by Frederick A. Belton
Copyright 1997

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 a sniper.

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 inner crater.

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 oppressive climate.

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 steep slope.

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 in Perquin.

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 Christmas Eve!

View of the summit of Santa Ana Volcano, El Slavador

Crater of San Miguel Volcano, El Salvador

Eruption of Santiaguito Volcano in Guatemala

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