On my way to Santa Ana, I saw the contours of the string of volcanoes to the south, and they looked impressive. Two days later, I am up early to catch bus 248 which will take me straight to Cerro Verde, the lowest of the three main volcanoes. We see some clouds around the volcanoes, and assume they will disappear as the sun gains strength: the day before, they were all basking in sunlight. We pass Coatepeque lake, which we can only see every now and then (I made sure to sit on the right hand side of the bus): unfortunately, no stops to enjoy the views of this caldera lake. When we reach Cerro Verde, we are surrounded by clouds, and it is chilly at around 2000m altitude. My plan is to climb both Izalco and Santa Ana volcano, which should be possible on a day, given that it takes between one and two hours to climb either of them. However, it turns out that this is not allowed: you are obliged not only to climb with guides, but also with the police. It is not even possible to hire a private guide and go up before the official, once-daily departure of 11am. Apparently, people have been robbed, and this is to ensure trouble-free climbing. Still, very frustrating. I decide to opt for Santa Ana, hoping to at least get a glimpse of its crater lake.
When I hike down to get to the trailhead, I leave the fog behind, and even see some sunlight ahead of me. Indeed, once I am at the start of the Santa Ana trail, the sun is warming me up. It turns out that, against the information I was given, there had been an earlier group to climb: I just missed them, and am not allowed to climb after them alone. I follow the advice of one of the park officials, and make a short hike in the vicinity. Once called the Lighthouse of the Pacific because it was constantly emitting lava and was visible from the Pacific, until it suddenly stopped in 1967, Izalco is the youngest volcano in El Salvador: it was born in 1770. But Izalco is nowhere to be seen anyway: it remains completely enveloped in a thick cloud, while the sun is shining on Santa Ana: I realise that I made the right choice. When I am back at the trailhead, I am shocked to find well over 100 people waiting to get in. Many are noisy, some carry babies on their arms, and I wonder how a few guides are going to herd that crowd up the volcano, and at what speed. I make sure to be among the first to go through the gate, and am only stopped by the first guide who does not allow me to overtake her. The hike turns out to be easy, and when we leave the forest behind, the views get better every step we climb. In this short climb, the vegetation has changed dramatically: we are no longer surrounded by trees but by agave plants and boulders. We reach the crater rim in about an hour. I immediately look into the crater, and see a bright turquoise lake with steam swirling just above its surface. I have reached the top of Ilamatepec, the indigenous name of Santa Ana.
At the eastern side of the rim, I reach a viewpoint from which Coatepeque can be seen, albeit a litte vaguely because of the haze. I walk down the rim, and would love to trek around the entire crater, but soon enough, one of the guards whistles and commands me (and someone else) to turn back. Shortly thereafter, we are told to leave the entire area, although it never becomes clear why. One of the guides tells me that until 2005, it was possible to hike down to the crater lake, and take a refreshing bath. The eruption of that year changed everything: the crater collapsed partly, making a descent impossible, and the water of the lake is now a whopping 92 Celsius, effectively barring anyone who would somehow make it down the crater from entering. Actually, because of several eruptions, there are now four concentric craters at different levels, making the landscape at the top of Santa Ana rugged and wild. All this time, I have been checking Izalco, and it has remained completely enveloped by thick clouds. A shame: it is the newest volcano and only exists of black stones, without any vegetation, contrasting with the surrounding landscape. I will see it from a distance the coming days, but climbing it will have to wait for another occasion. When the crowd on top becomes too big, it is time to hike down. Fortunately, I don't have to stay behind any guides now, and can go down as fast as I want. Clouds are finally moving on Santa Ana too, and when I climb the watch tower at its foot, there is little to be seen. It only makes me more happy about the spectacular views from the top.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Santa Ana volcano (El Salvador). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Santa Ana volcano. Read more about this site.