El Salvador’s urban sprawl creeps right up the flanks of the volcano that towers over the west of the country’s overcrowded capital. But this protected peak and its gaping hollows have maintained their rustic feel despite being hemmed in by civilization, and a descent into one of the volcano’s craters provides adventure seekers with an accessible but nonetheless rugged exploit.
Looming over San Salvador, Quetzaltepeque, or San Salvador Volcano, has become the aesthetic poster child for this otherwise unsightly capital, whose reputation as a smogclogged valley plagued by gang violence seems to outweigh its inconspicuous charms.
One of a dozen volcanoes stretching across tiny El Salvador, Quetzaltepeque houses the most accessible national park for residents of the capital and offers a taste of adventure in a country emerging as Central America’s next hot spot for on-the-edge tourism.
Resting at nearly 1,900 meters above sea level in the volcano’s skyward-jutting crown is the Boquerón, or Big Mouth. One of two craters, Boquerón is particularly impressive, as visitors get panoramic views and a chance to peer into the crater’s abysmal depths. The crater once housed a lake that was drained during a 1917 explosion, which left behind a small cone with a smaller crater inside, known as Boqueroncito.
Upon my arrival at Boquerón’s rim, I looked down into its bottom, where white rocks were lined up to spell out a giant “FMLN” (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), the left-wing party that ended the country’s 20-year right-wing rule with a victory in March’s presidential election.
I scanned the crater’s innards to see how the FMLN supporters had reached the bottom and noticed a faint trail descending through the crater’s lush foliage. Despite fenced-off areas housing TV antennae, the view from atop the rim is stunning, as is the unexpected greenery. I resolved to make the descent, figuring I could reach the bottom and return in a few hours.
As I approached the trailhead, I passed an antenna that was being guarded by a man named Vicente Melara and his two boys. I asked if he had some water for my descent. He obliged, also offering up his two sons, Eduardo, 11, and Oscar, 9, as guides for my trip.
I agreed, and, in addition to my cup of water and two preadolescent guides, Melara offered up a long piece of rope, which he packed into a tiny backpack and handed to his older son. Reading my confused expression, Melara explained that parts of the trail had been washed out and required rappelling down from trees. I smiled, pleased to have found a bit of adventure not so far from the capital.
The questionable wisdom of following two kids down a treacherous slope notwithstanding, I forged on. The steep, dusty trail was mitigated by switchbacks at the top.
About halfway down, the trail seemed to end at a precipice. Eduardo wrapped the rope around a tree jutting out from the cliff and proceeded to rappel down the 20-foot face. I followed, grabbing onto roots and chunks of dirt sticking out from the cliff.
It was the first of several perilous dropoffs we had to descend. In between, we crawled, jumped and slid on our butts down the steep trail. Halfway down the crater, I was already caked in dirt and sweat and increasingly concerned for the safety of the two taciturn boys, especially as we came up to a cliff they confessed they had never ventured beyond. The potential danger and the setting sun persuaded me to turn back. But as we began the return climb, we came across the boys’ father inching down the crag with a walking stick. He encouraged us to push on down into the crater, and accompanied us as we did so.
As the slope began to even out, we began running through the forest. At one point, I slipped and began to tumble down a steep grade but caught myself on a skinny tree and pulled myself back up, now covered in dirt and with scratches all over.
We reached the bottom just before the sun sank behind the crater’s rim. The smaller crater’s cone was covered with tall yellow grass that quivered golden in the low light of the late afternoon. As birds flew overhead, I felt I had descended into some wild, uninhabited gorge; it seemed impossible that rambling San Salvador was just on the other side of the rim.
Proud of our feat, we took a victory lap around Boqueroncito’s rim. The boys began spelling their names with the white rocks that had been used to spell FMLN. Melara grew impatient as the sunlight faded and told the boys it would be better not to meddle with political symbols. At first I found this odd, but then I remembered that the bloody 1980-1992 civil war, in which leftist FMLN rebels fought military and right-wing paramilitary groups, still comes to many Salvadorans’ minds when they think of politics. Melara apparently feared his boys might upset the FMLN supporters who had spelled out the letters.
“If anyone gives you problems, just tell them you don’t want any violence,” he told the boys as we left behind the mangled FMLN logo and began our ascent.
The sun had set, and we climbed in the rim’s shadow. As we came up to the first steep ascent, the soreness setting into my thighs, I remembered reading about reported muggings at the fringes of the volcano’s park.
I sped up to reach the crater’s lip before it got too dark.
From downtown San Salvador, the one-hour bus ride to Quetzaltepeque, or San Salvador Volcano, involves a stopover in Santa Tecla, a laid-back town where the pupusas are steaming and the streets surrounding the central park welcome an afternoon stroll. A block from the park, a chicken bus leaves periodically en route to the volcano. Taxis can also be arranged from San Salvador or Santa Tecla, though San Salvador taxis are not known for being cheap, as gas is heavily taxed here.
The 11-kilometer ride up the volcano leaves you at Boquerón, a village about a kilometer from the entrance to the national park. Be mindful on this walk, as muggings have been reported. (The Salvadoran Tourism Institute beefed up security within the park last year by adding 13 tourism police to the 18 cops that had been monitoring it.)
Once you enter the park, the rim of Boquerón is just a short walk from the parking lot. Admission is $1, or free for visitors under 8 and over 60. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.