Surfing El Salvador: a review of Playa El Zonte and Playa El Tunco

One of our biggest achievements on our trip has been being able to stand up on a surfboard and ride waves all the way to the shore. As our trip progressed so did our surfing and we have been actively seeking out spots, as beginners, to practice and improve our surf. El Salvador has a few of these spots available that are perfect for absolute beginners to advanced surfers. In this article we will provide a review of our experience with two great surfing spots in the West of El Salvador: Playa El Zonte and nearby Playa El Tonco. The great thing about these two spots is that they are only a 15 minute bus ride away from each other, but they are so different in terms of waves, price and nightlife that they can accommodate for any budget and level of surfer. Both beaches are around a 1.5 hour bus ride drive away from central San Salvador or the international airport.

Playa El Zonte

Surfers looking for absolute tranquility and mindfulness will be thrilled by this peaceful village, separated by a river that can be crossed on foot. Situated in a small cove, this relaxing village has ample surf camps, guesthouses and hotels to stay. There are options for yoga and activities such as body boarding and boat rides. El Zonte is a place to relax so people looking for a good time at night are better off at El Tunco. We found that places and music shut down as early as 20:30 at night and we ended up playing games at our hostel most of the time with fellow guests.

Surfing El Zonte:

El Zonte has a point break with rocks on the sea floor and a fairly strong wave. This is perfect for intermediate surfers, however beginners will be happy to surf on either the beach break west or east of the point. The beach break provides strong whitewash that can be surfed on without the fear of having to catch any of the big waves. We recommend surfing during high tide to both avoid the rocks on the sea floor and to provide longer rides when surfing the beach break. If the swell is strong enough there can be a few good waves at the point break that are short and mellow for intermediate to advanced surfers.

In our opinion the beach break in El Zonte is perfect for beginners that are learning how to stand-up, paddle and catch waves. Although the white wash is not the same as catching a full wave, it is good for trying to practice the full routine before heading on to either the point break at El Zonte or a beach with longer waves such as Sunzal point in El Tunco.

Cost of lessons and board rental in El Zonte:

At $30 an hour El Zonte is surprisingly expensive for lessons, so budget travellers might be better off going to El Tunco where lessons are slightly cheaper (around $15 to $20). Bear in mind that surf lessons in El Salvador are on the expensive side; for example in the Philippines and Sri Lanka we found lessons at around $10 per hour. Board rentals are the same throughout El Salvador and are $10 a day. If you’re planning on surfing for a few days, ask for a discount; they’re normally willing to cut the rental price down to $8 per day. We rented our boards in El Zonte from a place called El Chango, which had a good range of sizes:

Where to stay in El Zonte:

There aren’t many choices for dormitories in El Zonte. We stayed at Wipeout, which has dorms for $10 per day, an extensive communal kitchen and hammocks all set in a lush garden. It’s located right by the beach break, making it perfect for beginners to stay and practice in the morning and afternoon. The owner, Alex, also owns Esencia Nativa: another accommodation/restaurant a short walk away, where guests of Wipeout can access free wifi. Alex provides (very expensive) surf lessons for $30 an hour through his Surferos surf school. Our recommendation is to ask around El Zonte to see if any of the locals can provide cheaper lessons.

Playa El Tunco

Considered the party town of El Salvador, El Tunco is the perfect weekend getaway for San Salvadorians and tourists alike. Bustling with restaurants and a few clubs by the beach it definitely provides more entertainment than nearby El Zonte. We found that although it gets packed in the weekend, weekdays are relatively quiet so travellers fearful of lack of sleep due to loud music can be relieved: it is not as crazy as people make it sound. In fact we enjoyed El Tunco because, although the place is big enough to provide a nice diversity in restaurants and places to dance, it is small enough to create a feeling of community.

Surfing El Tunco:

More rocky than El Zonte, El Tunco has four breaks that can be surfed, from East to West:

  • La Bocana: at the East end of beach, it is one of the few lefts in El Salvador creating fast, powerful barrels. This break is recommended for intermediate to advanced surfers.
  • La Bocanita: the beach break between Sunzalita and La Bocana: a short beach break with better waves than the beach break in El Zonte.
  • El Sunzalito: a small break immediately right of the big rocks. Waves are short and fast and perfect for beginners transitioning from whitewash to waves. You will see most teachers with their students in this part of the water.
  • El Sunzal: the break a small walk West of the beach. You have to paddle into the water from close to the big rock to reach it. A point break, El Sunzal only requires limited swell to create consistent right hand waves. Although perfect for beginners who have experience standing up on the board, be mindful of strong wipe-outs. Furthermore El Sunzal can be crowded in the weekends.

Cost of lessons and board rental in El Tunco:

El Tunco is slightly cheaper than El Zonte when it comes to surf lessons. Asking around should get you a price of around $15 – $20 an hour including board rental. There are many options for board rental available, however the quality of the boards in some cases is questionable and there are more short boards than long boards available. We had a plan to return to El Zonte simply to get a surfboard of the right size and take it back to El Tunco for a few days. Luckily we found a place called Bamboards that provides fairly decent boards for $10 a day ($15 for newer boards); ask for a discount if you’re staying four days or more:

Where to stay in El Tunco:

Given the size of El Tunco there are many budget options available. Private rooms for two can be found for around $15 and dormitories for around $8. We recommend the following places because of the great vibe:

  • La Sombra Hostel: budget hostel that includes a pool. Great atmosphere and close to the beach. Dorms for $8 and private rooms for two are $16 or including AC for $20. We were offered a small discount for staying five nights.
  • Tortuga Viajera Hostel: at the beginning of the street. Further away from the beach but cheap. Dorms for $8.

Note: we recommend to stay away from El Tunco Beach hostel, our first accommodation in El Tunco (close to Posada Luna). The space between the roof and ceiling of our bedroom was infested with bats and droppings would come down into our room. This is dangerous as bat droppings can be carriers for rabies and other diseases. The owner of the hostel did not care to deal with this problem so we left for La Sombra.


El Zonte is a relaxed, tranquil place with no real night life. Places shut down from 20:30 and travellers looking for good sleep and good beginner waves are best positioned here. Surf lessons at $30 an hour are, however, very expensive.

El Tunco is busier than El Zonte with more nightlife that packs up into crazy weekends. Weekdays are fairly relaxed but still busier than nearby El Zonte. With more options for lessons prices are relatively cheap compared to El Zonte. Price for lessons range from $15-$20 which is reasonable however still expensive for Central America.

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