Life in El Tunco, El Salvador
My final destination for this trip was the country El Salvador. In my research, i found out that El Salvador is one of the best countries for surfing with consistent waves year-round. The flight from Costa Rica was only one hour, and the country removed all entry restrictions. Going through immigration took only about five minutes, then I was ready to grab my luggage and get a taxi to my destination.
El Salvador is a small country with around 6.5 million inhabitants. The stereotypical reputation of the country is that it's very dangerous to visit. This is mostly due to the brutal gang wars in the country that have been going on and at times caused over 30 deaths a day. As far as I know, the political situation has been getting better, and the violence has been greatly reduced. There are still areas where it is not considered safe to visit, but the coast towns around the more touristy locations are considered safe. I decided to stay in El Tunco, a small beach town on the coast. The town has only one way in and out, which is gated by security guards. At night it's perfectly safe to walk around here.
I booked a hotel called "La Guitarra". It's right on the beach in El Tunco. The price was extremely cheap for my budget. Because i stayed more than three weeks, it was 40$ a night for a room with beach views and daily breakfast included.
The room was pretty basic but more than enough. The bed was very comfortable, and the room had an air conditioner. During the day, I've set the aircon temperature to 24 degrees, which was enough to cool down when it was 32 degrees outside.
The best part about the room was definitely the balcony. Views straight on the ocean, perfect to watch the sunset.
The hammock on the balcony was also a highlight. I read a lot hanging in there.
The waves breaking can be a relaxing background noise. However, being so close to the ocean, the waves are very loud when they break. After a couple of days, I got used to the sound and slept just fine.
However, what did not help in falling asleep was the bar right next to the hotel. On Fridays/Saturdays/Sundays, the bar played loud music from 8 PM - 1 AM. The music was very loud. It was about the same volume as if you would play music on your phone right next to you. The music from the bar was one of the only downsides of this hotel.
Most of the hotel guests are here for surfing. Everybody has their surfboards out and ready to go. The hotel even has outdoor showers to clean the surfboard when coming back from the ocean.
I continued with my work-life balance of working a couple of hours a day and finishing important tasks. I mostly sat in a very comfortable chair on my balcony and worked from there. The location had shadow, and there was an excellent wind blowing that made the heat very much tolerable. The only bad part was that the balcony's Wi-Fi was sometimes very slow with lots of connection losses.
The main reason for coming here was to get more experience with surfing. There were multiple surf breaks close to my hotel. I surfed almost daily during my stay. Some days even twice a day, early mornings and late afternoons into the sunset. The picture above was taken by a local, he sold it to me for 20$ after i was done surfing :)
Most of the beaches in the area where i stayed have lots of rocks and very little sand. This is not ideal for getting to the water and also can be very dangerous when large waves are pushing you into the rocks. And the waves are powerful, causing rip currents that can make it dangerous to swim in the ocean without a surfboard.
El Sunzal was a five-minute walk from my hotel. Sunzal is a point break, meaning it breaks at specific points because of the formation of the rocks on the floor. This makes the waves way more predictable and more fun. There are some of the longest waves at this break. There are three different lineups where it's possible to catch waves.
Surfing here for the first time left me a very strong impression of how powerful waves can be. In the first couple of days when i surfed here, the waves were the biggest I've ever surfed in. It took me a while to catch a good wave, but after that first wave, i was smiling for a long time, which made all the paddling and struggle worth it.
There is a steady flow of waves of different sizes coming in, and there are very powerful waves coming from time to time. If you don't see them early enough and paddle out of the way of where they break, you have to try to go below the wave when it's breaking in front of you. This move is called the Duck dive (pictured above). I never had to practice this before in Costa Rica, but i learned quickly that without this move, the waves will carry you and push you downward. Waves are mostly coming in sets of 3-5 waves, which means after a big one, there is almost another one and another one.
On my first day, i was dragged all the way to the shore, where the water was very shallow and filled with rocks. By trying to hold onto something, i cut my leg on a rock, which bled pretty strong. Weeks later, i still have the wound on my leg.
Being pushed back can be very demotivating as you have to paddle all the way out again, which can be very energy intensive. I switched to a lighter board after my bad experience that allowed me to better get below the waves. It will still push you backwards, and you have to paddle as hard as you can to make it over the next big wave, which can be absolutely exhausting, but i also started to get used to the experience and tried to enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with it.
One huge downside of this break is that it gets super crowded, even early morning at 7 AM when the winds are blowing offshore, making the ocean calmer (glassy - in surf terms) and much easier to paddle out. The spot will get filled up pretty quickly with 50+ people in the water. As mentioned, there are at least three lineups (places to catch waves), so it spreads a bit, but it can still take a long time until you are in the right spot, and it's your turn to catch a wave, and you actually catch the wave.
I took surf lessons once a week. The coach was picking me up at 5:30 AM in front of my hotel, and we drove 10-15 minutes to another surf spot. We went to El Zonte and to K59. Both breaks were more intense then El Sunzal close to my hotel. Stronger and more intense waves are easier to paddle into but harder to stand up on the surfboard and actually ride the wave without getting crushed by it. Also, the more intense the waves are, the more you have to watch out for more giant waves that can break in front of you.
During the lesson, the coach was paddling next to me and pointing me to where i should go to have the optimal position to paddle into the incoming waves. It was hugely helpful in catching more waves in a shorter period. I could catch 10x more waves compared to the break where i went surfing by myself. Each lesson was a memorizing experience. Tough, I was always glad that the lesson was over. After two hours, i was completely out of energy, and my body was almost in a shock-like state.
I'm still categorizing my surf skills as being at the beginner level. I can now read the waves better than when i just started and have a more improved feeling for when i need to paddle more or less to catch a wave. Riding on the wave, I made some progress on the first turn, which is called the "Bottom turn," it is used to get back up to the top of the wave to gather more speed for the next turn, in most cases after this turn I'm falling off, or the wave is breaking on me. To get to an intermediate level, I am still missing skills like carving turns, which is turning while distributing the weight on the surfboard. Learning those skills takes a lot of practice time on the actual wave.
My current honest verdict on surfing is that i haven't fallen in love with it yet. I'm still allowing myself some more time to make a final verdict. And then decide if I want to put in more effort in the future to get better at it.
One thing is very clear, to get to an intermediate level, you have to put in a lot of time and repetition. On top of that, every surf break can be different, and you need to adjust your surfing to each particular spot. The wave-riding time is so short compared to all the other required activities around it. Tough with every wave you catch and successfully ride, it makes all the other work around it worth it.
While I'm surfing and out in the ocean, i almost have a constant smile on my face. It's just such a magical feeling being out floating in the ocean with the sun shining. I had some soul-crushing days of being out in the water for more than an hour and not catching any good waves. But on the contrary, i had days where i caught good waves, and after I was back, i was looking online at buying my own surfboard :)
When I now look at experienced surfers surfing bigger waves (not the insane ones - just big waves 3+ meters), i have enormous respect for how hard this actually is and how strong those waves are when they break on you or if you fall on them. Surfing large waves takes years of practice and is not something I'm looking to do any time soon.
I guess i will see when I'm back home if i crave surfing and have a strong urge to get back into the ocean.
My hotel included daily breakfast. My room didn't have a kitchen, which meant the rest of the meals i was eating out at restaurants. The town is quite small, so i had the chance to try almost every compelling restaurant.
Every morning i was able to choose from four different breakfasts; Traditional (eggs, cheese, beans) / French toast / Pancakes / Fruit bowl.
After a while, i was able to convince the cooking lady to switch out the cheese and beans for more eggs. This became my primary breakfast which was an excellent start to the day. Free daily fresh orange juice was super delightful.
On the days where i surfed before breakfast, i treated myself to well-earned pancakes. They were super tasty and had lots of carbohydrates that put you in a small food coma.
Omelette with beans
Sometimes i ate a second breakfast meal in the afternoon at a restaurant close to the hotel. This meal costs 4$.
Unlike the burritos I'm used to in the US or Switzerland, they are much thinner here. I guess that the burrito is actually more traditional in this way, i heard it's the same in Mexico. Luckily this restaurant always served two burritos when you ordered it from the menu. In the picture, i already ate most of the first one :)
The local specialty, i waited a long time to try them to avoid upsetting my stomach. On the last weekend here, i finally ordered them at a local restaurant specializing in pupusas. They are dough mixed with different ingredients, mainly cheese + something. The ordering reminded me a bit of a sushi place. You will get a sheet of paper to cross which ones you want. Then they will make them with their hands and put the dough with the fillings on the grill. The pupusas are then eaten with bare hands.
This first one was with cheese & beans. Pretty good. The second one, Cheese and ham were also delicious.
The meal was 2$.
Surf & Turf
I also went to two restaurants outside of the town with a friend who had a car. I ate mainly fish dishes or surf & turf.
The restaurants on the coast all have breathtaking views of the ocean.
Being healthy is always my top priority. Eating out at restaurants every day is, in my opinion, not optimal for health. Most restaurants use highly refined cooking oils that are not good for long-term health.
After a week of eating out, my stomach started to feel a bit upset. On Saturday, i was lying in my bed feeling very ill. I then had to throw up multiple times very violently until almost my whole stomach was empty. After that, if i just ate one bite of food, i had to throw up again. That night I felt awful. The next day, i got some medication for my stomach, which allowed me to eat rice crackers and drink fluids again. I had an intense headache from the electrolyte deficiencies. After three days, i felt normal again, and my energy returned to go out and surf.
After surfing a lot and getting lots of water in my nose and ears, i developed a slight ear infection. One wave broke directly on my ear once, which pushed lots of water deep inside. The infection made me feel quite tired for a couple of days. I skipped two days of surfing and took lots of ibuprofen for about five days. Luckily i was able to fight the infection and feel better again afterward.
During my time surfing, i got so many cuts on my feet and legs, some very deep cuts on my toe and foot soles hurt pretty bad and made it very hard to walk. If i ever return here, i will definitely buy some special shoes that i can wear while surfing.
January is in the dry season of El Salvador. The weather is literally perfect every day. It gets up to 32 degrees during the day, which can be hot when fully exposed to the sun. At night, it cools down to around 24 degrees, perfect to go out with just a shirt.
I watched every sunset during my stay here. Most of the time i watched the sunset on my balcony while reading on my kindle.
I also surfed during the sunset, which was a super delightful experience.
The sunset colors really come out when it's a little cloudy.
Bitcoin deserves a small mention when writing about El Salvador. It recently became legal tender here, which means that everyone has to accept it as a payment method. In El Tunco, you can use it in some restaurants and clothing stores. For me personally, it was not a reason to come here. Overall, i think it's a good thing for the country, and i hope that bitcoin acceptance will be more widespread in the future. However, i do prefer spending dollars and saving my bitcoin.
The people I've met in El Salvador left a very positive impression on me. El Salvador is getting more famous for tourists. The town I'm staying in can be categorized as very touristy, but there are also many local people coming to El Tunco on the weekends to visit the beach and have a fun time.
The locals are very friendly and super helpful as well. You can feel that they appreciate that you are visiting their country. Compared to other countries, the local people do not give the impression that they want to rip you off or sell you something.
The surf culture is very big here. The locals start surfing at a very young age.
The people I've met at the hotel were also friendly. At first, i did not have much contact with other residents, but after a while, you will run into each other a lot and get to know each other. Most of them stay for multiple weeks and have been coming to this exact hotel for multiple years in a row. About half of them are working remotely. About 90% percent are surfers.
El Tunco is considered a party town in El Salvador. As mentioned, locals are coming from the city to go party here on the weekends. There are lots of bars here and some larger outdoor bars that are very much like a beach club. Two of those larger bars were right next to my hotel, which was a blessing (close walk there/home) and a curse (no quiet time at night).
One weird experience i noticed here, the bars treat the tourist better than the locals, i was always allowed to skip lines to enter the bar. Also, the locals come here to meet tourists, commonly referred to as "gringos". I guess that's a win-win situation. The only downside is that most locals don't speak English well, and I should not expect them to. It's on me to get better at Spanish.
Apart from the non-ideal health-related experiences, I had a great time here. I will consider coming back to El Salvador again to the same hotel next January. I will be on the hunt for the perfect Winter escape location over the next couple of years. El Salvador is for sure on that list.