El Tunco, El Salvador
Credit: J.Enrique Molina / Alamy

El Tunco, El Salvador

Intrepid surfers have ventured to El Salvador for years, scoring 200-yard rides at world-class breaks such as El Sunzal or the world famous Punta Roca at La Libertad. But the good times have been marred by the country's hangover from a civil war that ended two decades ago: Crime was common, food was terrible by Central American standards, and lodging options were scant verging on terrifying. Most travelers gave the area a pass.

No longer.

For the past five years, foreign investment and direct flights from the U.S. have allowed El Salvador to start building a legitimate tourism industry. The nexus of this development, El Tunco, sits along the country's rocky coast above the smash and grind of the Pacific.

On any given morning, along the still unpaved road that leads to El Tunco's main beach, the sound of crashing waves mingles with the wail of a woman who, at the top of her lungs, announces the fruit and veggie options she sells out of the plastic bin she carries atop her head.

"Mango, aguacate, pina!" she shouts, as two surfers shuffle by on their way to ride one of Central America's best waves. Nearby, old men play checkers with beer-bottle caps. Dogs sleep in the street.

On the same block, a Starbucks-style coffee shop serves up steaming espressos, hi-speed wi-fi, and tasty burritos with chorizo and huevos rancheros. Across the street, behind a two-story shack that sells the best fish tacos this side of the Mexico border, two bikini-clad senoritas lounge beside a gorgeous pool that wouldn't be out of place in Cancun or Costa Rica. 

Though Tunco remains relatively tranquil during the week, the place transforms on weekends. The nearby surf breaks and the bars that line the beach swell with people. Nights stretch on and, in the morning, women by the pool at the Mopelia hotel help themselves to the "Rock n' Roll Star," a breakfast consisting of two cigarettes, one vodka, one Alka-Seltzer, and a coffee. Live music starts up in the afternoon.

The town remains more rogueishly charming than genuinely restful, but, for the intrepid traveler, El Salvador's hideway represents a destinaton removed from both the outside world and the destinations normally associated with the outside world. The place is rough and there is something to be said for that.

More information: Stay in Tunco at the beachside Roca Sunzal or walk up the beach 10 minutes to the more impressive hillside digs of Casa de Mar, which offers stunning sunset views for $130 a night.