El Salvador's tallest peak, Volcán de Santa Ana, is not far from the city of the same name, and you can climb it as a day trip from Santa Ana. I really love climbing volcanoes – I got a taste for it in New Zealand and cemented our relationship in Indonesia – and although the jaunt up the Indian's Nose in Guatemala was pleasant, it wasn't a proper volcano climb, as it only scaled a wide crater rim rather than a volcanic peak. With a summit of 2381m above sea level, Volcán de Santa Ana, which is known in the local dialect as Ilamatepec, is the real deal, and it isn't alone.
Santa Ana is just one of the three peaks in the Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, the others being Cerro Verde (2030m) and Volcán Izalco (1910m). Cerro Verde is extinct and last erupted 2500 years ago, and its summit is home to the park's visitor centre, from where you can see the smoking cinder cone of Izalco, the youngest volcano of the three. It appeared in 1770, which is very recent history in volcanic terms, and erupted pretty much constantly until 1967, since which is has been relatively quiet. Santa Ana, meanwhile, is by far the largest of the three, with four craters and an eruption history that goes right up to 2005, when the volcano spat rocks the size of cars a distance of 1.5km from the cone.
How could I possibly resist climbing that?
On the Buses
We were joined on our excursion by three other incumbents at the Casa Verde – a young and energetic Swiss man called Chris, and a lovely couple from Italy called Pamela and Matteo – with whom we'd also team up to visit the Ruta de las Flores. This made life a lot easier, as all three of them spoke fluent Spanish, though to be honest the Salvadorans are so helpful that even we seem to be able to cope with the confusion brought about by our lame Spanish. We walked down to the bus station, bought tickets for 70 cents each, and hopped on the 248 chicken bus that goes from Santa Ana all the way to the national park (El Salvador's buses all have route numbers on them, as well as the start and end points in garish lettering on the front and back, so once you know the number or the route you want, it's surprisingly easy to find your bus).
Compared to the bus up the Indian's Nose, this chicken bus was positively spacious, and two hours of bone-rattling later, past lovely views of distant volcanoes and the blue waters of Lago de Coatepeque, we pulled into the car park on top of Cerro Verde, grabbed a coffee, and signed up for the trek to the summit. As it was a Saturday, there were quite a few local tourists joining us on the trek, and the team that set off to conquer Santa Ana was about 30 strong, while another equally large team set off to tackle Izalco. You can't trek on these volcanoes independently because there are bandits around these parts; instead you have to join one of the 11am guided walks, which come complete with gun-toting policemen to deter the thieves. Since they started sending guns up with the tourists there have been no attacks, so it's quite safe to do the trek, but there's a certain added frisson to walking up an active volcano with policemen carrying guns.
All this comes cheaply, too. We paid US$3 a head to get into the park, then US$1 for the guide, then US$1 to cross the private estate of Casa Cristal in the saddle between Cerro Verde and Santa Ana, and US$6 for the police escort... so that's a total of US$11 per head for a four-hour walk to the top of the world. It's worth every cent.
To the Top
I've climbed quite a few volcanoes in my time, and Santa Ana is definitely one of the good ones. The route goes from the car park and up to the forested peak of Cero Verde, before descending down 1300 steps to Casa Cristal on the saddle between Cerro Verde and Santa Ana. Then the ascent up Santa Ana begins, initially through pretty forest along a relatively gentle rise, before the forest peters out soon after you pass a viewpoint. Here the greenery gives way to the most amazing landscape of rocks, scrubland and maguey plants (or Agave americana). These plants are astonishing, with luscious, cactus-like leaves that are covered in sharp spines, and huge flower stalks that rise up to 8m from the plant, topped with lovely yellow flowers; there's an added poignancy to the flowers, as the maguey only flowers once, at the end of its life, so every flower stalk represents the last gasp of this strange-looking plant.
Eventually even the maguey plants disappear as you reach the crater rim, and pow! The path reaches the edge of the crater, and this huge expanse suddenly opens up before you, the sheer crater walls dropping down to a crater lake of astonishing turquoise. Evil steam bubbles from the cauldron and drifts across the sulphurous surface of the lake, which is 300m deep; as soon as I saw it it reminded me of the amazing blue lake at Keli Mutu in Indonesia, and when I got the photos back I was impressed by how similar they look:
But Santa Ana scores over Keli Mutu because the views from the peak are stunning. The volcanoes of El Salvador spread out to the west on the other side of Lago de Coatepeque, while the Pacific Ocean gleams to the south and the perfect cone of Izalco fumes gently next to Cerro Verde. You can look back on the route of the whole two-hour walk while staring out at travels yet to come, and all the time the crater lake bubbles away in the background, inducing vertigo and awe in equal amounts. As a place for munching on lunch at the top of the world, it's hard to beat.
The only drawback is that after the descent back down to the saddle, you have to climb back up those 1300 steps to get to the car park and the two-hour chicken bus ride back to Santa Ana. At this point I should give a big shout out to Peta, who managed the entire four-hour walk with only a few pauses for breath, unlike a couple of other members of the group who found to their cost that gravity tends to win when you're obese. They fell back through the line of walkers as we started the ascent up Santa Ana, and eventually had to turn back with one of the policemen before we reached the scrubland; on our descent we found them scoffing ice creams by the police hut, which probably says a lot more about modern life than I care to venture.
They certainly missed out. Climbing Santa Ana has arguably become the first major highlight of our trip so far; I thought I'd be saying that far earlier than two months in, but this trip has clearly taken a while to get going. Now, though, I think it's getting into its stride, and all it took were smiling locals, amazing landscapes and the odd volcanic peak. Not much to ask, really...