There’s something thrilling about standing on the rim of an active volcano, looking down into the crater and imagining the sheer force required to blast such an impressive hole in the Earth. It’s even more exhilarating when the volcano you’re peering into erupted suddenly just 7 years ago.
At over 7,800’, the Santa Ana volcano, also known as Ilamatepec, is El Salvador’s highest peak. In October 2005, the volcano violently erupted, sending ash and debris 14 km high. While the base of the mountain is forested today, the upper portion is still barren and Mars-like. It was something we just had to see, and despite how luxurious it sounds, one can only lounge by the pool and drink $1 beers for so long. No really. The collective feet of Bella Star, Panache and Knee Deep were getting itchy to get out and see another side of El Salvador. And what better way to cure itchy feet than hiking a volcano?
Being the cheap cruisers that we are, we opted to skip the expensive, chartered trip ($300 per person!) and navigate the efficient El Salvadorian bus system on our own. All told, it took 5 bus transfers to make it from the marina to the town of Santa Ana where we home-based for our explorations. Again wanting to save some money, we picked a hotel described by the guidebook as offering “slightly cheaper rooms with basic conveniences like cable TV, fans, and private baths in a no-frills atmosphere.” Perfect, right?
Well, what we didn’t realize is that Hotel Tazumal was located squarely in the slightly seedy, strip-club laden area of town. Yes, it was only $15/night. Yes, Aaron and I split the cost with Zack, bringing the price to $5 per person. And yes, sometimes you do get exactly what you pay for. What $15 in the Red Light District got us. No hot water, no blankets, no towels and a hand-written sign on the wall informing us that having sexual relations with a minor is a crime punishable by prison time. Good to know… And although Aaron, Zack and I were pleasantly cockroach-free in our room, Knee Deep’s room had a big guy we named Fredrick.
After one night in the hooker motel, we all decided to open our wallets a little farther and spring for a room with, oh, I don’t know… a lack of informational posters on the wall demonstrating proper condom usage.
But back to the volcano.
The next morning, Aaron, Zack and I hopped a bus to the Cerro Verde Volcanoes National Park, where the hikes up the Izalco and Ilamatepec volcanoes are organized. The bus wound up the mountainside at an incredible rate of speed, but the views of the lush jungle as we climbed higher and higher into the cloud forest made the slightly terrifying ride worth it.
We had an hour or so to kill before the guided hike started, so we prepared for the 12 km climb by stuffing our bellies with the (incredible) traditional El Salvadorian breakfast of fried eggs, refried beans, a wedge of cheese, fried plantains and a roll. And when I say “traditional,” I mean it. Even the Wendy’s serves it! And for good reason… it’s freaking delicious. I’ve got to learn how to make the sweet, tender fried plantains. OMG, they are heavenly.
The hikes leave from Cerro Verde once per day at 11am, and if you aren’t there by 10:45 to claim your guide, you’re out of luck. Our guide, Irving, was awesome. In addition to providing information on the volcano, he was also a wealth of knowledge about the flora and fauna of the region. He and I hiked next to each other for the 6 km climb so I could translate for the group. I must admit, it felt great to understand him—both because the information was so interesting and because I was actually able to do it!
Not only did the $8 fee get us a well-informed guide, it also paid for two armed police officers, one taking the point position and one bringing up the rear. When I asked our guide if the trail was dangerous, he said no. When I asked him why we needed the escorts, he said, “For your safety!” Ha.
Trekking the 6 km back down the mountain went quickly (Irving said we were in good shape—I guess our beer curls paid off!). We were hot from the hiking, but descending into the dense clouds enshrouding the park provided the perfect natural air conditioning to cool us off. Nestled in the damp cloud forest, surrounded by the beauty of the mist as it clung to trees and flowers was the perfect cap to our day in Cerro Verde.
The wild bus ride up the mountain proved to be nothing compared to the trip down. The fog was so dense we couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. Did that stop the driver from barreling down the narrow, winding road bordered by treacherous cliffs and littered with a mix of pedestrians, dogs and speeding cars? Nah. These guys are professionals.
Our time in Santa Ana wasn’t all seamy motels and volcanoes, though. We also walked around the historic district and came across this ornate, neo-Gothic cathedral.
While we all had a great time touring El Salvador, this trip marked the end of an era—it was the last trip that we’d be able to take with Knee Deep and Panache. When Ventured left the herd back in Manzanillo, I was totally wrecked. But I knew that the fun of buddy-boating would live on with the other two boats in our flotilla.
But now Knee Deep is heading back to California for a few months, as much to work and add a little extra money to the cruising kitty as to avoid the summer storms that frequent this area. Depending on how slowly we go through Costa Rica and Panama, they may very well catch up with us. We’ve had some amazing times with Ben, Molly and the boys, and we’re going to miss their daily presence in our lives tremendously. We’ll see you in Panama this fall, guys! We’ll have some cold beers waiting! And a couple jugo de naranjas.
Zack on Panache is going even farther afield—all the way across ocean to the South Pacific. We’ve spent virtually every day with him for the past 4 months or so, and I think I’m in denial that he’s really leaving. He likes to joke that we adopted him (we did consider claiming him as a dependent on our taxes), so I guess it makes sense that I’m having a hard time letting my chick out of the nest.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the friendships that develop out here are intense and extraordinary. We’ll certainly meet new, interesting people (we already have!), but the three boats we left La Cruz with will always hold an incredibly special place in my memories. Until we meet again (and we will!), goodbye and fair winds Panache and Knee Deep.