this day and food was $5. How ignorant of me, I didn’t even think of his situation. I had assumed his boss would cover all the expenses he incurred on this trip. Obviously we covered both his meal and our driver’s meal. However, they both wanted to order this special Salvadorean chocolate drink, which I did not even notice. When the check came around, Elmer asked that one check be made for me with all the food, but that since he did not want to take advantage of me and had ordered this special chocolate drink that cost a little bit more, if the waitress could put that on a separate check. This small gesture meant everything to me. I obviously covered both the drink and the meal, but I tell you, I trust Elmer with my life.
In addition, men in general were really respectful, which was the opposite in Nicaragua where men were constantly catcalling. Not only that, single men approached you for a conversation or asked you to dance bachata, and married men spoke about their wives so poetically, it completely took me by surprise. I remember the way Elmer spoke about his wife, “She’s a very special person to me; more special than anyone. To me, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, when I met her and still today.” Or our driver, Pastilla, when I asked him for his personal cell so I could call him for private transfer back to the airport, knowing his wife is a little jealous, didn’t give us his number but asked us to go through Elmer instead so that he wouldn’t anger her. When I asked him where he met her he said, “I’ve lived next door to her my whole life and she’s the person I always want to live next to.”
As we sat over pupusas and they showed us pictures of their families, we were prepared to pay for the entire meal since 1 papusa is more or less 30-50 cents and these guys had spent 15 hours driving us around. However, come to find out Elmer had paid for the entire meal because he said we were angels and made his day so delightful that he wanted to treat us. This was HUGE. People are usually piecing together separate checks in America and we all make so much more than $11.
The women were equally helpful. On our way to the airport, we pulled over for one last round of pupusas in the middle of the night. It was a simple stand outside of someone’s house. My bestie had to use the bathroom and couldn’t hold it, so the woman told us we could use her personal bathroom, but just to watch out for the cows in her backyard. Seeing my friend’s face look like, “Cows?!” she laughed and grabbed her hand and led her step-by-step all the way to the outdoor bathroom so she would avoid not only the 3 random cows chillin’ in her backyard, but also all their poop. I also had to go, and felt bad I should have went with my bestie. But the woman just smiled and did the same. They were in no way obligated to let us into their home, let alone escort us.
There’s also a strange religious culture in El Salvador. It seems like various missionaries have tried to bring their religion resulting in a bit of a mish mosh. But as a result, I can’t express enough how extremely kind, loyal, and helpful they were. I wish I could count the times someone wished us many blessings for the rest of our lives, or that may God go with us. Those sentiments are never forgotten and are always with us.
In conclusion, a lot of backpackers skip El Salvador due to the travel advisory but we say #DontSkipElSalvador. SURFS UP! And eat a lot of pupusas for us on your trip.
One last pro-tip: Mondays are holidays for the coastal towns of El Salvador. Sundays are holidays for the rest of El Salvador and most things will be closed.
This 4-day trip, including airline ticket, cost $500 (not including souvenirs, dentist trips, and alcohol)
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