We stepped off the plane in San Salvador & into the thick warm heat that met us. We were greeted by about 20 friendly taxi drivers, many even speaking English. We picked our guy and asked for ‘El Tunco’. We’d heard this was a famous surfers spot and a new and upcoming top backpackers chill out. We were really looking forward to it but we had zero expectations. We’d just had to fly from Costa Rica (which we hated more on that soon) over the top of Nicaragua due to the political situation which turned violent.
So here we were. Lots of backpackers skip El Salvador. Tell me have you ever considered El Salvador as a destination? Probably not. If you’ve never done a long trip in Central America you would never consider it. It’s a tiny country, with a complicated history and is home to just 6.4 million people.
The journey to El Tunco was smooth, uncomplicated, pleasant and JUST 45 minutes! We paid $35 (US dollars – the country has used the US dollar since 2001) door to door. The scenery was green and lush. As soon as we pulled up in El Tunco we knew we would love it. Cute cafes, restaurants, shops, lots of bars selling a whole range of mouth watering options. From the advertisements outside, extremely cheap too. Throughout South America we honestly struggled to find a variety of food. There’s no way you’d find a falafel easily in Brazil, a chow mein in Santiago, or a Mexican taco anywhere in Argentina. But from what we could see this small beach side town had EVERYTHING. The beach front was super modern too, more modern than anything we had seen in a long time. We checked into Pousada Luna which was $35 a night for a double with air con and private bathroom. Simple accommodation but did the job. (We later switched and stayed at Casa Mirama $25 a night not available online fully recommend) We had wanted to stay at one of the backpackers resorts which do offer dorms too, they looked amazing but they were fully booked! (And some people say it’s not busy there….) so if you’re headed good idea to book in advance online or even drop them a message on social media.
Most of us don’t know anything about El Salvador me included. Did you know that the reason why El Salvador is as small as it is? So El Salvador was actually the first country in Central America in 1811 to try to gain independence but ended up being the last place to actually gain its status. Meaning the surrounding countries gained larger territory before El Salvador could claim their land. El Salvador is now the smallest & most densely populated country in Central America.
Our first day in El Tunco I made contact with a local tour agency Tunco Life. We exchanged some DMs (how modern) and we wandered down to the office and met it’s owner Salvatore. Salvatore is a young entrepreneur from San Salvador who won numerous awards and grants from the El Salvadoran government to launch his business. The office is well equipped and he offers his space with local handicraft businesses too. (The stuff is GORGEOUS). Tunco Life was fantastic. Salvatore gave us tip after tip about El Salvador and all the incredible tour options he offers. His business partner owns a shuttle company too so the business offers shuttles all over. If you need any tips at all about tours all over El Salvador head to El Tunco & find the Tunco Life office which has pride of place in the centre of town. Don’t forget El Salvador is small country so you can stay in one place and travel all over on day trips safely and quickly.
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So let’s talk about the food and drink in El Tunco. You can get a humongous seafood dish decorated with its a whole lobster for just $12/£9. Make sure you check out Erika’s restaurant for the best! In the UK the equivalent for the seafood on that very plate would be well over £150. You can get the biggest ceviche to rival anything in Peru for just £4/$5.30 or the biggest prawns in your life for just £3/$3.90. A whole plate of oysters on the beach so fresh it’s caught right there in front of you. I can’t even tell you. Such heaven. Tacos! yeah honestly you can get tacos from numerous spots in town to rival anything in Mexico. A beer is $1 pretty much everywhere. Needless to say, we ate ourselves stupid! Make sure you try EVERYTHING. Some great spots to try are: La Bocana, Dale’s cafe, Tunco Veloz Pizzeria, Falafel La Bocana, Blu Bar…
Prawn, avocado and pineapple salad
Ceviche all from the restaurant La Bocana
We decided we would take the Santa Ana Volcano (highest volcano in the country) trek with Tunco Life as suggested by Salvatore. We met at the office at 8am. The drive was a couple of hours in which Salvatore gave us an incredible insight into El Salvador’s complicated history which I am SUPER interested in. Most of us in the western world have never learnt anything about El Salvador so I was ALL EARS.
So during the 12-year civil war, in which the U.S. government backed the military-led Salvadoran government against leftist militants, thousands of Salvadorans fled to the USA, where some were granted temporary protection but others lived as undocumented migrants. Many stayed behind at home, however, where high death tolls resulting from the conflict deeply impacted communities. Beginning in the 1980s, Washington gave thousands of El Salvadorans, largely from poor, rural areas, temporary protective status in the US. But those migrants were given little support, and were deported en masse after the war ended. They took back with them Los Angeles-style gang culture & replicated it throughout major urban hot spots in El Salvador & eventually throughout Central America. After 1992, their temporary protection ended, forcing them back to El Salvador, a country ravaged for years by a war they hardly remembered. Today there are nearly 3.2 million Salvadorans that live in the United States. El Salvador has a deep connection with the US because of this – the country is very Americanised in many ways, malls and drive throughs full of American brands and fast food vendors line the motorways. Many more people here speak fluent or a good level of English than many other South or Central American countries we have visited.
So back to the drive… our first stop en route to Saint Ana was a absolutely BLISSFUL view over Lake Coatepeque which is a large crater lake surrounded by wooded hills. In the lake’s southwest corner is Teopán Island, once a sacred site for the ancient Maya.
We arrived at the National park that sits at the base of the volcano and waited around 45 mins to arrange the ascent with the policemen that escort you. The police men aren’t there to rugby tackle potential bandits that may rob you but are there for your safety (like a park ranger) and to make sure no one tries any funny business. I thought it was pretty amazing how they did this hike everyday. What was even more amazing was the guy that walked up with a box of ice creams to meet us at the top too. There were in total about 20 of us that day with various guides.
The hike itself up to 2,318m isn’t too difficult, but a basic level of fitness will definitely help you ascend to the peak. It’s roughly a 4 hour round trip hike to the volcano, which includes about half an hour at the top to take in the views. It did tire me out but it really wasn’t that bad, I’d just been over doing it on tacos recently that’s all.
The volcano itself has a huge mesmerising fluorescent green sulphur pool at the top and COUNTLESS photo opportunities. I was blown away and couldn’t thank Tunco Life enough for this incredible experience. Honestly guys it’s was one of my favourite experiences in 9 months. Fun fact: The volcano was actually the inspiration for one of the active volcanoes in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous French novel -The Little Prince. Cool huh?
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
Beginning the hike
Arriving to the top
Those colours though.
On top of the world
Overlooking Lake Coatepeque
That evening Salvatore invited us on an evening tour of the capital San Salvador. We were very excited to join. Even though we flew into San Salvador we hadn’t seen any of the city so we were keen to learn more!
The drive took about 45 minutes in the swanky air conned van. Our first stop was downtown to the main square where we’re saw the National Palace, the National Theatre, the Plaza Libertad, and the famous Cathedral which were all lit up quite spectacularly.
As we stood at the famous Cathedral we learnt about Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, probably the most famous Salvadorans to ever live (WHO I HAD NEVER HEARD OF!). Óscar Romero was a prelate of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, who served as the 4th Archbishop of San Salvador. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture in his country. He called on the military to STOP killing innocent civilians in El Salvador’s war. Just one day later in 1980, Romero was assassinated by sniper shot through the heart right in the middle of offering Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence. Though no one was ever convicted for the crime, investigations by the UN-created Truth Commission for El Salvador concluded that extreme-right wing politician and death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson had given the order. At his funeral the army opened fire on 100,000 mourners killing dozens. We visited this square which has now been completely regenerated & stands proud in the centre of San Salvador. During a tour of Central America in 2017 the current Pope Francis (the first Latin American Pope was ordered not to visit El Salvador due to ‘El Salvador being too dangerous’ but the pope refused & headed there anyway. The turn out in El Salvador was incredible. In early 2018 Pope Francis declared that Óscar Romero will be made a saint & canonised early 2019.
I don’t know about you but I was blown away by all this information.
The tour also took us to to a fantastic 1930’s pool hall, which is a famous and traditional spot in down town. Everything inside is still original – so if you’re a photographer you’ll have a FIELD DAY. The tour ended at Cadejo brewery and restaurant. We had a tour inside and given free samples of all their craft beers. The beer was honestly very impressive and as a beer lover couldn’t be a better way to end our evening.
Here’s some other fabulous pics so you can see for yourself:
The cathedral Romero’s funeral was held at & the square dozens were killed at.
Street art depicting Romero
The National Palace
The old 1930’s pool hall
Delicious craft beer at Cadejo brewery. Check them out!
El Salvador’s tourism industry is currently doubling EVERY YEAR. Yes it is safe. No you don’t need security or escorts to visit the tourist areas. Yes it’s booming. Did you know that pro surfers from all over the world come to El Tunco to train every year before heading off to competitions in Hawaii, Australia and South America? The people are vibrant, funny, extremely welcoming and SO HAPPY. The Salvadoran people have endured a lot. Apparently some countries government advice STILL advise that it isn’t a safe place to go. I personally feel this advice is extremely outdated and biased. El Salvador is a country deserves to be enjoyed and appreciated. If any of you think I’m just another one of those ‘bloggers’ endorsing places I don’t believe in you should get to know me. I truly loved it here and I know many others will too.
Check out Tunco Life at: www.tuncolife.com