Despite the warnings, we found some really outstanding hotels, restaurants and attractions in the city of San Salvador. We also kept ourselves amused by traveling to nearby places around the capital to do things that might surprise you. Hint: it involves birds of prey, volcanoes, a creepy civil war site and an impressive refuge for children. Not at the same time.
Hiking is better with birds
There are only a handful of falconers in all of Central America and only one who’s certified to guide guests on the trail with a bird of prey in tow. That would be Roy Beers, owner of Cadejo Adventures. Our guardian angel in El Salvador, Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours, introduced us to Roy and the four of us (plus one bird) went for a little walk in the hills above San Salvador.
Roy brought his Harris hawk, Chucky. The feisty bird is named after the horror movie character, Roy explained, as he took Chucky out of his huge cage, removed the bird’s hood and got him ready to hike and hunt, which is the essence of recreational falconry vs. traditional falconry which is all about hunting using birds of prey as your weapon.
It’s a mistake to think of these birds as trained. Rather, the bird and its handler have come to an understanding. The handler maintains the bird’s health while keeping it at a relatively constant level of hunger so it always returns to the falconing glove for the morsel of meat tucked inside.
A properly maintained bird will instinctively hunt whenever the trainer takes it out and will instinctively return to the glove in search of its easy treat. Once out of the cage the birds could fly away at any time, but they don’t.
Roy, who’s had a fascination with birds ever since he removed an owl from his school as a kid, warned us that Chucky was a bit above fighting weight, which meant that he was likely to be less interested in actual hunting. As we strolled through the coffee plantations and forested hillsides above San Salvador Chucky followed along from tree to tree, landing on our gloved hands when Roy whistled or signaled.
Somehow the forest looked and felt different when we were hiking with a buddy who could fly. We started seeing the world the way Chucky does, noticing other birds, scanning for a good branch to land on. Hiking without a bird of prey now seems kind of boring.
A volcano within a volcano within a volcano
The San Salvador volcano is complicated. It’s also known as Quetzaltepec and these days the 70,000 year old volcano has been almost entirely taken over by El Boquerón volcano which began forming 40,000 years ago.
This crater complex is accessed via pleasant trails through an aggressively landscaped park. You can get right up to the lip of El Boquerón volcano which is massive (the name translates to Big Mouth). In fact, El Boquerón is big enough to have a separate volcanic cone inside its crater. We told you it was complicated.
Another great reason to make the trip up into the forested hillsides toward the Big Mouth volcano? People selling fresh strawberries and raspberries along the side of the winding road.
Opening the devil’s door
About an hour outside San Salvador, up a winding road through increasingly lush forest lies Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Door). If you didn’t know the bloody history of the spot you’d think it was just another dramatic rocky outcrop with a great view of the capital sprawling below, the surrounding volcanoes and the coastline.
Problem was, we knew that Puerta del Diablo was one of the spots where FMLN members were executed during El Salvador’s 12 year civil war (1980-1992). Their bodies were tossed over the edge, sometimes before they were dead.
Adding to the creepiness factor was the fact that the spot now has a zip line, hand-cranked carnival rides, souvenir stands and snack stall. The execution spot has been reclaimed as a weekend picnic spot.
A safety net for little ones in need
El Salvador does not have Child Protective Services. It does have children who have been kicked out of their homes, run away or been removed from abusive homes by the government. But then what? That’s where Love and Hope Children’s Home comes in.
Located on the road to Puerta del Diablo, Love and Hope lives up to its name providing a truly homey home for children whose own families are unfit or unwilling to care for them. Rachel Sanson, a startlingly young native of Ohio, has been in El Salvador since 2001. She helped start the not-for-profit home in 2004 and she’s still there running the place and gently trying to fill the emotional needs of kids who have nowhere else to go. She can use all the help she can get.
Volunteers are accepted for short or long-term stays (room and board included). We visited the home while our friend Shawn was volunteering there. He still raves about his experiences at Love and Hope and we were impressed with Rachel and with the home’s policy of putting all volunteers through a background check before allowing them through the doors to help heal and teach her needy kids.
You can make a tax deductible donation and learn more about volunteering at Love and Hope here.
Read more about travel in El Salvador