Mental Well-being, Travel & the Brain

Shearing Water in Playa el Tunco: How Waterfalls and the Crash of the Surf Affect the Way you Think and Feel

Waterfalls and the hypnotic dance of the waves have fascinated humans since the beginning of time. Aside from the spellbinding sensory spectacle, the structural changes to ions in the air, which occurs as water droplets shear apart, have strangely beneficial effects on the biology of the human organism. This article was inspired by our visit to the Tamanique waterfalls near el Tunco, a small beach town along the coast of El Salvador.

People go to Playa el Tunco to surf. This is not a place for beginners. The waves roar and crash with perfect ferocity. As simple beach-goers and seeking refuge from the claustrophobic heat, we found ourselves in search of the region’s watery alternatives. Fortunately, not far from el Tunco, the Tamanique waterfalls can be accessed by taking a local bus and hiring an impromptu guide upon arrival.

Although I do recommend supporting the local community, you might want the option of finding the waterfalls by yourself. Our guide was a 10 year old boy, instructed by his mother to take us to the falls for 10 USD. After the first set of pools, he decided that was enough and told us we had to go back, even though we hadn’t yet seen the most impressive of the cascades. We recorded the route in photographs if you’d like to visit without hiring a guide. Scroll to the bottom of the page for details.

The Science Behind the Good Vibes of Falling Water

Waterfalls, the world over, evoke peculiar feelings of awe, perhaps even spirituality. They are places of good energy. Though you might think these good vibrations have something to do with the almighty sensory cacophony alone, many studies have shown that the positive experience has more to do with the way that gravity changes the structure of ions in the air around falling water.

Though undetectable to the human eye, the air holds tiny particles of matter called ions. Ions are charged particles that attach to molecules, meaning that they store energy, a bit like a battery. In the atmosphere we breath, there are positive and negative charged ions.

Negatively charged ions are formed around waterfalls and surf-beaten coastlines, where gravity shears apart individual water droplets. These negative air ions are thought to be the source of the biological benefits of these natural phenomenon. Essentially, once they are breathed in and begin circulating through the blood, they function like “sparks” and can regulate metabolic functions in human cells.

Studies have shown that negative air ions can influence psychological and physiological processes by acting directly on certain brain structures. For example, decreased activity has been observed in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus – a major substrate involved in the stress response. This may underlie the calming effect that waterfalls can have on the mind.

Negatively charged air ions also seem to influence the way serotonin is released in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has been linked to many mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

In general, these negatively charged ions seem to be able to reduce feelings of depression, increased the sense of well-being and mental vitality and even to slow down the growth of bacterial infections and cancer cells.

Another intriguing effect of negative air ions is that they are thought to neutralise free radicals. Free radicals are uncharged ions in the body that damage the normal functioning of our cells. They are produced during the process of metabolism but they also arise from pollution, cigarette smoke and pesticides.

Of course though, as with all things slightly esoteric, not all studies have been able to confirm any substantial beneficial to well-being. It is possible that these changes can simply be explained by getting out into nature, which is known to have sorts of positive effects on the mind and body. Nevertheless, the change in ionic charge to the atmosphere as water collides is undisputed and while getting up close and personal with a waterfall will never be a substitute for healthy living, it certainly is a fun way to spend a day.

If you find yourself in Playa el Tunco and decide to visit the Tamanique waterfalls, here’s how you can find them without a guide. The walk takes about 30-40 minutes and you should wear closed shoes, not just flip-flops. Be sure to thoroughly test the depth of the pools before jumping in as the water is cloudy and filled with great big boulders.

How to get to the Tamanique waterfalls:

From Playa el Tunco, head up to the coastal highway. Take bus #187. Beckon it down by waving when you see it approaching. The last stop is Tamanique and the ride takes about 30 minutes.

When you get to Tamanique, you’ll get out the bus at the town square. You want to shimmy yourself so that you face the direction as depicted in the image below.

How to get to the Tamanique waterfalls without a guide

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
From this position, take the first right, where you see the guy in the red top.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Having turned right, you’ll walk down this road. At the T-junction, take a left.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Walk for a short distance down this road and get read to take a right down a gravel road.

 

This is the gravel road which you will turn right into. It veers to the left at the end, but keep on this road.

 

The path looks like this for about 1km or so.

 

After some time, you’ll see this opening to your right. This is a “short-cut” but the path involved some rock-scaling and it can be dangerous. I advise you ignore this turn.

 

You know you’re on the right path if you see this little cow shed on the left-hand side, around the point at which you will pass the short-cut, as depicted in the photo above. Keep on walking down the road.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
After a little distance, you’ll pass this small house on the left. Keep on walking down the road.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Keep an eye out for this tree which marks the point at which you turn in right onto the path that will eventually take you down to the waterfalls.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
At the tree, you turn right here.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
The path takes you past some tomato fields. As you walk, the field will be on your left.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
At the bottom you’ll come to this access point. Continue on through it and the path veers to the left into forest.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Keep going for about 200 metres.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Look closely for the fist path that goes off to the right. Follow it across a small stream.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Cross the stream and it will open up into a field.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
This is the path, but this photo is taken from the opposite direction, so you’ll be facing the other way.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Follow the path through and up the field. The path veers off to the left, past a big rock and there it open up to the river, right where the first cascade is. You will see this giant rock to your left.

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
And you’ve arrived!

 

Tamanique waterfalls without a guide
Be sure to get back in time to catch the last bus which leaves at around 4/4.30pm.

If you’d like some references for future reading or if you have any questions, please fill in the form below.

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