Santa Ana, El Salvador: Mud monster goes to see volcano

We had decided to check out volcano Santa Ana. Mainly just because I’d seen so many pictures on the internet. I was keen to find out if the lake in its crater is really as turquoise the pictures promised.

That’s how our planning usually goes. One of us has an idea, and the other one says: “Let’s do it!” I’m happy I’m travelling with Tom, who is keen to try almost everything, and not with someone with a “been there, done that” attitude. Tom is equally happy to hike, spend a day in the park or go for an orchid tour. With beaches, it’s a little bit more complicated. I have to use my best convincing skills to get Tom on the sand, but as soon as I add some activity, like surfing or having a beer during the sunset, he’s happy to join.

As always, it sounded smooth and easy on the paper, in the guidebook or internet. In real life, dragging around this 10kg backpack of yours in 30 degree Celsius is another story. On the day that we left San Salvador, everything just went wrong.

Ordinario, especial and super especial

As we have written before, the public transportation system in El Salvador is disastrous. In Europe, people would just not go into such crowded buses. In El Salvador, however, there are no limits on how many people can fit into one bus. It’s perfectly normal to stand squeezed between a lady who sells food and a gentleman with a living bird in a cage. It clearly doesn’t have to be comfortable.

The other problem with San Salvador buses is their speed. Or rather the lack thereof. On Friday, as we soon learned, the rush hour started much earlier than expected. On top of all that, there was a road accident on that day. So, we spent as much time on the city bus as we had calculated getting to another city.

El Salvador is no Guatemala, where busboys smell the confused tourist from far away, run towards them and guide them to the right bus. Here, you have to figure it all out by yourself. And to make it even more complicated, you can choose between three types of buses: oridinario (ordinary), especial (special), super especial (super special). I have a memory that even when we tried to take the more expensive one (especial), we ended up being uncomfortable.

In the end, we still made a crappy choice. We choose a bus that took us not to the central bus station of Santa Ana, but a bus station five kilometres out of town. Of course, it was our mistake not to jump out of the bus, when everyone else was leaving, but how were we supposed to know that it was the city centre and that the bus did not intend to end up in the central bus station?

From bad to worse

Raging with anger, tiredness and hunger, we climbed out of the bus to figure out how to get back to the city centre. The problem was that our guesthouse was not in the city centre but on the other side of the centre. So we had a long way to go. On top of everything, Tom told me that he didn’t feel like taking another bus- so we walked.

The bag on my back got heavier and heavier, my legs were heavy too. They felt like iron legs. The more I pushed them, the more reluctant they got. I wanted a break. But Tom wanted to move. “Look, it’s getting dark soon, it’s better if we get to the guesthouse before dark.”

He was right. I was not that eager to discover the city in darkness myself. But I wouldn’t have minded to sit down for a coffee, coca or for a local snack, pupusa. But no, I had to bury my wishes. Angry and moody, I didn’t realise it could get any worse. I was not paying attention and placed my feet somehow wrong. Before I could understand what was happening, I slid into the mud.

My sandal was soaked, and dirt crawled up to my leg, my pink shorts were now brown, mud covered my backpack and arm. Some of it had even splashed on my face. Almost in tears, I stood up. “Look at me now!” I moaned, ready to give up and never travel again. “Don’t worry- the guesthouse is near. Soon you can take a shower!” Of course, Tom’s calculations were all wrong, a couple of blocks grew into many, and I was devastated, walking through the busy city centre flooded with golden light, like a mud monster.

Dreamy volcano

People climbing volcano santa Ana

It would be a crime not to concur a volcano in El Salvador. The country that is half of the size of my home country, Estonia, has 23 active volcanoes. It’s not difficult to trip over one. We might not be as excited about volcanoes as we were when we had just arrived at that magical lake Atitlán, but we still decided to climb a volcano in El Salvador.

Of course, Volcano Santa Ana is no hidden treasure. You can climb it only with a guided tour that goes every day at 10 am. During Easter, one unlucky tourist had 300 other people hiking with him.

There were not so many people this time. But for us, even this group of 30 felt more like participating in a popular city marathon than a quiet hike in nature. Before hitting the road, we got a brief training about the volcano and hiking. Among other things, the young guide didn’t recommend to eat chicken while climbing the mountain.

Apparently, it’s not good for digestion, and it can even make you throw up. It’s much better, she stressed, to have a sandwich or piece of fruit as a snack. My mind went blank- why the hell should anyone eat chicken on the top of the volcano? Yes, this domestic bird, pollo (chicken in Spanish), is immensely popular on Central-American plates. Or should I say, in their paper boxes? Even the smallest towns have rows of fried chicken places on their main street. And then I remembered, how we saw two schoolgirls in the botanical garden of San Salvador. They sat on a picnic table with a takeaway from Pollo Campero, the most popular fried chicken chain in Central America. The yellow chick with a cowboy hat on their logo waves at you everywhere you go.

Despite all that educational talk, a group of El Salvadorian youngsters opened their white foam boxes and sat around the crater to enjoy the fried chicken. It seemed the highlight of their hike.

Volcano on flip-flops

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As I described before, the hike was a bit unusual for us. We’re more comfortable with being alone in the wild, than standing somewhere on the stairs waiting for people to move. We’d picked Monday for the reason that it would be less crowded, the fathers and mothers would work, children would repeat the alphabet in local schools and youngsters would be busy with university studies. But no. Local mums struggled with steep stairs, children hung on fathers’ backs, and the local youth enjoyed nature. In addition to locals, we also had a couple of loud foreign tourists trying to film their every step, a bunch of girls in gym clothes, and an older couple with hiking sticks. We hiked on.

“Are you sure you can hike with these shoes?” The worried guide pointed at a local lady’s flip- flops. She nodded, lifted her maxi skirt a bit and showed everyone that she had made completely fine outfit choices. Definitely not the crowd we usually hiked mountains with. Usually, they all wore hiking boots, or at least gym shoes.

Soon enough we learned why. It was a very easy hike. It didn’t take more than two hours to get up there. If normally I’m out of breath and dying inside when we arrive at the top, then with this mountain I hardly even noticed that we ascended.

Instead, I noticed the landscape. It was different than on our other volcano hikes. Lush forest covers a lot of volcanoes, but here we found ourselves in the middle of a rocky desert full of cactuses.

Tom is surrounded by cactuses on volcano Santa Ana.

On the top, you could just sit, enjoy 360-degree views and eat ice-cream if you felt like. Yes, there was an ice-cream seller right on the top to satisfy your innermost carvings.

We sat down for a bit. Actually, we were tempted to make a tour around the crater, but our guide was shaking her head- there was no time for that. Being volunteers, they wanted to get people up and down as quickly as possible. We took one more look at the rim of the crater and turned back. My wish to climb volcanoes grew only bigger.

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