My recent post about hiking (and running) through Dunloe Gap reminded me of the most spectacular hike we did at the end of last year. El Salvador and that entire region, including Guatemala and Costa Rica, are chock full of volcanoes and yet another volcano hike didn’t sound like anything special. So, I was a little skeptical when Victor told me that we were going to be driving to Santa Ana and staying overnight just to do this hike.
Santa Ana volcano, also known as the Ilamatepec Volcano, is one of the most impressive peaks in El Salvador, accompanied by dazzling panoramic views throughout the hike. This is the highest volcano in El Salvador with a height of 7811 feet above sea level, but not too difficult to climb. Usually, the hike takes around 4 hours, but we took it slow. Due to security concerns in the past, tourists are not allowed to hike Santa Ana without guides, even though nowadays the area is very safe. We hired a guide and left the parking lot at 9:30 am and came back around 3:30 pm. We walked slowly, took a thousand pictures, and spent an inordinate amount of time at the top, which is why we opted for a private guide rather than a public tour with a rigid schedule.
One of the things I noticed during our ascent was the different types of vegetation at the start, middle, and end of the hike. We started out at what is aptly named “cloud forest”, with mosses covering the ground and thick foliage crawling up the numerous trees and bushes. Further on, the trees gave way to shrubs and giant agaves. Now it was possible to see the neighboring Izalco volcano, massive and black, looming nearby. Because it’s an active volcano with the last eruption in 1966, whose lava flow has been seen from the Pacific at night, it earned the nickname “The Lighthouse of the Pacific”. Slowly, the path led us away from any vegetation into eroded land covered with rocks, most likely due to the most recent eruption in 2005, which killed two people and sent hundreds fleeing their villages.
The last third of the hike was the hardest, at least for me. The steep path was covered with slippery, uneven rocks and there were a lot of hikers sharing the narrow way. Victor didn’t seem perturbed by any of these conditions and ran ahead, bouncing on rocks as if we didn’t just spend 2 hours climbing. Occasionally, he would turn around, wave, and scream something like “It’s so pretty here!” and run off again. I continued my trek slowly deliberately, without wasting any energy on waving and screaming. In fact, once I slipped on a jagged rock, I simply fell on my butt and continued sitting there, much to our guide’s dismay. He was horrified that a tourist in his care might be injured and tried to pull me up. I, on the other hand, figured that since I was already sitting, I might as well have a little rest.
Once I hauled my butt to the top, I was greeted by a small Salvadoran man, selling homemade ice cream and sherbets out of an ice chest. The fact that this old man somehow managed to climb a volcano with an entire ice chest strapped to his back, did give me a slight pause. That pause was just long enough for me to fish out a few coins and buy a maracuya (passion fruit) sherbet. Without as much as a glance at the beautiful turquoise lagoon that rests at the bottom of the crater, the gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean, the stark outline of Izalco volcano, or the tranquil waters of Lake Coatepeque, I sat down right on the ground and ate my sherbet. A minute later, I looked up and saw Victor looking down at me with a very particular expression on his face.
“Want some?” I asked, raising the sherbet cup to him.
“No!” he gasped, horrified. “Did you drop it on the ground? It’s covered in pebbles!”
I looked back down at my delicious dessert. The maracuya seeds sprinkled on top of the frozen treat did look like the black pebbles spread out on the ground underneath me. The combination of physical exhaustion and incredulity at the sheer absurdness of Victor’s claim abruptly triggered within me a fit of hysterical laughter.
“It’s maracuya. These are maracuya seeds.” I gasped between shrieks of laughing and crying.
Victor, who has until now been watching me A) stumble on top of the volcano without paying any attention to the natural beauty around us, B) sit on the ground and eat food that has clearly been rolled in the dirt, and C) start frantically laughing for no reason at all, finally realized that I wasn’t completely crazy after all.
Finally, I had enough rest and refreshments to haul myself up and start enjoying the fruits of my arduous labor. The views were breathtaking, but the true star of the show was the glimmering turquoise lagoon in the center of the crater, which looked like the next Instagram destination for bikini-clad influencers. Unfortunately, beneath the heavenly exterior, the lagoon is actually a hot, sulfuric death trap, fueled by magma, surrounded by a slippery slope of pebbles. There were sparse poles around the top of the crater, indicating to venture no further or risk falling into the pit below, mostly ignored by the selfie-taking crowd. Our guide told us that once a tourist did fall in and die but didn’t seem to be too concerned about it.
As we headed down, carefully balancing on uneven rocks, and slowly inching our way down a few slippery slopes, I heard rapid footsteps behind me. We were overtaken by a little old man, running down the mountain, an ice chest strapped to his back. We watched him bounce jauntily down the narrow path until he disappeared behind a curve.
“I wonder if that ice chest is empty…” I said wistfully.
“I am sure he can run with it full just as well,” Victor muttered.
I decided not to tell him that my only concern was if it was still possible to buy another delicious maracuya treat.
By the time we finally made it all the way down, it was well past 3 pm. An armed guard with a walkie-talkie let us through the gate… then closed and locked the gate right behind us. We were literally the last people to come down the volcano for the day.
Later that night, I read that Santa Ana and the nearby Izalco volcano were the inspiration for two active volcanoes in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “Little Prince”, my favorite childhood book. In the book, Little Prince cooked his breakfast on these two volcanos, which in his home world were both tiny, coming up only to his knees. In my world, these volcanoes are giant, but still a wonderful place to have a snack.