San Miguel volcano (local name Chaparrastique) towers over the nearby town of the same name in eastern El Salvador. Although not the highest point, or even the highest volcano, in El Salvador (that honour goes to Santa Ana), San Miguel is by far the most active. Eruptions have occurred in almost every decade of the last two centuries, with the most recent events being in 2002, 2013, 2014, early 2015. Indeed, according to some sources the January 2015 eruption is still “ongoing”.
All of this complicated our plan to climb San Miguel: while there was a private road owned by a coffee finca up to around 1000 metres and a path all the way to the top, recent activity has removed the path above the tree line and the road now abruptly stops at a large ravine. Therefore we decided to leave our vehicles at the coffee plantation’s entrance on the north slope at around 750 metres, leaving us with a climb of around 1300 metres to the summit.
As with many volcanoes and hikes in El Salvador, it was recommended to take a guide and (armed) security up San Miguel. We arranged both through a friend in San Salvador. Without the guide we definitely would not have found the finca (or the trail in places). We never felt we “needed” the guards – but as they are intended to be a deterrent to anybody attempting to rob the group, that is probably the point.
The north slope of San Miguel is far more heavily forested than the other sides, with the tree line extending to around 1750 metres. We found this hugely beneficial – the trees provided ample shade for most of the walk, and the forest meant we could avoid walking on the loose scree for as long as possible. It is possible to climb the volcano by walking up the smooth, gentle vehicle track (at least as far as it now goes), but this takes large switchbacks which would greatly increase the distance traveled. Instead we took the shortcut path, going directly up the slopes, crossing the vehicle track every 10 minutes or so. The shortcut was steeper but not too difficult, and we made rapid progress up to the point when deep ravines cut the track in two.
At this point there was only a short amount of forest remaining. The path disappeared along with the track and we had to beat a new trail through quite thick bush, sometimes ducking under or climbing over fallen trees. This however, was child’s play compared to the hike once we left the tree line…
The final section of the volcano’s slopes are extremely steep and covered by incredibly loose scree, worse than any I have seen before. Most of the times we were using hands and feet as we tried to make forward progress before slipping back a few steps. Often even solid looking rocks would come away when lightly touched or trodden upon. This made it even more dangerous, and we were very cautious about not sending rocks flying down onto our group members below. In all, this final section of 300 vertical metres took us over an hour to complete.
The incredible effort was worth it though! San Miguel’s summit features a double crater, complex and moving due to its constant activity. Sitting on the narrow crater rim eating our lunch, volcanic gases were constantly being emitted from the vents inside the crater, and the smell of sulphur huge in the area the entire time. Once or twice a low sound – like the noise of a low-flying aircraft or a strong wind – rose up from somewhere deep inside the bowls of the volcano, followed by large clouds of gas. We ate our lunch quickly and descended down the same route…