Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“An interpretive center conveys the message of why it is important to protect nature and permits people to interact with exhibits. We don’t just want them to look, we want them to experience things.”
Montecristo National Park, perched in the northwest corner of El Salvador, protects 1,973 hectares (4,875 acres) of tropical humid and cloud forest, rising from 750 meters (2,461 feet) to 2,418 meters (7,933 feet) above sea level. It is vital for local water supplies, with five rivers beginning within its borders, and it forms part of the Fraternidad Reserve, also known as El Trifinio, which links parks in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Its forests safeguard a great diversity of flora and fauna, and one sector of the park holds a colonial hacienda more than 200 years old.
Montecristo is not only one of El Salvador’s principal protected areas, it is also the site of an interesting experiment in environmental interpretation. For nearly 25 years, environmental educators Caín Vega and Cristóbal Ladino, officials in the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources’ department of protected areas management, have experimented with innovative ways of educating visitors about the park’s natural and cultural resources with a very limited budget. Thanks to their motivation and creativity, visitors to the area leave with a solid understanding of its natural and historical wealth.
A visit to Montecristo National Pak is enhanced by signs that invite one to experience the natural area by using all their senses, a visitors’ center with hands-on exhibits, and black boards where visitors can write their messages, rather than on the railings at scenic overlooks. Trail names are whimsical and creative: “Processes and Wonders of Mother Nature,” “Hidden Paradise of Curiosities,” “Pioneers of the Forest,” and “Garden of the 100 years;” the last refers to the orchid (Ponera pellyta) that was discovered in the park a century after being declared extinct.
Question: What kind of visitors come to Montecristo?
Ladino: We have two types of audience: captive and non-captive. The captive ones are students who come with their professors and who have to take a test afterwards. The non-captive audiences are those people who come for enjoyment and basic information. With the latter, we have to work harder. We use interpretive signs to captivate those people. We also design exhibits. One example is the interpretive center, which we had no budget for. Little by little we managed to put things together and track down resources.
Vega: Before the visitors’ center was like a museum. The information in a museum doesn’t usually address the importance of what is presented, it just gives the information. An interpretive center, on the other hand, conveys the message of why it is important to protect nature and permits people to interact with exhibits. We don’t just want them to look, we want them to experience things. We’ve improvised too. For example, when we find a dead animal or bird, we dry and stuff its skin using whatever materials we can find, for use in displays.
Q: What kind of signage do you use in the park?
Ladino: We have four types of signs: informative, regulatory, orientation, and interpretive, and as part of the last group, the interactive signs. The first three are painted in yellow, black, and brown, since they follow international standards. For the interpretive signs we use other colors, so that people understand the difference. We have interpretative signs placed in specific sites and those that are located along trails, which present sequential information.
Q: Can you explain how the regulatory signs work?
Ladino: The prohibitory signs we used to have are gone, and have been replaced by thematic ones. Those function better. Before we said, “Don’t litter”; now we have a sign that raises awareness. We now try to make the regulatory signs like the interpretive ones, noteworthy and entertaining. For example, to keep visitors from trampling the plants, there is a sign that says: “Stay on the trail: those little plants you see will be the forest of tomorrow.”
Q: How has that change worked?
Vega: People like it more, because it makes them aware of why things need to be protected.
Ladino: Before more than 50 percent of the people who visited the area littered, now it’s less than 5 percent.
Q: How about the interactive signs?
Ladino: People can manipulate the interactive signs in order to find information, usually by lifting a flap. The answer to something is covered, and the visitors try to figure it out, such as with animal tracks. People love that stuff.
Q: What kinds of materials do you make the signs out of?
Vega: We use wood, paint, resin, silicone, quick drying glue. The edges are aluminum to protect them from humidity. Before making a sign we make a model.
Ladino: If we waited for all the proper materials, we wouldn’t have made anything. We experiment with materials and work with what little resources we have. The visitors motivate us to keep trying.
Q: How many interpretive trails does the park have, and how did you design them?
Ladino: The park has four interpretive trails, plus the interpretive center. The first trail is 150 meters (490 feet) long; the second is 220 meters (720 feet) long; there is also one in the upper part that is 750 meters (2,460 feet) long. The “Garden of the 100 Years,” a mini botanical garden, has a two-way trail with two interpretive options, guided and self-guided. This is because people have a lot of questions about that site. It has interpretive signs that provide an array of information about what is found there. All the trails have welcome signs that give an idea of what’s to come and a sign at the end that reviews the experience and provides a closing message.
Following the completion of the park’s management plan, the trails will undergo some modifications to improve the park’s carrying capacity. This in order to avoid any negative environmental impacts on the area.
Q: What needs to be taken into consideration when making an interpretive trail?
Ladino: You need to consider everything that surrounds it. In nature there is always something to interpret. The site’s biophysical aspects and carrying capacity also need to be considered.
Vega: The first thing you need to establish is why you’re going to make the trail. If it is an area that receives a lot of tourism, then people need to be well distributed, which is one reason for establishing a trail. The conditions of the area need to be considered — whether it’s very steep, or there is much erosion, or there are spots where trees have fallen. You need to evaluate whether or not it’s worth making the trail. For this, it’s useful to determine the carrying capacity of the area. If there is, for example, the trail of some mammal species in an area, then you don’t want to put a trail there because those animals will be frightened away.
Once you decide what area you’re going to cut a trail though, you explore it in order to determine the most relative factors that can be pointed out. You choose a general name for the trail based on a theme. For example, we can talk about the importance of a cypress forest. Then you select the most relevant issues.
Ladino: You have to cut a new a trail when areas start suffering damage from too many visitors. In some cases, we have used abandoned roads. You have to observe them over time, maybe five years, to see how wildlife reacts to the amount of visitors.
You also need to consider the attractions that will motivate visitors to hike a trail, such as a scenic overlook at the end of it. From the overlook on the “Pioneers of the Forest” trail, you can see 90 percent of the protected area. Another popular attraction is a waterfall that environmental educators use to explain how the forest acts as a giant sponge, collecting water for the city of Metapán, since rain filters through the forest’s soil to fill aquifers.
Vega: We also have attractions such as suspension bridges and natural curiosities like the “tree of love,” which is two cypress trees united by a branch.
Q: How do you think interpretation has changed the experience of visitors?
Vega: There are people who come for a walk and end up picking up garbage along the trials. Interpretation has made visits more entertaining, has gotten more people to come to the park, and has helped them value it more.