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El Pital a Latin revelation nestled in El Salvador

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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

The resort occupies a sloping sliver of land alongside the road that winds toward the summit, about 1,000 feet higher. Its slogan is "Un Lugar Cerca del Cielo" (A Place Near Heaven), and El Pital Highland, about a mile and a half up, in some ways doesn't feel entirely of this Earth. Guests here have included at least one Salvadoran president and a former U.S. ambassador. The place is not big -- only three individual, free-standing cabins, plus eight additional guest rooms.

The roomy lodgings are attractively furnished with handcrafted furniture, much of it locally made. The cabins vary from a traditional Swiss chalet-type dwelling to a more modern, glass-sided split-level with cathedral windows. The 60-acre spread includes a rustically furnished (antique oxen yokes and the like) indoor-outdoor restaurant, which serves off-the-grill steaks and ribs good enough to attract a noonday crowd willing to make the roughly 40-minute drive up the mountain just to have lunch (about $40 for a family of four).

We hadn't reserved a room, and that was a mistake: El Pital Highland was fully booked. We ended up at the EntrePinos Hotel & Resort at the foot of the mountain. It was clean and economical, and it was a solid base camp, but it lacked El Pital's spectacular natural setting and the Rodríguezes' personal touch.

After depositing our luggage at Entre Pinos, we pointed our rental SUV up the mountain road. Climbing past a boy on horseback and a beer truck trying to negotiate a curve above a steep dropoff, we made it to El Pital Highland in less than an hour.

Although we weren't staying there, we got a warm welcome from the Rodríguezes. The lodge attracts extended families, and it's no doubt partly because the owners make even first-time visitors feel like kinfolk.

Patriarch Will said he conceived the idea for the lodge's design after visiting mountain resorts in Big Bear, Yosemite, Napa Valley and Europe. Like other hoteliers and campground operators around El Pital, the Rodríguez family is trying to market a new image of a region that many Salvadorans still associate with civil war.

He and his family are confident they can tap the touristic potential of the so-called Ruta Maya-Lempa, a picturesque swath named for the ancient Indian empire that once dominated Mesoamerica and the Lempa River, which sweeps down from the mountains of western Guatemala, crosses Honduras and flows through El Salvador before emptying into the Pacific.

"We went against the grain," Rodríguez said of his choice of location for the lodge. "Everybody goes to the beach, so we decided to come up here."

Among the guests that April weekend were the Larreynaga family, spending a few days hiking before turning back and hitting the beach on Easter. Enrique Larreynaga, 32, a taxi driver who said he was kidnapped into the Salvadoran army as a 15-year-old -- a fairly common occurrence during the war -- had heard of the area but never imagined he would be able to visit it, because in the old days it was guerrilla territory. "I only thought of the danger," he said.

Now, Larreynaga was standing with his family on a raised wooden platform overlooking a small, chilly pond on the hotel grounds. Elegant native water lilies dotted the pond, part of a larger project to restore the local forestation. The Rodríguezes have planted many cypress trees on the property to replace those destroyed during the war and have tried to prevent more illegal tree-cutting on the mountain.

Rodríguez paused to examine one especially stout specimen that he nicknamed Big Will. Un-self-consciously, he embraced the tree. "This," he said, smiling, "is a survivor."

THE LEGENDS

It already was midafternoon, so we set off with Rodríguez to explore the mountain's upper reaches in the remaining daylight.

Driving a few hundred yards up the road to a small, unobtrusive parking area, we passed scattered groups of locals -- some on foot, others crammed into cars and trucks -- arriving to spend a night under the stars on El Pital. Several carried pillows, blankets and even mattresses. Others were headed for one of the numerous public and private campgrounds tucked onto ledges and plateaus here and there.

We also passed a small wooden hut belonging to a hermit who has lived on the edge of what is now the Rodríguezes' property since before they arrived. "Big hair, big beard," Edwin said. "He's very peaceful; he doesn't hurt anyone."

Some Salvadorans say El Pital is haunted by strange spirits. There's a creature named La Siguanaba, a bewitchingly beautiful woman who lures men, then turns into a monster. People here say the hermit of El Pital once fell under her eerie charms. Another legend tells of the cadejo, a pair of large, red-eyed dogs -- one good, the other bad. If they follow you, it is said you will lose your way, or worse.

We didn't run into Siguanaba or any of her sinister spiritual sisters and brothers. But the U.S. Embassy does warn hikers and backpackers to be cautious when climbing volcanoes or remote mountain areas of El Salvador, even those in national parks, because armed robbers sometimes prowl there.

All the campers and hikers we met along the trail, nearly all of them Salvadorans, were friendly and welcoming, taking time to chat and, more than once, offering to share their food with us.

A WORLD UNTO ITSELF

As we hiked deeper into the first-growth forest, through clumps of Jurassic-size thistles and other strange plants resembling perching birds, we seemed to be retreating into a world that both time and men had forgotten. Along the trail, Rodríguez pointed out a spot where he wants to bring Costa Rican goats (they're big milk producers) to pasture so that their milk can be used to make cheese for the restaurant. But first, he plans to hire a goatherd and build a house for him. I wonder how he'll hit it off with the hermit.

Clouds skittered across the surrounding peaks as we climbed over a massive fallen tree trunk. Rodríguez seemed intent on showing us something. "Just a little farther," he said in Spanish as we scampered down a slippery embankment toward a clearing.

Then we saw it: a superb sunset vista of mountains and volcanoes stretching north toward Honduras and Guatemala, with the Lempa River winding lazily below. Beneath the ledge we stood on, the wall of rock dropped away to a hidden high valley, a distance of perhaps 1,000 feet.

Rodríguez, looking completely blissed out, lay down along the edge of the dropoff and took in the view. A line from Keats drifted into mind: "To sit upon an Alp as on a throne/And half forget what world or worldling meant."

We lingered. Darkness was falling fast, and it was growing chilly. As we returned to the main trail, we could make out the lights of San Salvador, through the haze, scores of miles away. Back in the restaurant, we rekindled our energy with coffee and the Rodríguezes' unflaggingly amicable spirits. The air may be brisk on the heights of El Pital, but I've seldom felt more warmed by human company.


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