A love letter to the water, or how we played in the waves in El Salvador

We were on a bus to El Tunco, the most famous beach town in El Salvador. The sun sank lower and lower when we finally saw it in all its glory- the Pacific Ocean. I held onto the brown leather seat in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. Our bus cruised along a coastline as beautiful as Highway One in California.

A surfer rides the waves in El Tunco, El Salvador.

Life without sea is impossible

The vistas were breathtaking. Powerful waves rolled and crushed against the rocks. I had reached home.

Depending on how you travel, a beach can trigger two types of emotions. It can be just another spot to dig your toes into hot sand. Or it can feel as if you have reached your destination and you never want to leave.

I fall into the second category. I grew up at the seaside- so the sea has always had a special place in my heart. In the wintertime, he is my moody friend- splashing water all over the road or freezing completely, which makes it nice to walk on. I spent most of my summers on the beach. With the sun out, my family cycled to the beach for a couple of hours of sun and fun. Hot days without the opportunity to take a dip in the water are unbearable for me. The sea represents the ultimate freedom. Even if I’m in a bad mood, this seemingly endless pool of water can always lift me up again.

Now, you understand my reaction a bit better, I guess. We’d just spent three months crisscrossing the inland of Guatemala, from Highlands to lakes, from civilisations long gone to bustling cities full of life. And even though I really enjoyed the crystal clear Guatemalan lagoons, they failed to replace the sea.

Anete on the rocky beach of El Tunco in El Salvador.

El Tunco, a playground for grownups

Our travel day hadn’t been easy. We couldn’t take out money when we first arrived in El Salvador. With only a couple of dollars in our pockets, we mentally prepared ourselves to take a bus again the next day and cross our fingers that some ATM in this country wanted to give us cash. When the bus dropped us by the roadside, our legs were shaky. We really hoped there would at least be some kind of card payment possibilities in El Tunco. We had seen enough beach cities to know that we shouldn’t expect too much.

“Tunco?” I asked the old man sitting on a chair next to a barrier. He pointed to a curvy road that ran downhill. What welcomed us down that hill was definitely not a sleepy fisherman village. In fact, it felt like we had arrived in a completely different world. On the highway, where the bus had stopped, we could see locals walking around, groceries in one hand and jumping children on the other. We weren’t prepared for the sight that rolled out on the beach.

All of a sudden, local life was wiped out. 95% of strollers on the main street were foreigners. Beach babes slid their hands through sun-kissed hair, groups of young men walked towards the beach and families checked out the food options. A girl with a surfboard hurried home after some water fun, couples clung to each other looked around for happy hour deals and older ladies in yoga pants promenaded like cats after their workout. Streets were lined by hipster cafes, smoothie booths, trendy eateries, surfboard rentals and artisanal pizzerias. Our trained eye spotted exactly two local food stalls. Overall the atmosphere was laid back and relaxed. It felt like many other touristic places- a playground for grownups. After the endless amount of local villages and towns we had seen in Guatemala, El Tunco was fun and exciting. I almost danced with happiness.

The beach in El Tunco, El Salvador.

All lit up on the corner of the street

But before we could dance the night away, we needed a place to sleep. Luckily, finding a room is the easiest thing in touristic beach towns. We didn’t have to ask around too much to find an affordable roof over our heads and an owner who was happy to give it in exchange of promise that we’d pay as soon as we managed to get money. Gloomily, we thought about the not so appetising prospect of a trip to the capital just to get some money. But for now we were safe- we had a place and a card to pay for food.

The hotel was lovely. It came with a handkerchief-sized pool that was filled to the brim with rum-drinking locals. It was still weekend- party time for local tourists. Horrible music blasted from the speakers. We prayed to all the gods that we hadn’t accidentally chosen a local party hostel where we wouldn’t close our eyes for even a minute…

Anete climbing out of the pool at Tunco Beach Hostal in El Tunco, El Salvador.

The next day water in the pool still smelled like alcohol.

But that was not our main concern. The main thing was to fill our bellies. While walking around asking if we could pay by card, we saw something we couldn’t believe. All lit up on the corner of the only two streets in a town stood a cash machine. It seemed our guidebook was a bit dated. We rushed in without any hopes- the machine was probably one of those bastards that wouldn’t accept any of our cards. Our jaws dropped when we heard the familiar money-counting sound. The cold beer never tasted better than that night in the local eatery.

Surfers walking out of the sea at dusk in El Tunco, El Salvador.

Can I still do it?

On our first evening in El Tunco, I finished reading “Barbarian Days”, a surfing memoir by Willian Finnegan. By that point, I’d read so much about waves, about the lefts and rights and different types of boards and dings and hunts for the best waves that I felt that it was time to say hello to the waves again. It was exactly three years after my last surf attempt in Kuta, Bali.

Walking on the beach at night time and admiring the waves, I couldn’t help but wonder- can I still do it? In El Tunco definitely not. The waves were humongous and every time the surf crashed it moved around hundreds of water-polished rocks. Thanks to the rolling stones we heard the surf even in our hotel room.

A local surf rental guy told us we’d better check out Playa San Blas, the beginner’s beach. I really didn’t want to crash on the rocks, even though, supposedly, the waves were beginner-friendly here early in the morning.

Slow down for surfers, sign near El Tunco in El Salvador.

Beginner’s spot

San Blas was the beach next to El Tunco. The next morning it turned out it was still quite a walk away. We thought it would be silly to take a bus for ten minutes, so we walked. Soon, we regretted our decision. The sun burned mercilessly and the beach was further than we hoped. But once we reached it, we were happy as a couple of bunnies.

When I said that El Tunco was pretty relaxed, I clearly hadn’t been to San Blas yet. This little “village” consisted of two local eateries and a surf shop no bigger than a van. From the shop emerged an ever-friendly Salvadorian who spoke even better English than us. His bangs reached until his nose and he had to constantly shake his head to get the hair out of his face.

“Finally it’s summer. I like it,” he cheered when he gave us a board. Heavy foam longboards were good in small waves. “Don’t go to the big waves- the board will break,” he said and he made sure we knew how much the board cost, in case we were as stupid as an Israeli couple who headed straight to the big waves.

There was almost no one on the beach. Just one guy got out of the water and instructed us to keep walking a bit because the bottom of the sea was – surprise, surprise – rocky again.

Anete surfing a baby wave at San Blas, near El Tunco.

Yes, we only surfed in these really tiny waves.

Waves as big as fridges

Finally, on the sandy side of the beach, we stood and watched the waves. The cool thing was that San Blas was not only suitable for beginners. There were three types of waves rolling on the shore. The first two looked innocent and small, the third one was a monster. I have never in my life seen waves as big as these and as Finnegan described in “Barbarian Days”, the wave was at least as high as a fridge and broke with raw power.

As soon as I got in the water with that god damn surfboard, I realised that the first waves were not as small as I’d imagined. During the high tide, water was until my chest even without the waves. So when the “mini” came, I had to hold the board over my head and jump up if I didn’t want to end up on the beach again.

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Struggle with the waves

To get to the right spot for takeoff was the hardest part. Once the battle with the waves was successful, I could start waiting for my first sweet ride. It was a really nice spot because waves came regularly and carried me for a quite a long time.

Sometimes, I even managed to get up! On these moments I felt that all the struggle was worth it. The moment when a wave caught me and I was able to ride it was the best feeling in the world. An absolutely beautiful way to be one with nature.

After 15 minutes of giving everything of myself to get the best ride, I was basically dead. I walked back to the shore, tore the leash off around my foot and collapsed on the sand. My eyes were sore from the salt water and I panted heavily, but I felt fantastic.

What I love about surfing is how I forget the rest of the world. The only thing that matters is the present moment and the next wave.

It’s funny how addictive surfing is- I just wanted to experience the same feeling again and again, and get better. Strangely enough, I felt how I’d reached my destination, how finally I knew why I was travelling- that was the power surfing had over me.

Sunset at El Tunco, El Salvador.

If, for some reason, you don’t care about surfing, you should still go to El Tunco. During the sunset, everyone gathers on the beach to sip beer and to say goodbye to another great day.

Dead tired

I have never experienced a longer surf day. Usually, the sea gets too rough at some point or too calm. But here you could just go on. At midday, the activity on the beach somewhat died out. Surfers and dogs slept under the palm leaf roofs. We lunched and Tom switched on his football game while I dragged the board back to the beach.

In the afternoon another set of great waves welcomed us on Playa San Blas. Since we’re beginners and couldn’t read waves yet, I recognised the good ones by seeing other surfers going in. They were usually right.

In the evening, dead tired from all the water fun, I literally collapsed into the bed, waves still rolling on in my dreams.

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