El Salvador: The Land of Volcanoes

As you fly into El Salvador's international airport, you can easily see why El Salvador is called land of volcanoes.  Located within the Ring of Fire which surrounds the Pacific basin, El Salvador is home to the Corridor of Apaneca - a line of 20 to 25 volcanoes (depending on how you count them).  From steep slopes to farms to villages to cities, the topography of the land shapes the life of the people.  One of the best places to explore the beauty and to understand the power of El Salvador's volcanoes is El Parque Nacional Los Volcanes (Volcano National Park).   Just an hour away from the capital city of San Salvador, Volcano National Park allows the visitor to access three volcanoes:  Izalco, Cerro Verde and the Santa Ana Volcano, or Ilamatepec (Hill of the Old Woman).

Izalco Volcano from Cerro Verde

Izalco is the youngest of the three volcanoes, having formed in 1770 from a sulphur-spewing hole in the earth.  For many years it was known as the Lighthouse of the Pacific because it's fiery smoke and lava could be seen for miles out into the sea.  The last eruption of Izalco was in 1966, when a large lava flow destroyed the area to the south of the volcano. The remnants of a swanky hotel (damaged in earthquakes and closed since 1997) now serves as a site of modern ruins from which to take photos of the naked cinder cone.  It is possible to climb Izalco, but only if you are prepared for intense sun and heat.  It is a 3-4 hour experience, starting at Cerro Verde, hiking down through the forest and then up the cinder cone via a switch-back trail.  I have not personally done this.  I have enjoyed taking photos of the cinder cone from the old hotel and from the other two volcanoes in the park.

Izalco Volcano from the hotel ruins

Once a swanky hotel, a few vestiges of the circa 1958 interior
can still be seen through cracked windows.

Cerro Verde from the trail to the summit of Ilamatepec

Cerro Verde provides the jumping off point for all tourism in the park.  The entrance is well-marked and essentially is at the end of the road.  You can arrive by bus, or driver, or park your car in a parking lot.  There is a $1 fee to enter, and a $1 fee to park.  There are places to get hot chocolate, coffee, and a variety of foods along the back side of the parking lot.  There are also bathrooms and a playground for kids.  The guides and tourist police are located at the little house near the park entrance, and if you only plan to hike Cerro Verde they will escort you at any time.  If you plan to hike one of the other two volcanoes, the tour leaves at 11:00 AM.  You must carry sufficient water and food/lunch for your hike and there are additional fees for each segment of the hike.  The guides, tourist police and fee system are to ensure the safety of the hikers.

Another view of Izalco from Cerro Verde

The Cerro Verde hike is about 45 minutes on a well-walked trail through beautiful forest.  If you hike with the 11:00 am group, it is more difficult to see the birds and animals.  I suggest setting aside a day just to hike this portion of the trails.  It is not too difficult, and if you are very, very quiet you will see a huge variety of birds, butterflies, hummingbirds and maybe a few mammals.  The guides explain the history of the property and tell about the research which is taking place among the trees.  Be sure to stop at all of the lookout spots and take in the beautiful scenery of Lake Coatepeque.

Lake Coatepeque from the forest trail on Cerro Verde

Santa Ana Volcano as seen from Cerro Verde

 - Santa Ana is one of the most active volcanoes in El Salvador.  It last erupted on October 1, 2005 in a 1-hour explosion of ash, rocks (as big as cars), lava and a flood of boiling mud.  Back in 2005, we met with families who had been evacuated just prior to the explosion, and because of the ash and sulphur dioxide were unable to return to their homes.  Back then, I never would have imagined that I would climb to the top of this volcano, but on a very windy day last January, my husband and some friends and I did just that.

We had done the forest hike on a pervious visit, and I recommend doing that because the Santa Ana hike requires a large group of people to move very quickly through the forest in order to have time to make it to the summit and return before the weather gets too bad and before the last bus leaves from Cerro Verde.  It is critical to wear good shoes and to carry a minimum of 2 liters of water, snacks or lunch and warm clothing for the summit.  I did not have a walking stick, and I regretted it.  After essentially running through the forest, we gathered at a small tourist center where there are bathrooms and where we had to pay a small fee to continue up to the summit.  The climb is not difficult, but does involve rocky trails and a few places to climb up on hands and knees.  It was CRAZY windy on the day that we summited Ilamatepec, so much so that I literally had to grab onto boulders whenever a big gust hit so that I would not be blown down the hill.  It was an amazing experience!

Looking toward Izalco from the Santa Ana trail

Looking toward the summit of Santa Ana Volcano

Looking down into the caldera - a crater lake is at the bottom

Coming down from the summit, the clouds began to clear

Climbing down Santa Ana volcano, with a view of
Cerro Verde and Izalco

This story gives just a small sample of the volcano adventures which visitors can enjoy in El Salvador. 

Check out today's companion story on El Salvador Perspectives.


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