San Salvador: Through the Devil’s Door
ostranenie n. The encouraging of people to see common things as strange, wild, or unfamiliar; defamiliarizing what is known in order to know it differently or more deeply.
Prior to my grand departure to Central America, everyone I told about the trip all got the same concerned look as they told me, “You know it’s dangerous down there, right?” In a way, all that discouragement and fear mongering that I put up with for months made me a little it more determined to find those dangerous areas. Maybe that’s why I found myself in El Salvador, the current murder capital of the world.
It’s been a recent development, actually. Honduras once held the title, but after an explosion of 6,657 murders in the small country in 2015, El Salvador took the title. It was a 70% increase from the previous year, and the rate of 104 murders per 100,000 in population became the highest murder rate of any country in nearly 20 years. The capital of San Salvador, our destination for the next week, holds the third highest murder rate in the world as far as cities go. So naturally, I was going there.
I expected my arrival into the murder capitol of the world to feel a little more… well, dangerous. I expected to feel intimidated walking from the bus station to our hostel, or at least a little on edge. Honestly though, walking through the streets of San Salvador felt no different from walking around Philadelphia. Sure I got catcalled for the first time in Central America, but I got that more often in Philly. The most fear I felt on the twenty-minute walk from the bus station to our hostel was the fear of getting hit by a car on the six lane streets that had no pedestrian crossings. Seriously though, crossing any street in San Salvador is a bit like wading into a raging river with a bunch of temperamental piranhas that may or may not decide to bite. Some drivers were unexpectedly kind and would stop the flow to let us scramble off the center strip to finish crossing. Others, particularly taxi drivers, liked to accelerate and see how close they could come to being charged with vehicular manslaughter.
We were really looking forward to our hostel, the Hotel Tropicana, due to the fact that it had a pool. A pool was a luxury thus far unknown to us on our trip, and given the insufferable heat of El Salvador, it would be a cool relief. When we arrived, however, we found ourselves a little disappointed at the dingy hostel, uninhabited by any other guests, and its small, very grimy looking pool. The website photo had been very deceiving and I suspected they took that photo when it was brand new before promptly deciding to quit cleaning it altogether. So we wouldn’t be doing any swimming, but the price was right at only $20 a night for a private bathroom room with AC. So what if we found an ant infestation a couple days later and needed to move rooms? Ants were becoming a constant of our trip anyway.
We quickly discovered that San Salvador offered little in the way of sightseeing. Even though our hostel was located in Barrio Flores, not far from the center of the city, the center of the city wasn’t really all that spectacular, or even practical by means of providing places to eat and shop. The center of San Salvador was just more urban sprawl that held no real interest to us. Then again, we weren’t there for the city itself. We were drawn to San Salvador for the climbing just outside the city, meant to be one of the largest outdoor spots in Central America. Too bad we had no idea how to get there and no beta for the area.
We figured the best place to start would be the local climbing gym in the city, fortunately located only about fifteen minutes straight down the street from our hostel. The downside was that there stood one of previously mentioned six lane death crossings right in our way. After turning ourselves in human Froggers to get across the street, we realized how hungry we were. Risking your life can do that to you. A few blocks ahead was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall cafeteria where we piled two plates high with chicken and rice, paying around $4 for both of us. I was liking El Salvador more and more by the moment.
Just beyond the cafeteria was the Adolfo Pineda National Gymnasium, where the climbing gym was supposedly located. After wandering all around the grounds and following various instructions to dead-ends, we nearly gave up. Finally, we found it, tucked away down a cement staircase just on the other side of the main stadium. Were it not for the sign reading “Federación Salvadoreña de Montañismo y Escalada”. Problematically, the door lay beyond a locked gate and we were soon informed that it wasn’t open on Sundays, but that it should be open Monday through Friday. I kept forgetting I was in an extremely Christian country.
We returned the next day, this time daring to get our hopes up to climb. Yet when we arrived, it was still locked. Another girl approached us and we managed to deduce that she, too, was a climber waiting for it to open. That at least gave us hope that it should be opening at some point today. The girl told us it should open in about an hour, and so we waited… for an hour and a half. We gave it yet another fifteen minutes before finally throwing in the towel and accepting the fact that we had now wasted another day. Determined for the day not to be a complete waste, we decided to walk farther down the road toward the center market. Five or so blocks later, we found ourselves in an area we didn’t particularly like and turned around. As we passed the gimnasio on the way back, we shrugged and figured it couldn’t hurt to just see if it had opened while we were gone. It hadn’t, but as we turned around to walk away, a short and spunky woman holding the hand of a small boy jogged up to us.
“Escalada?” she asked. We answered eagerly that we were and she motioned for us to follow her. She unlocked the door and led us into a dimly lit cave covered wall to wall with climbing holds. The holds cluttered the walls to such extent that there was hardly room to squeeze in any more. As such, the walls contained no actual routes, but rather improvised and made up ones sketched on the wall in chalk. The walls themselves were rickety plywood that bowed and creaked if you put too much weight on it. Miraculously, it never broke, even the section of ceiling wood that would completely pop off on one side when you hung on it. Compared to other gyms we had climbed in, this one was unsophisticated, non-technical, and downright ratchet. We loved it.
We didn’t so much love the gym for the climbing itself; the climbing was so-so. Given the lack of actual routes, it made it to where we needed to make up our own routes to challenge ourselves. That is fun to some extent, but I like structure. I like little pieces of tape telling me where to grab next. Here, finding the next hold Chris had designated for me was like finding a needle in a haystack.
The climbing, however, wasn’t what was important, because we found ourselves enamored with the young and energetic woman who had let us in. Her name was Marta and the rambunctious sack of energy jetting around the gym was her son, Savi. Marta stood at maybe 5’1” and wore a constant beaming smile on her face. As she watched Chris climb across the walls, taking down any route she could challenge him with, she would just grin and say, “Muy fuerte!”
When we finished one of her routes, she would immediately begin pointing out holds of another for us, jumping up with all her might toward the ceiling to point out the finish. “Top!” She spoke almost no English but that didn’t stop her from genuinely trying to engage us in conversation. And the wonderful thing about climbing is that it serves as an international language. Even though we could hardly converse with her, we still hung out with her all day until some people to whom she gave lessons came in and demanded her attention. As we were preparing to leave, we asked Marta about Puerta del Diablo, the outdoor climbing just outside San Salvador, specifically how we might go about getting there. She lit up and started rambling at us in Spanish. After a bit, I was finally able to gather that she and her brother were going to Puerta del Diablo the next day and she wanted us to go along. We happily agreed and she said they would pick us up at the gym at 2pm. “Mi hermano habla Ingles,” she told us as well, which was definitely something nice to hear.
The next day, we did as Marta had instructed and walked to the gym, hoping that we hadn’t misunderstood something and that we were actually going to get to go to Puerta del Diablo that day. My Spanish must have at least improved a little because, as promised, they pulled up just a couple minutes past two. Inside, we met Marta’s sister and brother, the latter of who had grown up and currently lived in L.A. As a result, he spoke fluent English, and for the ride to Puerta del Diablo, we were able to hold a real conversation with Marta, given the intermediate translator.
After about 45 minutes of driving, we arrived at a small dirt parking lot nestled in between two massive rock formations. Between the two crags was a picturesque view of the valleys south of San Salvador below. This was Puerta del Diablo, the Devil’s Door. It hardly looked demonic, but the name came from an old legend. The legend says that during settlement times, Planes Renderos (also the name of the area where Cerro Quemado is located) had a beautiful daughter. In fact she was so beautiful to catch the attention of the Prince of Darkness himself who began to court the girl. Her father refused to let this happen and hunted for the Prince of Darkness. The Prince fled through the mountains, knocking a hole in one in his haste creating la puerta. Interestingly enough, science also concurs that the two formations were once one, though it disagrees on the method of splitting. It is scientifically believes that a storm of great magnitude was responsible for the breaking of the Cerro Chulo mountain.
For such a lovely place, however, it certainly has a dark past. Originally, the area was used as a sacrifice site for the original settlers. This trend continued as recently as the El Salvadorian Civil War from 1980-1992, in which over 75,000 civilians died at the hands of the government. Puerta del Diablo was used both for execution and disposal of the bodies. And there we were ready to climb over the burial ground of thousands of people.
The locals don’t seem to mind, however, so neither did we. Marta explained the general layout of the walls and asked where we wanted to start. Right next to the parking lot was an extremely slabby wall with three climbs rated only 5.6. Not much of a challenge, but we figured it might be a nice warm-up, so we started there. After sending a couple easily, we moved down to the left side of the parking lot, where the wall gave us a great view of the valley below. Unfortunately, most of the climbs here were a little above my grade, so Chris ended up doing most of the climbing. But as he repelled down from the dirty routes covered in specks of soil and moss that had mixed in to the sweat on his face and neck, I no longer felt very jealous. We asked Marta if she planned on climbing but she replied that she didn’t have her shoes or harness. We suddenly felt very bad, realizing that perhaps the only reason she had really come up here today was for us. By this point, Marta’s brother and sister had even said goodbye, having hikes to the top of one of the rocks while we were climbing. We would be taking the bus back with Marta and Savi.
But there were still a couple hours of daylight left, so we headed to yet another string of walls that lined the path up to the leftmost rock. After Chris completed a few climbs, including one on which he retrieved an abandoned carabineer, we tried to convince Marta to climb a little. “Usas mis zapatos y aprovechar.” I told her she could use my shoes and harness and she grinned that huge infectious smile at me. I gave her my gear so she could climb a bit, and her doing so even inspired me to hop on the beginning of a climb that was a bit difficult for me.
The sun had nearly completely sunk below the horizon by the time we packed up the rope and quick draws and headed back to the road to catch a bus back into San Salvador. The bus pulled up immediately and we paid $0.30 each for the fare. Marta asked on the ride where we were staying and if we knew how to get back there from the bus terminal. Our blank faces were answer enough and she told us to come along with her. Her boyfriend, also named Chris, would be getting off work soon and he could drive us back to the hostel. Not really wanting to take chances walking through one of the most dangerous cities in the world at night on our own, we accepted yet another wonderful gesture of kindness from Marta. Of all the nice people we had come across so far, she was by far the most beautiful soul, happy inside and out and eager to spread that cheer to others.
We departed the bus and followed Marta through the bustling streets of center San Salvador. She warned us to keep our valuables hidden away and walked swiftly on. Had Marta not been there guiding the way, I probably would have been a lot more scared, but there was something about her that just made me feel like everything was going to be okay. I had no doubt that if someone tried anything, she would just spring her tiny body into action and take down whoever it was. After about fifteen minutes of walking, we reached her boyfriend’s work. We hopped in his very nice car (side note: I will never understand how people in Central American can drive such nice cars and live in such awful houses) and they took us right back to the hostel. We said goodbye to Marta, though not for the last time. We were determined to go back to the climbing gym in a couple days if for no other reason than we wanted to spend more time with the woman who had been so kind to us.
The next morning, the morning of November 9, I woke up to find that Donald Trump had been elected President, something I never even considered to be in the realm of possibility. I woke to read my friends’ statuses about how angry, scared, ashamed, and [insert negative adjective here] everyone. I woke to find myself wondering about the future of my own reproductive rights and access to birth control and health care.
But here’s the kicker: I also woke up in the most dangerous country in the world. I woke up reading about how my friends back in America no longer felt safe with such a president while I was residing in the country with more murders and gang violence than anywhere else in the world. You could see it in the police officers stationed every few blocks cradling massive shotguns in their arms. Hell, just the previous evening I had walked through the city with Marta only to have her instruct me, very gravely, to put my phone and camera away. And yet, people in their cushy apartments with clean, hot water felt unsafe. The contrast made me laugh a little, even if I was the only one laughing that day.
And there it was: American privilege staring me in the face. I wanted to be able to show people back home, specifically the people complaining about the downfall of America, how some people live. Throughout the three Central American countries I had visited thus far, I had seen people living in shanties constructed of cinder blocks, rotting wood, and sheet metal. Their houses lack doors and windows, only open frames in their place. I had seen old women walking down dirt and gravel roads in bare feet, balancing heavy sacks of grains and other goods on their heads. They buy their drinking water from ten-gallon drums because they can’t drink any of the water in the taps. And yet, all these people seemed more satisfied with their quality of life than everyone in America did.
So yes, I found it hard to give a shit about what the safety pins represented, or who was protesting where, or what states were going to try for a recount, or even the petition of abolish the electoral college (pro-tip: read about what it’s for and if you think it’s pointless, you probably live on the 1% of American land mass that would control the political system without it).
I will come out and admit this; I did not vote in the election. I could make up excuses and say that Montana always goes red so there’s literally no point in voting. I could say I simply didn’t have time to get an absentee ballot before leaving on my trip. They’re both true, but I also won’t pretend I didn’t use my conveniently times trip out of America to avoid voting for a candidate I didn’t believe in. This is the time where a lot of people will say, “Fuck you,” for not voting. And that’s fine. I would argue my not voting was just as pointless as all the third party voters who threw their vote away all for the sake of protesting the system.
Ultimately, however, I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about the outcome of the election. In a way, that made me feel guilty, because I knew many of my friends from university (possibly even reading this) would scorn me for that, but I had now also seen a lot more of the world than they. I couldn’t pretend that my perspective had not been altered by the month I had already spent on Central America. It’s easy to be judgmental and narrow-minded when you’ve never stepped outside your own front door. I don’t mean any of this to offend, merely to offer some honest thoughts about how travel had impacted my relationship with the American political system.
Moving on: While Americans back home cried about how their country had opened the door to the Devil, Chris and I tossed all thoughts of the election aside and went back to the actual Puerta del Diablo. Since we had been climbing the last couple days in a row and since most the routes at Puerta del Diablo were above my grade, we returned purely to enjoy the views from the top. We hadn’t had time to hike to the top of the twin rock formations with Marta but I was eager to see it. Supposedly, on clear days, you can see all the way to the ocean.
This time, however, we didn’t have Marta’s brother, meaning we would need to find our way there all on our own. If we could just catch the no. 12 bus that ran there, all would be well. The trouble was finding that bus. We began walking toward the historic center, but quickly gave up and hopped on one of the frequent no. 30 to the center. It cost us $0.20. From there, I can only say good luck, because the center of San Salvador is chaos. There is a market on every street so you can hardly tell one from the other. If you ask around at the Palacio National, people will point you in the right direction and eventually, you’ll come to a small dirt lot cut off the side of a market street. There, the no. 12 bus leaves about every 45 minutes.
Once at Puerta del Diablo, we began with the hill left of the parking lot, where we had done most of our climbing the previous day. After a rather short hike up the dirty and uneven stone staircase, we reached the top, embraced by miles upon miles of green valley, probably so verdant from the fleshly fertilization of the civil war. In the distance, we could see Lago de Ilopango and the appropriately names Ilopango volanco rising sharply from an otherwise flat landscape between the ocean and us. It was a little piece of paradise there in the murder capitol of the world.
We sat on the rocks for a bit, taking in the view and appreciating being out of the city, before descending only to ascend back up its brother to the right. This viewpoint was paved and thus host to a handful of other people taking photos and blocking our own view. We stayed here only long enough to glance around before heading back down to catch the next bus into San Salvador. We initially attempted to find a bus back in direction of our hostel, only to fail miserably and find ourselves slightly lost. I could get back walking, but I had no idea where to go about finding a bus and no one around us seemed to either. Since it was still daylight, we opted to walk this time, a long trek of about twenty blocks, but not altogether miserable in the daylight.
The following day was our last full day in San Salvador. We had been there nearly a week, and while the climbing was fun, it was still a disgusting city that smelled like boiling diapers (maybe the fact that we saw a mother encourage her little kid to just pee right in the middle of the sidewalk had something to do with this) and I was ready to move onto something a little quieter. First, we wanted to say goodbye to Marta and the rickety little gym we had unusually grown to love.
As Chris and I are prone to do, we spent hours at the gym that day, befriending a few local guys and another traveller from Switzerland who had found himself rooted in San Salvador for the last few weeks. At one point, I had their names written down but that scrap of paper has long since been lost in the absolute chaos that had become my life. But such is the case with travel. As I’ve written in the past, names become secondary to country in terms of identity and we remember those who cross our paths by the moments we shared with them, not their given names. Finally, as night fell, we decided to say goodbye. We thanked Marta for everything she had done for us in the last few days and told her we hoped we would one day see her again. It’s not often that I come across someone in my travels to whom it actually pains me to say goodbye, but when I do, I know that person is special. Marta touched both Chris and me at the very core of our anti-social selves and we wouldn’t soon forget her.
As we returned to the hostel that evening, I decided on a whim to check my bank accounts. It’s something I like to do every few days when traveling just to keep tabs on what I’m spending. I logged in and immediately had a heart attack. There at the top of my transaction list were two $400 withdrawals from an ATM in Jamaica. Funny. I didn’t remember going to Jamaica and I highly doubted I could have been high enough to forget that entire trip. That meant that someone had somehow gotten my debit card information. Considering I only use my debit card to withdraw funds from an ATM as infrequently as I can, I could only figure that someone in Guatemala I had used a compromised ATM with a card skimmer. So just like that, I was out $800. Or so I convinced myself. And of course, the following day was Veteran’s Day, meaning I would have to wait three more days until I could even find out anything. I filed a report and called my mom and she promised to call on Monday when they were open again.
Sometimes, small town banks are nice in that your mom can call and say, “Hey I’m Amber’s mom and even though I’m not listed on her account at all, I need complete access to it because she’s in a foreign country with no ability to contact you,” and they respond, “Sure! Would you like that direct deposit or check?” Sometimes, however, they’re not because they not quite as heavily insured as the major banking corporations and don’t have the disposable funds to just replace money that’s stolen. I was having serious doubts (read as: woefully suicidal thoughts because I was positive my bank was not going to replace my money).
Chris assured me they would refund my money and if they didn’t we could probably take legal action against them considering I could prove with other receipts that I had never been to Jamaica. But there was no consoling me. I was a black hole that sucked in any optimistic thought and spat it back out in some grotesque and twisted form.
And to make matters worse, in the middle of my tearful and hyperventilating hysteria, the receptionist knocked on our door and told us we were supposed to check out today. “What, to make room for all the other guests you have at this shitty little place?” I wanted to say, but I didn’t. Instead, I hiccupped a little sob and handed over $20 even though at check the receptionist had confirmed our check out date as November 11. Besides, what was $20 when I had just lost $800.
“This was a stupid dream,” I moaned. “Why did I ever think I could be a travel writer? Travel has been nothing but trouble. I quit.” It’s quite defeating to suddenly look at your life’s ambition and just question what the point of it all it. Chris soothed me and assured me I wouldn’t be thinking that once I felt better. “I want to go home,” I demanded.
“I’m not letting you make that decision when you’re like this.” Ever my voice of reason when I so often lack one. It’s now hard to imagine what this trip would have been like without him, if I could have even handled the many bad things that had already happened without his shoulder to steady me.