Wooden watchtower beside a sign that reads "El Tunco" with a beach in the background

Complete Guide to Playa El Tunco, El Salvador: Backpacker Playground

Mark Stewart Destinations Leave a Comment

Updated: December 2019!

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Almost every backpacker destination has one. In Thailand, it’s Bangkok’s Khao San Road; in Nepal, it’s Thamel. Here in El Salvador, you’ve got the famous El Tunco. This once-sleepy coastal town has exploded in recent years into the country’s biggest backpacker hub.

Nearly every traveller who passes through the region will stop in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador — for many, it’s their only stop. Though little more than two streets, this town packs a serious punch of eating, drinking, shopping, partying and is also one of the most popular surf destinations in the country. As well, it’s the perfect base for exploring more of this incredible region.

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Pink graffiti letters spelling El Tunco

Things to do in El Tunco, El Salvador

Go Surfing in El Tunco

El Salvador as a whole is recognized worldwide as one of the best surf spots on the globe. Playa El Tunco and Playa El Sunzal, boast some of the best breaks to enjoy the sport. So much so, that during our most recent visit, the International Surfing Association held the SUP-Surfing world championship here. We had a blast watching the ripped guys and gals surf; meanwhile we sat around drinking beer.

While board rentals and surf lessons are plentiful, understand that the waves here can be a little rough if you’re a complete beginner. Thankfully, the instructors are good at judging your performance and where they should be taking you. We were also nervous of all the rocks we could run our faces into, so we, again, stuck to drinking beer. Down the road in El Zonte, there are non-rock beaches, if you want to try surfing there.

  • Cost: Rentals go for around $10 – $15 per day, and lessons are $20+ for an hour (including rental).
Surfer rides a wave in El Salvador
Grabbing that Perfect Wave

Hike the Valley Above El Tunco

Walking along the coast itself would make for some fantastic scenery if it weren’t for the sheer cliff faces blocking your way. Thankfully, for those who feel the need to earn their pupusas and beer, like us, or just like to get their heart-rate going, you can get your hike on nearby.

Just outside Tamanique, a small town about 20 minutes north of El Tunco, there is a decent hike you can take through a vast valley. It’s not something you should venture into alone, as there are some fairly tricky, steep sections, and it is possible to get lost. (There are many people to ask about a local guide once you get there.. see Cliff Jumping below). But sticking in the right direction will lead you to some beautiful waterfalls…

Cliff Jumping from the Tamanique Waterfalls

Maybe hiking isn’t your game, but cliff jumping is. Unfortunately, the only way to reach these waterfalls is by hiking the above-mentioned valley. Several waterfalls are cascading through rocky cliffs in the valley floor.

Some have deep pools which are perfect for cliff jumping, others not so much. This is another reason to use a local guide to show you the right spots. However, even the higher falls that aren’t safe for jumping, make great, shaded swimming holes and a nice break from the harsh Salvadorian sun.

To get here, either take a tour from one of the agencies in El Tunco or hop on bus #187 from the T-intersection on the highway at the edge of town. And while we don’t recommend hitchhiking, that’s another option and the one we used to get up to Tamanique. Once in the village, just ask around for a local guide (typically around $5 per person).

Ride a Famous Chicken Bus

Never taken a chicken bus before? Now is the perfect chance! This is one of the easiest and cheapest places to give it a go and, you don’t need to go too far. Almost any chicken bus passing El Tunco on the highway will pass La Libertad (to the East) or El Zonte (to the West). Both are roughly 20 minutes away, in the opposite direction. Just confirm your destination before boarding. When the guy comes around to collect the money hand him $0.25 and tell him where you want to get off.

Most of the time the bus will be packed with people and blaring music. Expect speakers to be blasting anything from 90’s hits to Latin salsa, and 80s power-ballads. To catch a chicken bus, just head to the edge of town, near the main gate, and wait on the side of the highway. One will be around within a few minutes!

Red school bus with chrome and colourful decals beside a red building.

Practice Yoga at Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

A big part of the backpacker lifestyle is maintaining the body and mind. And yoga is the perfect way to realign yourself and set things right.

There are two popular places in El Tunco offering yoga, both have drop-in classes. But if you came to El Tunco, and now think, “Hey, I want to stay awhile in this rad place and do some yoga,” you can. They both offer yoga retreats, paired with food and accommodation, so check out their websites, book online, or just pop into each one and see which works best for what you are looking for.

Visit the Malecon Fish Market in La Libertad

Take the local bus down to La Libertad ($0.25). Begin your self-guided fish market tour by heading to the pier to see all the amazing fishermen bringing in their catches from the morning.

After the hustle and bustle of the pier, head into the much busier market and watch as locals bargain for the best quality fish for their ceviche stands. Then, head to one of their stalls to try out the local ceviche and grab a cold beer. Hey, sometimes it’s ok to have a morning beer.

There will also be locals selling artisan work and wares in the market. We would suggest getting here for around 9 or 10, staying for an earlier lunch and heading back to your accommodation, out of the heat, in the hottest part of the day. Or bring your swimwear and head to the beach here. There are clean washrooms that cost $0.25 to use.

Fish grilling over charcoal. A woman stand behind grill and beside a pail filled with live fish.
Fresh Grilled Fish at a Fish market

You Need to Try Pupusas!

If El Tunco is your only stop in El Salvador, or even just your first, there’s no better time to hop on the pupusa train. These simple and perfectly delicious snacks are a staple of Salvadorian cuisine. A corn or rice based dough filled with cheese and whatever else you choose to put inside, fried to a golden crispy patty, served with pureed tomato sauce and curtido, a type of Latin coleslaw with vinegar.

Almost any restaurant in town will offer pupusas. Some shops only sell pupusas! The best part about these high-carb treats is that you can grab one for a quick snack, or sit down to three or four and make it a meal. El Tunco is one of the only places that pupusas are made during the day as well. Usually it is served as an evening food, or weekend (after party) breakfast.

More info on specific spots below in the restaurants section!

Take in the Legendary El Tunco Sunset

Few things in life are better than sunsets on the coast of El Salvador. Two years since our first visit, and we’re still completely blown away by their beauty. Every time it goes down, its an amazing array of reds, oranges and pinks – a photographers dream.

Our favourite spot for taking in the sunset is up the beach to the south, at the El Tunco sign (the one we used in our banner at the top of this page). It’s less busy here than the main spot near the end of the main street, and the sign makes for a nice silhouette. Grab a cold beer and head here to take the obligatory selfie, then soak in the stunning scene.

Sunset over the ocean with a rock formation in the water
That El Tunco Sunset!

Check Out all of the Wild Street Art

Even though there are only two main streets in town, there is a ton of great street art popping up. Take a stroll through the streets and take in some of the vibrant colours and intricate patterns. Many of these pieces were commissioned by the Tourism Board and INJUVE contracting local artists to draw some of the past residents of the puebla, and share their artistic abilities.

Be sure to grab a few photos as well, and tag the artist, you’ll need to add a fresh splash of colour to all those sunset shots on your Instagram feed!

Woman sits at a table looking at colourful graffiti of a man in front of her in El Tunco.
“Papa Alonso” One of the first residents in El Tunco. Painted by @madjer_linares

Go Shopping in El Tunco

As the backpacker hub of El Salvador, you’ll find a bunch of great shopping options for travel swag. Whether you’re in the market for a new or used surfboard, some beachwear, souvenirs or just some new clothes for your travels, there are plenty of options in El Tunco.

Along the main street towards the beach, several stores sell standard-issue souvenir clothing and beach-related gear. Most of these shops have roughly the same collection. On the road perpendicular to the beach, including the Tunco Life shop, who sells Surf, Skate, Pupusas shirts at the corner, you’ll find more unique, specialty shops. One of our favourites is Get Up, Stand Up. It’s a sustainable surf brand from Nicaragua that’s recently opened up shop here.

Book your stay in El Tunco here!

Explore the Caves of El Tunco

The famous El Tunco caves are alright, but quite tough to access at the right time. The seaside caverns do offer a unique experience and a great perspective on the typical beach photo. The only way to safely access the caves is at very low tide, and even then, you’ll likely still get wet. So we recommend keeping your camera or camera phone in a dry-bag.

To reach the caves, follow the beach southeast (turn left at the end of the main street), and walk along the uncomfortably rocky shore, like a zombie for around 10 minutes.

Or head to El Zonte for better bigger caves!

Cliffs along the ocean.
This is what you’re looking for. Those are the caves – right under the cliffs

El Tunco Nightlife

Being a backpacker town, once the sun goes down, it’s time to party. The strip of otherwise quiet eateries during the day quickly turn into bumping nightclubs with music blasting late into the evening. This is especially true on weekends when locals from San Salvador head into town to wind down after a long week.

Different bars offer several special nights and drink specials, which tend to change fairly regularly. You’ll have no problem finding a place to get down. Most nights, you can even find bars with ladies night specials — including cheap or free drinks during certain hours. It’s good to be a lady!

Scooter Rentals in El Tunco

Rent a scooter for a day and check out the many things around El Tunco and the surrounding region. Most come with a surfboard rack, which is an awesome chance for you to check out the surf along the coast on the even more secluded beaches. This is way easier and smarter than trying to haul a board on a local bus and gives you the freedom to stop and go whenever/wherever you please.

Even if you don’t surf there are many things to check out all within a short scooter ride, like hikes, beaches, resorts and restaurants (check out more info below). Just be careful and stay out of the way of the local buses and trucks.

  • Cost: Typically $25 for 24 hours, $20 for the day, and $15 for half-day.
Three moto-scooters in a row, with surf racks attached in El Tunco El Salvador
Scooters are the Perfect Way to Explore the Area

Explore the Nearby Beaches

After renting a scooter, head to the west down the main highway to Mizata, a quiet, gorgeous beach along with a super fun 45-minute ride on a scooter. When you are finished at this lazy beach town, slowly head back down the highway hitting up any or all the beaches you want.

Almost every turnoff has a beach, and all are completely different. Don’t expect to find another El Tunco though, this is the most touristy place in all El Salvador. Also, make sure to get to El Zonte, another one of our favourite chill beach towns.

Read about the Best Beaches in El Salvador here!

Woman walking on a beach near some boulders
El Zonte, another beautiful beach just up the highway!

Cool Down with some Local Craft Beer

Jump on a chicken bus or rent a scooter and head over to Cadejo Brewery, just passed El Sunzal. Cadejo is a Salvadorian craft brewery, which opened in 2013, and has been doing well.

A flight of 6 beers will cost you $5, which is a pretty decent deal and a great way to cool down after an afternoon in the sun. We suggest trying the Mera Belga, a Belgian White ale, and the Suegra, an IPA named Mother-In-Law, because it is sweet but has a strong kick at 5.5%.

Their menu is a bit on the pricier side, but if you’re tired of pupusas, they’ve got some great snacks to pair with beer. Plus when you order beer they serve you some amazingly flavoured popcorn in a dog dish to go along with the name of the company.

And don’t forget to bring your swimsuit, if you spend a minimum of $25, you can get access to their ocean-filled swimming pool!

Swim Without Waves at the Atami Saltwater Pools

This is a unique way to take in an “ocean swim” without hitting the surf. Maybe you’re not a surfer, or are just tired of the big waves and want to take a calm ocean water swim, head up to Atami Resort.

They have an awesome restaurant, gorgeous views and three amazing saltwater pools, which are filled by the ocean waves that hit the cliffs. The pools are quite relaxing at low tide and get some movement as they fill during high tide.

Atami is located at Playa El Palmarcito, so you will have to rent a scooter or take the local bus to get here.

  • Cost: If you aren’t staying at the resort, you can purchase a day pass for $20. For this price, they give you a $10 voucher to use on food and beverage in their restaurant as well as access to 7 swimming pools (3 saltwater and 4 regular), access to 2 beaches and use of their basketball courts. They are open Mon – Sun 8am – 5pm.

Relax and Recharge

Don’t forget to rest and have a little downtime — it is a beach town after all. Grab a cold beer and swing in a hammock; read a book and listen to the crashing waves. Or splurge a little and get a massage, prices are far cheaper than back home, and let’s face it, you’ve earned it!

Surfboard on a white fence.
Welcome to beach life

Eating and Drinking in El Tunco

We usually avoid the beachfront spots altogether when in towns like this. You’re almost always going to pay a premium for having a view, while the food is often of no higher quality than anything else in town.

Breakfast

Almost any restaurant, that’s open in the morning, will serve desayunos typicos — typical Salvadorian breakfast. This will usually include: fried plantains, eggs, refried beans or beans & rice (gallo pinto), cheese and/or crema, and more bread than is necessary.

We frequented Esquina la Comadre, and Deli Food. Both are near the main corner. Other breakfasts are available as well, such as omelettes and granola. Prices range from $3 – $5 with coffee refills.

Two plates with breakfast items on them in El Salvador
Typical Salvadorian Breakfast from Esquina la Comadre – Yum!

Pupusas

As mentioned above, Pupusas are a part of Salvadorian culture. Everyone eats them, and it’s almost a right of passage when visiting the country. And if you are a budget traveller, these will be your go-to budget food option when travelling El Salvador. Most pupusa restaurants are only open at night and all day on weekends. But in El Tunco, pupusa places open for lunch almost everyday.

Pupusas can be found at almost every restaurant you visit, and we’ve eaten a lot. But to save you the effort (and growing waistline) hands-down the best pupusas we ate in El Tunco are from El Buen Gusto, beside Posada Luna hotel.

Pupusas on a plate with a blue container of tomato sauce and a green container of slaw
Delicious Pupusas from El Buen Gusto

Sammy’s Tacos

Another great option for pupusas, Samy’s Tacos has really great tacos and burgers if you’re looking for something different. They also have a decent selection of typical Salvadorian food like fried fish and shrimp.

Burger Cristy @ the Campground

This somewhat ramshackle place is actually one of our favourite spots in town, and has been since our first visit several years ago. Until this visit, we didn’t know it actually had a name, we just called it the “campground place,” because it’s found at the entrance to said accommodation.

Fried fish, grilled meats and other standard-issue local fare is served here, as well as decent tacos. But what we really love are the (wait for it…) pupusas! Second only to El Buen Gusto, these are amazing.

Note: Pupusas here are much larger than normal, so don’t order too many right off the start.

Plate of four tacos and salsa
“Campground” Tacos

Rock & Roe Fish Shop

If you’re looking for something a little different from pupusas, stop by Rock & Roe. It’s a little pricier than the others mentioned here, but the fish and chips were great.

And if you want a nice treat, try their boozy fruit punch!

Plate of fish and chips with a lime and glass of juice beside it
Fish and Chips is Never a Bad thing

Pita Jaus

At the far end of main street, opposite the beach, is a little smoothie bar and pita shop called Pita Jaus. Here they serve up delicious smoothies with whatever fruit happens to be in season. And while we didn’t get a chance to eat food from here (damn time restraints!), the pitas look incredible! I imagine they would be the perfect break from the norm.

Pro tip: for an extra dollar, they’ll blend in a nice bit of vodka to your smoothie. It’s the perfect way to straighten out that hangover from last night.

Light blue stoorfront with signs outside advertising drinks
This is the place for Smoothies in El Tunco, El Salvador

Cheap Beer

Beer goes for around $2 for a large bottle. Best share with a friend or drink quickly, as they lose their cool very fast in the coastal heat.

On the weekend, down the main street – near the artisan jewelry tables – we found people selling the same ice-cold beer for $1.65. Everyone gathered there and sat around drinking beer, mingling with the locals. It was a pretty great spot to be. A definite El Tunco weekend staple.

The same thing happened during our last visit, though times are very unofficial. Still a fun way to mingle with locals and save your pennies!

ATMs and Money in El Tunco Beach

There are now three ATMs in El Tunco. Two can be found near the main intersection, beside and across the street from Papaya Lodge. The third is down the main street near the beach.

It’s not uncommon for ATMs to run out of money on the weekends, so it’s wise to bring some with you. And if you need money, make the ATM your first stop, just to be safe.

Where to Stay: El Tunco, El Salvador

Anywhere that fits your budget. The whole of El Tunco is made up of restaurants, hotels and hostels and shops. You will find something.

It’s a pretty small town and everything is walk-able. Aside from some of the hotels along the beach, most accommodation is reasonably priced – though on the cheaper end of things, you really get what you (don’t) pay for.

Outside of the weekend, when prices rise considerably, booking ahead isn’t necessary, but also isn’t a bad idea. There are a lot of accommodations that are not online but are available, especially if you are watching your budget and don’t mind sleeping above a restaurant.

The two main budget options that we were told to go to over and over again for a low cost dorms and private double rooms are:

Papaya Lodge – Which you cannot book online, but they have rooms starting at $25 with fan. Heads up: this is a party hostel and will likely be fully booked if going on a holiday or weekend.

El Sunzalito – A little off the main downtown area, which is nice for the actual quiet sleep. This is one of the best bang for your buck type of places if you are looking for a private room and bathroom. A great swimming pool, air-con and a nice chill out area. Book it here.

Mid Range

Hotel El Tunco Lodge – A definite mid range party hotel, with games room boasting a pool table, large swimming pool and great wifi. They have double rooms, king-bed rooms and if you want to get your beach hut on, they also have little bungalows (not directly on the beach). Book it here.

Posada Luna – We like this place because of the balcony rooms that are on the river. It is far enough off the main road so you cannot hear (as much) the party, nor the motorbikes revving all night long. They also have a kitchen you can use, and a small pool area. Rooms are a bit run down, but we still love its charm. Book it here.

Treat Yo-Self

Boca Olas Resort Villas – A beautiful option for a quiet beachlife resort, with breakfast included, air-con and one of the largest rooms in El Tunco, with a mini bar and couch in each room. Starting at about $175 a night, book your relaxing holiday now.

Check out more Accommodation options in El Tunco!

Getting To/From El Tunco, El Salvador

All of the routes below work the same in the opposite direction. Times and frequency may vary. If you notice a price or time change on your trip, let us know so we can help out our fellow travellers!

La Libertad

When arriving in La Libertad, jump on any of the #192 buses, or the #80. The cost is $0.25 per person. Ask to get off at El Tunco and the guy collecting the money will shout it out when you reach the side of the road. Get off here and walk in on one of the 2 roads leading to the main street. Most people are very helpful and if you ask about your accommodation, they will point you in the right direction. Alternatively, download Maps.me before heading anywhere and the app will follow you offline, and help you navigate where you are.

To La Libertad: Head back up to the highway and flag down any bus going east to get to La Libertad. Always ask the driver first before jumping on to make sure it is headed all the way there. Alternatively, bus 80, 192, 192A and 192B go there for sure. The price per person is $0.25 and takes about 15 minutes to the final stop in La Libertad.

San Salvador

As above, head up to the highway and take the 80 or 192, 192A or 192B or really any bus heading East which more than likely will end in La Libertad 15 minutes ($0.25).

**Alternatively, if you catch the 102A microbus, $1.50 you don’t have to switch over in La Libertad, you got the jackpot bus, congrats! **

If you didn’t hit the jackpot, after getting to La Libertad, take the 102 which comes every 5 mins and takes about 1 hour ($1.25)

The 102A will also stop in La Libertad, it cost $1.50 and is a smaller AC bus (shuttle), they will most likely charge you a second seat if you bring a large bag or not let you on.

**These buses should drop you off at the Occidental terminal, but our last time taking this bus it did not. We use Maps.me (offline map) to find where we are, since it tracks you offline. We ended up getting off at a gas station and taking a cab from there to our next place in San Salvador.

Heading to San Salvador? Here is all you need to know!

Juayua and the Ruta de Flores

Seeing as El Tunco gets pricier and busy on the weekends, why not head up to Juayua for their weekly food festival! Take the 287 to Sonsonate ($1.50) then the 249 to Juayua, ($0.50) which also stops in every town along the Ruta de las Flores. Bus should say Ahuachapan.

**Unfortunately, there are still only 2 buses per day at 6am and 1:30pm to Sonsonate ($1.50). Be on the highway waiting for the 287 bus going West about 15 minutes early just in case. From Sonsonate to El Tunco the bus runs at 5:30am and 3:30pm.

Antigua, Guatemala

To/from Antigua – Direct shuttles run daily, 5 hour ride for $25/30, there are many travel agencies and hotels/hostels that sell this shuttle, it is the easiest way to get here from Antigua.

Love saving money and have the time? You can save quite a bit of money taking the local buses from Antigua to El Tunco. We took this route, and wrote it down to make life easy for you, check out how to get from Guatemala to El Salvador.

Leon, Nicaragua

Shuttles daily for about $30 per person. Talk to your hostel or local tour company for bookings. It’s a continuation of the shuttle from Antigua to El Tunco. This is a long and often uncomfortable trip, though it’s the most common way to continue on to Nicaragua from this end of the country. We would suggest checking out more of the amazing El Salvador first though!!

Check out more El Salvador!

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About the Author

Mark Stewart

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Mark is the co-founder, photographer, author, and part-time editor of These Foreign Roads. A former chef, he left the professional kitchen in search of interesting experiences and unique cuisines from around the world.

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