Santa Ana and it’s volcano!
The first emotion that is normally encountered with when you become unintentionally stuck somewhere is typically annoyance. But straying from original plans almost always conjures up other opportunities that would have never presented themselves prior.
Santa Ana was not intended to be a place of interest on our impromptu tour of El Salvador. We were dropped off onto some random calle, nowhere near the bus terminal, right across the street from the daily mercado. Santa Ana felt real. I noticed right from the moment we stepped away from the safety of our bus that we should be very aware of our surroundings. The streets were rough, messy, and full of characters that all seemed to be looking in our direction. Our original goal was to get to Suchitoto from Juayua. A friendly cab driver let us know that Suchitoto wasn’t happening on that night. Normally if walking is an option we opt for using our own two feet. On that day however, we felt like walking about 15 blocks as the sun slipped away was not the best idea. Our cabbie didn’t seem to know where the destination was either. After a few loops around the neighborhood we met Carlos of Casa Verde and planted ourselves in one of the nicest hostels we have ever been to. This place felt like a familiar, friendly house and had the best stocked kitchen ever.
We set off to find a decent restaurant walking down the eerily empty streets of the business district towards the busy strip of this college town. A few bars here and there had Salvadorans swilling beers by the jukebox watching others shoot pool. The restaurant we sought out had a private party that night and was closed to the public. We walked past numerous bars blasting Latin American music in dark, ominous looking holes complete with prostitutes sprinkled along the sidewalks. To say this city felt a little uncomfortable at night would be putting it gently. Our pace picked up as we made our way to the grocery store and back, settling in for some good dinner convo with Carlos and other travelers.
In the morning it was decided that our proximity to Volcan Santa Ana was too convenient to pass up the experience. Another traveling family climbed the ancient living rock that morning and were showing us the images of the view from the crater ridge with a neon green crater lake at the bottom. We also noticed that there was a huge crater lake, Lago de Coatepeque, situated at the foot of the mighty volcano, so why not spend a day there first? We packed up our belongings and headed out through the bustling mercado in the middle of the day. All types of characters were buying this or selling that as we ran our fingers along buses that were somehow pushing their way through the swollen sea of Salvadorans. We followed buses that were lined up like ants marching towards a freshly dropped lollipop into one of the most confusing second class bus stations encountered thus far. Buses were moving, parking, and blasting their horns as all efforts were made to not get hit by the hulking metal beasts. After a few preguntas we were on yet another hot and sweaty bus towards the lake. At every stop en route young men and women would hop on the bus and try to hawk the same candies, fruit, and beverages that every one before them had already offered. Once in a while someone would get on and give a hearty, 5 minute speech about delicious chocolates, brochures of healthy recipes, or about some amazing product that cured all ailments from chapped lips to high blood pressure. After only 2 days in this country I was positive that you could do almost all of your basic grocery shopping on a bus.
The road into the lake afforded stunning views from the ridge line of the mountain as we descended towards the water. We were dropped off in front of our hostel/tienda and immediately began settling in. The Spanish here seemed to be different, very hard to understand and communicate for us. Most of our efforts were met with questionable expressions. But within minutes we were settling into our stilted private cabin that was literally on the lake. This was complete with a water slide, multiple levels of docks, and more than enough chairs and tables for two. I immediately saw people fishing nearby using homemade reels consisting of a piece of wood wrapped with nylon line and a hook. After asking around we went to an elderly man’s house and purchased a “nilon” for about 1 dollar and a bag of live bait for another. He had Elissa hold the bag open while he scooped the minnows into their new home. I tried fishing for about an hour before giving up on the idea completely. I watched as locals would pull out fish just barely big enough to get the hook in their mouths and drop them in a bucket by their sides. My conclusion, confirmed after asking a friendly man named Jorge, was that the fish in this lake were tiny due to overfishing and pollution. A quick scan around the shore showed that grey water was being dumped into the lake from the houses nearby. Garbage was also visibly present on the bottom of the lake. It was sad to watch people throw their garbage right into the lake they live off of. It’s a part of the culture that I will never understand.
But regardless, we spent a beautiful day lakeside, relaxing in the sun and playing in the water. A full moon was celebrated before we retired with the soft sound of waves lapping against the saturated wood below our backs. Sleeping near or on the water always does it for me. The next morning we discovered the near impossibility of going to the volcano from it’s base at the lake. It turned out we would need to go back to Santa Ana and catch the first bus at 7:30 the following morning to get to the park before the only tour for the day (11AM) would leave. Back to Santa Ana we went.
The next morning we followed these new instructions and hit the road at 7:30 on a bus destined for the park. We teamed up with about a dozen or so others and were escorted by a police detail in the front and the back. Tours in El Salvador tend to have men with big guns on your side. This is a surprisingly refreshing feeling as a traveler because it brings another taste to your tongue. It writes a different story, puts new colors onto the canvas of cultural differences between the growing encyclopedia of countries your feet have been walking through. The police detail also kept quite a pace. We huffed and puffed as we tramped through the forest, up through fields, past the trees, and into the volcanic landscape. Other cones were in the close distance while odd looking plants stretched far up into the sky. Clouds skimmed the surface up the side of the cone and blanketed over the top as we approached the summit. A cool layer of vapor collected on every part of your exposed skin as visibility became more opaque.
At last the top of our climb had been reached. The view down into the volcano was a stunning display of stratigraphic history with, as expected, a neon blue-green lake at the bottom. As clouds passed over the mouth of Santa Ana different patches of colors played on the surface. 180 degree views of volcanic landscapes, hillside farms, and the massive lake were soaked in while we all caught our breath. It was absolutely worth the shuffling, relocating, and physical effort to reach the end goal that was never really a goal in the first place. We have been finding that a tried and true method is to have loosely based plans, ones that can be traded in at the first fleeting feeling of circumstantial conflict.
In an attempt to engage the audience (you, trusty readers) in discussion I’ll throw an open invite out there to tell any stories you’ve had of changed plans and chance discoveries that differed from your original itinerary.