Parque Nacional El Imposible is a major biosphere reserve in El Salvador, covering a large tract of pristine forest. Named after the treacherous gorge that bisects the park, legend has it that farmers transporting coffee to El Salvador’s southern ports had to blindfold their mules to get them across the steep slopes. Countless fell to their deaths. And this is where we are going. But without blindfolds, obviously.
The park has entrances on the southern side near the hamlet of Cara Sucia on the main road to Guatemala, and on the northern side near the small towns of Tacuba and Ataco (which also attract a lot of foreign and local tourists). Entering the park at the headquarters in the south, there are several well equipped camp sites with wooden sleeping platforms, fire pits, and surprisingly clean bathrooms. From these camp sites there are walks to a nearby mirador (viewpoint) (30 minutes each way) and a stream with a series of small waterfalls in which you can swim (1.5 hours each way). There is also a longer walk up to the summit of Cerro Leon, one of the highest points in the park, which offers stunning 360 degree views back over the Pacific Ocean and forwards over seemingly impenetrable forest (about 2 hours each way).
This time though, our plans were slightly more ambitious: we had managed to secure permission from the park authorities to hike down into the El Imposible gorge and climb out the other side, with a side trip to Cerro Leon on the way. At the hottest time of the year. To do this trip you need special permission from SalvaNatura and you must be accompanied by a guide – and I can see why: it is an incredibly long, steep, remote and relentless trail that is constantly climbing or dropping steeply. In the event of an accident the chances of being found would be very slim.
So, at first light we packed as lightly as possible to make space for the 6 litres of water each of us needed to carry – there is none at all on the trail – and headed off towards the mirador. From here we could see our destination for the day – very close as the crow flies, but separated from us by miles of thick jungle and steep incline. Time to get started!
We followed the route along a narrow ridge – the drop masked by trees – along the Cerro Leon trail for the first hour and a half, giving us a chance to make a short (30 minute each way) side trip up that peak. The early morning was clear and we could easily see the Pacific Ocean to the south as well as the vast expanse of the National Park. This side trip is definitely worth it – if only to see where you are going.
After a brief rest at the summit of Cerro Leon, it was time to descend into the gorge itself. The path here is only moderately steep, but combined with the end of dry season humidity and absolutely no breeze, it made for a grueling 4 hour walk. We quickly began to realise why we needed our six litres of water – we came across nothing except small, dry stream beds all morning.
The path at this point – right at the bottom of the gorge – was barely defined, with many side ‘paths’ and animal tracks that could have easily fooled us – we would have easily become lost without a guide. The thick forest made the humidity unbearable, with no breeze able to reach us, and the density of the trees meant it was quite dark despite being the middle of the day.
El Imposible (and indeed, El Salvador) does not have many large mammals (although the park is apparently home to a few mountain lions), but the jungle is home to many smaller attractions if you take the time to stop and look. We saw a wide variety of fungi growing on fallen trees, bright berries daring you to eat them, frogs well camouflaged in the leaf litter, and spiders dangling precariously on webs spun across the path. It made us wonder what would be crawling around our campsite that night!
After lunch, as we started to climb up the other side of the gorge, the path ascended relentlessly to around 1200 metres. On the way there are several points that give a great view back over the park towards the Pacific Ocean, and made us realise how far we had come. At times we also passed through a few areas with wild oranges, mangos, and grapefruit – a very tempting snack!
The final section of the walk was tricky, crossing steep slopes and negotiating many fallen trees and other obstacles as the forest slowly reduced in density and we entered the border zone of the park. Finally, after 9 hours of walking we reached a small stream which was still running, crossing the path in front of us. Although the water originated high up in the mountains, there were some small human settlements near it upstream where it snaked out of the park, so we decided to be safe and treat the water before drinking. With darkness approaching we thought it better to collect all the water we could now – most of us were down to our last litre – and use the SteriPen and the water filter when we hit our campsite. Suddenly laden with an extra 4 or 5 kilos made us realise how light our bags had actually become during the walk!
Lucky we didn’t have far left to travel and within an hour – after a total of ten hours walking – we reached the campsite in a small sheltered bowl, where we quickly set up our tents and started on dinner. There is a small house nearby whose owner was kind enough to provide us with water. We slept in our tents with the rain-covers off, happy in the knowledge that we had survived one of the hardest walks in El Salvador!
The second day, though along dirt roads, is still a tiring 10 km walk in extreme heat, with a lot of climbing before we reached the town of Ataco. There are a couple of spectacular viewpoints along the way. At this point on the trip we were lucky enough to run into a truck who had just finished supplying cyclists on a nearby competition and had spare bananas and Gatorade which he gave us for free! At the end of the 4 hour hike you reach civilisation at Ataco, a nice little town which is popular with weekend tourists and famous for the painted murals you can see around the town.