June 2-3, 2017: Finca Bona Fide on Isla de Ometepe, Lake Nicaragua

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Lenticular clouds blowing off of Vulcan Concepción on Isla de Ometepe

From Granada, we travelled to Rivas/San Jorge, where we caught a ferry to Moyogalpa on the Isla de Ometepe. The island is formed by two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, rising out of Lake Nicaragua. The name “Ometepe” is derived from the Nahuatl words ome and tepetl meaning two mountains. The two volcanoes are joined by a low isthmus to form the island. In Moyogalpa, we were picked up by Mitch Haddad, our host and one of the owners of Finca Bona Fide, our destination for the next 24 hours. After a brief tour of the island, we arrived at the Finca just in time for an amazing home-cooked meal.

Path leading to Finca Bona Fide and Harper faculty lounging in dining area.

After falling asleep to a chorus of at least six different frog species, and enjoying a splendid and very solid sleep in one of Finca Bona Fide’s open-air bunk shelters, we awoke the next morning to vocal howler monkeys, parakeets, kiskadees, magpie jays, and domestic roosters.

We were thirteen of the two to three-thousand visitors received by the island each year.  Finca Bona Fide exists to collaborate with the Isla de Ometepe and mainland Nicaraguan communities, to provide an opportunity for sustainable-agriculture research and development, and serve as a demonstration farm.

Open-air bunkhouses and “facilities”

With many plants throughout Isla de Ometepe having come from the farm, Finca Bone Fide’s effectiveness as a demonstration farm is clear, but that function does not provide sufficient funds to keep the operation “afloat.”  The farm is presently supported by a diverse group of institutions including Arizona State University, McGill, Brandeis, Union College, Presidio, and a random assortment of other colleges, universities, and even high schools.  Recent research at Finca Bone Fide has focused on maximizing growth and production of similar plants (e.g., jackfruit and mango), maximizing nitrogen-fixing crops, and ally cropping.  It is tough getting grants, and sometimes “non-profit work sucks,” according to Mitch Haddad, our host, who arrived 16 years ago from the Boston area, and he appears entrenched in the operation.  To supplement his income, he teaches courses throughout Nicaragua and works for the Where There Be Dragons organization in the United States.  Across all areas of responsibility, the farm has a 20-person staff, including college-aged interns from around the world.  The group of interns assembled at the time of our visit was very enthusiastic about their service at the farm.

Faculty sitting on tree platform with view of Vulcan Concepción.

It is the philosophy of the Finca Bona Fide mind trust that because nature works in four dimensions (length x width x height x time), the success of farming should likewise be measured in four dimensions, rather than the conventional, two-dimensional model of bushels per acre.  With Guanacaste and Spanish cedar trees providing the canopy, coconuts right below the canopy, mandarins and papaya below the coconuts, bananas and plantains comprising the next layer, chilies and coffee serving as shrubbery, peanuts being the herbaceous ground plants, and ginger and turmeric beneath the ground, the farm is a simple model of the stratification of a mature, tropical forest.  The development of permaculture at Finca Bona Fide, through experiments and replication, has filled niches, mimicking ecological succession.

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Permaculture tour of farm

There may be people who question some of the methods of the Finca Bona Fide team (e.g., introducing non-native plants into the farm and the lack of records of their research), but it is hard to find fault with their priorities.  Since the farm’s “birth” on 25 acres of pasture in 2001, the priorities have been to

  • Care for the earth
  • Care for people
  • Have self-control of function and growth
  • Redistribute surplus
  • Have a transitional ethic

As we departed Finca Bona Fide, we were asked to take whatever waste could not be composted or stuffed into plastic two-liter bottles (“eco-bricks”) with us.

Eco-bricks in action: from plastic receptacles to construction material.

Since Isla de Ometepe was once the Somoza family’s island farm get-away, some of wondered aloud if the General would have “packed it in and packed it out.”

June 1, 2017: Reforestation Volunteering at Laguna de Apoyo

A highlight of our studies in Nicaragua was our experience with reforestation volunteering at Laguna de Apoyo. Laguna de Apoyo is a wide crater filled with a vast lagoon, and an abundance of flora and fauna, making it a valuable natural resource for eco-tourism, agriculture, and development. The range of industries, interests, organizations, communities and activity around Laguna de Apoyo was relevant to several of our research areas.

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Scenic overlook of Laguna de Apoyo

The crater lagoon was formed 23, 000 years ago and today is considered to be a sleeping volcano, being the largest lagoon in Nicaragua. It is located in the middle of a long volcanic chain and close of the cities of Granada and Masaya and near several small villages. It is unique, in that to this day it provides livable land for local residents whose livelihood depends on agriculture, native plant production, tourism and family-harvested food. It also provides a home to a numerous tropical plants including pochote, mahogany, guacuco and a variety of orchids; and to wildlife including Howler Monkeys and Falcons which we saw in several instances, and Common Boas which we did not see.

In our experience of traveling around Laguna de Apoyo, we visited local residents at family-owned nurseries which provided tropical plants to be used for reforestation efforts. We explored the local community called Plan de Laguna, and witnessed colorful lively markets, a range of tourism destinations (including lodges, beachfront and hostels), vast overlooks, and local residents living in the slopes of the lagoon. Over 100,000 persons inhabit the community, with homes in Plan, settlements in the slopes, and mostly foreign-owned homes built on the shoreline.

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So why reforestation? Historically, the natural qualities of Laguna de Apoyo have been preserved due to low tourism, economic and social exploitation. Today, there are many issues impacting the area and causing abuse of the lagoon’s qualities. The impact of “human activity” as expressed by our guide, including tourism with minimal consideration on the environmental outcomes, building in cleared areas, and properties of agricultural cooperatives have resulted in erosion, lack of natural drainage areas, and greater reduction in water quality in the lagoon. It was declared a natural reserve, Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo, in 1991, and currently managed by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA). This is the organization we worked with to participate in the reforestation volunteering.

Picking up the tree saplings to be planted on the slopes of Laguna de Apoyo

With oversight by MARENA, several districts and investing corporations and donors, the preservation and infrastructure impacting Laguna de Apoyo is being guided by a developing management plan. Current partnerships between tourism vendors (hostels, hotels, university and faith-based organizations producing study/serve abroad participants) and invested businesses seem to have potential to be part of the solution for preserving the natural qualities of Laguna de Apoyo. In our travels to different communities around the lagoon, we saw use of strategic business and service partnerships in environmental preservation, human services, cultural education and other industries.

Harper faculty planting trees

Our service experience in the Laguna de Apoyo region included a series of steps to obtain plants from nearby nurseries, transfering them to the reforestation site, then working in teams on very steep inclines to transplant items to open areas. Local residents who were preparing for reforestation careers or doing community service, and foreigners who were staying in the Laguna area for long-term study or service or vacation, participated in the experience with our group. After two weeks of travels, tours, presentations, hikes, and educational immersion through cities, villages, historic sites and more, our group worked well together to make a small contribution to a valuable ecosystem in Central America. The experience also gave us an opportunity to work alongside local residents and engage in labor that is the foundation for much of Nicaragua’s riches.

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Team assembled after tree-planting

May 30th, 2017: Managua, Nicaragua

The day began with our departure from the beautiful town of Estelí travelling to Managua, Nicaragua, approximately 107 kilometers, or 67 miles away. On our drive from the city through the countryside, we observed police road stops, which are used to ensure that the roads are safe.

As we continued our drive on CA #2 (Central American Highway #2) , the scenes of the countryside opened up to some familiar sights: cows, chickens, donkeys, horses, fields of tobacco, red beans and rice, offering a majestic view of Nicaragua’s vast and plentiful agricultural landscape.  Our Nicaraguan guide, Carlos, provided a deeper perspective on the advancements in agricultural processes that have moved away from the old traditions of farming to promoting organic planting, cultivating and harvesting of all crops. Not to be missed were the rolling vistas of mountains, plains, valleys, lakes and river beds, and villages that stretch through the Sébaco department region.

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Scenic drive through northern Nicaragua

As we continued on CA#2, we made a stop in Sébaco, a lively and colorful town, where everyone was celebrating Mother’s Day!!  Yes, in Central America, Mother’s Day is a national holiday that is celebrated on May 30th each year. Most schools and businesses are closed, but for those that are open, most people work only a half of day and then spend time with their families for the remainder of the day.

As we entered the city of Managua, the streets were filled with many tiendas, food markets, maquillas, and a variety of services to choose from.

Street vendors in Managua
Street vendors in Managua

Carlos provided an extensive overview of the businesses in Managua. The economy of Nicaragua is greatly dependent on the businesses in the country – from the small agriculture farmer, to the tienda owner, to the more established family businesses, and to the large corporations that dot the landscape of the countryside and the larger cities. Commerce (business) provides over 50% of the country’s GNP. The country of Nicaragua is established as a socialist nation under the Ortega regime wherein the wealthy provide for the less fortunate. In order to provide for the 1.75 million citizens of Managua, businesses are required to pay a 15% “business tax,” which is used to provide basic health, sanitation, and educational services to the citizens of Managua.

The average salaries for citizens of Managua are constructed on three levels:

  • Lower-waged employees – $340/month – agricultural workers, maquillas, service industry workers and teachers
  • Middle-waged employees – $350-$500/month – engineers; medical professionals (doctors); lawyers
  • Higher-waged employees – $1,000 (plus)/month – politicians; professors; larger business owners

Although the country experiences a 15% business tax, there is no personal income tax for individual citizens. In addition to the business tax, which comes from middle- to large-sized businesses, the local shops pay a small monthly usage fee for the stalls in which they provide goods and services to the local communities across the county.

Citizens that work for larger, established companies (or the government) are provided with benefits and a pension (depending on the company.) The average age of retirement is 60 years old — with the exception of teachers who have a mandatory retirement age of 55. Upon retirement, citizens are entitled to social security benefits; however, due to the life expectancy of Nicaraguan citizens, the government is seeking to change the mandatory retirement ages. Many U.S.-based companies (franchised locations and corporate offices) have established a presence in Nicaragua due to the lower wage structure in the country.

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Colorful trees lining main avenues of Managua

As we continued our tour of Managua, Carlos pointed out the colorful electric trees of Managua. The 67 trees were sanctioned by President Ortega in 2014 as a symbol of emotional and cultural freedom from the civil unrest (U.S.-backed Contras insurgency) of 1981-1988.

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Miniature city of Managua in Lake Xolotlan Recreational Area, Managua

After a discussion of the business and economic influences on Nicaragua, our guide led us through the historical city of Managua, which was founded in the 1600s with roughly 400 residents. Over the years, the city has experienced great population growth and an economic explosion; however, in 1972 the Momotombo volcano erupted and an earthquake ensued. The eruption destroyed the city, and it has taken 45 years for Managua to rebuild. A miniature city sits amidst the Lake Xolotlan Recreational Park to remind the citizens of the bustling metropolis that once stood.

Clockwise from top left: Old Cathedral of Managua (Catedral de Santiago) and the front and back of the National Palace (Palacio Nacional de la Cultura). 

After visiting the historic sites of the National Palace, the La Casa de Los Pueblos, the National Theatre, the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, and the Sandino Memorials, the tour of the city continued to the Cathedral of Managua, erected in 1993 to represent the 67 evangelical movements of the country. The new cathedral has created much controversy, particularly about its architectural style and $4.5 million cost.

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Protesters’ camp

As we completed our tour of the cathedral, we came across a gathering of migrant workers who had suffered from the damages of abusive use of pesticides in the early 2000s – something that was studied in our GEC prior to coming to Nicaragua — and taken up residence outside of the cathedral in protest over the death, suffering and abandonment of thousands of residents. We were able to interview one resident, Carmen, who told of her 8-year struggle to obtain help from the Nicaraguan government; however, the American company that was responsible for this atrocity has closed business and left the country. A somber end to a busy day . . . .

May 28, 2017: The Civil War in El Salvador: Lessons from the Cold War

By the 1970s, the government of El Salvador was like many Latin American and Developing Nations: a pro-U.S., capitalist military dictatorship, virulently anti-communist and anti-Soviet Union. The global politics of the Cold War meant the United States demanded the loyalty of the Central American governments. The people of El Salvador paid a high price for their position in the Cold War with few social programs, no labor protections, and a complete absence of civil rights. Attempts at social justice reforms such as demands for land redistribution, labor unions, public education, democratic elections, even freedom of speech and the press were denounced as the first steps towards a Communist takeover by the elites who controlled the export-dominated economy and their U.S. allies. As the people of El Salvador refused to accept the lack of political and economic reforms, the military was increasingly called upon to break up demonstrations and protect the propertied interests of the country.  Death squads targeted journalists, labor leaders, community activists, intellectuals, and artists. By 1980, the military openly controlled the government. The people of El Salvador decided to take up arms to force the reforms they had demanded unsuccessfully for decade.

Five guerrilla organizations launched coordinated attacks against the government on January 10, 1981.  These organizations’ members were drawn mainly from the rural people of El Salvador, many of whom were illiterate and living in abject poverty. The organizations had different goals for their revolution – Communists, Social Democrats, Anarchists, and Social Justice Reformers all organized and took up arms to promote their reform agenda. These groups all banded together under the umbrella organization FMLN – the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front.

Under the foreign policy doctrine of Containment, the United States supported the military dictatorship of El Salvador with weapons, training, and financing. The guerrillas responded with attacks on government and military installations, as well as economic infrastructure.  The civil war eventually claimed the lives of 75,000 Salvadoran in the 11 years of conflict and the United States sent more than $4.5 billion in military aid. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and several internationally high profile atrocities committed by Salvadoran government forces against civilians, the United States finally cut off military aid to El Salvador in 1991.  With the end of military aid, the Salvadoran government finally agreed to peace accords in January 1992 that called for democratic elections, reformation of the Salvadoran police and military, human rights guarantees, and an amnesty extended to both sides. While not addressing all of the problems, the 1992 peace accords have maintained stability and peaceful political transitions for El Salvador for the last 25 years.

During the civil war, FMLN guerrillas controlled several large areas in El Salvador, including the Morazan region in northwest El Salvador near the Honduras border. The largest town in the rebel-controlled region was Perquin. Today Perquin is home to the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution. The Museum was founded in 1992 only months after the peace accords were signed. The Museum was founded by former FMLN revolutionaries who wanted to keep the revolutionary memory alive within El Salvador and the world. One of the Museum’s founders and current Director is former FMLN Comandante Mario. Comandante Mario was a founding member of the FMLN and helped coordinate the attack that started the revolution in 1981. Today he keeps the legacy of his revolution alive at the museum giving talks and guiding tours of the Museum’s five major exhibits, including memorials to fallen FMLN soldiers, examples of the weapons and combat methods of the FMLN, posters of solidarity with the FMLN from around the world, a display of the daily life in the mountain camps of the guerrillas, and a collection of wrecked helicopters shot down by FMLN forces.

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El Salvador’s Museum of the Revolution: copy of The 15 Principles of the Guerrilla Combatant

One of the downed US-supplied military helicopters was used by the infamous Colonel Domingo Monterrosa during the civil war. Monterrosa was the officer in charge of the massacre at El Mozote, a small village near Perquin. In December 1981, Monterrosa led Salvadoran forces into the hamlets around Mozote and rounded up all of the inhabitants before slaughtering the entire population of the town and the surrounding countryside. More than 1,100 innocent people were killed, the majority of whom were women and children. The massacre was meant to send a message to other towns in order to eliminate support for the guerrilla fighters. The United States initially attempted to cover up the massacre which was carried out by US-trained soldiers with US-supplied weapons.

Rufina Amaya was the lone survivor of the massacre. Working with the FMLN radio station Radio Venceremos, she made sure the world learned what happened at Mozote. After the civil war ended and civilians returned to Mozote to rebuild, Rufina worked to train the women of the village to act as docents and give tours of the site of the infamous massacre. Like Comandante Mario, Rufina wanted to make sure the lessons of Mozote – “Never Again!” – were passed on to future generations.

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El Mozote Memorial

The FMLN would seek out Colonel Monterrosa for the massacre. In October 1984 they allowed him to believe he had finally captured the transmitter of Radio Venceremos that he had long sought. Placing the transmitter beside him to take back to his office as a trophy, Monterrosa’s helicopter rose above the Salvadoran mountains. Unknown to Monterrosa, the transmitter he had chased with violent abandon was really a bomb in disguise. Once his helicopter reached altitude, the bomb exploded, turning the copter into a fireball above the mountain forests. Once the fires had died, the guerrillas returned to the crash site to recover the wreckage. Today the fuselage of the helicopter is the most-prized attraction at the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution. Leftists around the world come there to be photographed with the helicopter’s remains as a symbol of the fight against oppression everywhere.

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Monterrosa’s helicopter

The people of El Salvador fought for the rights and opportunities of future generations against a violent US-backed dictatorship for over a decade. Today that revolutionary spirit is kept alive in the mountains of northwestern El Salvador. The lessons of the Cold War are being passed on to those future generations at the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution and by the women of Mozote.

May 27, 2017: Visit to a local clinic in San Salvador

Today, we visited the ISSS (Instituto Salvadoreño del Seguro Social) CLINICAL CUMUNAL CIUDAD MERLIOT, which is a semi-private first level clinic located in San Salvador.

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We were greeted by Cecilia Torres, the Health Administrator of the clinic, who holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health. She spent a majority of time explaining the purpose of the clinic and describing El Salvador’s Health Care system.

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Clinic administrator, Cecilia Torres, and our guide, Joaquin

The clinic caters to patients that are part of the El Salvador’s health social security insurance system or ISSS. In order to qualify for the Social Security insurance, the patient must be employed. Immediate family members are covered including children until the age of 12 y.o. The clinic also serves the community where it is located. Patients must make an appointment. Two patients are scheduled per hour, but there is allowance for two additional appointments for patients, who drop in.

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Clinic reception area.

Lab services, preventative dental care, preventive health care, Obstetrics and Gynecology examinations and mental health screening are just some of the services are available at this site. The clinic is open from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm. If care is needed after hours, patients are instructed to go to a Level 2 facility, where emergency care is available.

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Clinic pharmacy.

El Salvador’s health system is composed of a three-tiered system. There is the private out-of-pocket system for the wealthy; the insurance based system called ISSS (Instituto Salvadoreño del Seguro Social); and the National Health Service for those who are unable to pay or are unemployed.  ISSS is a semi-private system that the employee and employer both contribute. Approximately 15% of the population qualities for this type of insurance coverage. 80% of the population will seek assistance through the National Health Service, which is vastly underfunded and underdeveloped, and 5% comprise the private health care system. The El Salvadoran Military has its own health care system that is free to members and their families. It is the best health system in El Salvador. Urban dwellers have far better access to health care, then their rural counterparts. In fact, very few rural communities have sufficient health care, with most relying on shamans, midwives, and home remedies. In general, Health care workers and physicians are in short supply throughout the country.

Ms. Torres mentioned that respiratory diseases, particularly pneumonia and TB; gastrointestinal diseases; heart disease and stroke; and violence are the main health problems confronting her country. The number of Salvadorians diagnosed with diabetes is also increasing.  Zika virus and Dengue Fever are also a concern in both rural and urban populations, as well as tourists.

May 26, 2017: Joya de Cerén and San Andres Archaeological Sites, El Salvador

Today we had the privilege of visiting a site inhabited by the early Maya of Mesoamerica.  These people were slash-and-burn farmers, clearing land and creating gardens called milpas.  Along with increased agricultural production, a system of regional trade, tribute and taxes developed that allowed for specialized craft production and the creation of large ceremonial centers.  By A.D. 800, the Maya population was estimated to be between 8 to 10 million people!   Our focus centers on a remarkable UNESCO World Heritage site found in El Salvador in the small town of Joya de Cerén.  The archeological site located there is most often referred to as simply Cerén.

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This designation as a World Heritage site is quite prestigious as it includes just 851 properties deemed as having “outstanding universal value.”   These include 660 cultural as well as 166 natural and 25 mixed properties world-wide.  Examples of archaeological sites that fall into this category include Machu Picchu in Peru, Teotihuacan in Mexico, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Cahokia Mounds, Illinois in the USA.

This important archaeological site in Joya de Cerén may not look like much, but it has been the focus of an emerging field of archaeology called “household archaeology.”   Households are to archaeologists what families are to anthropologists. The objective of the archeological excavation at Cerén is to understand common household and village life on the southern periphery of the Maya area, during the Classic Period (around 1400 years ago.)

Most archaeological excavations have of course focused on large ceremonial sites, and for good reason, as this is where the power is centered. But Gordon Willey, archaeologist extraordinaire, in the late 1950’s suggested that you cannot know or understand the significance of these larger sites without knowing about the people who supported them, hence the significance of this buried ancient village site.

The Cerén site was discovered by a construction crew in 1976. Miraculously the bulldozer operator stopped digging the foundation for a new grain elevator and called the National Museum in San Salvador. It took the archaeologist three days to arrive and assess the importance of the find.  Given the incredible preservation due to the protective covering of volcanic ash, they assumed it was recent and therefore not very important and authorized further bulldozing. Unfortunately several structures were destroyed and their contents crushed before the full significance of the site was understood.   However, our experience at the site was one of amazement and wonder at the remarkable level of preservation in this subterranean site.  Today, the newly built  park is well managed and maintained.

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Faculty group in front of a reconstructed ceremonial hut.

The work done at Cerén has been multi-disciplinary involving:  volcanologists, biologists, geologists, environmentalists, and historians, not to mention, archeologists and anthropologists.  The site is under the direction of an American archaeologist, Payson Sheets from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He and his students have worked at the site on and off (given interruptions caused by the Salvadoran Civil War) up until 2 years ago, uncovering the remnants of 4 households now on display.

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Before the eruption, that preserved and covered the village, it was ideally situated along a river in a fertile valley.  At the time of the eruption, the village was participating in a deer-maize-fertility harvest festival in a community ceremonial building.  The villagers immediately headed south—leaving everything behind, (including their fingerprints on ceramic pots!) allowing archaeologists to piece their lives together for all of humanity, as well as those lucky enough to be able to directly visit the site.

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Another archaeological site we visited today, only 5 kilometers away, was San Andres. This site was probably the political-economic-religious center of the area.

First vacated around 900 BC because of another volcanic eruption, it was occupied again later and became the capital city of a Maya polity controlling the Valle de Zapotitan with strong contacts with Copan, a Maya site in Honduras and the Guatemala highlands. Final occupation occurred between 900 to1200 AD that included Mixtecan-Puebla influences.

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Usulatan pottery

During the Late Preclassic period, distinctive Usulatan pottery was manufactured at this location for over 1000 years and was incredibly popular!   Due to a unique painting and firing process, wavy lines were left on a darker orange brown background and this feature contributed to it being traded in a vast region within Mesoamerica.   We had the opportunity to see many examples of this unique and fine pottery while visiting a number of museums during our travels in Central America.

After the conquest, San Andres became a Colonial estate dedicated to cattle and indigo production.  Today about 60% of Guatemala’s population of ten million are classified as indigenous Maya who have ancient roots and ties to the area, lives we were able to understand and appreciate more fully after our experiences today.

May 25: Parque Nacional Bosque El Imposible lives up to its name!

On our second day in El Salvador, we left Concepción de Ataco and headed towards El Imposible National Park for a day of hiking.  El Imposible is a unique area of El Salvador for many reasons. It boasts a high level of species diversity, with over 500 butterfly species, 400 tree species and 500 bird species, 250 of which are native to the region. The park is also noted for its highly variable terrain, which ranges from 250 to 1425 meters above sea level.  In fact, the park gets its name from the steep “impossible” routes that traders would pass historically on their way to market.  The differences in altitude help to contribute to the biodiversity of the area.  The fact that El Imposible is forested also makes it stand out in the Salvadoran landscape.  Due to increased agriculture and resource extraction in rural areas, only 14.4% of the land in El Salvador is forested (USAID, 2011, Hecht and Saatchi 2007).  Approximately, 40% of El Imposible’s 3943 hectares is primary forest, which means that it has never been disturbed by human activity, while the remaining park area consists of equal parts secondary forest and agricultural fields.

On our way to the park, our guide, Joaquin Aragon, helped to point out some sites of interest.  As we neared El Imposible along a windy, uphill and unpaved road, we passed several small cacerios or cantóns—communities that are so small that they do not have a local government.  These cacerios depend on larger municipalities to which they belong to provide services, like electricity, but the services are often limited in scope.  For example, Joaquin mentioned that some municipalities provide freshwater to the cacerios, but typically there will only be one spigot shared among the entire community. The cacerios that we passed existed before El Imposible was declared a National Park and many of the people living in these communities today are still dependent on the small freshwater rivers that flow from the National Park, rather than on local municipalities, to provide water.

Once we entered El Imposible, we were greeted by Rosa and Eliberto, two park rangers who served as our guides as we hiked.  The park rangers serve in a volunteer capacity. Typically, one ranger will work a day, with rangers rotating throughout the week.  Given the limited number of rangers available to patrol the park, enforcement of the park’s protections is somewhat difficult.  Even though 70% of the park is forested, 30% of the park is devoted to agriculture, and there have been threats to the park as adjoining agricultural areas, primarily coffee plantations, have encroached on the park’s borders (Rainforest alliance, 2017).

At left, Eliberto and Rosa speak with Joaquin.  At right, Hector shows us a fruit from a tree.

We were also joined by Hector Cardoza, a local naturalist who helped to identify plant and animal species along our hike.   Hector told us that the park is home to two threatened animal species, which are extinct in the rest of El Salvador.  These include what the locals call pajuil, or Great Curassow (Crax rubra), and the puma (Puma concolor).  He also told us to be on the lookout for the rey zope, or king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), which gets it moniker “king” from the fact that it breaks the skin of its prey, while other vultures rely on eating their prey from body orifices.  The presence of these animals in the park is an indicator of its high ecological quality.

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A diagram of the King Vulture & its wingspan.

Rosa told us that the area that comprises the park was first designated as a protected area in 1978 (note: online sources note that the park was not formally established until 1989). She also noted that the park is part of the Barra de Santiago complex, which also includes another protected area, Barra de Santiago, a mangrove estuary on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.  These two protected areas are linked by a shared watershed, which includes 8 rivers that initiate in El Imposible and drain south into the Pacific at Barra de Santiago.  The water from these rivers is quite pristine; not only do nearby cacerios use them directly for their supply of freshwater, but they also serve as a home to river crabs and a species of freshwater shrimp.

While at the park, our group hiked the Los Enganches trail which consists of a 7-8 km loop with several elevation changes and two overlooks formed by volcanic activity. Half of our group also hiked an additional trail that branches off Los Enganches and heads down difficult terrain to the River Guayapo, where we were able to examine (and swim in) one of the pristine rivers of the park.  Unfortunately, we were unable to hike to the petroglyphs close to the river, since we were competing with the sunset on our hike back up to the ranger’s station.

Above, the two overlooks along Los Enganches. 

Two views of the River Guayapo.

During our hike we saw a number of interesting plants.  Some of the plants we encountered are used for food and beverages, including vanilla orchids (Vanilla planifolia), guarana (Paullinia cupana), breadnut or ojushte (Brosinum alicastrum), nances (Byrsonima crassifolia) and loroco (Fernaldia pandurata), a Central American plant whose flowers are used in pupusas, the traditional dish of El Salvador.  A few of the plants we encountered had practical or cultural uses.  Indio desnudo, or the naked Indian tree (Bursera simaruba), has peeling bark that can be used to produce a tea that aids in digestion and leaves that are used by Catholics in El Salvador to make crosses for the Day of the Cross on May 3.  The evergreen tree cajones de burro (Tabernaemontana donnell-smithii) has fruits that grow in pairs that were used by the Mayans as a symbol for male virility.  The fruits also produce latex that can be used as glue.  The volador tree (Terminalia oblonga) gets its name “the flier” from its tall straight bark.  The prized light colored wood from this tree is used for construction, and because of this it is rarely found outside of the park boundaries. We also encountered a number of plants that have been well noted in the ecological literature for their roles in forest communities, including strangler figs (Ficus citrifolia) or matapalo (literally, “tree killer” in Spanish), bull-horn acacias (Vachellia cornigera) with their ant defenders clamoring the trunks, and bamboo, a non-native in this region used for erosion control.

Clockwise from the top left: bamboo, indio desnudo, strangler fig, vanilla orchid, flame orchids and the volador.

We also encountered a fair number of fungi species, however most of the species we encountered remained unidentified.

Various fungi of the phyla Ascomycota and Basidiomycota that we encountered in the park.

As for animals, we had a hard time spotting most animals in the dense forest vegetation, but we did hear a number of bird species including blue-throated motmots (Aspatha gularis), ivory billed woodcreepers (Xiphorhynchus flavigaster), long-tailed manakins (Chiroxiphia linearis), squirrel cuckoos (Piaya cayana) and thicket tinamous (Crypturellus cinnamomeus).  We also saw tracks of the white-nosed coati (Nasua narica), a small mammal resembling a raccoon and we saw a small ameiva lizard.  Within the river there were a handful of fish species, including the tepemechin or mountain mullet (Agonostomus monticola), a fish species whose presence indicates high water quality.  We also encountered a fair number of arthropods, including walking sticks, caterpillars, butterflies, leaf cutter ants and spiders.

Clockwise from left: walking stick, caterpillar, leaf cutter ants and ameiva lizard.

Our group was very fortunate to have the opportunity to explore El Imposible and its natural wonders, as descriptions of the park and its biological services remain limited within academic literature and even online. In our discussions with our guides, they noted the large potential of the park for ecological, geological and anthropological research.  El Imposible National Park remains a marvel in its biodiversity, landscape and as a study of conservation in a developing Central American country.