Our next stop promised a stark contrast to the cozy colonial town situated on an equally calm lake. Next we would be dropped off in the middle of a Salvadoran national park, Cerro Verde or Parque Nacional Los Volcanes. Even the Spanish novice can sense plurality in the latter name. “Los Volcanes” refers to the three surrounding volcanoes of Cerro Verde, Izalco and Santa Ana. Reaching Los Sueños Verde required a steep climb up a winding road that continued well after the concrete turned to dirt. Afterward it was hard to imagine any vehicle, even the Volkswagen pickup truck we were riding, on the narrow patch of dust we had just climbed. This looked more like a hiking trail, not a thoroughfare.
Our jaws dropped faster than a cliché on a CBS sitcom as soon as we saw the view. If the ride itself didn’t clue us into just how high we were, we knew it as we stood practically eye-level with Izalco — a rather young volcano, geologically speaking. Izalco formed in just 1770 and erupted constantly until 1958. Its tendency to remain aglow gave it the nickname “Lighthouse of the Pacific,” which is more charming than the fact that it killed 56 people while burying the town of Matazano in 1928.
There were no internet or phone signals during our time at Los Sueños. But why would you need them? The land itself was a playground for adults and kids alike, though admittedly aimed more towards children with the mini-canopy tour and playground equipment adjacent to the main house. Still, this was a time to stare at nature and let your mind wander to the world’s most perplexing questions, like “How the f@%k did this all get here?” before settling into a bedazzled state of Mugatu.
We awoke early the next morning to prepare for a hike up Santa Ana. Santiago, a caretaker for Los Sueños, joined us as a guide with his obligatory machete equipped on his side. There was some confusion regarding when and where to start the hike. See, you’re actually supposed to be escorted by a police officer. But nobody was where Santiago had thought to be the meeting point.
So we ended up spending a considerable amount of time wandering around through a few abandoned farm buildings and a church that were left after the last eruption in October 2005. Fun for us, but hardly so for the two people who lost their lives and seven who were injured by rocks the size of cars that were shot as far as a mile away. Volcanoes really can be quite terrifying. Just ask the fine people of Pompeii.
With time to kill, I decided to ask Santiago about his experience during the civil war. Because what better way to spend a sunny afternoon than to recount one of the most horrific times in your life with an ignorant gringo?
Santiago shared that he, indeed, fought in the war.
“I was a soldier,” he said simply.
“Do you mind if I ask which side?” I replied.
“For the government,” and he paused before gesturing northeast, back toward Suchitoto. “FMLN’s on that side of the country.”
What struck me as remarkable was the nonchalant tone in his voice. He spoke of his position in the war in the same tone I use to specify café negro over café con leche. I didn’t hear any animosity in his voice as I somewhat expected, considering the position on FMLN was once that they’re a bunch of commies thirsty for innocent capitalist blood. Perhaps he just didn’t feel like getting into it with someone he knew for a whopping 24 hours. Otherwise, it spoke to me just how far El Salvador has come since that horrific chapter.
Eventually we ran into the right people who were able to point us toward the trail entrance, which had a park ranger of sorts holding down the fort. He told us a group just left with a guiding officer and that we could probably catch up. This supported my theory that the constant recommendation to hike with an officer or guide throughout Central America is more to protect their image on the rare chance someone does gets mugged and posts all over TripAdvisor as if there’s an epidemic rather than an actual threat of crime.
Sure enough, we caught up and were able to ascend Santa Ana in about two hours. What I loved about this hike was the diversity. We started our hike in dense forest with dirt covered paths. About a third of the way up, dry and loose rocks covered the paths and the forest cleared up, allowing us a glimpse of the view that awaited us at the summit. Suddenly we felt like we were back in Phoenix, climbing Camelback Mountain.
Nearing the crater, life, as John Cleese would say, ceased to be. Nothing but wide expanses of rock could be seen like a panorama from Mars without the red hue. Hikers started to follow the path of least resistance rather than any formally marked trail as that had also disappeared for the most part. I remember looking back, seeing hikers further down the volcano march ahead like lemmings.
Finally at the summit, the wind naturally picked up. Guides expecting over-eager photographers ushered us to where the wind was blocked, allowing us to peer over the edge to see the crystal clear view of Santa Ana’s crater some 2,380 meters above sea level. This combined with the 360-degree view of the surrounding area, even the Pacific Ocean well over an hour’s drive away, made this one of the most enjoyable hikes of my life.
Vale la pena or “worth it,” as they say.
Continue with the fourth and final chapter here.