A blog about backpacking Santa Ana, our wonderful homestay experience and our guide to hiking the stunning Santa Ana volcano in Parque Nacional de los Volcanes on the cheap.
Having spent time in Lake Atitlan and Antigua, Guatemala, it was time to make our way across to El Salvador. We had heard some really mixed views on this little travelled country, so we didn’t really know what to expect.
Being lovers of stunning scenery and nature, rather than big cities or busy beachside bars, we bypassed the capital San Salvador and the touristy El Tunco beach area. Santa Ana, although the second largest city in the country, looked like the perfect place to base ourselves to visit the nearby volcanoes and lakes.
We decided on a local and authentic accommodation experience, by staying at a family-run guesthouse – Casa Vieja Guest House. As soon as we met our host Luis, we knew we had made a great decision. He sat us down, showed us exactly where we should and shouldn’t walk in the city. He gave us information on ATM’s, supermarkets, restaurants and bus routes for all the attractions we were keen to see. Regardless of the ominous-looking weather forecast, we made plans for our 3-night stay, with a visit to Parque Nacional Los Volcanes at the top of our list.
Parque Nacional de los Volcanes
Parque Nacional de los Volcanes, also known as Cerro Verde National Park, is a protected area a couple of hours drive from the city of Santa Ana. It comprises of three volcanos; Cerro Verde, Izalco, and Santa Ana (aka Ilamatepe). At 2,381 meters above sea level and the tallest of the three, we decided to hike Santa Ana Volcano.
Getting to Parque Nacional de los Volcanes was super easy via local bus. There was certainly no need to book an expensive day trip for our visit. The bus times lined up with the compulsory guided Santa Ana volcano hike, in fact, it got us there a little early. The route took us along the edge of stunning Lago de Coatepeque and with the sun shining, we had high hopes for good views for the crater lake at the top of Santa Ana volcano.
The bus driver dropped us at the entrance to the park, where we payed a US$1p/p Cerro Verde Park fee. From there, it was a short walk up to the parking area where we waited for the group hike to begin. From the car park, the views opened up over Volcán Izalco. However, the clouds rolled in quickly and we only got a few fleeting glimpses. On a clear day, the views would be stunning.
There were some basic food outlets and gardens to explore while we waited for the hike to start. We found hummingbirds and the national bird of El Salvador, the Turquoise-browed Motmot. We came across these beauties here and throughout Central America, in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Mexico. As well as the birds there was some cool Emerald Swifts (Green Spiny Lizards, or Sceloporus Malachiticus), darting around too.
The hike began from Cerro Verde car park at 10am, where we met our guide and police escort. The guide was actually free, but it was customary to tip US$1p/p. The trail took us through the misty cloud forest and there was some really interesting vegetation along with impressive views. Unfortunately for us, as it was the wet season, it was particularly foggy, so our views were a little limited. About 45 minutes into the hike, we reached a small building where we payed our US$6p/p Santa Ana Volcano entrance fee. From there, it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the top of El Salvador’s 3rd tallest peak – Santa Ana Volcano.
We had feared the worst on the way up, wondering if we would even be able to see the sulphurous turquoise crater lake. We shouldn’t have been worried, as the views of the crater lake were perfectly clear for the entire time we were at the top.
The clouds even lifted very briefly, to reveal the views over to most beautiful lake in El Salvador – Lago de Coatepeque. The massive 26km2 lake was formed thousands of years ago by the eruption of the ancient Coatepeque Caldera. Leaving behind this picturesque crater lake.
After about 30-45 minutes at the top, the guide started to round the group up and we made our way back down. Or descent was a lot quicker taking just under an hour to get back to the main road. We then walked back up the hill to the car park, where we waited for the 4pm bus back to Santa Ana. We had a great day hiking Santa Ana volcano and would definitely recommend the hike to anyone visiting El Salvador.
Ruta de las Flores
On our second and final full day in Santa Ana, we bussed out to Ruta de las Flores. Arriving in heavy rain, our day was a washout as the rain just got heavier and heavier. We ended up taking shelter in different coffee shops along the way. We can’t write much about our experience, as we really saw nothing. But we can tell you that the coffee from the region was very good!
Getting to Santa Ana from Antigua
- We took a 7.45am tourist shuttle to El Tunco GTQ150p/p (US$20p/p)
- We reached the border by 10.35am. The driver helped us with exiting Guatemala and entering El Salvador which only took 15 mins.
- You do not get stamped in and out of El Salvador. Instead immigration gives you a ticket. DO NOT LOSE THIS as you need it to exit the country.
- There are toilets and money men on both sides of the border.
- Instead of going all the way to the beach, the driver dropped us at the intersection to Sonsonate at 11.35am.
- We waited 10 mins and jumped on a chicken bus to Sonsonate bus depot US$.65p/p
- From Sonsonate bus station, we took a chicken bus to Santa Ana US$.65p/p.
- We arrived at Santa Ana at 2pm. From there, it was a 20 min walk to our casa.
- Casa Vieja Guest House – We had such a great time Casa Vieja. Luis was so friendly and incredibly helpful and made our stay so easy and memorable. Luis’ whole family was delightful and the Casa had a really warm family feeling. The kitchen facilities we really useful, wifi was great and the rooms were large and clean. It was also about half the price of the popular hostels in town.
Parque Nacional Los Volcanes prices (June 2018)
- Cerro Verde Park fee $1p/p
- Guide Fee (tip) $1p/p
- Santa Ana Volcano Entrance Fee $6p/p
- Bus 248 departs La Vencedora bus station to Cerro Verde National Park at 7:30am. It takes about 2 hours to get to the park entrance. The bus driver will let you know when to get off. USD$0.90p/p
- The bus departs Cerro Verde National Park at 16:00. USD$0.90p/p
- It’s worth checking the bus times and park fees in advance with your accommodation, in case of any changes.
- When we visited Santa Ana, it was not possible to hike the Santa Ana Volcano independently due to safety concerns (tourists have been attacked in the past). Therefore, we had to join the public hike which departed once a day. We had a couple of guides and an armed police officer escort us to the summit.
- The briefing was entirely in Spanish. But the guide spoke English one on one.
- There was around 60 people on our hike. During the high season, there may be as many as 300 people in the one group!
- Despite the amount of people on the hike, we didn’t actually feel too crowded. There was plenty of space at the top. But if you’re a fast hiker, we recommend getting to the front of the group!
- Take a packed lunch to enjoy with the views at the summit. Take plenty of water too.
- Travelling during the drier months of November-April, should offer better views in and around Cerro Verde National Park. It should also offer better conditions to explore Ruta de las Flores. It will also be much busier.
- Don’t feel you need to pre-book an expensive day trip to hike Santa Ana volcano. We paid a total of US$9.80p/p. Taking public buses was easy, even though we didn’t speak Spanish.
- There were toilets located at the car park. Take some cash if you want coffee (US$.50) etc. There was a small fee to use the toilets too.