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September 29th, 2014

El Salvador: what tourists are missing by Chris Moss

Chris Moss recounts his trip to El Salvador in the Financial Times.

El Salvador is known as the país de la media hora – the half-an-hour country – because everything is close. You could spend a morning with the wheeling vultures in the peaks and have a shrimp ceviche on the beach for lunch. We also saw a Mayan pyramid, met some traditional weavers and managed to fit in a mini-tour of San Salvador, a rather green and pleasant city. The “scenic route” had delivered.

Just before dusk we made a right turn off the coast road and climbed an unpaved road for 13.5km. We had made it to El Imposible. On a late outing with local guide Rosa Chinchilla, 37, we saw a blue-crowned motmot, a nine-banded armadillo, a couple of tinamous and a strange little crab – and we heard, among other wild things, a laughing falcon. As darkness fell we followed a hissing screech echoing around the canopy and spotted a beautiful mottled owl, perched in a tall tree alive with bats – soon to become the owl’s tasty supper.

The park’s name alludes to a nasty pass at the summit where mules carrying coffee beans had to be led across a precarious bridge, often blindfolded. Sadly, man and beast occasionally plummeted into the abyss.

In the early 20th century, the cultivation of coffee almost wiped out El Imposible’s native flora. A few wild coffee plants remain but the forest has recovered immensely since 9,000 acres were granted national park status in 1989. The vegetation is mainly dry tropical forest – a threatened biome – and as well as 500 bird species there are paca and agouti (both large rodents), ocelot, ring-tailed cat and kinkajou, and countless butterfly and insect species. On a dawn hike, we climbed to a high point to take in the views. Rivera and Chinchilla assiduously noted down everything we saw, including a rare white hawk, diving at great speed in a perfect diagonal on some fatal mission.

My own mission had reached its conclusion, on a mountaintop with views over Guatemala, Honduras and the ocean. I was happily surprised by the national park. The footpaths were long, thoughtfully graded and well marked. The biodiversity was tangible if not teeming. At the entrance there was a decent eco-lodge – deserving of that name – where the cook prepared delicious pupusas. Yet El Imposible gets just 8,000 visitors a year, and only 1,000 of these are foreign nationals. The park is far more accessible and enjoyable than its name suggests – just as El Salvador is far more beautiful, wonderful and welcoming than its reputation would have us believe.

To read the full article which ran in the Financial Times, see here, El Salvador: what the tourists are missing.

Chris Moss travelled with Journey Latin America (T, 020 8622 8444, journeylatinamerica.co.uk). A 10-day trip to El Imposible National Park, Suchitoto and Copán in Honduras starts from £1,322. Return flights with Iberia from Madrid to El Salvador start at €793.

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