Travel Section: El Tunco, El Salvador
Central America is a land of intersecting cultures, tumultuous politics, and unrivalled natural splendour. From the fire-spitting volcanoes that line the sliver of land between the Americas to the numerous impassioned civil revolutions dotting each country’s history, it is a place that has a certain flare for the dramatic.
As a graduate of Political Science and Geography, Central America was — and remains — my wanderlust wet dream. From the banks of the Rio Grande to the locks of the Panama Canal, Latin America personifies the will to stand up for your beliefs, to embrace coexistence, to take pride in natural beauty, and to commit past injustice to memory. Latin American cultural historian Charles Chasteen called it a land “born in blood & fire.”
While combing through travel blogs, backpacking forums, and the revered travel bible, Lonely Planet, it seemed that El Salvador suffered a reputation not far removed from past narratives of conflict and insecurity. While some backpackers blamed El Salvador’s lack of historical grandeur or it’s logistical location on the periphery of the increasingly well-trodden backpacker trail, there are some travelers who are quick to reference shocking crime statistics and governmental warnings. It is safe to say that many travelers side-step El Salvador when planning their route through Central America. Naturally, this piqued my interest even more and a flight to San Salvador was booked.
While it may seem naïve to embark on a trip to a country that is perceived to be ‘dangerous’, experience in Thailand during the 2009 political crisis made me skeptical of sensationalized media reports of civil unrest and alarmist second-hand stories of crime. While El Salvador may boast the highest murder rate in the Latin Americas and San Salvador amongst is often named among the most dangerous cities in the world (I too gulped when I heard the statistics), it is important to remember that much of the crime is gang-related and usually sequestered to particular barrios of San Salvador; the mere mention of these areas sends a shiver down the spine of Salvadoreños, let alone foreign tourists. Vigilance and respect are often the best weapons to protect oneself from harm.
Admittedly, the bone chilling narratives painted by questionable media outlets were at the back of my mind. However, El Salvador is a nation that is tragically misunderstood and carries the weight of a deadly civil and gang war on the backs of 6 million smiling faces. In my experience, El Salvador was welcoming, generous, and —you guessed it — seemingly safe. It’s the sort of country that is locked in an “it’s complicated” relationship with itself, being simultaneously a place where you revel in and admire the sheer beauty and kindness of locals, but also maybe abstain from walking down poorly lit alleyways after dusk (though a good practice regardless of where you happen to be in the word).
Upon our late-night touchdown at Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport, my boyfriend Luka and I threw our backpacks in the trunk of a taxi and sped down deserted highways toward the famed, rugged pipe of the Pacific coast. With a limited time in the country, we sidestepped the capital to enjoy a little sun, sand, and surf.
The two street town of Playa El Tunco, popular with shoestring backpackers and fiesta-seeking San Salvador weekenders, served as our base as we explored Departamento (think province or state) de La Libertad. The economy of El Tunco has thrived in recent years due to its growing reputation among millennial travelers and international surfers, with tourism serving as the primary industry in the once sleepy beach town. With palm-thatched roofs, a handful of local restaurants, charming bars, and guesthouses line the single lane streets. Sure, it caters to a backpacking crowd, but it is a far cry from the debaucherous, binge drinker magnets of Thailand's Koh Pha Ngan or Ecuador's Montañita.
El Tunco is an idyllic place to let the sun kiss your skin and catch up on all those novels you promised yourself you would read this year. Luckily, most of the town’s guesthouses come complete with their own pool. The Papaya Lodge pool serves as a de-facto meeting point for fellow travelers to trade Gringo Trail war stories. The Lodge also provides a delicious, FREE breakfast each morning of fried plantain, fresh local fruit, refried beans, and red pepper eggs. While slipping into the rabbit hole of poolside lounging at Papaya Lodge is tempting, the town has so much more to offer.
One would surmise that the star attraction of a ‘beach’ town would be the exact element it draws its namesake from. Unfortunately, El Tunco does not boast an infinite stretch of glittering sand, but rather a rocky waterfront incapable of hosting vitamin D-deficient sun worshippers. However, the point break here provides a spectacle of Mother Nature’s strength that will surely induce goose bumps. Even before catching sight of the playa, the rhythmic pulsation of the Pacific’s waves can be heard. The ocean’s performance serves as the suitable backdrop to the outdoor patios that line the narrow path that follows the edge of the ‘beach.’ Whether you enjoy the live music at La Guitarra or have an exotic seafood cocktail at Monkey Lala, the theatrics of the Pacific will be sure to captivate. If you’re feeling adventurous (and if the tide is low) walk south along the beach, crossing the mouth of the Rio Grande, and explore the surf-cut caverns (be sure to bring a dry bag).
Though 'Tunco may not tickle the fancy of history buffs, it provides the perfect environment to escape and disengage for a few days. You won’t be bombarded with any “must-see” and “must-do” lists like more popular pit stops on the backpacker trail, but rather be granted the freedom to unwind. Catch those Z's, sleep in, and make your way to Dale Dale Café, an Israeli shop where you will meet your local caffeine dealer while looking over the lushness of the coastal mangrove forest. Once your body receives an essential jolt, make your way to Soya Nutribar, where you’ll find the best shakes and morning nourishment in all of El Tunco. Making their own cashew milk, a menu of gluten free options, and even vegan ceviche, Soya specializes in healthy eating, giving your waistband a break in the motherland of mouth-watering pupusas (try the moringa superfood shake for an added boost). On the other hand, if you want a heavenly Salvadoran treat be sure to go to Fafi’s for some cheap, homemade pupusas or La Michoacana for THE BEST homemade popsicles I have ever had the luxury to devour.
Local gastronomy aside, El Tunco teaches you how to ‘inhala exhala’, breathe in breathe out, in a place where you can start the day perfecting your asana at the serene studio of Balancé Yoga Retreat, take the 20 minute jaunt to Tamanique Waterfalls to release some adrenaline by jumping 40 feet to the pool below, or learn how to hang ten with the surfing immigrants who now call the Salvadoran coast home. With several surf schools dotting the coast between Playa El Sunzal and Playa El Zonte, surfing is basically a right of passage if you’re going to experience the real ‘Tunco. This is a place where you learn to let go and go with the changing tide.
El Tunco challenged me to find comfort in the things that I was previously fearful of. Now before you roll your eyes thinking that this is another article of a privileged, Western traveler‘finding themself’ in a foreign locale (as I likely would), know that I neither had divine enlightenment nor know myself any better because of my time in El Salvador (man, I wish!). However, my time spent in El Salvador broadened my perspective of life in El Salvador. “It’s complicated,” but there’s beauty in its complexity.