Beaches of El Salvador: Besides stunning countryside escapes, picturesque villages, and verdant highlands, El Salvador features an impressive coastline. Flaunted as a surfer’s heaven on earth, long distance buses shuttle board worshipers and beach lovers to these popular beaches directly from Leon, Nicaragua and Antigua, Guatemala. Compelling options such as cheap surf lessons and board rentals, affordable accommodation and food, and challenging, fantastic surf breaks bring surfing professionals, hard-core devotees, and novices to the Pacific coast. And besides checking out the surfing spots, there are opportunities to sunbathe, swim, snorkel, party hardy, and indulge in fresh seafood.
Between my trips around San Salvador, jaunts through small villages, and hikes up volcanoes, I spent several days along both the eastern and western beaches. Of course, I have my favorite beach destination in EL Salvador, but here is a quick rundown of all of my sand-filled (and surf-filled) beach escapes. Let’s begin…
Los Cabanos: Transportation to the Los Cabanos village was easy and cheap. Most of the chicken buses in El Salvador cost about 0.50 US cents per hour, and the majority of trips are quite short – averaging two to three hours in length. I arrived a few miles outside of the actual village, but I easily hitchhiked with a friendly pickup driver the remaining distance, I then had to hike along the beach for a good twenty minutes and wade across a pseudo-river through the sand with my bag hoisted over my head before finally reaching my hostel. All in good fun!
The small fishing town of Los Cabanos is QUIET!!! I do believe I was the only gringo in the entire village, and everyone went out of their way to say hello and offer welcome tidings. The beach is framed by golden sands, a few first-class resorts, a sprinkling of tiny hostels and western-inspired homesteads, and long stretches of fishing huts, ramshackle dwellings, and dirt-floor eateries. I walked the beach, skipped stones along the shore, enjoyed a sunset on a pile of sun-warmed rocks, and ventured to a mom-and-pop stall for fresh seafood.
Albeit, there wasn’t much to do except wander the beach and look for turtles. However, I would gladly head back to Los Cabanos for another chance to see a sunset like this! In conclusion, Los Cabanos was a relaxing stop for one to two nights.
El Tunco: This party place is one of the most visited coastal villages in El Salvador, El Tunco’s rugged coastline boasts some of the most intense breaks in the world, and the waves summon surfers from all continents. Though the beaches are not ideal for swimming (the area is actually named after the beach’s rocky protrusions), the town is well saturated with bars, nightclubs, and pup crawls. It’s not surprising then that El Tunco is known for having the best nightlife on the coast. There is also real coffee, a mass of cafes and restaurants catering to western food tastes, and other creature comforts not found elsewhere in the country. I didn’t love these “specialties” about the surfing village, but I’m in the minority as El Tunco is a favorite among most backpackers.
If you want to surf (and party) while staying in relatively cheap accommodations, then Playa El Tunco is one of the better options. Regarding surf lessons, they are relatively cheap here. However, proceed with caution. The breaks can be dangerous to beginners, and rented surf boards have been known to “fall apart” extremely easily. The renter is then charged upwards of $400 for a new board. Just be wary!
El Zonte: El Zonte’s gritty shores are lined with a hodge-podge of accommodation options and tiendas. Honestly, the beach in El Zonte isn’t very pretty. The black sand and rocky outcrops don’t create ideal sun bathing or swimming conditions. Besides a couple of picturesque sunsets, I had the most fun while watching the locals catch the breaks. Dawn and dusk beckoned surfers of all shapes and sizes, and observers (like me) gazed in awe as they handled these precarious waves with fluid ease.
I spent the night at Esencia Nativa in El Zonte and took day trips to El Tuco and other nearby beaches. Though the dorm’s bathroom was kind of falling apart, I enjoyed the hostel’s many patios, verandas, and shaded lounging spots. There was also a pool and a “yoga balcony” for early morning meditation and stretching. Two nights in El Zonte was certainly plenty of time. If you’re looking for a chilled-out surfer vibe without the partying atmosphere (or other annoyances of El Tuco), then this beach is your best bet.
El Cuco: By far, my favorite beach in El Salvador was Playa El Cuco, a small little oasis on the far western Pacific coast. This long stretch of beach boasts sparkling white sand, shaggy palm-lined shore, fresh sea food, and tranquil waters for swimming, seriously vegging out, and learning to surf. It’s a far cry from the party beaches and black sand shores of other surf towns. I stayed at La Tortuga Verde. The property is more of a laid-back resort than a hostel, but the gorgeous property sits on the beach and offers hammocks galore, tepid pools for afternoon swims, and a cute bar hut featuring nightly specials and $1 beers.
The vast shores of El Cuco leave plenty of room for sun soaking, early morning runs or afternoon walks, and football games with the local children. Most of the time, the beach was serenely quiet and empty. Occasionally, locals bicycled by or fisherman walked the shores to throw out their nets. We all waited eagerly for the afternoon “ice-cream” man and his rickety cart.
I took surfing lessons in El Cuco, and I actually stood up three or four times. My teacher was very patient, but he unfortunately didn’t speak much English and I couldn’t interpret his directions in Spanish very well. Surfing is much harder than it looks, but I now understand the passion some have for the sport.
And of course, there were beautiful, crimson sunsets every single night.
So with the diversity of El Salvador’s beaches, there is definitely one to fit every niche of backpacker and sand lover. Die hard partier? Head for El Tuco. Want peace and quiet? El Cuco is waiting for you! Just want to catch some waves? Try them all and pick your own favorite.