El Salvador - unchartered tourist territory
Jan 5, 2010, 11:29 GMT
San Salvador - El Salvador is a small country which was lashed by hurricane Ida in November 2009 and is beset by one of the highest crime rates in the world. Understandably, most people do not rate it highly as a place to go on holiday.
The reputation of the smallest country in central America may be dismal but tourist officials are upbeat about persuading people to explore uncharted territory which has even more to offer than the volcanoes, stunning Pacific beaches and Maya ruins to be found in neighbouring countries.
The visitor to El Salvador is likely to experience something a little different - such as watching a Harris hawk land with breathtaking precision on an outstretched, gloved hand.
Picture this scene near the trim little town of Concepcion de Ataco with its warm and friendly locals. In the high forest 'Chucky' flits from branch to branch, shadowing a group of tourists on an evening stroll.
The hawk alights first on the glove of its master, falconer Roy Beers. It snatches a morsel of dried meat and flies past him to where a tourist from the United States is standing. It is very dark here but the bird has got the message and lands artfully on the holidaymaker's hand. Predatory birds usually prefer open country but 'Chucky' is adept at finding his way around in the forest.
El Salvador's south-west region is still largely off the track beaten by most tourists although attractions for visitors are becoming increasingly evident. Surfing courses, boat excursions through the mangrove swamps along with mountain bike tours and horseriding through highland woodland and coffee plantations along the 'Ruta de las Flores' ('highway of flowers') are growing in popularity.
'The tourists are gradually becoming aware of us,' said Luis Figueroa who runs a cafe and restaurant near Ataco with his partner Veronica Navarro. Business is picking up all over in a country whose image was scarred in the 1980s by a brutal civil war.
Izalco volcano, Lake Coatepeque and the Maya remnants at Tazumal are not far from here. A 'must-see' for an Maya fans is Joya de Ceren, a pre-Columbian Maya farming village that has been preserved remarkably intact after it was destroyed by volcanic ash around 600 AD.
Now a designated world cultural heritage site, the ruins were discovered by chance by construction workers in 1976. The buildings once lay buried under up to five metres of volcanic ash and today visitors can tour the open-air complex and watch archaeologists at work.
El Salvador is tuning in more and more to sustainable tourism, which also provides jobs for local inhabitants. Many members of the former rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) are involved in projects.
At Perquin on the border with Honduras, the story of armed struggle in El Salvador is brought to life for the benefit of the tourists. The museum of the revolution 'Museo de la Revolucion' displays the machine-guns and radio sets used by the freedom fighters along with a wall mural painted by children exhorting peace and an intact environment.
The location is close to what is now known as 'peace road,' the 'Ruta de la Paz' to which El Mozote belongs. It was here that Salvadoran armed forces killed an estimated 800 civilians during an anti-guerrilla campaign in 1981, sparking outrage and banner headlines worldwide.
Life in El Salvador can still be pretty dangerous. The German Foreign Office among others warns in its security bulletins of the high risk of violent attacks - not exactly a boon to tourism.
'El Salvador does have a future. Time is on the side of our country,' said Paolo Luers, who was born in the northern German town of Osnabrueck and has settled in the country of his forefathers. The tables of his 'La Ventana' restaurant are busy and not just with locals - visitors are starting to come here too.