There's nothing particularly wrong with Playa El Tunco, the surfing beach on El Salvador's western Pacific Coast. The beach is pretty enough and has an interesting rock formation just off the shore that gives a certain balance to the millions of photos that you can't help snapping as the sun sets off the beach; it isn't terribly big, so it's easy to wander around on foot; there's hardly any traffic and a ticketed entry system is enforced at the weekends to keep things manageable; and most of the time there are more Salvadoran tourists than western travellers pounding the streets, so it doesn't feel too overrun with devotees of the Lonely Planet.
But there is one thing that sets El Tunco apart from everywhere else that we've visited in El Salvador, and that's the strange effect that it has on the locals. For some reason, the locals in El Tunco aren't the beaming and delightful bunch that we've enjoyed meeting in the likes of Santa Ana and Suchitoto; instead, the locals of El Tunco appear slightly wary of visitors. It's most unnerving.
Happily, if you put in the time and go out of your way to smile and say buenas dias to them, most of them revert to type pretty quickly. But their initial reaction with foreigners is much more aloof and, at times, bordering on the surly, and while we got used to the Guatemalans reacting in this way, it's a shock to see the Salvadorans doing it. I worry that here, in El Tunco, we're witnessing the thin end of the tourist wedge starting to puncture El Salvador's charm; if so, it's a real shame.
That said, El Tunco has its moments. It's pleasant to enjoy a cold beer on the beach as the sun sets, though the food is a lot better further back, away from the beach; it's fun to watch the surfers trying out the breaks, though as a lot of them are surfing for the first time, you end up watching more wipeouts than runs; and it's fascinating to see so many fat people, which is something you don't see so much in the poorer countryside. El Tunco is where the local rich go for a break, and they clearly eat a lot more than the poorer farmers.
There's also a stream of travellers who are pounding the Gringo Trail, as El Tunco is arguably the main stop-off for the trail in El Salvador (the other being Santa Ana, though there are plenty of travellers for whom El Tunco is the only Salvadoran experience they have). As a result there are a few surly hawkers around who try to sell you necklaces and textiles, and there's a lady who walks around in the morning and evening, tooting an irritating clown-horn as she tries to sell you banana cake. It doesn't really help you fall for the place.
But we did meet some nice Americans who were over here on holiday, and we did enjoy relaxing after pounding the hills round Suchitoto, so it wasn't all bad. And a short chicken bus ride away is the port town of La Libertad, which has a great fish market strung out along a pier, enough life to make it a worthwhile day trip, and a secret stash of Salvadoran smiles that they hand out for free. As an antidote to the slightly tarnished locals of El Tunco, it does the trick nicely.