Hiking Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador
When visiting El Salvador as part of our tour in Central America in December 2019, we stayed mostly in Santa Ana, in western part of the country, near Guatemalan border. Santa Ana is the second largest city of El Salvador, and situated in the middle of green hills, volcanoes and coffee plantations. The main tourist draws of the area are outside the city, but the historical center has some beautiful structures, like Santa Ana Cathedral, old Santa Ana Theater and Santa Ana Municipal Palace, situated around the leafy central square. In addition to exploring the city itself, the highlight of our stay in Santa Ana was a day hike on top of Santa Ana Volcano.
Santa Ana volcano is situated in Cerro Verde National Park, 40 km from Santa Ana city. This mountain rises to 2 381 meters (7,812 ft) above sea level, and is the highest volcano in El Salvador. Up in the summit, there are four craters, innermost of them holding a turquoise green crater lake. Santa Ana volcano erupted violently back in 2005, throwing huge rocks and causing a lot of damage, also killing at least two people. Since then it has been calm and quiet, and climbing on top of it is safe again, but the trails were closed for years after the eruption as a precausion.
The mountainous Cerro Verde area is also home to Volcan Izalco (in the cover pic), a beautifully cone-shaped volcano that is one of the national icons of the whole country. Izalvo volcano used to erupt almost continuously from 1770 to 1958, but since then it has been in sleeping mode for decades. There is a hiking route on top of Izalco too, but the best views towards this handsome volcano are from along the Santa Ana trail.
How to get to Cerro Verde National Park
Santa Ana volcano hike can of course be done with a tour company, from Santa Ana or San Salvador for example, but it’s fully possible and way cheaper to go to the national park on your own, and then participate a guided hike. You can get to Cerro Verde National Park (also known as Parque Nacional Los Volcanoes) and back from Santa Ana using public buses. They don’t run often, but the schedule matches well with a day trip and a hike in the national park. You need to wake up early though, as the bus leaves from la Vencedora bus station Santa Ana at 7:30. We jumped in the bus (number is 248) from a bus stop next to a gas station on Diagonal David Grandino, before the bus left the city center behind. The bus back from Cerro Verde leaves around 4 PM. As the routes and schedules can change of course, it’s better to check from your guesthouse or from the bus station beforehand. Some of the buses back go to El Congo village instead of Santa Ana, but it’s easy to change bus there if needed. Bus ticket to Cerro Verde costs 0,80 $ and it’s paid in cash in the bus.
The bus runs along a winding and scenic road by Lake Coatepeque up to the National Park, and the journey takes around 1,5 hours. Before entering the visitor center of the park, you’ll need to buy a 3 $ entrance ticket. The visitor center area is rather nice, with viewing platforms towards Izalco volcano, and short circular walking trail in the forest. There are also several food stalls and areas for just hanging out. Visitor center is the official starting point for hikes, but it’s also possible to join a group heading to Santa Ana volcano from Tibet Hostel (or from Santa Ana volcano check point nearby), and avoid the 3 $ national park fee. To do that, you’d need to jump of the bus when it passes the Tibet hostel, and then wait for a hiker group to walk past it. We opted for going to the visitor center area instead, and in our opinion it was a nice place to relax and eat after the hike and then wait for the bus back to Santa Ana in the afternoon.
Santa Ana volcano hike
Usually we prefer independent hikes, but in Cerro Verde national park it’s only possible to hike up to the volcanoes as a part of guided tour, due to security reasons. We happened to make this hike on Sunday, which is a popular day among locals to gather in the park and go hiking, so there was a lot of people in our group, maybe around 40 people, but just a handful of foreigners. There was three guides for the group – one for those walking fast, one for the mid group and one walking together with the slowest hikers. In less popular days the hikes usually begin at 11 AM, but at least on that Sunday the first groups left from the visitor center a lot earlier, our group around 10 AM. When arriving in the park, we basically headed straight from the bus to a group gathering, listened a short info about the hike, paid 1 USD for a guide and then began the hike.
The first section of the hike descends through a forest and joins the main road near Tibet hostel. After walking down past the hostel, the trail towards the volcano leaves the road again, and soon you’ll arrive in Santa Ana volcano entrance area and check point. There was a short break to gather the group together, and you can utilize the toilets or a small kiosk while waiting (there are no services after this point). In this check point you’ll need to pay another 6 $ to enter the volcano area, and an armed police officer will join each hiking group. After leaving the check point behind, the ascent to the summit slowly begins.
For experienced trekkers the climb up to the summit is easy, but if you are not in shape, it can feel a bit strenuous. If the weather is sunny, the heat will make you sweat, so bring enough water. Also, after leaving the forest, there are almost no trees to offer any shade, so protect your skin with light clothes or sunscreen. The higher you climb, the better the scenery gets, so remember to look around you, not just the trail ahead. There are some stunning views towards Volcan Izalco and down to Coatepeque Lake on the way up.
After roughly 500 meters vertical ascent you’ll reach the summit, and will be able to admire the turquoise, steaming crater lake, as well as the surrounding landscapes. There is a restricted area for visitors on the summit, so don’t try to wander out of it. Due to security reasons it’s not possible to walk around the crater unfortunately. We were the first ones of our group to reach the summit, and there was no hurry to go back down, we could stay up in the summit as long as we wanted, and begin the walk down without a guide.
Santa Ana volcano hike is a recommendable day trip for everyone traveling to Santa Ana. You don’t need to be especially fit or experienced to make it to the summit, and no special gear is needed. You should wear good walking shoes though, and it’s advisable to carry sunscreen and a big bottle of water. A light jacket is a nice add, in case the weather turns windy or rainy. Total length of the hike from Cerro Verde visitor center to the summit and back is roughly 10 km, and walking time is usually somewhere between 3 to 4 hours.
Total cost of this day hike was 11,40 USD per person, including transportation. Basic meals, like famous El Salvadorian pupusas, are very affordable (and delicious!) in the food stalls of the visitor center.
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