Suchitlan Lake
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Suchitlan Lake, El Salvador

Also known as: Cerron Grande, Embalse Cerron Grande

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The largest lake in El Salvador, Suchitlan Lake is one of the main attractions visitors want to see. Located about an hour north of San Salvador, the lake's famous boat tours carry visitors slowly past a series of islands that are noted for the huge numbers of birds that congregate there. Many species of water birds migrate to the lake, and it holds the largest numbers of ducks in El Salvador. Egrets, herons and other large water birds crowd the shoreline and often take to the skies en masse when tour boats approach, producing fine opportunities to snap a picture of the magnificent birds in flight. It is easy to see why an 180 square mile area around the lake and its islands has been designated a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance.

Also called the Embalse Cerron Grande, Suchitlan Lake is a reservoir formed by a dam built across the River Lempa for the storage of water used to generate hydroelectricity. Created in 1974, the dam flooded an area that now consists of 33,360 acres of water surface. Tour boat passengers sometimes report seeing the remains of ancient cobblestone streets and remnants of villages in shallow areas of the reservoir. The islands are actually the tops of hills isolated when the water rose. Although most of the islands are named (El Chaparral, El Ermitano, El Leon, El Salitre, Isla los Pajaros, El Burro and Los Enamorados), most are simply called collectively Bird Islands. The many inlets and coves give the lake a shoreline well over 100 miles, heavily vegetated and home to several small villages. Suchitlan Lake holds a surprising number of fish, including 12 of the 14 species native to El Salvador. Locally, the lake is an important fishery but has not yet been developed for guided sport fishing.

The most prominent shoreline village for visitors is the little town of Suchitoto. The well-preserved colonial village holds a picturesque church and many handicraft shops, art galleries and cafes along its narrow cobbled streets. Suchitoto also provides a number of small hostels and a few small, quiet hotels. A path a short distance outside of the village leads to the Cascada los Tercios, a waterfall coursing over towering columns of volcanic basalt pillars. The waterfall is more impressive in periods of wet weather, but the towering columns of basalt are awe-inspiring year round. Local tour boats from Port San Juan at the Suchitoto lakeside will take passengers on a tour of the Bird Islands for a fee. A car ferry also operates here to provide passage to San Francisco Lempa on the other side of Suchitlan Lake.

The small hostels and hotels at Suchitlan Lake are an ideal place to call home to visit the surrounding area. Lake visitors with a car are well-placed to visit a variety of important cultural sites in El Salvador. The city of San Salvador is home to a variety of cultural and historical sites. The city is a shopper's paradise with plenty of shops selling native handicrafts. El Salvador's most important archeological site is nearby: Cihuatan is the country's largest archeological park. Here, visitors can see excavated Mayan ruins and a collection of artifacts that explain how daily life was lived during the Mayan era. An even more in-depth look at Mayan life can be seen at Joya de Ceren, northwest of San Salvador. Called the Pompeii of America, Joya de Ceren was buried in volcanic ash during a volcanic eruption that forced the inhabitants to flee. The buildings that have so far been excavated are in excellent condition.

No trip to El Salvador is complete without a few special souvenirs from among the many handicrafts and textiles created by the indigenous people. The town of Ilobasco is world-famous for its lovely pottery. Hiring a car and driver is a good way to visit unique shops and specialty cafes. Managers of the lodgings at Suchitoto are well-versed in the kinds of out-of-the-way shops and restaurants that visitors will find delightful.

Within a couple of hours drive to the northwest, the Village of La Palma is known for its enclave of local artisans. Located at nearly 3,300 feet in altitude, the air here is crisp and cool, a welcome relief from the steamy lower altitudes. Less than eight miles away, the highest point in El Salvador beckons from Cerro El Pital. The mountain towers at 8,957 feet above a section of cloud forest-a forest forever shrouded in fog. Found in few places around the world, cloud forests harbor a large range of diverse plants and animals ideally suited to the damp and cool conditions below the cloud that hovers at the canopy level. Walking the many paths here is pleasant and often requires a jacket, even in summer. The mountain top holds several camping areas, some of which are often overcrowded but others that exude serene perfection. The climate here is very different than that at much lower Suchitlan Lake. In La Palma and at El Pital, expect to learn much of the history of the El Salvador Civil War that was fought in the 1980s as these places were the stronghold of guerrilla fighters.

Suchitlan Lake is beautiful and holds an amazing number of bird, fish and animal species. With such natural bounty, it is hard to believe that the lake suffers serious pollution problems from industrial and agricultural run-off and untreated sewage. International attention is being directed to this emerging country to help the government and local residents adopt better practices of pollution control and waste management. It is expected that such actions will soon begin to bear fruit; no one wants to lose one of El Salvador's most valuable resources. The benefits that tourism bring include a much-needed cash infusion to the local economy and a sense that Suchitlan Lake is a valuable resource for future prosperity that must be protected. The problem is not El Salvador's alone. The River Lempa's tributaries also drain areas of Honduras and Guatemala. All will need help to solve the environmental problems created when a culture grows and moves rapidly toward industrialization. Tourist dollars help move toward that goal. And a beautiful lakeside holiday is an extra added attraction that will draw those visitors.

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