Location: Metapan, El Salvador
Days: 1 night (Day hikes)
Camping: Campsite with basic facilities
Difficulty: 2/5 to 3/5
Guidebook: El Salvador (Moon Handbooks)
Montecristo National Park – El Trifinio was the first protected area in El Salvador. Bordering El Trifinio National Park in Honduras and the Trifinio biosphere reserve in Guatemala, the park protects a wide area of cloud forest and the surrounding water resources. Somewhat off the beaten track, over 125 kilometres from San Salvador, Montecristo tends to attract more adventurous visitors than places such as Los Volcanoes National Park. The main attractions in Montecristo are all single day activities, but the distance from San Salvador and the restricted entrance times mean you are likely to spend a night here. Given the beautiful setting of the campsite, this is not really a hardship.
Permits and entering the park
The rules for entering Montecristo National Park are more complicated than other parks in El Salvador. Permission must be sought from the park authorities in advance using the form available on the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (MARN) website. Sometimes the form is not available, in which case you can just email MARN directly (in Spanish). We found them quite responsive. You need to supply the names of all people in your group, the licence plates of all vehicles, and the passport number for your group leader. The authorities will email you a PDF permit which you need to print and present at the gate. On some visits all members of my group have been asked for photo ID at the park gate, so it is worth carrying your passport or residence card.
Note that you can only enter the park gate between 7am and 11am. I am not sure why. Also, while the park is open year round, the summit trail is closed from May to November and this is strictly enforced. You may not be told this when you apply for permission. In fact, the last time we visited the park we explicitly indicated we wanted to climb to the summit – and our permit was granted. Upon arrival we were told the trail was closed.
With those complications out of the way, you can enter the park!
Assuming everything is in order and you are able to enter the park, there is a small museum-like building about 10 minutes up the road which contains artefacts relating to the history of the area. There is also a small hiking trail (less than 30 minutes) and a suspension bridge over a river. Otherwise, there is a 45 minute to one hour drive up winding dirt tracks (4×4 recommended) to the main camping area at Los Planes. A large open field area provides parking space and room for a quick game of Frisbee, while the campsite is located off to the right among the trees. This was one of the best campsites we have stayed at in El Salvador, beautifully located and with facilities – but very cold (down to a bone-chilling 10 degrees Celsius).
Hiking to the Summit
The main attraction in Montecristo National Park is the hike to the summit, where the borders of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala meet. The four to five hour round trip starts near the entrance to the botanical gardens (the Garden of the Hundred Years or Jardín de los Cien Años) and climbs quickly up to a dirt track that gently ascends the mountain. This is the easy part of the walk, through pine forest similar to the area around Los Planes.
The second half of the hike starts at a turn off from this track, which is easily missed (a good reason to take a guide). Immediately the environment drastically changes – the path plunges straight into a damp, cool cloud forest with muddy trails and overhanging vegetation. Almost every surface is covered in some form of life – moss, orchids, ferns, and fungus sprout everywhere. The trail becomes quite steep in places, requiring hand holds, ducking, and climbing as the path winds between fallen trees and other obstacles, really giving the feeling that this is a living, moving environment.It really is a magical place.
The summit itself is the meeting point of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and is indicated by a white marker. On a good day it is possible to see far into Honduras from here – even further if you are willing to climb the rickety watchtower. Alternatively you may find it so cloudy that you can barely see the summit marker itself!
Other Hikes in Montecristo
There are several shorter hikes in Montecristo National Park, much easier than the strenuous climb to the summit. From the far left corner of the football pitch at Los Planes is a gentle forest trail which crosses a bridge and descends slightly to a viewpoint. Here there is a mirador that can be climbed for panoramic views of Honduras. The trail continues and emerges near the botanical gardens.
Another option is the hike down to a small river where there are a series of small waterfalls. The trail starts near the ‘shop’ on the dirt track close to the botanical gardens, and descends very quickly to the river. A gate and a small wooden footbridge mark the Montecristo park boundary. This is a good place to rest before wandering up stream, exploring the various waterfalls.
Garden of the Hundred Years
The Garden of the Hundred Years (Jardín de los Cien Años) is a small botanical garden featuring a wide range of plants, including a great collection of orchids. It makes for a great short walk on the way in or out of the park. The entrance is a short walk before the main Los Planes camping area.