Exploring Parque Montecristo

Parque Nacional de Montecristo is a 1,972-hectare (4,873-acre) protected reserve tucked high in El Salvador's mountains, bordering Honduras and Guatemala. The park's highest point, known as Punto Trifinio, actually extends into Honduras and Guatemala, and reaches 2,400m (7,874 ft.). It features some of the country's lushest forests and most diverse flora and fauna, including dozens of orchid species and numerous rare birds, such as toucans, quetzals, and striped owls. Wild pigs, spider monkeys, coyotes, and other wildlife also inhabit the park but aren't so easily spotted.

The best time to visit is right after rainy season in December, when the park is at its most lush. Year-round, though, the region's high humidity and low-hanging clouds give the park its mystical cloud-forest feel and maintain its perpetually cool, damp environment, which hovers between 42° and 64°F (6°-18°C). Note, however, that full access to the park is limited from May to November. The thick canopy provided by the towering laurel and oak forests also provides the dark cover necessary for an array of orchids, mosses, lichens, and ferns to thrive here. The garden, De Cien Años, offers Montecristo's best orchid viewing and is an hour's drive (on bumpy, gravel road) from the park entrance. This garden, which is 1,798m (5,899 ft.) above sea level, is open daily from 8am to noon and 1:30 to 3pm. Montecristo also offers an historic hacienda-style house and a museum with an odd collection of objects ranging from a 3.5m-tall (11-ft.) model of a lookout tower to various animal skulls, along with info about the park's fauna. The museum is open daily from 8am to 3pm.

Los Planes and Montecristo's higher-altitude cloud forests are open November 1 through April 30 from 7am to 3pm daily. Those areas are closed May 1 through October 31 to foster breeding. The rest of the park, including the museum, is open year-round. All visitors must receive prior permission to enter the park from Montecristo's administrative offices at the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Km 5.5 Carretera a Santa Tecla, Calle and Colonia Las Mercedes, Bldg. MARN No. 2, San Salvador; tel. 503/2267-6276; www.marn.gob.sv). The entrance fee is $6 per person and $1.15 per vehicle. Hiking without a guide is prohibited beyond the immediate camping and cabin areas, since the trails are not well marked and it's easy to get lost in the haze of the cloud forest.

The park rents cooking burners, gas stoves, and outdoor barbecue grills for $35 per night and camping sites for $3 to $6 per night. Dorm beds in an old colonial house near the park entrance with a big, shady front porch are $10 per night. To reserve a room, call the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (tel. 503/2267-6276) or the park's main tour guide, Carlos Gutierres Mejía (tel. 503/7201-7557). Carlos speaks only Spanish but can reserve sleeping space, lead guided hikes, or arrange transportation from the park entrance to its higher altitudes.

Exploring Lago de Guija

Also near Metapán is the stunningly beautiful Lago de Güija and the marshlands of Lagunas de Metapán. The deep blue Lago de Güija is a 45-sq.-km (17-sq.-mile) lake straddling the El Salvadoran and Guatemalan borders whose shores are lined with largely undeveloped fishing villages and whose waters are dotted with islands where pre-Columbian artifacts were uncovered nearly 85 years ago. The lake's main attractions are its unspoiled beauty and lack of tourist infrastructure. You won't find any info kiosks here. You can just wander the shore until you find a local fisherman who'll take you out on the lake, where you can soak in outstanding views of the surrounding inactive lakeside volcanoes.

If you need to make more concrete plans, call local Spanish-speaking fisherman and tourist boat-owner Pedro San Doval (tel. 503/2483-9949) in advance to arrange a tour for about $25 per hour. La Perla (tel. 503/2415-6490) can set up a boat trip across the border for lunch in a small Guatemalan village for about the same cost.

Reserva Ecológica El Limo

Can't make it to Montecristo National Park because of limited time or lack of permits? Reserva Ecológica El Limo makes for an excellent Plan B with 14 hectares (35 acres) of lush, rolling hills traversed by rivers, dams, and waterfalls surrounded by mountains, coffee plantations, and cane fields. It is located 4km (2 1/2 miles) north of Metapán on a rough, mountainous road that requires a sturdy 4X4 and some expert driving. In addition to its rural allure, the private reserve also has three very well appointed cottages for rent and a 1,400m (4,593-ft.) canopy zip-line for those who prefer to fly, rather than hike. The attractive and well-designed cottages are a bargain, as they cost $55, sleep five, and have gorgeous views. A half-day of canopy zip-lining is $30, including transportation to and from Metapán. To book and arrange transfers, contact the owner, Siegfredo (tel. 503/2442-0149), or pop into the tourist office located on Metapán's main plaza. The owner can provide secure parking in town if you do not wish to brave the mucky road by car.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.