An unexpected retreat

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 Rodriguez, who helps his father, Will, manage El Pital Highland , the area's best-known lodge. "The water, the wind, the birds."

El Salvador rewards those who are willing to seek out and listen to its innermost songs.

When a work assignment brought me and a photographer colleague here in April, I resolved to see the country's fringes, away from the congested capital.

Intrigued by reports of the lofty mountains straddling the borders of Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, we decided to spend a couple 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 people. 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 and a minimum of 32 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.

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

Although paragliding, canoeing and other activities abound, hiking, horseback riding and quiet nature contemplation are the main draws.

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).

The area drew Will Rodriguez, 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.

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.

The roomy lodgings are attractively furnished with handcrafted furniture, much of it locally made. The place is not big &

only three individual free-standing cabins, plus eight additional guest rooms. 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 rustic indoor-outdoor restaurant that serves off-the-grill steaks and ribs good enough to attract a noonday crowd willing to make the drive up the mountain just to have lunch.

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 Rodriguezes' personal touch.

After depositing our luggage at Entre Pinos, we pointed our rental SUV up the mountain and made it to El Pital Highland in less than an hour .

Although we weren't staying there, we got a warm welcome from the Rodriguezes.

Like other hoteliers and campground operators around El Pital, the Rodriguez family is trying to market a new image of a region that many Salvadorans still associate with civil war.

"We went against the grain," Rodriguez 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. 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, 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 pond on the hotel grounds. Elegant native water lilies dotted the pond, part of a larger project to restore the local forestation. The Rodriguezes have planted many cypress trees on the property to replace those destroyed during the war and have tried to prevent illegal tree-cutting on the mountain.

It already was midafternoon, so we set off with Rodriguez 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 Rodriguezes' 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 these areas .

As we hiked into the forest, through clumps of thistles and other strange plants resembling perching birds, we seemed to be retreating into a world that both time and men forgot . Along the trail, Rodriguez pointed out a spot where he wants to bring Costa Rican goats to pasture so that their milk can be used to make cheese for the restaurant.

Clouds skittered across the surrounding peaks as we climbed over a massive fallen tree trunk. Rodriguez 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 .

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

We lingered. But d arkness 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 Rodriguezes' 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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