May 25, 2017: 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.

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