Our journey of pleasant surprises in El Salvador continued when we traveled west from San Salvador to scale a (shockingly easy) volcano and hang out with a soccer star. Would we lie to you?
Taking the easy route
Here’s the thing. Volcanoes are dramatic and beautiful but they’re usually a real pain to climb because they have steep, scree-covered slopes devoid of shade-giving trees. Imagine our delight when the climb up 7,800 foot (2,380 meter) Santa Ana Volcano, the highest volcano in El Salvador, turned out to be such a walk in the park–literally and figuratively.
Santa Ana Volcano is part of Volcanoes National Park (Parque Nacional Los Volcanes) which is also known as Cerrro Verde National Park (Parque Nacional Cerro Verde). Whatever you call it, the park is home to three volcanoes: Santa Ana, Izalco and Cerro Verde. There’s a campground and a short nature trail near the park entrance and this is also where you arrange your hike up either Santa Ana Volcano or Izalco Volcano.
Robberies on the trails and the fact that Santa Ana Volcano erupted as recently as 2005 mean that the park requires all hikers to take a guide and a police escort. In 2010 hikers who went up alone and were robbed of everything including their clothes. With that in mind, Eric and I headed up Santa Ana Volcano with a local guide (US$8) and two uniformed policemen. It was practically an expedition. Guided hikes depart at 11 am sharp so time your arrival accordingly.
Why did we choose to hike up Santa Ana and not Izalco? Three very good reasons:
1. Izalco is the iconic, conical volcano and the best vantage point for photos of its beauty is from Santa Ana Volcano.
2. There’s a gorgeous crater lake on the top of Santa Ana.
3. The hike up Santa Ana is far easier than the hike up Izalco which is requires a serious slog up its steep, scree-covered, treeless flanks. You also have to descend into an adjacent valley and a climb up out of that valley just to reach the base of the volcano.
The trail up Santa Ana passed through ample sections of shade, was never too steep and never too slippery. The only heart-pumping moment came when we heard a sudden buzzing noise which got louder and louder until our guide motioned for us all to crouch down on the ground. A swarm of bees was approaching and hitting the deck is, apparently, your best defense. The bees (Africanized) passed us by but we spent the rest of the hike on high alert for buzzing.
Once at the top we enjoyed what we’d come for: getting great shots of nearby Izalco Volcano and peering down into the eerily green sulphurous lake that’s formed inside the Santa Ana crater. Our guide told us the water is 212 degrees fahrenheit (100 celsius) and we could see bubbling water and steam vents.
Cabin with a volcano view
As if we hadn’t gotten enough of an eyeful of Izalco, we spent the night at Casa Cristal (sometimes also referred to as Las Brumas after the farm the cabins are located on), which offers 12 extremely small and basic wooden cabins that go for $14 per person which is pretty hefty for such basic digs and such a dirty shared bathroom (something we’ve been told has since been addressed).
Four new and very nice two-bedroom cabins are better value for larger groups. They’re well-built and have private modern bathrooms, a living room, ample porch, TV and kitchens which go for $60 for up to four people.
You don’t spend the night at Casa Cristal for the accommodation. You come here for the view. Casa Cristal is built on a small rise disconcertingly close to Izalco. At certain points on the property (notably from cabin #1 and cabin #3) the volcano feels like it’s in your front yard. Spectacular.
Casa Cristal is a community tourism project and it’s part of a group called Eco Experiencias. While we were in San Salvador we met the passionate and innovative Rodrigo Moreno who started Eco Experiencias five years ago when he was only 20 using funds from USAID. Rodrigo is dedicated not just to building his own successful eco tourism business in El Salvador and across Central America but to supporting tourism businesses which benefit local communities.
Local tourism projects pay Eco Experiencias US$10, a nominal sum meant merely to make it clear that the Eco Experiencias is not a charity or an NGO. Rodrigo then offers management and promotional assistance. But Eco Experiencias is not a booking agent. All bookings and all profits go directly to the local community tourism projects he fosters, including Casa Cristal.
Be sure to call ahead to reserve a cabin at Casa Cristal (+ 2483 4679) and tell them if you want to eat any meals in the on-site restaurant so they can be ready for you (around US$2.50 per meal for basic fare). Oh, and when we were at Casa Cristal rates were per 24 hour period. For example, if you check in at 7 am you have to be gone by 7 am the next day.
Stars of Santa Ana town
Okay, so nearby Santa Ana town wasn’t exactly “overwhelmingly” colonial as our Lonely Planet guidebook effused, but we did find some outstanding basics that made our time in town enjoyable.
With a name like Sin Rival (without rival) and a history that goes back 50 years to the days when these treats were sold off a cart on the street, you know the all-natural ice cream at this place is going to be good. And it was. You’ll find Sin Rival stores scattered around El Salvador and we recommend that you stop at all of them.
Hostal Casa Verde (US$22 private double room) is central, super clean, has great WiFi, free secure parking, plenty of hang out space (including a roof deck) and smart shared dorm room features like personal fans and lock boxes for small items at every bed.
Casa Verde also has a spectacular and spotless shared kitchen stocked with more tools and gadgets than the kitchen in our old apartment. Plus there are two refrigerators–one entirely filled with ice-cold beer.
But the real star of Santa Ana was yet to come…
We weren’t lying about the soccer star
His name is Rafael Gonzalo Henriquez Aldana but everyone calls him Chalo. And by “everyone” we mean everyone. Chalo is a legend in El Salvador. He’s not an actor (though he’s got the looks for it). He’s not a singer (though he has a great voice). Chalo is a soccer star.
He played defense for El Salvador’s national team from 1979 to 1983. Chalo earned three national championship titles and played for El Salvador during the country’s second trip to the FIFA World Cup in 1982 (they lost to Hungary). In futbol-crazed El Salvador, this is huge.
We met Chalo with another local soccer legend, Amadeo Gonzalez, in Metapan (more on that great town in an upcoming post) and we immediately became Chalo fans too. He’s good looking, fun-loving, larger than life and generous to a fault. It wasn’t long before he’d invited us to stay with him in Santa Ana where he was born.
We enjoyed a great evening in the backyard of his beautiful home with his wife, a prominent local doctor, fabulous barbecue and lots of drinking, talking and serenading (all favorite pass times of Chalo’s). We thank them both for their hospitality and such good times.
Rafael even went by Chalo when he ran for mayor of Santa Ana a few years back. He didn’t win the mayoral race, but our perpetually good-natured friend doesn’t seem too bummed out about it. After all, Chalo has had more than his share of victories.
Read more about travel in El Salvador