Ecological Park at Cinquera, Suchitoto
Rebels With a Cause
By: Lauren Martin
They can hear the sound of planes flying overhead, four to six times a day. Usually they come during mealtimes, searching the thick forests for signs of life, trying to spot the guerrillas' hideout under the thick, green canopy.
"Initially, we didn't create this park because we cared about the environment," our guide, Rafael, told us - surprising words from someone who spent a good part of his life creating, managing and preserving a bioreserve that covers over 5,700 manzanas (nearly 10,000 acres) of Central El Salvador, today known as the Parque Ecologica de Cinquera (sink-air-uh).
Near the end of the war, Rafael, a guerrilla soldier in El Salvador's war for democracy, was wounded and sent to safety to recover. There he worked with supporters, trained more infantry and coordinated supply shipments from San Salvador to the areas around Cinquera. When the repopulation efforts began in 1991, people started to return to the tiny Cinquera to rebuild their lives. Those who fought in the war, like Rafael, witnessed large tracts of land being cleared for agriculture. When a giant tree which had served as a meeting point for the guerrillas during the war was cut down, they decided something had to be done.
"These trees saved our lives," Rafael said, "How could we let them be killed?" And therein lies the real motivation behind the parque ecologico.
Our tour through the ecological park takes us along a trail bordered by a rock wall brought in piece-by-piece by volunteers. The trail crosses the river several times with suspension bridges and stepping stones and splits off fairly quickly to a small waterfall and swimming hole. We save a refreshing swim for last and follow the guerrillas' trail up into the hills.
Our first stop is the Obraje de Añil, two large pools used to make indigo dye (añil), a main crop in El Salvador's history. This obraje (workshop) is over 140 years old and was used at a time when indigo dye was the one of the country's most important exports supplying the dye for your favorite Levi's jeans among other things around the world. When human rights activists overseas learned about the harsh working conditions of the people in the obrajes and that many who had to stand in the liquid to aerate it to get the deep blue color were suffering from cancer, they put a stop to the entire industry, añil died out as a part of the economy and companies like Levi's started using synthetic dyes. Today, you'll find artisans still using añil in their artwork in Suchitoto and other places throughout the country.
Uphill from the obraje is the guerilla's make-shift "hospital", which consisted of a slatted wooden table and a few benches. A small, unmarked grave stands guard at the entrance - an unknown soldier who was discovered when they put in water pipes for the town of Cinquera. Nearby, a hand-painted plaque is dedicated to the foreign doctors who saved many lives, cured many wounds and finally could not be saved themselves and died in the line of duty. The hospital is located halfway up the hill from the river, a strategic spot since the military covered mountain tops and rivers more intensely, as those locations were more logically situated for camps. The guerrillas survived by adapting their strategy and keeping camps in middle ground.
Located a short walk from the hospital, the Vietnamese kitchen that Rafael showed us next was engineered to hide the stoves' smoke from the planes flying overhead. Long channels were carved into the earth leading away from the stoves and then covered with branches and leaves. The point was not to take the smoke away from the kitchen but rather to let the smoke slowly diffuse through the covering of leaves and branches so that it couldn't be seen by planes above the forest canopy.
The difficulty of living amongst the trees is painfully apparent as we follow Rafael's memory through history. His pride in "the movement", his ability to rally people behind his cause and his leadership ability are now being used for a different purpose. Cinquera's Ecological Park is constructed, organized and maintained almost solely by volunteers who believe in mantra of the park - to protect the forest that protected them. The increasing numbers of tourists visiting the park every year are also the only hope for economy that Cinquera has and the community takes their role in preserving the past seriously. The town's central park displays a monument from the war - the tail-end of a helicopter shot down by the guerrillas. They also fought to keep the historical church intact and murals throughout town depict revolutionaries, leaders and memories of those who lost their lives.
Rafael often walks through different parts of the massive reserve to ensure that no one is destroying the forest that is still not protected by El Salvador's government as a national park even 20 years later. He stops under a tree called a White Amate, a rare sight in El Salvador since it's perceived as "useless" by the locals.
"It's not good for firewood or construction so we would normally just cut it down to make room to plant corn," he says, looking up into the high branches. Now that he's spent time in the forest, watching the trees and the wildlife, however, he has a better understanding of Mother Nature's role for this particular tree - the birds eat the fruit and the insects use the flowers. What started as a plan to save the lives that saved theirs continues to grow into a greater concern for environmentalism and true eco-tourism.
Last year Cinquera's Ecological Park received more than 9000 visitors; to be one of them, follow the directions below.
The road to Cinquera is 18 miles of rough, rocky road leading southeast from the town of Suchitoto.
By bus: For tourists, the most logical bus is #482 (Suchitoto-Cinquera-Ilobasco). It leaves Suchitoto at 9 am and at 2 pm, takes about 40 minutes and costs $.70.
By car: 4x4 or a vehicle with good clearance is recommended, especially during the rainy season. The turn-off in Suchitoto is at the southern end of town, there are clear signs to Cinquera and there are no other turn-offs.
Park Entrance fees:
Central Americans: $1
Everyone Else: $3
Since there are only 2 busses per day, you can stay the night at Restaurant y Hostal El Bosque, operated by the park.
Cost per night: $10 (1 person), $15 (2 people), $25 (3-4 people)
Restaurant: Typical Food from $1.50
Reservations: 7084-1807 or 2308-1445
Located near Cinquera are hikes to two caves, La Cueva del Duende (The Dwarf Cave - 4.5 km) and La Cueva del Caracol (The Snail Cave - 2 km). Guides at the park can take you on a short trip to either one for $1 (nationals) or $3 (everyone else).
Take the easy route with a tour guide -
Transportation from and to Suchitoto, bilingual guide, entrance & park guide fee, short town tour of Cinquera and Los Tercios waterfall, a beautiful cascade over hexagonal shaped columns (best during the rainy season).
Not included: Iguana farm, caves, museum, food or snacks.
Approximate duration of the tour: 4-6 hours
Price: 1-3 People - $90, Call for more pricing
More info (English/Español):