TO THE CRATERS OF EL SALVADOR
by Frederick A. Belton
Soldiers of fortune need not apply
El Salvador-land of guerrillas and death squads? Not any more! The civil
war ended in 1992 and life in El Salvador is nearly back to normal. But
tourists are still staying away in droves, creating a wonderful opportunity
for adventurous travellers. The friendly Salvadoreans are very welcoming
to foreigners, the scenery is beautiful, and the whole country has an off
the beaten track feel.
El Salvador is a rising star and could someday become a tourist magnet like
Guatemala if political stability is maintained. El Salvador has been plagued
by periodic violence ever since it became a country in 1841. Most of its
internal conflicts have originated from the same root cause: a small group
of wealthy landowners attempting to suppress a huge landless peasant population.
The most recent upheaval was a 12 year civil war between the government
and the communist FMLN (Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front) that
began in 1980. Many Salvadoreans fled the country and are only now working
up the nerve to go back. One such man, a passenger on my Taca International
flight from Miami to San Salvador, told me of his escape on foot into Guatemala
after being spattered by his best friend's blood as he was shot dead by
Some Salvadoreans think that the world wide fall of communism that began
in 1989 precipitated the end of the war. They surmise that with the communist
sources of arms drying up, the guerrillas had no choice but to accept peace.
Now some of the former rebels are members of the government and the civil
police force, and there is an FMLN political party.
Another fiery aspect of El Salvador is its volcanoes, the focus of my visit.
The Pacific Rim "Ring of Fire" runs east to west through the country
and contains several active peaks that are well worth climbing. The ascent
of the volcanoes is not very difficult, but finding the correct route up
can be a little tricky. Near the summits there are steep stretches requiring
some scrambling up loose cinders and over boulders. Strong boots and at
least a little previous hiking experience are recommended.
Budget Travellers' Paradise
El Salvador's travel logistics are a budget traveller's dream come true.
The country is small and has an excellent bus and collective truck network,
making it possible to get almost anywhere in a day if you start early. Hitch-hiking
(always offer to pay the driver a few colones) is fairly easy in remote
areas. Food is cheap and usually good, and restaurants, including fast food
places, are easy to find. The main towns have a wide selection of cheap
hotels and those in the $10-$15 range often have bath and TV in the room.
Although bandito [bandidos] stories abound, don't let them keep you away.
A strong new civil police force is helping to reduce the crime that has
flourished since the war ended. However, safe travel in El Salvador still
requires special precautions. Don't wander around the countryside or deserted
parts of cities at night, and don't travel after dark. Plan to reach your
destination early and find a secure hotel with management that seems trustworthy.
Leave valuables such as passports and plane tickets in the hotel when you
go out. Travellers have lost well concealed valuables when banditos [bandidos]
stole their clothes and shoes.
San Salvador: Intimidating but Friendly
Upon arrival at San Salvador's Cuscatlan International Airport I took a
taxi to the Boulevard Los Heroes, one of the safest parts of the city with
lots of restaurants and several guesthouses. My first impression of the
Boulevard Los Heroes was that it was exactly like American suburbia with
its McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Blockbuster Video. A nearby shopping
mall, called Metrocentro, was packed with high quality merchandise and enough
armed guards to repel a medium sized army.
Travellers would find Ximena's Guest House (Off Boulevard Los Heroes at
Calle San Salvador 52) of special interest since it's probably the only
accommodation in San Salvador where budget travellers congregate. Both the
management and the American Peace Corps Volunteers who frequent it are great
sources of travel information.
It's easy to feel that San Salvador has virtually nothing going for it as
a travellers' destination. The city is hot, noisy, badly polluted, chaotic,
and dangerous. Most of the buildings outside of wealthy residential areas
are dirty and ugly, and some downtown buildings still show earthquake and
war damage from the 1980's. The crime problem is illustrated by the amazing
numbers of window bars, coils of razor wire, and heavily armed guards at
businesses. San Salvador's one redeeming feature is its people, who are
unusually friendly for such a densely populated city.
The central part of San Salvador with its frenetic market area is interesting
to explore. The street layout is easy to figure out with help from a guidebook,
but sometimes street signs are missing. Unfortunately the churches and other
major buildings of the city center are mostly run down and usually closed
to the public. San Salvador's most appealing attractions are its restaurants
and bars, where it's easy to strike up a conversation with the locals.
The "suburban volcano" of San Salvador, called El Boqueron, last
erupted in 1917. To reach it I took bus 101 west from the Plaza de las Americas
to the suburb of Santa Tecla. A couple blocks before Santa Tecla's central
park I walked up 1a Avenida toward the mountain and waved down a pickup
heading to El Boqueron village. (Bus 103 also goes there from Santa Tecla.)
A dusty, jarring ride up a steep dirt road followed by a 45 minute walk
leads to a well landscaped park with an awesome view into the huge tree-filled
crater. A small inner crater formed in 1917 is visible at the bottom. It's
possible to hike around the rim in a few hours and to climb down to the
Downsizing on a Volcano
The most active volcano in El Salvador is called Chaparrastique. It's a
beautiful smoking cone that watches over the busy city of San Miguel, four
hours east of San Salvador by bus from the Eastern terminal near Calle Conception.
San Miguel is flat, crowded, and infamous for its year-round heat and humidity.
The windy upper slopes of Chaparrastique are a great escape from the city's
To reach the mountain I caught a 6:30 AM bus to Las Placitas from the corner
of 5a Avenida Norte and 2a Calle in San Miguel. The journey ended an hour
later in front of a little Antel (telephone) office in Las Placitas village.
I climbed up the steps to the porch in front of the office, followed the
road behind it past an army post, and turned right at the next junction.
From here the road wound steeply upward through coffee plantations. Groups
of pickers greeted me and waved as I climbed. After a winding ascent of
many hundreds of feet the road entered grass and scrub and became much less
distinct. Finally it dead ended at a small clearing where people sometimes
camp. From there I couldn't figure out which way to ascend to the crater
rim without becoming trapped beneath unclimbable cliffs. After spending
the whole morning on a fruitless search for the correct route, I returned
to San Miguel and prepared for another predawn start the next day.
This time I hired a guide for $10 at Las Placitas, but it was a short lived
arrangement. Often I have trouble keeping up with local guides, but this
guide couldn't keep up with me. Before long he sat down in the road and
started drinking alcohol mixed with orange juice. I fired him and sent him
down with $2 severance pay. There was no choice now but to keep going up
alone. Upon reaching the dead end I traversed left along a small trail crossing
a deep gully and then struggled up a steep cinder slope, not really sure
where I was going. Suddenly an incredible stroke of luck: a local teen-age
climber appeared on the slope further up and pointed me in the right direction.
I joined him in a long scramble up cinders on an obvious trail. A final
climb over boulders put us on the rim and revealed a huge three tiered crater.
Descending into the first shallow crater, we bypassed deep crevices in its
floor to reach the edge of the much deeper second crater, which in turn
contained a third crater pouring out sulfurous smoke. When a change in wind
direction blew the fumes our way we dashed back toward the rim, coughing.
The cloud was more than just gas; water droplets from it fell on us and
left a yellowish brown residue where they dried.
Volcano Banditos [Bandidos]
By far the most popular volcano in the
country is Izalco, the gem of Cerro Verde National Park. From the architecturally
interesting city of Santa Ana (my favorite city in El Salvador) two or three
direct busses per day take a couple hours to reach the Hotel de la Montana
on Cerro Verde. Just across and down from the hotel sits Izalco's perfect
black cone. Izalco spewed lava continuously for many decades until the government
decided to build the hotel for tourists. Upon its completion in 1966, Izalco
quit erupting and hasn't done a thing since.
Once at Cerro Verde it's easy to find the trail to Izalco. The fun starts
after a long descent to the base of the cone. From there its a case of finding
your own way up a rugged mound of boulders and ash that gets steeper and
steeper as you climb. Rocks and ash will slide under your feet and create
small landslides in your wake, and finally you'll need both hands. But it's
after relaxing and enjoying the views from the rim of the shallow crater
that the REAL fun begins. Find a route down with only ash and small gravel,
and you can run leaping, sliding and sometimes practically skiing down the
Izalco has also been known as one of the best places in El Salvador to get
robbed. Once a group of banditos chased some American Peace Corps Volunteers
up Izalco and down the other side where they managed to escape but had to
spend the night at a farmhouse. I wasn't too worried because I was climbing
on a weekend when there were many other climbers, and a pair of heavily
armed guards were stationed at the base of the cone.
A slightly easier trail leads from Cerro
Verde to the summit of Santa Ana Volcano, at 2365 meters the highest volcano
in El Salvador. The views are magnificent, and its deep crater, much more
interesting than Izalco's, contains a lake and smoking sulfur deposits.
The Hotel de la Montana is a bit expensive for those on a tight budget,
especially on weekends when the rates increase considerably. I had a very
enjoyable night camping in the playground near the parking area, with a
Salvadorean family to keep me company. A nearby army post makes camping
fairly safe, but don't leave your tent unattended.
Please Don't Touch the Bomb Crater
Volcano craters aside, El Salvador also has a few man-made ones. About three
hours north of San Miguel is the exceptionally interesting village of Perquin,
former headquarters of the FMLN guerrillas. Its church still has a gaping
hole left by a bomb. Just outside town is a fascinating war museum in a
former guerrilla camp, established by an ex-guerrilla to document the FMLN's
side of the war. One of its exhibits is a huge crater made by a 500 pound
bomb. Other exhibits include propaganda posters, homemade landmines, and
a replica of the guerrillas' hidden radio station. I felt a little guilty
since the U.S. had so heavily financed "the other side" during
the war. But in spite of my nationality, I encountered only friendly people
Someday Perquin may be a popular stop on the "Gringo Trail", but
now it's a quiet backwater. There's a barracks-like little lodge called
El Gigante, the only place to stay. On the night I slept there, the calm
was shattered by loud explosions. A renewed assault on the village? No,
just the fiesta loving Salvadoreans shooting huge fireworks to celebrate
View of the summit of Santa Ana Volcano, El
Crater of San Miguel Volcano, El Salvador
Eruption of Santiaguito Volcano in Guatemala