Anxious Adventuring: Hiking Santa Ana Volcano
Each time that I travel, I try to reflect upon something that made me feel uneasy or anxious. I want to push back against the notion that travelers must be brave, adventurous, independent, or fearless. It is okay to be wary or worried. In this story, I will discuss my concern that I might not be fit enough to hike up a volcano.
Living in the not-so-geologically active Midwest of the United States, I find volcanoes to be novel. Perhaps if I lived near them and experienced their destruction first hand, they would not be quite as quaint. Because of this fascination, the Santa Ana Volcano or Ilamapetec Volcano in El Salvador was a must see destination. Firstly, the summit of the volcano features a bright turquoise crater lake. Secondly, it is the highest volcano in El Salvador. Thirdly, it had a major eruption in 2005, wherein thousands of people had to be evacuated and chunks of rock the size of cars were launched into the air. In short, it is a tall, active, attractive volcano. I knew I wanted to go, but I also worried that maybe the hike would be too strenuous. Here is how it went…
I had some anxiety before leaving on my trip that maybe I would struggle with the two volcano hikes I had signed myself up for. After hiking up Pacaya volcano in Guatemala on almost no sleep, I felt more confident that Santa Ana volcano would be a much easier ordeal. After all, at the very least I would have sleep! When the time finally came, I figured it would be a struggle, but not impossible. Despite my earlier volcano hike, I was concerned because I knew that the Santa Ana hike was longer. It seemed that one to two hours up was the average time quoted by some blogs or tours (though one blogger said it took her 45 minutes). Two hours of slogging up a rocky hill didn’t exactly seem easy.
While a person can probably arrange to hike up the volcano for under $20 by taking public transportation and paying the park fee on their own, I went on a day tour for around $100 (if I remember rightly). I didn’t feel inclined to take public transportation for lack of time and confidence. This worked out fine, as we had an opportunity to stop at the Peace and Reconciliation Plaza along the way. The plaza features a giant sculpture of a blue haired woman, who represents the people of El Salvador. In front of this figure is a female guerilla and a male soldier, both of whom are releasing a flock of doves. I thought it was a unique assortment of statues since the FMLN was represented by a woman. Women made up about 30% of the FMLN in the 1980s, though often in supportive roles such as nursing, radio operating, and cooking (Luciak, 2001). The monument itself was created to commemorate the 1992 Peace Accords between the government and the FMLN. Those who signed the accords are featured on a plaque. The plaza also features a mural which highlights Salvadorean history. The Chapultepec Peace Accord resulted in the disarmament of the FMLN, the legalization of the FLMN, dismantling national security forces and intelligence forces, police reforms, intelligence, a cease fire, a UN Truth Commission to uncover atrocities of the war, amnesty for those who committed the atrocities, credit to ex-guerillas for land purchases, etc. (Negroponte, 2012). As I visited the monument, I was struck by the thought that it would be difficult live with the knowledge of all of the horrors that had happened in the war, but also know that the perpetrators enjoyed impunity.
We also made a stop at Coatepeque lake, which means hill of snakes. The lake is popular among the wealthy, so it appears that it still attracts snakes (no offense to snakes). The lake was formed between 72,000 and 50,000 years ago, when group of stratovolcanoes east of Santa Ana collapsed after erupting, causing the lake to form in the caldera over time (Coatepeque Caldera, 2013). After a short stop at the lake, we continued on a bit further to Santa Ana volcano. Santa Ana volcano is one of three volcanoes located in Volcanoes National Park. Idalco and Cerro Verde are the other two volcanoes located in the park. Among them, Santa Ana is the tallest at 7,812 feet (2,381 meters) above sea level (Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador, 2005) and most recently active. Cerro Verde has not erupted for 25,000 years (I have seen it referred to as a volcano and as a satelitic cone, or cone like structure of volcanic material) and Idalco was once continually active for 196 years, earning it the name, Lighthouse of the Pacific. Idalco last erupted in 1966 and is iconic enough that it was featured on the 10 colon bill, though this currency was replaced in 2001 by the U.S. dollar. All three of the volcanoes can be hiked, though I have read that Idalco is more challenging than Santa Ana. These volcanoes are part of the Central American volcanic chain that is formed by the collision of the Cocos and Caribbean plates (Hernandez et. al, 2007).
The hike itself began with a walk along a trail from the parking area to the ranger station. This initial walk took approximately fifteen minutes through a wooded area along a trail with a very gradual incline. The walk ended at the ranger station, where there is a final opportunity to use an outhouse or buy water or snacks. Dozens of hikers in colorful hiking apparel waited for the tour to begin by the station. The hikers leave in groups which are escorted by a police officer. I am uncertain how many groups leave a day, but the officer who escorted our group had already made at least one trip and it was only 9:30 am. The crowd was mostly young and eager, though there were people of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Seeing the diversity in ages and sizes made me less concerned about how strenuous the hike would be, as it seemed like something that a wide array of people partake in. The majority of hikers were Spanish speaking, so I wondered if they were local or at least regional travelers. Once the hike began, some young, energetic hikers bolted ahead, walking quickly or jogging to stay ahead of the crowd. I was determined to go slowly and conserve energy, even if I was at the back of the crowd.
The first part of the hike was not so bad. The incline is not terribly steep and at times, there are flat areas. The first portion of the hike was shaded by trees and bushes. After a while, the crowd thins out as people hike at different paces. I plodded along, slowly and steadily. The initial part of the hike was definitely much easier than the Pacaya hike, which seemed relentlessly steep. Though, both hikes benefited from shady vegetation coverings which offered protection from the sun and heat.
While the first half to 3/4 of the hike is mild to moderate in intensity, the last portion is a challenge. In the final section of the hike, the vegetation gives way to a rocky, sun baked, sulfur scented landscape. The only redeeming quality of this portion of the hike was that due to the elevation and desolation, there was a cooling breeze. The rocks can be loose and crumbly and the ascent feels steep. I had to count in my head to keep going, telling myself I would take 50 more steps then pause for a break or 25 more steps then pause for water. The summit seemed impossibly far, even if it wasn’t really that far at all. But slowly and surely, I made it to the top, which felt pretty great! Since mine was only the second group to leave, it wasn’t too crowded. Once at the top, I took some photos of the turquoise crater lake. The crater lake’s average surface temperature in 2005 was 18-20 C or 64-68 F, though because of the steam and bubbling gas it appears to be much hotter when viewed from above. The maximum temperature measured by scientists prior to the eruption in 2005 was 136 degrees F, which indicates that there is a great amount of variation in temperature depending upon where volcanic gas enters the lake (Hernandez et al). More recent measurements from 2017 show that the heat of the crater lake has increased to 120-140 degrees F (Graniya, 2018), but this is still below the boiling point of water (210 F) at sea level. I only mention this because I had the impression that the lake was boiling, though, certainly a person wouldn’t want to fall into it (for the rocky, steep fall and potential for pockets of very hot water). Aside from being hot, the lake is acidic, with a Ph range of .7 to 2.0 of acid-sulfate-chloride (Colvin et. al, 2013). For context, stomach acid has a Ph of about 1. I am uncertain what process creates the bright turquoise color in the Santa Ana crater lake. In Indonesia, the turquoise color of a crater lake was attributed to dissolved iron and floating sulfur colloids, but since I know nothing about chemistry I can only guess that this is the same for Santa Ana. I didn’t spend that much time at the top, but that was a matter of personal choice. I spent long enough to enjoy the view of the nearby volcanoes, crater lake, and Flower Route. I also marveled at the fact that someone managed to cart pop-sickles to the summit to sell to tourists. I wanted to make sure I beat the crowd down the volcano, so that I wouldn’t be rushed or crowded. As I was heading down, I encountered another group climbing up. So, I think there were about three groups of hikers that morning.
The hike down the volcano was physically much easier, but required more balance as there were many loose rocks. I almost lost my balance a few times as I slid on rocks. It was also made more challenging by the number of tourists trying to navigate either up or down the sometimes narrow, rocky path. I was happy when I reached the ranger station. Back near the parking area, I saw a few interesting species of birds. One was a Bushy crested jay. In Spanish, it was commonly called a Chara, which I think generically means jay (my bird guidebook did not have local names for birds, which would have been a useful feature). I also saw some coffee plants. These little things were a pleasant reward for making it up and down the volcano.
In conclusion, I managed the hike well enough. I was sore and worn out at the end. The hike up took under two hours and perhaps about an hour and a half down. I paused for more photos on the way down. Overall, the Pacaya hike was probably a little bit easier, but only because it was shorter. So, endurance wise Santa Ana was harder, but cardio wise, Pacaya was harder. It is hard to compare the two because they were both pretty different. Santa Ana was a better hike because I actually was able to hike to the top. However, Pacaya does offer the opportunity to roast marshmallows on a fumerole. Both were good in their own ways. And I think anyone with reasonable health can probably complete both (they are challenging, but popular enough that people of all sizes and abilities hike them). For instance, if a person can spend an entire day hiking without problem (no elevation or hills), they can probably hike up the volcanoes, albeit with effort and mild exhaustion.
Coatepeque Caldera. (2013). Retrieved from https://volcano.si.edu/volcano.cfm?vn=343041
Colvin, A. S., Rose, W. I., Varekamp, J. C., Palma, J. L., Escobar, D., Gutierrez, E., Montalvo, F., & Maclean, A. (2013). Crater lake evolution at Santa Ana Volcano (El Salvador) following the 2005 eruption. GSA Special Papers, 498, 23-43.
Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.mtu.edu/geo-fp/6
Graniya. (2018, July 03). VOLCÁN de SANTA ANA – – or LAMATEPEC (not: Ilamatepec). Retrieved from https://volcanohotspot.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/volcan-de-santa-ana-🇸🇻-or-lamatepec-not-ilamatepec/
Hernández, P. A., Pérez, N. M., Varekamp, J. C., Henriquez, B., Hernández, A., Barrancos, J., … & Melián, G. (2007). Crater lake temperature changes of the 2005 eruption of Santa Ana volcano, El Salvador, Central America. Pure and Applied Geophysics, 164(12), 2507-2522.
Luciak, I. A. (2001). After the Revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Negroponte D.V. (2012) Implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords: The Achievements. In: Seeking Peace in El Salvador. Palgrave Macmillan, New York
Santa Ana Volcano, El Salvador. (2005). Retrieved February 9, 2019 from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/5907/santa-ana-volcano-el-salvador