A Guide to Conquering Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador
Santa Ana Volcano is different
Santa Ana Volcano, situated in the stunning landscapes of El Salvador, is a must-visit destination for nature enthusiasts and hiking aficionados. Among the plethora of volcanoes in Latin American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, Santa Ana stands out for its unique charm – boasting a spectacular sulfur lake within its crater. If you’re planning a trip to this remarkable volcano, here’s a comprehensive guide to ensure you make the most of your visit.
Starting Your Journey
Since El Salvador is a relatively small country, it is easy to navigate depending on the locations you want to check out. Although official busses run certain routes, they are unreliable and may not always be as easy to figure out without proper Spanish language skills. Additionally, buses run through several connections, which may be time-consuming if you are on a tight schedule. Opting for an official taxi or Uber is a convenient choice, especially if you prefer independence and an early morning ascent. Alternatively, group tours are available from both San Salvador (70 minutes east) and Santa Ana (one hour north), the common basecamps for the volcano. Plan to arrive at the parking structure no later than 6.30 – 7 AM.
Parking Options and Opening Hours
When driving towards Santa Ana volcano, two main parking options are available, which also determine your starting point for the hike. The “Santa Ana Volcano Trailhead” parking structure, marked on Google Maps, is open day and night, granting access at any time if you wish to arrive early in the morning. From there, follow the uphill path, leading you to the official entrance area within 30 – 40 minutes. Though the entrance area opens at 8 AM, being there ahead of time ensures you beat the crowd.
Mandatory Guide Requirement
As of 2023, having a guide is mandatory for all visitors. At the official registration office, you’ll need to pay the entrance fee of $6 for foreign nationals and an additional $20 for a tour guide. If you’re in a group, you can split this cost. In my case, I was by myself and able to convince the registration people (after 30 minutes of negotiating) to let me ascend by myself. However, being at the registration office half hour before the official opening will save you a lot of waiting and spares you from being placed in random tourist groups arriving at 8AM. Additionally, you can find snacks and drinks at the two wooden huts selling groceries.
Ascending Santa Ana Volcano
The hike caters to various fitness levels, as it is moderately steep but manageable. The first third of the hike leads through dense and tropical bushes and forest sections. After about 45 minutes, I passed the tree line and reached a more open area. From this moment on, I had an amazing view of the neighboring Izalco volcano, which has a perfectly symmetrical shape.
Of course, this depends on the visibility of the day of your hike. Permanently staring into the picturesque distance and at the perfectly symmetrical shape of the Izalco volcano made the time fly. Before I knew it (and 1.5 hours later), I reached the official sign of the volcano, informing about history and landscape. I could already smell the sulfur and, 30 seconds later, I reached the steep edge of the volcano.
Enjoy the View Safely
It was about 9.30am and I was the only one up at the top of Santa Ana Volcano. The first thing that I noticed was how quiet it was. In fact, besides the sound of a few birds, it was so quiet that I could hear the release of gas all the way down in the crater.
Although this is more a suggestion than an enforced rule, I highly recommend that you respect the boundaries marked by poles, as the volcano’s edges consist of a mix of rocks and sand, which can be unstable and dangerous. That said, the breathtaking view of the sulfur lake and the neighboring Izalco volcano makes the climb truly worthwhile.
Descending and Crowd Management
As soon as I started the descend down from the volcano, I realized that I made the right decision to start the hike very early. The descent can be equally time-consuming, so starting the hike early in the morning proves beneficial. As the day progresses, more tour groups and visitors ascend the volcano, leading to crowded conditions at the registration office. The number of people and size of tour groups ranged from as little as 5 up to 40 people. I could only imagine how that peaceful and silent mountain top would soon be a people-filled plateau. Once I arrived back at the official registration office, I saw the full extent of the situation. Lines at the registration were unbelievably long. In fact, I don’t know how long the line exactly was, since it reached all the way into the forest. To avoid the cluster of people, consider investing a bit more and begin your journey as early as possible. Otherwise, chances are that you won’t have much fun.
By following this guide, you’ll have an unforgettable and safe adventure to the top of Santa Ana Volcano, marveling at its exceptional beauty and geological wonders.
COVER: Drone image of the author at the edge of Santa Ana Volcano. Photo: Thomas Später
Thomas Später, PhD, is an experienced backpacking traveler that specializes in adventurous trips around the globe. He has traveled to remote and exotic places, such as Namibia or Mongolia and focuses on landscape and wildlife photography to share the beauty of our planet with others. In 2021, Thomas published a (German) book about Overpopulation and Over-consumption (Die Überbevölkerung). With his awareness of current global issues, he uses his travels to support particularly local hotels and restaurants to raise awareness for the nature and culture of his destinations. Follow Thomas´ adventures on Instagram as well as on his website, World In Frames.