Parque Nacional Los Volcanoes (Volcanoes National Park), just 90 minutes from San Salvador, offers hiking trails on three of El Salvador’s most famous volcanoes: Volcan de Izalco, Cerro Verde, and Volcan de Santa Ana (Ilamatepec). At 2381 metres (7,812 feet) Santa Ana is also the highest volcano in the country.
The whole area used to be considered very dangerous (hiking alone is still not advised), but in recent years security and infrastructure has improved greatly, with ranger, car parking, and bathroom facilities on Cerro Verde and Santa Ana. Both Izalco and Santa Ana are accessed from the road which climbs to the top of Cerro Verde, offering fantastic views over the nearby crater lake Lago de Coatepeque on the way.
Hiking Izalco Volcano
Volcan Izalco is accessed by driving all the way to the end of the Cerro Verde road, which ends at the car park on Cerro Verde’s summit. There are picnic facilities, bathrooms, and a few drinks and snack vendors here. Entry to the car park is about $1. The security situation in this area of El Salvador is must better than in previous years, partly because hikers are required to climb with an escort. Guides and guards leave the car park to climb Izalco at 11am every day and cost a dollar per person. It is still kind of strange climbing a volcano with an armed policeman though! Although the groups can get quite large, we never found this a problem as they quickly spread out. This is the hottest time of time to climb though, so a hat and screen are definitely recommended.
Although it is open to anybody, the Izalco hike is pretty tough – at least 4 hours. The initial quarter – an easy descent down 1300 steps through shaded forest – doesn’t prepare you for the long climb up Izalco’s steep scree slopes (and comes back to haunt you in the final stages when you must climb back up all those steps to return to the car park). Izalco – previously known as the Lighthouse of the Pacific for its constant lava flows – last erupted in 1966. The lava from that flow can still be seen from the summit, flowing down towards the Pacific Ocean on the south side. On the summit steam vents are still active and seem to attract strange brightly coloured insects.
Until recently it was possible to slide down Izalco’s scree slopes, bringing you to the bottom in just a few minutes, but the practice has now been banned and environmental reasons and you must walk back down the same path. The final section, where you must ascend the steps you sped down at the beginning of the hike, seems to last forever!
Hiking Santa Ana Volcano
Location: Santa Ana, El Salvador
Distance: 6 km
People seen: Many!
Guidebook: Moon El Salvador
Hiking Santa Ana volcano – El Salvador’s highest volcano – is slightly easier than Izalco. The trail head is accessible on foot from Cerro Verde, or via a road just before the car park. There are several campsites in the area making it possible to climb both volcanoes in a weekend. Casa Crystal and Campo Bello – both of which also have basic cabins – are popular.
Like Izalco, guides and tourist police escort hikers up Santa Ana. They leave from the Cerro Verde car park at 11:00am and from the Santa Ana car park at 11:30am each day. Unlike Izalco, the climb to Santa Ana’s summit is relatively easy, with no really steep sections. The first half of the hike climbs gently through forest, following numbered signs to a mirador (viewpoint). A short while later the forest ends and you emerge on the volcano’s flank, surrounded by long grass and the strange looking agave plants (apparently they flower once and then die).
After another 45 minutes the bare upper slopes of the volcano are crossed and – weather permitting – there are magnificent views over Lago Coatepeque. Below you, deep inside the crater is a green volcanic lake. Santa Ana is still active and most of the time vents can be spotted on the inner walls, with bubbles and steam rising from the lake. The scale is incredible – you really need somebody to walk part way round the crater to get a true appreciation of just how wide and deep it is.
After taking lunch on the summit you return down the same path, taking around an hour.