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EL SALVADOR

Latin revelation

El Pital, once a rebel lair in El Salvador's highlands, is now an unexpected haven of natural beauty and outdoors pursuits.

October 07, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

El Pital, El Salvador

In the dark days of the early 1980s, anyone brave or foolhardy enough to ascend the majestic peak of El Pital would have been accompanied by a hellish soundtrack of mortar fire and army helicopters.

But as I strolled recently through regal stands of Encino and cypress trees, all was peaceful in this airy mountain lair, which reminds me of a miniature Mesoamerican Yosemite.

"There are only three sounds here," said Edwin Rodríguez, who helps his father, Will, manage El Pital Highland, the area's best-known lodge. "The water, the wind, the birds."

On my first visit to El Salvador 2 1/2 years ago -- a work assignment that kept me largely confined to San Salvador, the capital -- I got only a hint of the natural beauty and had only the briefest encounters with the people and the indigenous cultures. Wanting more, I promised myself that I would return to see whether the majestic lakes and charming villages were just a temporary convergence of happy circumstances or the best travel discovery I had made in some time.

A return trip, never mind a first trip, may puzzle some. They think of the El Salvador that was, haunted by the lingering images of the 1980-92 civil war. Or the El Salvador that is, a country that struggles with poverty and drug violence that have made its homicide rate one of the highest in the world. Still other travelers, if they think of El Salvador at all, see it mainly as a place to change planes or buses while shuttling between Guatemala's Mayan ruins and Costa Rica's sybaritic beach resorts.

Despite everything, El Salvador rewards those who are willing to seek out and listen to its innermost songs, a symphony of water, wind and birds.

ON THE FRINGES

When another work assignment brought me and a Times photographer here in April, I resolved to see more of the country's fringes, away from the congested capital. Because our visit fell during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, preceding Easter, the obvious choice was the Pacific Coast, the nation's favorite destination for major holidays. But we were looking for another side of the country known to relatively few Salvadorans, let alone foreign tourists.

Intrigued by reports of the lofty mountains straddling the borders of Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, we decided to spend a couple of days exploring the verdant regions around San Ignacio in the departamento of Chalatenango.

The area's undisputed high point, in every sense, is Cerro El Pital (Pital Hill), the pinnacle of this compact Central American nation of nearly 7 million. It rises 8,957 feet toward a massive rock dome, which some scientists speculate was formed in prehistoric times by an impacted meteorite.

With an average temperature of 60 degrees from November to March (prime tourist season), El Pital offers an escape from the tropical mugginess that blankets much of the country. Although El Salvador has been badly scarred by illegal logging and war-related environmental destruction, El Pital is a haven of lush first-growth forest. This was a rebel stronghold in the war's early years, but it was spared later destruction after initial peace talks in 1984 in the nearby village of La Palma, and the main battle zones shifted elsewhere.

El Pital reminded me, in some ways, of the Blue Ridge Mountains or the pine-perfumed uplands of New England. But its soul is unmistakably Mesoamerican.

Hummingbirds range through its foliage. Short-tailed hawks soar across its rugged precipices. From the upper reaches, you can gaze miles north into neighboring Honduras and Guatemala and south toward the sprawling Embalse Cerrón Grande reservoir and the massive San Salvador volcano that broods over the capital.

Although paragliding, canoeing and other activities abound, hiking, horseback riding and quiet nature contemplation are the main draws. It's a good place to undergo spiritual repairs in a country still suffering from combat fatigue of the soul.

The tri-national terrain around El Pital, dubbed "Trifinio," is known for its distinctive accent and colorful folklore as well as for the amiable relations among Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans (whose countries haven't always been on friendly terms). It attracts hikers and campers from all three countries, plus Canadians, Australians and Europeans (especially German and Swiss folks and other denizens of high-altitude lands), but only a smattering of U.S. visitors.

It also attracted Will Rodríguez, 55, his wife, Lidia de Reyes, 45, and their 24-year-old son, Edwin, who has been studying tourism and marketing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Five years ago, the couple opened El Pital Highland, a family-oriented compound of cabins and guest lodges.

Unless you're planning to pitch your own tent and brave the chilly gusts that sweep across El Pital around sundown (the lodge sells sweaters and thermal jackets), this is a terrific place to chill out for a day, or three or four.

A MILE AND A HALF IN THE AIR

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