El Salvador // El Tunco

Clare and I learnt to surf together back at university 7 or 8 years ago now. We would head down to the closest beach, mid-winter, head to toe in neoprene. Wetsuits too big. Gloves laced with holes, barely keeping our fingertips warm. We learnt to surf on the North coast, catching a ride wherever possible from the south. Neither of us had a car, it was our first year of uni, we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing but we headed out in the walls of white water anyway. I still remember running Clare clean over on my 8ft swell board as if it were only yesterday!

We swore to each other we would keep on surfing. We were hooked. The bitterly northerlies, and relentless whippings from the cold Atlantic failed to deter us. We were addicted, and from these early winter days, we both knew we were in it for the long haul. We promised ourselves, repeatedly over and over again, that we would get better. We would keep trying, keep practising, never giving up. We wanted to get out back, paddle past that great churning wall of white water the Atlantic threw at us day in, day out. We wanted to travel the world for surf, seeking out new destinations, tropical surf spots we had only read about. These goofy teenagers in their hole-ridden, rented wetsuits made a pact between themselves.

After three years of battling the winter swells and relishing the fun of smaller summer days, we drifted ways. We both traveled to various far flung destinations in search of surf, seeking adventure, attempting various jobs in various countries. I sought a job in London, attempting to become the mature, professional adult I thought I should be. Staring at the small office computer screen, bloodshot eyes, an hour and a half’s commute morning and evening, the tube, becoming part of that daily rat race. It didn’t work. I ran back to Cornwall, turning away from the city without a single glance back, with relief flooding over me as I took that first step back on the beach at home.

Clare returned from her travels and work abroad. We reunited in Cornwall. Living on the North coast, with surf just a walk away. We surfed as much as possible, making a pact together to surf as much as possible. We were better than our uni days, vast improvements had been made within these years.

We discussed our plans to escape for a few weeks during the british winter. Somewhere where the surf was consistent, the climate hot, no wetsuits needed. I recalled my trip to Costa Rica and Panama a few years erlier. I’d never wanted to leave. Always dreaming of returning to Central America from the moment I stepped on the return flight home. I craved 5am wake ups, boiling the water for a coffee in the dark, that feeling of a humid warmth so early on in the day.

I yearned for the heat, for the Central American people, the colours; bright greens, blues, pinks, not just the brightly painted buildings but the sunsets and sunrises too. I craved the abundance of fresh fruit. Salsa and reggaeton oozing from doorways; a taste of a different world. A culture so distant from the bleakness of a grey Northern Hemisphere winter. That was what I craved.

El Salvador ticked all the boxes. Consistent right hand point breaks. Yes! Tropical climate. Yes! Warm waters. Yes! An abundance of rich wildlife and marine life. Yes! Hundreds of miles away from England? Yes, yes, yes!

El Salvador had been on my mind since I last left Central America. The land of the rights, riddled with right hand point breaks along its Pacific shorelines. The only thing pulling me back were the constant reminders from friends and family, warning of the dangers of this country nestled deep within the grasp of gang warfare. Clare and I read up about this country we hardly knew anything about; it’s gangs, the violence, the risk of two girls travelling solo through this seemingly dangerous country. The more we read, the more hesitant we became. We didn’t know anyone who had visited El Salvador before; the country with supposedly the highest crime rate in Latin America. We felt cautious, a little anxious, but the overwhelming excitement of our first serious surf trip together since we both had learnt to surf together seemed to override these hesitations.

We finished our last day of work on the Friday, Clare picked me up as I shut the doors behind me for 2 weeks of freedom and adventure ahead. The journey had begun. The board bags were packed to the brim ready for a 24+ hour journey to the other side of the world. Cornwall to London. London to Madrid. Madrid to Guatemala (A surprise stop off we had no idea about which resulted in our first taste of Micheladas during the 2 hour stopover) and finally, Guatemala to El Salvador. We landed in El Salvador around 8pm. Dirty, sweaty, sleep deprived, aching and incredibly excited. As soon as we left the airport we were hurled into the wrong taxi. Taken for a swift tour of the outskirts of San Salvador, only to discover this wasn’t our ride and our actual pre-booked ride with Miguel from

Papaya Lodge

, was waiting for us back at the airport. After another unexpected surprise, resulting in my Spanish being thrown straight in at the deep end, we successfully found Miguel back at the airport. He helped to haul our board bags out of the wrong taxi, into the right one and took us on our way.

On the half hour ride over to El Tunco we passed bright lights and vibrant colours of processions with girls and women of all ages dressed in sparkling, pretty pink dresses, dishing out sweets to passersby. A procession, we were told by Miguel, that had been organised by local politicians in an attempt to sway potential voters for the upcoming elections in a week’s time.

Minutes later, we swerved passed a man sprawled out on the main road at the last second, only visible when the pick up truck’s beams shone down on him just meters away. The man lay sprawled in the darkness with his pushbike lying next to him at the road’s side. We both felt uneasy not stopping to help this man, but we had only been in this country for an hour, at least. Perhaps pulling over at the side of the road, late on a Saturday night on the outskirts of San Salvador wasn’t the safest of ideas, and posed more of a threat to ourselves than anyone, as Miguel pointed out.

We conversed in my broken Spanish, asking what the surf had been like the previous week, and what was forecasted for the morning. He smiled back at us, teeth pearly white in the rear view mirror “Surfistas si?”, "Si!!” we exclaimed. The surf had been small the past week or so but had just started to pick up in the past few days. He said no one else staying at the hostel were surfing, we were the first surfers staying at the hostel for a few weeks. He told us the waves would be good in the morning, but busy. It’s Sunday so everyone will be out. San Salvadorans would be coming down for the weekend to play on the beaches and head back to the city for the week. Although maybe not at 5am, after all, Saturday is a big night in El Tunco. He said hitting the water at sunrise was the best idea. We smiled at each other, already both of us safe in the knowledge we would be waking early. The excitement palpable. Our first taste of an El Salvadoran 5am wake up, accompanied by a sunrise and surf, neither of us could wait much longer.

We pulled into the town of El Tunco on the busiest night of the week. A bollard and security guards stopping us as we entered the long strip. Spot lights and reggaeton blasting out into the street. Drinks flowing. Beautiful people everywhere. Travellers, locals, San Salvadorans, street vendors selling pupusas and tacos; all out enjoying the sights and sounds Saturday night had to offer.

Overwhelmed from the 26 hours worth of travel, we took turns to stand under a cold shower, a welcome relief from the heat we were unaccustomed to. We dressed and headed out into the busy night for a quick taco from one of the street vendors. We grabbed a beer each and a jar of coffee ready to make in the morning and promptly made tracks back to the hostel. We were like two rabbits caught in the headlights. 

We drank our beers on the hammocks listening to the clubs below blasting out every tune possible. The ice cold beers worked instantly. The realisation that we had actually finally arrived in El Salvador sunk in. Stumbling back to the room, we waxed and leashed up the boards, ready for the early wake up call. We passed out as we sleepily chatted away about nothing of any sense at all, whilst the sounds of the Saturday night outside vibrated through the walls. We slept like a couple of babies that night. 

We woke the next morning to the 5am alarm. Stepping out of bed, both of us wide awake, adrenaline already coursing through our veins. We stepped out the room only to find the dark night sky still prevalent and not a single soul around. Peering out into the street was a completely different scene to 8 hours earlier. The clubs were shut, the music gone, not a single sound except for that of the birds and the street dogs of El Tunco passed out in the gutters.

Unsure of where exactly the beach was, we brought our strong coffees along for a stroll, guided by the sound of the sea, and the flickering streetlights. Coursing our way down the cobbled streets, avoiding broken glass and dodgy smells rising from unknown origins, we caught sight of the beach.

At the end of the path, we spotted the wave we had read so much about already, Sunzal. A right hand point break. Breaking out in the distance, it was working alright, but hard to tell how big, exactly. A long paddle out. We couldn’t see many people out, but there were a few making tracks already. At sight of this, we rushed back, finishing the grainy dregs of coffee. We suited and suncreamed up, ready in 5 minutes. A welcome change to the whole rigamarole of suiting and booting up, covering every inch of our bodies in neoprene. Something we had become so accustomed to back at home, yet seemed such a faff right at that second.

We grabbed our boards, the excitement building. I always become so anxious when surfing a new break, whether it’s in Cornwall or not. So to be surfing a completely new break, out in El Salvador, well, my heart had a pretty unusual beat that first morning.

We followed the same path as earlier, the street now more visible in the sunrise. A pink, dusky light shedding itself on the street. The street dogs woke as they heard us giggling away and one decided to join us for the short walk down to the beach. We clambered over the vast array of stones that lay on the first part of the beach. Slipping here and there. 

What looked like a short 2 min stroll to the beach turned into a good 10 minute clamber over the rocks. Finally, we made it to the shore, and watched as the sets rolled in. It looked like a long paddle out, but we could see the lines coursing their way along, each right-hander just as perfect as the next. 

With a nod, we both screamed as we jumped into the warm water. Paddling was so much easier without the 5mm of neoprene weighing me down. I felt myself gliding through the water effortlessly with every stroke. It was a long paddle out, but easier than any of the beach breaks at home. The point break set up was a dream come true. Every time we looked at each other, our faces were a picture of pure joy, and perhaps a little hint of disbelief. 

The water was the perfect temperature, and once we reached the break, we could now see the waves were incredible. Perfect, peeling right handers. Streaming for hundreds of yards straight down the point. The sun had risen and still not a breath of wind. The sky textured with pink and golden hues. The only downside was the line up. We knew Sunzal was one of the busiest waves around El Salvador, but also a perfect place to begin the trip. It was a Sunday morning, weekends are renowned for being the busiest time to visit El Tunco, we knew this so we weren’t too surprised to see so many others in the water so early. 

We stayed in the water from 5:30am until 10am that first morning. Returning to the hostel after in search of water and food. Smiles stretched broadly across our faces. Hours and hours of surfing, and still so many hours of the day left for more! The sun had risen and now beat down with it’s full force beginning to show. Layering up with 50+ suncream, towels and books, we left in search of fresh papaya/lime juices and our first El Salvadoran breakfast. With a breakfast consisting of plantain, beans, avocado and egg, we set up camp on the beach and gazed out at the sets rolling in that we had been surfing only a half hour earlier.

I’m pretty sure we spent the rest of the day glugging vast amounts of water in an attempt to stay hydrated in the El Salvadoran sunshine. Falling in and out of sleep with the lingering jet lag. Bathing in the crystalline shallows of Sunzal beach, and loving every single second of it all.

The next four days followed the same routine. We were there to surf. We weren’t there to party. We stayed in El Tunco for the first four nights to be able to get our bearings for the place. It gave us the chance to meet other travellers in this popular town and to gain a better insight of the place. We surfed every day, up to 3 times a day, all at Sunzal. Miguel had been right, the weekend really was the busiest day. Every morning we woke at 5am. Made a strong coffee. Covered ourselves in a thick layer of suncream and my own homemade zinc for face protection. We dressed ourselves in our favourite Kobe Surf colours, perfect swimwear for surfing waves like these. Big drops and of course, some big wipeouts, and not a nipple in sight!

We surfed for 3 to 4 hours in the mornings. Came back, drank as much papaya juice as possible, devoured our typical local breakfasts, packed our bags and boards and set off back for Sunzal for another lunchtime surf, then another surf in the evening, if the wind died off.

It was paradise. The perfect trip. It had only been a matter of days, and we were both rapidly falling completely in love with this place. With this beautiful country. With the food, the fruit, the people, the waves, the water. We met some guys in the water who spotted us on the first day. They were so friendly and wanted to help us along on our surfing journey at Sunzal. They looked out for us in the water, whistling to us when a set came near. Shouting and hooting us into waves. Bigger and bigger every time, and never doubting our ability.

A local guy called Dennis, with a few of his mates looked out for us, especially when I nearly got knocked out by a learner paddle boarder who lost control of her board and came hurtling straight towards me. I almost managed to get completely out the way, but unfortunately my leg took the brunt of the hit. It left me with a bruise that covered my whole left calf for the rest of the trip. I suppose that’s one of the only problems with Sunzal; it gets so busy with surfers, paddle boarders and kayakers, and all sorts of levels and standards you can think of, that it can be a bit dangerous at times.

Clare and I caught some of our biggest and best waves here at this spot. I saw Clare take some of the biggest drops I’ve ever seen her take. These vast walls of water, engulfed us at times, yet at others, they allowed us to dance on their clean, perfect faces as the reef and all marine life below went about their daily rituals. 

Turtles popped up all around us, taking a breath and delving deep below the surface. Pelicans soared above us and skimmed the surface of the waves casting their ethereal spell on us both as we watched in awe. Fish fleeing their predators, leaped out the water sometimes shoaling up creating a panic at the water’s surface. All these things happened every time we surfed at Sunzal, making it all the more memorable. 

We surfed Sunzal until our bodies ached and our minds craved for something fresh. We drank as much papaya juice and ate as many pupusas as we could, in El Tunco until we knew it was time to move on. We loved the wave here, but with the next weekend looming ever closer we decided to re-pack our bags and make tracks over to another spot we had researched.

A spot completely different to the hustle and bustle of El Tunco. No nightclubs, no bars, and hopefully not as many people in the water…

Emma

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*All swimwear worn by Clare and I is by

Kobe Surf

* All surf/water shots were taken by

Rudy Ortiz

and

Polio Floores

*We stayed at

Papaya Surf Lodge

during our stay in El Tunco. We organised a taxi with Papaya Lodge prior to our arrival to ensure a safe arrival in a country we didn't know. Papaya Lodge is in a perfect location in town, right on the main strip and just a short walk from both La Bocana and Sunzal. We loved our stay here and highly recommend to anyone looking for affordable accommodation. It comes fully equipped with swimming pool, hammock, kitchen and genuinely lovely, helpful staff and other laid back travelers.