El Zonte is one of our favourite beach towns in all of El Salvador. And many travellers don’t even know it exists. Or that it’s only a few minutes up the highway from one of the most popular beach towns in the country. Due to its unfamiliarity on the tourist trail, it retains the rustic charm that makes places like this so attractive. Yet despite the low-key vibes, there are a ton of great reasons to put El Zonte, El Salvador on your travel list.
Why Go to El Zonte, El Salvador?
Unlike its more popular neighbour, El Tunco, the atmosphere in El Zonte is much more relaxed. Not that El Tunco isn’t a relaxing place — it really is — but it also has much more of a party vibe, especially on the weekend.
If you’re looking for a beach town with great food, pristine beaches and incredible surf, without the crowds and party scene, El Zonte is the place to be.
What to Do in Playa El Zonte
Surfing in El Zonte, El Salvador
It’s no secret that El Salvador is home to some of the best surfing in the world, and El Zonte has some of the best in the country.
High tide surfing is (supposedly) amazing here. We don’t surf too much, and we’re far from experts on the subject, but from what the locals tell us, there are several types of breaks in El Zonte. So it’s a great spot for all levels, whether beginner, intermediate or advanced.
And considering that the west beach is mostly sand, I think it’s even better for learning than many other beaches nearby. For beginners, the best time to visit is during the dry season (late November to April), for smaller waves. Wet season, (April to September), is better for more experienced surfers.
Surfboards can be bought used from El Chango surf shop, or rented from almost any accommodation in El Zonte. Rentals cost about $10 per day.
If You’re New to Surfing, take some Lessons in the Great El Zonte Surf
If you’re as awful at surfing as me, you’ll probably be looking for a surf lesson. There are plenty of places to get them in El Zonte for all budget types, here are a few recommended:
- From the higher end of the spectrum, you can head to Puro Surf, a boutique hotel with 13 rooms and a dorm. They offer surf lessons, surf academy, rentals, yoga and surf packages as well as just chill packages which can be all-inclusive of your stay and food. Check out prices or Book a room here.
- Want to learn from one of the best? Head over to Esencia Nativa; a hostel, restaurant, tour company and surf school. Alex is the only surf instructor in the country who is certified with the international surf association, and the one who started Salvadorian Surf federation. Book a room with Esencia Nativa here.
- Horizonte Surf Camp also offers surfing lessons, along with accommodation and a restaurant.
All are great options to go for surf lessons in El Zonte. You don’t have to be staying at their accommodations to get the lessons either. So if you want to stay at a different accommodation in El Zonte, just pop in to one of these places and ask for lessons.
Release Baby Sea Turtles
Turtle hatching season takes place during a short window between September and November. On the west side of El Zonte, there is a place called La Mision Hatchery. It’s found right at the beach, in front of the new skate park.
There isn’t an office or place to ask about the turtles, but once in a while, you will find the workers here. Ask when they will be setting free the hatchlings and cross your fingers you are there at the right time. Alternatively, you can call or stop by the amazing hotel Palo Verde, and ask them when it will be, or if it is the correct season.
Head down in front of the hatchery around 4 or 4:30, they usually set them free close to the time of sunset. You will see a group of people around a container, just show up and become a part of the action! They love the help, and will even let you set one free. Make sure to not walk (move) once the turtles get picked up by the waves, they sometimes get pushed back behind you, and you would hate to step on one!
Feed Your Skateboarding Fix
Grab a skateboard and ride the modest, but well-built and brand new skate park in town, or just a beer and watch the local kids use it. They are pretty talented, and it is a great way to cheer them on. The skate park is located in front of the turtle hatchery.
Don’t expect a full-sized park here, it’s a fairly simple half-pipe/bowl setup, but if you like to skate, it’s the perfect spot to play around for a while.
Check out the Sea Caves
Like in El Tunco, you’ll find some really beautiful caves beneath the cliffs surrounding El Zonte. And personally, I think these are the nicer of the two.
Head to the far west side of the beach, a little passed the turtle hatchery. You can really only get to them at low tide, but the cavernous space is a nice spot to hide from the afternoon heat.
And they’re a great spot for photos!
Align Yourself with some Yoga
Even if you’re not a yogi, all that surfing can do a number on your body. Also, if you have been doing the hikes of El Salvador and area, yoga is the answer! El Zonte is a great, relaxed place to fix that with yoga.
They have offset drop-in schedules, with yoga starting at 8:30am. Head over to Esencia Nativa on Mondays and Fridays, and Zonset on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays.
Spanish School El Zonte is the go-to place to learn Spanish in this area. You can get one on one, partner, or group lessons with a qualified teacher with a beautiful view! They teach their lessons on the Palo Verde grounds, in their small tropical garden with the sound of waves crashing in the background. What a place to learn!
When doing the lessons, you get free coffee, water and WiFi while there. They also offer online classes, so you can learn the basics, before arriving in El Salvador, or even keep learning after you have left with the same teacher!
- Contact Spanish School El Zonte to find out prices.
Stop in for a Quick Coffee at the Tourist Office
This is literally how it sounds, but hear me out…
We had a tough time catching these guys in this place, before realizing that they do excursions during the afternoon. They sell delicious, fresh-brewed local coffee in the shack from 8-11am. Just bring a cup to fill. (It is difficult to get actual coffee, most casual spots tend to sell instant coffee, which is an awful shame considering how much great coffee comes from El Salvador).
It’s also a great place to check up on upcoming events. Check the blackboard out front for weekly tours and activities.
Take a Fishing Excursion
This isn’t something a lot of people think of in a surf town, but I know a lot of you like fishing back in your home country. So giving it a shot in the open sea could be a really great way to switch things up.
Fishing tours can be booked along any of the beaches in El Salvador. They usually take from 1 to 4 people on each excursion. They do need to be booked at least a day in advance.
The Tour Companies we recommend are:
Or you can ask around at tourist information or even at your accommodation, and you can be on a boat the next morning chasing down a marlin!
Soak in Stunning Sunrises & Sunsets
El Salvador has some of the most magnificent sunset views we’ve ever seen, and El Zonte might be our favourite. Grab a comfortable chair, swing a hammock, or just lie on the beach and watch the sky dance with colour as the brilliant orange orb disappears over the horizon.
What’s even better, is that during the winter months, because of the way El Salvador sits in relation to the ocean, you can also watch a similar display of colour at sunrise.
Great Swimming in El Zonte
One of the highlights of El Zonte is that it has two very different beaches. The east side is quite rocky but has some of the best surf breaks in the area. Unfortunately, this is a common theme around here, but not everyone comes to the beach to surf.
Thankfully, across the small river that divides El Zonte, the west beach is made up of smooth, silky black sand. The waves here are smaller and the water is relatively shallow for some distance. It’s the perfect swimming beach for those who just want to splash around in the sea.
If visiting in the dry season, you will find it quite easy to walk through the river to the sand beach. If visiting in the rainy season, the river grows significantly and can flow at dangerous speeds. If the river is too fast to cross, just head up to the highway and come to the west side of town from there.
Get your relax on. As many things as there are to do here in El Zonte, the reason we love it so much is how relaxing it is. The scenery is stunning, the people are friendly, and the sound of the waves rolling onto the shore is the perfect soundtrack.
Go to the beach and chill. Head to a hotel or hostel with a pool and chill. Sit on a terrace with a view and cool, ocean breeze — and chill.
You’ve earned it, or maybe you haven’t, but nobody needs to know that.
Restaurants in El Zonte
Typical Salvadorian Food
Along the waterfront on the east side of the river, several small restaurants sell simple meals at low prices.
Breakfast is a standard Salvadorian style, with eggs, beans and/or rice, fried plantains, cheese and bread. Menus are similar in quality and price at most of these spots, but if going for breakfast, head to one with a beach view to catch the surfers at play.
For lunch, our favourite of these beachfront spots is an unnamed spot to the left (if facing the water) of the tourist information shack at the t-intersection. During our visit, the place was manned entirely by a friendly old lady. The lunch special features either chicken or fish, with salad, rice and tortillas, with a beer for $5. And I have to say, this was one of the tastiest chicken dishes I ate in the nearly two months we’ve spent in the country.
You’ll find several pupersrias selling the Salvadorian staple along the highway near El Zonte. And a few more, including Comedor La Zontena, in the centre of town. But without question, the best pupusas in El Zonte are found at Jeisi’s.
You must check out Jeisi’s pupusas, they are out of this world. The place is named after the owner’s daughter, and is a go-to eatery for locals and visitors alike. They open at 5 or maybe 6, whenever they kind of feel like opening, and usually busy straight through until they close.
You can choose between rice or corn dough (we prefer the rice), and they are priced between 0.75-$1 each; unless you get the loco, which is huge, filled with everything and costs $3. Just walk in and grab a seat, one of the women, or maybe even Jeisi herself will come to take your order.
We were also told by a local sitting next to us, that it is mandatory to have a Salvadorian beer with your pupusas. Who are we to argue that logic? We followed his expert advice thoroughly.
El Vikingo, run by a Danish expat, is a popular spot with travellers. And I’ve heard from several people that their Pad Thai is one of the best they’ve had outside of Thailand. I wanted to check this place out so badly, but we ran out of time before getting a chance.
If you’re looking for something uncommon around these parts, this is the place.
Olor de Mar
This is on the higher end of the scale, but after living off of pupusas for a while, we decided to splurge. Olor de Mar is located on the Palo Verde property at the far east side of the beach, although the restaurant and hotel are not directly affiliated.
I highly recommend the pancetta and prawn sandwich with pickled onions. It’s one of the tastiest sandwiches I’ve had in a long while.
Accommodation in Playa El Zonte
Budget Dorm – The Black Cat
Boasting an outdoor pool, this hostel is the most lively place in all of El Zonte. This is one of the only party-hostels in El Zonte, so get your relax on during the day and head across the highway to this for the action. They also have karaoke, trivia and salsa nights.
- Dorm $8 with continental breakfast included.
- Book the Black Cat now!
Budget Private Room – Hostal el Punta
One of our favourite places to stay in El Zonte, only because of the room — more specifically, the view. If booking here make sure to get the cabana on the end closest to the water. The mornings you can watch the surfers and in the evenings you can watch the sunset from your balcony. As well, the common area is pretty laid back and has some great ocean views as well.
Don’t expect much else though. The shared bathroom needs a bit of work, WIFI is non-existant, and the rooms are fairly simple. But for us, the view alone is worth the stay.
Just make sure to specify in the remarks that you want this room when you are booking, as they don’t seem to have an option to choose.
- Private from $25
- Book Hostal el Punta now!
Best Value Midrange – Esencia Nativa
Each room has a balcony, private bathroom and air conditioning. They have a nice pool, restaurant with great food and a bar. And remember, they have drop in yoga classes at 8:30am on Mondays and Fridays, as well as surf lessons for those interested.
- Private room from $50, breakfast included.
- Book Esencia Nativa now!
High End – Palo Verde
Oh man, what a treat. After weeks on chicken buses and budget hostels, spending a couple of nights here was like heaven. Palo Verde is a built with sustainability in mind, with a focus on building up the entire community.
Relax in the beautiful infinity pool, with a view of the surf beach, and listen to the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below. The modern design is a funky change to the standard in these parts, and the air-conditioned rooms are a dream in the Salvadorian heat
During turtle season, the staff will bring you to the beach release.
Out of the Way – Hammock Plantation
This place gets rave reviews and great for surfers or those looking for even more relaxation. Just up the highway from the main town, it’s close to the beach and in an even more quiet area than El Zonte proper.
This family-owned hostel includes a pool, outdoor kitchen, and of course plenty of hammocks.
- Dorms $10
- Private, from $25
- Book the Hammock Plantation now!
Money in El Zonte
The main thing to note before heading here is that there are no ATMs in El Zonte. Take money out before arriving and try to bring as many small notes and coins as possible.
Like many smaller towns in El Salvador, shops and restaurants will have a difficult time making change for a $20. If you do forget to take out money, head to the highway and catch a local bus for $0.25 to El Tunco, where you can find several ATMs.
How to Get to Playa El Zonte, El Salvador
Due to its proximity to El Tunco, one of the most popular spots in all El Salvador, getting to El Zonte is easy from almost anywhere. Below are the cheapest options, using local buses. If you don’t mind spending a little extra money, you can easily get here with shuttles or taxis. Just ask at your accommodation to arrange it!
How to get from El Tunco to El Zonte
From the side of the highway, grab almost any bus heading east. Buses #192, 192A and 192B definitely do. Confirm with the driver first and let him know that you’re getting off at Playa El Zonte. $0.25, about 10-15 minutes.
El Zonte from San Salvador
From Occidental Terminal take bus #102 (or the AirConditioned 102a, but you’ll likely be charged double if you have a large bag) to La Libertad — $1.50, 1.5 hours.
Then, on the same side of the road, catch bus #192, 192a, 192b to El Zonte. Almost any bus heading east from La Libertad will pass El Zonte, just confirm with the driver before boarding. This leg is $0.25 and takes around 20 minutes.
From the Ruta de las Flores
Then take bus #287 from the Sonsonate bus station to La Libertad and get off at Playa El Zonte. The bus takes a little under 2 hours and costs $1.50.
- It’s worth noting, there are only two direct buses per day, at 5:30am and 3:30pm. So be sure to arrive early or you’ll need to find another route.
If you don’t want to chance missing the 3:30 bus from Sonsonate, you can take a bus from Sonsonate to San Salvador, and another bus from San Salvador down to La Libertad. This route will cost a few dollars more and take around 4 hours.
Heading to the Ruta de las Flores? Everything you need to know is right here!
You can take a shuttle from Antigua to El Zonte from almost any hostel or travel agent in Antigua for $25 to $30. If you have time but not much money, you can do what we did, and take the local buses down. We describe how to in our Antigua to El Salvador post, including costs and times.